Review For nothing, more than nothing… For birds, sky… Anywhy by Jennifer Harrison

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Anywhy by Jennifer Harrison

Black Pepper Publishing, 2018, 96pp, $24

 

Review by Mark Prendergast

 

How do you read Jennifer Harrison? Some critics have emphasized the performative in her work and the adoption of masks to, at once, inveigle and distance the reader. Others highlight questions of travel, positioning Harrison as lyric psychogeographer. Contrary to poet and theorist Aimé Césaire’s claim that “poetic knowledge is born in the silence of scientific knowledge”, Harrison, in an interview with Paul Hetherington,  describes her poetic as an attempt to bridge the “two cultures”: “Trying to find a common discourse between medicine (the body) and poetry (the lyric) is perhaps the major theme in my poems—trying to reconcile these two sides of my life. Because the discourses are so separate, I’m interested in how they interact with, and repel, each other.” This is quite a challenge: not only magnetic resonance imaging but also the Hiroshima bomb is applied science. Nonetheless, as with her earlier collections, in Harrison’s Anywhy the reader will find combinatory matter of varying valencies and densities, keeping on the poet’s dialogue with the nature of knowledge.

Eschewing both scepticism and mysticism, Anywhy continues Harrison’s thoughtful exploration of her materially fluid world. ‘The Anatomy Room’ (an occasional poem honouring those who donate their bodies to science) celebrates the conceptual and material history of this basic science, while allowing its limits: “For every vein you’ve given, you hold something back, above/ inside, something complete, enigmatic like a sign/ that the deaf will not share – something distant like stars in winter/ a knowledge that belongs to a larger universe of time… ” In sonnet form, ‘Brief Reflection on Words’ claims for both science and poetry only proximate truths, subsumed by personal experience which, in turn, might snuff out a whole city’s lights: “science almost intends us to outwit conceit/ but doesn’t poetry make conceit as obsolete/ as that suitcase of paper dolls (so pretty)/ I once carried everywhere, lonely as a city?” In ‘The Exchange, Blackwood Village’, the voice in the poem registers its surroundings (there are always birds in Harrison’s poems, singular or in flocks; at odds or working as one) then sets down what it thinks about them. Invoking Lucretius, and Epicureanism’s disdain for superstition in all its forms, this meditation on time’s wounds allows itself a metrical, rhymed conclusion of sorts, its slippery didacticism lending the collection its title:

 

Death found my measure in its pill of greed

and I carry the taste inside like a baby, never to birth

 

more a memory to protect, a shape almost precious…

Not exactly a gift, an exchange…

 

For nothing, more than nothing… For birds, sky…

For a clock, more than time… For anywhere, anywhy

 

By Harrison’s light, generosity of spirit is nothing, and, if she is never quite prepared to spill her guts, her poetry offers the reader other consolations.

How to represent the mind’s indwelling? Two of the poems in Anywhy take up this challenge from radically differing angles. ‘DeoxyriboNucleic Acid’, a list poem of endless possibility, attempts to capture emergent knowledge about the human genome, one of the scientific wonders of the age, in metaphor. The result is a poem of genuine currency: “old stories unheard      those yet to be learned/ a corkscrew infinity      infin   ity   ity      y/ a code twisting      untwisting along its protein wall/ the future      coiled like a hair in a drawer”. ‘Fowler’s Phrenology Bust’ plays on the mind in an entirely different register. As with some of Harrison’s other decisions about form, it is not apparent to me why this poem is divided into sections, and the use of Roman numerals in poetry always strikes me as a little faux Latinist. However, in ironically addressing this onetime pseudo-scientific tool, the poem captures aspects of the mind’s associative logics in contemplating, first, the china bust, then, the other objects arranged beside it on the mantle: “Some part of the brain could be called to breast/ ahead – a bust needs its breast, needs telling/ off from time to time, needs a porcelain/ companion to pitch what’s on its mind”. The poem asks why we decorate our lives with certain objects, observing that, somewhat like reading a poem, it is in converse with these objects that we figure out what we think about things. As elsewhere in the collection, in this ekphrastic poem of sorts, it strikes me that, while often inventively imagistic, Harrison’s default position is self-questioning abstraction, and this abstract aspect of her poetic is one of its great strengths.

When a Harrison poem does travel out into the world it affords an occasion to contemplate the mind in action, registering its attentive care, its global anxieties. In ‘Coorong’, looking toward the loved one is mixed with dread, and the silted river-mouth is tied with a future where even preserved pockets of wildness are lost:

 

and now as you approach, becoming with each step

once more familiar, I fear the carelessness of tides:

 

their mandalas, forever undredgeable, settle, shift –

and I fear that the rarest bird, the fairy tern of glass

 

might shatter inside me and there will be nothing left

of marshland but the endless patience of the past

 

‘Cnidarian’ is another sidewise love poem. The poem opens, metonymically, with the figure of an elderly widow in care. Broken hearts and melting ice-shelfs bring to light novel creatures that have newly moved into our ken. Harrison never overreaches to assume agape—in her poetry, love is fundamentally familial, co-dependency a value: “love itself/ like coral is tenanted, occupied:/ a trophy without pedestal, a vase/ within the old mind where sorrow shelters/ which we protect from harm with our lives”. Perhaps this is the soundest base from which to build a more comprehensive response to the ecological agonies of our time.

Sitting with the mind and the pictures it generates has been a governing preoccupation of Harrison’s work. If the questions ‘what do you know’ and ‘what have you got to be afraid of’ trouble you, read on with Harrison here and, like those stuck in transit in her poem ‘Grand Final’, mayn’t we “trust the wind will carry us/ forward, somewhere new/ somewhere we didn’t realise we wanted to go”.

 

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