'Simple Facts of Light and Stone': The Eco-Phenomenology of Anthony Lawrence
Bitto, Emily, Australian Literary Studies
'outside myself/there is a world' William Carlos Williams, Paterson (57)
DESPITE the fact that Anthony Lawrence has been publishing poetry for almost twenty years, producing nine collections since Dreaming in Stone appeared in 1989, and has been awarded numerous prizes, (1) his work has received surprisingly little critical attention. Among the few critics who have written on his poetry, there appears to be a consensus that, at his best, Lawrence is 'one of our finest poets' (Beveridge 198). There is also general agreement that his work is characterised by a preoccupation with themes including travel, fishing, the natural world, rural life, death and violence, human emotion, intimate relationships, perception and imagination, and the processes of reading and writing poetry. (2) However the consensus ends there, and Lawrence's work has prompted diverse, even antithetical, reactions from critics and reviewers. There is a sense that at times they do not know what to make of Lawrence's idiosyncratic style, which ranges from the jocosely narrative to the sensuously lyrical, from the confessional to the surreal. Adjectives such as 'bewildering' (Duwell, Rev. of Cold Wires), 'different' (Edgar 183), 'compelling' (Duwell, Rev. of Darkwood Aquarium), and 'troubling' (McLaren 183) feature in reviews.
Lawrence was born in 1957 in Tamworth in the New England region of New South Wales. Being somewhat 'peregrinatory' by nature (Wessman 31), he has come to know intimately a number of diverse Australian landscapes, including rural, coastal and urban. After leaving school at sixteen, Lawrence spent time working as a jackeroo near Jerilderie, and on fishing trawlers off the coast of Western Australia. His early collections, Dreaming in Stone (1989), Three Days out of Tidal Town (1992), The Darkwood Aquarium (1993) and Cold Wires of Rain (1995), are imbued with the colloquial language and stark images of rural life, yet are also woven through with the lyricism and at times surrealism of Lawrence's influences. These influences are predominantly American poets, including James Dickey, Mary Oliver, W.S. Merwin, Hart Crane, Galway Kinnell, Robert Bly, Raymond Carver, and John Berryman, to name a few; Lawrence is clearly an avid reader. The act of addressing these poets and the contemplation of the process of poetic creation are central to Lawrence's writing, which is strongly metapoetic: the persona of 'the poet' often mediates the places, experiences and observations that are its ostensible subject matter.
It is this prominence of, and preoccupation with, the poetic self in Lawrence's writing that has produced the greatest ambivalence among reviewers. Geoff Page has commented that Lawrence's poetic voice is 'occasionally too self-aware for its own good' (357). Similarly, Judith Beveridge, while praising Lawrence's ability, has criticised him for the 'too-persistent insertion of his own Romanticised self into his landscapes and narratives,' which, she feels, 'can become a weakness' (199). Beveridge describes his stance as 'at the opposite end of the spectrum to a poet such as Robert Gray, for whom ... nature is purely of itself and appeals to no higher plane of meaning' (199). Similarly, Greg McLaren comments: '[e]ven in [his] poems of the natural world ... the poems very often reflect attention back to Lawrence's self-awareness as a poet' (184). These statements seem to imply a set of ideas or opinions about the relation of poetry or the poet to the natural world, subtly suggesting that the two should remain somewhat separate. It is McLaren who has made perhaps the harshest criticism of Lawrence, in a review of his most recent collection The Sleep of a Learning Man, in which he asserts that 'Lawrence seems hardly able to write about something without relating it to himself in some way .... He rarely speaks of things' connections to each other, but more typically of their connection to him' (184). (3)
Martin Duwell explains Lawrence's style in terms of what Auden defines as the 'southern sensibility', describing this sensibility as 'almost Spanish or southern South American in its intensity, its genderedness, its sense of the tragedy of itself' (Rev. …