Thea Astley: Selected Poems

If you like Thea Astley, you will like her Selected Poems (University of Queensland Press). However, arguably the book is more of an academic work rather than a collection of great poems. The poems serve a purpose, to provide an x-ray into her mind. It is an autobiography of her life in intimate moments. The collection, armed with chronology, an analysis of her seasons, and detailed end notes, is a revealing longitudinal study. For devotees, such as Susan Wyndham, “with this selection of poems, we can appreciate the full arc of her brilliant career.”

The poems never consistently reach great heights, but then perhaps she never meant them to. She wrote for herself and therefore was sometimes clumsy, awkward, but ultimately revealing, as her poems mature with her from childhood to motherhood, from rhyme to reflection. This collection is ultimately her study in self-discovery, ‘scientifically’ accurate, untainted and unrehearsed by any need to present them to the public. This is the truest of autobiographies as it is a poetic diary that contemporaneously captures her moments. The book is not a detailed account of her life but rather provides blinking glimpses. When we read and reread the poems, when we flick though the pages, they truly reveal a flip book sketch of her inner life. The poetry is utterly and exhaustively Thea Astley.

The poems grow from stilted childhood. As she admits her poems from her adolescent years were “like a form of acne – ‘I think I am having a poem.’” But they grow and mature with her.

The editor notes: “Astley’s much discussed claim, made in 1985, that she had been ‘neutered’ by her upbringing in a misogynistic culture…” However, the poems do not seem to reveal this aspect of her life, or any bitterness from this experience. Rather the poems grow and mature with her through her seasons as a woman. They reveal more that she may have been ‘neutered’ in her earlier years by form, syntax and sonnets, before she matures and is more sure of her voice. Her latter poems in particular unleash a depth of insights and words that lift from the page, poems such as:

Invocation (page 128)

Lubra (page 130)

Whitsunday (page 131)

A Seasonal Lament (page 134)

Throughout her lifetime of poems there are small recurring motifs, subconscious lines that are truly revealing. For example, there is a soft femininity and preciousness relating to her hair:

“Light this branch at the moon,

And gild the air

With it. In ritual

Unloose your hair.”

(at age 20 in 1945 from Vignette page 59)

“An autumn in your eyes, and startled! -there

Soft springtime hair!”

(from an unpublished poem in the Adult group, dated 1946, page 93)

“Break through the veil that keeps me from the air

To taste exquisitely the scent of flowers,

Or feel the wind carve pictures with my hair.”

(Sonnet, page 106)

“We girls should comb our hair

Like long seas running hyacinthine blue

To capture men and cargoes.”

(Lament, page 118)

“The girl stood where the wind

made flowers of her hair…

where bell-towers clashed and rang –

and their ropes were hair!…

the hair-flowers faded, rent.

The girl was gone.”

(Lubra, page 130)

“For whom do you lie back that yellow

Dense simplicity of hair?”

(Horace 1.v, page 140)

This collection is revealing. It is worthy of further study as it will continue to reveal more motifs, more deep truths, more Thea. It is a special and intimate audience with Thea Astley. As the editor, Cheryl Taylor, identifies, “she may have revealed more than she intended may have been another reason why Astley left her poetry uncollected and largely unpublished at her death.”

Reviewed by Craig Lawn

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