Alice Allan Reviews Lisa Brockwell and Tamryn Bennett

By | 13 September 2016

Phosphene is made up of four poems and spans 50 pages, using meticulous typesetting and blank space to create movement – a sense that the poems are spreading across the pages. Each English stanza is mirrored by a Spanish translation courtesy of one of Bennett’s collaborators, composer Guillermo Batiz. The work of visual artist Jackie Cavallaro also complements the text, adding an intricate visual layer to the book. In Bennett’s introduction we learn that phosphene actually began life as a collaborative exhibition with Batiz, Cavallaro and performer Tamara Elkins.

Bennett explains that her work on phosphene began in Mexico ‘as a series of rituals and offerings at sacred sites’. ‘Offerings were tied with thread and placed in the ashes of shrines, cracks of temples and beneath desert dust,’ she explains. ‘Mirroring ruins and fractured histories, the fragmented elegies of phosphene are what remain after the light of the moment has passed.’ This is lofty subject matter and it’s to Bennett’s credit that she works toward her goals through scarcity of language, rather than weighing these ideas down with words. The following stanzas from the first poem, ‘at the temple of letters’, give some idea of Bennett’s compact approach:

white on red
we roam the ruins

                    blanco sobre rojo
                    rondamos las ruinas

the rocking bridge,
the dried river

                    el puente que mece,
                    el río seco

white on red
all sins, all saints

It’s clear that Bennett wants more than just the physical space created by short lines. There’s also expansiveness in terms of subject matter. The third poem in the collection, ‘the invisible’, best illustrates this. It begins in a misty valley before moving ‘through fields of cactus / to the desert by the sea’. The poem then begins to switch between confined spaces – rib bones, a wardrobe, a hall, a mirrored room and holes in a wall – and open spaces: a green stream, the sky, and a ‘garden of bones’. The elegiac quality of the book is perhaps most pronounced in this poem. ‘the invisible / keep living’, Bennett tells us, ‘sadness stacked / in towers / surround the bed’.

Along with Cavallaro’s finely detailed images, punctuation marks are also dotted around the poems on most pages, suggesting the desert dust Bennett encountered when first creating the work. This also adds to the sensation that the poems are floating, suspended above the page rather than printed onto it.

The fact that each line is doubled through its Spanish translation is another crucial element. As each poem progresses, it feels natural to match each English word with its Spanish translation. ‘Owl’ becomes buhó, ‘chance’ becomes azar and ‘holy nothing’ becomes bendita nada. This pattern concentrates each line, bringing the shape and meaning of every word into focus. With shorter lines, this focus becomes sharper still, as in this section from ‘the invisible’:




                              and here, 

                    y aquí,

          the ground remembers

                              el suelo recuerda

Taken as a whole, phosphene is a wild, open landscape with features that only gradually become familiar. Finishing a first reading, we find hints of this expansive, quiet world, but the full picture isn’t clear. This is a space that invites many repeat visits. It’s with each subsequent reading that phosphene rewards us.

As the book becomes more familiar, each page takes on the quality of an individual artwork as well as being part of a greater whole. The book’s rhythm can be heard as the speaker, the accompanying ‘you’ and the minor characters, move back and forth between confined and open spaces, and through time. This movement is anything but linear – it’s closer to a spiral or a layering of images and memories. As the book ends, Bennett hints at completion without giving in to neatness:

here is where you leave
your hair, 


                    in the desert, 
                                        in his hands

With each reading it becomes easier to see how Bennett is contributing to the tradition she notes in her introduction – that of the ‘xopan cuicatl’ or ‘spring song’ of Nahuatl poetry: ‘Each of these acts is part of a longer thread,’ Bennett says of her work. ‘Each a knot to remember the past and our place within it.’

It’s tempting to end here by finding similarities between phosphine and Earth Girls – to look for a way to bridge any perceived ‘gap’ between an experimental project and a lyric one. These two works do share many strengths. Both have a clear goal, are precise in working towards that goal, and show wholeheartedness in each step taken. But their real strengths are actually entirely independent. Far from placing them in opposition, these differences reinforce each poet’s place on the flourishing continuum of Australian poetry today.

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