Lake, Veronica. Dragonfly Wing. Cottesloe: Sunline Press, 2019. 142pp, ISBN: 9780648486510.
Francesca Jurate Sasnaitis
Walt Whitman famously invited the reader:
Loafe with me on the grass, loose the stop from your throat,
Not words, not music or rhyme I want, not custom or lecture, not even the best,
Only the lull I like, the hum of your valvèd voice. (‘Song of Myself’)
Dragonfly Wing, Veronica Lake’s first collection of poetry, is a celebration of the rhythms and patterns of language, the melding of ‘music’ and meaning and, only by implication, a celebration of the self. Lake is more likely to see herself as ‘a dark smear;/ a smudge’ (13) seeking absolution from the gods of land and sea. Her modesty speaks more of self-erasure than self-congratulation; of poetry as antidote to chaos, doubts, and fears.
In the title poem, the light refracted from a dragonfly’s wing ‘ravels’ the narrator back to ‘One perfect day’, a Proustian moment that elicits the memory of ‘sweet accord/ when everything conjoined/ to create harmony’ (15-16). But the world is rarely in such perfect balance. For those who dare to look, as Lake wryly observes, nature proffers intimations of danger and destruction; images of a relentless struggle for dominance, for survival. Her ‘cats plan murder as they watch,/ while pigeon-toed parrots shriek madly’ (14); pelicans are ‘puffed out like galleons’ (28); ‘a storm of cormorants takes flight’ and ‘night’s carapace dissolves/ as the lustre of a new day rims the horizon’ (29).
If Lake is an acute observer of the natural world and nature’s intersection with the urban, she is also a commentator on the perplexities of human relationships, often juxtaposing the intimate and heartfelt with satirical critique. In ‘South Beach Convention’, the foibles of self-important men, resistant to ‘the tides of change’, come in for a drubbing.
Their crown jewels,
pouched in proud lycra,
beneath creamy frog bellies. (31)
Nor are women exempt from Lake’s gentle raillery: the ‘flotilla of Madonnas […] mapping family and scandal/ via anecdote and careful commentary.’ (32). The reader will recognise these archetypes regardless of location.
‘Ghost Town (Fremantle)’ evokes a town long gone—sacrificed to relentless gentrification—but might be a prophetic vision of Fremantle’s more recent brush with COVID-19. ‘The town is soiled,’ writes Lake, ‘Ghosts of more bustling times/ linger and drift from bare shop fronts’ (27). She characterises the loneliness of Melbourne with the sob of a solo saxophone that ‘allows sadness to/ escape in sweet painful gasps’ (71), and renders the city’s Goths as ‘something abandoned from another time,/ something wilting in the wintry morning sun’ (73). Bats swarm over Sydney ‘shrouding the sunset colours/ with moving shadow’ (127). Copenhagen’s Little Mermaid statue is pretext for identification with the predicament of women everywhere.
Oh my sister!
Eternally lost to us,
leaving a legacy behind
to drag heavy on our hearts
binding us to impossible expectations of perfection
as we try to please, to be accepted, to be loved. (122)
In 2010, Lake was awarded a Churchill Fellowship to study Shakespeare in England, Ireland, and Canada. Here, in Dragonfly Wing, she wears her scholarship lightly. She describes the uncanny sense of time suspended in ‘Shakespeare’s Town’ as ‘out of joint./ Here the stage is all the world/ where players strut the stuff of dreams’ (116). Shakespearean allusions – ‘If music be the food of love, give me more! – are undercut as ‘disco rhythms pulse into the night’ (90); The Tempest is transfigured into a metaphor for lovemaking (96); Shakespeare’s witchy brew in that Scottish play becomes a list of ingredients for a ‘Love Potion’.
In a collection numbering close to a hundred poems, it is perhaps a minor quibble to point out that the rhyming staccato inventory of ‘Morning Trance’, and the ‘charm inscrutable’ and ‘starlight mutable’ of ‘Harbour Lullaby’, for example, seem inconsistent with Lake’s most successful verses. Her minor exercises in rhyme might easily have been excised without affecting the tenor of the collection. But this is a personal predilection; such patterns may delight other readers.
I prefer the poems that illuminate Lake’s journey from childhood through loss and grief to love, birth, separation, to moments of joy and hope, to old and new infatuations. She has a gift for undermining the clichés of wanton sensuality and eliciting the bitter truths beneath desire. In ‘Grunt Love’, as ‘passion swamps/’ and ‘senses reel/ [… ] primal grunting fills my ear// say my name/ say my name/ say my name’ (77). Melancholy is pervasive; grief, understated. In ‘Pruning Time’ (For Cynthia)’, the seasonal repetition of pruning roses while ‘listening to the folklore of family’ segues into a poignant hospital scene with once ‘capable hands’ transformed into ‘hands,/ holding on for dear life’ (52). In ‘Conversation Piece’, two widows of the recently deceased father of their children chat amicably, if somewhat incongruously, in the poet’s garden. Memories of a husband singular to each lie between them, ‘fine threads pulling’. After the more recent wife leaves – ‘Duty done’ – the other remains to contemplate; to weave a poem from her experience.
Here where it remains quiet,
ashes, buried in my rose garden,
turn to flowers. (62)
At her best, Lake speaks to the mysteries, delights, and sorrows of lived experience. In ‘Walking Echo’, she recalls that phase of early development when the child repeats everything the parent says, but she might easily be referring to her own relationship to language.
She tastes the grit of language,
grapples with its muscularity,
fills her cheeks with its texture
fills her mouth with its shapes. (51)
For those who live in Perth, it is a rare pleasure to hear Lake read, both from her own work and the poetry of others, the hum of her ‘valvèd voice’ opening into sonorous cadences that lift so-called commonplaces into the realms of the quietly lyrical.
Whitman, Walt. ‘Song of Myself’ Leaves of Grass, Norton, 1973.
Francesca Jurate Sasnaitis is a Melbourne-born writer and artist of Lithuanian background. She recently submitted her doctoral dissertation in Creative Writing at UWA and is awaiting the results. Her poetry, short fiction, essays and reviews have been published online and in various print journals and anthologies.