This page contains some of the many reviews of Andrew’s books and general comments about his work.
SEE BELOW FOR REVIEWS OF:
1. Birds in Mind (poetry)
2. Fontanelle (poetry)
3. The Dispossessed (short fiction)
4. Between Glances (poetry)
5. Abiding Things (poems, stories, essays)
6. With My Knife (novel)
7. The Grasshopper Heart (poetry)
8. Waking and Always (poetry)
9. Homecoming (poetry)
ALSO SEE BELOW DETAILS OF:
10. General comments about Andrew’s work
11. Other websites with information about and copies of Andrew’s poetry and fiction
1. Reviews of Birds in Mind
Launch speech for Birds in Mind
by Shane McCauley
Eminent Western Australian poet and critic, Shane McCauley, launched Andrew’s latest collection of poetry, Birds in Mind: Australian Nature Poems, on Saturday 24 October 2009. Speaking to a gathering of about seventy people, Shane McCauley said:
I was very touched, and of course honoured, when Andrew Lansdown asked me to launch his wonderful collection of poems, Birds in Mind: Australian Nature Poems. Ours has been a long acquaintance and friendship, going back to the mid-1970s or so. For a while, we were always the youngest WA poets to appear in anthologies such as Quarry, edited by Fay Zwicky in 1981. And I note that several of our near contemporaries in that anthology have gone on to either better or worse things, but Andrew and I have somehow managed to stay in the poetry-writing business.
Initially, there are several things to note about Birds in Mind. Firstly, the sheer size and scope of the subject matter. The joy in birds is apparent from the title, but they are only some of the creatures and plants the poet celebrates and sometimes mourns. You will also find superbly spare descriptions of, and reactions to, shells, frogs, lizards, kangaroos, crabs, fish, sunflowers, bamboo, orchids, trees in abundance—karri, jarrah, marri, redgum—and much, much more.
Another initial observation concerns the variety of places in which these poems have been published—they have obviously appealed to many different editors, and the Acknowledgements page is really mind-boggling. Apart from appearing in countless Australian journals and anthologies, many have been published overseas, in Japan, the USA, the UK.
A third observation is in regard to the quality of the book’s production itself and the generous 223 pages—no “slim” volume of verse this! The beautiful cover painting is by Andrew’s late friend and mentor, Peter Good.
Andrew’s poetry is much influenced by Japanese short forms such as haiku and tanka that aim to capture the particularity, the is-ness, of (usually) a natural object, animal or scene. The goal is to achieve a rendering of this essence in just a few words. Andrew is adept at both forms (and many traditional Western forms, too) but it is more the spirit, the underlying intention, of them that gives grace and lucidity to all the poems gathered here.
Purely descriptive nature poetry can sometimes pall if it is not accompanied by insights, revelations, new slants. Andrew’s poems abound in these and irresistibly startle and delight, aesthetically appealing both to mind and emotion. Open the book anywhere and you will find descriptions of birds and animals we have all seen, but that are suddenly lifted here into another dimension via a combination of the poet’s imagination, diction and control of form. Here is one of my favourites, “Hawk” (p. 56):
Hunched in an overcoat of feathers
a hawk on the high wire,
like a snapshot of a shrug
As easily as he wields the wind in his wings
and clamps small creatures in his claws,
he sheds the world from his shoulders
We’ve all seen that hunched bird up on the wires on a cold day, but who has so perfectly fixed it in our memory as Andrew?
The poet’s capacity to be continually astonished by the natural world is both very moving and inviting, too. We, the readers, are also encouraged to look with new eyes on things we might have taken for granted. These poems are full of those “Ah!” moments beloved of the haiku poets. Humble slaters, wood lice, “forage about in their armoured coats/ like miniature armadillos”; a jewel beetle basks “in rainbows, like a drop of oil”; the bobtail has “unexpectedly, a yellow flower/blooming in the back of the throat”; straw necked ibises are “like elderly Oriental/ gathered for a festival”. This is poetry forged from a brilliant combination of observation and compassion, what [the Chinese philosopher] Mencius referred to as the “thinking heart” (or maybe camera with heart!).
Although great beauty and a sense of joy infuse these poems, it should not be thought that they are in any way merely “pretty” or dainty. Nothing could be further from the truth, for thought Andrew delights in the natural world, he does not shy away from its less attractive manifestations (though the negative is frequently related to some human intervention, as in “Snake in a Box” or the mindlessly cruelty “Blowfish”). There is grit and blood and pain in this poetry, too: I won’t read “Four Men” to you, a graphically precise account of mulesing, lest anyone here, including myself, passes out. Nature here is multifarious and complex, powerful and sometimes violent, as well as exquisite in its forms, colours and profound variety.
There are some poems, such as “Trap” and “Good Catcher”, wherein Andrew contemplates the innocence of children coming into contact with some of the problems related to human responsibility in the face of nature—that we are here, as I think Rilke puts it, as guardians, protectors not owners of what surrounds us. The poet muses on his child in “Good Catcher”: “He is too young to know/ how some things are crippled by love/ if they’re not let go.”
I could single out countless other poems for their wisdom and whimsy and elegance, but I am aware just how eager you are to buy and read the book yourselves! I would just like to conclude with one small poem, a tanka, that for me best encapsulates the driving force of Andrew’s poetry. It is very appropriately called “Importance” (p. 216):
Given that God
did not consider robins
too small to make,
I regard them big enough
for my poems to celebrate.
Enjoy this major contribution to Australian poetry. I have the greatest pleasure in announcing that Birds in Mind is launched! Thank you.
24 October 2009
Just released: ‘Birds in Mind’ by Andrew Lansdown
Author Andrew Lansdown is renowned for his award winning poetry. In this brand new collection of over 200 pages there are poems told through various forms, but all with a focus on nature.
On the back, Les Murray says: “Lansdown spices the world with pinches of finches.”
There are many haiku and tanka within these pages, and the same accurate eye and ear is brought to bear in other forms on much minutiae of the natural world.
Here’s a little poem, as many of them are, as a taster:
Using pompom brushes
and a pointillist technique,
a wattle tree has dabbed
a park bench with yellow.
© Andrew Lansdown
Resonance in the Natural World
by Hal G.P. Colebatch
Birds in Mind
by Andrew Lansdown
Wombat Books, 2009, 224 pages, $22
Andrew Lansdown is one of a very small handful of West Australians who, for more than 30 years, has committed himself steadfastly to writing, with poetry a major part of his output. His many books include the popular series of children’s adventures beginning with With My Knife, and collections of essays. He has recently launched a website and has an impressive collection of literary prizes. He has, from his first work, established a distinctive and individual voice.
Birds in Mind, a very substantial collection of 224 pages, consists mainly of “nature” poems, of birds, fish, flowers and animals, often with a Japanese cast to them. “Lansdown spices the world with pinches of finches,” according to Les Murray. However many of these have deeper resonances behind them, such as the grim “Poised on a Premonition” and the equally grim “Blowfish”:
Giggling, a young girl
tickles with the tip of her knife
the blowfish’s belly.
Gulping in the air
that’s killing it, the blowfish
inflates its belly.
‘Let me,’ the boy begs,
raising his boot high above
the blown-up blowfish.
“Spring, Alfred Cove,” shows his mastery of longer lines in the creation of a landscape. It begins:
This wildlife sanctuary: the last wetland on the Swan
River estuary. How long will it last? Some call it
wasteland, and few notice it at all. A patch of sedge
signals in semaphore to an inattentive world.
Samphires mat the mudflats, their bulbous stems
like strings of red and green rosary beads. …
Much of his work contains surprising little “packages” of ideas, in some ways reminiscent of the work of the late Bill Hart-Smith:
A eucalypt bud is an incarceration of strong men—
boxers—cramped, bent double in a green locker-room
with a conical ceiling-cum-roof. Though they dislike
each other, they co-operate, set their shoulders
to the shelter’s cover. They press and push, crack
the seal that holds the ceiling to the circular wall,
then shunt the roof right off. Breaking out, they
cheer in bold colours, brandish their golden gloves.
The poems cover a wide variety of subjects, from the poetically familiar (“Pelicans”) to the strange: he is one of only two poets I know who have written poems about daddy long-legs. There is also the wonderful but ruthless life of the sea’s edge. One of the important themes of this book is gratitude for the richness of nature, as with “Almonds”. Simple objects and images become “blessings.”
First a galah, now
a pair of parrots have come
to the almond tree.
Give them up, the unripe nuts,
and accept the birds they bring.
As well as the many small imagist poems, Birds in Mind also contains longer pieces which fully maintain the high quality of the work. This is a less overtly religious collection than some of Lansdown’s work (he has been a church pastor) but is imbued with a consciousness of the transcendent which seems to enlighten and enrich the world. A hunting hawk at sunset is “buoyed and buoyant with light.”
Short sword ready,
the heron warrior monk
it fancies shimmers beneath
the world floating at its feet.
This is to some extent summed up in his poem to the tiny luminous creatures seen in the water at night when prawning:
The path we have trawled
is gone without a trace,
but before us the river
is latent with light and grace.
I do not wish to give the impression that these poems are parochial: while some of their subjects are local, the light they cast shines much further afield. Almost all these poems show the reader new ways of perceiving the world, and should recruit new lovers of both nature and poetry – it is highly recommended for poets and naturalists old and new. He makes the countryside and suburban gardens of full of wonders which have always been before us but which have largely been unrecognised. WA poet Shane McCauley has said correctly that Lansdown uses words with masterly precision to create things as we have not previously seen them, but as we may be tempted to see them henceforth: “Sometimes the images are so acutely accurate they have us asking, ‘Why didn’t we see that same similarity, that resonance?’”
© Hal G.P. Colebatch
Quadrant, May 2010
This review can also be read on the Quadrant website at: http://www.quadrant.org.au/magazine/issue/2010/5/resonance-in-the-natural-world
2. Reviews of Fontanelle
“Place and Identity in New Australian Poetry”
by Syd Harrex
But we can at least note in passing that Andrew Lansdown from W.A. continues to enhance his reputation with the beautifully crafted, subtly imagistic poems in Fontanelle, including haikus which indeed justify in “Journey” Lansdown’s homage to Matsuo Basho, ‘my mind his staff,/ my heart his companion’ (92).
© Syd Harrex
Extract from “Place and Identity in New Australian Poetry, 2004-2005”
Westerly, Vol. 50, November 2005
by Oliver Dennis
“Oh, for a palette to accompany my pen!” This line, from a poem celebrating a blue plastic jug, might serve as an emblem of the Imagist vein in which Andrew Lansdown has written for over twenty-five years. In Fontanelle – his first collection since 1993 – a talent for plain statement and sharp observation remains amply evident, be it in descriptions of flora and fauna (“Sighted from the car – / dandelions crayoning / the roadside yellow”) or personal accounts of pain: “Dear child you died / in the secret safe place / alone. What did you suffer?” (“In Memoriam”). More happily, at the core of the book are twelve poems that trace a son’s successful progress from conception to infancy: “Strange, this seeing / the heart in the head. // Look, a drumming / in the cranium …” he writes in the title poem. Unfortunately, the bulk of these offerings are somewhat limited in scope, so it is a pleasure to come upon a number of good poems about birds, the best of which, “White Ibis” and “Wrens in Wire”, could scarcely be bettered. An active Christian, Lansdown’s governing impulse appears to be to offer praise.
© Oliver Dennis
Extract from “Poetry Survey”
Island, No. 101, Winter 2005
by Jamie Grant
Back in the twentieth century, that distant historic era, when the once much-admired weekly the Bulletin still deigned to employ a poetry editor, a message descended from the heights of the editor-in-chief to the lowly minion who was paid to choose the permitted fourteen-lines-or-less used as a filler between blocks of advertising space. The word was this: no more Andrew Lansdown poems. (That minion, incidentally, was the author of this review.)
It might seem unconscionable that a consistently competent, widely praised and award-winning poet should be banned in such fashion. No other Australian poet kept so consistently to the space restrictions imposed by the Bulletin’s management. Yet, all the same, one can see the chief’s point. To begin with, publication of a Lansdown poem would guarantee that another Lansdown poem would arrive in the mail the next day.
More significantly, though, it has to be admitted that many of Andrew Lansdown’s poems appear at a quick glance to be the same poem. This impression is easily refuted when the poems are read in context, particularly when the context is a collection such as his new book, Fontanelle. The impression of similarity arises from the fact that Lansdown’s main strength as a poet can barely be distinguished from his besetting weakness.
His strength lies in the simplicity and clarity of his writing. A typical Lansdown poem depicts a scene in the plainest possible terms, with a minimum of figurative language and no long or unusual words:
That paddock the farmer is ripping
will soon bristle with seedlings.
Imagine it. Saplings queuing up
on the pasture! Then a forest. Yes.
For many years before the felling,
a forest of blue gums or pines.
This paradox: a forest arising from
a want of timber! In the interim
see how the man with the tractor,
methodical as a child with a crayon,
is drawing thick chocolate lines
on the green sheet of the paddock.
Striking, those dark scribbles,
parallel and contoured to the hill!
The effect of this poem is like that of a landscape painting, and one can gaze into it as at a painting to discover depths and details which at first go unnoticed: the world of the child and the commercial realities of adult life are drawn together in a few lines, as deft as brush-strokes.
Yet there is not an enormous gulf between this beautifully realised poem and one which the Bulletin might think of as a typical Lansdown poem:
Exquisite, these birds of light
on the lake’s smooth surface.
Ibises, herons, spoonbills—
each joined by spindly legs
to a three dimensional replica
rising into the radiant air.
Though this short poem, also, is not without its virtues—there is no fault in it so glaring that a poetry editor could instantly reject it for publication—its plainness is such that some readers might begin to wonder if it should be considered as prose rather than as poetry. The prosaic explicitness of the adjectives exquisite and radiant, where one might expect a poet to evoke those qualities through imagery rather than just stating them, certainly contributes to this impression.
The boundary line between poetry and prose is heavily smudged these days, particularly for a writer like Lansdown who does not make much use of rhyme or metre while also refusing to mystify readers with symbols or metaphors or other cryptic devices. Some poets expect their readers to work hard to discern their meaning; with Lansdown, work is required to detect the quality in his instantly decipherable poems which raises them beyond that blurry border line.
That work is hardly excessive; it need involve no more than a reading of a book like Fontanelle from beginning to end. Lansdown received the John Bray National Poetry Award from the Adelaide Arts Festival for his previous collection, Between Glances, but this new book takes his achievement to a higher level. There are two reasons for this: one lies simply in the inclusion of a number of longer poems.
Lansdown is fond of the haiku as a form, and in this as in each of his previous collections he includes several sequences of three-line miniatures. While his version, in these sequences, of the poetic style labelled “Imagism” is quite adequate, it does not bear comparison with the work of Robert Gray, Australia’s finest exponent of the Japanese technique.
It is in his longer poems that Lansdown’s plain diction can be seen to best advantage, the more so in those poems which also have a strong narrative line. In “Boat”, for example, he describes his fifteen-year-old son taking a small boat out to sea just as a storm approaches, and builds up a real tension in the reader. “Trap”, “Should the Marauders Come”, “Gladdened by Ibises” and “Home”—each of these substantial poems contains rewards for the attentive reader.
Yet the other impressive feature of this new collection is present in several of the shorter poems as well as some of the longer ones; it is what strikes this reader, at least, as an increased attentiveness to specific detail in his poems, most notably in those poems, like the one that gives the book its title, which deal with the birth and early stages of life of the latest of the poet’s children. As the father of several children, he has written about his family before, but seldom with such precision; in his earlier books children are present less for their own sake than for their impact on their father, making the poet himself the most significant figure in those poems. In Fontanelle the child becomes the centre.
By getting more specific, Lansdown has brought a new dimension of sensual intensity to his work, as can be seen in his title poem:
Strange, this seeing
the heart in the head.
Look, a drumming
in the cranium,
against the membrane
where the bones are
yet to meet and knit.
May they never
knit entirely, son.
May head and heart
beat in unison
always, as now
in your fontanelle.
No editor could refuse a work as clear and delicate as this. The real reason for the Bulletin’s banishment of Lansdown lies elsewhere in this book: there are a few, less than half a dozen but still enough to be noticeable, poems with an explicit Christian message.
Ironically, in an era which likes to boast of its tolerance, the only religion which intellectuals feel free to discriminate against is the one most Australians have been brought up in. When he is not writing poetry, Lansdown is a minister in the Uniting [sic. Baptist] Church, and it is this occupation which is held against him, secretly, by those who affect to dislike his work on literary grounds.
© Jamie Grant
Quadrant, January-February, 2006
Review of Fontanelle for JAS Review of Books
by Mark Mahemoff
A leaf on
have to pick
it up to
know the news
I always thought the word sequester one of the most beautiful in the English language. Now I would have to say that fontanelle is in direct competition. Although I knew the word and its meaning before reviewing this book of poems by Andrew Lansdown, I had never seen it singled out in such a way. To my mind, the main qualitative difference between these two words is that sequester has a particularly masculine cadence whereas fontanelle, apart from its meanings and associations, has a feminine one. Maybe it’s the degree to which a poem grapples with these qualities of language which provides depth and richness.
Masculinity and femininity are threads that run through Lansdown’s poems. There are descriptions of the natural world and relationships between parents/adults and children. As Geoff Page writes in his back cover notes, “Lansdown has a very sincere and direct way of handling poems about his immediate family which subtly suggests great tenderness without becoming sentimental …” I would mostly agree with this assertion. Lansdown does what few contemporary Australian poets are prepared to do. He describes the “gulp in the throat” quality of feeling loved or love for someone or something special. Someone or something that feels miraculous. It is the love expressed in the privacy of one’s own thoughts. Or the darkness of a child’s room at bedtime, before he or she is laid down to sleep, bathed in the glow of a nightlight, when there are coos and kisses and eyes moist with intense feeling.
In ‘Drum’, (p 14) Lansdown captures fragility, a sense of time passing, complexity and simplicity in fourteen words:
a small drum
in the skull
that the heart
At one level this is a direct account of the heart’s pulse seen in the still incompletely fused bones of a baby’s skull. At another, Lansdown seems to be saying that it is the heart which does and must rule the head. That each infant will be challenged by life to grow into an adult who marches to the beat of his or her drum.
In ‘Opulence’, (p 28) Lansdown details the intimate scene of parents (he and his partner) and their newborn. He says, ‘My heart aches with love/as a breast with milk’ and cups his hand around his partner’s breast which is recently swollen with milk. Again he uses concision in describing complex feelings, as if verbiage might over explain and dilute the intensity.
Many of the poems are prayers weather [sic] they mention Jesus by name or not (and they often do.) They are also meditations on loss. Consider this one on page seventy-nine:
The day after I cut it
I notice the white rose
in the pottery vase
on my desk start to wilt
All day it has been
drooping lower and lower,
until now its small head
is hanging upside down,
against the shoulder
of the vase, as if given
entirely to sorrow.
There is a gentle perfection and high degree of restraint in this poem. It asks us to slow down and listen and we do so because the voice we hear has authority. To me this poem exemplifies Lansdown at his best. Simple words and short sentences. Effortless similes that add up to a mood with which one can easily identify.
There are also several long sequences of haiku reminiscent of those found in Robert Grey’s earlier books although arguably lacking Grey’s originality and finish. In ‘Microfilm Dots: 35 Haiku’, here is one of my favourites:
cast out—an old pelican
with rips in its pouch.
If I have any gripe with this book is that it is too even tempered, too easily satisfied with tranquillity and beauty. While progressing through each poem I yearned for an expletive. A direct rather than hinted at description of sex or violence. Not because this is always necessary but because Lansdown hits so many right notes that eschewing these makes the book feel a little too safe. There seems to me to be coyness around descriptions of birth, a lack of blood, vernix and meconium, which makes some of the poetry feel too scrubbed and wrapped in a blanket.
Apart from this, I enjoyed Fontanelle immensely for its depth, skill and goodwill. I recommend it highly.
Copyright © Mark Mahemoff
Published in JAS Review of Books, Online Issue 44, July 2006
API Review of Books is an online monthly published by the Australian Public Intellectual Network www.api-network.com and produced by the Australian Research Institute at Curtin University of Technology. Selected reviews from this website are subsequently published in the Journal of Australian Studies.
I Could Teach Bamboo About Emptiness – The Poetry of Andrew Lansdown[An ABC radio program on the poems of Fontanelle.]
Saturday 4 June 2005
Andrew Lansdown is a Western Australian poet who writes reflective, deeply religious poems about his great loves; nature and his family. A highly awarded poet who is identified with the imagist tradition, he has worked as a teacher, journalist, and Education Officer at Fremantle Prison.
With readings by Murray Dowsett and Kingsley Reeve, and an interview with Andrew Lansdown.
A beautiful, gentle program reflecting the man and his words.
“Fontanelle” by Andrew Lansdown is published by Five Islands Press.
Sound engineer: David LeMay. Producer: Ron Sims
Quoted from the ABC’s website: http://www.abc.net.au/rn/arts/poetica/stories/s1376040.htm
Poetica is a weekly poetry program produced by Mike Ladd and broadcast on ABC Radio National on Saturdays at 3.00 pm and repeated on Thursdays at 9 pm.
3. Reviews of The Dispossessed
Lansdown dialogue turns key
by Shane McCauley
In this new collection of short stories, Andrew Lansdown again shows that he is not only an accomplished poet, but a fine writer of prose as well. The range in tone and subject is considerable. The contemporary and naturalistic easily rub shoulders with the historical and satirical.
Each story has a distinct purpose; not so much “something to say”—rather a skilfully presented packet of observations to share with the reader. The pace is measured and well judged.
The title story successfully reflects many elements to be found in the other pieces. It demonstrates Lansdown’s understanding of the absolute importance of human behaviour at what might be called the micro-level, the outwardly ordinary patterns of domestic and social life.
On the surface, not a great deal happens in this story. The narrator has had a bad day at work and returns home to find things little better there. The children are fighting and the narrator begins to simmer. He is on “the edge of violence”.
He suggests they go to the park for their evening meal and his wife is only too happy to comply. The details of season and street and park are deftly and economically conveyed.
Within a page or two we are at home with the narrator, and the story’s strength lies in the conviction given to his character. He muses on the way adults habitually speak to children. He sees an old Aboriginal woman lying under a tree and has to caution himself “against thinking she was dead”.
Later, the woman’s old partner appears and tries to explain her predicament. The situation—the lostness, the homelessness, the bewilderment—is beyond the narrator’s capacity to change: “He was looking at me intently, as if he wanted me to say something wise or sympathetic. But I didn’t know what to say.”
The story ends with the narrator watching these two discarded people, the dispossessed, stagger off into the gloom. It has the quiet, lucid observational power and restraint of Chekhov. This moving empathy with his characters is also to be found in the longer story, Salt, chronicling the lives of a rural husband and wife. It is a warm and engaging account of the pleasures, challenges and vicissitudes of farming life.
The Lepers, which immediately follows it, couldn’t be more different. It is violent and allegorical, culminating in the horrific stoning to death of those who transgress by entering a city without permission.
Much can be read into this tale of confused and hypocritical morality. Only the hardest of hearts would not share the narrator’s belated identification with the condemned.
Understanding and sensitivity is wittily and mordantly swept aside in Out of Grace. It is a return to domestic observation but of a different and darker nature. Here, with sublime political incorrectness, a father itemises the travails of his family, keeping a tally and itemising all the perceived crimes and misdemeanours committed against himself.
The narrator stews in a spirit of vengefulness: “I nearly tripped on his flamin’ tip-truck again. I’ll know better than to buy him one next Christmas.”
Lansdown’s excellent ear for dialogue is a common feature of these stories. In some, such as The Thing That Amused Them, the story is almost exclusively carried by the conversation. “Like driving in a microwave oven,” says one character recalling a long , arduous journey.
Another delightful aspect of Lansdown’s writing, both prose and poetry, is his serious play with metaphor and hyperbole. Sometimes the metaphor is simply apt, there to help us see or feel as the writer sees or feels: “And mice! Scampering everywhere like tufts of shadow.”
On other occasions it is still appropriate but outrageously so: “Faith Higgins, who walked as if two children were pillow-fighting under her dress …”
Lansdown has a fondness for West Australian landscape and history. Many stories are sprinkled with the names of little far-flung towns. In The New Chum he entertainingly evokes the migrant experience as an old-timer recalls the culture shock of his arrival in 1926. In the sweltering heat of Christmas the Englishman is still thinking of “snow and plum pudding”. The voice, the mind, the writer behind these stories is filled with what amounts to a sense of robust compassion. There is enormous strength in the sensitivity and, above all, humility with which these tales are rendered.
Who else but Lansdown could draw forth, not bathos, but genuine pity when the cows eat a woman’s prized nasturtiums in The Only Things? Anyone who has ever felt vulnerable and sad and yet irrationally hopeful will greatly value the humanity of these stories.
Copyright © Shane McCauley
Published in The West Australian, “Weekend Extra”, Saturday, March 4, 2006
Interview with Andrew about The Dispossessed
In this issue [of IP eNews], Assistant Editor [of Interactive Press] Anne Marshall interviews [one of] our Spring Season authors Andrew Lansdown …
Andrew Lansdown is perhaps best known for his award-winning poetry collections, but he’s also written some fine fiction, including his Highly Commended IP Picks 2005 title The Dispossessed.
MARSHALL: You’re a well-published author in both prose and poetry. Do you find you can work on a poetry manuscript at the same time as a prose manuscript, and can you borrow from each technique or must they remain a separate entity?
LANSDOWN: I usually have a number of writing projects underway at any one time. This is more by necessity than by choice, because new ideas come before old ones are settled.
I do not find it difficult to shift from poetry to prose and back again. In fact, writing in different genres helps to overcome writer’s block. If, on a given day, I lack the impetus and/or insight to work in one genre, I can usually do something in the other.
Of course, poetry and fiction are significantly different from one another in intent and intensity. So there is a sense in which they require separate approaches and remain separate entities. Yet both are writing, after all. So skills developed in one genre are potentially useful in the other.
I think that being a poet has helped me to become a better prose writer. Poetry has instilled in me a love for the English language itself, and I have brought that love to my prose. Language in poetry is often (almost) an end in itself, while in prose it is often (almost) a means to an end. Poetry is sitting in a garden to enjoy the moment, while prose is riding on a train to get somewhere. Thanks to poetry, I find that I want every sentence in a story to be balanced and pleasing to the ear. I want my prose to have some of the qualities of poetry.
MARSHALL: What made you decide to write a collection of short stories about these themes, such as cross-cultural and social interactions and how individuals and family members see one another? Was it from personal experience, or musings of an imagination?
LANSDOWN: I did not decide to write a story collection, as such. Rather, I set out to write this story—then this one. The subject, theme and mood of each story reflect particular interests or preoccupations that I had at the time of writing. When at last I began to gather the stories into a collection, I was surprised and pleased to discover the recurrence of certain concerns.
Some stories sprang from chance ideas, others from fragments of information, and still others from my own experience.
The events described in (the story) “The Dispossessed”, for example, are not far from reality. I did go to the local park with my family and I did encounter and help an Aboriginal couple. When I later reflected on the actual persons and events, I decided to transform them into fiction. And as I worked on the story, a certain mood took hold and a particular theme began to emerge.
Other stories are not so strongly grounded in experience—and some, such as “The Lepers”, are quite outside my experience. But many are a mixture of personal experience and imaginative musings.
MARSHALL: The points of view in these stories change quite rapidly between each one. In some there are third person, others are first person and some are letters. What made you decide to use these narrative points of view and techniques?
LANSDOWN: In literature, how a thing is said is as important as what is said. Indeed, what is said gains (or fails to gain) power on the basis of how it is said. For this reason—along with a sheer love of language—I have always been interested in form and technique.
I like to experiment with different styles. However, it would be wrong to view the stories in The Dispossessed as experimental. The stories do not vary in point-of-view and technique because I wanted to experiment for the sake of it. The variations arise from the demands of the stories themselves. The forms in which they presently exist are the only forms in which I could get them to exist.
Soon after I began writing short stories, I realised that a story can fail simply because the writer has chosen the wrong point-of-view. I originally wrote “The Leper”, for example, in the third person—and the story did not work. But when I changed to the first person, the story came alive.
MARSHALL: When compiling a short story collection, there are often many short stories too choose from. How did you decide on these particular stories, or were they all written with the collection in mind?
LANSDOWN: Although in their collected form some of the stories exhibit certain similarities in theme and tone, none of them were written with the collection in mind. Rather, they were chosen from a pool of about forty stories that I have had published over the years in various literary magazines, newspapers and anthologies.
While sorting through these stories, I came to feel that certain ones were not strong enough to go into the collection. I wanted to include only the best. However, after IP had accepted the collection for publication, IP director/editor David Reiter expressed reservations about several stories.
After reconsidering these in the light of David’s concerns, I decided to withdraw them from the collection. The end result is a shorter but stronger collection.
MARSHALL: Many of the stories are set in rural situations. Do you think the themes of your stories work better in these settings rather than in an urban setting, or are the themes universal, regardless of the setting?
LANSDOWN: I believe the themes are universal, regardless of setting. Yet a particular setting can facilitate the exploration of a particular theme and/or enhance the theme itself.
MARSHALL: Was any research needed for some of the details that are included in your stories, such as salt gathering in “Salt” and wheat harvesting such as “The Story”?
LANSDOWN: The stories set in the early 1900s contain bits and pieces that I gleaned from discussions with elderly people. My grandfather, for example, helped me with the technical information about horse-drawn harvesters in “The Story”.
An elderly farmer in Burracoppin, a town in the eastern wheatbelt of Western Australia, told me about collecting salt for his sheep, and I used that snippet of information to form both the plot and the emotional metaphor of the story “Salt”. Also, on his farm he actually had an old stone well of the sort I describe in the story (although it had never been the scene of the sort of catastrophe that I have imagined). I also thumbed through some archives of the Road Board in the area—and it was in these that I learned about the bounty paid on emus at that time, which also figures in the story. And so on …
Copyright © Andrew Lansdown
This interview was first published in IP eNews, Vol. 7, No. 4, 2005
4. Review of Between Glances
Untitled Review of Between Glances
by David Kelly
Between Glances, Andrew Lansdown (William Heinemann Australia)
The back cover blurb proclaims that ‘no Australian poet is so often moved to celebrate as Andrew Lansdown is. His work brims with tenderness, wonder and joy, all qualities which are in short supply in the modern world of which he is an acute observer.’
He sometimes drops in on the modern world—he does mention aeroplanes, money belts (bum bags), cafes and black bitumen—but the things which most move him to poetry (or move him to what seems to be his most inte
nsely felt poetry) are the more eternal things of the natural world like birds, lizards, flowers or weather. I can’t help linking him in my mind to Gerard Manly Hopkins. Some of the more famous lines of Hopkins came into memory as I read through Between Glances—lines like ‘The world is charged with the glory of God./ It will flame out like shining from shook foil’ or ‘There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.’
Andrew is indeed a celebrator yet at times, to be honest, the celebrating wears a little heavy. For if the world is charged with the glory of God it is also dusted with the work of the bloke with the pitchfork. We are constantly confronted with his offerings on the television news, the daily papers, the petty conflicts in every workplace and the sad spectacle of amputees begging in wheelchairs at bus stops and train stations.
Still, many of the directly celebrative poems are very, very good and I did feel good after reading the book. So maybe celebration is addictive. The book is also one of those very rare ones that doesn’t let up. I started at the first poem and kept going, turning page upon page until the last poem and the last celebratory line:
the rainbow enfolds us like a promise.
Even so, tension and frustration and conflict and disappointment are inescapable parts of life and their portrayal and their resolution are the basis of much of the best writing and art. It is as if Lansdown wants to forget the ugly, the sordid, the unhappiness. Even when he sees it, it is not major unhappiness. There is a wonderful poem called ‘Kangaroos’ which tells of three kangas in a paddock bounding towards a fence. The first (and biggest) clears the fence; his two smaller companions can’t. They are separated. The two smaller ones race along the wire fence desperate for a way through. A simple situation but the feeling of frustration that comes out to empathise with the trio creates a richer and more complex response (while still celebrating kangaroos) than would a poem which single-mindedly presented kangaroos as evidence of the grandeur of God.
Incidentally (no, more likely deliberately) there are two delightful lines in the kangaroos poem where the syllable stresses alternate in a lovely sing-song way and you can almost hear the kangaroos bounding and thumping along.
While I don’t share Andrew Lansdown’s religious passions I never found the worship-presence off putting. I’m pretty certain that poetry readers who share his faith would feel it reinforced and validated upon reading these poems.
Perhaps it is the faith and the need to celebrate that keeps him writing so much in the natural world. It may well be a lot harder to find evidence of God’s grandeur in money belts and aeroplanes and bitumen. He finds it from the aeroplane in two poems but doesn’t seem to find it in the aeroplane itself.
In technical terms he is a master of the restrained use of genuinely arresting imagery—a delight in correspondences to use one of his own phrases. Take ‘Waterbird’ for example.
I appreciate that
it’s a waterbird
but it’s going
a bit overboard,
don’t you think?
standing by the lake
with a kayak
strapped to its face!
There are many such image-moments in the book. The flight of fancy that creates such moments is of course the part of poetry that can’t be taught. You’ve either got it or you haven’t. Fortunately for us Andrew Lansdown’s got it. Still more fortunately he knows how to restrain it and how to build a poem of the right size around a few good images. He is also very subtle in the way he uses internal rhymes and half rhymes, alliteration, assonance and the repetition of words in slightly variant meanings or contexts. There are frequently sound echoes adding to the overall music in many of his poems. You’ll find many in a tight little nut of a poem like ‘Those Colours’.
It is hardly beautiful, the bobtail
goanna. Its triangular head
is like a death adder’s. Ticks,
cream-coloured, hang at its ears
like enamelled pendants. I squat
for a closer look and it gapes
at me. Those colours: the pale pink
gums, the deep purple tongue and,
most unexpectedly, a yellow flower
blooming in the back of the throat.
Between Glances won the 1994 John Bray National Poetry Award recently. Valued at $12,000 it is the highest paying award for a poetry book in Australia. There are many fine poems in the book; the title poem is particularly good; the miniscule ‘Praise’ sums up the recurrent theme of the book (and comes close to the ‘Red Wheelbarrow’ in the process); ‘Ducks in the Rain’ is among the liveliest and most enjoyable poems I’ve read in a long time. At a mere $14.95 Between Glances is great value. Let’s close with ‘Sonnet of Thanksgiving’, a mysterious and strangely moving poem which illustrates many of the qualities I’ve mentioned above:
Sonnet of Thanksgiving
I wake, draw the curtains and am suddenly aware
that He is profligate, our God, giving us more
than we need, more than we ever dream to ask for.
Through the window on this winter morning, there
beside my house, the forest is faint with mist.
The white trees are like women standing half-seen
in a sauna. The bushes where the spiders have been
are strewn with ornaments for throat and wrist:
necklaces, bracelets strung with diamonds. A stark
and startling wealth, this jewellery the women
have put off. They stand in silent communion:
unadorned, white, bar the occasional birthmark.
And then in the stillness, the whiteness, the swirl,
a lone bird call. It hangs on the ear like a pearl.
This review by David Kelly was published in Five Bells (‘Australia’s monthly poetry magazine published by Poets’ Union Inc.’) in June 1994.
5. Reviews of Abiding Things
A Courage of Delicacy
by Hal Colebatch
Readers of Quadrant will be familiar with Andrew Lansdown’s poetry from these pages. Abiding Things is a showcase of some of this remarkably productive writer’s short stories and essays as well as his verse. It gives an overview both of his rich and coherent vision of life and of his literary versatility.
Andrew Lansdown has been quietly but very steadily building a major literary reputation since he began writing in Western Australia about twenty years ago. He has published eleven books and his work is represented in about fifty anthologies. Like some other West Australian writers, however, he is in some ways much better known nationally and overseas than locally. His heroic fantasy With My Knife, first of a trilogy, and now in its fourth reprinting, has sold more than 25,000 copies in the US, and the sequel Dragonfox was published there recently.
All Lansdown’s writing is notable for its clarity and originality. It is also distinguished by a seriousness of purpose. This is not to say that it is sententious or preachy, but it is informed by a belief that things matter in a moral sense. Although he often writes about small or commonplace things, there is always at bottom a sense that these things are important.
The short essay “What’s So Special About Humans?” reprinted here, reminds one with considerable wit that there is a great deal special about humans. Although quite different in its presentation, some of its feeling reminds me of C.S. Lewis’s “The Weight of Glory” with its message that “you have never met an ordinary person”.
The quality of originality Lansdown displays is something special: it is not the originality of gibberish, but the originality which, in prose, a Sir Walter Scott or a Robert Louis Stevenson showed in their day—that is, the use of highly-developed technique to present afresh profound and timeless things. Among other leading West Australian poets, Rod Moran has praised his ability to “lift the veil of familiarity from the world, to have us see things anew, to re-encounter what we thought we had understood, and to take another look at what we might have consigned to the margins of our consciousness”, and Philip Salom has called him an imagist of high order.
The clarity of the writing, most notable in the descriptive poetry, should be a model for aspiring writers. Andrew Lansdown was a friend of the late William Hart-Smith (of whom he writes here), and has much of Hart-Smith’s almost Oriental gift of achieving a profound clarity through simplicity of expression. His evocations of a West Australian Christmas tree, of night fishing in a harbour, and of the joys and sorrows of family life, are penetrating and unforgettable.
This is by no means the only mode of his poetry, though in every mode he employs there is a great deal of meaning packed into every word. His poetry, much of it written in celebration of nature, has a special quality of showing the world more clearly and reminding us of the wonder of common things, the transcendent that can touch all our lives. It would do these poems less than justice to quote extracts out of context and I urge those interested to buy the book and read them whole.
Lansdown has also distinguished himself in that neglected form, the short story, particularly in explorations of the responsibilities (as well as the joys) of family life. His well-known story “The Bowgada Birds”, reprinted here, is about a family relationship grown sour indeed, and with a notably gruesome ending, but many of his other tales are more positive, or at least point towards the positive. Certainly in some of his work there is the presence of horror, but he is a long way from those writers who, ostensibly bemoaning the nihilism and negativity of life, are in fact adding to it.
All Lansdown’s work here is worth reading, but among the most interesting essays are his tribute to Hart-Smith, a review of the work of the poet Peter Kocan and an essay, “Why I Write”.
Les Murray has written that Andrew Lansdown’s work has “a courage of delicacy, and a real unconventionality which resists the busy inertia of received literary attitudes; he is not afraid of concepts such as joy, or the literal tears in things”. Apart from being consistently pleasurable and thought-provoking, with passages of real beauty and profundity, Abiding Things can be studied with profit by any would-be writer.
© Hal Colebatch
Quadrant, No. 341, November 1997
6. Reviews of With My Knife
Andrew Lansdown’s With My Knife
by Stella Lees, Associate Editor, Viewpoint magazine
Andrew Lansdown is an established WA poet. Although he has written poetry and short stories for young readers, this is his first novel, and if you are still looking for a book to intrigue Year 7s who like adventure or fantasy, you should consider With My Knife (Omnibus, 1992 ISBN 1-86291-120-7 $8.95).
Colyn digs up a knife when he is working with his father on their potato farm. It is a fine knife, with a ‘richly brown’ handle and a ‘long, thin and slightly crescent-shaped’ blade. After a moment of hesitation, his father allows him to keep it. The knife will do much more than cut potatoes or whittle, and Colyn soon discovers that it provides an entry into a world under threat from dragons. Simple beginnings, like a slice cut from a potato, a dog carved out of wood, an old jigsaw puzzle or a triangle cut in an empty freezer carton, lead on to momentous events which in turn affect Colyn’s everyday world. To say more would reveal too much. This is a tightly constructed novel, full of meaning and undercurrent, and the fine cover by Vivienne Goodman provides some clues. There are traces of William Mayne’s A Game of Dark (Hamilton, 1971) summoned up through the worm-like monsters which Colyn must fight, and Ursula Le Guin’s four Earthsea books, with the suggestions of a greater destiny for this artless boy, but With My Knife is no derivation. It is a captivating fantasy in its own right.
Colyn is a quiet, hard-working ten-year-old, loved and loving; his father is affectionate, strong and thoughtful. Without any sentimentality or fulsome language, Lansdown draws a man touched by a deep sadness and a boy with courage and curiosity. The farm where they live has an earthy warmth and simplicity far removed from the noble tasks which Colyn faces, but the juxtaposition is telling. Klarin, the world which Colyn passes into, is one of vast plains, grand waterfalls and brave warriors—male and female. In the women archers Lansdown has combined resourcefulness with an appealing tenderness, although in some respects, such as its social organisation and its place in time and space, Klarin lacks strong definition.
The prose is deceptively simple, almost austere. He picked up the potato and cut a slice from it. He cut a triangle in the centre of the slice, then peeled it. It turned to stone—a flat circular stone with a triangle window in it. He held the window to his eye and looked through it at a large rock on the far bank. The rock was not there. As Colyn moves into Klarin, and the pace changes, the language develops greater complexity. In their sadness, Colyn and the Kinroan watched the brown cloud draw nearer. Horses and their riders appeared in the dust, at first flickeringly, then solidly. Kinzar ran out to meet them, barking across the shimmering plain.
Landown’ s remarkable ability to convey depth of emotion and breadth of landscape clearly reveals a poet at work. I hope that the promise that further trials may confront Colyn and his marvellous knife is soon fulfilled, because this one is so enjoyable and thought-provoking.
This review by Stella Lees was published in Viewpoint (on books for young adults), Vol. 1, No. 4, Summer 1993.
7. Reviews of The Grasshopper Heart
Untitled Review of The Grasshopper Heart
by Shane McCauley
The Grasshopper Heart, by Andrew Lansdown, Angus & Robertson
In The Grasshopper Heart Andrew Lansdown uses words with masterly precision to paint things as we have not previously seen them, but as we may be tempted to see them henceforth. His approach to his material is confident and systematic. And beguiling. Sometimes the images may veer towards the more outlandish conceit (‘The Windmill is a dandelion/ on a tall stem’) but in general we can accept and feel the legitimacy of these allusions and cross-references. Sometimes the images are so acutely accurate they have us asking ‘Why didn’t we see that same similarity, that resonance?’: ‘A wagtail swings like a vane’ (‘Windmill’); ‘The dead mussel shells are/ miniature, hard-covered books/ spread unread on the shore.’ (‘Summer’).
Lansdown’s book is a genuinely uplifting one. It is difficult not to feel embraced by his enthusiastic alertness to the natural world, its forms and creatures. A single well-placed exclamation mark can evoke a true moment of joy, that intake o f breath, as he observes his daughter eating some melon:
her blonde hair tangled
in the ripe flesh.
Oh child! Glancing up,
she smiles, a pip
slipping from her chin.
(‘Child With Melon’)
Even the title of this poem is a painterly one, and ways of envisioning transfuse the entire collection. Sometimes the extreme clarity of observation, the excruciatingly exact analogy, intensifies the subject matter to a vividly memorable degree. This is certainly the case with ‘The Four Men’ (awarded the Tom Collins Poetry Prize):
… The third man holds
a pair o f sharp shears. He pinches
the fleece beside the tail
and snips. A crisp, fibrous sound,
like cutting cloth. It is an art
to cut no deeper than the depth
of the skin. Blood spurts out,
a thin jet, as from a water-pistol;
Fortunately, beauty can be conjured just as graphically:
Robins set fire to the roadside;
rosellas fly up from the oats;
kingfishers reel blue from the skyline;
and magpies toss tunes from their throats.
(‘Idyll, Boyup Brook’)
There is much I would like to quote here, and many poems to recommend, but space does not permit. The Grasshopper Heart is a book anyone might read and enjoy and return to. It is also a book that any beginning poet could profit from reading, as its technical accomplishments and delight in language are manifold. Without this craft, without this shaping, poetry can but remain cold and inert.
© Shane McCauley
Published in Fremantle Arts Review, Vol. 6, No. 11, November 1991, pp. 8-9
8. Reviews of Waking and Always
Untitled Review of Waking and Always
by Rod Moran
Waking and Always by Andrew Lansdown, Angus and Robertson
You will find with Andrew Lansdown’s book of verse Waking and Always a unifying force-field in the form of a deeply held Judeo-Christian metaphysic, with a corresponding morality. One does not need to share his religiosity, however, to appreciate the poetic achievements that this volume represents. Lansdown is a past master at performing one of the chief tasks of a serious poet: to lift the veil of familiarity from the world, to have us see things anew, to re-encounter what we thought we had understood, and to take another look at what we might have consigned to the margins of our consciousness.
Hence, in his intensely imagistic style, you will discover that the tiger snake is the ‘Shere Khan/of the Australian swamp’. A flock of ibis are ‘like elderly orientals/gathered for a festival’ and the casuarina tree is seen as a spider ‘spinning a wooden web’. It is also a ‘vertical glacier’ and a giant ‘nerve synapsed to the earth’. One poem along these lines that stands out from the rest is ‘Shodo Egret’. It is a delicately wrought observation, where the egret can be taken as a symbol for, amongst other things, the fragility of beauty, the vulnerability of the natural world in the epoch in which we live.
There are verses here also on love, on children, on freedom, about the warmth Lansdown derives from familial attachments, and poems about the delicate loveliness of flowers, water, trees and the positive currents of human life.
However, this poetry also explores a darker underbelly to the scheme of things. These pieces derive from Lansdown’s work in prisons and have to do with the grittiness, the ugliness and alienation of prison life and the small human tragedies each prisoner embodies in the penal context. They chronicle, but never in a sentimental way, the prisoners as human beings fallen from the grace of society, with one quite startling piece where he encounters what Hannah Arendt termed in another context ‘the banality of evil’. It is a small poem called ‘Sharing a Joke’:
They feel at ease with me,
treat me as an honorary crim.
I value their acceptance. But knowing
how easily brotherhood inspires betrayal
I turn away, unwilling even to grin.
The poem in Waking and Always that provides the essential key to Lansdown’s outlook is to be found towards the end of the volume. It is called ‘Not in Truce’ and its second stanza reads:
And perhaps it’s only little things that will remain
to shore the heart against the broad and brutal ugliness
that looms as the destiny of man. Perhaps
small gestures — the weaving of poems
or the pursuit of a personal integrity
or an unfaltering faith that God is good and
good is no illusion — are all that is left to us.
Like spiders, we bind the broken roots.
Not in truce, but on trust, we raise
our ragged, regal flags in the winds of a desolate age.
There is much in sentiments such as this that will appeal to a range of metaphysical positions, secular and celestial. The one criticism I have of the book is that I think there are two, possibly three, poems with a strong narrative framework that could have done their theme more justice in the form of a short story.
It was a delight to read Ron Pretty’s The Habit of Balance because, like Lansdown, he does refreshing and interesting things with technical forms that represent very well-trodden territory. If Lansdown can construct poems drawing on various forms from Japanese prosody that often have a gemlike imagistic beauty to them, Pretty can hone a sonnet sharply to great effect. …
© Rod Moran
Published in Fremantle Arts Review, Vol. 3, No. 11, November 1988, p. 15
Untitled Review of Waking and Always
by Owen Salter
Andrew Lansdown’s poetry has something of that aching, bitter-sweet quality C.S. Lewis called sehnsucht—the human longing for joy that is itself both a joy and a wound, a grief and a hope.
His words are full of what might be called pre-echoes of heaven, radar blips giving a clue about Reality coming.
Paradoxically, this yearning for as-yet-unrealised future perfection is rooted in a wonderful celebration of the here-and-now, particularly in nature.
There, wherever it remains uncorrupted, each created thing “enacts itself precisely” (“Choka for Sacred Kingfisher”)—a kind of prefigurement, perhaps, of that perfection of being that will be the essence of the New Creation.
Lansdown’s latest collection is Waking and Always (Angus & Robertson, $10.95). It is poetry to take home and love.
© Owen Salter
Published in On Being, Vol. 16, No. 1, February 1989
9. Reviews of Homecoming
Untitled Review of Homecoming
by Hal Colebatch
Andrew Lansdown, Homecoming. Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1979
Publication of this first book of poetry by a young West Australian writer is another very creditable achievement by the Fremantle Arts Centre press.
In the few years it has been operating this press has brought out an impressive list of high-quality first books by writers whose work is certain to be remembered long after the already-fading geniuses hailed in Australian Poetry Now or New Writing in Australia have had the last dusty memory-hole sag shut behind them.
Andrew Lansdown is a professional writer in his early twenties, who has published a remarkable amount of diverse and admirable work in a very short time (readers of Quadrant will be familiar with some of his poetry and social essays), including more than 100 poems in reputable journals in Australia and New Zealand.
Even in a small collection like Homecoming the stamp of a powerful individual talent is unmistakable. The author is unusual for a young poet in many ways. He is, for example, concerned in his poetry with expanding rather than diminishing areas of human feeling and understanding. Further, his work is frequently explicitly religious, with a commitment to traditional fundamentalist Christianity quite unusual to find in technically, conceptually and even politically sophisticated poetry like this.
One of the most striking features of his serious poems is their sustained imagistic and intellectual power, as this extract from “The October Revolution” may indicate:
It was not long before we knew
that the sun would always hang, for us,
just below the black rim of the world.
Our skies put on the twilight like a uniform.
Our earth dressed in a sepia of grey —
without depth of shadow or distinction of light,
without bright of colour or sharp of shape.
We have become winter rivers
rigid on top, flowing always below
conforming to the dictates of our only season …
Striking a grand but essentially empty pose is all too easy for a young poet. Though Andrew Lansdown is not afraid of grand gestures, there is an untypical strengthening wisdom within his work. Further, the reader becomes aware that Andrew Lansdown does not regard his gifts of perception and articulateness as simply [a] means for self-advertisement of those perceptions. He conceives of poetry as having a purpose: a very large and serious purpose, in which the role of the poet and even of the poem as artefact, is a humble one. I doubt he could ever join the ranks of those who try to write poetry in order to be able to regard themselves as poets.
Untypically, too, for a young poet, there is no self-pity in his visions of the world, that succeed in celebrating without sentimentalising or trivialising, as in “Rosa Glenn: Tree”:
The old tree stands
like a woman
in dimension and beauty.
Framed by the door
necessity for artistry.
She claws at the
praying its gold
turn her smooth silver to green.
My small hut is
with her serene
and the song of her magpies.
This is, in its way, a quite perfect poem. To stand it beside a chosen piece of other, noisier poets would be simply to be cruel to the latter. Ezra Pound said that one gets tired of promise. It is enough to say that Andrew Lansdown has already moved a long way from promise towards substantial achievement.
© Hal Colebatch
Published in Westerly, No. 4, December 1979, pp. 87-88
10. General comments about Andrew’s work
On Lansdown’s “Leaf and Load”
by John Jenkins
Andrew Lansdown struck me, too, as being particularly gracious to his fellow readers. Sympathetic and sensitive, he was always interested in how a poem someone read came about, its inspiration and means; its sources and resources. He had an acute ear and was, clearly, a marvellous listener. He showed me a poem of his, “Leaf and Load”, which I have used in creative writing workshops: a model of direct observation, about a leaf which bends under the weight of a swollen droplet of water during a storm. It is simple, yet exquisite, Zen-like in its clarity and attention to detail. For a second, this poem communicates what we know to be impossible: the direct apprehension of subject matter—a leaf bowed by a rain-drop—somehow unmediated by poet, poem or language; as if artifice could simply erase itself, leaving only the presence of reality. In my opinion, Lansdown remains the doyen, in Australia, of this sort of exquisite, small-scale, nature poem. Easy to attempt, devilishly hard to do!
This is an excerpt from John Jenkins’ recollections of the Tasmanian Poetry Festival in 1994, written to celebrate the Festival’s 25th anniversary, and published as part of a multi-part essay, “Written in Silver: The Tasmanian Poetry Festival”, published in Island, No. 121, Winter 2010, pp. 50-51.
The poem, “Leaf and Load”, to which John Jenkins refers is:
Leaf and Load
The rain is breaking its phials
on the ornamental plum. From
the verandah I choose a leaf,
glistening with wet, and watch
until each vein becomes a rill
running into the midrib-river
and on to the leaf’s tip
where the waters gather in a blister
to weight the leaf downwards
by imperceptible degrees. Slipping
from the chlorophyll plane, the rain-
drop hangs from the leaf-tip
as a ball-bearing might hang
from the point of a magnet, held
by the barest contact between
curve and cusp. Like a miniature
transparent balloon tied by a child
to a tap, the drop swells,
bulges with a fragile elasticity,
bowing the leaf with its growing load,
until loosed at last by gravity.
Released, the leaf leaps up,
shudders to an easy equilibrium
in the light, impacting rain.
© Andrew Lansdown
First published in the literary magazine Westerly, “Leaf and Load” is included in Andrew’s poetry collections The Grasshopper Heart (1991) and Birds in Mind (2009).
The Reader’s Guide to Contemporary Australian Poetry
by Geoff Page
Born 1954, Pingelly, Western Australia; graduated from Western Australian Institute of Technology and Murdoch University; has worked as a journalist, as a teacher at several TAFE colleges and as an education officer in WA prisons.
Andrew Lansdown is very much a poet who is working consciously in a tradition, in this case that of the imagists such as the early Pound, William Carlos Williams and the Wallace Stevens of ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black-bird’. The strengths and limitations of Lansdown’s work are, despite his considerable originality, essentially those of this particular tradition. At his best Lansdown is able to suggest very deftly and concisely the so-called ‘thisness’ of things, especially things in nature, for example plants and birds; at his worst he runs the risk of degenerating into whimsy or of trying a little too hard for his images. Something of the latter problem may be sensed in his short poem ‘Oak, Jacoby Park’: ‘The oak is a hen—a pullet / plumped up with green plumage. / The oak-hen: exotic — not to mention // economical. Before moulting / each autumn, it lays / numerous eggs — hard-boiled, / served up in egg cups.’
His publishers have asserted that ‘Of all the Australian ‘imagists, Lansdown is the one with the broadest and warmest human sympathy’ and they certainly have a point. Lansdown has a very sincere and direct way of handling poems about his immediate family which subtly suggests great tenderness without becoming sentimental. Something of this can be seen in the haiku ‘That Movement’: ‘Swishing the dish-water / to froth the detergent — that movement / like ruffling a child’s hair’. In a more developed way it comes out in the poem ‘The Grasshopper Heart’, the title poem of his fifth book, where Lansdown looks at a man whose style he clearly disapproves of and sees that, as he plays with his little daughter in the water, the man is experiencing exactly the same sensations as the poet himself has had doing the same thing; ‘and I know his heart is like a grasshopper — / leaping and landing spring-loaded to leap again.’
It is strange then that Lansdown is often at his most memorable when he abandons his imagistic method for (or perhaps develops it into) something more extended and more imbued with moral force — not the force of his apparently fundamentalist Christian conviction (which has tended to overwhelm a few of his less successful poems in successive books) but the force seen for instance in the poem ‘Four Men’, a long and very close observation of the current method of ‘mulesing’ lambs, a poem guaranteed not only to make one think twice next time at the meat counter but also one which has a nice sense of the poet’s complicity in the process as well as his revulsion from it. The poem closes with the lines: ’… The last lamb hobbles, bellowing // to its mother, a red glare / at its rear. The pasture is splotched / with crimson. “They’ve got their / tail-lights on,” the third man grins, // wiping the blood from his hands.’
In Lansdown’s most recent book, Between Glances (1993), there are developments which take him some distance from the pure imagist he is usually seen to be. One of these is a greater proportion of longer poems which employ a narrative or discursive method rather than the haiku-like technique of imagism. Another is Lansdown’s increasing use of rhyme — a tendency he shares with a number of other ‘free verse’ poets of his generation. Unlike some of them, however, Lansdown is careful to align the formality of his rhyming with a more regular rhythm.
Yet another innovation for Lansdown in his sixth book is a certain amount of humour. Even God has a sense of it in ‘Mirth with Meaning’ when one of the poet’s young children misinterprets the biblical injunction to fast and starts running around the table. At this point the poet notes that ‘There is a smile / on the three faces of God’.
Unfortunately, such lightness of touch is not seen in all this book’s fairly numerous religious poems, some of which would be better appreciated by a bible-study group than by the general reader. In some of these poems Lansdown has a way of tagging his religious image on the end of a poem as a kind of ‘clincher’ to disconcert the agnostic. Even the ‘delicate donkey / orchid’ by the end of the poem is seen as ‘braying / in bright colours // before the throne / of God.’ At other times there are, admittedly, some persuasive and unforced moments of spiritual insight, such as at the end of ‘The Colour of Life’ when the poet ‘break(s) a scone and steam / wafts from the wound, like // the spirit of a just man, going home’.
At his best, Lansdown is one of the most assured of Australian poets working in the Imagist tradition but, as indicated, he is not immune from the risks of slightness and whimsy which seem to be inescapably associated with it. Over six books now he has written a considerable number of poems which are perfect examples of their kind. They have a descriptive exactness and a seeming spontaneity, combining to produce a text to which one can imagine no change being made without damage.
Published in The Reader’s Guide to Contemporary Australian Poetry by Geoff Page (University of Queensland Press, 1995), pp. 165-167
The Oxford Companion to Twentieth-century Poetry in English
edited by Ian Hamilton
Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA (1994), 624 pp
LANSDOWN, Andrew (1954— ), was born in Pingelly, a small town south-east of Perth in Western Australia. He gained arts degrees from both the Western Australian Institute of Technology and the Murdoch University before becoming for a time a tutor in creative writing at the former institution, which later was renamed the Curtin University. Since then he has worked as an education officer in various prisons in Western Australia, a grim occupation which has done surprisingly little to affect his work.
Few Australian poets have been so prolific and consistent. At 37 he has already published six collections of verse, with a seventh ready for publication. From his first book Homecoming (Fremantle, 1979) he has adopted a Christian stance and, perhaps as a result, his work has been neglected and undervalued. A collection of poems for children, A Ball of Gold, was followed by Counterpoise (Sydney, 1982), Windfalls (Fremantle, 1984), Waking and Always (1987), The Grasshopper Heart (1991), and Horse with Lipstick (1992—all Sydney). Lansdown is a miniaturist, a poet attentive to the smallest details of nature, and to subtle domestic emotions. The effect of his work is cumulative, so that his poems can seem slight when considered separately; their style is precise and direct, and never ostentatious. Unusually for a poet of the late twentieth century, the mood in his poems is generally one of contentment or joy, causing fashion conscious readers to overlook his consistent technical excellence.
Critique from Wordhord
by Dennis Haskell and Hilary Fraser
Andrew Lansdown was born in 1944 [sic – 1954] and has lived most of his life in Perth. He has taught English and creative writing in various educational institutions and in Western Australian prisons. A prolific writer, he has published collections of poetry — Homecoming (1979), Counterpoise (1981), Windfalls (1984) and Waking And Always (1987) — short fiction and work for children, and has edited an anthology of religious verse. Windfalls won the Western Australia Week Literary Award in 1985.
Andrew Lansdown is an image-making poet interested in visual analogies, many of them playful. His images are largely drawn from nature, especially from the animal world (birds are especially prominent) and from childhood. His poems evince an enjoyment of the elegant quirkiness of birds and of the imaginative quirkiness of children. It is unusual for other adults to be present in Lansdown’s poems: rather, animals or children draw the otherwise solitary speaker to meditations on metaphysical order in the world at large. Nature is seen very much in human terms, as in ‘Spring, Alfred Cove’, where ‘the wind/ knits the water plain and purled’ or in ‘Kestrel’, which likens the hovering bird to a kite. The general effect of this is to chart links between the human and natural worlds, links often more readily perceived by children than by adults, whose instincts have been clogged by worldly preoccupations. Lansdown, in fact, has an abiding concern with innocence and his poetry demonstrates an effort to maintain a view of the world which sustains an attitude of hope.
These attitudes — Lansdown’s concern with nature and children, his solitariness and the conversational manner of much of his work — are reminiscent of Wordsworth and Coleridge. Indeed, it is not difficult to see Lansdown as a latter day Romantic. Lansdown sees nature’s ‘mechanical rituals’ (‘Should 1 Fall and Fail to Rise’) as suggesting something much more spiritual than this phrase implies — a teleological order in the universe, a pattern which we reach to in the analogising functioning of metaphor, but to which we are often blind. Children in their innocence often have a simple awareness of this patterning, while animals demonstrate their part in it.
One might, then, see all Lansdown’s poems as songs of innocence and of experience. They are characterised by delicate, precise and imaginative description, by a simplicity of statement (but not of diction, as words such as ‘bracts’ and ‘eldritch’ show), and by masterly uses of rhyme, rhythm and alliteration.
Lansdown’s attitudes towards innocence are given an intense form in ‘Spring Morning with Baby and Birds’. Bird imagery links the baby to sunshine and birdsong as well as to the instinctive world of crabs and sea anemones. Her ‘eyes … bright with hope’ are given grudging recognition by the jaundiced adult speaker, who sees the sun insinuating brightness through a blind put up to keep out light, and whose connection with the animal world is a form of metaphysical denial: the fretting bird of his heart would be struck down by God if it attempted to fly. The older children present at the end of the poem already perceive the world in his terms. Their bickering seems such a trivial activity in this context of sunlight, birds and the baby’s anticipation. However, he is aware of his own embitterment and it may be a temporary mood, as the word ‘today’ suggests. The infant shows the way out of this frame of mind: the child is parent to the man.
Similarly, ‘In Her Haste’ presents a father congratulating himself on his awareness of what his daughter is feeling — her ‘bursting with importance/and impatience’. His awareness exceeds her self-awareness, and suggests that he has control of this domestic world. However, her surprising, ‘impish’ retort demonstrates that he was not aware of all the dimensions of her outlook; and this is a pleasure, as, smiling ‘like an alligator’, he is drawn into the child’s world, empathising with her buoyant innocence.
This theme is aided by the clear, explanatory character of Lansdown’s poems; in their openings they step forward, inviting the reader in. ‘Spring, Alfred Cove’ imaginatively presents the activities of a variety of birds in ‘the last wetland of the Swan River estuary’. Counterpoised with the variousness of the birds and of their actions is the constancy of the stars by which the birds map their flight to this cove. Beyond the delight in creating images of the plants and birds the poem attests to an order in the world that brings them there. This is also the message of ‘Should I Fall and Fail to Rise’, with its variety of crabs united in a discordia concors. The title has biblical, prayerful overtones which are denied by the poem’s ending, but even the crabs’ potential whittling of the speaker’s body is part of the order, which is larger than the individual, and larger than the human altogether.
The steady, careful lines of ‘Should I Fall …’ might shift attention from flamboyant effects such as the onomatopoeia of ‘crabs click in crustacean speech’ which form an important feature of Lansdown’s work. This verbal delight is prominent in ‘The Brobdingnagian Banana’, even in the poem’s title. To see the tree as a brick-layer is to give it a functional human role but the tree is made fantastical through its Brobdingnagian dimensions. Liveliness in the language is matched with conceptual wit.
Somewhat different poems are ‘Far from Home, the Blower’ and ‘The Horseshoe Shooter’. ‘Far from Home …‘ is a talkative poem, in which the speaker almost holds a conversation with the reader about an Aboriginal held in a maximum security prison. Despite this location the poem is not harsh or highly dramatised. Lansdown does not confront the reader with his theme of black-white separateness, but lets the theme emerge from the gentle discussion between the speaker and the black inmate. In the poem’s opening lines the Aboriginal’s colour provides the first measure of separateness from white beliefs, and allies him to the didgeridoo. The didgeridoo music contrasts with the jangling of keys when the prison officer comes in. The Aboriginal lives according to Aboriginal Law and to the lore of the didgeridoo. The white speaker does understand him at times, even likening himself to the Aboriginal image of ‘a cut and ochred hollow branch’. But it is their differences which dominate, as when the speaker imagines the Aboriginal responding to him with a ‘symphony of longing’. Symphonies seem a long way from the world of the didgeridoo.
It is also important to recognise that the didgeridoo conveys not just musicality, but meaning, even ‘wisdom’. For the Aboriginal, didgeridoo playing is a source of dignity and pride, here in a white institution which denies him dignity. Although he is an inmate of a maximum security prison, there is a good deal of innocence in his comments. It is clear that the terms of his life are quite different to white terms, as demonstrated by the connection of the deep woody music of his didgeridoo with animals and the land, and by the distinctiveness of his language, revealed in words such as ‘didgeridoo’ and ‘gningi-gningi’.
A more precarious vision is conveyed in the most subtle of all these poems, ‘The Horseshoe Shooter’. The poem’s tones range from the jokey to the sombre, and the tonal transitions are made with extraordinary deftness. The poem begins with the speaker’s son’s playful imaginativeness, seeing the curved end of his hockey stick as a shooter of horseshoes. Imaginativeness equals possibility, but ultimately the poem displays a sombre awareness of human limitations. The shift begins with the focus on ‘the old stick’, which occasions a simple, assured portrayal of family relationships. Mention of the relationships conveys death to the edges of the conversation. Trying to understand the family structure brings the speaker’s daughter to ‘revising the relationships’. Uncertainties are becoming ordered in her mind, but the uncertainty provoked by mortality cannot be neatly ordered. For these children death has meant no more than shooting with a hockey stick; suddenly it becomes a presence. Death might have been expected to have a ready entrance into adult consciousness, but it has not previously entered the separate world of the children. Adult imaginativeness creates the hockey stick in another form; it becomes the flute which entices the cobra of death into the mind. Death is only thrust out of the children’s minds with their father’s white lie about being ‘grown up’ when death arrived for his brothers.
Throughout, the poem is remarkable for the Frostian succinctness of the dialogue and the ease with which the speaker’s empathy with his children is revealed. Ease and subtlety are apparent in other respects too: the ‘almost dark’ of evening in the first line becomes a metaphor for a metaphysical condition by the end of the poem; the last line’s ‘coming upon the world’ has some of the overtones of parable, but is followed by the child’s simple finalising word ‘Good’. The ending is in fact stated without sentimentality and without any of the exaggerated toughness sometimes found in modern literature. It raises the question ‘Is the world good?’ The speaker accepts the nature of the world — and in this poem the world does not seem neatly ordered. He accepts too his role as father, as vulnerable protector. His vulnerability is as certain as his wish to protect his children, and he knows that their childish, innocent trust is falsely placed. But there is no hypocrisy in his white lie: the speaker recognises and respects the necessary separateness of childhood. His children are not separate from death, but they do need to think they are. Death reduces the world to uncertainty, but the children’s certainty he recognises as a necessary fiction.
This is Lansdown’s work at its best: ‘The Horseshoe Shooter’ is a delicate, quiet, restrained poem, with surprisingly little self-dramatisation, but its content is immense.
[Poems by Andrew Lansdown published in Wordhord: “Far From Home, the Blower”; “The Horseshoe Shooter”; “Spring Morning with Baby and Birds”; “The Brobdingnagian Banana”; “Should I Fall and Fail to Rise”; “Spring, Alfred Cove”; “New Leaf”; “Kestrel”; “In Her Haste”; “Haiku: Light Rain”.]
This critique was published in Wordhord: A Critical Selection of Contemporary Western Australian Poetry, edited by Dennis Haskell and Hilary Fraser, Centre for Studies in Australian Literature, The University of Western Australia (Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1989).
Metaphor and Meaning in David Brooks’ The Cold Front and Andrew Lansdown’s Windfalls
by Elizabeth Perkins
David Brooks’ The Cold Front (Hale and Iremonger, 1983) and Andrew Lansdown’s Windfalls (Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1984), are attractive collections of essentially lyrical and personal poems in which metaphor and image are used to cross the boundaries between subject and object, human and external nature and the inner and the outer world. The titles themselves place the collections in the natural world, but also introduce connotations of human experience. Brooks’ strong, tempered lines invoke an intellectual and emotional confrontation with the cold, sharp episodes of experience, and Lansdown’s short poems do have the fresh maturity and ease of ripe fruit loosened naturally from the tree. As the poem “Darkness” suggests, Brooks is concerned with fragments of experience “that will not/alchemize to song,/that yield not/to the metaphrast.” Lansdown finds in various forms of resemblance within and between the inner and outer worlds, a mode of metaphrasis that interprets one experience in terms of another. When, in “Nightfall” he hears in the thud of windfall fruit the “mute thud” of the young kangaroo that feeds on them, or sees the resemblance of a loved face in the grace of moonflowers, he performs the same act of interpretation and redefinition that Brooks performs in the complexity of “The Swineflower.”
A simple reading of the two collections suggests that they illustrate two phases of imagism. But the same reading also points up how inexorably images of the external world become metaphors in the inner world of human consciousness. Lansdown frequently adapts haiku and choka forms and draws on direct observations of external nature in order, as his epigraph from Thomas Traherne suggests, to render “to things their due esteem.” The result is poetry whose strength is the control and lucidity of image found in the work of Hilda Doolittle and William Carlos Williams. Brooks, in another phase of imagism, slides his images into another plane, so that The Cold Front uses the deep, evocative images of T.S. Eliot, James Merrill or Gary Snyder. The difference, which requires a different reading, is seen by setting Lansdown’s “Ibis” beside Brooks’ “The Gap.”
Stilts tread gracefully in the small-fish shallows.
Black shags stand on the sand-bar, shine
In the sun. Sandpipers poke on the shoreline.
Ducks dive in the backwater and shadows.
As we approach, peace departs; the birds freeze.
Then fly, crying, to where their fears end.
In the grasshopper-paddock by the river’s bend
Hundreds of ibis roost in the ring-barked trees.
Again our presence sounds the common alarm.
Embracing the day-heat, the land-hot thermals,
They lift into the air, rise in gentle spirals.
As if even here in our canoe we could do them harm!
They circle in two loose formations: Ibis,
Gliding gradually, soundlessly away from us.
This sonnet illustrates well one aspect of Lansdown’s work in which observation of external nature is dramatized in the first person address, and the distance between human and external nature is preserved during the process of showing their interaction. Apart from this, the interest of the poem lies in its formal shape and the crafted rhythm and sound of the poetry.
Brooks’ “The Gap” absorbs landscape and human inscape in a complex, panoramic image:
On the pond path by Campbell’s
amidst the wheel-ruts and the fallen leaves
a gap nothing fills
it gets late
cross in the half-light
lugging their haul toward Tumut
the great lake of silence beneath them
flight after flight after flight
To read this as a highly personal elegy it is not necessary to surmise that it was written in memory of the poet David Campbell (1915-79) whose home country and poetic region are the Monaro uplands named in the poem. The plane of imagery shifts from exterior to interior with the third line, although “a gap nothing fills” does not seem out of place with the natural images of wheel-ruts and fallen leaves. Without knowledge of anything outside the poem, the reader finds in the third line a signal that the poem is not purely an observed landscape, and begins to interpret natural images of fallen leaves, half-light and bird flight as images of death and the continuity of life.
Typically, the images in Lansdown’s Windfalls do not require this kind of interpretation, but their objectivity is more apparent than real. These poems emphasize the fact that all language is a metaphor for human experience, and that the language used by the poet in talking about nature differs from the taxonomies of science only in that the metaphorical character of the latter is less obvious. Windfalls begins with the poem “Should I Fall and Fail to Rise” whose opening lines are:
Early in the morning,
before the wind takes up its broom,
and the poem proceeds to a series of objective observations and subjective interpretations:
You can see where claws
have carved cuneiform runes
into the curve and crust
of the dunes.
Later, the crabs’ movements are described as “mechanical rituals” and the crab itself is “boxbodied like a hansomcab.” The poem does not attempt a studied objectivity, and the kinship of even simple metaphors with the intellectually or imaginatively broader metaphors of surrealism can be seen in comparing the opening lines of this poem with lines by the surrealist poet Benjamin Peret:
Le vent se leve comme une f emme apres une nuit d’amour.
Il ajuste son binocle et regarde le monde, avec ses yeux d’enfant.
[The wind rises like a woman after a night of love. It adjusts
its glasses and looks at the world with its childlike eyes.]
From La Brebis Galante
Lansdown’s poem curbs the imaginative spread of its metaphors, and instructions for precise observation are explicit: “Look carefully, and you will see/the shells walk.” Yet it must immediately explain the metaphor of “the shells walk” with the more precise
inhabit the reef — housed
in periwinkles and whelks
tritons and topshells.
The interpretive intellect cannot long remain outside the poem, which intends to pay homage to the animal life on the beach. Some lines later the same cone-hatted crabs are described in simile and metaphor:
Like initiates at a secret ritual,
they dance in their white hats —
the ku klux klansmen
of the crustacean world.
The poem, with nine brief lyrics, reproduces in its forms some of the variety of the crustacean life on the shore, but the idea that minute observation is involved requires qualification: language metamorphoses the experience of observation into one of interpretation by the poet.
The final meaning of “Should I Fall and Fail to Rise” is intensely interesting. After the eight pieces in which, in all but one, human values interpret the phenomena observed, the last stanza demonstrates how frail and tenuous is the human dominance of nature:
As I walk this beach alone
I begin to realise
should I fall and fail to rise
they will whittle me to the bone.
The poem’s final statement helps to explain why language so compulsively seeks to annex the external world in its metaphors, as it has been seen to do even in this poem that attempts a certain objectivity. In the end, it is only through the languages of science and the imagination that humankind has any control over external nature. There is emblematic force in Lansdown’s poem, and in the second part of the epigraph he borrows from Traherne: “All things were made to be yours and you were made to prize them according to their value.” This humanist idea sanctions the annexations of language by which things are made part of human experience, but only so long as the things are rightly valued. If the human mind controls external nature through the language in which it speaks about it, a failure in language indicates a loss of that control. The metaphors poetry uses in dealing with the natural world have their own efficiency in allowing the human imagination to retain its grasp on the external world. Science, as Hannah Arendt pointed out in The Human Condition (1958), now moves in a world in which mathematical symbols contain statements that cannot be translated back into speech. When the knowledge of science lies outside the language of the human imagination, humankind has lost effective control of the external world. The fate of the voice of Lansdown’s poem, should it fall and fail to rise, images the fate of humankind if its languages lose the capacity to handle the forces of nature it attempts to manipulate.
The title of Brooks’ “The Horseman” suggests an apocalyptic statement which bears on the meaning drawn out of “Should I Fall and Fail to Rise,” but the poem requires a different method of reading from that used in reading Lansdown’s poem. Where the I on the sea-shore spoke from a realistic and natural environment. Brooks’ I inhabits a semi-biblical, semi-dystopian environment of the imagination, in which the holocaust of civilization is represented by a landscape emptied of all but isolated symbolic objects. The poem is in four parts. In the first part, the speaker, “sitting/high in the leaves” watches four horsemen ride “from the far end of the bible” through an overgrown allotment “off Phoebe Street.” In the second part the riders eat “white bread/white cheese/the white flesh of pigeons,” whose ascetic delicacy and simplicity evoke both a spiritual and subsistence food. The watcher sees “through the eyes of the last of them” fields of ripening grain. In the third part a dropped egg, and the ants drowning in it, image a destruction of nature. In the fourth part of the poem, the speaker comments on what has been seen:
It was our fault
we should have said
the sun is a delicate globe
no one should drop it
we should have said
there can be no true adoration
we should have explored
the full possibilities of language
which include responsibility
risking ultimate simplicity
This landscape is evocative as a painting is evocative. The reader does not need to find a hidden meaning for the speaker’s sitting “high in the leaves,” or in the speaker’s comment “who would have thought it” on the diet of the horsemen. A number of obvious meanings which are all trivial suggest themselves; but it is the broad effect of the lines that is important. The voice of the poem is a survivor, but it is not known what form the survival takes: in the world of the poem it is only certain that the voice understands responsibility. The three failures of obligation, which apparently account for the visioned holocaust, concern responsibility for the natural world, “the sun is a delicate globe/no one should drop it;” responsibility for observing the mutual dependence of action and meditation; and responsibility towards the possibilities of language. To single out harshness, poetry and simplicity as three possibilities of language does not confine language to its literary use, but implies many kinds of language communication including the scientific, the imaginative and the language of everyday use.
The last lines of the poem achieve a strange quiescence:
but we had been sitting
too long by ourselves in the sunset
and a great distance was leaning from everything
This indifference empties the world of humankind and its language. There remains only
or the time
or the silence
truly rinsing the stones.
One of the insidious powers of language is that it can suggest its own demise in metaphors that distract the mind from the horror implied in its demise. Against this, the conviction must be hastily summoned that the poetic statement of the possibility asserts the durability of art which can play with such possibilities.
Lansdown’s “Should I Fall and Fail to Rise” is a literal statement that may be read as a metaphor of the human condition and human language within the external world. Brooks’ “The Horsemen” is a metaphorical statement that may be interpreted as a literal statement about an envisaged world in which the human condition has no reality.
The majority of poems in both collections are concerned with less portentous aspects of the human and natural worlds, but in almost every poem the ultimate meaning points to an inescapable relationship between the two worlds, and the poems themselves often serve as a metaphor for that relationship. In a series of poems about a child’s awed and reverent encounter with nature, Lansdown tenderly explores the human impulse to embrace the external world. In the “Good Catcher” poems, “mysweetson” and “In from the Garden” the natural world evades this capture with pain, or death, or in the discomfiture of the small and loving predator. Only rarely is the animal world described in a word appropriate to human artefacts, as when the grasshopper’s bead of black vomit “lubricates its mechanical mouth.” Human and external nature interact in “At One Purpose”, in which old Mrs Shaw and the gum tree share a supple and sapling youth, and the boy “hops/like a little bird/about her.” Almost all Lansdown’s poems take place out of doors, reinforcing the metaphorical meaning of the title, and strengthening the cultural validity of the borrowed choka and haiku forms which originally were almost wholly restricted to natural images.
The spiritual dimension of Lansdown’s collection is explicitly Christian, animated by love for the human and natural worlds and untrammelled by dogma which might, for example, offer an easy consolation for the death that is present in the background of the poems. Although the overt spiritual dimension of the collection also strengthens the validity of borrowing the Japanese verse forms, in which a religious element was traditionally central, the spiritual dimension does not extend to any suggestion of a mystical union between human and external nature. It is one of the interesting qualities of Lansdown’s poetry that it stops short of the mysticism that is implicit in much of Brooks’ imagery. Lansdown’s images typically point up the discreteness of the units within both the natural and the human world, as when, in “While Watering Vegetables,” one moth remains
above the broad beans
Like the evening star
above the quiet earth
By comparison, in Brooks’ “Late Swim,” the narrator retains a human psychological uniqueness, although, as in many of these poems, he does not maintain an identity discrete from the natural world:
are now small islands
haloed by the moon.
The only star
not visible amongst them
or floating in the bay
is sleeping in my arms
weighing no more than a bird.
There is an explicit political dimension in several of Lansdown’s poems, which gives rise to one of the most interesting annexations of the natural world in the image of the dragonfly, or the “caballito del diablo,” in the poem “One Day.” The annexation is made possible by the conflation of apparently Chinese Marxist connotations in the English name of the insect with the infernal connotations in the Spanish name. The dragonfly’s movements around the polling station, where the narrator acts as election clerk, are described in military terms: reconnoitres, blitzing, hovering, pilots. There is menace in the “occult precision” with which the insect “pilots between obstacles,” “disappears,” and “reappears.” The narrator sees it as a portent:
Why has it strayed
to this dry bed of democracy?
It portends unremembered.
alliances. Caballito del diablo.
When will the dragon
fly from our midst? …
Caballito del diablo: the devil’s little horse.
One day it will return, bigger
and mounted with machine guns.
The compassion and the concern for the natural world that give the collection its dominant tone are challenged by an awareness of death which invades the human and the natural worlds and threatens the transaction between them. “Bush-Walking” comprises a three-lined stanza:
What manner of death
fills my body, that birds fall breath
less at my approach?
In “Doe and Fawn” an Indian antelope whose dead fawn dangles from her vagina is watched by zoo visitors, the women sharing a moment of sympathy with the animal that stops short of any mystical empathy in parturition:
From the crowd, women look on quietly,
ignoring the questions of their children.
Death is identified as a powerful opponent in “Except Trees” and “Salt in the Earth”:
Trees defy death’s gravity.
Past living they stand
silver and majestic, like monuments
In another metaphor, nature is arbitrarily annexed by language, for there is no reason why the blackbird rather than another bird should image death:
Death is a blackbird
as a crow)
and trees stick in his craw
In its handling of the natural world, “Death is a blackbird” is as violent a metaphor as the surrealist image, “The wind rises like a woman after a night of love,” and they belong to the same order of imagination. The violence of the blackbird metaphor reveals the energy of the poet’s opposition to death, just as the violence done to the dragonfly in that image reveals the strength of the poet’s political feeling. A chain of visual and verbal stimuli has given rise to both images, but the ultimate use of an image depends on factors too complex to analyse. The reader can be certain only of the urgency that incited its use.
The natural world, of course, may exercise its power over human language. Lansdown’s concern with sound and units of phrasing is frequently a response to the rhythm and chiaroscura of the external world as much as a response to inner psychological and emotional pressure — as was the concern of Gerard Manley Hopkins and Dylan Thomas, whose phrasing is evoked in this aspect of Lansdown’s work. In “Wallabies Grazing,” the first and last lines of the poem illustrate how the blended shades and movement of the landscape effect a blending of language:
Bush arid pasture
brush and posture in sepiagrey
and I —
oh the freshandchill, hushandstill dusk! . . .
bound to the boundaryfence:
looseshadows in a lostshape landscape
In “For the Force of Flame,” a sonnet that also recalls Hopkins’ characteristic work, the language of the camp fire not only invades the language of the speaker but is held to be of a higher order than human voices:
For the force of flame, a thousand voices shout:
In the moment of change, each leaf cries out,
Leaps up redly, brightly eclipsing the white
Stars, before flickering and fading into night.
The moon is water-smoothed stone on a river bed.
Shimmering beneath the streaming smoke. The crack and cough
Of coals counterpoint the flames’ stutter. Strangely enough
I remember the voice of the fire, but not the things we said.
We re-affirmed what we already knew: we do not agree on this,
On that. How foolishly we darkened simple pleasures —
Friendship, fire, roast potatoes and fish —
With our convoluted talk. Life has its proportions and measures:
I would learn them before my soul cries out to its Creator,
Leaps, stuttering with joy and shame, up to my Saviour.
Although “cough” and “stutter” are human terms imposed on the fire, it is the image of the fire that controls the human image in this poem. And although several images come together in the last two lines, they do not coalesce but remain separate.
Lansdown, in this collection, is an imagist, and his imagism is typical of the clear, discrete mode of imagery that invokes connections rather than evokes unity. It is therefore observant of Traherne’s injunction to render to things their due esteem. Nevertheless the poems constantly yield to the inexorable demand of human language that things be interpreted in human terms, and the tension that arises between the objectifying and subjectivist functions of language may be read as another level of meaning in his poetry.
The images in Brooks’ The Cold Front are seldom discrete. They are typically metaphors originating in subjectivity and requiring subjective interpretation. This does not imply that meaning may be diffused beyond meaning because images are unstable. On the contrary, there is never any doubt what a passage means, but almost any passage defies paraphrase. “On Durras Beach,” for example, opens with a statement of human perplexity and loneliness in confronting the universe:
again the moon, self-hugged, self-eaten,
rolling imperceptibly deathward.
I stoke a small fire on the beach
with driftwood and the gnarled
roots of my sleeplessness
and watch the wind
weave through the flames
the dark tongues of the cosmos.
Although there is no attempt to describe external nature objectively, imagery from the natural world invades the human world, as in “the gnarled roots of my sleeplessness,” and later the self-hugged, self-eaten moon becomes an image of humanity, and the driftwood of the fire becomes the dry speculation in which the mind attempts to find enlightenment. Here external images annex the internal world and dictate the language in which it is spoken about, and there is an insistence on overcoming discreteness with unity.
The title poem could be a metaphor for a relationship that is passing through a critical testing period, but the paraphrase is unnecessary to establish the poem’s meaning. The images, however, are not simply imaginatively evocative but require intellectual attention:
It was coming
the cold front
and the complex weather
and the difficult loves were waiting
the long conversations
with pain in the final sentences
gathering her parcel for the victory
The effect of Lansdown’s poetry is to emphasize human responsibility towards the natural world and especially responsibility to the language in which we talk and think about the natural world. The effect of Brooks’ poetry is to indicate the resources of language that lie in the external world. Paradoxically, by penetrating deeply into one natural image the poet outgrows a narrow subjectivity and reaches an intense but personal self whose comments have arresting meaning for others. Sometimes this language is in the sign that lives in action after it has become legend. This seems to be the meaning of Brooks’ translation of Czeslaw Milosz’s “Campo di Fiori” in which the public death of Giordano Bruno, the Italian philosopher burned in Rome in 1600 for heresy, is a wordless sign for the deaths in the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw in 1943:
climbed to his burning
he could not find
in any human tongue
words for mankind,
mankind who live on.
Both martyrdoms are surrounded by gay indifferent crowds whose laughter and voices as they go about their daily life carry no meaning at all. Poetry finds its language not in the human crowd but in the events themselves:
Those dying here, the lonely
forgotten by the world,
their tongue becomes for us
The language of an ancient planet.
The intellectual force of much of Brooks’ poetry depends on its sensuousness, on the knowledge of the self that is achieved by contact with the outer world through all the senses. The last two poems in The Cold Front are about the importance of this sensuous apprehension of one’s being. “Although” ends with the assertion that sunset “still casts its crimson on my heart/and rakes it with desire for the world,” although the speaker has suffered through all the senses, and in emotion and mind:
and the greatest love I know
will never lift my worried flesh
very far from the bed that it lies upon
It is through the outer world, whose imagery penetrates the language of the poem, that survival is possible:
I shall keep from drowning.
While these things last
slow-worm, blind-worm, I shall still surround
myself and my family with light.
The final poem, “The Swineflower,” is exhilarating in its sensuous interpretation and re-definition of mind and emotion. It is, for the moment, the goal of the rather austere and ascetic pilgrimage that images the earlier part of the collection — a pilgrimage that at times overtly recalls Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi.” The voice in “The Swineflower” revels in its voracious appetite for life:
I tear at it and snort.
I slurp ostentatiously
letting it dribble from my chin.
I gulp great draughts of darkness
and they do not pain me.
This gluttony is not the selfish indulgence of an egotist, but the appetite and extravagant spewing of dehiscent nature. The poem ends:
on a patch of the heart-stained ground
you will find
in the lightening gloom
the swineflower, the carnivore orchid,
that nothing is wasted,
that nothing in the long, hot tumult of the swine
not even the hunger I died for,
for all it has left bare or broken,
that strange seed,
of sunflower, starflower
flaring in your spine.
The transition from the self to the other in the final stanza is smoothly made and the I appears only in the phrase of absence, “the hunger I died for.” “The Swineflower” is an interesting example of the way in which the intensely experiencing self can be totally absorbed by the external world, and in the process of this annihilation assert itself in its richest form of being.
Read together, Lansdown’s Windfalls and Brooks’ The Cold Front become the thesis and antithesis for an almost inexhaustible meditation on the significance of poetry in the human and the natural world.
© Elizabeth Perkins
Published in LiNQ [Literature in North Queensland], Volume 14, No.2, 1986, pp. 35-47
Comment by Geoffrey Lehmann:
If I were to prepare an alphabetical list of Australian poets who are outstanding and whose first books have been published since 1980, my list would be ridiculously long. It would have to include Judith Beveridge, Kevin Brophy, Elizabeth Campbell, Caroline Caddy, Jennifer Compton, Tricia Dearborn, Stephen Edgar, Peter Goldsworthy, Philip Hodgins, Carol Jenkins, Andrew Lansdown, Anthony Lawrence, Bronwyn Lea, Emma Lew, Stephen McInerney, Homer Reith, Gig Ryan, Philip Salom, Andrew Sant, Shen, Craig Sherborne and Alex Skovron. Some of these poets are very different from each other and might look askance at their bedfellows. But all have written memorable and exciting poems. (emphasis added)
Excerpt from “New poets mine rich seam of language” by Geoffrey Lehmann in The Australian, 21 February 2009
Critical comment on Andrew’s poem, “On Poetry”
by Jim Legasse
The final voice I want you to listen to is that which speaks poetically of poetry. The poem is called “On Poetry”; the author is Andrew Lansdown, who was born in 1954 in Pingelly, W.A., and who, like the others, has published widely. His first book of poetry, Homecoming, was published by the Fremantle Arts Centre Press in 1979; two more books of poetry, Counterpoise (Angus and Robertson) and A Ball of Gold: Poems for Children (The Nine Club), are scheduled for publication in 1981.
The voice of “On Poetry” is a father’s voice. In the poem the speaker talks about talking about poetry. The speaker’s infant son, “still months from walking”, and we assume from talking, conveys more, however, the poet-speaker acknowledges, than poets themselves do. This is another piece, then, like Olive Pell’s, which verbalizes the eloquence of a non-verbal communication. The “statement” made by the young child is, in the love of his father, more expressive, although unarticulated, than his father’s philosophising about Art could ever be. It’s an exaggerated statement about understatement, but I’ll let the poet make the point for himself; he says:
As we sit talking
my son (still months
lounges without a care
on my knee, fronts
my old friend with
a vacant stare
our talking with
a short sigh
and lifts and drops
his foot rhythmically
on the flat of my thigh
The ironies of the situation are evident, I think. Two adults are discussing poetry; one child is enacting a poem. His sigh, his movement, the rhythms and resonances of that “foot” on the flat of [his Dad’s] thigh”, show the child to be poetry. This short poem suggests the connections between life, love, and art, and it says a great deal without saying much at all. One idea that it implies is that we should all stop talking about poetry from time to time, so that we can hear the real artists speak.
This comment by Jim Legasse forms part of his review of
Quarry, ed. Fay Zwicky (Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1981).
The reviewed was published in Westerly, No. 4, December 1981, pp. 73-76
Critical comment on Andrew’s poem, “The Shodo Egret”
by Shane McCauley
One poem that is especially noteworthy for the precision of its imagery and the control of form is Andrew Lansdown’s “The Shodo Egret”. Most lines consist of five syllables, reflecting both the stately gait of the egret and at the same time doing homage to the construction most favoured by classic Japanese and Chinese poets. Many of the four-line stanzas could be singled out as perfect Imagist poems in their own right. Two outstanding images are contained in the following:
… It does not
note its reflection
needled like a tattoo
on the river’s skin …
each step is three
on a common point …
The entire poem is a triumph of observation translated into the closest approximation words can offer.
This comment by Shane McCauley forms part of his review of
An Inflection of Silence, edited by Christopher Pollnitz (University of Newcastle, 1986).
The reviewed was published in Fremantle Arts Review, Vol. 2, No. 4, April 1987, p.14
11. Other websites
with information about and copies of
Andrew’s poetry and fiction
1. The Universtity of Western Australia (Scholars’ Centre) has archived drafts and papers of Andrew’s work. View the “Scholars’ Centre Guide to the Papers of Andrew Lansdown – Scholars’ Centre, University of Western Australia Library – Reference number: MS 108” at:
2a. The University of New South Wales (Australian Defence Force Academy Library) has also archived drafts and papers of Andrew’s work. View the “Guide to the Papers of Andrew Lansdown – Australian Defence Force Academy Library – Reference number: MS 74” at:
2b. The “Guide to the Papers of Andrew Lansdown – Australian Defence Force Academy Library – Reference number: MS 74” can also be viewed at:
3. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation has produced a 40 minute program on the poems of Fontanelle. It is titled “I Could Teach Bamboo About Emptiness – The Poetry of Andrew Lansdown” and was Broadcast Saturday 4th June 2005 on Radio National as one of the weekly Poetica series. View details at:
4. The First Australian Haiku Anthology website has four of Andrew’s haiku. Go to:
5. The Quadrant magazine website has archived many of Andrew’s poems published in the print magazine since 1998. Go to: