Archive | Rhyll McMaster RSS feed for this section

God and Landscapes: Andrew Lansdown: Between Glances & Rhyll McMaster: On My Empty Feet

20 Mar

Between Glances by Andrew Lansdown, William Heinemann Australia 1993 and On My Empty Feet by Rhyll McMaster, William Heinemann Australia. First published in Overland 135, Winter 1994.

                                                 

There is a simple delicacy to many of the poems in Andrew Lansdown’s sixth col­lection of poetry, Between Glances. Lans­down moves slowly through the landscape bringing a spiritual intensity to bear on the objects of everyday life. Many of his best poems grow out of a single image. In ‘Tea Chest’, for example, a robin drinking water out of a dis­carded tea chest is captured in the centre of the poem:

The late afternoon light

duplicates the bird’s shape darkly

.

in the still water as it stoops

to drink.

The poem is, in fact, almost a fable. Lansdown is suggesting that nature can transform a func­tional object which is perceived to have outlived its usefulness to an object of beauty and of a different functionality:

Truly, this moment, that tea chest

bears a cargo more precious than any

.

it carried long ago from India or Ceylon.

The title poem of the collection, ‘Between Glances’, operates on a similar level. The poet has been watching a single autumn leaf on a liquidambar tree all day:

I glance

down at my work then out

.

again, only to find it gone.

Gone between glances. If only

I had known that last wave

was a goodbye, a farewell,

.

I would not have looked away.

While the transient nature of beauty obviously lies at the heart of this poem, ‘Between Glances’ can also be read as a fable where the falling leaf represents human mortality. Above all else Lansdown is a religious poet and, in the context of the rest of the collection, these ‘fables’ take on a distinct spiritual dimension.

Between Glances contains a number of more obviously religious poems. There is an uneven-ness to these poems which I feel is probably almost inevitable. Religious poetry is difficult to write and like many poets Lansdown does occa­sionally fall into cliche. However, Between Glances contains some of the best religious poetry I have read for some time.

For most of the collection Lansdown is content to write about his children and the natural land­scape, but in the last section there are a number of poems which grew out of a trip to Sydney. These poems lack some of the spiritual intensity which runs through the rest of the book, but I feel that they actually balance the more overtly religious nature poems.

After the softness of Lansdown’s poetry Rhyll McMaster’s third collection, On My Empty Feet, seems positively hard-edged. In the opening poem, ‘Figure in the Landscape’, we have a view of the landscape very different from Lansdown’s images of transient beauty:

Sheep lie down in the wind,

trees tremble their roots

in underground runnels.

Cattle pour milkily across

a world of occurrence.

Whereas Lansdown was content to sit back and watch the robin drink out of the old tea chest, McMaster places herself very firmly in the poem:

I am the figure in the landscape

which does not live

unless I move.

On My Empty Feet is divided into three sec­tions. The tone of the first section is set by ‘Figure in the Landscape’, which is one of the strongest poems in the collection. Many of the poems in this section explore the relationship of  the poet to both her external physical environment and her internal mental state.

The second section revolves around a sequence of poems called ‘My Mother and I Become Victims of a Stroke’. In ‘Residues’ McMaster records the way her mother was affected by a stroke:

Her brain is stripped

to its inessentials.

She’s disposed of the gears.

Her mind is full of old shoes

.

that don’t fit.

In ‘The Mirror’, the mother’s illness forces the daughter to confront their relationship:

I look into the mirror of my life

and see my mother

.

She glares back at me

warningly.

She says, “I’m bitterly disappointed.”

In the final section McMaster recalls her childhood, effectively going back to a time before her mother’s stroke. Balancing the pain in the poems in the second section, the poems here are nostalgic and safe, as in ‘Our Street’:

There I am, aged six, striking home from

school.

I stop to gloat at the crack that grows the

ferns.

At silent number eight the privet hedge

rampages down the side.

On My Empty Feet is a powerful collection. Its strength lies not only in the individual poems but also in the careful way the collection is structured. My one complaint with McMaster is the length of time between collections. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait another seven years for her fourth.

Advertisements