At their most chimerical, ‘water mirrors’ –a puddle’s skin, a lake’s face – are dynamic canvasses. They render a world self-contained and ethereal; its delicacy underscored by capricious breeze or settling other, its detail momentary and inverted. To that end, Nicholas Powell’s debut collection is fittingly titled.
Winner of the 2011 Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize, Water Mirrors is a spectral blend of disparate vistas and fleeting intimacies. Solitary and meditative, even the simpler poems are stirred by a sort of apparitional undertow, gently drawing us toward unfeigned reverence for the ‘ordinary’. Regarding his somnolent lover in the poem ‘Toes’, Powell writes: ‘Tonight they are distant as islands,/her alien toes in moonlight./Her dream woke me, a slurred/dream-word surfacing. What was it?/Where is it sailing, the shipwrecked/word with no sail?’ Moments such as this, when the poet suffuses the commonplace with the otherworldly, are at the apex of the collection.
At times, it’s evident that Water Mirrors is a debut, which is to say that the collection is understandably uneven. The occasional self-consciously ‘poetic’ indulgences of a voice in development attenuate a restraint elsewhere exercised, but these forgivable missteps ultimately exalt Water Mirrors’ finer moments. For every glib line, there’s two to correct the stumble.
Powell’s tendency to overreach only becomes apparent in contrast to occasions when an image is afforded the necessary room (or silence) in which to luxuriate, creating a rippling and altogether hallucinatory effect: ‘Heavy rain/whitens the night, lifts the lake./Our small boat floats out and away/across a canvass stretched to the eye’s edge/where the lake is nailed and painted.’ (‘Peninsula’)
One of the more interesting aspects of a first collection is the opportunity to watch a poet wrestle with the process of creation, or what might even be called a poetic ontology. Why write? Why write poetry? What, if anything, is its significance? Is, in an echo of Imagism, ‘Art – [a] poor/cousin of the thing itself’? (‘Slower Motions’); does ‘A place where things are made [really] exist out of time.’? (‘Sepal’), especially given the importance of breath and at least rhythm, if not metre, to verse; is a new dawn chiefly another chance ‘To hoard portals to beauty,/own nought, witness the universe renew its nuptials:/light and dark, life and death, to turn/to a fellow guest and say,/here we are.’? (‘Missing Wing’) While no definitive position is assumed, Powell would be doing his talents a disservice in not adhering to the last.
Water Mirrors largely gleams, but in one particular moment Powell rather pointedly speaks to his collection in its entirety: ‘Some compositions/decompose, others burgeon like ferns in bitumen.’ (‘Sepal’ again) In this vein, Water Mirrors is a verdant thicket, though a little pruning of some of the longer pieces might’ve better accommodated the reader and lent greater resonance to the reflections. Nonetheless, this is an auspicious debut from a young poet deserving of our attention.
By Nicholas Powell
Paperback, 64pp, $24.95
ISBN: 978 0 7022 4935 8
University of Queensland Press