Queensland Professor, poet and outspoken aged care reform advocate, Sarah Holland-Batt, has won the $60,000 Stella Prize for her poetry collection The Jaguar which features poems about watching her father die from Parkinson’s disease and experienced elder abuse in aged care.
After watching her father decline over two decades, once he passed in March 2020, Ms Holland-Batt began writing her winning collection of poems, receiving praise from Stella Prize Chair, Alice Pung.
“This is a book that cuts through to the core of what it means to descend into frailty, old age, and death. It unflinchingly observes the complex emotions of caring for loved ones, contending with our own mortality and above all – continuing to live,” Pung wrote in her judge’s statement.
In a statement responding to her win, Holland-Batt said: “I wrote this book during an intensely challenging period, as my father was dying, and just after.
“It was the friendship, generosity, and camaraderie of women that not only saw me through this difficult time, but that has been the sustaining armature of my writing life.”
As his condition progressed, Ms Holland-Batt’s father was placed into aged care where he experienced elder abuse.
Poem, The Gift, describes her father holding the “gift” of death in his lap.
We sit as if mother and son on Christmas Eve
waiting for midnight to tick over, anticipating
the moment we can open his present together –
first my father holding it up to his ear and shaking it,
then me helping him peel back the paper,
the weight of his death knocking
As a result of her father’s illness, the Creative Writing and Literary Studies Professor became an outspoken advocate for aged care reform, even giving evidence at the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety, detailing the neglect and abuse her father suffered in a Queensland nursing home.
“I’m interested in contemplating the things that are difficult to look at: decline, death, violence, grief, sadness, ageing. Holding the gaze when the gaze is hard seems to me to be the essential task of the poet,” she said.
“I hope I’ve said something of the truth about my father’s suffering in these poems, and resisted platitude. I hope the poems are, in their own way, honest.”