A review of Robin Loftus’ Backyard Cosmos

Robin Loftus’ new collection of poetry Backyard Cosmos is a small collection, almost more of a pamphlet than a book, containing 50 pieces including a few haiku, but the work has that transformative quality which Ellmann refers to. Some of the poems are light, delicate, taking on subject matter like nature and the seasons, and others are rich, heavy, dealing with motherhood, love, death, grief and the ultimate subject of poetry; what it means to be a human being.

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Backyard Cosmos
By Robin Loftus
Catchfire Press, December 2000
ISBN 0 9577330 2 X

In his introduction to the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, Ellmann talks about how modern poetry is about “the primacy of the imagination, its power to invest the external world with a new light, or even, as many would contend, to transform it altogether, to invent what W.H. Auden calls alternative worlds.” Poetry at its best skips the need for the formal sense making of prose, the need for linearity, for a story, and jumps straight to the beating heart, an instant recognition between writer and reader; an epiphany. Robin Loftus’ new collection of poetry, Backyard Cosmos, is a small collection, almost more of a pamphlet than a book, containing 50 pieces including a few haiku, but the work has that transformative quality which Ellmann refers to. Some of the poems are light, delicate, taking on subject matter like nature and the seasons, and others are rich, heavy, dealing with motherhood, love, death, grief and the ultimate subject of poetry; what it means to be a human being. All of the work is gentle, even when angry, and conservative in its readability, its ease on the page and the beauty in its imagery, revealing the occasional hints at humour, particularly when dealing with overwhelming tragedy, death, desperation or loneliness. Nature imagery features strongly, as one would expect with a poet whose home overlooking the Pacific Ocean sits within her bio. The poems resist neat classification, but broadly can be divided into bird poems, mother/daughter poems, specific major catastrophies or event poems, poems which deal with death, grief/depression poems, feminist poems, and her own defined haiku, nocturnes and the envoi (the concluding ballades).

The bird poems start the book, each of them using the metaphor of the bird to call forth some deeper meaning, such as the first poem, “bird of joy”, which provides a nice juxtaposition between human pain and the happiness in a bird song. “birdman”, the second poem provides what seems to be a relatively straightforward admiration of a hanglider: “an embodiment of air/a rainbow caught/in the sun’s gold spin”. There is the birdlike alighting (and disappearing) of a visitor in “arrivals and departures”, and again the beautifully done juxtaposition between human pain, helplessness, and a bird’s death in “silver-eye”, or the almost Haiku-like “Ping!” of a bell-bird in “bell-bird”. The reality of a “bird’s swift wing” in “missing in translation” marks the painful limitation of words.

The mother daughter poems are amongst the richest in the book, combining the pain of a mother’s loss with the simultaneous pain and vulnerability of a mother towards her daughter as in “islands in her eyes”: “She turns towards me/and I’m there too – /curled in their depths/child of her child, her greenest island” or the longing and loss placed against the majesty of the Rocky Mountains in “Denver, Colorado”: “wrenching bunch after bunch of blossoms/over-filling my arms -/a lost voice from the lilacs cries – cradle me, cradle me”. “landscape” is one of the best poems in the book, combining as it does, motherly love, the richness of life, with grief, the shortness of that life, and the empty sterility of death:

she was a garden wild with flowers
a landscape to grow in

when she died
there was only sand a million years dry
to run my bone-dry hands through
and no oasis.

The intimacy of a mother towards her daughter, the intensity, terror and love are all apparent in the delicate writing of “daughter, I call you this”:

You travel with me, girl.
In sleep, rocking like music,
Like the cradle in my primordial dreams
Rocking all night in the terrored dark
Till the sun bursts whole from the ocean’s wound
And healed again, I walk in the blood bright day.

The combination of motherhood and grief is also powerful as in the memory of murder in “days of grieving”: “Remember me/I am all your daughters.” Death on a grander scale, but always viewed from the perspective of the intimate, the personal sensation, as in “forbidden city” which looks at the Tiananmen Square massacre, or “edges” which looks at Sarajevo: “One wakes/sleeps, dreams/it’s all the same,/until one day the edge finds you/umaware/and shards of mind fall heartlong/as if forever/and can never quite return.” Or the melding of the personal pain of a dying dog, the death of a baby possum and the East Timor massacres in “too much dying”. Sitting as they do next to poems about the male desire for power such as “afternoon teatime” or “blokes”, one again is aware of the small, the personal and the individual in every great tragedy.

There is humour here too, lightly hinted at, wry, hidden in poems like “kicking the kitchen blues” where the spuds are left “to their own spuddish devices” and the “carrots and broccoli sulk” or the feminist anger of the biblical “Mary” as she throws off her daggy clothes and tosses her halo “like a frisbee”, or even in the anger at death in “the desperation poem”: “Moloch muse!/I suppose you also demand a poem”, or the drama queen of the full moon, “star troupe in train”. This works best when mingling with the profound as in the final poem “backyard cosmos” where the poet paddles in her swimming pool where stars have fallen: “Better plunge up to my neck in it,/paddle off in the cosmic soup, whisking up galaxies,/keeping my head above water.” The Haiku are simple, as Haiku are, and set around the seasons, but still yielding the magic moment of shared understanding. There are a few rare poems which work less well: “voyager”, “song for Lucy” and “threefold”, where the imagery is still rich, but perhaps too personal to make the transition to profound. However, overall this is a wonderful little book, full of poetry to make you shiver; poetry which keeps revealing more on the re-reading, which combines freshness with intensity. Something rare. In Loftus’ words:

Lovers and others take note:
there is absolutely nothing
to be deduced from any of this;
no pie-in-the-sky.
No soothsaying, no wisdom.

Only the ecstasy.

For more information on Backyard Cosmos, to order a copy, or to read a poem from the book, visit:
http://cust.idl.com.au/catchfire/hmpage07.html#lRobin Loftus

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