Thea Astley (edited by Cheryl Taylor), Selected Poems (UQP, 2017) 167pp.
[This review was first published in print in issue 2 of sugarcane in October 2018, which was made possible by the by the generous financial support of The Alumni Friends of the University of Queensland.]
After reading Thea Astley’s (1924–2005) Selected Poems, I turned to her novels to discover what was missing from her poetry. Drylands, the titular town of Astley’s last novel (2000), is like a puddle evaporating on an outback bitumen road. Janet — a newcomer to the town, a partaker in “culture” (pronounced kalchah), a writer, and the disillusioned proprietor of the local news agency where books languor unsold, yellowing in negligence — confronts the schoolboy Toff over his inability to read cursive:
“Can’t read running writing.” “What can you read Toff?” … “Printing, man. Like type. Got my own PC and we use them all the time at school.” “I see. And will you be able to answer exam questions with them come November? Are you all wired up in the examination room, son, so you can type out your essays?” “No exams for a while. Not public. Anyway, we don’t have essays or stuff like that. Just tick boxes.” “Oh! So you expect to discuss the beauty of the Bard or Mr Eliot by ticking boxes?”
It is an ill-tempered takedown that could have so easily become a harangue, but instead bends into wry amusement. Astley had always enjoyed undercutting bullies, philistines, or conceited prats with important daddies like Toff; yet she is never cruel, never pretentious, and she never absolves the Janets for their failings or remedies the sense of futility that saps them.
Or take these two sentences from Beachmasters (1985): “He was a beanpole of a man with a long, amused face and rimless glasses. An unlikely painter, they said. He was suspected of reading.” We need no more information as to who the “he” is or the “they” are. We can feel the man’s benign eccentricity; the curiosity of the crowd that, with the slightest nudge, could tilt either into friendship or enmity; and Astley’s sardonic humour vibrating beneath it all. From a single character issues a climate of feeling, or, as Karen Lamb in her superb biography of Astley, Inventing Her Own Weather (2015), calls it: “personal weather”. For Lamb, Astley is the metaphorical meteorologist par excellence. In It’s Raining in Mango (1987), cruelty crackles about a man called Will. Flute and her fellow hippies dupe Will, their kindly yet strait-laced benefactor. They then expose him as a pathetic lonely old queer: “It’s him isn’t it?” Flute cooed softly. “It’s Buckle. You’ve got the hots for him, haven’t you, mister? Oh oh oh, a real case of the hots. And it isn’t any good, is it, because you’re not making any play, are you? He doesn’t come across, does he? You ought to hear the things he says about you.” Astley always could get so close to the darkness within people, and the pain that was its consequence: “His [Will’s] throat croaked something like sobbing but the tears wouldn’t come, only a racked pain-cry that ate him from the heart outwards.”
Here is what is missing from the poetry: a raspy candour; an innate sense of justice (all too often frustrated by law and men alike); a wry wit; a knack for portraiture; an appraising, unsentimental eye she turned upon all; an unwavering empathy for the outsider and the bullied; and a voice that could be heard while reading — all of what made Astley one of Australia’s greatest novelists.
It is, perhaps, to be expected that these features, this voice, honed and acquired with decades of writing, should be absent from this collection of previously unpublished poems written almost entirely in her pre-novel career (1934–1957). That Astley herself treated these poems with, to use editor Cheryl Taylor’s description, “ambivalence” should only further prepare a reader. Astley ceased to write poetry at the outset of her literary career and left it largely unpublished and uncollected in later life. In Drylands, Janet dismisses her own attempts at poetry, first at the age of twelve: “'The clear water over pebbles, the curtain wind-curve of ivy on a wall, a first taste of snow.' Ephemera. She was too young to apply the possibilities of metaphor.” Then once more in her twenties: She wrote. “…the tender miles, grass-warm with summer.” She wrote. “…my thin white feet exploratory and tentative as… as… smiles.” The pretentiousness of it! “Ah piss off!” she too had said after a year’s frustration with the abstraction of words. Only compare those lines to a few from Astley’s “Enchantment”: For the burning sky of eve Has made my heart A captive bird, a leaping fire Afflame to pant
This is more than ambivalence: it is Astley’s unsparing judgment declaring the poems must be abandoned. Her poems may have been valuable as practice — in a 1986 interview, she said: “I think if you’ve written poetry you’re better adjusted to finding suitable rhythms in prose” — but not as product; however, some poems (not many) do not accord with such a judgment. In them, we can see glimpses of Astley the novelist, even if we cannot hear her voice.
A poem dedicated to Laurence Collinson, founder of Barjai, tenderly yet appraisingly tells of coaxing a smile from him: “When you are cold with iron in your thoughts / And lips are smooth with unwarmed wonderings.” “Poem ” (1944) has the speaker unable to comfort or even respond to a woman’s sorrows on the train: And O the pain That flooded as I parted from the train And sharply saw Her plaited head bent backwards from the door, Swaying, swaying, as it had before.
“The Card Players” tells of four hunched players “Whose gnarled hands palm the frowning kings / And sullen knaves”, while one prepares to cheat the others. There is a common element here: all of these poems are portraits. Ephemeral ones compared to the sculpted, affective portraits in Astley’s novels, yet they still reveal where her strengths lay, and would always lie: in people, their weather, and story — strengths often inimical to the short lyric poetry Astley wrote.
But the absence of her voice is keenly felt. She does not develop a poetic voice, even one dissimilar to her prose voice. She seems to come nearest when she writes of waters, tides, and seas. In “Neap” she writes: You may be sure I know my neap Washes you in antipodal tides, Drawn by moons as gold as grins Of amusement parks on harbour-sides.
This water is soft, nourishing, and warm. In a later poem, it saps an ennui-ridden adult leaving “unsavoury scum upon the breast / Of too transparent waters lapped on clay”. And in “Dunes”, as beach-goers suck on fruits, the companionate “blue sea stretches / Sucking the shore’s white rind”. But a voice cannot be dependent upon or contained to a motif, it must be heard throughout all verses; heard through wife-beaters and beaten wives, expelled Indigenous men and their expelling white half-brothers, wounding hippy and wounded man, the annoying train companion and the annoyed commuter, snotty kids and chiding news-agency proprietors. And when a voice is as satisfying as Thea Astley's is, snatches of it are frustratingly insufficient.
About the author: Damian Maher is reading for a DPhil in English at Oxford.