Erudite Scribe, 2015.
Reviewed by Alison Clifton.
Helen Avery’s Loosely Defined is a warm, lush, rich harvest of poetry despite its predominant setting of the dry outback. Dry the earth may be, out west, but it is far from arid. The landscape is teeming with insects, bird life, and people — all of which are recurring characters in a collection of verse characterised by what Jeffrey Harpeng maintains is “a subdued empathy for person and place.” Indeed, this is an organic poetry, working itself up out of the soil tilled and tended by loving human hands gnarled from labour.
This “subdued empathy” is most evident in Avery’s trademark use of personification, simile, and metaphor. Under her expert hands, a small rural town “settles for sleep / like an old dog / … / twitching with the secret / dreams simmering / at the heart of the universe” in the poem “Sleep.” Elsewhere, in “Old Cork Station,” “river gums line up / leaning as coy as pre-adolescent girls / to gaze upon their own reflections.” Reflections in water are scattered throughout this collection and work alongside the personification to evoke the encounter between the human and the natural worlds. It is not always a harmonious exchange but there is great beauty in the rough, raw power of nature, as Avery reveals. Her use of imagery is assured and aesthetically-pleasing.
The collection opens with a beautiful shimmering heat-haze of verse in the form of “New Year’s Eve,” which is the kind of poem that sees the reader nodding in recognition of the rightness of the imagery. Its first stanza is worth quoting in full to give an idea of the lovely cadences and gorgeous sensuality of Avery’s verse:
From beneath the purple weight of afternoon storms
the red-tailed black cockatoos
beat through the air above the homestead
cracking apart the yolk-heavy heat
of late December
with cries as sharp as axe blades.
This compelling opening does justice to an acutely-observed collection of verse. There is much to be dazzled by.
Avery’s evident love for the sublimely natural and the rawly human is brought together in her use of personification. Delightful is the flowering first image of the poem “North Keppel:” “The light is not generous this morning / portioning itself out sparsely.” Mother Nature does not always spread her favours evenly, as flood and drought attest.
When the poet encounters her reflection in a rock pool, it is the ultimate moment of the human greeting the natural world as friend and colleague in the struggle to survive:
I plunge my hands into
the mirror of my reflection.
At the same moment
a shoal of small fish
shatters the skin of the sea,
skimming the surface
like frantic dancers
trying to gather together
the scattered fragments of my face.
The human reflection in nature is scattered and reworked, gathered together by the dancing fish and pieced together by the deft alliteration. “North Keppel” is a triumph: a joyous poem.
I will quote liberally again from Avery’s work as I believe it speaks for itself, so assured and accurate it is in its observations. Here is “Angel:” the finest poem in the collection and another example of the encounter between the human and the elemental:
It is hot.
Summer is pegged to the sky
and flaps against the air
as wearily as a damp sheet.
I am searching for shapes in light
and watch a woman stringing
threads of clothes on wire.
She is angled against the lawn.
A wheelbarrow is propped
against the shed wall.
With plastic pegs she
hangs the fragments
of her family
out to dry.
Loss, rural poverty and hardship, estrangement within the home: these fragments of a life are all glimpsed in the woman’s actions so sparely described by Avery. In this poem as throughout the collection, the poet’s empathy never descends into the false feeling of sympathy: that disloyal emotion that condescends and pretends to understand the unfamiliar. Avery’s words are wise; her imagery as convincing as the visions offered up by the watery mirrors that appear in her verse. This is poetry for the Australian soul and the Australian soil. It sings of home.