Review by Louise Waller
UQP - ISBN 0702235199
This first collection from Jaya Savige, latecomers is the winner of the 2004 Arts Queensland Thomas Shapcott poetry prize, which included publication by University of Queensland Press. Poetry from this collection has been published in The Age, Australian Book Review, Heat, Southerly and other literary and online journals including the first edition of foam:e.
The back cover blurbs from the trio Robert Adamson, David Malouf and Peter Minter add a level of kudos and praise that is suggestive of 'arrival'.
Reading through the collection's three sections, it soon becomes obvious that Savige is an intelligent young man, with a sensitive and acute understanding of poetic form. He prefers a pared down lyric approach, which appears stylistically flawless. In fact, it would be difficult to find any poem in this collection that does not reward on a first and subsequent reading.
Savige is a tutor and arts reviewer, winner of a University Medal for an Honours degree in English in 2001, a completed Master of Philosophy in Creative Writing in 2004, (both from University of Queensland). Born in Sydney in 1978 and growing up on Bribie Island (north of Brisbane), Savige is a 'latecomer' himself to the recently finished millennium.
His poems capture elements of life relevant to his age and experience, but much of the work contains a depth of understanding, wisdom, that many other poets could envy, or aim for in their own practice. Working very much in the lyric tradition of this new age, Savige reflects on aspects of time and lateness. In 'Catch you later', the poet coming home, 'I walk towards my shadow / stretched to the end of the street', during discussion with his sister, 'I thought I arrived late,' he continues the sibling banter, 'my sister's not in the mood // for anachronisms, like yesterday / & now.'
The collection is dedicated in memory of his mother and his poetry negotiates that loss in many of these poems. 'We arrived as the sun was sinking', 'we found a heart in the cement', 'The moon was barely a souvenir: / no one could vouch for her existence.' ('Souvenir'). His capacity to explore emotional territory with sensitivity is evident in the opening poem from the first section 'The Unofficial History Pavillion', an engaging and flawless meditation on loss.
I have come to expect
too much of the ocean.
The tide is out again
researching the month
Somewhere to the north
lies a heart-shaped reef -
('Desires are already memories')
As the poem unfolds, we witness a scarab beetle's journey, the beetle's 'legs grim marriage', afloat on the 'leaf's serrated edge', and even in death the 'tough, unprisable grip, / the grasp and clutch and grab'. The poet recognizing 'what it means to not let / go the only thing to come'. The poem finishing beautifully, as the poet accepts the conditions and futilities of loss, where the 'ocean has no stake', 'betrays no particular desire / nor any to remember'.
In the second section 'Skirmish Point' there is a wonderful poem 'The master of small violences'. In this common domestic scene the poet wakes late, to the disarray of a messy kitchen, 'after a week of neglecting the washing up'. He breakfasts on a tin of peaches, drips syrup, flies buzz through screens in tatters. He is inspired by a Christmas beetle, 'the wings close incorrectly' noticing what often passes unnoticed, he takes time to entertain similar disruptions as 'ants scamper over crumbs' and as the sun arrives through the kitchen window, 'toying' with spider webs, filling the sink, he reflects on the ants, on how 'the day drowns them, he is blameless.'
What impresses me in this collection is Savige's attention to small details, his craftsmanship evident and enhanced by his reluctance to impose too much surplus thinking into his poems. The reader is free to discover sense and resonance, to move freely through the poems, without being burdened by too much language. Not that his work is without its difficulties, some of the poems are more difficult to mine than they first appear, but this is an asset to his craft and the reader is rewarded by persistence.
Savige is not without wit and humour, in the third section 'As Though We Were Never Here' a little gem of a poem.
I dare you to buy
then murder them
so the price goes up
Murder and death are consistent themes throughout these poems, often acting as symbolic pointers, 'she says her mother will kill her' ('Mercedes'), 'death wears / whatever is at hand' ('Wake'), 'you walk into a room / she has died // he is dying / it is the same room' ('Sunshine coast exit').
In one long sequence 'The dreamworld murders', the poet offers to take us to the body, 'I suspected myself of murder.', 'It must appear as though / we were never here .', 'One by one you killed-off / all your fathers.', 'Time becomes / a simple case of being'.
The sensibilities at work in this sequence suggest the poet's awareness of postmodernism, its many theories and discourse, in fact the poem is declarative of the poet's own symbolic arrival, 'You've come so far / to discover all this'. This sequence is the most demanding of his poems and works as a touchstone for the collection as a whole.
Another remarkable and difficult poem, unifying elements of this collection is 'Agapanthus/letter to Martin Johnston'. The poem borrows similarities of intention and stylistic form from the late Martin Johnston's 'Letter to Sylvia Plath' an elegy for his mother Charmaine Clift contained in the collection 'The Sea-Cucumber'. In Savige's poem we visit with him, through nuance and shade, memories and locations of importance and meaning for himself and his mother, 'all the stars are falling here / alone in the close between the chapel & you', the poet tells us 'agapanthus means 'flower of love', he inhabits the maelstrom of loss, 'I cannot fill the void between now & what comes next'. This poem is quite an achievement in its own right, contained in a collection alongside so many other accomplished works.
It is impossible to cover all of the work in this collection and I may have left aside many poems worthy of mention here. I can only suggest that the reader engages with this vibrant and refined first collection. Leaving the last words for the poet, from 'Flyer (Autumn)', 'I take great mouthfuls of the fresher air'.