Anywhy : Jennifer Harrison
If birds could fly free from ornithological books
and from watercolour illustrations
if they could fly free from taxidermy
agitated aviaries and roseate oil paintings
they’d leave us more earth-bound than ever before
but we might find a way to rise with them transmogrified
and see for ourselves their world of ultraviolet night
Like the great grey owl, we might hear the scratchings of a mouse
running under deep snow
Jennifer Harrison’s Anywhy is exceptional. The depth and lightly carried learning of the author, as we embrace each poem, is startling. We are philosophically shaken. Her title Anywhy may suggest the cool shrug of ‘whatever’ but Harrison’s neologism is a steady-eyed consideration of the world: its ecology, its history, its fragilities and resilience. Her insight is subtle but never vague, inviting our imagination to consider the inner life of birds, the emotive pull of hardware, Emma Hamilton, a reverie at Blackwood Village (from which the title emerges), DNA or Absolute Zero. Above all, it scintillates with human sorrow and human response.
Harrison is a challenging and significant poet, the quality of whose work needs defining and celebrating.
With its subtle but inventive lyrical strategies and masks, poetry like Jennifer Harrison’s addresses poetry—which means it addresses us, quietly, as readers who enter its space as observers and who are active, and who feel its presence within us, not in our faces.
Avignon’s back door:
an errant bus circling the outer suburbs
of dilapidated houses
mosques, polite parks, pallid churches…
Then, the City of Popes grand square
Cathédrale Notre-Dame des Doms d’Avignon
its gilded statue of the Virgin Mary
singing solitary in the sun…
The square is waiting for its people
microphones, une marche de protestation
a rally for equitable actors’ wages
(politics arriving now, a trumpet blowing)…
I cannot fathom the brass speeches
but wave the flag I’m given…
In my pocket an Australian
two-cent coin, the frill-neck lizard
embossed into its coppery sheen…
I remember a school project—
the lizard basking in grassland sun
drawing from midday warmth
its sleepy torpor—how the lizard’s
frill prickles, erectile under threat:
ancient spines, cartilage deimatic…
And here in unfamiliar side streets
cafés pungent with liberal tobacco
red wine and pastry filigree
the scent of the night-to-be
hovers over music and theatre poverty…
What threat can there be?
What trepidation catches inside me
somewhere primitive and old, somewhere
deep inside a poikilotherm’s unseen cold?
Life spools backwards now
the expanse behind
damp and forest-quiet
peaty with leaf mulch
translucent moss greens
mushrooms like white ghosts
and neon species
of orchids, wasps…
Nothing is undone
by decay, ants, slugs
rotting logs, stag ferns
the accretions of
wet bark and litter…
Nothing is spoiled
or lightly regretted…
Fungi yellow with
spilling black droplets
on a page of earth
or paper, forests
as though hopeful of
spore coming late to
the poem’s terrain…
A slight mist lifts, falls
all evening: the
of Luce Irigaray
veiled without within
the heart does not lack a dwelling
fugue words lingering
in time’s ‘meanwhile’…
Flock-wise, fungi feed
on the living wood
of the past, pale cups
swaying toughly on
cinnamon gills, poised
in breath, delicate…
Night pins my speciesharrisona.html#HomerRiethReadsAnywhy
to essence, to tasks
of the sleeping word
and like a rough leaf
released by autumn
I settle into
presence, the desk now
There is no ending
to shadow, to the
nature that explains
us to the deep earth
and earth to our past—
our present poison
After ice covered the world, the sun melted aeons of cold
into the sea… The shore recalibrated… Mammoths disappeared…
Explorers etched a path to the poles leaving a scar of tents…
Ice closed in upon itself, clenching a fist each end of the globe
until day and night were balanced, acquiesced to moon and sun…
The planet’s lungs drew breath and sighed again…
Helium became a superfluid, able to climb walls of glass
against gravity… Then quantum theory, the laser beam…
And still the earth flinches back from the Absolute…
Tears unfreeze and fire learns—but the last blue dream
of winter is a private tundra so cold that even if we conquered
Mars we’d need a new Zero, ungraspable, unknown
Inspiring range of ingenuity
Geoff Page reviews Anywhy by Jennifer Harrison
Weekend Australian, August 11-12, 2018
Jennifer Harrison, also from Melbourne, is a poet of comparable stature to Jordie Albiston. Since Michelangelo's Prisoners (1996), Harrison's collections have been wide-ranging in concerns and formal resources.
Her new book, Anywhy (Black Pepper, 78pp, $24), may well be her best so far.
At times hermetic, at others confessional, Anywhy leaves the attentive reader plenty of space to move in, enjoying the verbal music for its own sake, while also at other times making important, even insistent, points about human nature and the natural world with a memorable directness.
A fine example of the former is Seeker after Smooth Things, which is short enough to quote in full. “It’s quiet now — that time of night / when children sleep / and you have stolen from their dreams / this small arc of solitude... // The night untitled, untidy / a seeker after smooth things: / a crumb brushed, a fragment thought / an echo of silence / more silent than silence.”
The ending is almost a Zen koan and nicely wraps up what is, in one sense, an exercise in alliteration and assonance. Many questions remain and yet we are not frustrated.
What does an “arc of solitude” look like? Has there ever been a night that was “titled”? Is “thought” a verb or a noun here? What exactly is inside those “smooth things” sought out by the personified “night”?
Emma Hamilton: a Postcard is a very different sort of poem. Hamilton, Lord Nelson’s Mistress, is at once “a tourist / sitting on a hotel balcony overlooking the Port of Naples" in the1790s and an observer of the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Dwight Eisenhower in that same bay a couple of centuries on.
After a deft comparison between Vesuvius and a nuclear holocaust, Harrison finishes with an unforgettable couplet: “Emma remembers those she loved and for what reason... / Horatio Nelson remembers those he killed, and why” Point made.
A group of similarly powerful poems includes Cuttlefish, The Inner Life of Birds, Possum and Gnidarian. Though each is very different, all four are conservationist in intent and remind us what can (or will) be lost through our disregard of creatures that escape our notice or concern.
In each case, Harrison employs extensive personification, which would normally risk sentimentality.
She begins Cuttlefish by talking about the animal “squint(ing) an inky cloud, the prudish veil / of a storybook widow we might read /about in Dickens”. By the end, however, we readers are more than aware that we too are likely to share the fate of this strangely beautiful creature “hoovering shrimp with her parrot beak, jaws // and raspy tongue”, who “chas(es) down divers for company //... as if we too live only a few years / out there beyond the day’s dazzle in moody / crevices in the middle of False Bay".
Geoff Page is a poet and critic.
Homer Rieth reads Anywhy by Jennifer Harrison
Your package has arrived:
And what a nice surprise to find a copy of Jennifer's latest work, which I've already read through from start to finish.
I'll tell you frankly, there's nary a poem that doesn't draw you immediately into its inner circle, or make you catch your breath with words and images no amount of anticipation can prepare you for.
The animal kingdom poems are especially strong, Cnidarian, Possums, Animal Mummies and Cuttlefish, the last of these, well, just magnificent, a high water mark.
May I sing the praises also of Movie Night, The Exchange, The Anatomy Room and Seven Phrasings for Sumi Jo, all of them most impressive. Only in Sanatorium 1926, at the penultimate line, in the phrase 'hiemal sun' might one wish for a plainer, less attenuated adjective, in a volume rich in the purity of its diction.
I might add that I had no trouble rembering the majestiemc fugue-like Ideas of Shore, and how only a whisker separated it from the judge's salute in 2014! It appears to be a bit leaner, and is a poem of great style, eloquent and beautifully controlled. Even as it leads you to that shore, you feel that somehow it is taking you into an emotional hinterland, of great moment to both writer and reader, in ways they are only beginning to understand.
The last poem in a slim volume, it has been said, is a gauge of its artistry, its poetical troy weight. On this reckoning, Anywhy's last poem, The Tent, leaves most other such end pieces that I can think of, for dead. It's a ripper of a poem.