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
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.