Deftly Anchored in Experience: Susan Austin’s Undertow

Review by Lucy Alexander

Walleah Press is mining the rich seam of poetry that runs through Tasmania and out onto the mainland.  In 2012 they will have produced 10 volumes of poetry, charting many voices that make up Australian poetry today. From established poets – for example Kevin Brophy and Jill Jones (who were dug up some time ago)– to emerging poets like Susan Austin. This many books in twelve months speaks of the poetry community’s hard work, but also demonstrates that Walleah Press provides an important and timely mineshaft allowing access to what we could imagine as galleries and drifts of poems that might otherwise not see daylight.

Although poems are a renewable resource and hardly ever pollute the atmosphere, they rarely come fully formed (like opals do, or iron ore), and perhaps this is where the metaphor becomes unhelpful. Imagining Ralph Wessman and the team who are currently editing the final edition (44) of Famous Reporter with the hardhats and spotlights of miners, dusty and tired from their hard work, is perhaps just distracting.

However, emerging from the Tasmanian poetry scene and publishing Undertow as her first book of poems, Susan Austin’s poetry is not out of place next to that of her Walleah stable mates. Her poems take the reader on what can be read as an autobiographical journey as they speak of traveling the globe, looking closely at family and relationships of all types and examining in detail the movement of the mind. These poems collected together speak of a narrative of the self, opening and closing the windows for glimpses of what was or could have been. But perhaps Austin’s most overarching theme, one that appears in all the poems collected in this volume, is that of reaching the other – making meaningful contact with lover, mother, sister, or reader.

Isn’t it interesting that it is too easy to write of Austin’s poems as if they were all about herself? Is there not room for her – or any poet – to extrapolate on the experiences of others? To fictionalise? To break with the heritage left by the likes of Anne Sexton and simply make things up? Perhaps it says something of the authenticity of the voice Austin uses that convinces us – I was there, I saw and felt this.

In launching Undertow in early October 2012, Gina Mercer made the observation that reviewers ‘comment at length (and sometimes exclusively) on questions of content. Only rarely do women poets have their technique, their craft, discussed…’[1] She went on to discuss the crafting of Austin’s poem ‘When Dreams Run Ahead’, which delightfully wry poem about the pressures and hopes placed on the premise of ‘…one date and three text messages…’ Austin, here, uses a refreshing humour and self-awareness that gives other poems in this collection room to breathe – particularly the intense and serious ‘Tinned pears and Dove soap’ and ‘The home run’. And not forgetting technique – the poem is set out somewhat like a text-message, calling to mind the quick sharp phrasing of these communications that cut to the chase – just as Austin does in this poem. The imagery and repetition of phrases emphasise the emotional charge – as the poem concludes: ‘It took a while to get over/that whole relationship.’ Bringing poems to a suitable and satisfying ending is one of the things at which Austin excels. She ties them up, looping the end into the beginning so that each one works something like a joke – here you are she seems to say – this is what I wanted you to see. And when she does this, the reader is in her hands – we can see the dexterity Austin is capable of.

But, to return to the comment of Mercer’s: discussion of content in a review is unavoidable – as she would agree. And in this case, as Austin uses herself and her life primarily as the subject, examining content gets a little personal.  Perhaps the use of the autobiographical distracts the reviewer – in trying to piece together the narrative of the life? (She was where, when? Her sister did what?) And thus this discussion takes up more than its fair share of the review.

In the opening poem of Undertow, ‘Granada’, Austin writes ‘I discover flamenco in a smokey cave-bar…Women assert their sex with/flicking wrists and stamping feet’. Austin invites us to watch the scene just as she is. To become co-spectators to a moment we can join in on, but can’t become part of. As the final line demonstrates: ‘A stranger’s caress triggers an unexpected blaze.’ In this line the poet realises she is the stranger, and even as she is moved by these people with their songs and their dancing they cannot touch her without breaking the line between the observer and the observed, creating the uncomfortable somewhat unwelcome, ‘blaze’.

This poem is so deftly anchored in experience, as are many others in the volume, that the reader can become convinced that the first-person voice is the poet’s own. And perhaps it is. Either way, it is a fine opening to a volume that longs to touch. That reaches out to caress. The ‘unexpected blaze’ that happens within this poem seems to also be the touch of the poet upon the reader. And each of the poems that follow does the same, in various ways.

‘Dealing with Distance’ is written in a similar first-person voice. The repetition of ‘I’ invites the discussion of the self as subject, the narrative of self-revelation. ‘I miss you most on Sundays’ opens the three-part poem, that elegantly dissects the emotional angst of running a relationship with someone from the Antarctic Division. ‘An ecology of absence/surrounds me on this couch.’ Neatly observes the self as an end-point of a journey of discovery as well as hinting about the nature of the other’s discovery. The self is marooned on the island of the couch. The other is the absence available only through being absent.

‘I want to compress my love into a subject line…’ changes the tone of the poem into a more serious form of longing. And it speaks the language of many long-distance relationships: the compression of love and time and the work the words have to do to make this available at the other end of the line – of both poem and email. This poem is one of the finest wrought – the emotions in tune with the technicalities of the writing, the imagery building carefully to the poem’s climax – and here the term is used advisedly. The open longing that tints many of the other poems in the collection in this poem is fulfilled; the longing has a place and a subject.

Again, the narrator is the poet direct in ‘Tinned pears and Dove Soap’ but this is a very different mood. No capitals are used – except for the words ‘Parkinson’s’, ‘Mother’s Day’, ‘Dove Soap’, ‘Dad’ and ‘I’.  It is a poem of grief, the death of a mother the ‘earthquake underneath my life’. As an image of grief ‘…facing the tinned pears on the shelves I freeze/while shoppers shove their trolleys around me…’ works seamlessly – appealing to senses and the sudden intensity of emotion they can awaken. With memory and grief Austin creates a poem with a powerful impact. This poem in particular shows the depth to which she is willing to perform courageous self-revelations as part of her poetry.

In talking at the launch of Undertow Austin said of her poems’ … a lot of them are based on other people’s stories …’ and while we know this to be true most of them are based on her own. Their authenticity is undeniable.  Their subject too close to what we could imagine as a young woman’s life to be anything other. But this is the strength of this collection, the thread that holds it together and makes it a book worth reading. Austin’s first volume has a voice that holds its own – in humour, lust, grief – it stays true. And if we still want to ask her: ‘Are you going to say if it’s fiction or non-fiction?’ of course she will say: ‘I’ll leave that to your imagination.’ [2]

Susan Austin
Walleah Press, 2012
54 pages, $20.

[1] Mercer, Gina, Launch speech of Undertowby Susan Austin, Hobart Book Shop,October 11th, 2012.  Cited October 26th 2012.
[2] Austin, Susan – fielding questions at the launch of Undertow, Hobart Book Shop,October 11th, 2012.  Cited October 26th 2012.