- Carte Blanche, by Thom Sullivan. Vagabond Press. $25.
It's satisfying to observe that the sophistication and idiosyncratic uniqueness of Thom Sullivan's Carte Blanche have recently been recognised by the judges of the 2020 Mary Gilmore Award for the best first book of poetry in Australia last year.
As Kevin Hart suggests in his imprimatur, "Carte Blanche is a book of thresholds, of glimpses into the everyday and what the everyday sometimes hides". Indeed, the book's opening poem is called "Threshold". Its narrator is standing at night on "a dark dissertation of road" and noting: "A tidal shift / in the wind over the paddocks. A fine grain of stars." Characteristically, the poem ends with an incomplete sentence: "To stand on the threshold of this trespass, / memorising - as though it's all you will recall."
It's not easy to say exactly where Sullivan's acuity of observation and concern with memory come from, but the poetry of Robert Gray might be a start. Like Gray, Sullivan is interested in landscape and its metaphysical implications. Like Philip Hodgins (and perhaps Brendan Ryan), Sullivan also has a sense of the "worked" landscape of farms - and their adjacency to wilder, more cosmic dimensions of nature, as for instance in the juxtaposition quoted above: "wind over the paddocks. A fine grain of stars".
Something that may likewise have attracted the approval of the Gilmore judges is Sullivan's willingness to experiment, particularly with syntax and punctuation. Around half the poems in the book use the device of a colon only rather than other punctuation marks between phrases and sentences. This tends to create an interesting sense of stasis where no part is more important than any other.
It can also be used to wry, ironic or even humorous effect - as in "Plain Loco" (which Sullivan tells us had its origin in feeding cowboy clichés into an online poetry generator). The poem concludes intriguingly with: "& / i wait in the moonlight : a herd / of beeves to be rounded up : / branded : then smuggled across / the border : into your dark mexico : ".
Carte Blanche is also remarkable for a group of love poems which are particularly fine at evoking the beginnings of relationships. The two most remarkable of these are "Your Gaze Eludes Mine" and "Blush". The latter, set "at the wedding of / a childhood friend", begins with a clever enjambment ("the afternoon we first made love / seem plausible : ") and continues with a number of playful and ingenious possibilities: "your face //platter: an offering : of straw- /berries : crimson lake : or / plum : the afternoon that love / first seemed possible : a fruit / that we might share : the taste / in our mouths already : ".
- Geoff Page is a Canberran poet.