An exquisite subtlety: Annee Lawrence reviews ‘What the river told me’ by Jane Skelton

What the river told me by Jane Skelton. Flying Islands Press, 2021

In Jane Skelton’s What the river told me there is a strong connection to place, landscape, the natural environment, and the human trace on it.

Many of the poems were written during a 2018 writing residency in Northumberland, England; on travels to Scotland where Jane was conducting research on the early life of the colonial entrepreneur Ben Boyd; and then at Boydtown near Eden on the south coast of New South Wales where a tower is testimony to a man’s ambition to build a town.

What the river told me was edited by Kit Kelen and is part of the Flying Island Books Pocket Poet Series. It’s printed on fine matt white paper, silken to the touch and with perfect binding, and of a shape and size to fit the palm of the hand.

The marine blue cover by Virginia Shepherd suggests mystery and a sense of the uncanny, and as you read the poems its images accrue meaning: a seahorse, sailing ship, arch bridge, gleaming fisheye, lit-up hovering two-storey house and, most notably, a fish skeleton that links to the poet’s surname.

The title poem ‘what the river told me’ features the river: liquid, flowing, fluid, carrying along.

a yellow, muscular tide
viscous, lustrous
a serpentine thread
covering and uncovering
gathering up, letting go

The river gathers up the poet’s parents who emigrated from England to Australia including the father who came from ‘somewhere north,’ the title of the second poem:

the river flowed through all their lives
with all the things not told or said

The river rises, rages, floods houses, leaves a ‘dingy tide mark’; and, as the poem concludes, tells the poet.

you are the gatherer
the collector
that’s what the river said
but the river has risen over my head

In the poems that follow the poet seeks ‘a genetic thread’, a line of origin in a land that appears alien and unfamiliar, but where, despite the strangeness, curiosity draws her across moor and fell, along ‘packhorse routes/sinuous gravel roads’ and ‘mud paths’.

In ‘stone houses, Allenheads’ the ruins of the stone houses appear animated and their empty window frames conjure an uncanny presence that is reiterated in ‘aural landscape’, in which the mythic voices and laughter of the ‘little people/ lost children’ ghost the area’s underground tunnels.

Moving on to the poems ‘Moniave, Scotland’ and then ‘Glasgow swelter’ and ‘the black waters of the Cree’, we arrive at the River Cree where the Boyd family lived. Here the poem ‘the slave boy Dick and Benjamin Boyd’ reads like a ballad about Dick after he is taken in by the Boyd family during the late 1770s. They task him with keeping company with their son Ben and they become friends of sorts, but when they grow up Ben sails away on his schooner the wanderer and arrives in Sydney’s Port Jackson on 18 July 1842.

Boyd becomes one of the largest landowners in the colony and begins construction of Boydtown near Eden. When he ships sixty-five islanders from New Caledonia and Vanuatu, and then a further slave shipment of men and women from the islands, there is widespread condemnation and his empire crumbles.

Until now, Boyd’s nefarious activities and massive failed enterprises have been glossed over in the state’s colonial history, but when the poet visits the now derelict ‘Ben Boyd’s tower’ she finds its signage ‘warped, melted’ by fire, as though in a cleansing act that foresees a looming historical reckoning.

fire has revealed the middens, the shells
crumbling to ashy earth,
signs of those whose place it was, and is
the romance is fading
listen – other voices are speaking
a new naming begins

In the Black Lives Matter era, Boyd’s whitewashed legacy is up for review.

In ‘remembering Queensland: visiting my mother in 1989’ the poet travels by train to visit her family at Nambour. When she alights she is confronted by the simmering heat, insects and the memory of a cane toad that wouldn’t die. The last lines sum up the visceral pain of unresolved separation and disconnect:

the family wanted to see me
now, they’ve seen me
watching from the couch
talk fades away

Another poem, ‘the lake inside’, which was selected for the 2021 Newcastle Poetry Prize Anthology, is also featured in this collection.

In the final poem, ‘House on the estuary’, focus is on living lightly in place, in relationship with and close observation of nature, and on the peacefulness derived from a sense of timelessness.

A time-warp, we always say,
nothing changes here.

And:

Nothing changes here, not much anyway,
Only the mantelpiece accretions,

All the shiftings and tides of the wider world
have no credence here.
This house is the one constant of our lives.

The house bears the history of the relationship, the mark of birdsong through fibro walls, dreamings, and the memory of a rare visit by seals that ‘cavorted under the full moon’.
It’s where the couple escape to, infrequently because of distance, and where the pressures of everyday life seem to dissolve. The poet addresses her partner:

It’s where I feel my best, with you –
before the fireplace, in quietude,
and our ritual of mussel soup.

Edenic, sublime. And yet again, as in the other poems, there is a moment, a mood shift – gentle, slight or shocking – that reconfigures what has gone before.

Once again, the reader is lulled into the rhythm of language, sliding imagery and assonance until, right at the end, there is a shift of mood or tone that sets you down in wonder, and adds another layer of meaning to what has preceded it. For when the apocalyptic threatens or descends, meaning itself is rendered precarious, uncertain and contingent.

While everything seems permanent, certain and constant in their stays at the beach house, and this despite noting the evidence of decay, time passing and fragile existence, the poem’s final lines and images colour and shape shift what has come before, not just in this poem, but in the entire collection.

There is nothing heavy handed here. An exquisite subtlety carries the reader along, and, yes, along as on a river, a slow moving fluid experience that gently nudges, holds our attention, draws us in, tugs at the heart rate and breath. Not only does it invite an embodied response to the magic, mystery and mastery conveyed, it nags for a second or third reading based on what has been peeled away.
What the river told me deserves to be savoured for the beauty of language and image on offer, and for its promise of a gentle opening up and rewiring in the process.

 – Annee Lawrence

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Annee Lawrence’s novel The Colour of Things Unseen (Aurora Metro, UK) was launched by Janet de Neefe, Director of the Ubud Writers’ and Readers’ Festival, in October 2019. Annee has a PhD in creative writing (Western Sydney University), and has had essays published in New Writing, Griffith Review, Hecate, Mascara, Cultural Studies Review, the online University of Edinburgh Dangerous Women Project, and The Women Writers’ Handbook (ed. Ann Sandham). She is currently seeking a publisher for a novel based in Sydney and Brisbane during World War 2.

What the river told me is available from https://flyingislandspocketpoets.com.au/product/what-the-river-told-me-by-jane-skelton/

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