2023 Stella Prize, Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, Poetry, Publisher, Sarah Holland-Batt, Setting, University of Queensland Press

‘The Jaguar’ by Sarah Holland-Batt

Poetry – ebook edition; University of Queensland Press; 144 pages; 2022.

First things first. I am not a connoisseur of poetry. Over the lifetime of this blog (19 years and counting) I have only read and reviewed three collections.

I often feel out of my depth when reading poetry. I don’t know what makes a good poem from a bad one. I never know whether to read a collection cover to cover, or to dip in and out. Should I read all the poems in one go? Or just a few at a time spaced out over the course of a week or more? I just don’t understand the **rules** for reading and critically assessing them.

Bearing all that in mind, I picked up The Jaguar, Sarah Holland-Batt’s latest collection (she has two others to her name), on the basis it was shortlisted for this year’s Stella Prize.

And I loved it.

It’s intimate. Confronting. Emotional. Philosophical. Alive. Warm. Tender.

Life story in poetry

The collection is divided into four parts, and because the poems are threaded together to tell a narrative — the life and death of the writer’s father — their order is carefully designed to take you on a journey. I read these poems, one after the other, as if devouring a page-turning novella in which I couldn’t wait to find out what would happen next.

Right from the start we are thrown into the morass and turbulence of one man’s life. In the opening poem “My Father as a Giant Koi”, Holland-Batt writes:

My father is at the bottom of the pond
perfecting the art of the circle.

By the second poem, “The Gift”, we understand he is wheelchair-bound, “garlanded by summer hibiscus”, and that he has been waiting a long time to die:

A flowering wreath buzzes around his head—
passionate red. He holds the gift of death
in his lap: small, oblong, wrapped in black.
He has been waiting seventeen years to open it
and is impatient. When I ask how he is
my father cries. His crying becomes a visitation
the body squeezing tears from his ducts tenderly
as a nurse measuring drops of calamine
from an amber bottle, as a teen in the carwash
wringing a chamois of suds. It is a kind of miracle
to see my father weeping freely, weeping
for what is owed him. How are you? I ask again
because his answer depends on an instant’s microclimate,
his moods bloom and retreat like an anemone
as the cold currents whirl around him—
crying one minute, sedate the next.
But today my father is disconsolate.

The first section of The Jaguar continues to build on this theme, of an ill father living a tortured existence until his death. (It’s not until the very last poem in the collection, “In My Father’s Country”, that his illness is named, when Holland-Batt writes “the creeping lisp of Parkinson’s. / Indiginities compound. Language / sluices away from you, bolts / like a gelding from the box.”)

But there’s humour, too. In the titular poem, we learn that the jaguar is not a spotted cat, but a car, one that “shone like an insect in the driveway” and which her father constantly tinkered with, to the point that he “jury-rigged the driver’s seat so it sat so low / you couldn’t see over the dash”. Neither Holland-Batt nor her mother would get in it. Then, finally …

…his modifications killed it, the car he always wanted and waited
so long to buy, and it sat like a carcass
in the garage, like a headstone, like a coffin—
but it’s no symbol or metaphor. I can’t make anything of it.

Grief, loss and break-ups

The second part deals with grief and loss, but it also jumps back in time to recall childhood memories of her father and more recent ones in hospital, including his diagnosis:

The neurologist explains my father’s vanishing
substantia nigra—Latin for black substance,
midnight bullet of memory.
Bleaching the size of a broadbean
is turning my father jerky, compulsive
— “Substantia Nigra”

In part three,  the focus shifts slightly to a relationship breakdown:

I laze around in French lingerie. Why not?
You’ve gone; the world hasn’t stopped
—”Classical Allegory”

And this one (in full, because it’s so good):

When it ended, he said I had never let him in—
as if I were a country club with a strict dress code
and he’d been waiting outside all those years
without his dinner jacket, staring in
at the gleaming plates of lobster thermidor,
scores of waiters in forest green blazers,
and the stout square shoulders of other men
who alternated tweed and seersucker over the seasons,
silver cloches ringing them in at dinner like bells—
so I said, maybe you’re right, maybe that’s how it is,
when you wanted a table I was always full,
when you want a table in the future I’ll be full then too,
I’m booked out permanently, and no, you can’t borrow
a coat, you have to bring your own, that’s our policy.
— “Parable of the Clubhouse”

By the final part, Holland-Batt’s focus has moved to widescreen as she depicts time spent travelling abroad — to Morocco, Nicaragua, Egypt, New Hampshire, Andalusia, and more.

The final destination

But it’s her trip to the Yorkshire of her father’s youth — depicted in the poem “In My Father’s Country” — that provides the collection’s final, powerful destination. In it, she reveals lingering memories, many tinged with regret:

Each car ride with you was a test—
so sorely you wanted

a mathematician. You got
a daughter instead: wilful, uninterested

in inverse relations. We drove
Bournemouth to Land’s End,

each groyne and harbour wall
pebbled with unnavigable stone

as you drily taught, blue anorak
zippered to the neck. I knew

how to disappoint, feigned boredom.
Pigheaded, I picked over tchotchkes

in seaside shops, chucked gulls
sodden chips, ignored your puzzles.

Throughout The Jaguar, Holland-Batt paints exquisite pictures, plays with language, and shows us the power of parables and metaphors and similies. In shying away from sentimentality, she highlights her father’s humanity and offers a powerful testimony to living life vividly.

The Age calls it “an affecting meditation on mortality” to which I concur.

This is my first book for the 2023 Stella Prize. I am trying to read as many as I can from the shortlist before the winner is named on 27 April 2023. 

23 thoughts on “‘The Jaguar’ by Sarah Holland-Batt”

    1. Lol. I enjoyed this book so much. I borrowed it from the WA Library system – they basically ping you a link to download the ebook on a the Libby app – but now I want to buy my own copy.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That IS a good sign! I’ve been meaning to look into it at work one day, but with our new operating system still in teething problems mode, my ability to read at lunch time is greatly dimisshed atm. I need to stare at clouds and leaves rustling and take a turn around the local park before getting back into it!


        1. I seem to only read at weekends these days… our lunch breaks are communal (our lunch is supplied free every day) so there’s no alone time to read. I’m too tired to read after work seeing as I have now fully adapted to living in this city and get up at 5:30am like everyone else to beat the heat of the day! 🤷🏻‍♀️

          Liked by 1 person

          1. I’ve been noticing and admiring your early morning walks on Insta. I have never been a morning person, although I’ve tried to embrace it a couple of times, esp during my 30’s and 40’s when I didn’t need as much sleep as I do again now.
            I struggle to get out of bed at 7.30am and struggle to stay out of bed past 10pm!! What an exciting life I lead!


          2. Well, you’ll be interested to know I have **NEVER** been a morning person so it is possible to readjust. When I lived in London my working day was often 10am to 6pm (magazine publishing hours) but now I’m up at 5:30am for the pre-commute 4km walk. I’m generally up at that time for weekends too 🤷🏻‍♀️ but I’m in bed by 9:30pm. Rock’n’roll. (In London, I wouldn’t go to bed until after 11pm!)


  1. I want to read this … but I think poetry is best printed? Somehow I worry that e-versions don’t always get the right sense of space that seems to be part of poetry – particularly modern poetry.


    1. Kindle can be problematic re: formatting. But this app didn’t let me change text size or anything, presumably to maintain the formatting of the poems (which I’ve tried to preserve in this review). I don’t own an iPad, so had to read the collection on my phone but I didn’t find it a bad experience. I would, however, prefer the physical book.

      Liked by 1 person

        1. The difficulty is that different devices and different browsers will do different things to formatting so you can only do what you can do. I did consider screenshotting and uploading as images but that just comes with a different set of technological issues #cantwin

          Liked by 1 person

  2. I don’t read poetry and yet each time a collection falls into my hands I enjoy it.
    I feel for the father – I’d have a Jaguar in my garage if I could (the closest I ever got was a Triumph)


    1. The poem about the Jag is actually quite funny… he drives it very fast and I think Holland-Batt and her mother are scared he’s going to kill himself in it, which, with hindsight, might actually have been a blessing instead of succumbing after almost two decades of illness.


  3. Thanks for sharing these extracts, Kim. This sounds like a powerful cycle of poems.

    Your description made me think of Crow by Ted Hughes, which is also a meditation on grief and also a modern take on epic poem cycles.

    I hadn’t thought about whether there are any rules to reading poetry. Thinking about it now, I think I approach collections like albums, reading through in the tracklist order the poet (or their editor) has chosen, but then dipping in and out or putting the poems on shuffle.

    Thanks again for a lovely review.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. We’re all different, aren’t we? And thank goodness for that! Maybe your brain simply likes narrative more than other forms of writing. I’ve just ordered this collection on the strength of your review – if it makes someone who doesn’t usually ‘do’ poetry feel the way it made you feel, it must be good!


  4. I’m like you – not a poetry reader and feel out of my depth reviewing. In fact, I don’t think I’ve reviewed any (unless I count the graphic memoir on this year’s Stella shortlist which also has large sections of poetry).

    I am on the waitlist for this one from the library – unlikely to get it before the winner is announced – but given your lovely review and mention of ALL THE GRIEF it seems I should buy my own copy*.

    *Readings in Hawthorn is moving next week – Tuesday is their last day at the old premises. Maybe a ;farewell purchase’ is in order!


    1. Do it! I reckon you will appreciate the grief elements more than me. What comes across is her attempt to understand her father’s life and the unfairness of his death, which is a long lingering one.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. What a lovely review, Kim. I think the reality is that no one knows how to review poetry collections. A lot of reviews published in small journals are either impenetrably jargonistic or otherwise un-illuminating. The world needs people like you (and me) to wrestle with the task, and help make poetry more widely accessible


    1. Thank you for a lovely comment, Jonathan. I’m a copy editor by trade so I’m anti-jargon, anti-impenetrable text, anti-purple prose etc etc and most of what I do (in the day job) is simplify complex academic research into something a lay audience can understand. I guess that’s the approach I took to “reviewing” (I use the term lightly) this poetry collection.

      Liked by 1 person

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