A review of Fresh News from the Arctic by Libby Hart

Libby Hart’s Fresh News From The Arctic is a small but significant collection of poetry that is engaging, thought-provoking, sometimes wryly humorous, and that demands reading and rereading to uncover the delicate nuances hidden so artfully within its language.

Reviewed by Liz Hall-Downs

Fresh News from the Arctic
by Libby Hart
Interactive Press
Brisbane, Queensland, Australia, 2006, 56 pages, ISBN 9781876819347, $24.00

Libby Hart’s poems possess a contemplative stillness and subtlety, giving them the impression of an ‘unfolding’ of meaning as the work is read and reread. Hart is not a ‘wordy’ poet; rather, the lines are sparse and considered, each word weighty and carefully chosen. This is her first collection, and it is a worthy one.

The title poem, ‘Fresh News from the Arctic’, is essentially a love poem to nature, in this case Antarctica. But it is also a meditation on life. The poet has ‘an apparition at my shoulder’ (p.3); she is ‘listening to the slow shattering of my life’. She is ‘waiting for inner resolution’ that ‘must come like a mast, like a sail; / with an almighty north wind, / prodigious and impressive’ (p.4). Thus the poem juxtaposes an impressive, overwhelming and concrete natural world against the poet’s inner, unresolved emotional world, creating a kind of tension that speaks to human uncertainty. This nine part title sequence won the Somerset National Poetry Prize in 2005; it’s easy to see why it would have appealed to the judges, as its concerns are both personal and universal.

Appealing also – especially to the Australian audience – is the long poem ‘Nicolas Baudin’ (pp.39-44), which recounts an attempt by Baudin to transport seven kangaroos (‘as quiet as folded hands’) to Paris for the Empress Josephine to add to her menagerie, her ‘collection of pure pleasure’. It seems a reckless undertaking; in the event only two kangaroos survive the journey and Baudin, after witnessing the death of one of his charges, himself dies at sea (‘… his body is placed / in a hasty coffin, and / dug deep / inside a snug anchor / of forgetfulness’ (p.42). But what seems to intrigue the author is that these two kangaroos became accustomed to their new environment, became ‘the very embodiment of relaxation’, and ‘lazed on their sides / like misshapen and ancient stones’ (p.43). They reproduced to the extent that wild kangaroos – ‘generations of escapees’ – apparently now inhabit Rambouillet Forest, near the town of Emance. The poem ends on this nicely rounded note: ‘Josephine / would’ve been pleased / to have a legacy / so close to Paris / but, more importantly, / Baudin would be delighted / the edges of his mouth / curling into a small boat / at the very thought of it; and / at the obstinate nature / of the peaceful creatures / that don’t complain (p.44).’ In both these long poems, the imagery of a boat reinforces the notion of gloabl travel through bth the world and the senses.

The other substantial, long poem in the collection, ‘The Anatomy of Clouds’ (pp 9-12)
uses the language of meteorology to describe the subtleties of the spoken and unspoken things in a relationship as a man and a woman become a couple. The different types of cloud and cloud activity are evoked to capture particular emotions (‘the nimbus / that holds us together / … / The softest kind of rain / that lasts all through the day … p.10) later becomes ‘ … you grew overcast / shadows blooming to great height, / your cold front meeting my warm like a hailstorm’. As their baby is born, the narrator makes the commitment (perhaps to the partner, perhaps to the child): ‘ … here are my pearls of breath / here are my hands / Even in the harshest storm / I will shelter you’.

‘Between’ is a striking rumination on the methods of death employed or encountered by a cast of famous writers (‘Henry James writes invisible words over a bedspread / Keats undergoes his long final night / Eugene O’Neill waits to die in a Boston hotel room / … / … Hemingway places the gun to his head / while the Brontes drop away / like pearls from a broken necklace’ (p.38). Some pieces verge towards the surreal: ‘The Dream Jar’, ‘heavy with cloud’, seems to resemble Plath’s ‘Bell Jar’ as a vehicle of restriction (‘a tight lid holds conversation well’), and is a repository for a dream of ‘snails inside each drop of rain’ that ‘ride my toes as hills’ (p.29) – a beautiful and unexpected ending to a meditation on emotion. ‘Room of Angels’ is simply descriptive of its title, introducing a roomful of angels in a room ‘so small … / our wings are clipped. / Pushed back against spine. / Restless, we ruffle easily’ (p.33). This highly visual poem is pure invention, with strangely memorable visual imagery that put this reader in mind of the independent film Northfork’.

Other poems deal with a variety of themes, both large and small: science and the rise and fall of theories (‘Darwin’s Walk’), odd newspaper stories (‘The Memory Suite’), observation of the way people on trains handle their briefcases (‘The Briefcase Phenomenon’), a descriptive piece on a well-known face (‘Samuel Becket’s Wrinkles’), and an imaginary account of what is going through the mind of an acrobat performing for a crowd (‘Tightrope Walker’). Libby Hart’s Fresh News From The Arctic is a small but significant collection of poetry that is engaging, thought-provoking, sometimes wryly humorous, and that demands reading and rereading to uncover the delicate nuances hidden so artfully within its language.

About the reviewer: Liz Hall-Downs has been reading and performing poetry in public, on TV and radio in Australia and the USA, and publishing in journals, since 1983. She holds a BA from Deakin University (Victoria) with major studies in Professional Writing & Literature and an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Queensland. Some of Liz Hall Down’s publications include: Fit of Passion, (with Kim Downs), (Fit of Passion Collective, 1997), Girl With Green Hair, (Papyrus Publishing, 2000), People of the Wetlands, (Brisbane City Council, 1996), Mountains to Mangroves, and Mountains to Mangroves Haiku Cycle, (Brisbane City Council and Queensland Wildlife Preservation Society, 1999), Blackfellas Whitefellas Wetlands, (with B.R. Dionysius and Samuel Wagan Watson), (Brisbane City Council & Boondall Wetlands Management Committee, 2000).