Rocky rhythms

by Emma Neale / 17 January, 2009

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Life's insights don't always come in "lame metre".

The Rocky Shore is made up of six poems documenting the interior life: of the mind and of domestic space. The gentle, -lulling, conversational style catalogues the quotidian and apparently inconsequential: "Saturday afternoon walking along the waterfront/thinking about a haircut ..."

If read too quickly, the chatty style can seem unshaped: Jenny Bornholdt's work has sometimes been criticised for the way its downbeat tone can fall into bathos.

The argument isn't just a stand-off between "old-school" lyricists and "open" experimentalists. I've taught young, inventive poetry students who, encountering her work, have asserted that it "isn't really poetry" (a criticism Bornholdt herself knowingly works into this book). Yet it's instructive to watch the same students reread her work more slowly and agree that actually the crafting has been more conscious, wry or even darkly funny than they first saw. Sometimes the apparently literal, colloquial vocabulary Bornholdt uses parcels up other meanings, with sly metaphorical flickers that skim-readers can easily miss.

I'll concede that if you have a musical ear, hungry for taut rhythm and other prosodic bells, Bornholdt's poetry won't offer instant gratification.

Yet poetry has a broad embrace: nowadays it can even be moving pictures on a laptop screen, accompanied by computerised blips and blurps, if written by a "digipoet". And before you protest that electronica has eroded erudition, it's worth remembering that 300 years ago John Milton argued that rhyme was "the invention of a barbarous age, to set off wretched matter and lame metre".

The risk poets take, I suppose, if they forego the sensuous pleasures of musical language (metrical transports included), is that their "matter" is laid utterly bare.

Yet in Bornholdt's case, the matter is such stuff as lives are made of.

The poems often start with a kind of "phatic communion": passing the time of day, chattering on about every-thing from the irritations of wet towels on the floor to DIY or physiotherapy.

Yet they soon carry you to the deeper strata of love, pain; attachment, separation; fears, regrets; the quest for spiritual ease.

All is done with a fulsome range of descriptive language, a tenderness of insight and a clear-eyed frankness.

In poems about physical and psychological illness, the insistent rhythms of nature, the delights and agonies of parenthood or the ache of being a bereaved daughter, The Rocky Shore's relaxed, journal-like sections deliberately work to disarm the reader.

Their record of dailiness heightens both the sudden, cruel invasions of crisis and loss and the sweet bursts of insight that surge from the page, carried on bright image or extended metaphor. These six long poems are about "mixing up, breaking down, renewal - all the big themes", and they "climb on down" under the surface of things to touch the wellsprings of feeling and memory.

THE ROCKY SHORE, by Jenny Bornholdt (VUP, $25).

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