The Right Amount of Danger: Benjamin Dodds reviews Sarah Holland-Batt’s The Hazards
Sarah Holland-Batt has made a friend of variety. As we saw in her debut collection Aria and see again in her follow-up work The Hazards, she well and truly embraces the diverse. Unlike many poets whose second offerings tend to narrow in focus and theme, often at the expense of the new, the unexpected or the exciting, it is refreshing to see that experience and success have not diminished Holland Batt’s vibrant menagerie of poetic subjects.
From the femme-fatale jellyfish of ‘Medusa’ to the world contained in the dark spaces beneath ‘The House on Stilts’, from the tiny zealot of ‘The Capuchin’ to the enigmatic pose of ‘Goya’s Dog’, The Hazards leads the reader from one acutely observed situation to the next. By no means, though, is the kaleidoscopic composition of Holland-Batt’s second collection a scattershot one. Binding most of the collection’s pieces, keeping them integrated and marking them as unmistakable parts of the whole, is the ominous presence of danger and harm. In some poems, hazard lurks in the margins as dark accident, in others it comes in the form of direct threat. Though these poems range far afield in terms of subject matter, Holland-Batt’s colourful miscellany is corralled into one thematically cohesive volume and afforded a darkly binding gravity through her repeated employment of ‘hazardous’ narrative complication.
While The Hazards explores an impressive range of subjects, including historical events, international travel, childhood recollections and a decent amount of ekphrasis, some of the most striking poems focus on nature. Many of the collection’s best pieces concern the animal kingdom. By marrying the wildness inherent in animal poems with the creeping threat that runs through The Hazards as a whole, Holland-Batt creates poetry that is at once richly imagistic and deeply unsettling. The powerhouse opener ‘Medusa’ sets the tone for so much of what is to follow. The poet offers a jellyfish narrator building a picture of herself through scalpel-sharp images.
I have always loved the translucent life,
blooming around me
in a ripple ring of nerves.
If I let my shadow cinch in,
whatever the soul is
billows out like hollow silk.
The unusual speaker goes on to reveal a darker side to her beauty, a cold edge that will become prevalent throughout the fifty or so poems to come.
I glide savage, a stinging chandelier,
a brain trailing its nettles
through the anemone swell
and forests of stiff sea fir.
Malice swarms through me in a surge.
There’s threat of a different kind in ‘Life Cycle of the Eel’:
Sexless, according to Aristotle,
born of the slime of sea rocks
or the guts of wet soil.
Today I thought I saw
a silvering eel climb
out of a country stream
and snake its visible heart
through the soaked grass:
The eel makes for an ugly and interesting oddity, but in this poet’s hands, it becomes more. Here, it is an intruder into our territory, a spontaneously generated space invader trespassing in the realm of humankind. The poem ends with striking paranoia as the creature departs the scene,
its head turned from me
like an omen,
Holland-Batt invests the animal with insidious intelligence and agency that leave the reader in a state of disturbance.
‘The Vulture’ forces us to spend time with an exquisite grotesque. Spot-on phrasing makes the close encounter more than worth our time, as the bird
…leans out of himself
into morning, baggy shoulderblades swivelling
in a loose swoop…
The portrait of this much-maligned creature with its ‘raw pink skin rolled on the skull/ in slack waves’ is a deft one. Holland-Batt puts the animal’s ugliness on display, but lets it have the last laugh. The vulture is no pathetic clown. He has cleverly made himself death’s ally.
His eye flowers darkly.
Self into self without summit,
he gorges in silence, strops his beak,
then hoists out of the corpse on awkward wings,
veering up into the wind’s periphery
as if returning from a foreign country,
diving straight into turbulence.
Covering different ground to the nature poems, the collection’s ekphrastic writing considers an eclectic variety of artwork. ‘Interbellum’ takes Edward Hopper’s 1947 painting Summer Evening as its inspiration. The poet evokes sights and sounds of a warm evening spent on a lit porch.
Listen: each minute subtracts
a cricket’s voice
from the wind
then another enters, flares
like a cigarette
to take its place…
Still, there’s more shade than light here as flitting moths
to the death, to claim
their ration of light.
‘Primavera: The Graces’ reframes one of Botticelli’s best-known paintings by firmly placing in the foreground its allusions to mortality. ‘No time for angels now./ It is Spring. Death is in the trees.’ This is a novel approach, considering the conventional reading of the artwork that centres around the birth and renewal that come with Spring.
At the close of the collection, the reader encounters a poem that shares the collection’s title. ‘The Hazards’ places its narrator between the ocean and a Tasmanian mountain range. This part of the coast is known as The Hazards and its sudden appearance in the mind of the reader serves to physically embody all of the collection’s instances of danger. The setting presents menace in the form of huge ‘humpbacked rocks sloping down to the sea’. Stark isolation is profound in the ‘awful calm clear green all the way to the Antarctic’. Also present in the poem is the object of the speaker’s affection, a (presumably American) man whose ‘mild Midwestern college cut’ seems jarringly out of place in the wilds of Tasmania. He strides out into the water ahead of our narrator.
I saw you as a stranger might see you then,
your head straining above the surface
like a diligent retriever’s, your eyes fixed ahead
as though the future were an island
you needed to reach without me,
The book’s final hazard is that of longing and desire in what may be an unworkable long-distance relationship. The geographical setting echoes the daunting interpersonal barriers facing the couple.
This is a book dealing in beauty, nature and art. Sarah Holland-Batt infuses these subjects with a carefully calibrated degree of shadow; any darker, the poems would verge on the melodramatic, any lighter, they would not be nearly as rich or engaging. With The Hazards, Holland-Batt strikes the perfect poetic balance of tone and subject matter. May her future work be just as compelling.
93 pages, $24.95
Benjamin Dodds is the author of Regulator (Puncher & Wattmann Poetry, 2014). His work has appeared in Best Australian Poems 2014, Meanjin, Cordite and on Radio National’s Poetica program. He blogs at benjamindodds.wordpress.com and tweets @coalesce79.