Sullivan, Thom. Carte Blanche. Vagabond Press, 2019. RRP: $25.00, 69pp, ISBN: 9781925735031.
In musical notation, a ‘grace note’ is a note which is ornamental, decorative, an embellishment to the piece—something inessential. Thom Sullivan begins his award-winning debut collection, Carte Blanche, with a poem that provides a succession of images for such a note:
A mopoke alights from a roadside tree: it is,
In its moment, weightless—a grace note of the if only,
of an existential absence. A tidal shift
in the wind over the paddocks. A fine grain of stars. (9)
Sullivan’s ‘mopoke’ first appears as a ‘weightless’ adornment to ‘its moment’, its music a gentle tinkle of regret: ‘a grace note of the if only’. But as we step across the stanza break, that music swells, gathering into a line of stronger force: ‘of an existential absence. A tidal shift.’ What seemed idly passing, a flickering expression of wistful longing, is, on second glance, of more lasting substance, though the poem then quickly settles again. The ‘tidal shift’ is only in the ‘wind over the paddocks’, and we are left with an image straight out of the Romantic lyric toolkit, both finely decorative yet also hinting at a deeper yearning: ‘a fine grain of stars’.
In these extraordinary poems, Sullivan seeks to catch those elusive moments in which the essential is concealed in the inessential, where the ornamental is more than merely decorative. As in the collection’s first poem, ‘Threshold’, his poetry is alert to the role stanza and line breaks can play in achieving that aim. It is also intensely, self-consciously, visual. Sullivan gazes in these poems at objects and rural Australian landscapes, always mindful of the angle of his viewpoint:
A day in parallax—duco-blue—
A crop of borrowed gold,
In focus, replete—
Fibrous stems of light, agitated, (24)
This poem, ‘In Camera’, suggests an interest in photography. So too does ‘Grampians Panorama 4X6S’ which, as Sullivan explains in a note, ‘takes the form of a segmented panorama, in which four “photographs” make up a single landscape’ (68). In ‘Summer Dam’, the poet speaks of ‘squinting hard’ (26); and in ‘Homo Suburbiensis’ of ‘your view slantwise’, a perspective which transforms late in that poem into that of a ‘broken bird […] wheeling high about this vast suburbia […] its view slantwise’ (64–65). As the poet puts it in ‘Suburban Panopticon’, ‘birds have their own topography’ (58). There is a sense of deep unease in representations of a ‘broken bird’ and the suburb as a ‘panopticon’—an intimation of something terrible and prison-like amidst the beauty Sullivan depicts elsewhere. These poems all acknowledge the significance of different perspectives, of the need to view things in ‘parallax’ or ‘panorama’ or ‘slantwise’, like or unlike a bird, if we are to be jolted out of calcified points of view and learn anything new. What Sullivan is doing here is exploring ways of ‘subtly altering the frame’, as the speaker nicely says in ‘Elaterid, Harbinger’ (32).
The poems return again and again to observations of light and shadow: ‘the cold, blue light of morning’ (13), ‘a window in to a light that’s tidal’ (15), ‘the noondays’ aching light’ (26), ‘the first cold light of dawn’ (51); ‘evening’s first shadows […] yawning, projecting’ (25), ‘shadows boxed up & set upon an ebbing dark’ (37). In ‘Forecast’, the chiaroscuro of these poems resolves into a woozy synaesthesia: ‘the late light itself a beautiful noise’ (33). For a poem so concerned with the sensory, ‘Forecast’ fittingly highlights ‘the body’s beat & tide’, yet it also ponders the limits of what is made available to the senses:
Obeisance to tangible idols : to a curvature of hips :
What to make of thomas’s scepticism : his deference
To the tangible : the try-able : things that one can touch : (33)
Sullivan’s substitution of colons for regular punctuation here is a strategy he adopts in a number of poems. It is, as I read it, another way of ‘subtly altering the frame’. The colons eschew the hierarchies of regular grammar and punctuation to suggest other ways of viewing the relations between syntactic units. ‘Forecast’ is also one of a number of tender love poems, in which the poet explores the relation between bodies in love. ‘Your Gaze Eludes Mine’ wittily takes up the volume’s concern with observation and perception in the landscape poems, translating it into a dance of desire: ‘your gaze eludes mine, just as mine / evades yours […] It will begin with words. / It will begin with our gazes locked / and interlocking…’ (49).
The two beginnings of this poem—of words and of gazes—is an example of the collection’s pervasive self-reflexive concern with words and language, and the relation between words and the body. ‘Threshold’ establishes this concern in the collection’s first line: ‘To drive out on a dark dissertation of road’ (9). The word ‘dissertation’ evokes a more discursive form of knowledge than that of the senses. In the love poem ‘Vox’, the materiality of language is stretched beyond the visual and sonic marks of the signifier: ‘you’ve exited the poem & nothing remains : just words : no : the aftertaste of words’ (36). ‘Aftertaste’ is in fact more than ‘nothing’ but it is not quite ‘taste’, and ‘Vox’ quietly doubts whether its ‘squads of companionable words’ (36) can conjure presence out of ‘an absence’ (37), replace ‘things that are gone’ (41). The poem oscillates between the ‘deference to the tangible’ of ‘Forecast’ and a desire to press language into a kind of corporeality, and to be simply ‘there in the moment : suffering / the poem’ (39).
The collection ends with another love poem, ‘Aubade’. This poem provides a last gloss on how it feels to be ‘there in the moment : suffering / the poem’, or like the ‘mopoke’ ‘in its moment, weightless’:
You will have time enough
To look out on the dawn
And, amid a cloudy rough,
My star becoming airborne. (67)
Sullivan’s poem gently rebukes Andrew Marvell’s classic carpe diem poem ‘To His Coy Mistress’ and its famous, rhetorically pointed, lament ‘had we but world enough and time’. In ‘Aubade’, the speaker and their lover ‘will have time enough’, even in a poem that depicts a parting of ways. Sullivan knows that a poem can never replace ‘things that are gone’. But what it can do is arrest time for long enough—the duration of a moment—for us to ‘look out on the dawn’ and see that ‘star becoming airborne’.
Matthew Bulfer is a PhD candidate in English at the University of Western Australia. He has degrees in both Law and Arts, and returned to post-graduate research following a brief interlude in a commercial law firm. His research focuses on the intersection between the lyric and politics in the poetry of Seamus Heaney.