BOOK REVIEW: The Jaguar by Sarah Holland-Batt

By Georgia King

Sarah Holland-Batt deals with what is inherently human and weaves these elements together in a way that is most poignant and affecting.

The Jaguar is Holland-Batt’s fourth book, in which she reflects on grief after her father passed away from Parkinson’s Disease. She explores how grief is shaped by time as we are taken on her journey through grief, healing, love and returning home.

The collection is split into four volumes: the first exploring the death of her father, the second on her experience of grief, the third speaks of romantic love for the first time and in the fourth, Holland-Batt travels alone. Throughout all these sections, the grief of losing her father is always present. Holland-Batt uses language economically to demonstrate the changing shifts in emotion as she grieves and heals from the loss of her father. She uses run on sentences to demonstrate an explosion of emotion, and at other times she uses minimal words to show her struggle when speaking of grief. It’s masterfully done and creates varying tone, demonstrating the shifting reality of the grieving process. She ends the work in a narrative form poem that captures the entirety of her father’s life so that the collection begins and ends with her father.

Place is incredibly important throughout the collection. Place is often used as poetry titles, strengthening the sense of both the physical and emotional movement throughout the book. Brazil, for example, tells the tale of her father dreaming of taking his wife and Holland-Batt to Brazil despite his current illness. She lays bare the helplessness of her father and the limitations of the human body. This directly contrasts with the third and fourth volumes where Holland-Batt extensively travels. There is a sense of empowerment in these later volumes where she returns to her father’s home to explore her history, with also a sense of distance and healing.

but you’re away mostly / and so am I. I’m sorry / we don’t speak more often.

Nature is constantly present and often demonstrates Holland-Batt’s psychological state:

the valley’s ridges / are leached by mist

Tomorrow the mountain / may or may not reappear

The collection demonstrates uncertainty and fogginess, with imagery that is juxtaposed with the mechanical, cold descriptions of the hospital.

when the halls ping / with the sharp beep of motion sensors and my father’s crying.

Alongside this preoccupation with place, Holland-Batt deals with intimate, human moments. She talks of the failing human body and criticises the medical system. We see the struggling family and Holland-Batt’s vulnerability. However, we also see her strength.

I praise my hardness, / to it and it alone I say I do.

She deals with contrasts expertly and uses these juxtapositions between life and death; wellness and unwellness; strength and vulnerability; wildness and domesticity to bring emphasis to both.

The jaguar presents itself throughout the work as a representation of: the body when the father buys a Jaguar car, ‘jacked the gearstick / hacked a hole in the dash’; wildness in the travels of the speaker, ‘I see the raw jaguar’s heart’; and a demonstration of a desire for freedom and travel despite the limitations of the body, ‘a rebellion against his tremor’. The jaguar brings wildness and animality to the otherwise quite emotionally restrained tone of the work. It demonstrates what is uncontrollable: death, desire, fear and illness and how foreboding and difficult an awareness of that is.

However, the third volume, in its exploration of wealth and narcissism, feels disconnected from the rest of the collection and lacks the depth explored in other volumes due to the change in focus. The fourth volume is a relief for the reader as it returns to Holland-Batt’s observation of the authentic human experience: in her return to healing from grief, and in the greater involvement with the natural world.

Holland-Batt has crafted a beautifully selected bunch of poems that work together to create a story of grief and healing, that all honour her father. We watch in her intimately moving backwards and forwards in time to deal with grief and loss.

Through The Jaguar, we observe decay, the passing of time, the beauty, the heartache of love, and healing power of nature.

The Jaguar was published by University of Queensland Press and has an RRP of $24.99. It is available from most online and local retailers.

Georgia is a University of Melbourne student currently studying creative writing. She writes poetry and short fiction usually with a focus on the female experience. You’ll most likely find her unregularly posting poetry and sporadic attempts at other creative pursuits on her Instagram.

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