Sarah Holland-Batt, The Jaguar (UQP 2022)
If you come across The Jaguar in a bookshop and want to dip, I recommend any of the first half dozen poems. Possibly the most direct is ‘The Gift’ on page 4, which you can also read online at The New Yorker in February 2021, or the Australian Book Review in June 2021.
The book is shortlisted for the Kenneth Slessor Prize in the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. I’ll be surprised if it doesn’t win. It begins and ends with stunning poems bearing witness to the final illness and death of the poet’s father. They are almost unbearably good in their own right, but carry even more force when one is aware of Holland-Batt’s passionate and eloquent campaigning for improvement in the aged care sector (as in this article in the Guardian).
Here’s part of the Kenneth Slessor Prize judges’ citation:
The Jaguar is a tremendous collection of poems, deeply compelling in their subject matter and exemplary in their attention to language and craft. … This is muscular, tenacious writing of great intensity that bears unflinching witness to the decline and death of a loved one, that embraces the necessary suffering that is part of loving and of being human. The Jaguar is poetry of the highest order — poetry that changes us in the reading of it, that reminds us of the inevitable.From State Library of NSW website.
My current blogging practice is to focus on page 76 of the book I’m discussing. In The Jaguar, that page comes part way through the third of the book’s four sections. Not all the poems in this section relate to the poet’s father. There are a couple of break-up poems, some despatches from the high life on the Riviera and the USA. ‘Tiepolo’s Cleopatra’ might well be a response to John Forbes’s ‘On Tiepolo’s Banquet of Cleopatra’ (which you can read at this link) – both attend to a painting that reeks of decadent luxury. The poem on page 76, ‘The Worst of It’, appears between two poems about past romantic relationships – ‘Night Flight’ (‘our bodies puzzled together in that room’) and ‘Mansions’ (‘When I think of you I think of mansions’):
The Worst of It As I combed it, he sat cross-legged in front of me, bent over like a penitent, his head heavy as intimacy. An easy gesture, like wind riffling blue dunegrass in tidal weather. Salt and pepper at the temples, or more accurately silver, perilous and stellar. A wave in it, long from lack of cutting. How can I go back to knowing nothing, knowing this?
There are three pronouns: I, he and it. We know who I is; we know what it is; he is unidentified. I read him to be the poet’s father, but he could be a lover or even someone in a patient–nurse relationship with her. It’s part of the poem’s power that his identity isn’t explicit. Readers are free to invent their own specifics.
The short lines aren’t typical of Holland-Batt’s poetry, but they work beautifully, inviting the reader to focus on each element, each connotation, as they are revealed line by line. There’s a lot of unobtrusive echoing of sound – not exactly rhyme – that binds the lines: ‘combed ‘cross-legged’; ‘front’, ‘bent, ‘penitent’; ‘heavy’, intimacy’; ‘silver’, ‘perilous’, ‘stellar’; and so on all the way to the repeated words in the final couplet.
The line-by-line movement is especially clear in the first seven lines, where a physical scene unfurls: first the action of combing, then the man’s basic position, then his spacial relationship to the speaker, then his bowed attitude, then a traditional meaning of that attitude, then a close focus on the head, then the poem’s key word, ‘intimacy’. I love the way the music of these lines builds to that word as a resonant conclusion. Heaviness isn’t an obvious quality of intimacy: we’re not dealing with, say, the intimacy of fresh love, but something more sombre.
In a kind of undulating movement away from that heaviness, the next four lines quietly surprise by comparing the combing action / gesture to wind blowing though blue dunegrass (of which you can see some images here in case, like me, you’re botanically ignorant). Though it doesn’t say so explicitly, this suggests that the two people in the poem have spent time together at sandy beaches, so the intimacy hasn’t always been heavy.
The next eight lines focus on the hair and, again one line at a time, what it tells us about the man.
- ‘Salt and pepper’: he’s ageing
- ‘at the temples’: but not what you’d call old or elderly
- ‘or more accurately’: wait on, the poet is about to rethink her use of a stock phrase
- ‘silver, perilous’: the light and the dark; on the one hand precious, and on the other in danger, perhaps because ageing brings one closer to death, or perhaps something more specific
- ‘and stellar’: a nice alternative to ‘salt and pepper’ to describe ageing hair – flecks of shining white against a dark background
- ‘A wave in it’ – ‘stellar’ felt like the end of the description, but the poem decides to linger a little on the hair itself, noticing other qualities
- ‘long from lack’ – here’s a place where the line break does a lot of work: by leaving the word ‘lack’ suspended for a moment, it reinforces the earlier suggestions that the man is somehow in trouble: penitent, imperilled
- ‘of cutting’ – on the one hand this clarifies that the lack is as mundane as not having gone to a barber, but it also suggests a degree of neglect.
In the final three lines, something of the emotional meaning of the moment is revealed. Or more accurately is invoked. This moment of combing the man’s hair comes after a discovery that has transformed the relationship. Given the wider context of the book, I read it as the moment when the father has told the daughter of his illness and the grim prognosis, but in itself it’s not tied to that. The tenderness of the first fifteen lines has been laced with a hint of sorrow or threat. These last lines bring those elements to the surface: something has happened which cannot be reversed.
So, this isn’t one of the book’s poems that takes its readers by storm. But quietly, artfully distracting from its artfulness, it delivers a moment, the kind of moment that could happen at the midpoint of a movie: the moment when we know where things are headed. A moment when we hold our breath and understand the shape of things.