A sense of the numinous: Dr Anne Elvey launches ‘This Shuttered Eye’ by Rose Lucas

This Shuttered Eye by Rose Lucas was virtually launched by Dr Anne Elvey during the last (hopefully) COVID lock-down in Melbourne during June 2021. Originally published by Girls on Key Press it has been republished by Liquid Amber Press. This is a slightly edited version of the speech.  

Yacht Approaching the Coast by J M W Turner is the striking cover image for This Shuttered Eye. From the TATE Gallery webpage for this work, I quote:

In this painting the light in the sky and on the sea dazzles the viewer, obscuring the scene. This visual effect echoes the progress of Turner’s own work on the painting as he returned to areas of the canvas over a period of several years, covering the original subject. Dark shapes that appear through the layers suggest boats, while the buildings on the left have not been definitively identified but may represent Venice. By reworking the canvas, Turner has created less tangible subjects – those of light and colour themselves.

This sense of melding light, material presence, human and otherwise, and the less-tangible subject, could also describe Rose’s poetics.

This Shuttered Eye is in three parts, the first, ‘The Long Gallery’ offers a series of ekphrastic poems, on which the eye opens and rests, a gallery that takes the reader from Central Australia to Footscray, ancient Rome to twenty-first century Wales, through response to works by Walter Sickert, Anthony Van Dyck, Albert Namatjira, Baby Guerrilla, JWM Turner, Fred Williams, Ovid, Paul Bailey, and Edward Hopper. As her epigraphs to this book suggest, Rose’s ekphrasis employs a way of seeing, where creative distance and deliberate attentiveness coincide. In the opening poem, ‘Travelling the Long Gallery’, the reader comes upon the place where the created world of artist and the felt world of the viewer meet:

where paint presses on the contused skin of the visible
etched
………..on the cross-hatched surface
…………………..of this shuttered eye. 

Never heavy, Rose Lucas’s voice is measured, paced – on the page and in the ear – with the rhythms of heartbeat or walking. The ‘murk’ of human obsessions and cruelty are suggested subtly, but in such a way that her poetics affirms a kind of grace. Despite its sometime pious or religious overtones, in Lucas’s poetry ‘grace’ itself is a word that the poet risks effectively. In so doing, she evokes a sense of the numinous, a kind of material sacred, as when she describes the family in Van Dyck’s portrait; Rose tells us they ‘holy in their ordinariness’ (p. 16); or in ‘Daphne, Older, and Still Unfolding’, we find ‘this / rough bark of my body beautiful’ whose ‘memories / cauled and bloody’ might be ‘Scribbled /into this heart-heft of soil’ (pp. 23-24); and in ‘Grace, or Glascwm Larches’, the poet encounters:

unexpected sunlight……… pinning
earth ……… to laden sky

As does the viewer in ‘Woman at a Window’, after a painting by Edward Hopper, the reader encounters in the poet, ‘a woman breathing in the world’. This woman, the poet, has in ‘Palmwoods’:

learned to trust the epiphany
that sharp sweet
rent
in the weaving of
moments

These moments are the ‘here’; the ‘now’. An ethic of attention to the here and now is described lucidly in the poem ‘Here’, which comes early in part 2 of the book, ‘Habitation’.

When I think of Lucas’s poetry, I think of intersections between poetry, breath, voice and the poetics of space/spacing. Luce Irigaray argues that for women to inhabit their own voice and to be voiced inhabitants of a counter-patriarchal world they need to pay attention to the breath, to breathing¹. In Rose’s work, spaces on the page signal the breath as part of the meaning and materiality of the poem.

The opening poem of ‘Habitation’, is ‘Poetry and Breathing’:

Pared back to the…… clarity
……….. of line…. flowing into
line maybe

every poem is
………. about breathing
about re-inscribing

the certainty
………. for now……. at least
of rise
…………
and fall
an anchor
……………
in wild waters and calm

………………. ………. the almost unbearable simplicity of
in
……….
and
out

the cool air I invite into the habitation of my body.
………… its invisible conduits

the welcome tide of bright blood and spark
……….. of neuron

that searches me out
……….. washing me in the salty pathways of life

the warmed breath that flows from me and
……….. back into the world

…….I am its creature
a body……swimming in channels of air

the steady and the variable beating of
words……….. ……….. ………..and white spaces

pulsing…… an interplay of.
……….. ………….. note
………….
and rest

ornament and pause while always
the deep thrum of silence

……its potential to disrupt…. to splinter
the sheen of surface

In this second section, ‘Habitation’, attention to the particularities of place; of body’s being in relation to place; the loving eye that also notices through ear and touch; and by the poet’s staging of the breath: layers of observation build up, as in the poem ‘Red Rock Lookout’, where the body stands back from and inhabits that to which it harkens.

Alertness to place takes the reader across many spaces of visitation, in Australia, into the interior of the person, and outward to Scotland, to long spells visiting friends in Vermont, beautifully observed in the sequence ‘Vermont Collage’. Lucas’s capacity for sympathetic habitation and a deliberate leaning toward where she finds herself, extend beyond her local place, forming bridges in her poems between inner and outer worlds through sharp attention.

The final section ‘Homing’ moves the reader into spaces of relationships, damage and loss, personal, yes, but more generally familial and communal. These are perceptive poems of tragedy and hope, the remembrance of women’s lives diminished, the poignant griefs accompanying parental ageing, the memory of war and its aftermaths in families, the expectation of birth, things loved and learnt from, like the music of Joni Mitchell. An elegy for Eurydice Dixon, movingly references Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice. The weave of situations and voices resembles the title of the penultimate poem, ‘Cat’s Cradle’.

Fittingly, the book closes looking beyond the human world of its author to a more-than-human world of interrelationship many of us are learning more about, the vast sympathetic inter-relationality of trees². This Shuttered Eye is a journey across centuries and landscapes, where attention to the present opens out to care beyond the self. It is a meditative work that calls its reader, like its poet, to ‘trust … the weaving of / moments’ (p. 39). I am grateful to Rose Lucas for her generosity of voice in this work.

¹ Luce Irigaray, ‘The Age of the Breath’ (trans. Katja van de Rakt, Staci Boeckman and Luce Irigaray), in Key Writings (ed. Luce Irigaray; London: Continuum, 2004), pp. 165-70.

² E.g., Peter Wohlleben, The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate (trans. Jane Billinghurst; Carlton: Black Inc., 2016).

 – Dr Anne Elvey

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Anne Elvey is a poet, editor and researcher, living and working on Boonwurrung Country in Seaford, Victoria. Her poetry publications include Obligations of voice (2021), On arrivals of breath (2019), White on White (2018) and Kin (2014). Her most recently scholarly work is Reading the Magnificat in Australia: Unsettling Engagements (2020).

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This Shuttered Eye is available from https://liquidamberpress.com.au/product/this-shuttered-eye-2021-edn/