Alice Allan Reviews Rabbit, Verge and Cuttlefish

By | 25 November 2015

At Monash University, 2015 marks just over a decade of publication for Verge. Editors Joan Fleming and Anna Jaquiery start this year’s issue by tackling head-on any concerns about a Victorian bias in the journal: ‘We study in Melbourne, but we are not Melbournians. We both have trouble with the question: ‘Where are you from?’ The answer is always ‘too many places.’’ Melbourne’s reputation as a ‘literary city’ is difficult to step around, and chances are a good chunk of contributions to a Melbourne-based journal like Verge will come from people who identify with the city in some way. But even though Verge represents a Victorian university, the editors are able to list Japan, Dublin, New Zealand and multiple locations across the US as origin points for their contributors.

A particularly unsettling contribution comes from Arkansas, an extract from ‘Flung Throne’ by Cody-Rose Clevidence. Its rhythm suggests an incantation, while dots of text speak interrupt the flow:

thy vulcan// thy magnolia// thy city. // thy rain, libation, come
torrential// here where everything is// u common name , u place

not 2 worship uselessly// pearls or clouds// perilous, pendulous, not 2
hold// the sun// what human sight isa a bird then, flock 

Alongside its overseas contributors, Verge’s Australian voices include Bella Li as well as Cooke, Kocher and Albiston. Albiston’s contribution to Verge is a series of three poems marked only by symbols that contain both heat and humour:

the worker wakes to detonated day
          the writer is already at her words
heads off dream hit-hit black coffee & clock
          head in beautiful theorem of expanse

In just a few cases, the work collected in this issue of Verge is yet to strike a balance between how much it asks of readers and how much it gives in return. It’s tempting to want a description of a field that goes further than ‘green and dew-wet’, for example, or for tree branches to be more than ‘coal-black boughs’. But in every piece, Fleming and Jaquiery have identified something that reaches out to the reader, coaxing them to dig beyond the immediately obvious.

Many of the fiction contributions to Verge have this veiled yet inviting quality. New Zealand writer Sugar Magnolia Wilson’s ‘Because a Woman’s Heart is Like a Needle at the Bottom of the Ocean’ is a darkly hilarious example:

When we have sex and I can’t see your face and your hair is tied up I feel like I am having sex with myself or myself as yourself. I am a good boyfriend. I am emotionally stable but in the bedroom I dominate in a gentle fashion.

The through-line here, whether Verge’s contributors are writing fiction in Chicago or poetry in the Dandenong Ranges, is that they are all equally comfortable grappling with ‘what we know, and what we can’t know’, as Fleming describes it. The best work here has the same quality as that seen in Rabbit, where language is pushed to convey both meaning and meaninglessness. While there is a higher ratio of writers whose voices are more hesitant here, this means Verge’s is fulfilling its role as a journal representing those who are working to hone their craft.

Considering a brand new journal like Cuttlefish alongside two that are already well-established involves a heaviness of expectation – something of that anxiety about whether this periodical will fall into the category of ‘too much’. But opening Cuttlefish quickly does away with these doubts, and not just because the publication is beautiful to look at.

This first edition is clearly a gamble many established poets are ready to support, judging by the list of well-known contributors alongside newer ones. With no introduction from the three editors – Susan Midalia (fiction) Angela Meyer (flash fiction) and Roland Leach (poetry) – we’re free to draw our own conclusions about the work. There’s roughly equal room here for writing from more established and new names, with no particular bias towards any one location. There are pieces here that stand in for family portraits and self-portraits, along with those that hint at secrets and others that drag uncomfortable truths onto the page. Mags Webster’s ‘Ded Reckoning’ is a startling example of the latter:

Don’t tell me you’re not hearing them now, the warning
sirens, flounder of cries in night’s acoustic chamber. 

You are clenching the bed as if you hoped to crush the wash
of sounds, stop it leaking from your fists …

As with Verge, in Cuttlefish a mix of assured voices alongside those that are less experienced gives the collection its spark. If there is a theme here, it’s a familiar one to Australian poetry readers: the discomfort of the lucky. These writers are all too aware of their status as mostly well educated, mostly middle class, and mostly white, and they know they can’t really write truthfully unless they grapple with these embedded advantages. In ‘edifice’, Julie Chevalier offers a wry take on how silly these advantages can look, following a thesis supervisor through his awkward encounter with suburbia:

franklin points his mobile at the stained glass window     gives it a
spiritual quality          click          I’ll encourage the use of recycled materials if
I’m ever a lecturer     chooks peck at volunteer cherry tomatoes          click          ruby
light falls from the window onto beautiful ovals          i move the porcelain egg from
the straw into the dirt where the hens are laying          hope he doesn’t snap my

Kathryn Lee’s ‘Welcome’ takes a more poignant angle on the theme of discomfort, heavy with the stifling predictability of family security:

Now Mum will go and comb her hair and then she will go out and move the sprinklers on the lawn. She will ask Dad how his day was. He might say something. Or he might just watch the news.

To say this theme is familiar to readers of Australian poetry at the moment isn’t to suggest it’s somehow superfluous, or that these things have been said too many times. In fact it’s exactly this willingness to engage with the ambivalent and the uncomfortable that results in something real and interesting being said, rather than something merely pretty.

Whether we’re reading the first edition of a new journal or one that marks over a decade of publication, the question is always there: Is there room for this? Is it welcome? Have our Head Gardeners weeded out what we don’t need and allowed room for the rest to breathe and to grow? For those writing the work, the question is of course all too personal. Any rejected contributor can recite the one about the journal being ‘overwhelmed by the number of submissions’. But much as a thriving scene creates challenges, poets also understand that an editor who can choose from a submission pile that’s overflowing is both harder to impress, and much better than the alternative.

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