Lucas, Rose. This Shuttered Eye. Liquid Amber Press, 2021. RRP: $24.00, 97pp, ISBN: 9780645044928.
What is seen / and what is not
How a poet sees and frames things is a central clue to readers for what is being told to them about being in the world, about being alive. I am always attracted to work in which there is a sense of dynamism in this process, a sense of learning to see and think alongside the poet—and this is very much the case in Rose Lucas’s latest collection, This Shuttered Eye. From the get-go this volume signals a zone of dynamic tensions in two opposing meanings of shuttered: that of being closed like a window; and that of being open like the shutter of a camera to admit light. The title says perhaps that a reader is never going to see things statically but instead always within the tension that lies between ‘what is seen and what is not’ (30).
This is also a book about looking at things through ‘a lifetime’s move’ (12) and all the possibilities, impossibilities and renegotiations that entails. Before a reader enters the book proper they can orient themselves through three apt epigraphs. These touchstones—arriving at beginnings to see anew (T. S. Eliot); distancing and arrangement (Baudelaire); and the painterly imagism of ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’ (Williams)—are all in some way about processes of looking and also about the ways in which this is never an artless act. These orientations are played out in the volume’s key philosophical preoccupations and aesthetic leanings, and are interwoven subtly throughout the book’s three sections.
In the first, entitled ‘The Long Gallery’, the reader goes on an exploration of artworks with the persona. At times this is straightforwardly ekphrastic, as in the poem ‘Grace, or Glascwm Larches’. Occasionally, it becomes forensic about paint and its mysteries, whether its surface tensions or tussles to bring the unseen into comprehension, such as in ‘Travelling the long gallery’; and at other times it becomes a memento mori-like meditation on life and death, as in the marvellous ‘Family Portrait’, with its clinching last lines concerning Van Dyk’s ‘richly upholstered’ young family:
Look carefully hold
to the slipperiness of this moment—
It will not always
be like this. (17)
Lucas’s wealthy Flemish family caught ‘inside the rushes of time’ feels to me as though shadowed by Holbein’s painting, ‘The Ambassadors’, with all the heft of their worldliness perched precariously on the floating anamorphic skull the viewer simultaneously sees and does not see. Art is also a kind of resurrection act in the fine ‘Raising Lazarus’. This poem acknowledges that while ‘the possibility of form’ can always rise ‘from the murk of miasma’, at ‘the edges’ and ‘folds’ there is ‘the suction of encroaching dark’ (15). Life and death are locked closely together in Lucas’s poems, including moments when it seems possible to see them both together without fear or regret. This life/death pairing, refracted throughout the book in its recordings of ‘folds’ (particularly of time) and ‘unfolding’, two words that often recur, is to be greatly admired.
In the ‘long gallery’ poems there is the sense that there is indeed this ‘lifetime’s move’ of negotiating what could be life or death or the struggle to make things or even all of those things at once. In the final excellent ‘Woman at a Window’, Lucas achieves something special. Here it is as if the guiding intelligence has slipped inside the painting itself, ‘can / see the peel of paint’ and is watching the world/the viewer (or reader) outwards from the canvas (or page). It is a poem that holds an equal measure both of eeriness and comfort in its disruptions.
‘Habitation’ and ‘Homing’, the subsequent two sections, move out of ‘the long gallery’ into poems that are themselves kinds of word paintings: for instance, the egoless landscapes of ‘Mount Elephant’ or ‘Rain: Kantju’. There are various guises of habitation and homing that encompass different scales from the elemental to the domestic to the primal, particularly to the body itself as a site of habitation or home. In the wonderful sequence ‘Vermont Collage’, Lucas walks the fine line between the homely and unhomely. This sequence unlocked the book for me, with its ‘shadow house’ in ‘Gothic’ that the poet wishes she could forget, and also the mysterious visitation of the bear in the poem of the same name with its ‘musky stench / so close to mine’ (59). This fine long poem is also a meditation on friendship:
the always humbling
generosity of love
its many vicissitudes
its quiet attentions (68)
America holds quite a sway in this book. There is an affecting poem on Whitman’s work in Civil War hospitals and the tender portrait ‘Civil War Widow’ too. There is a compassionate glimpse of Betty Draper and also a dream-poem about the birth of a child that is reminiscent of Adrienne Rich. There are, as well, a number of poems that have an American ‘feel’ as everyday manifestoes.
Many of the places this book goes to seem to me very right: to wish a beloved cat a quiet and easy death at home or to feel a little early spring in winter’s depths. My advice is to read This Shuttered Eye from cover to cover to enjoy its accretive intelligence. This is a wise and companionable book fit for these strange times.
Lucy Dougan’s books include Memory Shell (5 Islands Press), White Clay (Giramondo), Meanderthals (Web del Sol) and The Guardians (Giramondo) which won the Western Australian Premier’s Book Award for poetry. With Tim Dolin, she is co-editor of The Collected Poems of Fay Zwicky (UWAP, 2017).