Ginninderra Press (2023)
Reviewed by Jane Frank, StylusLit.
Rosanna E Licari’s new collection is ambitious in scope and depth. This is Licari’s first major publication since An Absence of Saints (University of Queensland Press, 2010) which won the Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize, the Wesley Michel Wright Prize and the Anne Elder Award. The sixty-seven poems in this book transport the reader through the course of history from the stirrings of creation and the births of various life forms to accounts of the poet’s own beginnings, her family’s war torn past and the miracle of awakening each day to her subtropical Queensland surroundings. Hope and survival are constant themes.
Licari, who is Poetry Editor and Publisher at StylusLit literary journal, is a poet that ponders philosophical questions about the nature of reality: scientific, environmental, metaphysical and anthropological facts and mysteries are interwoven through her work. The titular poem, ‘Earlier’ [11-13] for example, responds to the Rig Veda—an ancient Indian collection of Sanskrit hymns. The poem personifies loneliness—the time ‘before’—as driver in the creation process:
So it spoke with a brilliance
that was wide and fierce.
The flame of a million stars.
Violence that creates
and pleasures itself
with its own force, timbre and breath.
Many poems apply the forensic detail of a documentary as if a moving, all-seeing camera is at work. In ‘Drifters’ [15-16] the poet explains ‘the meshing into our existence’ of microscopic phytoplankton, a ‘(drifting plant, a Greek derivation)’ to explain the cycle of life:
We depend on their rhythm —
the drifters cocoon the earth with
the blue haze we breathe.
The same closely observed description is used in poems with a medical focus such as ‘The Hand’  a prose poem where the poet visits a surgeon about a lump to be removed from her hand, connecting the forthcoming ‘surgical embroidery’ with the deterioration of her mother’s mental capacities:
In my mother’s brain
nothing is stitched together. Synapses collapse and don’t
form again. Neurons reach for what is left of sense, but meet
nonsense, the obscure territories …
This is one of a number of powerful biographical and familial poems. Many of these intersect with accounts of Licari’s family’s migration from Europe to Australia. For example, in ‘Early Self Portrait: from Latina, Italy to Bonegilla, Victoria’ , the reader joins the poet as a young child and her parents on the arduous sea and land voyage ‘through jade, flat, steel-grey and choppy waters across the Indian Ocean, the Equator and all the way to Fremantle’ and across country to a new life beginning at the Bonegilla migrant camp. In this narrative poem, Licari coughs throughout the entire journey but on reaching Australian soil, is miraculously recovered— an omen perhaps.
A number of poems in the book refer to borders of various kinds and her strong emotional reactions to what they represent. Licari was born in the former Yugoslavia which she writes about in ‘Revisiting Yugoslavia: Rijeka, Croatia’ , a poem about the poet’s regret at being born in Rijeka ‘in a country that doesn’t exist anymore’ and not in ‘my father’s city, Trieste’:
… the canal
lined with small coloured boats,
and my confusion surfaces
I stare at it
the old border with Italy.
I imagine my father’s days.
They become part of me:
the contempt for the country
that took his country
is the unease
I feel for my birthplace.
Again, in ‘Borderline, Yugoslavia, 1947’,  where ‘the echoes from the earth still rise …. history becomes a date and a summarising sentence.’ However, in ‘The Spaniard’ [52-53], we encounter a different kind of border between properties where Licari compares hers with her neighbour’s:
I am the land conquistadors invaded
full of hot man-eating orchids
tendrils and fronds that
weave their way into cerebral cortex
his land is sanitised
concrete and mowing has cleansed and blessed
retirement has expanded his empire
small dogs growl at the fence line.
Again, in ‘Crossing’ [113-114], the crossing from fulltime work ‘across a line’ where there’s ‘a universe of time to myself’ is a slow creep towards the unregulated before the ‘inevitable return to civilisation’.
‘Degrees of Flight’ [73-76], a beautiful poem in five sections about freedom and flight describes ‘the natural border / where the ancient scrub turkeys / pass on their daily route / into my world.’ These birds: ‘Children of crones /…smelling of glacial ice’ destroy the poet’s garden and their flight is described as clumsy compared with the smooth swooping of frogmouth owls, and comparable with the poet’s own inability to take her writing through the ‘abandoned take-off’ of writer’s block.
The fecundity and irrepressibility of the natural world is a force the poet contends with in her daily life. Poems such as ‘A Feast’  and ‘Metamorphosis’ [107-108] address primal hunger in the natural world— zebra-striped larvae moving in a ‘green trance’ before transformation to common crow butterfly, as well as the feasting of bees and bats, their ‘winged reputations smeared with virus’ —are about flight, but also the need to control the ‘leftovers’ of encounters with these creatures on the poet’s property. ‘Paradeisos’  explores the ‘wildness’ and life going on around Licari and her understanding of, and acceptance into, the ‘ordered routines’ of the natural world— those of golden orb spiders, ants, bees, centipedes and ‘burrowing beetles’. The poet’s
… appearance doesn’t matter here. Moist soil presses up through
gaps in toes, grounding the moment …Worms intertwine roots that
bear the earth’s yield. Between the fronds I shape, secateurs nick
flesh and blood tastes of iron. Alone, looking up, my sarong slips
to the ground. The cloudless blue belongs to me.
The poet has returned to ‘the first earthly garden’ where she is at one with nature. There is a moving intimacy here, though in other poems such as ‘A Collision of Birds’ , we feel the poet struggling against nature.
Sometimes it is natural forces that work in opposition, but in other more confessional poems, Licari speaks of loneliness as a result of relationships that have ended or places lost as a result of landscapes swept away by change. Behind an often stoic tone, we sense vulnerability. In ‘Tourist’ [111-112], about a visit to Melbourne and a rare meeting with an ex-partner, the poem’s narrator compares the colder climate of that city to the state of loneliness:
Would you like to live here?
A friend later asks. It’s so cool here.
Was there a spark?
Only the burning desire to say
I never thought you’d leave me
Change is an ever-present theme. In ‘Currumbin Alley’ , a stranger tells the poet ‘things have changed’ and in ‘Young Love, Botany Bay’ [119-120], the landscape of a childhood relationship and happy times fishing with her father are remembered before ‘land development scoured the seagrass beds’, these memories only accessible now in the poet’s recollections. With a reference to Sydney Airport across the water:
I still can’t help but rely on childhood memory
… the Bay remembers the spawning grounds
with every gasping takeoff.
There are ekphrastic poems—short like snapshots— at intervals throughout the book, including in response to works by Margaret Olley, William Robinson, Brett Whiteley, Ian Fairweather and Robert Brownhall. Licari’s often literal interpretations of what she sees are deceptively simple, applying the same forensic matter-of-factness as in the metaphysical poems about the beginnings of life that they are juxtaposed between, but their brevity and delicacy are poignant. In ‘The Line’ after ‘The Divided Unity’ (1973) by Brett Whiteley:
The sky is
an extension of water
wet inky lines
Licari reminds us of the almost inseparable relationship between visual art and words that so often delivers ekphrasis its power.
Licari also imagines the lives of other women in history including the creator of the ‘Venus of Willendorf’ [‘My Paleolithic Self’, 43-44], a small Venus figure of 30,000 years ago, the natural historian Mary Anning [‘Mary Anning discovers the plesiosaur, 1824’, 32] and dedicates ‘Ascendancy’ [18-19] to botanist and paleontologist Else Marie Friis who studies the evolutionary history of flowering plants. Detailed notes are provided to many of these science-inspired poems. This work by Licari demonstrates scientific knowledge and interest, and rigorous research. But particularly appealing are poems that connect Licari’s knowledge with accounts of her everyday activities such as swimming in ‘Evolutionary Lap’ , a brilliant short poem:
Below the goggle line
Surge forward and
breathe out into
a glide a pull a pause
… this you ride
… as if preparing to fly
This is a book to be digested in small intense episodes: the poems only get better with every additional reading as the layering and complex connections emerge more fully. This is a collection not to be missed.
Earlier is being launched by Melissa Ashely, author of The Birdman’s Wife and The Bee and the Orange Tree, on 29th March 2023 6pm for 6.30pm @ Avid Reader, West End, Brisbane.
Order Earlier for $25.00 at Ginninderra Press below: