Back cover blurb
Title poem of Andrew’s collection
in Two Poets
The Colour of Life
Why is it that here in this cafe,
a hard wind harmless on the window,
a bright fire coughing in the grate,
scones and tea on the table, I feel
suddenly, strangely sad? Why is it,
and what? A loneliness, a longing—
not, it seems, in spite of, but
because of, the loveliest of things.
It is the colour of life. Sabi
the haiku poets would say. I say
too much. I break a scone and steam
wafts from the wound, like
the spirit of a just man, going home.
© Andrew Lansdown
Introduction to Two Poets
by Lisa Gorton
Here are two markedly different Western Australian poets. Both pay attention to small facts of nature. Both treat poetry as a work of intimacy, not performance. In tone, both poets are closer to the voice of the diary than of the cafe or pub. Even when they deal, as they often do, with suburban domestic life, their poems mark out a place of inwardness. Yet their collections reflect and create different imaginative worlds. In particular, these two poets relate differently to time: Lansdown’s poems work to distil and preserve a single moment, whereas Gillam’s work to capture the moment-by-moment experience of time. Intriguingly, their writing habits reflect this difference. Lansdown works in a study, seated at a window, looking out. Gillam gets ideas for poems walking the back lanes around where he lives. This difference could be said to define the nature of each poet’s achievement.
Lansdown engages consistently, though by no means exclusively, with the austere Japanese tradition. Almost all his collections include haiku or tanka sequences: short poems in syllabic verse that capture a single observation in exact and simple words. As one of Lansdown’s poems puts it, ‘Haiku are pebbles/ poets lob into the pond/ of our emotions’. Lansdown brings that understated discipline to his descriptions of the Australian landscape.
The Australian painter Fred Williams once remarked thatAustralia’s landscape has no vanishing point. Working with haiku, Lansdown frees his poems from what you might call the argument of foreground and background. His are small-scale, exact observations. As a consequence, his haiku and short poems about birds and flowers achieve a sense of place remarkably free of the usual rhetoric of landscape. They are one of the best reasons to read this collection.
Over nearly forty years, Lansdown has worked at this art of precision. Most of the poems collected here are new, but there are some from his award-winning 1993 collection, Between Glances, and some from his 2004 collection, Fontanelle. He started some of the poems newly published here more than a decade ago. Nonetheless, this selection has the coherence you might expect of a single collection. Together, these poems show how an aesthetic of exact detail and subtle craft has shaped his poetic idiom – has become the very language of his thought.
Even many of the longer poems work with the kind of precision that haiku requires. Take ‘Fontanelle’, for instance – one of the standout poems in this collection. A poem of seven two-line stanzas, it maintains the lucidity and efficiency of haiku. It starts, ‘Strange, this seeing/ the heart in the head’. In this poem, the first line of each stanza has four syllables, the second, five: a heart-beat rhythm worked not by word-stress patterns, but by line lengths. But Lansdown is typically understated, and combines this clean use of language with a tone of unforced directness.
If you were to express in architecture the various styles of poetry, the place where Lansdown writes could serve as an image of haiku. This dedicated room, with a desk at the window, suggests at once haiku’s containment and its commitment to looking out. It is characteristic of Lansdown’s straightforwardness that a number of poems in this collection make reference to this writing room. He writes in ‘This Abundance’ of ‘Stepping out of my study’. ‘Disturbance’ starts, ‘Again from the corner/ of my writing-room window …’. But perhaps the most memorable of these writing-room poems is ‘The Visitor’:
My landlord’s small, blond-haired boy
comes daily to peer through my windows –
four oblongs of glass forming the corner
of the room against which my writing desk
is nestled. My sunpanels and pleasures.
Lansdown has written three children’s novels and this poem illustrates with what ease he can work with narrative. In this case, the boy’s interruption pushes the poem past its single moment: Lansdown imagines the boy’s view from outside, looking in. This outside view prompts a meditation on the nature of his work: ‘I have come to this room/ wanting not visitors, but visitations.’
There is almost always in Lansdown’s work this sense of the window: clear, polished, made for looking out. Though the celebration of nature might be said to be the defining motive of his work, it is nature in itself he seeks to celebrate – not for him the Romantic tradition of finding the mind in the world. As a consequence, his poems, for all their play of sound, have a quality of stillness: the space of the page around them seems charged with silence. His poems typically capture not the experience of life in time, but the experience of moments outside time – visitations. For this reason, his poems often work with cameras, windows and reflections. His poem ‘Macro Movements’ illustrates his poetic ambition to still the single moment in its fleetingness: ‘On macro setting –/ I’m trying to photograph/ a bee on the buzz … As my camera/ clicks, it flits to my finger –/ the red dragonfly.’ Perhaps his tanka ‘Signal’ is so intriguing because the setting serves as an image of how the poem itself works – with a sense of distance, closed in its small frame:
As I lift the mug,
light reflects from its glazing
in the black window –
faint and intermittent like
a lighthouse signal, far off.
Kevin Gillam has also taken up haiku. Indeed, his poem ‘untitled’ …
from the Introduction to Two Poets by Andrew Lansdown and Kevin Gillam (Fremantle Press, 2011)
© Lisa Gorton
Reviews and Comments
Excerpt from “Collections of verse in a human key”
Gillam and Lansdown’s collections have been issued together in one book, the second volume in the Fremantle Poets series, Two Poets. Strange bedfellows?
“Kevin’s work is quite different from my own,” Lansdown says. “But that’s one of the strengths of the book: that there are two collections which are very different in their poetic approach.”
Lansdown, a Perth poet who has written 17 books of poetry and fiction, many for children, says he’s “not interested in writing things people can’t possibly understand and then pretend you’re being profound by doing that”.
And yet Lansdown, who says the common integrity underlying all his work arises in part from his Christian faith, is a subtle orchestrator who works within both Japanese and European traditions. “I’ve found Japanese haiku, tanka and choka truly beautiful forms to work within,” he says. “They enable me to explore, capture and convey those very small things which otherwise might be overlooked but which are lovely in themselves.”
Witness his tanka, Overheated: “In the shrinking pool,/a dying marron, its shell/jacked up like the cab/of a semitrailer with/an overheated engine.”
Review of Two Poets
by Annerliegh Pappos
I love the first half of this book. Lansdown is an interesting poet. Totally unashamed of using the exclamation mark and it works for him mostly. His poems about childbirth and his growing child, and the relationship between this and mental health are sublime. Totally human, never gratuitous.
The poem ‘Heat: After the third day of Desert Storm’ is stark perfection. The images are so vivid whilst using plain language.
Possibly my only criticism is the overly-lamenting style of some pieces. It can be a little on the bush ballad side for me.
The other half by Gillam fails to capture my interest. I could barely find anything to relate to and eventually put the put down permanently. I do recommend others giving it a go however – many of Gillam’s individual lines or verses are interesting – original ideas or takes on experience.
© Annerliegh Pappos
goodreads.com, 7 August 2012