Joyce Lee’s It is nearly dark when I come to the Indian Ocean

I edited and published Joyce Lee’s collected poems, It is nearly dark when I come to the Indian Ocean, in 2003. While the book is no longer in print, I am pleased that the files of the book are still available and I am able to publish them here. Also reproduced, below, is the book’s foreword by Chris Wallace-Crabbe. Ms Lee died in February 2007 [PDF ⤴︎ obituary].

Joyce Lee, 1993. Photograph by Stephen J. Williams.
Joyce Lee, 1993. Photograph by Stephen J. Williams.


by CHRIS WALLACE-CRABBE, to Joyce Lee’s collected poems (2003)

              Hear me, lesser seasons.
It may be autumn, may be winter
but I’ll be living summer.

What can poetry do for us these days? It’s not in the business of swaying the masses; indeed, as Peter Porter has ever so gracefully put it, “Poetry is one of the few arts which is not menaced by not having an audience.” Yet it somehow retains an almost popular role in bearing witness to human decency. Yes, poetry produces some of the durable vessels which are brimming with hope.

Such concepts as humanity and humanism have been cast aside in recent times like tattered banners, outmoded ensigns. Given that climate, it is a joy to encounter some book that is everywhere imbued with a humane spirit, a book that combines alert intelligence with decency and warmth. As the writer in question, the Melbourne poet Joyce Lee says about her artistic heritage, “Old now, I treasure what was given to me, perhaps in riddles”. But as we read them we find that her poems always strive to make such riddles come clear. In this she may be seen as a traditionalist, which is no bad thing.

Cover of Joyce Lee's It is nearly dark when I come to the Indian Ocean
Cover of Joyce Lee’s It is nearly dark when I come to the Indian Ocean

Lee’s new, retrospective volume of poetry, gorgeously entitled It is nearly dark when I come to the Indian Ocean, pays tribute to human community and continuity. It gathers her clean, vividly substantial poems from as far back as their appearance in Sisters Poets 1, edited by Rosemary Dobson and published in 1979; from there it comes down to the present day, most of the earlier poems having been rewritten to some extent. The result, I am convinced, is a wonderfully coherent collection.

Long a professional pharmacist, Lee came to poetry in her middle years. The voice was there, and the lyrics it articulated could range from the familiar ground of ‘Wimmera child’s first waterfall’ or ‘Double wedding’, back through history and dream to the Biblical Hagar, and to Gerda, the Celtic witch whose potions prefigure those of a modern chemist’s shop.

Indeed, as her book shows, the poems torn out of history add something exotic and also bracing to Lee’s Wimmera-formed imagination. They leave dark shadows in the corners of her picturing. They remind us that even this brave new world of wheat and sheep and sprawling spaces comes out of history. What is more, not even the recovered landscape of country trains, scorching wind and cars that break down inconveniently quite fills her imagination: no, it is not all steeped in Wimmera naturalism. Lee’s dreams “encompass every shade of blue”; her yearnings reach for the sky. As she writes about the truths she learned tacitly, visually from her influential painter uncle (personally influential, that is),

The dark side is part of the whole, a secret under-knowledge, a
strengthener to get you through when your light is in some distant
sky or disappears. The process is mysterious, its gifts measureless.

Yet this is the poet who says to herself, in another voice, “What you know is yours.” She is not at all naïve about solids.

In her compelling verse, the recurring strain of mystery does not entail vagueness or verbal chicanery, but has its roots in accurate knowledge. This is the basis of Joyce Lee’s persuasiveness, of her poetic strength, despite her deeply modern acknowledgement that “All I believe in is change.” Metaphysical questing rides on the shoulders of verismo.

On the evidence of what we read here, she is subject to metaphysical yearning, not least in the presence of music, which Les Murray has more skeptically dubbed, “The greatest form of nonsense verse.” Responding to that transcendent composer Messaien, she hazards that “The note pins silence/ never to resound”, while in another poem she laments that “you are left with longing/ for the voice beyond the note.”

Yet as I have suggested, her dominant imagery is rooted in the flat, pastoral Wimmera, with its bluish edge of Grampians. These poems return again and again to rock, dryness, dust, vistas of plains: to what she calls in the title of one, ‘Plain dreaming.’ Far overseas, in a prospect of Dubrovnik, she can write, “In the late afternoon, stones/ glisten like sheep on bare hills.” Also to country sounds, among them the mopoke, a horse stamping in its stable, express trains passing in the night.

The poetic vocabulary of this poetry is rich, using the whole palette, as she would be glad to say. Yet the language is not arcane, nowhere near as baroque as Peter Steele, or Anthony Hecht, or Marianne Moore. It is plumfull of colors, hard nouns and proper names: not the “long lists of proper names” which the formalist Auden thought a poet should enjoy, along with riddles and complicated stanzas. Lee is above all a realist in the homestead of poetry. Most of her capitalized names are lodged in families, active in social milieux.

These poems come over to us in clear stanzas of modestly free verse, in linguistic orchestration by way of such tasty words as triangle, peephole, hem, gimme, scrubbiness, lobster, blisters, quinine, snow gum and, in triumphant upper case, MADAGASCAR. Hers is an active world crammed with things, hues and actions—even the memories are rock-solid. They contain such vivid place/events as The casino

end of Point Lonsdale pier.
Interval at a film hot air balloon, swimming
with sharks at the aquarium,
riding a bejeweled elephant.

These strengths are manifest in such poems as ‘The past walks noiselessly’ and ‘Travelling backwards’, or in such precisely physical lines as these:

Unloaded in scorching wind
I’d watched him jack the car, carefully mend the puncture,
no cursing in church clothes. Minna
didn’t mention how she’d sweated in the kitchen.

Evenings round the stove, Gus and Ernest
red-faced in shiny second best, talking
thread darning and embroidery needles. I learn
to stitch neat edges, work to a pattern.
We share mystery and far places.
I go to bed held safely in a large world.

Surely that is what Lee’s poems themselves do: go to the black and white bed of print “held safely in a large world.” It is also a realm that has space for humour: one need only think of such poems as ‘Car week’ and ‘Untidy legs.’ Who else could possibly have used “untidy” like that?

Once upon a day I lamented that most books, at least in Australia, were written by people who didn’t know anything about work. It is a pleasure here to see how persuasively the poet evokes teacher or preacher, drover or country housewife, even the persuasive committee man, having a damn good sense of what they actually do. As she says of such awareness, “Peasant born, I inherited/ hard work from a grandfather/ migrating with his tribe/ for betterment.”

Mostly, however, she writes in the present tense, employing that present-emphatic that plays so large a part in modern Australian poetry. Within this climate of syntax, the past recurs over and over again, shaping events and people, giving meaning to the great Where We Are Now. Lee is a poet of generations, it might be said, recalling in this the David Campbell of Deaths and Pretty Cousins: and Campbell was, of course, another poet who knew what work could be. His high Monaro has a great deal in common with her Wimmera.

Reading Lee, I am sometimes taken back to those once-influential studies by Erik Erikson on childhood, society and the life-history. She feels and records how human strength flows down like honey from generation to generation. Not only can she travel backwards in time, along the psychological railway, all the way to Murtoa station; she records her profession ironically with the reflection that “My workingplace is filled with prescription ghosts” and she recreates ‘My father’s country’, a grandmother’s kitchen or the grandfather leading a bride on each arm into the local church. Each of these chronotropes is far too strongly rendered to smack of sentimental nostalgia. As Octavio Paz once observed, “Poetry is memory become image, and image become voice.”

The newest writing in It is nearly dark makes radiantly clear that, as much as being an art of mimesis or of tribute, poetry can be an art of yearning. These late lyrics are full of ontological hunger. They yearn for truths which are too large to be named, or fully understood. Again and again the trope is light, flame, perhaps candlelight. “I must pursue an unknown brighter light,” she writes, reaching out for something beyond the Johannine logos, seeking to touch the ineffable. Of such poems it would be impertinent to say more.

In the large picture this book is like a tessellated novel, the pieces reshuffled but the characters intact—on the other hand, it seems possible that if the poems were set down in exactly the right order we would have Joyce Lee’s autobiography. Viewed, more sensibly after all, as a book of poetry, this is writing in which accuracy of perception is harmoniously balanced with generosity of spirit.

Chris Wallace-Crabbe
Melbourne, July 2002

Originally published by Artist’s Proof (Stephen J. Williams) in 2003.

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It is nearly dark when I come to the Indian Ocean: collected poems 1965-2003 by Joyce Lee

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