Book Reviews


Pascalle Burton Reviews Jackson’s A Coat of Ashes

Friday, November 15th, 2019

One part is conceptualising and ordering the world and the other is accepting the world as it is. – Agnès Varda

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Toby Fitch Reviews Holly Friedlander Liddicoat’s CRAVE

Wednesday, October 23rd, 2019

CRAVE by Holly Friedlander Liddicoat
Rabbit Poets Series, 2018

First books are a big occasion for poets. Their publication makes something heretofore unofficial official while announcing the poet as one committed to ‘the art of language’, as Gig Ryan describes poetry. Their publication chronicles and makes tangible the labour of what is often a long time—of feeling out, of experimentation—for writers attempting to find a voice, a language, even as they’ll discover post-publication that finding voice and language is a forever concern. And so, kudos to Rabbit Poetry Journal and its Rabbit Poets Series imprint, which publishes slim first books, often strong selections of poetry by emerging poets who might not otherwise have had such an opportunity in the frankly saturated Australian poetry scene. I’m not saying there are too many poets—if only there was more poetic, lateral thinking in the public sphere—but in terms of a market, it’s a positive sign when first books in particular are given space and attention.

While we’re talking markets, of being subject to commerce, Holly Friedlander Liddicoat’s debut collection CRAVE unabashedly quips, ‘sry if this poetry ruins yr party’ to Sydney’s Inner West as it flips the bird at real estate agents, SUVs and a plenitude of jerk-offs. The poems—‘too damn caffeinated / too damn beat’—self-consciously flaunt their own inability to avoid their complicity in the ever-gentrifying neoliberal capitalism of Sydney with an intoxicated (and intoxicating) nonchalance, if you can forgive the paradox. That kind of paradoxical tone in poetry is interesting to me because it allows poems to do multiple things at once, from critiquing the world around us to subverting and questioning the self that sees fit to write about the world with any authority. It can allow the poet, or the speaker(s) of a poem, to occupy a liminal, othered, space. The frenetic and nonchalant oscillations of Liddicoat’s poems operate in this way. They work to reflect, perhaps, how the contemporary moment is being felt by some: a hyper-simulated, anti-climate change, death-spiral parody of a paradigm, in which the sun is ‘unsetting’ (i.e. stuck) and, as with many bright people, not always welcome in gated communities: ‘the sun is invited to the stairs / but can’t afford admission.’

Poetry by paradox is actually just poetry representing the world. Alongside an intoxicated nonchalance, Liddicoat embodies another paradox: a gentle punk attitude. The poems aren’t simply bratty but self-aware—too metamodern, full of ‘informed naivety’, ‘pragmatic idealism’ (key aspects of post-postmodernism and/or the postdigital paradigm, according to cultural theorists like Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker) and self-care, to be simply punk. We can see this attitude in the shifts between poems. For instance, after ‘a woman works in a lick-her store’, a snarling list poem of all the kinds of patronising snippets of speech from male customers to a woman working in a grog shop, we encounter, in the poem ‘in erko + five floors up’, images of retreat, defeat—that sinking feeling brought on by despair and emotional trauma:

a fluke hits the bottom of the sea  
envision throwing myself 
from this balcony            but landing
in a firefighter’s net

In the next poem, the plants come alive with empathy: ‘bottlebrushes fidget in the wind’ and ‘the palm fronds wave to me hello’, which also offers up a kind of cute, even zany, aesthetic (see literary theorist Sianne Ngai for how to read ‘our aesthetic categories’ today—the ‘cute’, the ‘zany’, and the ‘interesting’). There’s a hint of Pam Brown’s poetry in the way Liddicoat chronicles the urban via sketches of all the things that assemble in front of our eyes to create a place and culture (or lack thereof). There’s also a contrast between the two poets, in how their poems are formed. Jotting down the world, performing their own ‘zany’ labour (‘where r those poems now’), Liddicoat’s poems reach for their poem-ness—perhaps anxious to be poems—whereas Brown’s are more relaxed about their own incompleteness, relying more on accumulation, accretion, a surface tension between images and phrasings, and an ‘interesting’ aesthetic. For Brown’s work notes what’s of interest, no matter how uninteresting things might seem, or disinterested we as observers can become, in the face of the many things fighting for our radically altered attention spans in the postdigital age. Both poets, meanwhile, are interested in the ‘cuteness’ of the specific, pointing out what we might easily miss—what might seem too small or inconsequential—in the everyday. Of course, Brown has had years to hone her craft, and it wouldn’t be fair to expect that level from a first collection, and so perhaps Brown’s mastery of style is one direction toward Liddicoat’s poetry could develop.

While these poems travel—to Hamburg, Berlin, Bruges, Oslo, Malaysia, New York, Central Queensland, looking for life less insular yet finding similar ‘anxiety and weird vibes’—they are also keenly observational of the local, in this case Sydney’s Inner West. The poem ‘New Town’ outlays a series of Newtown cafe specifics:

the old chef sits                  tears basil leaves

(bonsoi)                 Mecca            Alchemy 

corrugated iron as windowpanes 
steel and mint as smell as taste 
zinc-sodium-magnesium shake

supple, mental
                              bring us brunch           in jars

and, later, typographically breaks up:

this place dis 
                             int     egrates when it rains

The end line here, with its rupture before the half-word ‘egrates’, allows for an echo of the pejorative ‘ingrates’, as if to sneakily taunt any surrounding scenester-capitalists; and if you’ve experienced walking down the ever-changing shopfronts of King Street when it’s busy and bucketing down, it might hit home how easily a community built on rising rents can feel like it’s falling apart.

Pages: 1 2

Margaret Bradstock Reviews Phyllis Perlstone’s The Bruise of Knowing

Monday, October 7th, 2019

The Bruise of Knowing by Phyllis Perlstone
Puncher & Wattmann, 2019

The Bruise of Knowing is Phyllis Perlstone’s third collection of poetry from Puncher & Wattmann, and arguably her best to date. It tells the story of Sir John Monash, highlighting themes of ambition, power and warfare. A talented engineer and commander, Monash’s progress was conflicted by religious bigotry, the rise of feminism, and a growing awareness within himself of the devastation wrought by war. But this is not just history, although the Australia and Britain of Monash’s lifetime are vividly recreated. Perlstone selects revealing episodes of strength and weakness in her protagonist, interpreted through poetic devices that allow the reader to experience undercurrents well beyond the series of events. At the same time, this anecdote is counterpointed with several parenthetic poems drawing the writer-researcher into the framework and underlining current concerns with the encroachment of the built environment on the natural.

Part 1, shifting back and forth in time, deals mainly with the nineteenth century. The collection begins with the poem ‘Two Incidents as Engineer …’ in 1901. In this poem, the language is deliberately hard-edged and precise in its description:

the bridge twists
concrete bits break off
the water's splash, the crashing pieces
the slow time of gravity's next
is like glass
in an accident 

the traction engine tips
and falls

The impact is heightened by concrete, enjambed lineation and broken syntax, brief lines directing emphasis to where the poet wants us to pause and absorb. In this poem, also, the reader is given early notice of Monash’s ‘greatest regret’ for the needless ‘loss of life’:

stilted, his mind's stall
word's remove him from the moment −
as if he could speak for the pall
of ends in the air, of being stopped
of waiting

By contrast, in poems such as ‘In the new Barangaroo Reserve’, we are offered Perlstone’s perspective on the resultant feats of engineering:

As in Sydney now, walking in the city
that some dreamed we would 
wish for,
the heights and bridges built −
though sometimes we want to descend from these
intersecting frets
strutting steel,
sharp-cut graze of concrete
the intimacy of trees

She follows this with ‘Barangaroo’, where her evocation of the natural world is uplifting:

In this place that's retrieved today
from industry
at Barangaroo
this recreation of a ruined shore
buoys now sway
again, against the white trailed water
of a ferry's wake

Monash married Victoria Moss in 1891. Three months later, diagnosed with suspected tuberculosis, she was convalescing with her sister in Beechworth, Monash travelling back and forth by train from Melbourne. As Perlstone notes, ‘The Law and its outlaws / mixed in Beechworth’, none the least the infamous Ned Kelly. She describes the settling of power that happened here:

Poor equipment
like Kelly's makeshift headgear −
dark imprisoning iron −
more than masking 
armour − Nolan's later icon.

A disputed mythology has grown up, linking Monash to Ned Kelly, as in Peter FitzSimon’s 2014 biography of the bushranger. Perlstone has eschewed including any such incident but uses the iconography with metaphoric force. She introduces an attested meeting between Kelly and Monash’s father (in Jerilderie) and suggests Monash’s later interest in the Kelly Gang. In an ekphrastic poem ‘The Slip’, based on a well-known painting by Nolan, the horse’s fall from a ‘precipitous’ height is perhaps reminiscent of Monash’s own trajectory.

In this first section of the book, Perlstone begins to show the uneasy relationship existing between Monash and his wife Victoria (or Vic). This, she mostly develops through interpretation of photographs and artworks, with an impressive sensitivity to bodily language and gesture, as in the poem ‘1898’:

Vic's full skirt, jacket and jaunty hat
free-stand on her, almost
and match the double-breasted suit
constricting Monash

The rift appears more strongly in ‘An Early Photo of Monash and Vic’:

looking in separate directions
they have the same

upholding of themselves for the camera
to be seen, yet    between them
their expressions dilate with defiance,
expose opposite views


And what is inner with Vic is there
by her mouth
her dark hair and dark dress
the high collar around her neck
and head, prevent
any premature
or lean into
Monash's plans

The continuing disintegration of their relationship is interwoven with related themes including the growing rise of feminism and husband’s and wife’s opposing responses to it:

He's avoided Vida Goldstein, feminist,
18 years old.
Monash announces she is "all too self-possessed and affected".


Quarrels start
He should be "the master"
their future should be shaped
so he can succeed.

Once again, the poet’s voice interposes, interpreting and responding to emotional overtones, as in the visually evocative ‘Damp Window in the Rain’:

umbrellas passing under the fig tree leaves
hold the patterns like a slide-show
each walker giving way to another
on the wet black pavement
the tented colours screening shapes
traced like under-lit shadows
without the sun

Abstrusely a sight I turn to
reflecting on Vic
watching the hesitant configurations.
It was her time of not wanting a life rushed through
Hardly one to seize
Pages: 1 2

Simeon Kronenberg Reviews Norman Erikson Pasaribu’s Sergius Seeks Bacchus

Sunday, September 8th, 2019

Sergius Seeks Bacchus by Norman Erikson Pasaribu
Translated by Tiffany Tsao
Giramondo Publishing, 2019

Sergius and Bacchus were fourth century soldiers in the Roman imperial army and also devout Christians and lovers. They kept their religion and sexuality secret but once their Christianity was discovered they were to suffer terrible torture and eventual death as martyrs, hence their sainthood into the Christian Eastern Orthodox Church (centred at that time in Byzantium). Bacchus’s and Sergius’s sexualities remain contentious, particularly within the Church and at least as far as some church historians are concerned. However, as travel writer Will Harris points out, ‘parallels between their secrecy and that of so many queer communities across the globe has turned them into something of a symbol for queer visibility.’

This ‘visibility’ remains especially potent, indeed emblematic, for the Indonesian author Norman Erikson Pasaribu. ‘Sergius Seeks Bacchus’, his first book, is located firmly within an apprehension of sexual oppression. Many queer Indonesians (of whom Pasaribu is one) endure persecution or, at the very least, the fear of it at the hands of an increasingly fundamentalist, non-tolerant society, particularly in some regional areas across this huge island group. While homosexual acts between consenting adults are not illegal across the archipelago, there exists widespread harassment, prejudice and shaming especially in Aceh and West Java where the strict observance of Sharia law is more pronounced. Also, in other parts of Indonesia, where Sharia law is not practiced, there exists an implicit tension within society in relation to matters of sexual identification and gender mobility. And while much of the country moves inevitably towards more democratic, secular values, there is an opposite push to shift society in the direction of more conservative, Muslim orthodoxy. It is indeed a paradox worth noting that while democratic impulses remain strong, as millions of Indonesians continue to explore and experience western-style electoral democracy, prejudice towards homosexuality is also marked, as significant numbers move to defend what they see as threatened religious orthodoxy. My own partner’s family is representative of this development in thinking and observance. Nieces, aunts, cousins and sisters are more than ever drawn to wearing the hijab, as a sign of their own virtue and religiosity. That they feel this is necessary, particularly where the prospect of marriage is concerned, was certainly not the case even ten years ago. Their male counterparts are also drawn to stricter and more public observance. The increasing numbers of those attending religious service is evidence of a move towards conservatism in Jakarta – hitherto the centre of a more relaxed attitude towards Islam and its teachings.

Being both gay and Christian, Pasaribu faces difficulty on two distinct fronts within his own country. His response is a creative and rebellious one. In Sergius Seeks Bacchus, a book that appears to be mostly ‘biographical’, even ‘confessional’, he explores the confusion and complexity of his own identity, while expressing deeply felt individual protest and determined self-belief – a belief honed, as it appears, within very personal family difficulty, religious questioning and more broadly, social alienation.

In ‘Erratum’, the opening poem, he asks:

What was he thinking here, picking this body
and this family [?]

Pasaribu expresses a gay lament, via a second person narrative, that is unfortunately all too familiar to many individuals in Indonesia and elsewhere. In Indonesia especially, the experience of familial alienation is one that millions suffer, leading to the kinds of domestic scenarios as described in ‘Erratum’. In this poem Pasaribu writes within a kind of casual and conversational address that invites the reader to share intimate feelings including the stress of conflict. The very casualness of address is distinctive in the poems generally and encourages an immediate identification, if also at times representing an expressive awkwardness as the author attempts to marry poetry with narrative urgency or political statement.

In ‘Erratum’, we can certainly feel Pasaribu’s sense of dislocation when describing what happened:

not long after his first book came out,
[when] as his family sat cross-legged together and ate,
he told them it wouldn't end with any girl 


and here as he stood by the side of the road
that night, all alone, cars passing him,
his father's words hounding him,
Don't ever come back, Banci,
and he wept under a streetlight ...

While this particular scene, or a version of it, is enacted over many households across the Indonesian archipelago, it appears here to be a painful and immediate memory for Pasaribu himself as he continues to negotiate the thickets of family rejection and intolerance, while attempting to live a creative life in the capital far removed from his family. That the poet asserts ‘biographical fact’ is of course an assumption on my part. However, the intensity and consistency of information provided across the poems would seem to support this view. While Pasaribu provides a ‘speaker’, my suspicion is that the speaker is a mask for the poet himself and that the resultant work is to a large degree ‘confessional’. The ‘mask’ also provides at least a little protection from potential difficulty, legal and social.

Pages: 1 2 3

Phillip Hall Reviews Robert Harris’s The Gang of One: Selected Poems

Wednesday, July 17th, 2019

The Gang of One: Selected Poems by Robert Harris
Grand Parade Poets, 2019

In ‘The Day’, Harris writes a stunning eschatology for Gough Whitlam. For Harris the dismissal was ‘the day of deceit’, ‘the day to lose heart’. As I write this review, I too am demoralized and anxious, despite the beta-blockers. In the crisis of another general election, the causes of a progressive and civil society have again been defeated. And in our election wash-up, the ALP seeks a new leader. Tanya Plibersek, our Kiwi-model hope, has already withdrawn her candidacy for the top job, citing family reasons (this does not appear to be an obstacle for her male colleagues). In this society, is any male (really) a ‘gang of one’? And while I hear the self-referential humor implied in the title, I also find myself butting up against its hyperbole: the allusion to romantic nonsense of one-off, singular (almost always male) creative genius. Will Connie Barber, Barbara Fisher and Grace Perry (amongst so many others) also be recognized/celebrated with the Selected/Collected milestone?

This being said, Harris is an incredible poet of place, of faith, of historical sequence; and many of his poems’ endings shimmer with all the ecstatic vibrancy of Hopkins (or Murray). I do not believe in miracles, I was grown in Baptist/Pentecostal faith traditions, but this book is miraculous – a triumph of its (crowd funded) gang of supporters. And I am so joyful that they have introduced me to this poet.

In writing place, and its settlement, Harris is capable of juxtaposing such lyrical imagism with strongly interrogative purpose. ‘The Dancer’ is a very fine example. Here the poem-sequence is centered less on narrative momentum, and more on an almost surrealist automatism and fizz of unforgettable imagery:

Miriam, in the hallway,

a girl wears a papier mâché mask
and tinsel stars down Brunswick Street

a bird a lumbering wagon of sky

                  - this ghost that can go with aphasiacs
rendering tithes
     without feeling panic
                                         arise, like a kite

Trout leap out of the river, command the night.

But this is also a place ‘before Cook’ where: ‘You have guessed Cook is a cipher / (but of what forest, my dear little trees)’. Historical perspectives might be as beautiful as ‘trout become water’:

but what Cook carried, along with slaves
the seven sheep on eleven ships

tenacious intoxications

conversations that of no volition rise like waves

:   my hands on my lover’s body are forgiven
everything they have been and touched and turned to
that did not feel good or auspicious

This lyrically interrogative intent is continued in ‘Clear Days in Winter’, another beautiful poem of place that is also attuned to ecological concerns:

I often feel walking on the flats
that I’m in a face that is laughing,
especially when the south-westerlies
set the ghost gums shaking. They have come back
year by year, throwing their suckers forward,
moving up saplings, bridging the old torn diggings
with roots, ignoring the hectic counter-attacks
of isolated chainsaws, the spiteful weekend
initiallings done with axes. Lanes and streets
have crumbled before them like redoubts
until they camp equably on mounds.
Then they throw up white arms, they spend
their modest torsos on a place between the earth
and air, loyal to old, unrestricted alphabet,
although the lesser banished them, wrote
lonely on entire skies, brought calves, found gold
and apparitions to worship every moonrise.

There are so many major poems of place in this book, all hinting at mystery and the exquisiteness of ‘creation’ while also adjusted to postcolonial/ecological commitment. There is ‘Concerning Shearers Playing for the Bride’, which is also a poem of ekphrasis in response to Arthur Boyd; and the poems of North Queensland sugarcane country: the sequence ‘Cane Country’; and ‘Canefield Sunday, 1959’. These poems are fueled by a searching necessity for a Treaty with First Australians, for social justice, and by such dramatic and vivid descriptive language. This is a poet, with strong convictions, in love with the world in which he finds himself.

This ecstatic vision is most evident in the way Harris ends poems. In ‘The Call’, a poem evoking the ‘eye of summer’, he concludes:

Christ, called me through from the other side of lightening.
Now I would seek out a comelier praise;
then I felt like one in a room of crimes

as the blind rattles up, and the light crashes in.

While ‘The Snowy Mountains Highway’ finishes:

The vivid blue & heat, at times
so thick it curved and shook,

recalled Bertolucci’s camera.
I have placed myself here in the poem,
at work, check-shirted, to help myself remember
black branches I snapped at dusk, snow
at the wind’s edge, a wombat. Also

to dismantle any aesthetic
ideal, keep, or Magian use
from which I might write.
A pair of shoelaces could be an event
if tools got me by, chains on

retreads and rising early, when
axe handles split, good hickory too,
how far then I drove in His paradigm,
early mornings on ochre roads
to see the light lift silver off slush.

These poem endings are unforgettable in the way they employ concrete imagery and sound to express such delight and wonder towards ‘God’ and the world ‘he’ has created. It is difficult not to be seduced by the simplicity and beauty of this language, but of course, this language also raises difficulties.

I still remember the first time I read Les Murray’s majestic ‘The Last Hellos’. I was a young adult (desperately) trying to maintain my faith, and this poem reduced me to tears. It is a beautiful hymn of love written for Murray’s father who had just died. In this delicate eulogy Murray addresses his father concluding (with a dramatic crash):

Snobs mind us off religion
nowadays, if they can.
Fuck them. I wish you God.

Like Murray, Harris seems to enjoy championing the unfashionable cause of God (though he is obviously more progressive in his politics); and in these convictions both leave me nostalgically longing, but also cold. In writing a poetics of faith Harris and Murray prioritize the role of individual submission to God, neither one examining their faith too closely, or asking difficult questions. In Harris this is especially problematic, because his progressive politics would seem to be so often in conflict with his obedience to God.

In ‘The Cloud Passes Over’ Harris writes a magnificent hymn of praise for rejuvenating rains. This is rain that breaks riverbanks as ‘water flows sideways / from faucets outdoors’:

Some nights 
                             the Lord God of waters
moves down the freshwater,
                             the estuary, rivers
veiled in darkness.
                             In silence He inspects
the snags
                             where the bank drops away,
examining every rotting trunk, 
                             every hole where fish sleep.
He sets aside mullet and trout
                             for Koori people,
for dairymen mourning 
                             under the quota system.

Leaving aside the issue of Harris’s non-inclusive language, in focusing only on God as the source of creation and renewal, this beautiful hymn of praise is not entirely honest. This ‘Lord of all / is at large throughout His creation’ as judgment and death also (flood). ‘He’ was never only about love and life – there were always strings attached.

Pages: 1 2

Adam Ford Reviews Rae White’s Milk Teeth and Anders Villani’s Aril Wire

Thursday, June 27th, 2019

Milk Teeth by Rae White
University of Queensland Press, 2018

Aril Wire by Anders Villani
Five Islands Press, 2018

Poetry debuts are not necessarily juvenilia. The vagaries of poetry publishing mean that by the time a poet’s first collection is published they often are, at least by some standards, emerging fully formed, able and ready to demonstrate their skill to a willing audience.

By the time a poet has amassed a book’s-worth of work and managed to secure a publisher, it’s a fair assumption that they have found their voice. This isn’t to say that their voice won’t develop and change as they continue to write, but that a debut poet is by no means an inexperienced or untested one.

The debut collections of Brisbane-based Rae White and Melbourne-based Anders Villani are the work of people with honed and confident voices. These are poets with extant careers whose books are a celebration of the culmination of their work to date.

White’s debut collection Milk Teeth was the winner of the 2017 Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize and published in 2018 by the University of Queensland Press. It was also shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award in 2019, whose judges described it as ‘challeng(ing) pre-existing categories: gender, interior and exterior landscapes, the way we assume language is fixed.’ Milk Teeth is an energetic collection, equal parts experimental and traditional, in which formal and structural innovations lie comfortably alongside poignant and personal observations. White is equally at home disrupting an otherwise familiar scenario with fairy-tale elements as they are with anchoring the reality of unreal scenes with finely crafted detail.

‘Mother’s Milk’, the first poem in the collection, ably demonstrates White’s capacity as a lyric poet while also showcasing their taste for disruption. In this poem the ordinariness and intimacy of a mother showing her daughter’s partner a box of saved baby teeth is expanded upon and heightened into a visceral body-horror exploration of the desire to possess and encompass a lover:

I swallow
feel it scrape & chafe
lodge in my throat.

That night, its crystal
teratoma grows

White’s lyrical facility is also proven by ‘Skyward’, depicting an intimate encounter between partners. It zeroes in on the patterns of light cast onto one person’s bare belly through a canopy of leaves:

I trace 
each teardrop spectre 

with fingers
then tongue

Sitting alongside lyric qualities that demonstrate White’s facility with language and image are more experimental works that challenge both poetic convention and readers’ expectations. White has enlisted a number of other-than-poetic forms into their poetic service, including Twitter posts, programming code and bureaucratic language. These poems use their mimetic forms to highlight the social structures and frameworks that are used to declare, confirm or erase identity.

At times White’s counter-use of such languages and forms to convey political messages occasionally threatens to destabilise those forms to the point of neutralising their menace. The point of these exercises, however, is consistent and clear. One of the most powerful examples of this re-weaponised language is ‘Regarding your Suspension’, a parody of the implicit biases baked into bureaucratic processes. The poem simmers with weary but still-sharp sarcasm:

‘Dear Rae

Your gender has been flagged
and suspended by our team, due to being
one or more of the following …’

In addition to these poems calling structural biases into question, other poems in Milk Teeth challenge another almost invisible preconception: that of the physical orientation of poems on the page. Many of the poems in Milk Teeth are set at 90 degrees to the usual orientation of a book, requiring the reader to turn the book sideways in order to read them.

While this design decision may simply be a result of White desiring a longer line for these poems, and while it may be connected to the common poetic experience of being published on a screen before ever being published on a page, it’s hard not to think of this particular challenge to convention as being of a piece with the challenges to bias and preconception that White puts forward in other aspects of their work.

White’s challenges to poetic structure and style are in keeping with the way their poems’ subject matter also challenges conservative views of gender. With poems like ‘Microaggressions’ and the award-winning ‘what even r u’, White centres the personal experience of insult and aggression, both passive and active, regularly experienced by non-binary people.

But while gender identity is at the fore of some poems, White also challenges the potential assumption that a non-binary activist poet can or should only write about their activism. This point is successfully made by poems like ‘Plants my exes gave me’ and ‘Enraptured’, which depict experiences like gardening and falling in love that are common to all humans. In doing so White validates and celebrates the continuum of gender with other modes of experience, and hopefully educates those who believe they can only experience non-binary life vicariously.

There’s an appealing messiness, a futz and clutter, a chaos to the world White writes. It’s a world of ‘Biscuit grit in / bed Enoki mushrooms / woven with pubic hair’. There’s tenderness here too, portrayed by a deft hand that pens memorable, shy and gentle love scenes that share space with the boldness and confidence of experimentation and political assertion. Milk Teeth is an eclectic mixtape of a book, a stellar debut exhibiting equal parts ‘fuck that noise’ and a visceral love of life.

Pages: 1 2

Jennifer Mackenzie Reviews Elif Sezen’s A little book of unspoken history

Tuesday, June 4th, 2019

A little book of unspoken history by Elif Sezen
Puncher & Wattmann, 2018

Where do footsteps lead, these frustrated blind hunters

In these times many of us from all corners of the globe have more than one place we call home. Concepts of nationality, attachment to place, a sudden annunciation of enlightened belonging or steadfast refusal of it can be dissociative, painful and conversely full of artistic promise. The very notion of home may be welcome or fraught with regret. It may involve mixed emotions or at worst, trauma.

Elif Sezen, a Turkish-Australian multidisciplinary artist currently living in Melbourne, has developed a sophisticated methodology to work across media and to explore these themes. By foregrounding a personal inner life within the rigours of artistic and spiritual practice, she eschews narcissism through a focus on the transformative image. As a poet, translator, and as an artist Sezen has access to a world of imagery which appears to float in an imagined but deliberately structured dimension. Through deft selection, her practice of writing does not overwork its own tropes, which centre on childhood, trauma, displacement, the politics of migration and the metaphysical ambiguities integral to journeys real and imagined. Sezen’s images of trauma carry with them an apparent resonance, tantalisingly suggesting an overcoming, but also simultaneously suggesting the indelible trace of that trauma.

An example of this effect can be seen in the epigram ‘Slap of the morning’:

Slammed doors are still being heard
Who are they?

Coming after two poems focusing on childhood, ‘On the topic of first parents’ and ‘Childhood’, the poem resonates as a deep early memory suggesting violence with the sonorous slap and slammed, and fear through the final line Who are they?. The poem, employing Sezen’s regular trope, the door, appears to echo through space in a similar way to a masterly haiku.

Speaking generally of her artistic practice, Sezen has written: ‘I suggest the continual expansion of a poetic persona as a methodology of surrendering to the infinite’. Her poetry renounces the world’s ability to deliver infinity; instead its imagery emerges in devotional splendour or in political anger at the cruelties inflicted on refugees, especially those in long term detention.

When I first encountered Sezen’s work several years ago, I was attracted by what I saw as the European texture of the work, with its philosophical emphasis and often-romantic interiority. This connection has been astutely observed by Nadia Niaz, in a review in this publication of Sezen’s first English collection Universal Mother. Niaz focuses on the influence of Rilke (and importantly, his use of Sufi imagery), but also stresses Sezen’s access to diverse traditions, including Ottoman and Persian poetics, and to modern protagonists such as Forugh Farrokhzad. Several poems in A little book of unspoken history are dedicated to what can be seen as a constellation of artists, images of whom form something of an interior gallery, a feature many of us share, functioning as icons of our very existence. Sezen’s gallery includes Holderlin, Kahlo, Camille Claudel, and significantly in ‘Our celestial doorway’, a moving tribute to Farrokhzad:

Let’s meet up in your
imaginary Esfahan
in a city where women glow in green, head to toe
when we bend down from
the Khaju bridge, our reflections
on the water turn into non-poisonous ivies,
a city of secret sovereignty
where bombs won’t explode

A significant poem included in A little book of unspoken history is ‘Chronic Fatigue Syndrome’. The open, sequenced structure of the poem allows the key state of the suffering of the body to move effortlessly through themes of spiritual renunciation, the trauma of non-belonging and the vicissitudes of migration doubly effected and politicised. In an artist talk at her recent exhibition The Second Homecoming at Counihan Gallery, Sezen mentioned how moving back and forth between Izmir and Melbourne had left her without a sense of home. In this poem, fatigue enforces a focus back upon the self. In 1. Awareness, Sezen writes:

Now that I am tired
I must open up inwardly, like a lotus blossom
yes, I must open my paper-like lids
towards the benign feature of absence
for I will encounter her, in the very bottom:
that archetypal mystic, resembling my mother
by her glance perforating the silvered smoke
my small self will pass away
because I am tired
because fatigue is a lovely trap made to
save my body from its old cage
I get rid of the worldly clock
losing beguiling sleep

This sequence leads to a surge of empathy, where like an ascetic removed from the fray, the poet releases the possibility of benevolent compassion:

become a voluntary mute 
so I can speak for them

They surrender their souls
wrapped with flesh and blood and breath
back to where they came from

As the poem continues, it develops a floating sense, the pinning of an elusive image, the transformative power of angels, and the devastating liberation of surrendering to pain:

              La Minor         impatience
      Do                                                     black humour
             CRESCENDO                                               the pain
Is so glorious here
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Brigid Magner Reviews Michele Leggott’s Vanishing Points and Elizabeth Smither’s Night Horse

Wednesday, May 15th, 2019

Vanishing Points by Michele Leggott
Auckland University Press, 2017

Night Horse by Elizabeth Smither
Auckland University Press, 2017

Michelle Leggott and Elizabeth Smither are both former Poet Laureates, with distinguished careers behind them. Night Horse won the poetry category of the 50th Ockham New Zealand Book Awards and Vanishing Points has already been received to great acclaim. Even though there are some major stylistic differences between these two books, there are many surprising coincidences.

Published by Auckland University Press, they offer intimate observations about family, bodily deterioration and death. As New Zealand poets, they belong to a relatively small community so it’s not entirely surprising that they both commemorate Jeny Curnow, the wife of poet Allen Curnow, who died in 2013. As a poet in her late seventies, Smither is concerned with the mortality of friends and family yet she takes obvious pleasure in everyday encounters. In ‘Tonia’s cemetery’ she visits her friend’s future resting place and remarks drily: ‘how well you had selected / your place, far better than your houses.’

Leggott’s gradual loss of sight is a central theme in her book, as it was for her fourth collection of poetry, As Far As I Can See (1999). The tone can be mournful, regretting the loss, but she also recognises that other senses are sharpened. There are scents of frangipani — whether real or imagined — karaka berries knobbly underfoot and the sound of Segways passing by. Sometimes it’s hard to tell what is perceived in the moment or recalled from another time: ‘So it is still possible to step ashore on the islands of visions and say I remember. It was like this.’ And there’s a sense of wonder at certain moments of partial sight: ‘I saw my hand against a sunlit wall. Just for a moment.’ For Leggott, moving through interior spaces feels like a kind of swimming, with a choreography of its own: ‘Blind Swimming. Let your hands find each doorway, let your / fingers trail the edges of furniture, the tops of balustrades and / the walls of hallways with their punctuating spaces.’ For Leggott, swimming is a way to extend her reach.

The attention paid to non-human creatures is another common theme: Smither populates her book with birds, cats and horses. She writes of a kangaroo with a ‘look of deep retiring modesty / one in authority with the landscape.’ The horse of the title ‘moves in a trance / so compelling, so other-worldly/ it doesn’t see the car lights’ Leggott’s guide dog, Olive, is a constant companion in her prose poems — there’s even a photo of the two of them in the press release. Her canine companion is riffed on, transformed, becoming ‘the dog of tears’ who will bark holes in the last page of the book and lead her through one of them. Leggott also enjoys her presence when Olive is not working, shaking hands repeatedly: ‘I feel her toes flex and the nails close over the hand that is holding hers. I do this again and again, to feel her hand close on mine.’ This is as good as listening to her drinking from her water bowl, which reminds the poet of Gertrude Stein’s little dog and what listening to the rhythm of his drinking taught her about the differences between sentences and paragraphs: ‘That paragraphs are emotional and sentences are not.’ The dog takes part in a Modern Poetry class and her lapping is recorded and amplified for the purpose of close listening.

Smither and Leggott are very much concerned with family and questions of inheritance. Smither describes a drive past ‘my mother’s house’, of which the view is intimate yet distant: ‘It was all those unseen moments we do not see / the best of a friend, the best of a mother / competent and gracious in her solitude.’ She recognises the precious nature of this passing glimpse and its intimation that her mother ‘would soon walk into the last room / of her life and go to sleep in it.’ Smither’s mother re-appears during a stay in hospital: ‘I shall have my way with my daughter / I shall bring her out of this place / of bogus and fruitless whiteness / her wound will heal under my ministrations.’ The poet’s mother, with Marcel wave and gloves, is more real than the details of the room, suggesting that the desire for your mother persists even into later years.

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Jack Kelly Reviews Liam Ferney’s Hot Take

Wednesday, May 15th, 2019

Hot Take by Liam Ferney
Hunter Publishers, 2018

In a review for Cordite, Stu Hatton commented that the reader will need to google the obscure references in Liam Ferney’s poetry in order to keep up. The epigraph of the poet’s fourth collection reminds us of this:

‘The purpose of this book is to convince you
 (the reader) that something is terribly wrong’

This quote is lifted from Milton William Cooper’s book, Behold a Pale Horse. A quick google-search and Wiki-read revealed that Cooper was an American conspiracy theorist whose book ‘unfolds the truth about the assassination of John F Kennedy, the war on drugs, the Secret Government, and UFOs.’ Like a conspiracy theory, Hot Take attempts to expose the world’s hidden logic in all of its confronting glory.

Ferney’s second collection, Boom (Grand Parade Poets, 2013) was an explosion of language and imagery. In Boom, Ferney’s typically diffused subject matter often spilt over multiple pages, creating poems that are equally fantastic and exhausting to read. Ferney’s third collection, Content (Hunter Publishers, 2016) saw a refinement of this expansive style into a more self-assured and recognisable aesthetic. Ferney continues this trend in Hot Take, which offers a significant range of masterfully controlled poetic techniques.

In particular, Ferney dutifully exemplifies theories and practices developed by the New York School, then refined by their antipodean counterparts. He pays homage to O’Hara in the poem ‘Sardines’ by going on his nerve to produce a Ken Bolton-esque poem-in-progress that revels in its almost flippant existence: ‘this is a poem because it has words in it.’ Gig Ryan’s sardonic tone pervades the collection like ‘cigarette smoke and a hangover’s regrets’ (‘After the Rain’). The poem ‘Modern Love’ does more than use Forbes’ classic ‘Speed, a pastoral’ as a scaffold: it brings the Forbesian sense of devotion and craft into the Snapchat age: ‘It’s weeks since you’ve slept / & it’s not fun to stay up all night / tapping these iNotes of poetry / just thinking about is bad for you—’. ‘On the occasion of Buzz Aldrin shooting down a conspiracy theorist on Twitter’ is reminiscent of Benjamin Frater at his most absurd and dynamic. The ease with which Ferney uses sporting metaphors reminds me of Peter Rose’s prowess using cricket and footy imagery. This potentially reductive list of influences shows Ferney to be far more than an imaginative hack: his confidence in using an array of techniques confirms the poet as a diligent and devoted student of OzPo and its traditions.

A distinctive wit characterises each poem in Hot Take as irony dominates this collection. Only Ferney could write ‘[b]y the time you stop paying your HECS debt / you’ll understand no one cares about what you have to say’ or ‘PTSD was straightforward / when you could just belt your wife’ without it seeming crass. If you think Ferney is being genuine, then the joke’s on you: ‘Of course I’m obtuse. / Civilisation is all about / me not telling you what I really think.’ This humour, deftly laced with cynicism and mordancy, attacks our sensibilities ‘like a jihadi’s dull blade through / an aid worker’s pale neck’. This is seemingly the purpose of the collection: to zap the reader out of any complacency toward the world and its realities. Above all though, Hot Take is funny. Lines such as ‘PWN the n00b descending the staircase, / these Chads will know the beta’s far cry’ transcend literary theory and are simply hilarious.

Despite its range of techniques, Hot Take still maintains a unifying aesthetic. Politics, economics, sport, Brisbane, twitter, drugs, millennial slang and naff Australiana are all poured into these formal vessels to produce a distinctly Fernian effect. As a fellow sports-nut, I always enjoy it when Ferney uses sporting imagery to personify abstract ideas. Indeed, sport’s woefully ignorant attempt at being apolitical is exactly the type of flawed logic that Ferney’s poems target. Mixing sport and politics creates confronting and farcical lines like ‘graham richardson in dick togs / staggering through the last k of the city 2 surf’. Ferney’s poems themselves are like modern athletes: juiced-up and muscular.

Ferney’s editorial for Rabbit’s SPORT issue (2018) explores the relationship between sport, poetry, politics, and economics: ‘The jubilation, the actual physical sensation of snatching victory out of the jaws of defeat refuses commodification in the same way that a work of art can be bought or sold, but the way it moves you can’t.’ The deftness of the poem ‘63 no’ which deals with Phillip Hughes’ tragic death embodies this: ‘we struggle / with the ramifications / of a hook shot’. With Ferney, poetry, sport, economics, and politics are so tightly intertwined it’s impossible to separate them. This is typical of Ferney, always hyper-aware of the world’s logic and its structural interconnectedness.

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Review Short: Iris Fan Xing’s South of Words

Friday, April 26th, 2019

South of Words by Iris Fan Xing
Flying Island Books, 2018

Christopher (Kit) Kelen has described Iris Fan Xing’s South of Words as ‘not translation’. The intersection between English and Chinese Mandarin lies at its heart, reflecting Fan’s converging identities across settings and cultures. Her publisher, Kelen identifies that readers’ engagement with bilingual poetry can be limited by our evaluation of translated works predominantly by their faithfulness to the assumed ‘original’ product, often regarding translation itself as necessarily an act of ‘watering down’. Fan has previously subverted this notion in her debut collection, Lost in the Afternoon (2009), which was intended instead as a conversation between parallel texts, capable of greater richness and imaginative value in tandem than as a standalone works.

South of Words operates in a similar manner; as a non-Chinese speaker, I am acutely aware that my reading of the collection is incomplete. Nonetheless, it is this prospect of her multilingual poetry that allows Fan to represent cross-cultural identity on its own, authentic terms, while offering a uniquely nuanced experience to readers, particularly those belonging to the author’s diasporic communities. In the same way, South of Words does not convey Fan’s relationship to Australian and Chinese cultures as discrete influences, but rather in their cultural synthesis.

The most overt representation of this occurs in the titular poem, which lies at the centre of the collection as a division between the English and Chinese sections. In ‘south of words’, the languages weave in and out, with English words in black text and Mandarin in white, together on a hazy, grayscale photograph. As the poem progresses, its background fades closer to black until the English words are almost fully obscured and the Chinese characters are starkly clear. This transitive quality serves to exemplify the collection’s emphasis on journeys, tenuously mapped out with direct and indirect references alike:

the music will never be lost 又比如在黃昏的鄉間路上
透過飛馳的車窗 if you know how to listen
sit under a jacaranda 瞥見一匹桉樹下的馬
豐滿垂墜的腹部 when it’s blooming
let it play out loud 懷著一輪橘紅的太陽

The dialogic relationship between English and Mandarin is echoed with Fan’s thoughtful paralleling of physical locations – not by means of seamless, perfect comparisons, but through the sincerity and occasional disjointedness of personal perspective. This can be seen in ‘smog’, where Perth and Macao share common ground within their respective opposites:

don’t know why but parting
always reminds me of drifting clouds
maybe because I know that Xü Zhimo poem
embarrassingly well and you’ll agree with me
a seaside town like Macao presents
the best kind of summer cloud
generous in volume and almost tangible
the same kind in Perth in winter

Similarly, ‘after Hayashi Fumiko’ elicits an unsettled emotive response by drawing connections through—and in spite of—elements of disconnect:

living in a country
on the condition of a visa
is a visa is a visa


and our cat
lost one of her nine lives
to a passing car
but we know in Chinese
eight is the lucky number

In this sense, the bleeding of cultures into one other allows Fan to subvert the notion of a perfect metaphor in favour of a perfectly subjective metaphor. Memories are conveyed in their esoteric honesty – closer to the odd, internal logic of a child trying to rationalise the world, than the platitudes of an adult attempting to neaten it. Fan’s metaphors feel uniquely authentic in their refusal to be overwrought—or sanitised in a social vacuum—for the sake of universal relatability. The result, however, is relatable in its affective significance as a reader. Speaking a truth that is equally personalised by direct confession and subtle contextualisation of Eastern and Western influences, contemporary and mythological figures, and multilingualism, Fan produces work that is layered with interpretative nuances, but can still be appreciated at different levels of depth. This allows for a diversity in readership of Chinese and non-Chinese speakers alike, and both casual and academic readers of poetry, without alienating those who lack specific contextual knowledge and may simply enjoy the thoughtful intrigue of Fan’s language choices.

South of Words demonstrates the subjective merit of its intertexts in their capacity to enrich traditional modes of evocation. The relationship between experiential and referential elements allows for an undiluted representation of the self that is not confined to the East or West either in physical location, nor language, nor self-identity. This is also depicted frankly in ‘love it or…’:

love it or write it in your language
ignore grammar – tense and gendered nouns
mine for the sound of storm in clouds
for the image of a peninsula and its reflection
on the sea where evening tides
race like ten million octopuses

love it or reverse the mirror
a waratah is still a waratah
a frangipani a frangipani
but a word is not the same word
love it or live it

Not only does this poem portray an uninhibited self, but it intertwines the entities of place and person. ‘love it or…’ also emphasises the metapoetic urge to create one’s own rules and write in a manner of authenticity that is self-defined in expression. In ‘Canton holiday’, the wider implications of valuing subjectivity are also conveyed as a protest against detached, officialised views of history:

she said
when representing history
you need to defamiliarise

does she mean we should see
through the eyes of that stray cat?

The poignant simplicity of these words is undercut by the power of their suggestion, simultaneous calling on the reader’s internal and societal awareness. South of Words ultimately feels like an exploratory journey of re-familiarising, where the self is as elusive and evolving as its physical settings, and histories are personalised within experience itself. In Fan’s poetics, while nothing is immune to change, nothing is quite devoid of familiarity either.

Aidan Coleman Reviews New and Selected Poems of Anna Wickham

Monday, April 8th, 2019

New and Selected Poems of Anna Wickham edited by Nathanael O’Reilly
UWA Publishing, 2017

Devotees of Australian literature are unlikely to possess more than a half-dozen single volumes by poets born before Federation, and their reading of such poets is generally limited to anthologies. The problem, I’d suggest, is one of availability more than desire. University of Western Australia Publishing (UWAP) is one publisher looking to redress this through an intermittent series of titles, which include Lesbia Harford’s Collected Poems (2014) and the Collected Verse of John Shaw Neilson (2012), together with more recent classics, such as Francis Webb’s Collected Poems (2011) and the Selected Poems of Dorothy Hewitt (2010). UWAP’s latest volume is the elegantly produced New and Selected Poems of Anna Wickham, edited and introduced by Australian-born, poet-scholar Nathanael O’Reilly, which republishes 100 poems from Wickham’s five collections together with another 150 previously uncollected poems.

The book’s short introduction provides a brief outline of Wickham’s biography. She was born Edith Alice Mary Harper in London in 1883, but lived in Australia for most of her childhood in Maryborough (Queensland), Brisbane and Sydney – taking her pseudonym from a Brisbane street. Wickham returned to London in 1904 to pursue a singing career and there she married a successful solicitor, Patrick Hepburn, who remained her husband for over 20 years. The marriage, which produced four sons, was unhappy, largely because Hepburn opposed Wickham’s artistic pursuits – in 1913 he had his wife institutionalised for three months. George Bernard Shaw, Dylan Thomas, Katherine Mansfield, Laurence Durrell and DH Lawrence were among her circle of friends. Having struggled with depression for most of adult life, Wickham suicided at the age of sixty-three, leaving over a thousand poems, most of which remain unpublished.

Among the work collected by O’Reilly are free verse and strict forms, monologues, sonnets and verse in ballad-metre, short chiselled lyrics of regular rhyme and metre, imaginative narratives and dramatic monologues, and some mixing of distinctly different forms. A reader is often struck by a deliberate asperity. Wickham asks in ‘The Egoist’:

Shall I write pretty poetry – 
Controlled by ordered sense in me – 
With an old choice of figure and of word, 
So call my soul a nesting bird? 

The answer is a resounding no. Living in the age of aeroplanes, she reasons – in the line that resolves the poem and stretches to a comic twenty-one syllables – that she will write her ‘rhythms free’. The homely Georgian imagery of the opening stanza is not entirely rejected but the work is generally more direct than that of most of Wickham’s contemporaries – ‘Paradox’, for example, opens with the phrase: ‘My brain burns with hate of you’ – but it can occasionally be esoteric and obscure. It is an erudite poetry in a literary sense, steeped in the classical tradition, in Shakespeare and the Romantics. The content is often more radical than the forms, as she explores and interrogates gender roles, marriage and motherhood. Perhaps most modern of all, she celebrates the therapeutic power of poetry.

The strength of Wickham’s personality, and the power of the work is manifest in ‘Mare Bred from Pegasus’:

For God’s sake, stand off from me: 
There’s a brood mare here going to kick like hell 
With a mad up-rising energy; 
And where the wreck will end who’ll tell? 
She’ll splinter the stable door and eat a groom. 
For God’s sake, give me room; 
Give my will room.

The poem’s force comes not only from the equine imagery that Wickham often returns to but from a diction that is both rhetorical and colloquial. It is a charged language of strong verbs, spiked consonants and quick vowel sounds. The compound-adjective, ‘up-rising’, is particularly powerful, while the eating of the stable boy, or figuratively the husband, manages both to menace and charm. The repeated plea for ‘room’ is central to another of the book’s strongest poems, ‘Divorce’:

A voice from the dark is calling me.
In the close house I nurse a fire.  
Out of the dark cold winds rush free
To the rock heights of my desire.
I smother in the house in the valley below,
Let me out to the night, let me go, let me go.

Night is presented here, and elsewhere, as synonymous with the feminine and the creative. While the concerns of this poem are personal the imagery is, characteristically, elemental. We see the subtleties that Wickham is capable of in the adjectives ‘close’ and ‘rock’ and the verb ‘nurse’, the interesting use that ‘smother’ is put to, and the beautifully measured refrain. In other poems, Wickham prefers the role of the passionate lover to the dutiful wife, as in the ambiguous three-line ‘Function’:

I do not grudge you to your wife:
but take a mistress
And I'll have her life.

While the poet-speaker is resigned to dissatisfaction with marriage and concedes acquiescence to be the easier path, she refuses to be silent. The shrew is a trope to which Wickham often returns and, as the poet delighted in flouting social conventions in her lifetime, so the poet-speaker embraces this role with gusto.
In the poem, ‘Meditation at Kew’, which may remind of Thomas More’s Utopia, Wickham reimagines marriage. Written in rhyming couplets but set out in quatrains, it begins:

Alas! for all the pretty women who marry dull men, 
Go into the suburbs and never come out again … 

Wickham goes on to lament the sufferings of such suburban women and, in contrast, presents a sort of Arcadia:

I would enclose a common in the sun,
And let the young wives out to laugh and run; 
I would steal their dull clothes and go away, 
And leave the pretty naked things to play. 

The dullness of the clothes the speaker steals picks up on the poem’s earlier uses of the word, which include the ‘old dull’ gentle classes, who ‘must breed true’. The sun contrasts the sterile drabness of the earlier imagery, as the looser spirit of play contrasts the passivity and stasis implied by the poem’s opening. In Wickham’s ideal the women are to see all the men of the world before they make their choice of partner, and the resolution that follows fuses Wickham’s critique of patriarchy and the class system:

From the gay unions of choice 
We’d have a race of splendid beauty and of thrilling voice. 
The world whips frank, gay love with rods, 
But frankly gaily shall we get the gods.

Though the wife-husband context suggests the primary meaning of ‘gay’ to be something like joyous or carefree, the term’s modern usage was becoming more common in Wickham’s lifetime, and this secondary meaning reinforces a subtext of lesbian desire.

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Ivy Ireland Reviews Ali Whitelock’s and my heart crumples like a coke can

Monday, April 8th, 2019

and my heart crumples like a coke can by Ali Whitelock
Wakefield Press, 2018

Despite the sorrow of its title, and my heart crumples like a coke can will have an utterly expansive effect on the reader’s beat-box. My little heart almost burst as I read through this collection for the first time. And then the second. Like some classic 90s rom-com – or was it drama? – that you watched and then re-watched every weekend on VCR as a teen, Ali Whitelock’s book seems to encourage a closeness, invites the reader to experience a genuine connection with the poet/protagonist and with their bevvy of sidekicks, both the heroes and the villains. I find myself genuinely touched by the liquid, visceral rawness, the careful simplicity and confessional glory of Whitelock’s poems.

Perhaps it has something to do with the seemingly breezy style; I picture Whitelock scribbling these poems in five minutes – maybe ten – on the underside of napkins in a crowded café somewhere on Glebe Point Road, the Bukowskian edginess of it all just floating off her fingers to bless everything it touches like butter grease. This, I thought as I read, is precisely the poetry I would like to write. This, I thought, is the poetry I should be writing. Why am I not writing this bloody poetry? I thought, these odes to the horrid heat and shopping centre scourge of of the suburbs, the aging body, vaginas, chicko rolls and the farts of the dying? I am awestruck when confronted with such passages as this one, from ‘what you must you do/ you must keep your mouth shut’:

if you want you can tape it shut
with the snoring tape – he keeps it on the side of his bed.
it rolls off onto the carpet
the cat hair sticks to it because
what you must understand
is how you feel is not how others
feel. The important
thing you must do is not say how you feel
if you say how you feel he will roll his eyes and sometimes
after the eye rolling
there will be a sigh and what that means is you must not say
that thing again. Eventually
you will get to know the things that make the eyes roll and
the chest sigh and you will stop saying
them. If you hold a hermit crab shell to your ear
you can hear a rushing
and this rushing is the sound
of everything and the sound of nothing

This excerpt – and I would have included the whole poem if there was room for it – reveals Whitelock’s singular flair. The emotive content is moving without falling into sentiment, the motif and metaphor clever without leaning towards the pretentious. Even the centred structure works to jolt the reader into the importance of the particulars. This familiarity – imperative yet as casual as a conversation with a bestie – is I believe, is the kind of tone we all aim for, while endlessly editing and re-editing that seemingly unavoidable bullshit out. Her no-holds-barred, uncensored honesty when it comes to the small things – snoring tape, choice of lipstick when you turn fifty, brand of cooking chocolate – and the terrifyingly large things – death, exile (both voluntary and forced), aging, the mid-life affair, the aftermath of the affair – is so powerful it is contagious. Here are a few lines from ‘your friend said it was a love poem’:

             the therapist had seen it all before – a thousand
times apparently – in women my age with no children
go on then rub it in at least i’d had the presence 
of mind to ask about diseases you said
you had none backed it up with a printout
of your latest blood results you kept in a folder
marked ‘bloods’ which I didn’t find strange.

This blunt conversational tone is echoed, with perhaps even more harrowing honesty, in this excerpt, from the stand-out poem, ‘water’s for fish’:

as cliché as it sounds i always
imagined i’d get the call in the middle
of the night the one that would announce
that you were dead or at the very least 
be dying i’d be bleary eyed would thank 
the caller and hang up grateful
that i am safe my seventeen thousand 
kilometres away and geographically exempt
from delivering your eulogy from shaking
hands with those i have no wish to shake
hands with

These excerpts also highlight the less cohesive aspects of the collection, which are the slightly discombobulating lineation choices, and collisions of atypical sentence structures. Quite often, the poems appear as performance texts adjusted for the page; sometimes fully punctuated and precise, and sometimes – part emphasis, part rebellion, I’d imagine – utterly not. While Whitelock’s lineation most often works to build emphasis, at other times it can start to feel a little heavy-handed, especially when the powerful and poignant word choice is more than capable of speaking for itself and perhaps needs no further emphasis. That said, anyone who has read the Beats, perhaps especially Bukowski (who is clearly, wonderfully, a strong influence on the collection), will have little or no problem navigating the momentary bumps caused by unpunctuated sentence collisions. Certainly, when listening to these poems read aloud (in a smoking hot Scottish accent; Whitelock is an impressive reader), any thought about formatting fades away.

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