The Celebration of a Life Richly Lived: Ron Pretty Reviews ‘Many, and One’ by Lyn Hatherly

Many, and One by Lyn Hatherly Five Island Press 2017

Some readers may not be aware that this is a posthumous collection: sadly, Lyn Hatherly passed away in 2016. At the back of Many, and One, there is a biography of Lyn, so I don’t need to go through her life story in any great detail. But there are a number of things from that biography that I would like to take a few moments to highlight.

I got to know Lyn when I came to Melbourne to run Five Islands Press, the Australian Poetry Foundation and Blue Dog (which later became Australian Poetry Inc and Australian Poetry Journal) and it is true to say that none of those projects would have survived for very long without her — an observation that was confirmed after I retired to Wollongong and Kevin Brophy took over Five Islands Press. For both of us, Lyn was administrator, secretary and editor by turns; always there, always reliable, always cheerful.

She was a very careful editor and proof reader; she helped with the selection process for Blue Dog and was always a good sounding board when selections were being made for FIP.

The next thing that impressed me about Lyn was her knowledge of the myths, the ancient writers and philosophers; and particularly, her knowledge of, and authority on, the work of Sappho, that ancient Greek poet from the island of Lesbos on whom she had done her PhD. Some of the poems in the collection display the power of one of her translations; she translated Sappho for her degree. Lyn came to academic study late, as her biography explains, but she was an autodidact with a life-long love of literature and thirst for knowledge, both scientific and literary.

I know that Lyn had other arrows in her Sapphic quiver, chief among them her ability as a lecturer, workshop leader and mentor for writers. Others are better qualified to speak of this aspect of her life, but the number of people at Eltham with grateful memories of her attests to that, as does the workshop in Eltham she founded. The fact that it continues uninterrupted demonstrates her continuing creative influence.

That perhaps is a somewhat lengthy introduction, but it is important to remember that, as fine a poet as Lyn was, she composed her poetry while she was doing a myriad of other things, which makes the quality of her poetry even more remarkable.

Turning now to Many, and One. The first thing I would want to claim for it is that it is accessible and challenging. This is poetry to be enjoyed and appreciated by all who have a skerrick of interest in poetry.

Coincidentally, as I was preparing this review, I happened to see a documentary film about the great Hungarian composer and teacher Zoltán Kodály. He firmly believed that all of us have music in us, and the correct approach will bring it out. He also felt that Conservatoria around the world do music a great disservice by concentrating on a few gifted musicians at the expense of all others, who are left feeling second rate, demoralised.  I can attest to the truth of that, for I know a gifted pianist who, having won a scholarship to London, was there told that she would never make a concert pianist. The disappointment in a very real sense destroyed her life. Kodály believed in encouraging the love of music for people at any age, and the success of the annual  Brisbane Music School attests to the efficacy of his approach.

That story has a direct relevance to Lyn Hatherly, for, as Kodály in music, so Lyn believed that poetry is for all of us, not just the gifted few, as the success of her workshops attests. As does her own poetry, which demonstrates the power of a clear and accessible surface, vibrant images, precision and passion to convey rich and complex ideas. As we can see in this collection, there is a richness we can all enjoy.

The book is in 6 evocative sections, entitled, in turn, Many; Imagine; Love and Desire; Borrowed Breath; And One; and, finally a baker’s dozen of uncollected and selected poems. As the note on the text at the beginning indicates, some of these poems were in earlier collections, so it’s a new and selected edition. As well, Chris and Kevin have indicated in their note that “we have done our best to present the poems left unfinished in as complete a state as possible, in the arrangement that Lyn had worked out.” I think Lyn would have been very pleased with the result, for those poems fit seamlessly into the collection. Unstated there, of course, is the sense of loss those unfinished poem represent.

The next thing to notice is the title: Many, and One. We know that Lyn was a very careful editor, so why the comma? For me, its effect is to isolate and emphasise each term in the title, even as it insists on the link between them. There are a great many of us, and we live in a world of many wonderful things, and in a world that faces grave issues, as many of the poems suggest even as they stress the beauty and the power of the natural world. At the same time the title insists that we are one, that we live in one world and (despite the dreams of the astronauts) if we destroy it, there will be no other. Her poem, ‘The many’, explores this. Notice the way she segues from talking about the one, to bacteria, and finally to talking about all of us. (page 49). See also ‘We are many, but we are one’ on page 64.

The title thus connects seamlessly with the dominant theme of the collection. For many of the poems in this collection explore aspects of science and the natural world; her sense of delight in it; her sense of wonder. All her life this was an abiding interest of hers, and it came as no surprise when she told me some years ago that she and her partner Chris Peters were intent on building an ecologically sustainable home, which they did in Eltham. That’s the thing with Lyn: she didn’t just espouse her beliefs, she lived them.

So many of the poems in this collection reference this passion of hers. For instance, this one from page 12: ‘Hear Them’. Note the real sense of celebration throughout this poem, and especially in the last line of each stanza. The final stanza will give you a good sense of the poem:

How wise we were of sap and form
to found this green and wet-pocked earth
where plants take air and make it breathe
where streams and seas and clear lakes flood
where rocks have thawed to make good soil
the sun gives light and heat and fire
and all life forms shake with desire
together they shall sing a hallelujah.

That awareness of the natural world, the wonder of it, permeates the whole collection: the earth and everything in it, and everything on it is her text, how all of it’s connected, all of it is to be celebrated, insect, bird and animal, humans and our place in it, the love of partner, child and parent, the awareness of our origins, mythical and scientific; and where it is all headed. One, and Many indeed. So many poems could be chosen to illustrate this; but read, for instance, ‘At Dusk’, on page 45, where Hatherly seamlessly moves from suburban communters returning home to Shearwaters seeking their nest. The poem celebrates what they have in common.

There are a number of passionate and very sensual poems in the collection, such poems as ‘I see us’, ‘I breathe you’, ‘Labours of Love’, and others. Look how much she packs into ‘Flesh and light’ on page 41. It is both very sensual and scientific, invoking Newton and fields of energy, moving seamlessly from science to the passion and back again.

The energy of love can be moulded
into shapes in an unseen world.
I lean back into the tide of your love.
Its energy is clear as the layers of ocean
closest to the sky, where sunlight is held.

Such poems, of course, emphasise another kind of unity: that between lovers, and also, in a number of poems, between mother and child, or between her and her father. Those poems are almost painful in their beauty: as we read them, we can’t but reflect on Lyn’s delight in the world of the senses. So alive these poems!
Her awareness of what she is leaving gives a real poignancy to many of these poems. One that has a huge impact on me when I read it is ‘You believe’ on page 27. The poem is also a good example of Lyn’s ability to find the significant, evocative detail.

You believe you’ll always remember this,
the spring-blue sky, shallower than summer,
fruit flowers above new green leaves,
wattles still showing a dull gold,
huge box trees creaming and scented
. . . . . . . . . . .
How could plant life keep flowering, fruiting, gifting us
without them (bees), bright as canaries in a mine?
I will remember this.

One of her great skills is in reminding us of the ongoing connectedness between history, myths and the present. These poems remind me of A D Hope’s comment that, “It is the meaning of the poet’s trade to recreate the myths and revive in men the energy by which they live.” (I like the ambivalence of the final “they” in that sentence.)  In the poem ‘Ulysses’ on page 37, just the title is enough. And I think Ovid would have been proud of her poem Daphne (P 17). We’ll all have our own favourites, of course, but for me, the best illustration of this feature of Lyn’s poetry is ‘The star people’ on page 73.

Such connectedness with the present also applies to the ancient philosophers. Look, for instance, at the way she brings Epicurus into the present in a poem like ‘Properties of air’ on page 39. He ‘formed the view,’ she tells us, ‘that matter is illusory’, and ‘We inhale Epicurus’s words.’ And he is very much with them as ‘We dream, you and I, on a lap of long grass.’

At first glance, Lyn’s poetry might appear artless, unstructured, but that’s because her effects come so naturally, so subtly, that it’s easy to overlook them. The poems are rich in the well chosen detail, the evocative phrase, the subtle patterns of sound, the carefully chosen line breaks. Let me give you just a few examples.
See for example, how much is encompassed in these short phrases from Daphne (17), how effective the sound patterning is, how competent the line breaks:

She stands staring at him
sinking her small feet in deep loose soil
until they take root, until her arms spread
in branches, and the white flesh of breasts
know a corselet of bark.

And consider this brief stanza from Cities (22). See how much she builds into these brief lines: the compression, the evocation, with so many of her ecological concerns packed into one brief stanza:

As consummate pack animals we rule
taming, excluding other life forms
even trees and lyrical birds
marching out each day, dragging in
bread from the global commons.

Look too, in the poem Ulysses, (P37) at the way this stanza, in one sentence, builds so beautifully to its butterfly conclusion:

Into this green-tinged underworld,
where vines wrap screens around tree-poles
and lianas that tracked the sun
end in coiled spirals on a floor
crawling with baby-flesh ferns,

two travellers flitted

Notice, too, how effectively she uses the stanza break there to foreground that final phrase.

I could go on multiplying examples of her skill, but I’ll leave to readers the pleasure of finding them for themselves. Those few though are sufficient to make clear the skill with which she weaves her magic: the sound patterning, the compression, the repetitions, the careful structures, the foregrounding, the phrase that make you look and look again.

I would like to finish by referring to the first and last poems, which so ably frame the collection as a whole. The first of them, ‘For a Good Life’, on page 11, is a poem that encompasses her philosophy in a few simple stanzas. Then, on page 81, is ‘Each Breath’, the last poem in the collection. So much is going on in this poem; it carries within it a suggestion of the history of evolution, and an awareness of the richness the world has to offer, and finally and most powerfully, her awareness of the direction in which she is headed. There are many powerful and evocative poems dealing with these questions in this collection, so this is a very appropriate poem on which to end:

I hold my breath, feel the faintness
my body’s panic, the increase in blood-born
carbon, the way some acts are not wilful.
Air and life have always interacted
the present crop of green and living things
nest in our hollow, sipping a mix of oxygen
nitrogen and argon from the fine layer
succouring our Earth: our global commons.
Every breath links us with our past
reminds us that we are all joined.

So I walk on, face forward to my future
while behind me foorprints like arrowheads
point to all I have left behind.

It’s a fine summing up, a statement of her personal philosophy and a revelation of her courage. So buy, read and re-read this book, even as we remember, and miss, the fine mind and generous spirit of the woman who produced it.

 – Ron Pretty

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Ron Pretty has been publishing his poetry for 40 years. His eighth book of poetry, What the Afternoon Knows, was published in 2013. He has taught writing throughout Australia and in US, England and Austria. From 1983 to 1999 he was Head of Writing at the University of Wollongong. He was the director of Five Islands Press, for which he published 230 books by Australian poets in the 20 years 1987 – 2007. He taught creative writing at the University of Melbourne, 2004 – 2007. In 2012 the Australia Council for the Arts awarded him a residency in Rome.

Many, and One is available at http://fiveislandspress.com/catalogue/many-and-one-lyn-hatherly

Lyn Hatherley’s obituary on Rochford Street Review https://rochfordstreetreview.com/2016/03/29/vale-lyn-hatherley/

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