Calanthe Press, 2019
Reviewed by Alison Clifton, StylusLit
The latest collection by seminal Queensland poet Anthony Lawrence, Time Machine, is only thirty-four pages long, but the heft of the impressively nuanced poetry makes this chapbook punch above its weight. Replete with delightfully original imagery, Lawrence’s poetry feels at once fresh and familiar, as if an old friend were spinning a yarn that you had not heard before.
The foreword to the collection gives insight into the working ways of a poet whose career spans over thirty years. (Lawrence’s first book, Dreaming in Stone, was published in 1989.) The collection is split into two parts, and Lawrence reveals that nine of the poems from the first section “were written as a response to the first word that came to mind one rainy Sunday afternoon at Hastings Point,” before being revised, edited, and embellished over the following months. Writing this way, Lawrence could explore “the mystery of how to move from one word to a completed poem.” The other six poems in this section “arrived organically sparked by a sentence or line in a book and were written with no plan or idea of closure.” Despite this lack of planning, each poem in this diverse collection feels coherent. Lawrence writes of his poems: “rarely do I have any idea as to where they are going or even what they might mean.” And, yet, this is not cryptic concrete poetry. Each poem readily offers up meaning or, rather, meanings: the liberal use of metaphor and simile creates a polyphony of sense and significance.
Lawrence’s poetry is brimming with buoyant imagery. The speaker of “Detector” (3), combing a beach for “coins and the lost / history of rings,” is acutely observant (3). Unusually, Lawrence opens the poem with a description of the rubbish bins. They are “like sharps deposit boxes / under the blown lights of gulls” (3): the vaguely seedy creatures are reduced to useless, broken fixtures in a sordid toilet block. There is no mention of sun, surf, and sand; no spades, sandcastles, and sunscreen. Instead, there are, “wedding party photoshoots” with “brides / figureheading headlands” (3). The metaphor evokes a bride farcical in her cheesy white wedding dress caricatured as a figurehead on the prow of a comic-book pirate ship. There is something ridiculous in the commodified ritual of weddings, especially the obligatory staged photographs and the gaudy gowns, and Lawrence captures this quality. The poem ends, masterfully, with the speaker observing “spray dispersing / from soft detonations / on the reef” (3). The oxymoron of a “soft detonation” is a fitting conclusion: the poem has quietly blown every cliché about the beach out of the water.
“The Yard” (4-5) further exemplifies Lawrence’s signature style that combines bursts of startlingly neoteric imagery with passages of plainer, more prosaic language. The poem initially seems to cosy up to the reader with the use of the plural personal pronoun: “In the yard where we’d stand / after coming home late / … / to watch the sky blow over” (4). However, a discordant tone is introduced with the next simile: “or knit like a cut / then open again” (4). The comparison of the sky to a wound is jarring, signalling that this will be anything but a conventional love poem. The next image, comical and bizarre varies the tone again: “we’d be so close / we could have been / exchanging each other’s clothes / before going inside” (4). The imagery that follows ranges from the atomic and cosmic – “lovers can divide / and multiply the hydrogen / molecules in air / to reach a bed” – to a macabre description of that most stereotypical of all love song paraphernalia, moonlight: “tonight there is moonlight / … / being drip fed through / camphor laurel leaves” (4). The words “drip fed” suggest suffering caused by disease or misadventure, foreshadowing the speaker’s revelation of an horrific accident: “it is now a year / since the quad bike tipped / over the side of the dam / your life slipping away / beneath the engine cowling” (4-5). The reader realises that they are privy to an intimate, one-sided conversation: a monologue to an addressee who can no longer reply.
Although Lawrence’s innovative imagery makes his poetry remarkable, it is finely calibrated to be unobtrusive, as if each image were a distant uncle discreetly slipping away from the death bed to leave the immediate family alone with their grief. Thus, the next few lines are bereft of figurative language as the speaker finds that the only way to articulate loss is through unadorned utterance: “I will go soon / to say a prayer in silence / what could not be said / when you were here” (5). This commonplace observation is simply worded because it needs to be. Sometimes there is truth in what may seem trite. The next few lines provoke a shock of recognition in the reader. Again, Lawrence takes a familiar observation – that we glimpse a deceased loved one’s features or figure in strange places – and voices it succinctly and movingly: “I can see your face / in a rough sketch / of shadow on the wall” (5). The word “almost” bears the weight of the final lines as the speaker says, “it is almost enough / to believe this night / might bring a better way / to find you before / grieving gives way to memory” (5). The first anniversary of the beloved’s death threatens to cause the waning of grief and the ascent of memory, neither of which can help the speaker “find” the beloved.
Lawrence’s poetry is so rich that it deserves close reading. The attentive reader will wish to return to these poems repeatedly to find new meanings or delight in reliving the first encounter. There is limited space in a review to convey the full scope of Lawrence’s achievement in this chapbook. Other standout poems in this volume include “Wind” (8) – a short poem worth pondering – and “Buttons” (10): a darkly humorous associative riff on the subject of clothing fasteners. “Alarm” (12) treats the theme of how aging brings us closer to death in a sensitive yet raw manner, while “The Hare” (14-15) features more adroit imagery, and “Theatre” makes a tall tale out of a lizard, a bird, and a large truck (16-17).
As adept as the first section, the second section of Time Machine is comprised of prose poems, mostly narrative vignettes. In the foreword, Lawrence explains his decision to write in this form: “as with prose, I’d like the reading to be uninterrupted, with the story in miniature being informed, not governed, by the poetry.” Without the intrusion of purposeful line breaks, he asserts, “the poems say, ‘read me and allow what’s here to become the luminous sum of its potential parts.’” Here, Lawrence’s keenly inventive mind is at work, from the larrikin adventures of “The Australian Astronaut” (27) to the charming “Explaining Desire to an Alien” (30) and the wryly-observed yet unsettling “Archery” – about a rebound that turns almost as sour as the divorce which preceded it – to the surprise ending of “Time Machine” (32).
Lawrence is a poet in his prime. The much-overused journalese words that a reviewer might be tempted to fall back on – consummate, virtuoso, superlative – do not do justice to Lawrence’s work. That someone can sustain such a level of invention of imagery and subject matter is astounding. After reading this collection, the reader will likely concur with the aphorism of Antonio Porchio that forms the epigraph to Time Machine: “I am chained to the earth to pay for the freedom of my eyes.” This is sensory and sensuous poetry sometimes punctuated by the sensual, to use the Miltonic distinction between that which appeals to the senses (“sensuous”) and that which appeals erotically to the senses (“sensual”). To my mind, Lawrence is the most exciting poet writing in Australia today. He has attained this status through hard graft and attention to his craft. He has spent thirty years writing preceded by fourteen years of concentrated studying of poetry: the canonical, the unorthodox, and the overlooked. Time Machine is brilliant, relevant, and revelatory.