Calanthe Press, 2018
Reviewed by Alison Clifton, StylusLit
Jena Woodhouse’s unassuming collection, Green Dance: Tamborine Mountain Poems, reads like a humble offering and happy acceptance of hospitality. The chapbook came about when a representative of Calanthe Collective, a poetry group based on Tamborine Mountain, contacted Woodhouse after finding some of her early poems about the mountain among the late poet Val Vallis’s papers in the Fryer Library at the University of Queensland. On many occasions in the 1980s and 1990s, Woodhouse and her family stayed as guests at Vallis’s Tamborine Mountain retreat, Abydos, where she wrote her first poems about this beautiful peak in the Gold Coast Hinterland. As Woodhouse phrases it, when Calanthe offered her this opportunity, “the interrupted dance was able to resume.” This is a lovely metaphor, indicative of the sort of imagery to be found in this book of poetry with its themes of heritage and history, nature and ecology, and hosting and hospitality.
This small collection, at only twenty-eight pages, is like a bright jewel: splashes of ruby red adorn a cover depicting three black cockatoos with red-tipped tails perched on black branches silhouetted against a red sun. What a lovely thing it is, as if someone has taken a sumptuously illustrated coffee-table book and distilled it into words to create a chapbook of exquisite poetry. Woodhouse takes her cue from Vallis and the late poet Judith Wright, another long-term resident of Tamborine Mountain, whose house was called Calanthe. These are, of course, formidable poets to emulate with reputations so long cemented that their names have become eponymous – for example, the Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts is a Brisbane institution, and the Arts Queensland Val Vallis Award for an Unpublished Poem is awarded annually.
Woodhouse’s approach to nature poetry is complex, at once unapologetically anthropomorphic and firmly ecological. In “Going to the Mountain: Song” (26), she writes of escaping Brisbane’s “orthodoxy of purple trees” (26) – the pretty jacarandas that line the Brisbane River and bestow their distinctive blossoms on patches of earth dotted among the suburbs, but which are an introduced species. Native flora and fauna hold much more appeal for the poet, but she finds herself an intruder in the natural space of the forest on Tamborine Mountain. Thus, she highlights her status as the perennial outsider in “Green Dance” (24-25) when she observes the sheer beauty of the bush and its mystique, which she cannot capture: “I’ve tried to take / this essence in, make it an element / of me” and “I have failed” (24). Every time she bids the mountain retreat farewell, her impressions of the forest “blur into nostalgia, lose / clarity; when I return, they ambush me, / sharp and fresh, alive, complete” (24). As she perceives, the forest exists for itself alone.
Yet along with a recognition of the forest as a discrete ecosystem to which her existence is extraneous, anthropomorphic imagery is inherent in Woodhouse’s collection. For example, she describes “bird- / discourse” (24), “the ancient mockery of kookaburras” (24), and “wild birds” that “come together to upbraid each other” (25) in “Green Dance.” Further, in “Cicadas, Abydos” (3), insects sing an “adagio” (3), “respond” to the noon heat “with fierce euphonic / bliss” (3), and “declare themselves as instruments / of praise to some primeval deity” (3). Moreover, in “Morning Walk, Tamborine Mountain” (11), Woodhouse refers to the “Delicate subconscious of the forest” (11). It is interesting to speculate as to why Woodhouse resists the oft-repeated injunction to abstain from anthropomorphising in poetry about the natural word. In her 1986 essay “Against Nature,” Joyce Carol Oates noted the conundrum faced by writers who would describe nature, arguing that the subject “inspires a painfully limited sense of responses in ‘nature writers’ – reverence, awe, piety, mystical oneness” (66-67). She maintains that eco-poetry always resorts to depicting “Nature as the self’s (flattering) mirror, but not ever, no, never, Nature-in-itself” (71). And, yet, Oates rightly recognises that “it’s impossible to escape” (74). As humans, we are caged in the corporeal and so constrained by the human condition: though we may contemplate the notion of transcendence, spiritual or secular, we are necessarily circumscribed by a wall of flesh. Thus, the debate about the rightness or wrongness of anthropomorphising seems redundant. We are what we see.
In an age dominated by the human-centred introspective internet poetry of Rupi Kaur, it seems that contemporary art needs a renewed poetics of nature, as the British Poet Laureate Simon Armitage recognised in announcing last year the establishment of the Laurel Prize for poems about nature and the environment. Woodhouse has risen to the call. Her descriptions of the mountain and forest move beyond scenic to enter the realm of the empathetic even as they express a kind of obsessive drive to pin down what might be termed “the nature of Nature.” Thus, as well as professing to have the artist’s urge to capture the “essence” (24) of the forest and the mountain in “Green Dance” (24-25), Woodhouse also invokes “the artist’s eyes of Hokusai” – a master of Japanese woodblock printing – in “Morphing into Autumn” (12). She believes that, were Hokusai to witness the splendour of Tamborine Mountain, his eyes “would light up / at the sight of faded blues and amethysts, / the geomorphic folds of continent, / and reach for brush and inks to capture / beauty’s evanescent face” (12). The transience of nature is, of course, an old motif in poetry that becomes stale if not handled adroitly.
Woodhouse does indeed treat her subject matter with consummate skill, for the most part expressing feelings of respect rather than awe, exercising restraint even when the imagery and vivid description spills forth from her pen to take the form of a generous cornucopia overflowing with glimpses of the many, varied lives with which the forest teems. Her gift for the baroque, for gloriously gilding the lily with relish and aplomb and without apology, is evident in “Richmond Birdwing Butterflies” (15) when she describes a tangle of vines. She writes: “Pliant loops / and tropes and tendrils interlacing trellises / lure them back to these life-giving colonies” (15). Here, the lovely, alliterating proliferation of convoluted Latinate and Greek words is grounded by the monosyllabic blunt Anglo-Saxon grunt of “back.” It is as if the butterflies soar and twirl and flutter in great arabesques through a clearing before alighting on a profusion of vines. This is masterful writing.
Woodhouse is an accomplished poet with many publications and awards to her name. She is also a lyricist and an author of prose, including children’s fiction. These layers of her identity are evident in this vital and vivacious poetry, which is as alive with promise as the soil after rain. Her vision of nature is beguiling and bewitching as it resists the blinkered and the boringly clichéd – perhaps owing to her background as a children’s writer. Fresh and invigorating as the air on the mountain that she repeatedly describes in this collection, Woodhouse’s poetry may remind the reader of the undiluted exuberant joyfulness that fine eco-poetry can express.