Laurie Smith’s career was grounded in a lost world which has few witnesses left, a time when zoologists had permission to roam vast, undeveloped tracts of land. In the poem Ten-Pound Emigrants he remarks that the British travellers he encounters aboard a ship returning him to Australia ‘won’t believe where I have been’. With colleagues he camped out for weeks, documenting entire life cycles. His ears were tuned to the vernacular, human and non-human. This alone makes these recollections rare and valuable.
In addition, Australian poetry gains a new voice which is by turn playful, witty and philosophical. Though he writes his poems in plain English, with a recognisably colloquial blend of expertise and yarning, Laurie’s talent was honed over decades of scientific discipline, taxonomy and the spare syntax of sample-labelling. Many of his lines are as succinct, challenging and entertaining as cryptic crossword clues. He is as deft with words on the page as he had been decoding and cataloguing the wild as a naturalist.
Such accuracy and specificity, born of careful observation, were Laurie’s life practice—enviable training for a poet: ‘Peripheral vision / is vital. Every day / delivered surprises, things you thought / you knew present in other guises. /’ (Toiling in Tandem)
Back in the urban jungle, he ‘reads the room’ as perceptively as he once read the outback: in several poems the poet turns his trained gaze on the human condition, including his own, without flinching. But his serendipitous poems take us out into the wild, where with all the insight and joy of an Attenborough commentary, he shares his compassion for the overlooked world.
Permission to Roam (includes postage within Australia)
‘Combining a zoologist’s keen eye and scientific training with a poet’s flair for vivid imagery, Laurie Smith both informs and delights in this collection with his laconic style and dry wit. A lifetime of experiences has been sifted and filtered into very fine and memorable poems. There are portraits, reflections and many “mini” narratives to add variety to the lyric moments of this much awaited volume.’ Shane McCauley
Permission to Roam (includes international postage)
It is a great pleasure and honour to finally be able to launch Laurie’s first and substantial poetry collection, Permission to Roam. I say “finally”, as from its inception to this moment has been a very eventful process. For some years, I used to collect Laurie as we went to the Friday OOTA poetry classes, allowing time to discuss life, poems, poem ideas, other poets (always in the most respectful terms, of course) and much else. Laurie began writing poems after attending poetry readings with his wife Flora, already a fine poet, and realised that he could draw on his rich experiences, especially from his fieldwork as a zoologist, to create poems of his own.
He wrote steadily and began having his poems published in a variety of places, including the prestigious Westerly journal. The move towards publishing a collection developed and in early 2021, Laurie gave me a large manuscript to read and generally assess with regard to possible publication. Unfortunately, at about the same time I was diagnosed with some serious health issues and, apart from declaring the collection eminently publishable, had to withdraw from the project. John Lennon’s remark that life is what happens when you’re busy making plans had never been more apt.
Laurie, with support from Flora and his daughter Kathryn, pursued publishing outlets for his book. Fortunately, WA Poets Publishing, the publishing branch of WA Poets’ Inc, had bravely appeared on the scene and accepted Laurie’s manuscript. It was guided to its final form by Professor Dennis Haskell from the WA Poets Publishing editorial team. During this process, Flora passed away, a great loss to Laurie and Kathryn, but also to the entire Perth poetry community. (As a brief aside, I would like to mention the very memorable combined poetry reading given by Flora and Laurie on the 9th February 2019 at The Moon cafe).
I am reminded that although Permission to Roam is Laurie’s first poetry book, it is far from being his first book. During his more than 50 years of work with the WA Museum in the Department of Terrestrial Vertebrates, he produced many books and articles. His Lizards of Western Australia was given the Whitley Book Award for Best Australian Field Guide by the Royal Zoological Society of New South Wales in 2000.
But returning to Permission to Roam, what do we find here? From the start, it is a book saturated in memory and atmosphere, though often with the historical clarity of a photograph album (remember them?) combined with a sensitivity of observation and insight that is so much more than colourful nostalgia, though I think there is much nostalgia too. There is virtual prose-poetry from the start in Laurie’s illuminating Introduction when he warmly recalls early visits to the WA Museum, with its “lovely jarrah doors adorned with stained-glass window motifs with Western Australian themes”. He notes that one of the first technical words he committed to memory was “taxidermist”.
The poems are divided under four headings. The first of these is “Following Fingerposts”, poems that take us 50, 60 and more years into the past of the Swan River landscape, Perth and its suburbs, and several country towns in which Laurie grew up. One of my favourites is “Summer on the Swan River, 1953”, I guess because I recognise many similar things now (I have walked along the Swan River every day this year), but also because of the differences as a result of passing time and selectivity of detail. The poet aptly describes this window of memory as an “idyll”, the languidly moving river, the sights and smells, vivid details of specific locations, fishing and exploring. It builds to a final moment and image almost literally frozen in time.
As an example of the precision of Laurie’s imagery, here is “Blue Manna Crab”, brief enough to be quoted in full:
—— A bit of china
—— not from a kiln
—— but out of a net.
—— Sunlit ultramarine
—— its belly plates
—— purest white
—— like old porcelain.
There are so many others I would like to comment on but will constrain myself to one more from this opening section. This one shows how a poem can bring back aspects of memory otherwise forgotten in the changing social and historical layers, the pursuit of “progress”. It is about a fragrance that epitomised Perth Spring, and that the poem beguiled me into recalling from long-past trips to the city. Its title is “Sweet-scented Boronia” and incorporates the phrase called by the street-sellers. Here is a sampler:
—— At London Court little kids squint upwards,
—— gaze at the time, wait for chimes
—— eager to see two brightly painted jousters
—— clash in the portal above the clock-face
—— Sweet-scented boronia, two and six a bunch:
—— Sir, a sprig for your lapel, only one shilling.
The second section, “On Natural History”, is self-explanatory and contains a cornucopia of wildlife and creatures closely observed. “Mallee Country Triptych” presents three aspects of nature that cleverly contrast human perception with the underlying reality, subtly revealing how a sort of subconscious poetry presents alternative truths, perhaps hinting at the foundation of mythmaking.
Sound and visual imagery again combine exquisitely in “Desert Campanologist”, in which the crested bellbird’s call “cloaks everything” and its “sideshow clown’s head/swivels left, right” until ultimately its song “soaks the air”. Imagery is bold and unexpectedly apt, as in the opening line of “Ode to a Turtle”: “A galleon beached on a familiar shore”. The “Thorny Devil” (so much more devilish under its Latin moniker “Moloch horridus”) is a powerful and extensive amalgam of poetry and scientific observation: “Rivulets trickle down scaly ruts,/ so many tiny aqueducts”. This, like so many other poems, is richly and lovingly detailed and could be quoted endlessly.
Perenties, snakes, geckos, budgerigars, as well as many feral creatures, fill more of this section’s pages.
The third section is titled “Hail and Well Met”. Here we meet a remarkable gallery of characters, including the “hard-bitten” ones mentioned in the Introduction. One such is found in a brilliant character portrait called “Following Soda”. Soda shows the way in “his little yellow Suzuki” until he calls for a “Grub stop”. He grabs
—— . . . a blackened Sunshine milk tin
—— a handful of tea, (to) knock up a brew.
—— Lunch is a packet of Raspberry Waffles
—— . . . Soda’s first bite is a bit off-putting,
—— a host of red worms squirm through the holes
—— to seek refuge in his whiskers.
Some of these poems are not for the faint-hearted!
One last example from this section is so laconic, and lean like its subject, that it can be quoted in full. It is called “Jackaroo”:
—— On the thin side
—— flash buckle
—— Hip pockets
—— (lanolin from
—— Belt on last
—— can’t fix saggy
There are a host of other portraits, equally delightful, such as “The Karunjie Kid” and “Cec’s Pigs”, which are also mini-stories, yarns in fact, in their own right.
The final section is “From Field and Study”, in which we encounter more Australian locales and more rustic characters, but we also travel far away to places such as Uzbekistan and Burma. In “Bukhara Tea” the poet muses on Central Asian art painted on “homemade paper from Samarkand”. In “Lake Inle, Burma” there is an unusual but insightful comparison between the Burmese scene and the techniques of northern Dutch art:
—— An image reminiscent of that Dutch master
—— so meticulous with perspective
—— when painting women engaged in kitchen tasks.
—— So different, so similar:
—— chunks of primary colour
—— dramatic against a jet backdrop,
—— while Vermeer’s eye saw splintered northern light
—— with just a hint of pale pastels.
The book’s final poem, “Pillowed Up, Scrunched Down” is a moving tribute to Flora and a most fitting conclusion it is.
During our conversations, I often suggested to Laurie that he write his memoirs. Well, in a very real sense Permission to Roam is exactly that. Here is a life fully lived, recorded and shared with us in one fine poem after another. The variety is astonishing. We are lucky, at last, to have it. And to have it now, at last, fully launched! Thank you.
– Shane McCauley