Sarah Holland-Batt’s Aria, won the 2007 Thomas Shapcott Prize - Queensland’s literature award for an unpublished poetry manuscript by a Queensland author. It was lauded as a “striking debut…the language haunting but entirely worldly”(paraphrasing the back cover here). Which translates for me as - a good first outing in language most of us can read and understand.
How did I find it? I don’t think I can fairly assess the first claim of a striking debut. I don’t have the breadth of reading and my poetry biases and understanding lie more in the direction of form poetry. I am also fast coming to the conclusion that it’s very hard, much harder to fairly review a collection of poetry, than it is a novel or collection of short fiction. You can theme a poetry collection and structure it to present a cohesive whole or narrative but ultimately poetry is a cousin where the different forms of prose are like brothers and sisters. Hence I flounder a bit when I task myself to review these works. A couple of days reading of an entire collection seems to be giving the works short shrift. Poetry’s power is (in my experience) in its density, in the crafting of fewer words to carry a greater weight.
Poetry is often “bigger on the inside”.
But my impression? Well, I felt more comfortable, more in touch with the subject matter and themes presented than I did with Takolander’s Ghostly Subjects, but then they are I think doing different things with their poetry. One of the good things about reading a great deal of poetry is that it becomes more apparent what you like. What I appear to like is poetry that produces feelings of nostalgia, or that create vivid images, that awaken emotion and works that have a lyric quality. My favourite poem of this collection is The Sewing Room.
My mother measured the margins
of my known world there:
a sunlit annex where the lines converged,
wrist to shoulder-blade, hip, ankle, waist;
maps I would only outgrow
charted in painstaking tailor’s chalk.
Given time to isolate this first stanza and really look at it, the lyric quality, the ebb and flow, the “sound” of the poem, gentler and more subtle than that produced by a strict form, becomes obvious. There’s the alliteration in the first line and alternating long-short hard stresses in the lines that give us peaks and troughs. Coupled with this is the striking imagery of map making wedded to this memory. This poem is where the poet’s memory and execution of craft sparks off my own memories of childhood and the countless hours my mother spent at machine or overlocker.
Circles and Centres brought into focus an interesting idea of the differences between nature and the built environment. Nature’s all circles and human construction is square or geometric. I was reminded also of Ali Cobby Eckermann’s Circles and Squares, where she presents Aboriginal concepts as circular and Western as square. For a more expansive and critical evaluation check out Kim Cheng Boey in Mascara here.
There’s another 40 poems in Aria, and while not all of them achieved the level of engagement wrought by The Sewing Room my quick reading suggests that they will be other gems to be unearthed by a close read. Some other suspects would be The Wood Pile and Atonement. Poetry is a personal thing though. If you are unsure I’d suggest borrowing the book first, purchasing when you have been ensnared by the poet.
So on the claim of worldly language or language entirely of this world, which I have chosen to interpret as “language most of us can read and understand”- yes I think that Aria is accessible. Which is not to say that you won’t have to interrogate the poems or maybe use Google to look up some allusions or references but the poems aren’t tightly packed word muddles.
The collection is broken into 3 parts or perhaps movements? The title Aria and several poems allude to classical music so I suspect there is a reference being made to music in the construction of the collection which I am unfortunately oblivious to.
I borrowed Aria from the library. It was not the pocket sized paperback in the, what is now familiar UQP poetry series styling, but the Read How You Want 16 point type, version. This may have affected the presentation of one or two poems but overall I didn’t feel that it diminished the work and my aging eyes were thankful.
If an ebook copy was available for around the 10-12 dollar mark I would have snapped it up no second thoughts. It’s a collection that I think I would enjoy coming back to over an extended period. You can purchase Aria through Booktopia here for just under $21, not bad value for something that you should be able to get continual enjoyment from. It’s made it to my wishlist
Good luck finding it in a general bricks and mortar store though because I searched two, an independent and a franchise and found no books on poetry, not even the Year’s best just released.
This review is part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014. Please check out this page for more great writing from Australian women.