Geoff Page reviews “The Blue Decodes” by Cassie Lewis
The Blue Decodes
by Cassie Lewis
Reviewed by GEOFF PAGE
The Blue Decodes is the latest collection in a now considerable list from Grand Parade Poets, going back to 2011. It’s a diverse stable ranging from young avant-gardists (such as the late Benjamin Frater) through to Selected Poems from well-established, but somewhat neglected, senior poets such as Evan Jones.
Cassie Lewis’s book also has a sense of retrieval about it. Her three earlier works reach back to 1997 but the most recent, Bridges, came out eleven years ago. The Blue Decodes thus comprises work written in the San Francisco Bay area and upstate New York over the past decade or so. One can consider Lewis either an Australian poet-in-exile or a fully-assimilated American poet who happens to have been published in Australia.
The American influences on Lewis’s work here are strong and go back to her youth in Melbourne in the 199Os where the impress of the “New York” school of poetry was still fairly strong. It’s no surprise to see a reference to An Anthology of New York Poets ed. Ron Padgett and David Shapiro (1970) in the Acknowledgements.
Like much (but not all) of the work by “New Yorkers”, Lewis’s poetry has a surreal tinge and a considerable opacity. It’s as if she’s taken Emily Dickinson’s injunction to “tell it slant” literally. Unlike most Australian avant-garde poetry, however, Lewis’s work has an attractive musical surface which leads one back to subsequent readings and further understandings.
Lewis’s play with ambiguity begins, rather cutely, with the title itself where the word “Decodes” could be either a verb or a noun and “Blue” could be either a noun or an adjective. Similar games with parts of speech occur in poems such as “Postcard #15”, short enough to reprint in full: “So cold my ears listen / to bells! Snow / its hush. Snow has / fallen a starry blanket.” Again the first use of “snow” could be either a noun or a verb. By removing the putative comma after “fallen” we also have a momentary sense of “fallen” as a transitive verb rather than the intransitive one it normally is. The “blanket” could have been “fallen” by the snow. Even a “blanket” of snow being described as “starry” is arresting enough.
Fortunately, The Blue Decodes is not all games. There is considerable social (and aesthetic) commentary as well. In “Postcard #12”, immediately before the poem just discussed, we have a telling sense of an Australian poet not entirely in love with her new country. “I’ll pay more attention to Chet / Baker. I want to, honest. / And to this country, land / of unsought-for liberty, / where freedom comes disguised / as a book of poems.”
Like much of Lewis’s other work this, despite its apparent simplicity, is not an easy poem to interpret. We can take Chet Baker, the great jazz trumpeter, as a signifier of U.S. culture at its best (despite his addiction to heroin) or we can make the inference that even one of America’s best musicians is not really worth the effort of listening to closely (“want to, honest”). “Freedom”, of course, is meant to be a prime American virtue but Lewis seems to dismiss it as “unsought-for” (tell that to George Washington) and merely a dimension of the pervasive pop culture from which the only escape is a “book of poems” — by the New York school presumably! However the reader ends up interpreting the poem, there’s obviously a lot happening in a few lines.
The “New Yorker” jibe may be unfair, however, since there are references in The Blue Decodes that range well beyond that coterie — to Keats, for instance; to Theodore Roethke and, in “Lordy, Lordy”, even to William Blake. “Do you ever have William Blake days? / I do. They start amiably enough — coffee, toast — and lead / into a forest thick and lush as childhood.”
The Blue Decodes is broken into five loosely-grouped thematic sections, ranging from a concern with language, geography, history and the suburban quotidian through to the diaristic final section, “Bridges”. Of these perhaps the most striking are the seven prose poems in “Maps”. Its first poem, “Queenscliff” has a drily complex tone which is characteristic of Lewis’’s work more generally and is clearly manifest in its last two sentences: “ And from memory, that bus shelter at the edge of the world, with its wads of chewed invective, I see my absent father; mourning, directing cranes over the skyline. Labouring under the illusion that he of all people wasn’t loved.” It’s a disconcerting but stimulating worry that the cranes here may be birds “directed” by an unhappy father or building machinery he is in charge of.
One problem with playful, quasi-surreal, New York influenced poetry is that it can almost forget to be moving — or perhaps regards such a demand as a bourgeois distraction. It’s encouraging then to read a poem such as “Sophie” where Lewis seems to be writing about her own daughter’s birth and the primal bond that has existed between them from that moment. The poem ends, very convincingly, with these five lines: “But your light is entirely new. / You arrived here from a new charter. Cities so torn / but you were flying, you were running water. Biology is our bedrock. / In labour I woke up, and the nurses brought me you. // I was the door you chose to walk through.”
One has the feeling, after all the “slanted” games and the “trying to seem modern” (as Lewis jokes in “Bridges”) that this “bedrock” of biology is where the centre is — or what The Blue (eventually) Decodes. If you get my meaning.
GEOFF PAGE’s 1953 (UQP) was shortlisted for the 2014 Prime Minister’s Literary Award for poetry. He lives in Canberra and has published 21 poetry collections, as well as novels, memoir and biography. He edited The Best Australian Poems 2014 and 2015 (Black Inc.) Hard Horizons is forthcoming in 2017 from Pitt St Poetry.