Kim Cheng Boey Reviews “Aria” by Sarah Holland-Batt


by Sarah Holland Batt

University of Queensland Press


ISBN 9780702236754

Reviewed by KIM CHENG BOEY


Poetry is about finding the image that will suffice, that will embody the complex of emotion and thought possessing the poet’s body and soul. It is about finding concrete details that have a special resonance, and creating from a few particulars an entire mood or landscape. Sarah Holland-Batt possesses this gift in abundance. She has the attentiveness for the telling detail, and the mastery of making magic of familiar things. In poems of startling freshness and immediacy, Holland-Batt bridges the quotidian and visionary worlds in vivid acts of seeing, and reminds us of poetry’s power to renovate, to restore delight in ordinary things.


In an age where there are so many poems and poets flaunting their postmodernist opacity and reducing language to a vaguely apprehensible vaporous flow until nothing remains in the reader’s head, it is refreshing and heartening to encounter a young poet who values lyric clarity, and who, though gifted with art of seeing and turning ordinary things into arresting metaphors, does not disdain to use plain speech to say the most profound things. This gift is evident in the moving “The Sewing Room,” a tribute to the poet’s mother, its tactile touches reminiscent of Seamus Heaney’s elegies for his mother:


My mother measured the margins

of my known world there:

a sunlit annex where the lines converged,

wrist to shoulder-blade, hip, ankle, waist;

maps I would only outgrow

charted in painstaking tailor’s chalk.


The image and moment are precisely delineated, and the iconic figure of the mother working her Singer wonderfully captured: “sometimes a foxtrot, sometimes a waltz,/ she treadled the pedal with a pianist’s touch.” The concluding sestet echoes the last lines in Robert Hayden’s father poem “Those Winter Sundays” (“What did I know, what did I know/ of love’s austere and lonely offices?”):


            What did I know of making then,

            rearranging a few sad odds and ends

under my mother’s pinned smile,

her teeth interspersed with ersatz test?

The overlocker zagged on like a lie-detector test.

I kept watch. It never leapt.


The affection, the mother-daughter bond is never stated but conveyed through the telling details, the terse sentences in the last line contrasting poignantly with the preceding aggregate of subordinate clauses, noun and preposition phrases to suggest the inadequacy of language in expressing the mother’s selfless love.


Holland-Batt reveals a Keatsian apprehension of the world around her that yields up refreshing physical details. In a few weaker poems, this silts up the movement of the lyric, but when this rich vein is balanced by a Chekhovian spareness, Holland-Batt reveals a mature mind that makes her one of the most compelling poets to emerge in recent years. This balance is most apparent in the family portraits, where the precision of detail works hand in glove with lyric cadence and restraint to create deeply poignant tributes. In “Exhaustion” the little concrete details piece together a whole life:


One afternoon I went into his silent study

and found, behind the tiny compartments

of paper-clips, rubber bands and push-pins,

an old, red tin – the relic of my grandfather’s oils,

wedged at the back of things. Horse-hair brushes,

graphite stubs, a frayed bit of string. And nestled in

the smudged stippling of china white and cerulean,

a solitary tube of cobalt blue, its crimped end

folded over and over until nothing was left.


The last detail resonates endlessly in the reader’s mind, as a lasting emblem of the grandfather’s life and memory. There are other moving familial poems that echo Robert Lowell (Holland-Batt acknowledges her debt in “Letter to Robert Lowell”), but Heaney is a more palpable influence in the portraits of the father, in “Atonement” and in “The Woodpile,” which is inspired by the figure of the poet’s father splitting “rounds of wood”:


Nights were cold; my father’s breath,

blue as exhaust while he chopped, stunning each

block in two with the blade’s glottal stop

although the cold kept coming on no matter

how hard he struck.


The sensuous weave of alliterative and assonantal sounds and the use of vivid kinetic verbs are Heaneyesque, marrying memory and lyric form in a reverential gesture.


Poem after poem in the collection exhibits a Keatsian sensuality, an alert eye and ear that capture all the nuances of emotion and thought through physical detail.  “Circles and Centres” is unabashed in its use of adjectives, the long train of images breathing rapture:


You are being called. All the garden

around the house is as planets in orbit,

its slim persimmons and cumquats, their shocks

of rind, the pumpkins viridian and grooved

like distorted grenades, plump wattle in sprays

rattling its sweet dust into your eyes and nose.


Heaney is again audible in the digging motif and vivid verbs:


You are digging, digging against it,

possibly for an end; going around the perimeter

of you plot, wielding your ability to crimp

and cinch and singe like a new addition

to your vocabulary.


The poem locates a liminal instant between the outside and indoors, between the self and other. It digs deep into the moment, and while the language is beautifully evocative, it is one of the few poems where the gift for imagery runs aground on its own excess.


Holland-Batt, like Jane Hirshfield and Linda Gregg, has the ability to tune in to the mystery of ordinary things. There is a Zen-like attentiveness, and the ego disappears in a concentrated moment of seeing:


            Will you come back from the other side?


                                             No, but the world will still know me.


            And how will it know you?


                                              In the black cricket’s song.

                                              In the throat

                                              of all things burning.


There is a remarkable precision and economy of language, and a haunting acoustic, a captivating music that holds up the visual image.


Music, as theme and metaphor, permeates the work. The longer poems that with musical motifs – “Rachmaninoff’s Dream” and “Aria for a Painted Dancer” – stumble and lose clarity, the rich word-hoard cluttering up the movement, but “Misery and Pizzicato” delivers that ominous chord in Mahler’s tragic oeuvre memorably:


Morning, thinking of Mahler

in nineteenth-century Austria,

who was told Jews were not welcome

at the Vienna Opera – composer or no.

He turned Catholic, and joked.

‘I have just changed my coat,’

then went home and marked the violins

in his seventh symphony ffff, with a note:

pluck so hard that the strings hit the wood.


Again the economy and exactitude are impressive: in a short lyric Mahler’s life and work are compellingly captured.


Aria offers many poems in which the words achieve the condition of music, to quote Pater. Reading a Holland-Batt poem, one is compelled to listen to the resonance, the silence, the meaning that echoes at the end of the last line. There are a few poems of strained epiphanies, and a few others where the eye for imagery goes uncontrolled, and but overall it is a collection to keep, one to re-read for its luminous detail and knowledge, and its tender, compassionate imagination that is always “Letting the ordinary become the last.”