Ginninderra Press, 2022
Reviewed by Alison Clifton, StylusLit
You might assume that the poetry of a musician who namechecks Lead Belly, Charles Mingus, and Stevie Wonder would be full of soul. You’d be wrong. Instead, Losing Touch, Andrew Leggett’s third collection, is full of heart. Here, we find the burning hearts of lovers, the strained hearts of the lonely, the dancing hearts of dead poets, the cardiac arrests of the elderly, the steady pulse of youth, the arrythmia of the patient denied a transplant, and the syncopated symphony of all the hearts in the mental hospital beating out of time with the society that shuts them in.
In “Playhouse Theatre” (9), the poet’s heart allows for the “lewd” logic of lust in “a secret liaison” with a lover later in life (9). When they visit the theatre “in the midst of the languor / of age and decrepitude,” he wants her to be wearing
a black backless frock
with a plunging halter
and that choker of pearls
you stole from your mother. (9)
Let us all age disgracefully, Leggett seems to say, for there is a certain grace in such an approach to life.
Thus, in “Magenta Shores” (62-63), the speaker and his lover become “querulous misfits” (62) resisting the pressure to go gentle into that good night. When they “pass the beach houses / where retirees go to rest,” they dream of “an urban village / where the residents, drunk with poetry, / jam raucously on vintage instruments” (62). At first blush, the poem appears to end with a reminder of mortality. When the speaker needs to stand up from the sand, he says “I feel it in my joints. I seek your assistance / to rise” (63). However, the final word is key: he will “rise.” The end is not here, not yet. The beat goes on.
While the wailing saxophone of aging is a motif in Losing Touch, it is not accorded a solo. Instead, many instruments make up the music of this collection – sometimes harmonising, sometimes riffing off each other, never losing the rhythm. Leggett conducts it all masterfully. The drumming hearts, the shadowy synths, the shimmer of radiance from the harp, the blazing banjo, the steady drip drip of the highhats, the splash of the cymbal, and the eyes of the otamatone… this is, indeed, an odd arrangement of instruments for an orchestra. It’s quirky. It’s experimental. It works.
Heart, eye, shadow and shade, light and dark, fire and water. These elements unite in Leggett’s poetry. The masterful poem “Shadow” (11) plays with polysemy. A hairdresser’s “fluorescent aqua” eyeshadow reminds the speaker of the flickering flames of youthful longing – the “fever / that burned in the seventies / for girls in the city / with blue eye shadow” (11). After the salon burns down, the hairdresser’s eyes are shuttered and shadowed with enough grief to fill “a basin of tears” (11). It’s a moving poem, deftly observed, that speaks of the affinity that kind souls have for each other.
“Milton to Katherine” (12) develops the imagery introduced in “Shadow.” The hairdresser’s make-up palette morphs into the heavens as “the sun fades / the sky to indigo through seven shades / of blue” (12). So, too, do the shadows of loss darken to become the night, which is “good for lovers” as it is illumined by “the planet Venus” (12). Happily, “the cruel tears” are mended by “gentle games” (12). This exquisite sonnet rests on its final word: “My lover is a shade” (12). The transformation is complete: from eye shadows to twilight shadows, from shades (sunglasses) hiding tear-brimmed eyes and shades (blinds) shuttering the windows of ruined shops to the shades (welcome ghosts) of former lovers.
Spectres also dance through “Merengue in Purgatory” (29). Gwen Harwood’s fictional scientist Eisenbart “as dressed by Dante” vies with Petrarch to partner her in a paso doble after death (29). Then, the purgatorial is purged to make way for the resurrection in “Lazarus” (26-27). The unwitting but willing subject of Christ’s miracle, Lazarus-restored-to-life laments that “Few men who stink as I do / have been pursued by poetry” (26). This is not the “poor Larry” who “never asked to be raised up from the tomb” of the song “Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!” by Australian band Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. Instead, Leggett’s Lazarus is “up for it” and “ready to break into a run before / poetry springs up to maul me again” (26). He dreams that his eye sockets are empty, the flickering shadows of “candle light” haunting the “hollows // where once there were my eyes” (27). More orbs – eyes, suns, moons – and more chiaroscuro.
When the addressee of “Mother of Pearl” (30) leaves the beach “to tend to the threat / of your father’s failing heart,” the speaker observes a “blonde girl” whose “jagged hem of her denim skirt” tears his chest apart (30). Is it her youth? Her beauty? The strong, steady beats of her as yet unfailing heart? The poem ends with a woman plunging into the “tidal pools” (30). Yes, water is abundant here, from the “waves” and “foam” of “Merengue in Purgatory” (29) to the “storm” and “bay” of “Watching the Bridge” (20-21) to the “ocean” of “Great Ocean Road” (17-19) to the “sea” of “Fisherman’s Wife” (31-32) to the “pool” that recurs in “I Must Swim” (34) and “Push Me” (35-36). In Leggett’s realm, the pathetic fallacy is not a fallacy.
So it is that water flows from the sky in “Terminus” (37). As “Rain beats on the helipad,” the Medivac drops “organs / for the transplant team,” but “No parcel bears your name. There is no matching donor” (37). Though the addressee is much loved, in this poem, they are not the beloved. The poet speaks on behalf of those whose love alone cannot save the dying: “we contemplate / your heart’s last beat” (37).
One life ends. Life goes on. Those who would prolong life and ease suffering, the medical students of “Silence and the Rose” (39) are said to “wait for me, holding case notes, tight as / sprinters on starting blocks hold their heartbeats for the gun” (39). The simile works wondrously with the alliteration to reveal yet another aspect of the heart of “Losing Touch.”
Leggett’s latest poetry collection is epitomised by the poem “Chorten” (14-15). When the speaker sees small stone monuments on a ridge in Nepal, he asks his guide, Djungbu, a man who “has summited Everest / fourteen times,” whether they are “‘memorials / for those who have died’” (14). The guide replies: “‘People come. / They build, / remember many lives’” (14). By building this collection of poetry, stacking image upon image, Leggett remembers many lives. His work has a generosity, a humanity, that should enliven many readers. In “Watching the Bridge” (20-21), the speaker observes oxymoronically that “No one looks at the hill / where the dead lie, in the midfield of vision” (20). No one? The poet has seen it. The poet is someone. The poet is witness and documentarian of the living and the dead. Andrew Leggett’s work stands as modestly as the chortens but reaches the heights of the Himalayas.