Watts, Julie. Legacy. Crawley: UWA Publishing, 2018. RRP $22.99, 138pp, ISBN: 9781742589947.
A legacy is what we inherit, what is deliberately left to us, is our birthright, what we carry with us and what we pass on. These notions are embedded in our psyche and are part of our personal identity. They connect us to family and the world in a complex series of fine strands pulling us in many directions. Whether we like it or not, our family and history have given us the bones of who we are, and we pass on these bones to our children. The poems in Julie Watts’ new poetry collection are bound together under the title Legacy and explore the many implications and ramifications of what it is that we inherit and how it reverberates through our lives. The text is broken into three sections, ‘Legacy’, ‘Heritage’, and ‘Template’, each section containing poems that move us through the immediate world, into the past of experience, the convolutions of family, and finally nature and relationships through time.
The quality of the poems in this collection is outstanding. Here is a poet whose work is mature and confident. Watts writes with a sustained delicacy, and exquisite precision to evoke a series of intimate pictures of moments caught out of time. From the image of a wood fire as ‘a small sun glowing in the centred room of our childhood’ (56) to that of a child whose ‘thin frame shivers like a tree in high wind’ (99). The poems are written from a first person point of view that invites the reader to share the experience. Their form is that of free verse, suggesting a relaxed, almost casual construction. That is not so. Most of the poems are composed of a tightly controlled progression of phrases or brief sentences, as though echoing thoughts, or fleeting moments of emotion building a series of complex and vivid depiction of ideas and experience. These include the image of a baby as ‘an upturned boat’ and the idea of the night as a ‘blue-black bruise’ (104). Each moment strikes the reader with particular clarity and resonates on a deeply personal level. I found myself focussing on specific lines such as, from ‘Heirloom’, ‘In my daughter’s hands / my mother moves.’ (47) and making personal connections between my child, my mother, and even my grand -daughters.
Watts has tapped into the complexities of family and made them available for the reader to understand through their own context, as well as that of the poet. Her words conjure up our legacies while summoning her own. For instance, there is a careful choice of image created by a combination of verbs and adjectives that paints the painful reality and fragile beauty of old age. ‘underneath my palm. / your silvered scalp brittle goose-egg’ (83). In these lines we are able to recognise our parents and ourselves and contemplate the effects of time passing, what has been lost and left behind, as well as where we stand in the current scheme of things. Here the metaphor of ‘brittle goose-egg’ to describe someone’s skull, is expanded to ‘container of all our days,’ allowing the connection between what is and what was. The father figure and his relevance to his children’s lives is defined exactly. ‘The First Born’, a poem exploring the birth of a child, presents the foetus as a Darwinian fish, linking it to a genetic heritage stretching into the past (69). This image is bold and compact yet resonates with ideas of connection to family and to history, as well as possibilities in the future, as it hears, my voice in your bones. Watts’ selection of such precise imagery peppers the entire text, engaging the reader on many levels.
One of the techniques employed throughout the collection is the use of spaces creating silences between words.
in winter it is a framework
of bones ancient rock vivid (73)
In these pauses the reader is focussed on the moment, filling each one with a breath or perhaps even a heartbeat. These spaces allow personal memories to flood the moment adding to and enriching Watts’ chosen words. The lagoon is vividly there, ancient and waiting.
Watts’ deft inclusion of metaphors and similes establish exact images of what it is she describes—be it a cat that ‘settles like a puddle on my feet’ or ‘runs around like a grey ball of string’ (111) or the intimacy of lovers where ‘your breath a hushed eddy on my clavicle’ (105).
Much of the imagery employed in these poems is drawn from the senses. There are the sounds of bird song, the thrumming of music and summer hush, the colour of gum leaves and yellow grass, the taste of salt on the tongue, the touch of a hand on cheek, and the smell of the wild in her throat that all evoke an immediacy in the reader both powerful and intimate. These images serve to peel back polite barriers and reveal the heart of things.
Sometimes a legacy can be a burden, a feeling of sorrow, sometimes a source of joy and delight. Julie Watts’ poetry collection leaves the reader with a legacy of complex emotions recognised, of shared experiences, and a deeper comprehension of the struggle that is life.
Veronica Lake is a Churchill Fellow (2010) and a teacher long associated with Literature. She collates and edits Primo Lux, an annual student anthology of poetry. She is a member of the Voicebox Collective, OOTA Writer’s Group and Poetry WA. Her poetry has been published in journals in Australia and New Zealand.