Human language

Sarah Holland-Batt on the fight for her father: “Watching someone decline can be beyond language” | Poetry

SShortly after Tony, Sarah Holland-Batt’s father, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease – and told he was no longer fit to drive – he bought the car for himself of his dreams. A jaguar. He made the purchase through eBay, unseen; the first time his wife knew about it was when it was delivered to their front door.

It was an impulsive act of rebellion, but also symptomatic of the loss of judgment and compulsive spending that can accompany the early stages of the disease.

In the title of his third collection of poems, The Jaguar, Holland-Batt writes that the vehicle – an emerald green vintage 1980 XJ – “shone like a bug in the driveway”. Sometimes her father would defy doctor’s orders and his family’s wishes and walk away, ignoring her tremors and impaired vision. More often than not, however, the ex-engineer obsessively tinkered with the machine, until eventually it was no longer drivable:

…he sat like a carcass

in the garage, like a tombstone, like a coffin

Holland-Batt’s grief for his father, who died in March 2020, is at the heart of The Jaguar. She describes the collection as an act of testimony. “It’s a deeply personal thing to watch someone you love go through a long decline and then die,” she says. “The task of the poet, really, is to look at the world and find a language for the things that seem to escape language. Watching someone decline can seem beyond language.

Holland-Batt once called the poetry “lightning fishing”, later the title of a collection of essays originally published in the Australian. The Brisbane-based author and scholar is arguably the most recognized and praised Australian poet of her generation, having won numerous awards since the publication of her first volume Aria in 2008. She won the Prime Minister’s Literary Award in 2016 for his second collection, Les Dangers. His name even appears on a TISM band t-shirt.

But it’s his job as an advocate for aged care, driven by the indignities endured by his father – whose abuse and neglect in care was initially exposed by a whistleblower – this brought Holland-Batt to wider public recognition through multiple TV and radio appearances and, more vitally, in she devastating submission to the royal commission on quality and safety in care for the elderly, which was finally tabled in March 2021. The inquiry revealed a litany of appalling human rights abuses, but the Prime Minister held no only one press conference on this subject, summoned before reporters had a chance to read it. Holland-Batt has written extensively on the matter, including for this masthead, tirelessly documenting shortcomings in the official government response.

“What is happening in elderly care is a human rights crisis.” Photograph: Carly Earl/The Guardian

The Jaguar is an intimate collection of poems, and Holland-Batt says she struggled with what to give the reader. But that was nothing compared to his appearance before the commission. The night before testifying, after six months of preparation, “I just had this moment where I was like, ‘Oh my god, am I really doing this?'” she said. “It was so much more revealing than a poem.”

She points to previous royal commissions into banking and child abuse, which also involved thousands of hours of harrowing testimony. “I think when governments convene a royal commission there is and should be expected that major reform will follow,” she says. “You’re asking people to give up those intimate, personal stories, surely, for an outcome that honors that gift.”

In another poem from The Jaguar, she describes the refusal of a marriage proposal. Accused of harshness by her suitor, she proudly wears the pejorative statement:

…I didn’t get up

object, because I’m renting anything

in me who is stony and inflexible,

I praise my toughness

To him and to him alone I say yes.

This harshness, she says, is at the heart of her advocacy. She is, by her own admission, “incredibly stubborn, just exhausting, ask my mom.” But his stubbornness has a purpose. Elder care is not a sexy topic; Holland-Batt aims to keep the conversation going. “We can be quite selective about which human rights issues we care about and which ones we ignore, and what is happening in care for the elderly is a human rights crisis.”

Holland-Batt was born on the Gold Coast, an unlikely place for poetry in the 1980s, but her father nurtured her interest. “He was taking me to all these different worlds,” she says. “He was interested in so many things – philosophy, literature and classical music, which was the tragedy when he got Parkinson’s disease, because he had such a fantastic brain and he had always been such a generous intellectual mentor.”

When Holland-Batt was 12, her family moved to Colorado, where she attended high school. It was in the United States, where poetry has a far greater national reputation, that his ambition blossomed after a patient English teacher introduced him to TS Eliot’s The Waste Land. Allen Ginsberg and other Beat writers had lived in nearby Boulder; Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson were household names, and there were huge poetry sections in local bookstores.

In Australia, AB Paterson, Henry Lawson, Judith Wright and Les Murray are among the few to have captured the popular imagination. The tone of Australian poetry is different, she says. “A lot of the Australian poetry I first encountered when I moved here was quite satirical and also terse, and it took a bit of time to acclimatise.” In America, she says, there’s a more declarative tone, evident in her own work — that harshness, again.

But there is also a luminosity in his lyricism. The poems were, she says, very difficult to write – but they are easy to read, if uncomfortable at times. They are consumed by mortality, but also by endurance. His father’s illness lasted 20 years. “It was kind of a privilege to watch dad along that journey, and it requires a kind of endurance. And I feel like that’s the act of these poems – looking when looking is difficult.