Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 27, 2019

The Bright and the Cold, Selected Poems of Anne Elder, compiled by Catherine Elder

The work of Anne Elder, the poet whose life is celebrated in The Heart’s Ground (see my review) has been reviewed by some of Australia’s most preeminent poets and she is mentioned in The Oxford Companion to Australian Literature so it is not for me to attempt anything like what might be called a review of this collection. Rather, I shall simply share some of the poems compiled by her daughter Catherine Elder in The Bright and the Cold, Selected Poems of Anne Elder.  

The book begins with a tribute by the late Judith Rodriguez (1936-2018) in which she says that in Elder’s first collection For the Record (1972), she wrote lovingly of houses, with familiar references to Melbourne, and a love of key nineteenth-century English writers.  Rodriguez also quotes the poet Philip Martin, reviewing Elder’s second posthumously published collection Crazy Woman and Other Poems (1976) as expressing ‘many tongues of love’.  He noted that Elder rued her poetry as ‘domestic’ when war and mythology were supposed to offer grander topics but he found her a risk taker in subject as well as tone.  I find all these comments to be true of the poems in this new collection:

My favourite of all of them is ‘The Bachelor’.

There was an old friend through all our childhood
who talked with my father, reliving the batching days
of cream flannels and the nicest girls in Perth
with pink pomade complexions that still warmed his memory. (p.65)

Written with intense compassion, this poem tells how trained in the law, this man could not settle to it or anything else after the war.  After a life circumscribed by not quite enough money and a painful loneliness, he died in a hospital for old soldiers, having shaped Anne Elder more than he knew with the delicate finger/ of eccentricity.

I share Anne Elder’s disdain for the cult of soldiering in schools.  In ‘School Cadets’, she writes of a fete where the mothers are shoving like hooligans, and the…

                                  Formidable Headmaster,
affecting a walking stick, conversing precisely;
escorts the Mayoress to see how nicely
the Best School teaches the game of War. (p.58)

Of Norfolk Island and its marketing of sentimentalised ruins and convict heritage, she writes in ‘Chronicle of Norfolk’

There is nonchalance and ease.  The pretty daughters
home from the mainland’s nicest boarding school
loll in bikinis on a beach called Slaughters;
or ride the dizzy bridle tracks and cool
their brows in forest where a desperate fool
starved in a tree to escape the knout and thong
so long ago.  (p.34)

She tackles tough topics. In  ‘For the Beasts’ she admits that In truth, for their faintings and heroics/ I do not much like man.  She prefers the warm beasts:

Betrayed, they turn their mild eyes
at the door of the laboratory (p.15)

… suggesting to me, at least, that she was wrong when she wrote in ‘Apologia’ that

Everything has been somewhere perfectly said. (p.53)

Her poem ‘Remorse and Regret’ is one of the most poignant I know:

Remorse and Regret are brothers
hired for the evening.
Remorse has some guts,
juggles a knife,
cries Oh Sweet Life!

[…]

but Regret has vanished
into the walls of the house
and abides, singing for his supper
and abides, timid as a mouse
nibbling for his supper
and abides, poor mite
offering its little claw
upturned to night
and abides, stinking, a pest (p.64)

‘One Foot in the Door’ is a stark reminder of the Great Depression, then still in living memory:

During the Depression, my grandmother
was plagued in her daft heart
by processions of hawkers.  Supporting
a wry neck on two fingers she nodded
compulsively to tales of a little woman
and kids unlimited; bought from them
bootlaces, talc and Pears Soap galore
out of the soft purse of her own reduced circumstances.  (p.82)

Elder seemed to have an instinct for the sorrows of the lonely.  Her compassion for war widows is shown in ‘Widow’:

She never remarried.  A pity.
‘That great oaf of hers needs a father.’
She ought to get out and about
but would rather

make up to a snapshot.
With a lapful of curlers,
a slap of Elizabeth Arden,
she nervously nurses the unmanageable burden
of first love less certain in her
than the first kick she had felt alone
and found to be a son now strangely grown
to not her kind of man, too rough to kiss. (p.102)

And though she was not a countrywoman, not until near the end of her life, she understood relentless rural poverty.  In ‘Farmer Goes Berserk’, she writes:

Here, water is khaki and each day a battle
with mouths.  Seven, born quick as roses but grown
slowly insupportable with their throats
and itches and grizzles.  Two farmed out
(a shame, that) and one in a home,
returned maybe for Christmas and Easter
a quiet little stranger.  They kept,
just, the four little girls.
Would that be enough?
Rain at last, too much… (p.73)

This is one of the finest collections now on my shelves.

Poems in Part I are from For the Record, (Hawthorn Press, 1972); in Part II from Crazy Woman and Other Poems (Angus & Robertson, 1976) and in Part III from newspaper, journals and magazines including The Australian; Meanjin Quarterly, Overland; Poet’s Choice; Southerly; Southern Review and Westerly.  Two come from Small Clay Birds (Monash University, 1988) and others were never published or their place of publication is unknown.

Compiler: Catherine Elder
Contributor: Judith Rodriguez
Title: The Bright and the Cold, Selected Poems of Anne Elder
Publisher: Lauranton Books, 2018
ISBN: 978099425074
Review copy courtesy of Carmel Shute of Shute the Messenger

Available from Readings Bookstores and direct from Lauranton Books where you can also buy The Heart’s ground, a Life of Anne Elder by Julia Hamer, ISBN: 9780994250735

 

 


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