TEXT review

Waiting for flight

review by Emily Bitto


Susan Hampton
News of the Insect World
Five Islands Press, Melbourne, 2010
ISBN 9780734041050
Pb 91pp AUD21.95


Have you ever wondered what a dragonfly and a poet have in common? Full of such wondering, and of wonder, Susan Hampton’s latest collection of poems – News of the Insect World – will take your hand and lead you in search of answers.

A number of interlinked metaphors structure News of the Insect World. As the title suggests, the common vehicle is the lives of insects: their fragility; their fleetingness; and their potential for seemingly miraculous transformations. Yet the concerns and questions here are very much human ones: how best to live one’s life; how to come to terms with transience and mortality; whether transcendence is possible – in the form of leaps of faith and creativity that take the individual from a nascent state to a wholly “other” plane; how best to wait in patience and preparation for those leaps, which may never come; how to cope with doubt. These are weighty topics. However, they are dealt with gently, at times with humour, through the overarching insect metaphor.

The collection’s opening poem – ‘Infinity’ (13) – introduces the subjects of mortality and the fleeting nature of life. It hints that it may be possible to cheat death, to live on, in a sense, through the notice and care of others. The poem, narrated by a dead dragonfly, begins with a simple but detailed description:

Three of my legs are intact.
My back left leg is gone
at the knee. My right
front arm, gone. The left
forearm covers my eyes, as if
I could not face my death.
Yet it’s happened already.

Though death has already established its inevitable preeminence, the poem ends with tentative hope:

It is to be considered
that I have not been run over,
but tenderly collected
brought home and admired –
all my detail, down to
the tortoise-shell-coloured
figure-8 mark on the
upper shell of my stomach. (13)

Implicitly, this poem brings itself within its own purview. It is a poem about the significance of poetry as a way of staving off extinction. The dragonfly has not only been collected and admired, it has also been immortalised in the lines we are reading. Careful observation and recording of the details of everyday life is established here as a vital task, almost an ethics. Through this ‘tender’approach to the world – even its smallest parts – significance and meaning are conferred not only on what is observed but on the mindful observer too.

News of the Insect World is divided into four sections. The organising principle behind these divisions,  is not immediately evident. While the collection as a whole has a natural sense of narrative arc, the poems within each section can seem at times inconsistent in subject matter and voice. The first section, for example, which begins with the contemplative tone of  ‘Infinity,’ ends with a surreal five-page hallucinatory narrative poem titled ‘Club Voodoo’  (21-25), which appears incongruous, even inaccessible, in the context of the preceding poems. ‘Club Voodoo’ is one of a small number of poems which seem perhaps too idiosyncratic in content, almost as though they are included for a specific, informed readership; these poems do not easily translate beyond the personal to speak to a broader audience.

After the fever-dream of ‘Club Voodoo’,  the second section returns to the insect theme in a more focused manner. Two poems in this section – ‘Dragonfly and Nymph’ (30-32) and ‘The Dung Beetle’ (33-36) – offer nuanced, extended reflections on the central concerns of the collection as a whole. In  ‘Dragonfly and Nymph’ we are told:

the life of a nymph
can last three years –
strange then the adult
is gone in a day. (32)

This poem considers the fact that the majority of life may be spent in a process of formation or slow reaching towards one’s potential, and that the eventual realisation of this potential may be fleeting. Whether this makes the brief moment more or less significant is a question the poem does not try to resolve. We are simply told that we all begin our lives ‘like Mayfly / nymphs’ (32). Although the speaker in these poems is yearning towards transcendence (the title poem concludes: ‘I’ve been a caterpillar / so long now’), there is also a sense that there is an equal dignity in the long ‘nymph’ years that precede the single day of flight. ‘Dragonfly and Nymph’ concludes with a couplet: ‘There is more to the life / of the mind than we first admit,’ perhaps referring to the inscrutable gestation of ideas or poems, which, like butterflies, seem to be the product of a kind of miracle birth, but which are in fact formed slowly and sometimes laboriously. 

In the third and fourth sections of the collection, the poems become more overtly focused on a search for meaning. They detail an earnestly ethical, spiritual, and even explicitly religious quest for grace. These are mostly long poems, and they develop a sustained rhythm, almost like prayer, for example in  ‘The Fourth Sister’ (67-73):

The role of the intercessor
may not be well understood,
the diplomat,
the one-who-goes-before,
the sacrifice,
the here-in-the-flesh healer,
the laying on of hands,
the human element
of an abstract idea,
the stories.  (71)

The speaker in a later poem, ‘The Gulf of Martaban’ (74-78), hints towards a religious conversion that re-echoes the theme of transformation woven throughout the book:

Retracted as an insect
I stop reading the newspapers
think of my friend
at the airport:
my secular life fell apart
when she offered
to take me to mass (77).

Yet, despite this gesturing towards a possible epiphany or revelation, the poems remain full of uncertainty and searching. In the final poem, ‘In Further News’ (88-91), the speaker once again compares herself to a larva awaiting transformation:

Is [a grub] not the sign of something new –
in fact, like the phoenix,
a symbol of renewal
transubstantiation, even –
In Wagga once, full of doubt
I remember thinking,
I’ve done all this before,
going over the same ground
/. . ./
The migratory path
isn’t one I understand:
how can I transform?
I’m glad to see the caterpillars
of bogong moths are stoutly built. (88-91)

It is with this tentative, ambivalent, but hopeful conclusion that News of the Insect World leaves us.

If I were to offer a criticism of this collection it would be that its eye is not always as finely attuned to the small details as it implicitly tells its reader to try to be. In an early poem we are told simply that ‘[a]n insect comes and tilts its wings to the sun’ (17 my emphasis), rather than being given the name of the specific insect in question. This is disappointing in a collection that attempts to develop an ethics around ‘the nobility of the miniature’ (38). Yet these lapses in attention and the occasionally too-prosaic language somehow fit with the unassuming stance of the collection, which at every turn admits its doubts and failures to achieve transcendence. These are humble, earth-dwelling poems. The voice, the syntax, embodies its groundedness in the everyday. It is a poetry seeking flight, but aware that such transubstantiation comes only after long years of struggle, and that even then it may only last a day.

Emily Bitto is a Melbourne-based writer. Her poetry has featured in a number of Australian publications, including the Australian Literary Review, the Sydney Morning Herald, and HEAT. She is currently undertaking a PhD and teaching creative writing at the University of Melbourne.


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Vol 15 No 1 April 2011
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Kevin Brophy