‘The Tiger in the Head’ by Robin Gurr (1990)

9 Jun

The Tiger in the Head by Robin Gurr. Jacaranda Wiley 1987. First published in SCARP No 16. May 1990

The title of Robin Gurr’s sixth collection of poetry, The Tiger in the Head, is echoed in her poem ‘The Visionary at Dawn’:

Inside the cherished

chaparral of his skull

.

nestles a stealthy drowsing

tiger

While the poem has, as its departure point, Rousseau’s painting ‘The Sleeping Gypsy’, there are also very deliberate and unmistakable echoes of William Blake. The most obvious refer­ence to Blake is the image of the Tiger. Compare, for example,

a tiger

stalks in emancipated bliss

 .

flashing poems from its sulphurous eye

with

In what distant deeps or skies

Burnt the fire of thine eyes

                                                                 (Blake)

or

Inside the harsh

Saharas of his skull

,

a tiger

rasps into its pondered mash

(Gurr)

with

What the hammer? What the chain?

In what furnace was thy brain?

                                                     (Blake)

Gurr’s concentration on light and dark, day and night in the opening poems of the collection also recalls Blake. This dichot­omy recalls the Songs of Inno­cence and Experience and, indeed as we progress through The Tiger in the Head, we come across poems with titles like ‘Child in nature’ and ‘Three meetings: Dark, Fear and Death.

For Gurr a celebration of youthful life and naivety is fol­lowed by the realisation of death in the same way as night follows day:

The sea mouths the morning

Then spits it on the shore

The stippled shells hold warnings

that night will come once more

                                                                ‘Shells’

In these poems Gurr moves from the very strict rhythms and rhymes of a poem like ‘Shells’ to the apparent freedom of ‘The Visionary at Dawn’. Her best poems however, are those she keeps under a tight rein. The Plath like ‘The Cutting of the Wind’, with its carefully meas­ured lines which have the effect of emphasising each word, is an example of Gurr at her best:

My face is turned by blade

my mortared limbs were

.

cast in clay  earth locked

and burnt to strength

While the highly structured nature of Gurr’s poetry at first seems a little ‘old fashioned’ when compared with the current directions of contemporary po­etry, her obvious skill at utilising traditional forms quickly over­comes any reticence in her read­ers. She doesn’t allow the struc­ture of the poem to dictate to her, rather she uses it to mould her ideas, constantly surprising the reader with unconventional rhythms and sound patterns. Indeed Gurr’s poetry repays a careful reading.

The Tiger in the Head i s a very accomplished collection by a poet who is obviously in complete control of her genre. While the book has been handsomely pro­duced by Jacaranda Press my only complaint is that there is no listing of her five previous collec­tions. This is going to make track­ing her earlier work down diffi­cult for those many readers who may want to read more of Gurr’s work.

– Mark Roberts

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