Lisa Gorton’s Empirical is a remarkable achievement. With its mesmerising diorama-like clarity and its air of meditative stillness, it’s both uncompromising in its intelligence and superbly readable despite its fragmented style.
The book’s first section contains seven short lyrical descriptions of a corner of Melbourne’s Royal Park between the Upfield train line and the CityLink tollway, a site used by city councils of yore as a dumping ground for construction rubble.
The allegorical potential of the urban detritus, shattered concrete and twisted rebar, now reabsorbed into a composite landscape of weeds and saltbush, fascinates Gorton and inspires visions of places lost and places found: “Out in that unimaginable field / in which wrecked worlds heap their monuments”.
They also provide the compositional model for the book’s longest poem, a collage-like history of Royal Park in which Gorton pieces together quotes from newspapers, government reports and other sources, selected with care to create an effect of “wreckage under glass”.
Empirical’s second half contains a suite of dreamy pieces on subjects such as Rimbaud’s ideal cityscapes, Coleridge’s dreams, Victorian magic lanterns and London’s famous Crystal Palace. These poems, in which Gorton meditates on the global circulation of imageries and material culture, are full of deliberate repetitions, scholarly allusions and thematic cross-references with other poems in this collection and Gorton’s two previous collections.
As a whole, Empirical is a bit of an Alexandrian confection, evoking the quiet solemnity of the reading room of some great library. Indeed, even the landscape observations of the first section can feel like exhibits under glass. For example, from the book’s second poem: “wrens gather up out of the grass like the reverse / of something breaking or that idea of place / which persists behind its uses”. That first image is immediate and precise. The somewhat pat academic phrase – “idea of place” – dangles like a specimen label, foreshadowing an abstract analytical apparatus.
But Empirical is remarkable because it is not simply an intellectual essay in the poetics of fragmentation. The intricacy of association, the predominating simplicity and elegance of the language and the concentrated effect of what T. S. Eliot would call the book’s undissociated sensibility, its fusion of feelings and ideas, make it required reading.
Giramondo, 98pp, $24
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 27, 2019 as "Lisa Gorton, Empirical". Subscribe here.