Acclaimed poet Sarah Holland-Batt has won the Stella Prize 2023 for her powerful and elegiac collection of poems, The jaguar.
Poetry was excluded from the Stella Prize until 2022. It is only in the second year that poetry has been included that poetry has made its presence known: Holland-Batt is the second poet in a row to win the prize, after it was won last year by Evelyn Araluen’s collection. , Drop bear.
And poetry seems to be on the rise in Australia more broadly: in January it was announced that Australia will have a National Poet Laureate from 2025. Holland-Batt read a poem from The Jaguar at the announcement.
Read more: Australia gets a poet laureate – how will the first nomination define us as a nation?
The full power of poetic language
The Jaguar is Holland-Batt’s third book of poetry, and the $60,000 Stella Prize joins a string of previous accolades – most notably the 2016 Premier’s Literary Award for her 2015 collection The dangers.
The Jaguar brings the full force of poetic language to experiences often pushed to the edges of public life. The most stunning poems in the collection address the experience of aging, illness and death – in a way that is both deeply compassionate and fierce.
Stella Prize chairwoman Alice Pung says of the book:
In The Jaguar, Sarah Holland-Batt writes about death as tenderly as we have ever read about birth. She focuses on the pedestrian details of hospitals and retirement homes, allowing us to see these institutions as separate universes teeming with life and love.
Her imagery is unexpected and unforgettable, and often mixed with humour. This is a book that gets to the heart of what it means to descend into frailty, old age and death. It unflinchingly observes the complex emotions of caring for loved ones, battling our own mortality, and most importantly – staying alive.
Read more: First Nations poet Evelyn Araluen wins 2022 Stella Prize with ‘wild ride’ that crosses colonial mythologies
The politics of witnesses
Stella’s winning books often have an activist dimension – and The Jaguar is no exception. By paying such careful attention to the long-term decline and death of Holland-Batt’s father from Parkinson’s disease, this collection can be seen as an extension of her advocacy of human rights abuses in Australian aged care.
Holland-Batt has spoken publicly about the neglect of funding and policies for aged care in this country. She made a submission to the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety about her father’s abuse and neglect in aged care.
“Because we strongly resist thinking about aging and death, talking openly about these topics is difficult or even taboo,” she wrote. in the Sydney Morning Herald last year. “Our cultural denial of death also underpins many of our failures in aged care.”
The politics of this collection lies in witnessing. In these poems, the everyday world of the hospital and nursing home comes to life, with the natural world mingling with and sometimes colliding with the secluded worlds of illness and death in hospital waiting rooms and corridors.
The brilliant opening poem depicts the speaker’s father as a giant koi, “leading the mottled zeppelin / of his body in a single ceaseless turn”, surfacing when the nurses bring his food.
In another poem, the speaker’s mother is in the hospital, listening to David Attenborough, and the ward and world of his documentary become entangled: “Buzzers / zip and sting like electric / whipbirds.” These poems are moving and surprising, full of inventiveness and sound play.
There are some dizzying shifts in tone in this collection. Readers are taken from hospital elegies to a world of champagne, travel and sex. These shifts can be uncomfortable because much of the collection, including the first volume, uses a traditionally lyrical voice: an “I” that in this case is easily attuned to the experiences and perspective of the poetess herself.
This makes the poems easy for the reader to grasp and understand what is at stake. When the reader is presented with poems that take on a more satirical or playful tone, such as “Affidavit”, the speaking “I” is much less stable: the reader has to work harder to understand what is going on.
Read more: How to complain about elderly care and get the result you want
A good example of these shifts is the way the jaguar of the title of the collection appears in the collection. The hyperbolic “Ode to Cartier”, which reanimates jewel commercial images to a disturbing life, reads: “Let me die in peace / With the silk of a jaguar’s breath / Snorting in my ear at dawn.”
Elsewhere, we see a father raise a cup of jaguar blood during an impossible journey to Brazil. Another jaguar is given to his daughter as a pet by a drug dealer. And finally, the title poem in which the Jaguar transforms from an imagined animal into a real car, “a folly he bought without taking a test drive, / vintage 1980 XJ, a rebellion against his trembling.”
This “bottle green” jaguar is an example of the sadness and anger and lost possibilities that come with a diagnosis like Parkinson’s disease. It’s driven dangerously against doctor’s orders, and tinkered with until finally “like a carcass / in the garage, like a tombstone, like a coffin – / but it’s not a symbol or a metaphor. I can’t make anything of it.”
The jaguar in this poem also shows Holland-Batt’s imagination and linguistic power: it is both an object of this world and a link to other views on the relationship between man and animal, especially in death.
With a combination of ruthlessness and tenderness, bright eyes and imaginative flight, this is a poet who knows exactly what she’s doing.