A review of Distillations of Different Lands by Andrew Lansdown
I met Andrew Lansdown in 1974 when I was trying to teach Creative Writing at Curtin University of Technology and he was the best student in the class by a country mile. It was obvious that he had enrolled in the class not because it was easy but because he genuinely wanted to improve his writing skills. His voice was original and absolutely sincere.
Since then he has published a best-selling series of fantasy books in the US, two collections of short stories and fifteen books of poetry and verse as well as other work. Readers of Quadrant will be familiar with his poetry. He has combined what would be a more-than-respectable body of work for a full-time writer with a career as a Baptist minister and teacher. His religious sensibility as a theologian has given a special depth to his poetry, especially the celebratory poetry, and given it—even the short and humorous pieces—a special richness and wholeness.
All his books have been outstanding. One of his most interesting previous collections, Allsorts (2011) includes a seventy-page section for children on how to use poetic forms, making it a valuable handbook as well as an important anthology in its own right. Aspiring poets of any age would do well to read it, and poetry editors sick of receiving slabs of dull, chopped-up prose should be grateful that it is available.
Family life and his happy marriage are constant themes. His wife Susan has illustrated some of his books, and one collection is devoted to fatherhood.
He has the mark of a major poet in that as well as quantity of output, his command of technique continues to develop from book to book. He has worked steadily, advancing this technique, while the “generation of ’68″ have come and gone, leaving nary a wrack behind nor a memorable line (except, perhaps for the memorably meaningless “Mallarmé’s curse hangs over Launceston”). One of the keys to his success is that he never for a moment loses sight of the need for poetry to communicate.
Even a couple of Andrew Lansdown’s poems which I found rather disgusting—about mouse-droppings and popping blow-fish—are technically accomplished miniature portraits of aspects of life. His celebratory poems are full of beauty.
Lansdown’s latest collection, Distillations of Different Lands (Sunline Press), is a collection of largely imagist poems of Australia, Japan and the northern United States. Japanese poetic forms and disciplines have been a powerful influence on his work for some time and the cherry blossoms and medieval castles, temples and stories of Kyoto are strong influences in his imagination. From Japan, as well as birds, flowers and landscapes (and Christian martyrs) come legendary figures like the fox-god, Inari.
Birds have always been an important subject for him, not only for themselves, but as pointers to the wonder of creation:
The sound, and even
the force, of a small brittle
leaf striking a board—
the wren veranda-skipping
cheekily for biscuit crumbs.
[“Sounds and Wrens” – 1 “Afternoon Tea”]
“The Man with the Gun” is a lament for the days before Islam’s unremitting terrorist war on the West made even innocent actions fearful. (“The sergeant saw the man with the gun / was simply old and full of fun.”)
As I indicated above, not all the poems are celebratory. There are tragedies hinted in the background of a number of them:
by a bird hopping sideways
up a bamboo cane.
And I observe that it, too,
is struggling to keep a grip.
[“Birds of a Feather” – 1. “Slippage”]
One sees some of the angst that must touch every human life:
If only our hearts
were rigid like the segments
of timber bamboos
they, too, might have a limit
to the emptiness they hold.
[“Meditations on Emptiness” – 1. “Limit”]
Wisely, there are not many poems about poetry, but like the rest, these few are memorable:
Again the poet
settles to the priestly task
of redeeming words
from their base and futile state
and lifting them to Heaven’s gate.
[“The Poet’s Work” – 1. “The Priestly Task”]
There is another perfect poem—and they are all perfect to my ear—on the grave of Basho, the greatest master of haiku. While he shares the master’s love of the deceptively small, Lansdown can also write of the great. Some of these poems, like “The Martyred Mother”, are tours de force, in this case of pity and terror. [NB. “The Martyred Mother” is reprinted in this issue of Life News.]
It would not do these longer poems justice to quote them only in part. But let it be said that their sustained power never flags. “Mummy-long-legs” blends the comic and the gruesome in a way that reminds me of certain recent American legal proceedings.
“The Shodo Egret” is a wonderful poem, a genuine opening of the doors of perception. Then there is:
It has the grey robes
and the meditative pose:
perhaps the heron
on the temple bridge rail hopes
to become a Buddhist monk?
[“Japanese Heron” – 2. “Aspiration”]
Is it a heron
aspiring to return a priest
or is it a priest
reincarnated a heron …
or perhaps purely a heron?
[“Japanese Heron” – 3. “Speculation”]
A classic Japanese koan is put to new use:
The mosquito whines
at me, wanting instruction.
Very well, small one,
come here and meditate on
the sound of one hand slapping.
[“Mosquito Meditations” – 1. “Koan”]
Some day scholars may see the work of a small group of West Australian poets—Andrew Burke, Rod Moran, Philip Salom and Shane McCauley among them—forming, if not a movement, a distinct “voice” which has kept a poetry of strength and meaning alive in a fierce national drought. Andrew Lansdown has a major place in that company. He has been generous in promoting other poets on his website, and he gave much support to the gentle old poet William Hart-Smith when he was alone and nearly blind, and I guess that Hart-Smith has been an important influence on Lansdown’s work where he has presented poems as little “surprise packages”.
This book is precious for what it teaches the mind, the eye and the heart.
Distillations of Different Lands is available from the publisher, Sunline Press, and via the BUY BOOKS page on Andrew Lansdown’s website,
The late Hal GP Colebatch was an award-wining poet, novelist, historian and social commentator. This review was written in the last year of his life and was first published in Quadrant magazine.