No Bedside Rubbernecking

Sarah Holland-Batt, The Jaguar

University of Queensland Press, 144pp, A$24.99, ISBN 9780702265501

reviewed by Erik Kennedy

About a third of the way through Sarah Holland-Batt’s third book of poems, The Jaguar, the penny drops that the titular animal is not a charismatic spotted American big cat but instead is a car, a ‘vintage 1980 XJ’. The Jag, ‘a folly he bought without test-driving’, belonged to her father, whose decline and death from Parkinson’s are a central subject of the book. He ultimately ruined it through incessant tinkering ‘and it sat like a carcass / in the garage, like a headstone, like a coffin— / but it’s no symbol or metaphor. I can’t make anything of it’. With an endorsement like that, it falls a bit flat as a title poem, I worry. A dead end, perhaps?

But no! The penny drops again in a poem near the end of the book. In ‘Meditation on Risk in New Hampshire’, Holland-Batt gives us a real jaguar with a beating heart and love and murder on its mind:

. . . I think of the conversation
I had last night with the Mexican filmmaker
who grew up with a pet jaguar in Sinaloa—
a gift from her father, a man she called
a character—and how she loved that cat,
how she used to sit with it, even after
it tore apart her brother’s beagle and ate it.
Manuelito, the jaguar’s name was—Manuelito
who lived in the garden of the family’s motel
deep in drug country, where Saturday night their bar
was full of cartel kingpins and local police,
a place where nobody thought anything about giving
a girl a pet jaguar who could crunch
through her skull

My goodness, what a difference. This ability to work in registers both neutral and charged is what distinguishes Holland-Batt’s best poetry. It’s a formula that was used to great effect in her previous book, 2015’s The Hazards, which was a multiple prizewinner and shortlistee in her native Australia. Indeed, The Jaguar covers some of the same ground. There is a long concluding section about a loss (about her father — in The Hazards it was about a break-up). There are ekphrastic poems (on works by Tiepolo, Chardin, Böcklin, and her grandfather Bertram Batt). There are numerous poems set all across Europe and North and South America; to the poet’s credit, these never come across as ‘globetrotting’ or ‘jet-setty’. There is a Stevensian love of the evocation of place, along with a Lowellian knack for crushing the carbon of language into the right crystal lattice of phrasing to make it glitter. (I use American poets as reference points because she herself does: ‘My first poetic influences were all American, due to the fact that I spent my critical early reading years in the United States,’ she once wrote. ‘My poetic imagination is steeped in the disjecta membra of poets like Bishop, Stevens, Bogan, Dickinson, Ammons, Lowell, Moore, Hughes, Rich, and Eliot; I couldn’t erase their presence if I tried’.)

Her books have grown longer each time out. The Jaguar is about twice as long as her debut, 2008’s Aria. But she also has more to say than she has ever had to say before, and more sorrow to express. She has become a public voice in Australia, because of her forceful commentary on aged care and elder abuse. (It is worth saying that her political commitments are a lot more obvious when she is writing work other than poetry.) If I may use a slightly 20th-century term, she also seems to have become more of a public poet. ‘I was never good at being public’, she says in ‘A Brief History of the British Raj’, but I have trouble believing that. For my money, these are the most outward-facing and engaging poems of her career.

Anyone who has read death and grief sequences before knows that they can be hard going. The reader can feel overwhelmed, pummelled by the relentlessness and everydayness of the suffering. Mere honesty can be exhausting. Holland-Batt’s Parkinson’s poems largely avoid bedside rubbernecking. Even when the setting is plainly at the bedside the poems move to curious and symbolic places, as in the opening of ‘Lime Jelly’:

Your last burning day
you were thirsty

but couldn’t drink.
Even thickened water

jerked in the throat.
Your chest churned

with hot asphalt,
slurry of phlegm,

a rumble
of distant thunder.

Slightly more involved is the metaphor at the heart of ‘The Clearing’. By this point, we have already had a poem about a gurney; now one appears in a vision in an English wood. (We know it’s English because her father’s Englishness is a recurring subject and because of the plants and animals found there. Not many badgers in Australia.) But the gurney is overgrown, repossessed by soils, as if it’s going to be at the centre of a burial mound. This vision prompts a fevered meditation on the processes of time and memory:

What lies beneath is not the thing
but the memory of the thing—
not the gurney
but the shape of a gurney,
not my father
but the shadow of his body,
groundcover fed by needleprick and wire of blood,
veins of sap and woodring, blossom
of his breath, vine and wreath, the red
holly and the white pine, ghost
of his hair and teeth in the moon’s hangnail . . .

The compound words and psychic misdirections accumulate until the impression is that of a Hopkins poem mashed up with a Poe story. But the language is always clear. These are effects we can recognise but not name — effects we have seen before but not together. Poetry like this doesn’t patronise readers by assuming they can’t handle difficult arguments, but it also doesn’t make things more difficult than they need to be. It brings readers along with it; it doesn’t leave them behind.

There are inventive and affective pieces among the father poems with scarcely believable metaphors: her father’s open mouth post-mortem reminds her of a video of Pavarotti in LA in 1994; a person waking after an operation is like a crab being stabbed through the brain with a knife. The astonishing poems about Holland-Batt’s father’s death are the moral core of the book, but other poems deliver their deadly little packages memorably, too. ‘Alaska’ opens with a triple homicide in New York, coasts into the middle via an anecdote about a suicide in California, and concludes with the reproductive death struggle of a salmon-spawning run in the state of the poem’s title. ‘The Proposal’ — which, incidentally, I think might become a classic — is the verse equivalent of shocking boiled eggs in cold water. Its ending runs like this:

. . . No, I would not
marry him. No, I would never. After
we walked in the park. Sky the frostiest blue.
Cardinals like red bombs in bare limbs.
The reservoir frozen over, snow mounded on the verges.
You’re so hard, he told me. He said it
like an indictment, as if presenting proof
of something I did not know—
but I already knew, and I did not rise
to object, because I praise whatever it is
in me that is stony and unbending,
I praise my hardness,
to it and it alone I say I do.

In my copy of the book, I carefully wrote ‘Christ’ after this. There is also just some good old-fashioned glorious phrasemaking to admire throughout:

adobe church girt by ersatz healing dirt


Midway through a lunch of cremated schnitzel
spoonfed by the carer with the port-wine stain
my father is crying about Winston Churchill.


All summer I sent letters
to a continent so distant
it made me think of physics

If I were allowed only one word to describe the poetics of The Hazards, I might use ‘cosmopolitan’; if I were forced to do the same exercise for The Jaguar, I would probably go with something like ‘world-weary’, with all the hard-won insight it implies, but little of the jadedness. The stakes seem higher, the people she gives voice to more numerous. Some of the things that aren’t going to matter much to Holland-Batt’s long-term poetic project have fallen away, and some of what remains and is truly vital is The Jaguar.

Erik Kennedy 's latest book of poems is Another Beautiful Day Indoors.