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Crossing sixty: Louise Nicholas, Andrew Sant, Susan Varga

Review first published in the Australian Book Review
October 2016

Louise Nicholas THE LIST OF LAST REMAINING Five Islands Press, rrp $25.95, 85 pp. 9780734051998

Andrew Sant HOW TO PROCEED : ESSAYS Puncher & Wattmann, price, 132 pp. 9781922186805

Susan Varga RUPTURE : POEMS 2012-2015 UWA Publishing, rrp $22,99, 95 pp. 9781742589091

Poetry as the solidifying of memory, poetry as a survivor’s sanguine amusement, takes a lifetime. Louise Nicholas relates autobiography through strongly considered moments in time. Her childhood is tracked by the small fears, confusions and elations that only later feel like turning points.

Aged thirteen,

          in the same year but not the day
that President Kennedy was shot in Texas,
I sit on the sidelines at my first high school social
wondering what to make of a new betrayal:
the flowered bodice of my favourite party frock
straining to contain an embarrassment of breasts
where once there was little more than the rise
and fall of my breath.

[‘Aged thirteen’]

Nicholas displays an accomplished skill with voice and line, has an unhurried delivery, and a hint of mischief. Travel to places like Israel, death of parents, the intrusion into private life of world events, these and other transformative experiences are addressed in turn with a pleasurable mixture of measured tone and telling detail.

Nicholas is most comfortable with the one-to-one of human encounter, be it person, object, or another poem. For example, she expects the following ‘On becoming my mother’:

Soon I’ll take to pinning my greying hair
in forties curls to grace the top of my head
then, lacking my mother’s years of practised flair,
wake to the pain of a bobby-pinned bed.

She knows what to say and when to stop. She begins ‘Window’, a poem shaped like the object it addresses, “Here’s looking at you, window, you square-eyed go-between.” Common sense toys with absurdity. “You capture the clouds and waylay the wind. You frame the moon and apprehend the sun,” she lauds, before getting more worldly, “Peeping Tom is your raison d’être, defenestration is your guilty secret.”

Her ripostes to poems express the same delight in personal engagement. ‘My Last Duke’ lets Browning’s Duchess have the last word from the grave, her satire ‘Sharon Olds is smiling’ gives that poet’s obsessive eroticism (“who sees sex / in a grain of sand”) a serve, and even manages to do something new, arresting and humane with Robert Frost’s most famous poem in ‘Two Roads Untravelled’.

Poetry as risk-taking, poetry as outcomes of self-knowledge, combine in intensity. Andrew Sant, a philosopher-poet, takes a break from such immediacy of expression through essay writing. Sometimes a poem refuses to be made from the load of thoughts, the time is not right, thoughts are too divergent or abstract for the present of poetry. We know Sant is a poet here by his selection of words, but more significantly by the pacing of his thoughts.

‘On Consuming Durables’ relates the ordinary delight of op shopping. One ‘opportunity’ was new furniture for his Melbourne residence, “But I kept the place TV free: more reality without one.” More reality without one could be a guiding principle for Sant, who shows every effort to go in contrary directions to convention, with a sense that the mystery will never find complete explanation.

‘On Curiosity’ extols the “chain of connections” that might lead to “a lifetime interest”, while warning against “its dubious relative, obsessive interest.”  Sant here is a great observer. Geared up with five hypersensitive senses, his mind filled with the minutiae of perpetual self-education, he observes the world with precision and delight.

And in the title essay, Sant opens with the view it is best to trust your own instincts rather than what you are told, to give “himself permission to think freely for himself, to go it alone,” only then to conclude with that most amusing and confusing long day’s journey into night, asking for directions in rural Ireland.

How to proceed is a quandary understood by poets. The creative act is not like baggage handling at Essendon Airport (Sant has done this).  It goes in fits and starts, usually a start followed by a fit, or nothing at all.

Not surprisingly perhaps, he goes on literary pilgrimages and his charmingly haphazard accounts of finding the holy sites in the lives of heroes like D.H. Lawrence and Elizabeth Bishop is another reward of this poet’s self-analysis.

Sant comes across as sane and solitary. He escapes total solipsism, being always too much in the world. He is a novice phenomenologist. He knows how to be the observer observed. As with Louise Nicholas, this collection slowly reveals secrets in his life that enlarge our appreciation. His mother’s suicide, his restless search for a sense of place, his philosophical reflection on a broken marriage, come as illuminating surprises, altering how we hear him and understand both his predicaments, and our own.

Poetry as therapy, poetry as a daybook of recovery, has uses. Susan Varga suffered a stroke, which is where her collection starts, in the ward. (“Sounds, words, sentences/ disappear like tumbleweed.”) Reconstructing memory is shared by poets and stroke victims; she pieces together those parts of the past she knows into verses of varying effect. Like most writers arriving late at poetry, there are hits and misses.

Varga is good with small details, summing up people and situations, settling in with the diagnosis. Her free verse thought patterns, when they work, give the reader enhanced insight into the daily individuality of existence. Like Nicholas and Sant, Varga has crossed 60, able to speak more forgivingly of others and of herself. She may track a difficult emotion, as in ‘Enemy’ (“Embedded in folds of skin/ sunk deep in red tissue/ imprinted in bones/ my enemy lies”) or renew affirmations (“Like a dog dozing/ waiting for night to/ swallow the hours./ Survival.”)

‘First Poem’, dated December 30, 2011, outside the time frame of the collection, explains the compulsion:

An old garden seat,
a new bed of plants
flowering into the New Year.

Old fears, new fears.

Small shoots of thought
sustain me.
Help me, words –
you always have.

Reading Varga raised for this listener the dilemma of how we hear the voice in poetry. Poets with a tale to tell want transferred the effect of their individual voice, something the page can flatten out. With Sant and Nicholas it is the chosen forms that aid in hearing their voice.  With Varga, the shifts in her attention, the exclamation marks, the small ironies that might be sincerities, rely for their impact on knowing her own speech. Some of the poems are obviously best done in performance, but how to learn her timing was sometimes a difficult ask. There is time yet for her to notice more “small shoots of thought”, perhaps by trying new forms.


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