186. (Tim Vallence)

The following is a poem by Tim Vallence, a former teacher and friend. It was recently published in the journal Southerly; I reproduce it here from a manuscript. Tim Vallence died in 2016. The title is “Balliang,” the name of a locality in Victoria, Australia.


the tall breaking black silos in

dark twilight like dark gapped teeth

so quiet the breath of wind

plays out slowly in the head

a long play of paddocks leaning away

to fences forty acres beyond sight

from the big dam, a broad sweeping space,

the brief balm of early dew fastened to the cooling air,

widowed spaces in the breadth of sky mounting.

The close evening sky

swells into something like sparks, gasping tight explosions,

part of a drove of suns, as the open breeze steps somehow

towards the gapped horizon,

and the smell of long paddocks are

a tight dampness of the earth

resting long in the mind


It’s a poem about a landscape coming into focus, one that is “breaking in” to the mind; but the poem is an effort to keep the landscape together to get itself around something that would be breaking apart. Landscape poems are least satisfying when they begin with the thought that the landscape is whole; it’s difficult not to write a poem that implies that the landscape is whole, difficult to genuinely take a landscape apart, and then, at the same time, to write a poem that wants to hold it as one. It’s a matter of obliterating or erasing the relationships of sight and thought that we take for granted when we perceive an environment, and then discerning new relationships. That happens here line by line, with the curious discoveries that happen within and between them: “tall breaking black silos in” not only intimates but refuses “breaking in” but inverts “tall” and “breaking” so that their height breaks on us before the sense that they are “breaking” which in turn begs the question of what is being broken; there is no simple answer because the silos break on the sight, they break the horizon, twilight itself is, a curious inversion of dawn, breaking, casting the day in the new light that is dusk, and the darkness of the silos is similarly “breaking,” a new shade under the evening light; finally, though, the silos are themselves “breaking” under the poet’s vision: he is breaking even as he is constructing the poem itself.

“Breaking” is the point of departure and the culmination of the poem is “resting.” Most immediately, the “tight dampness of the earth” rests long in the mind, but the poem’s lines are not limited to the sequence that holds and reveals them; the entire poem, the “breaking” is “resting long in the mind.” “Resting” rather than “rests” because the poem permits the resting to happen, because so long as the poem is read it occurs, and because the poem is itself active; it is not a record of what rests, but does the resting itself. It is a poem that calms a mind by resolving it to the world, that calms the world by resolving it to a mind. “Nature” poetry, “landscape” poetry at its best is always poetry of belonging, of apprehending order and stability, of alienation from the world, and of reconciling the human mind, language-using, temporally-constituted, with the world. This poem is very much in that tradition. Being an Australian poem, an antipodean post-colonial poem, the effort at reconciliation is different: the English language has colonized the landscape, dominated it even, but remains always attached, in its history and conventions, to a landscape that is on the other side of the world. English is not entirely at home on the Australian earth. It is a different sort of post-colonial experience than we are accustomed to reading about in North America.

“Gapped teeth” have personality, lack a cosmopolitan or urbane veneer, appear on the rural swain; they are lovable here, the earth as a sleeping giant, the landscape a fallen anthropomorphic form, but the poem does not pursue myth or fairy tale; the whimsy is picked up and dropped. With it, we see a free play of the mind, but the mind of the poem only settles into seeing with “plays out slowly in the head.” The “breath of wind,” we might think has been exhaled, passed between the teeth, but it is also the old spiritus; why play out slowly? it is taut and tense still. How will this play out? With the play of the gapped teeth and fairy tale? To what end will it come, what rest will it find?

As if uncertain of the word “play” itself, uncertain of how that metaphor, so rich for the serious play of the poet’s art, might carry the poem, it is picked up in the next line: “a long play of paddocks leans away.” The poem’s description of the mind (“plays out”) is coterminous or continuous with the landscape itself (“long play”). “A long play of paddocks” might be sporting, or a long line, but what matters most is that something has happened with this line, as if this is the culmination of the breath playing out: having exhaled, having relaxed, the landscape’s breadth and length comes into focus. “Long” will appear in the final line, where it refers to duration; here, the extension is in space. The two are inseparable in the poem; with our sense of a landscape’s dimension, time expands, the mind rests for a longer time. The paddocks are “leaning away” because the earth inclines, and the poem leans closer, in the next line, leaning “beyond sight” to the familiarity with what this landscape is, its farms and acreage, and its limits, the fences that are there.

This is also the moment where the poem’s ambitions are realized, if not yet fulfilled: this landscape, not another; this place, not another; these limits, and no more, and within them a “broad sweeping space.” The poem intensifies; the attention sharpens, itself is “fastened” with the “brief balm” to the “cooling air” of twilight, so that even as time swells, suspends, stretches, we are fixed to a point of it. The rhythm of the line is lovely, awake to the world at dusk, springing in its trochaic rhythms as the world springs to animation: “the brief balm of early dew fastened to the cooling air.”  It is not just that the line enacts what it describes–that has always been a simple, often fatuous, description of rhythmic effects: it is that in a poem about the mind finding its own order and the order of the world at once, the line is a mental event, something held in the grasp of language in its full dimensions, melodic, metrical, as well as semantic. We need the critical and creative insights of Hopkins to appreciate this sort of writing.

Then those spaces again, the spaces that draw the mind up and out, not yet full, once full of light and now “widowed,” until we find that the spaces too are part of the composition, are substantial entities, exerting their presence even when defined by absence so that they are seen “in the breadth of sky mounting.” “Breadth” and “mounting” give us two perpendicular axes, horizon defining height. “Breadth” looks back first to “broad sweeping space” but now the spaces are mounting the sky; we might think “sweeping” should have been taken as a a verb, that it was always in action in the poem, or we might think that the poem has attended more closely, the world changing with his attention to it. “Breadth” also catches the sound of “breath” in the third line, so the width of sky and the sweeping broad space of the air and the breath of evening air are all contained in the line at once, all evident in the “cooling air” of evening. “Cooling air” of course descends, as hot air rises.

The poem confronts the landscape, brings it close, so close that the landscape threatens to master the poem: “close” not only because the evening sky is humid and makes it difficult to fill the air with lungs, makes breathing an effort, but because the evening sky now is close, to the poem and poet, and when the poet is left “gasping,” and we are “gasping” for orientation too, that is the price of his success; having attended so carefully to the air itself, the poem is left gasping for more.

But I’ve taken “gasping” out of context, drawing it back into the semantic pull of earlier lines. It belongs where the poem has it, in the magnificent description of the stars coming out at night, viewed as if they were part of the combustible atmosphere, but beyond comprehension, “something” and “somehow” registering the myopia of the poem’s gaze:

swells into something like sparks, gasping tight explosions,

part of a drove of suns, as the open breeze steps somehow


The “drove” is cattle, a herd, the sky now an extension of the forty acres of land, its vast height an extension of the measurable breadth of the landscape that the poet describes; this is the moment when the landscape might get away even from itself, dissolving into something greater, somehow, but the breeze recovers it, “somehow.” It “steps” because “step” is determined, is directed, is suggestive of a direction and agency and aim, and it walks through the silos on the horizon, now just “gapped” because the poem, for all it has been about landscape, is about what cannot be a part of the land, but which is on it, nurtured by it, known by it–the air, the space or spaces above it. The horizon is now just “gapped”–the “gapped teeth” of the silos are not beside the point, but they are beside the poem: the absence within (and of?) the horizon has effaced what defines the absence.

But what the air carries is the smell of earth, and the poem descends in its final three lines. “Smell” receives the plural “are” as if it is single, uncountable, but unmistakably myriad and complex, breaking but united. “A tight dampness of the earth” because the earth is tight compared to the air in the sky, the wind; because the earth tightens when damp, no longer crumbles into dust; and because the mind tightens, regains solidity when it notices the dampness of the earth, which may be the ground and soil, or which may be instead the groundedness of the poem’s vision, at last resting in the poet’s mind, enduring and extended, a place and a time.

It is a beautiful poem about coming into seeing, and coming into one’s mind, finding rest in broken apprehension.



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