Culture

Sarah Holland-Batt on fighting for her father: ‘Watching someone decline can be beyond language’

Shortly after Sarah Holland-Batt’s father Tony was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease – and told he was no longer fit to drive – he bought himself his dream car. A Jaguar. He made the purchase via eBay, sight unseen; the first 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 illness.

In the title piece of her third volume of poetry, The Jaguar, Holland-Batt writes that the vehicle – an emerald green vintage 1980 XJ – “shone like an insect in the driveway”. Sometimes, her father would defy doctor’s orders and his family’s wishes and take off, ignoring his tremors and impaired vision. More often, though, the former engineer tinkered obsessively with the machine, until, eventually, it could no longer be driven:

… it sat like a carcass

in the garage, like a headstone, like a coffin

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

Holland-Batt once called poetry “fishing for lightning”, later the title of a collection of essays originally published in the Australian. The Brisbane-based author and academic is arguably the most recognised and lauded Australian poet of her generation, having won a swathe of awards since her first volume Aria was published in 2008. She claimed the Prime Minister’s Literary award in 2016 for her second collection, The Hazards. Her name even features on a TISM band T-shirt.

But it’s her work as an aged care advocate, driven by the indignities endured by her father – whose abuse and neglect in care was originally exposed by a whistleblower – that has brought Holland-Batt to wider public recognition through multiple television and radio appearances and, more vitally, in her devastating submission to the royal commission into aged care quality and safety, which was finally tabled in March 2021. The inquiry exposed a litany of appalling human rights abuses, but the prime minister has held only one press conference about it, convened before any journalists had had a chance to read it. Holland-Batt has written extensively about the issue, including for this masthead, relentlessly documenting shortfalls in the government’s official response.

Sarah Holland-Batt
‘What’s going on in aged care is a human rights crisis.’ Photograph: Carly Earl/The Guardian

The Jaguar is an intimate collection of poems, and Holland-Batt says she wrestled with how much to give up to the reader. But that was nothing compared with her appearance before the commission. The night before giving testimony, after six months of preparation, “I just had this moment where I thought, ‘Oh my god, am I actually doing this?’” she says. “It felt so much more exposing 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 call a royal commission, there is and should be an expectation of major reform to follow,” she says. “You’re asking people to give up these intimate and personal stories, surely, for an outcome that honours that gift.”

In another poem from The Jaguar, she describes turning down a marriage proposal. Accused of hardness by her suitor, she owns the intended pejorative with pride:

… I did not rise

to object, because I praise whatever it is

in me that is stony and unbending,

I praise my hardness

To it and it alone I say I do.

That hardness, she says, is at the heart of her advocacy. She is, by her own admission, “incredibly stubborn, just exhaustingly, ask my mother”. But her obduracy has purpose. Aged care is not a sexy topic; Holland-Batt aims to keep the conversation going. “We can be quite selective about the human rights issues that we get exercised by and those that we ignore, and what’s going on in aged care 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 would take me into all of these different worlds,” she says. “He was interested in so many things – in philosophy and literature and classical music, which was the tragedy, when he got Parkinson’s, because he had such a fantastic brain, and he’d always been such a generous intellectual mentor.”

When Holland-Batt was 12, her family moved to Colorado, where she saw out high school. It was in the United States, where poetry has far greater national standing, that her ambition bloomed after a patient English teacher introduced her 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 the local bookstores.

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

But there is a luminosity in her lyricism, too. The poems were, she says, very difficult to write – but they are easy to read, if at times discomforting. They are consumed with mortality, but also endurance. Her father’s illness lasted 20 years. “It was sort of a privilege to watch Dad through that trajectory, and it does require a kind of stamina. And I feel like that is the act of these poems – looking when looking is hard.”

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