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Book review: The Jaguar, Sarah Holland-Batt

An award-winning poet illuminates the dying light of her father's years.

Sarah Holland-Batt’s latest collection shows a poet at the peak of her powers. Indeed as the jaguar, whose profile graces the cover of her book, is both elegant and powerful, so too are Holland-Batt’s words, which are underscored by a muscly tension.

This is her third book of poetry, although she’s also edited two and recently released a book of essays about poetry (Fishing for Lightning) that she’d previously published in her columns in The Australian. Holland-Batt is a writer utterly steeped in the practice and theory of poetry, and her expertise shows.

The Jaguar is as its most impressive when the writer documents the last days of her father as he falls in thrall to Parkinson’s disease in a nursing home. The book opens with a terribly affecting piece called ‘My Father as a Giant Koi’, in which the poet notes his foggy state of mind. He’s so far below consciousness and only seems to surface for food, unable to trust the ‘scratched headlamps / of his eyes so he navigates by feel.’

Elsewhere, following his mental deterioration, she notices how his moods ‘bloom and retreat like an anemone’, and even more painful a memory was how carefully she chose his last outfit for cremation (in a poem called ‘The Outing’) after witnessing how he long he’d been ‘sliding delirious in a paper gown.’ Here dignity can be returned to this once proud man, ‘someone / with somewhere, finally, to go.’

The duty of care that Holland-Batt has for her father is deeply moving. Even though the reader first sees him in a diminished state, there are signs throughout the book of his intelligence and stubbornness and the poet makes a point of honouring this memory of what he was like before a degenerative illness stole his mind, a long-drawn out affair that took twenty odd years.

The wildcat of the title appears in a number of poems, including one that marks his impulsive purchase of a jaguar sportscar. It was ‘a rebellion against his tremor’ and though he was going blind in one eye he raged against the dying light by driving it around recklessly. Yet he couldn’t help but try and modify it, tinkering until it could go no more and ‘it sat like a carcass / in the garage, like a headstone, like a coffin.’

Read: Book review: Abracadabra by Robert Dessaix

There are other poems, about romantic relationships (‘Instructions for a lover’, ‘The Proposal’), about travel to exotic locales, (‘Night Flight’) in the middle section that are wry and sardonic in tone, but at its heart, The Jaguar is best when it covers the life, suffering and loss of a parent, delving into Holland-Batts father’s past as the book progresses through the pages. It’s bookended by her relationship with him. In possibly her most tender and devastating poem, “The Gift’, she says, ‘I will carry the gift of his death endlessly / every day i will know it opening in me.’

The Jaguar, Sarah Holland-Batt
Publisher: UQP
ISBN: 9780702265501
Format: Paperback
Pages: 144 pp
RRP: $24.99
Publication Date: 10 May 2022

Thuy On is Reviews Editor of ArtsHub and an arts journalist, critic and poet who’s written for a range of publications including The Guardian, The Saturday Paper, Sydney Review of Books, The Australian, The Age/SMH and Australian Book Review. She's the outgoing books editor of The Big issue. Her first book, a collection of poetry called Turbulence, came out in 2020 and was published by University of Western Australia Press. Her next collection, Decadence, will be published in July 2022. Twitter: @thuy_on