Alice Allan Reviews Nola Firth, Richard James Allen, Liz McQuilkin, Sandra Thibodeaux, and Wendy Fleming

By | 4 November 2014

Meanwhile, the challenge in reading Sandra Thibodeaux’s fourth poetry collection is in not finishing it and immediately buying a plane ticket to Darwin. This is writing that it makes you want the experiences behind it. In Thibodeaux’s Australia, ‘The ocean has a lap of gold’, ‘frogs and waves / fight for the last word’ and there’s ‘No distance / between my blood and the stars’. Fellow poet Chris Mansell describes the work as ‘Top End true, by which I mean, true poetry.’ It’s hard to disagree – the uncompromising nature of Thibodeaux’s writing is rare.

Thematically, DIRTY H2O has an affinity with disasters, be they natural, personal or political. Written between 2010 and 2014, the poems work as a kind of montage, tracking world events like Obama’s rise, Gillard’s fall and Japan’s cataclysmic tsunami alongside those closer to home: arrests, deaths, and the painful twists of relationships that never quite reach equilibrium. The brutality of artificial environments is also central. Take the first few lines of the book’s title poem:

At the Tennant Creek BP Jurassic cicadas / have been rolled by
four-wheel drives / that stalled on flooded strips of the Stuart
Highway / just before Wycliffe Well / going under before
emerging again / to a camouflaged convoy / cannons and
tanks / and I could be in any of a dozen deserts / with an 
Abrams pointing his cock at my windscreen …

Clearly, Thibodeaux knows how to capture the danger, degradation and plain ugliness of remote Australia, yet she stops short of condemning it. While there are definitely villains here (police, politicians, lovers) there’s also a note of compassion in the way they’re represented. Even a disaster as devastating as Cyclone Yasi has a kind of beauty to it in Thibodeaux’s gaze:

‘Yasi’ is Fijian for sandalwood. 
British decimated forests before losing strength. 

Thirty years are needed to swell a heartwood
And the rings on this cyclone increase. 

Yasi are semi-parasitic, draining
what’s left of reserves in Queensland. (‘The Decimation of Yasi')

While DIRTY H2O is closely connected to real events and people, it has a dark, detached humour that keeps the poems from becoming over-sentimental. In ‘An Early Survey of Principles’ Thibodeaux collages wry political statements (‘An Andrew Bolt minus an Andrew Bolt / can only be a good thing.’) with this matter-of-fact outlook on love:

The distance to an extraordinary 
is > 1,000 kilometers.

The number of times he texts
is < encouraging.

A replacement in your bed
is less than, or equal to, sweet notes
on a horn?

Whether it’s the Top End factor or not, DIRTY H2O feels unpretentious, distinct and decidedly real. This is poetry that has given up any comfortable barrier between itself and the world around it, and dares you to do the same.

Compared to the wildness of DIRTY H2O, Wendy Fleming’s Backyard Lemon might seem a little subdued at first. These are poems from a place where encounters happen in ladies change rooms rather than at highway petrol stations, and death comes with less blood and more ‘clinic pallor’.

But if this quietness is to be criticised, Fleming has a counter ready: ‘Every continent, every town has a / sacred tree,’ she explains. ‘Mine is the backyard lemon. Crafted descendant from China’s / wild citron on Burma’s border, it has the sunniest place.’

Backyard Lemon is Fleming’s first book and for her, poetry has an essential role in capturing and distilling the significance of everyday experience. She manages to do this with sensitivity along with a solid dose of humour. Take this encounter with ‘Lycra Man’ on a Melbourne train:

Enter Lycra Man, moulded limbs and gonads, 
berthing his bike like a revved Formula One
silver frame, blue-wheeled, an Apollo or a Mercury. 
He stands a peak above us beside the sliding door

Backyard Lemon keeps mostly to the comfortable walking pace of quatrains and couplets, without leaving much unresolved, even at the line break. But it’s hard to mount a case against these familiar structures when they serve the content of Fleming’s poems so well. Take ‘White Lies’ (and its delightful echoes of Dickinson’s ‘narrow fellow in the grass’):

Thin and pale as a white lie
it was harmless we were told.  

Yet it hissed and menaced with forked tongue
just like a whopper black one.

As the subject matter of her poems grows more serious, Fleming’s strength is in capturing personal detail while still leaving room for an outsider’s reading. In ‘The Last Time You Feel Well’ she tells an entirely personal yet completely relatable story in the first couplet: ‘“I’m still here. Isn’t it wonderful?” / Cancer specialists call it a time of grace.’

Looking death in the eye again in ‘The Message Of Flowers’, Fleming’s clear, largely undecorated lines distil a painful reality into something approachable:

We should have chosen different flowers, 
spiky cultivars, species with long Latinate names, 
spindles instead of petals out of a tough core. 

They would still be here like you
hardened and scarred but obstinately
upright, blooming, blooming; blooming not dying.

Here, again, Fleming’s poetry is generous enough to take in a very personal experience while leaving plenty of room for her readers. It’s this skilful balance of intimacy and expansiveness that makes Backyard Lemon so pleasurable to read.

Speaking to Poetry magazine earlier this year, former US poet laureate Louise Glück spoke about there being ‘maybe only 10 people in the world’ who will know her work well enough to see its progression. Perhaps she was only being humble, but it seems to me that when a former poet laureate has such shaky confidence in those who love poetry, it’s a courageous thing to write a first book, let alone a fourth or a tenth.

Along with courage, these poets also have skill, restraint, audacity, political savvy and personal insight that will draw in all kinds of readers. They know what their words can do and where their limits are. Surely, they’ll prove Glück wrong.

This entry was posted in BOOK REVIEWS and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Related work: