Before I begin I should mention that this is Griffin Prize Week. Last night was the shortlist readings at Koerner Hall in Toronto, and tonight the winners will be announced. It’s fun to be back on the audience side of the curtain, without the pressures and stress I had last year. But I also admit to a bit of nostalgia (already?) for my experiences as a juror, which I thoroughly enjoyed, and which gave rise to this blog. I’m still open to discussions about the problematics of poetry prizes, or of “prize culture” in literary evaluation, but these events are among the highlights of my year, if only because the rooms are full of serious (and often brilliant) minds, who are palpably engaged with the art form, stretching always what poetry can be and do.
Sarah Holland-Batt is an Australian poet who has spent considerable time in the United States. If I had the gumption I might try to make claims about how her work straddles the poetic traditions of both nations, but it seems a bit premature – the poem below is from only her second book, The Hazards, and so I hope we’ll be hearing a lot more from her before these kinds of evaluations become worthwhile. One thing I will say is that she, like many other Australian poets I’ve read, derives real delight from the natural world of her homeland, a world which often seems to me to be more beautiful, dangerous, and bizarre than my own.
After the rain, we went out in pairs
to hunt the caps that budded at night:
wet handfuls of waxtips and widows,
lawyer’s wigs, a double-ringed yellow.
We shook them out onto gridded sheets,
the girls more careful than the boys,
pencilled notes on their size and shape,
then levelled a wood-press over their heads.
Overnight, they dropped scatter patterns
in dot-and-dash, spindles and asterisks
that stained the page with smoky rings,
blush and blot, coal-dust blooms.
In that slow black snow of spores
I saw a woodcut winter cart and horse
careen off course, the dull crash
of iron and ash, wheels unraveling.
All day, a smell of loam hung overhead.
We bent like clairvoyants at our desks
trying to divine the message left
in all those little deaths, the dark, childless stars.
— from The Hazards, ©Sarah Holland-Batt (University of Queensland Press, 2015), used by permission
How do we translate wonder onto the page? We all experience awe from time to time when we encounter amazing things in the natural world – a spectacular sunset, a bear rummaging in a wood, a tornado – but writing about those encounters rarely summons corresponding feelings in the reader. In fact I think it’s fair to say that, after the love poem, the ”nature poem” is the type most frequently done badly. Not just because it’s such well-trodden ground, but also because, like love, awe is a very difficult feeling to evoke or describe.
“Botany” tackles this problem in two ways. Firstly Sarah Holland-Batt has a wonderful ear, and her alliterative play, near-rhymes, and metrical savvy combine to give this poem real brightness and sparkle. The beginning of the third stanza is particularly rich: “dropped scatter patterns / in dot-and-dash, spindles and asterisks” just feels fun in my mouth as I say it, the percussive s’s, p’s, k’s, and t’s bouncing off each other. And so even though the natural phenomena that she is describing – mushrooms – don’t make a lot of noise (to my knowledge!), “Botany” translates some of their uniqueness into linguistic beauty, which we experience as sound.
One quick note about meter. This poem gestures toward a regular rhythmic pattern but never settles into it consistently. Many of the lines at the beginning are in a loose iambic tetrameter (four beats per line) and a few fit it perfectly: line six, for example (“the GIRLS more CAREful THAN the BOYS”), as well as lines eleven and thirteen. For me, when a poet flirts with regular meter like this, it gives a kind of pulse to the poem, but one that is open to movement and flow. It provides a steady walking pace that can accommodate the occasional stumble or brief sprint. It’s worth noting, then, that as the poet’s fascination increases at the end, the poem adds another foot to the meter, so that in the last stanza we’re mostly five beats to the line and the final line has six beats. It’s as if, when the children’s attention draws closer to the spore patterns, the speaker of the poem needs to cram more stress into each line to make room for her awe.
Can we also, by the way, thank the botanist who originally named a species of mushroom “lawyer’s wig”? Can that person please be honoured in some public fashion?
The other way that Holland-Batt evokes our wonder is by not limiting herself to the children’s perspective, despite the school-time focus of the action. The evocative species names, the brief gesture towards gender politics (“the girls more careful than the boys”), the magic of the mushrooms’ reaction under the wood-press – all of these are phenomena that most children would appreciate and understand. But something different happens in the fourth stanza. The mushrooms have made various spore patterns on the paper the students have spread under them, and the speaker starts to see images in the shapes that have been created by the “slow black snow of spores” (another wonderful lyric line). The speaker sees something wild and horrific in the spore dust: a crashing horse-and-cart. Is this really the imagination of a child looking at the patterns, or an adult drawing pictures in her memory? Perhaps the girl had just read Black Beauty? But it feels more like we are progressing from the experience of the school children to the more mature wonder of the image-making adult.
Similarly, and more definitively, in the final stanza, the kids become “clairvoyants” (even the word would likely be inaccessible to most school children) who are attempting to interpret the signs left by the mushrooms. And the poet brings to our attention the fact that the spores, because they have been deposited on paper instead of earth, won’t be able to germinate, and are therefore a display of “little deaths” for the individual mushrooms that have been harvested. Now I don’t think the speaker of the poem is trying to evoke regret in us for the demise of these fine fungi specimens. On the contrary, it seems to me that the fragility, the strangeness, and the resilience of earth’s life forms (from dust…) is what transforms the children’s awe into something that we adults might share. By leaving us with that weird bit of darkness, drummed home with the haunting final adjective “childless,” this poem opens up a layer that is beyond the reach of the students in the poem, but which is palpable and full of awe for those of us who read it.