A cup of fine tea: Alan Jefferies’s “Last Stand”

Alan Jefferies’s “Last Stand” [Read the poem here]
(First published is issue #7 of Cha)

– This post is written by Tammy Ho.

In the opening lines of Jefferies’s poem, we are presented with an image reminiscent of John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969): ‘A woman is standing / with her back to the sea / legs planted firmly in the sand / shouting at the top of her voice’ (L1-L4). Here, we have an exciting opening shot complete with drama and place. The action comes from ‘legs planted firmly’ and ‘shouting at the top of her voice’ and the location is evident in ‘sea’ and ‘sand’. If the reader was expecting a heightening of the action within this location, however, their expectations are frustrated by the poet’s next move: ‘it didn’t have to be the sea / it could just as easily have been / a field of sunflowers, a stand of golden larches / or even a freeway overpass’ (L5-L8). The persona seems to be suggesting that this same scene could be taking place anywhere; that the ocean-side locale may be exotic but it is completely irrelevant to the unfolding story. Interestingly, the locations described seem to be deteriorating, moving from the most scenic to the least. We go from a beach to an overpass.

But even if the location appears fluid, the reader assumes that the standing woman is still central to the narrative. What remains unclear is what she is shouting and who she is shouting at. The third stanza offers no answers to these questions but instead only further complicates the scene: ‘she’s shouting in a language / i can’t understand a word of / though it might possibly be Dutch / it could just as easily be / Russian, Czech, Finnish or even Norwegian’ (L9-L13). This list of European languages may reveal details about the persona’s identity. Perhaps he or she is not European and thus unable to distinguish between a variety of non-English dialects; perhaps he or she is simply too far away to hear the shouted words clearly; or perhaps the persona is telling us that it doesn’t matter what the woman is saying or in which language she is saying it; the drama lies simply in the fact that she is shouting at all.

The fourth stanza finally reveals the recipient of the woman’s verbal abuse: ‘the man is standing rather impassively / under a thatch of tall whispering / coconut palms nursing a small baby’ (L14-16). The key word in these lines is ‘impassively’; the man seems to be unmoved by the woman’s assault. The reader might be led to assume that clues to their domestic drama lie in the words ‘small baby’ but Jefferies quickly cuts this budding interpretation: ‘it didn’t have to be a baby / he could just as easily have been nursing / a stubby of beer, a tall glass of red wine / or even a baseball bat’ (L17-L20). The poet nicely exploits the double usage of the word ‘nursing’ in these lines, using it both with ‘baby’ and ‘beer’ (and ‘wine’ and ‘baseball bat’). Jefferies again repeats the trick of the deteriorating scene, as the man goes from likely father to possible drunk to potentially abusive partner, all of which could be the cause of their fight. Does the deterioration also iconically echo the couple’s own worsening relationship?

The story moves much more coherently in the first lines of the next stanza: ‘by her gestures i guess she’s telling him / that he doesn’t love her anymore / that she can tell by the way he looks at her / or doesn’t look at her / that he’d rather be with someone else/ like the woman who sat opposite them / at dinner last night’ (L21-L27). What is expressed here seems to be a classic domestic argument. What is more interesting is what the persona may be revealing about himself or herself. Notice the lines ‘like the woman who sat opposite them / at dinner last night’. How does the persona, who does not understand what the woman is saying, know about the other woman? Has the speaker been watching the couple for a few days? Or is she the other woman in the restaurant? Or maybe the persona is constructing his or her own interpretations out of the few small details available. The last possibility seems the most likely when we consider the closing lines of the stanza: ‘or someone else, someone / imaginary’ (L28-L29). The poet is perhaps commenting on the realities of being a writer who is always tempted to build stories out of what they see. The lines are also important as any credibility the persona may have had up to this point is demolished with the word ‘imaginary’. It is becoming obvious that the scene of the woman standing and shouting may not exist at all.

The persona concludes the poem by letting the reader know that his or her story is not only fluid but that most of the details are inconsequential: ‘though it didn’t have to be that story / it could just have easily been / one of a dozen different / stories that added up to one / and the same thing’ (L30-L34). Despite the ambiguity and uncertainty of these lines, it would still seem that there is a core tale at the heart of the poem and that the persona is giving the reader some sort of closure. There is a slight sense of mathematical certainty in ‘stories that added up to one / and the same thing’. One can only assume that Jefferies is referring to the universal story of a man and a woman; no matter what the specific details (the location, the words exchanged, the individual motivations), the gist of the narrative is always the same. In this case, as the title “Last Stand” suggests, it is the end of a relationship.

Alan Jefferies is an Australian born poet and children’s author who was born in Brisbane and grew up in Cleveland. He lived in Sydney and Coalcliff for much of the 80’s and 90’s and obtained degrees in Communication and Writing from the University of Technology, Sydney. In 1998 he moved to Hong Kong where he lived until 2007. With Mani Rao and Kit Kelen he initiated the spoken word reading “OutLoud” and later started “Vodka Slam” Hong Kong’s first performance poetry slam. He has published five books of poems but is probably best known for his children’s book The Crocodile who Wanted to be Famous (Sixth Finger Press, 2004). He now lives in Brisbane and keeps a musical alter ego here.

3 Responses to “A cup of fine tea: Alan Jefferies’s “Last Stand””

  1. Bob Bradshaw Says:

    A beautiful analysis….

  2. t Says:

    From Alan:

    Thanks very much for your wonderful commentary on my poem. I’m very honoured by your words and your wonderful insights.

    thanks and best regards

  3. Lee Sloca Says:

    The only way I could accept this poem is its main title, “Two Poems.” By itself, “Last Stand” seems like a foreshadow of the second poem. Why do I say this? The narrator gives a picture of some woman shouting, or is it shouting? This device of not being sure, of what being heard or seen was repeated till the very end. As a reader, I feel like I’m being hoodwinked. Also, in S3, the narrative went from the third person to the first, “i can’t understand a word of.” But the “I” never made another appearance, which made me wonder why the author didn’t just stay with the third person. As I stated before, I was miffed until I read the second poem, “People are Planting Gardens in their Minds.” Only then did I make the connection to all the misdirections in the first poem. All the unknown languages, stories are seeds we planted in our minds.

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