Friday, August 10, 2012

High Country by Cassie Lewis
Little Esther Books, Adelaide, 2001 (isbn 0958626146)

Cassie Lewis is a young Australian poet currently living on the west coast of the USA. Her new collection, High Country, follows a pamphlet of ten poems Song for the Quartet (SOUP Publications, Melbourne 1997) and was published a little earlier last year than Potes & Poets’ Winter District – a booklet that combines work from both chapbooks together with some new material. High Country is a distinctive looking book, with a black & white cover photo of wooded hills and vales subtly brushed by misty chiaroscuro – the background to a dramatic sheer orange typeface for the title and blurb. Its pocket-size format enhances the attractive, yet simple design.

Cassie Lewis’s emotional range is broad - nothing here is solely elegiac, although, on first appearances a reader may think so. The opening quotation from John Giorno reads - With a brilliant sun causing his tears/to glitter like strange jewels But moving into the poetry soon reveals the application of an analytical process that restrains any saccharine sentiment. From the title poem –

This lake, a toy for wilderness, a call to other duties.
What would hope do to me if I couldn’t stare it out ?
Hear it moving like washing foam, like drunken vowels.
Past the verandah, fresh snow grazing on astonished winter flowers.
I look on. At how the heart connects to things like crazy ivy
And how days are unbroken….

Cassie Lewis’s poetry has a modulated quality. These poems are considered, thorough. Rhythm, sometimes a ponderous or old-fashioned notion in contemporary poetry, is essential to Lewis’ method and is revivified in this set of poems. The pace is measured so that nothing overtly irruptive or experimental occurs. Her writing is temperate, thoughtful, gently psychological, and definitely coded, accumulating like a series of notes to a poetic self ; - from 'Temple' -

Waking up to whitewashed plasterboard,
jettisoned by my pride I grew
to love this: because this was the only way
I could continue. How the tide repealed us,
Then erased itself. Maybe the house,
With its palm trees, was more alive than I was.

Cassie Lewis engages with ‘the elements’ as distinct from ‘the weather’, and this and her attention to detail and her interest in the descriptive is sometimes reminiscent of another Australian poet, Judith Beveridge. Especially in the poem 'Denouement' -

     …cold wind,
rain, slant-wise and hard.
I am visited by shadows
crossing over the fields
with their angry crops and wildflowers
struggling for prominence,
bristling over the horizon
like stubble on a man. Elsewhere,
rifling through leaves of sunlight
or standing resolute on a bank of sand,
you set up an echo as you shout my name.
But here the wind devours all outside voices;

And there is an undercurrent thread of “Australianness” in these poems-

Down the opal mines he is leaning on cool rock and
taking a smoko

And in one poem, 'Mandolin', Cassie Lewis sounds like the late John Forbes –

Way of poppies, I climb upstairs – hurts to think,
bliss to move. And I won’t dispute a cigarette
on the famous corner. Hummingbirds; stars.
I never saw how two hemispheres breathe differently.
Are hamlets of equal worth, is globalisation a mirage ?
An antidote to poetry could be spring in America –
cures that make us stronger, champions of all we crave.

Almost ten years ago, as a teenager, Cassie Lewis responded to a handwritten note posted in the window of an inner-city Melbourne bookshop offering poetry lessons at an hourly rate from ‘John Forbes, Australian Poet’. John directed Cassie towards poets like Frank O’Hara, Ted Berrigan and David Shapiro among others. Cassie credits Shapiro’s poem 'For the Princess Hello' with having symbolically propelled her to first publication. John Forbes commented to Cassie that poetry should ‘look out, not in’ – that by looking out you discover what’s in you. This suggests a view that poetry is linked continually to a state of consciousness or that the act of making poems involves a kind of extension of consciousness. This confident first collection, High Country, reflects and tests that suggestion faithfully.

(First published online in HOW2, 2002)

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