The Goose Bath: Poems – Janet Frame

9780980416541, WilkinsFarago (2008, Australia)

After reading Faces in the Water by Janet Frame about a year ago, I vowed I would read more of her work. The prose was absorbing and raw, and really striking. When I heard that Melbourne publisher WilkinsFarago were bringing out a collection of her poetry I couldn’t wait to dive into it. The poems in The Goose Bath are posthumously collected and arranged by Frame’s niece Pamela Gordon, as well as Denis Harold and Bill Manhire. The poems were literally from an unpublished pile in a ‘goose bath’, which, in Pamela’s words ‘had originally functioned as the base of a small fountain’, but as it required much cleaning and maintenance, the novelty wore off and it became a playbath for Janet’s geese. Later, she took it back to the city with her and it ‘evolved into a convenient receptacle for Janet’s burgeoning pile of poetry manuscripts’, Pamela writes.

Janet Frame only published one collection of poetry in her lifetime. Pamela believes, though, that she was foremost a poet. It was publishers who preferred her prose. But Bill Manhire’s introduction also explores the fact that Frame had doubts about her poetry. She confessed to him at a dinner once that ‘none of them are any good. I can’t keep them on a plane. They don’t end, they fall away.’ But Manhire insisted that it was just this which often gave poems ‘grace’ and ‘authenticity’.

When reading through the collection I found that some of the poems did have a certain awareness of themselves, and of the writing process in general. There are many about language, and I felt that some were ‘working out’ poems during the writing of prose pieces. Or a looking out the window stream-of-consciousness. But they are graceful. But then there are constant surprises – joyous and dark, on nature, people, history, psychology, family, love, nature (particularly birds, trees, flowers), sex, and a variety of landscapes. Some utilise fairy tales or classic narratives, and feature cultural references. Some are from the point of view of an object, such as a piano. The poems are not sharp, but wandering. They are stories of place and of consciousness, projecting. Some took my breath away, others simply made me smile. For fans of Frame’s novels and memoirs this is a whole new insight into the many sides and layers to the writer, not just her aesthetic consciousness, but her process of writing, as well as thoughts on language and influence.

I’ll mention just a few poems that I really enjoyed, but I find with poetry that sometimes it’s difficult to sum up exactly why. The editors choose to open with I Take Into My Arms More Than I Can Bear To Hold, and this was my favourite also. I believe it sums up the writer as an observer who is often floored by a sense of overwhelm to all the (both positive and negative) elements of a life, a consciousness, an environment. It then is a perfect precursor to the collection where individual elements are explored, often with this sense of a heaving significance behind a simple line about a bird, or a colour. Colours are mentioned in surprising ways, as are patterns – ‘I refuse to listen/ to the geometric noises/ of black and white’ (I Do Not Want to Listen), and in Choosing Postcards she mentions a ‘technicolour suicide’. Some poems refer to the hospitals, such as The Room, which those familiar with Frame’s work will recognise. Some poems display an awareness of progress and technology, often in almost surreal or fantastical ways, such as The Underground. There are humorous, playful poems, such as Wrong Number, which is literally about the annoyance of someone calling incorrectly. There are short and long poems, love poems, and some that seem to have grown from a perfect phrase or line. One of these (and that line is the title) is Let a Fox Come By and the Porcupine Night Shine with Starry Icicles. Some are built around an extended metaphor, such as Weekend, where the city rush is likened to an ocean ‘…where the high tide/ of five or six o’clock casts to shore/ the stray drift and wreck of commerce…’ There are poems about death – the influence of the dead, the deaths around the poet, and looking toward her own. There are writerly inadequacies, influences, experiences – one that I really related to was Stung by Ideas, a powerful, metaphoric poem – ‘…and the only comic film/ is old age clouding the eyes/ and a swarm of hiveless bees in the head.’ It makes you wonder which bees didn’t get the chance to break out, when there is so much ground covered in this worthy collection.

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