Pam Brown Reviews Kait Fenwick

By | 4 December 2018

Fenwick adroitly handles a build-up of emotion and tension. In ‘Pub Grab’ the poet waits tables in the inner city suburb of Wickham which, considering the inferences in the poem, I googled to see if it was posh or not. Yes, it’s a gentrifying, overpriced developers’ district. According to the Newcastle Herald ‘The council calls it “eclectic”. Residents call it “better than Balmain” and like “living in an episode of Grand Designs”’. At the pub in Wickham a sneering, high-camp dandy dyke directs a few loaded epithets at the wait person, our protagonist the poet. The customers and the work are demanding, so is the boss, plus the kitchen’s too hot for compression wear and when the band starts up it’s out of tune. The increasingly irritated poet begins to get their own back – ‘I wonder if the punters would still order the cow / if they knew how long it has been in the freezer’. Next, the chef leans around and coolly phone-snaps the poet as they work. Fenwick wouldn’t mind some help with scrubbing grease – exasperation builds to bursting – but the poet redirects it, taking it out on the stainless steel grill, scrubbing so fiercely that they can see their reflection in the hot plate. Heat, the final irony. In another situation, a drink on a balcony in Broadmeadow, dissatisfaction is represented by items made abject. Dregs of cider and alpine menthol cigarettes. Signifiers like this recur throughout Fenwick’s spare, direct poetic. 

‘I Can’t be Near You’ is a beautiful poem of attraction, desire, and missed chances to fulfil them. ‘I regret feverishly replying to text messages / in the space between ecstasy / and consciousness’, Fenwick writes, while the object of this hot yearning is playing guitar and the desirer is busy scrolling on a phone. ‘Burning Between’ is a love poem with a scene that foregrounds Laura Jean Grace, the trans lead singer of the punk band ‘Against Me’:

all ornate black tattoos
& pantyhose 
about blessing
your transsexual heart. 

cradle mine.

Fenwick times these two line breaks and the space between to make a pause which fills the poem with a sweet poignance.

Fenwick’s work is part of a continuum of confessional poetry. Another Novocastrian, poet and academic Keri Glastonbury said in her introduction to Cordite’s issue on the theme of confession:

When I chose the theme of ‘Confession’ for this issue, I wanted to see what meaning it might yet have in our contemporary digital dialectic, where we must increasingly navigate and present ourselves and our lives in a way that is, at once, privately public. After all, this ‘knowing’ sense of constructing a self for consumption has always been the domain of confessional poetry (think Sylvia Plath), and I suspected that there would be confessional poems galore in our ‘over-sharing’ era.

In the same issue, Fenwick’s poem begins: ‘And, after all this time my heart still 
f l u t t e r s / when a queer person walks through those automatic doors. //As if femmes don’t need fuel/or diesel dykes don’t chain smoke twin packs of B&H/or the gender-bent darling from Railway Street could head / to The Gateway without a canister of gum.’

Along with streetwise language Fenwick’s poems espouse pop culture. Kurt Cobain’s and Courtney Love’s daughter Frances appears in the above-mentioned ‘I Can’t Be Near You’. Another poem by Fenwick, not included in Burning Between but which I published in an issue of past simple, is ‘eX de Medici’. It’s named for the Australian artist known for interrogating power via her paintings of ornate flowers and other plants entwining or backgrounding weapons, skulls and surveillance equipment:

Peeking out from beneath the hand gun
I see a sea of marigolds
So bright my eyes burn
They smell funny

As a child I would pick the petals one by one
until nothing but the pistil remained
And it too collapsed

Rolling the yellow petals
between my fingers until
they stained saffron

I found out the other day
flowers are comprised of male and female parts
Maybe that's one of the many reasons
I cover my body in them

Other distinctive and very cool artists turn up in Burning Between. For instance, there’s a tiny eulogy to Catherine Opie, the well-known lesbian photographer working out of Los Angeles. The poem ‘Empty + Full’ notes Fenwick’s discovery of Catherine Opie via Instagram and begins an instant brief analysis of the first photo that appears: ‘a leather dyke feeding a hungry child? / Masculine maternalism?’ Fenwick wonders. This is followed by a poem referencing Jenny Holzer, the neo-conceptualist artist whose enlarged one-liners and maxims are usually installed in public places: ‘Tattooing a Holzer truism / on your inner thigh doesn’t / make it valid’ (‘Ambivalence Can Ruin Your Life’).

Each poem seems to have a point to make, a statement or sometimes a complaint to declare, like that there’s no butch with butch porn videos. A poem’s mix of elements might cue in a celebration of tendencies or might just be downright sexy.

The Fenwick poem that Quinn Eades and Stuart Barnes selected for Cordite’s TRANSQUEER signals and pursues resolution of limbo (or in-betweenness) through memory – ’17 years old, smoking cheap dope on Jayde’s floor-bound mattress / I need not lie through my teeth. There’s a knock at the door. / Mother. / She was not concerned I was stoned. Rather, / I was safe. / Walked me the block home, tucked me into bed with a bottle of water […] Allowed me to recline back into myself, / if only for the night / They say that adhering to the gender binary, / promotes social cohesion / I feel anything but cohesive when I see fragments of myself dismantled, / lining the horizon’ . The poem ends in swift action, qualified by doubt – ‘A bit like your arse encased in a pair of RodeOhs, / flicks my switch more than the prescribed attachment / I rip it from your holster / + ram it into the seam of my regular BONDS briefs / Mine now, anyway, / always was’.

In the book’s final poem, ‘Oil Slick’, this serious quandary continues. The metaphor is the inability of oil to mix with water – ‘If only I could wrap my head around ‘he’ / & be content transferring x to y / & seek comfort in the confines of the binary’. There’s the difficulty of pronouns, as Fenwick writes: ‘It would be easier to send an office wide email / indicating ‘him’ as opposed to ‘they’ / It is the limbo that scares me, that grey place / the space that exists between / water and oil’.

This collection is a fresh component of a general social and, hence, political challenge. It offers potential for other writers to report or think through the complexities and multiple social distinctions around gender and sexuality. It also provides readers with an astute account of some real and sometimes vulnerable experiences of breaking out of the gender binaries of the heteronormative patriarchal set-up we call ‘society’. Burning Between is a small, succinct collection of poems that is totally discerning, totally relevant and is imbued with a particularly open poetic originality. Now, it joins the burgeoning pantheon of queerities.

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

Related work: