Memory as dream, dream as memory: Shirley Lu reviews ‘South in the World’ by Lisa Jacobson

South in the World by Lisa Jacobson, UWAP, 2014

The colours on the cover of Lisa Jacobson’s South in the World suggest a sunset. Blooming clouds, glowing sky. An image that summons deep breaths. Blink, and there’s violence in the scene. Not clouds, but smoke moving as quickly as the forest fire that must be beneath it. This sensation of stillness one moment and then suffocation the next is a sensation I felt throughout the collection, full of poems that capture the sweetness of childhood along with the speed and danger of adolescence and adulthood. This feels like a highly personal work. Jacobson’s poems are beautifully written, and the collection is tightly structured: divided into five parts, the collection explores the themes of childhood and motherhood, faith and loss of faith, and activism and awareness.

Three horse poems appear side by side early in the collection. In “The Memory Wire”, a girl is twelve and discovering that horses can be hurt. In “Stable Boys”, the girl is fifteen years old and discovering boys at a barn dance. Descriptive but not overly figurative, these two poems are easy to read. Most of Jacobson’s poems are. The third poem in the set is called “On Teaching My Daughter to Ride a Horse”. Yes, now the girl is a woman, a mother. With this trio of poems, Jacobson transforms memory to motif and creates the impression that she is caught in a daydream; that we are as well.

Memory as dream, dream as memory: this is something that Jacobson plays with throughout the collection by positioning poems that twist the timeline of this biography. She also plays with memory and dream within poems through her use of imagery and language, especially in poems about birth and motherhood. In the poem “Emergence”, the persona remembers being unborn. Their father reads aloud while their mother gives birth to them:

Slow march of words crawling back through centuries,
………………..letters inked into leather scrolls,
………………..a dark wind lifting the skin of memory
………………..and my mother labouring me to the world’s fleshy rim…

The poem shocks us with verbs like ‘curled’, ‘unfurl’, ‘silenced’, and ‘cradles’: verbs that roll off the tongue and portray birth as a gentle dreamy experience. Motherhood and womanhood, however, are not always. It is heavy to be a mother, to be a woman. A poem that explores this theme is ‘The Virgin Mary Gets Postnatal Depression’. It’s a cheeky poem. While reading it, I feel like I am sitting with Mary in a busy café and she is unburdening herself, unveiling truths that she cannot share with those who live with or worship her. Remembering the immaculate conception, Mary shares that “Joseph wasn’t all that thrilled.” Mary wanted to name her son ‘Aedon’, but:

‘Actually’, said Gabriel, ‘It’s Jesus Christ.’
So that was that.

She remembers the stench of the animals in the stable, her newborn’s crying, her husband’s snoring, the isolation, the fear. She remembers postnatal depression as “climbing uphill as if through sand”. She remembers the love for her son that was not there at the start.

Mary also remembers her faith slipping “like a horse’s shoe”. The persona in the collection experiences a similar shedding of faith. God is close when the persona is a child. The collection’s very first poem, ‘Several Ways to Fall Out of the Sky’, is conversational in tone but joyful in imagery: God is everywhere; as are ghosts of all things past, present, and future. As the persona matures, the magic of God fades. In ‘Habits Formed by Eternity’, God wears a cardigan and is tired of what He has created. In ‘Some Adjustments to the Original Idea’, the persona has access to “bits of God”. And in ‘The God You Don’t Believe In’, the persona sees God as an “unfed and stunted” old man. The persona feels a sense of sadness at God’s distance from their life. In “There Are Stones That Sing”, the persona looks everywhere for God:

I’ve heard that âme (‘soul’ in French)
is the name of a wooden chip,
very exposed and vulnerable,
that violin makers insert into
the bodies of their instruments
to further enhance the sound.
So maybe that’s where God
lives now.

As God grows distant, the world looms. The persona rises to meet it. Poems position the persona in the world geographically and ideologically. The poem ‘Girls and Horses in the Fire’ sets the scene. It’s Black Saturday and the persona is thinking about Kinglake, about all the children who died. The persona make a wish: “May you find your home in the equine stars.” A eulogy for the lost childhoods of these young people and their own lost childhood in the face of fire-inflicted trauma. In the title poem “South in the World”, the persona continues to consider their lost childhood. It is eight stanzas in length. In the first stanza, Jacobsen describes the landscape. The Fire God soars and admires its work. In the second stanza, Jacobsen reveals that she is in a cathedral on the other side of the world. She connects herself to the fires through colour and movement: a cross the colour of a gentle flame, the smoke-like brushstrokes of Chagall’s Green Christ. The third stanza opens with the line: “South in the world, everyone / is weeping.” In the fourth and sixth stanzas, Jacobsen describes winter on the other side of the world. In the fifth stanza, Jacobsen stares at Chagall’s Green Christ, wanting to lay blame. The seventh stanza echoes this sentiment: “Angels were of no help that day…” In the eighth stanza, Jacobsen looks to the future, tries to “grasp the greening of things”. In the author’s notes at the back of the book, Jacobsen describes “South in the World” and the other bushfire poems as markers of “an entrance into wider sphere concerned with suffering and catastrophe”. The proceeding poems document thoughts about that wider sphere. Poems articulate thoughts on topics ranging from the horrors of the Holocaust to the extinction of the Tasmania tiger; from the ethics of eating animals to the pain of growing old.

In the suite of poems about activism and awareness, ‘South in the World’ stands out. The whole collection is epic and majestic in scope. Intimate in its imagery, though. Poems drew my attention to the curl of a leaf, the folds of a skirt, the weight of a baby on a mother’s hip. The collection evokes the world within the self and the self within the world. The final poem, “The Interior Ladder”, brings the images of the collection together like a spider weaving a web:

You try to think if there is anywhere else
………………… might seek to replace what you have lost,
………………….bit you’ve run out of oceans and continents
………………….and ships and horses. So you return
………………….to the place where it all began…

The sense of a cycle. The poem ends like this: “You have just / enough in you to take hold of the handle. / And you open the door.” You fall out of the sky again.

 – Shirley Lu


Shirley Lu works in the field of special education by day and reads poetry by night. Her favourite poets include Carson, Michaels, Ondaatje, and Kinsella. She also writes poetry; her poems have been published in Freckled Magazine, Thistle Magazine, A Hundred Gourds, and blackmail press. For more of her work, visit

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