David Dick Reviews Emily Crocker, Allison Gallagher and Aisyah Shah Idil

5 December 2017

As a critic I am wary of reading too much into a poet’s work based on their biography. I like my opinions and feelings about a work to be formed through engaging with the text itself, free – or as free as I can be – of any knowledge of the author that may direct my reading. However, in a sense, this runs the risk of writing over the top of the work: writing about it, rather than with it. True, most critics are guilty of this at one time or another. Sometimes a work will fail to engage, and the simple threat of deadline or having to produce something will lead to an act of criticism that takes note of its subject, but only in a cursory, paraphraseable sense: an extrapolation. In the case of these three chapbooks, I was overtly engaged with each, because each made me ask questions of my own role as a critic. More pointedly, they made me ask questions of myself as a white hetero male, Camberwell middle-class, restaurant supervisor with a PhD on John Ashbery. What about me possesses the capability to fully appreciate what Idil means when she writes, ‘I have been struggling, Lord, / with my hijab’? Or Crocker’s ‘carcinogenic tampons’? Indeed, that I note that these poets ‘write their femininity’ exposes my limitations, for this seemed to me to be the only way I could conceive of these feelings, for truly they are writing their experience as females. In this way, I can recognise the variance of their experience and their femininity – of them being females – and that, ultimately, I will always be limited in the totality of my understanding of this experience. I must, instead, appreciate the rush of their work, vainly knowledgeable of our difference. But then, I can hope, poetry is always an eye-opener. Femininity is as variable an aspect of human experience as any other, and each of these chapbooks has its own voice, unique and interesting and worth hearing. That they made me think of my own involvement in the act of reading and critiquing, speaks for their quality.

Gallagher writes pointedly, directly of a broken heart:

message to all road workers:
i got something you can fill baby
riiiiiiiiiight here

*points to the gaping hole in my heart*

Such writing can, admittedly, veer into terrain that is cliché, if not quite because everyone, I think, can feel guilty of these pains, spending ‘the day uploading / some heavy emotions to the cloud.’ Emotion so bluntly delivered can jar, refusing its complexities; but similarly, feeling can be lost within convoluted metaphor and symbol. Gallagher wants us to feel, react, emphasise. Her straightforward delivery, shorter lines and vivid existence within a pop cultural milieu, are indicative of many younger Australian poets (Oscar Schwartz and Elizabeth Allen come to mind) similarly dealing with the web of social media connections that frame and present so much of our existence. She is at her most effective when writing her experience of being a female through her trans perspective: ‘i’ve been trying to make funeral plans, / a proper burial for the body i’ve / abandoned.’ It amounts, in a sense, to the act of becoming, that is rather an act of being a woman: ‘imagining myself as a sketch of a person / messy strokes around a vague outline … people assume my problem / is that i’m a woman trapped in a man’s body / when the problem is more like / i’m trapped in a body.’ There is an invitational aspect to Parenthetical Bodies, a yearning from the speaker for their reader to help them escape from the body, from the limitations of the poem to describe it, to transcend such formal measurements of identity and self-shape. But it is tempered, made wrenching, in the realisation that we are trapped in our ‘bodies,’ and that what these bodies are helps shape what we are. I stood from without, watching the turmoil and acceptance at play in Gallagher’s work as her poems toyed with writing her broken heart and body and self.

Idil’s The Naming is the most formally ambitious of the three chapbooks, written at times in Malay, referencing old ‘nonsense jinn stories’ and playing with typography, her poems rarely obeying any arbitrary rules of presentation. A whole poem, ‘Essay,’ is written in footnotes, with no other text but its references – a ‘Malay jinn,’ Joyce and Plath – and explanations without sources needing explaining. Another poem, ‘Malay Sketches,’ is essentially in three parts: its first is a completely blacked out poem, its second part is a partly blacked out Malay poem, and its final part appears to be a translation of the previous. The poem addresses being seen and heard; both on the page, as a poet, and as an Islamic woman: ‘We figure God has seen us in less.’ Yet, The Naming still presents in a voice of modest elegance underwritten by an iron yearning for its poetry to ring loud – speaking, for example, through the self-imposed blockages or black-outs in ‘Malay Sketches.’ The poem, ‘Where were you on 9/11,’ written all in capital letters, notes, ‘LISTEN / THIS LONGING IS TOO BIG TO FIT ON A MAP.’ The titular question itself is too big for the poem, too complicated and implicated in a world now called ‘post 9/11,’ particularly for an Islamic speaker. Idil’s femininity, her identity, is written within an Islamic context, but without obvious interrogations of Abrahamic religion’s at times problematic relation to women. Rather, her Islamic identity as a woman is folded into the character of the speaker, her history, doubts and family. It is her difference, caustically drawing attention to her ‘white guidance counsellor,’ and it is her likeness to other people, particularly those who have fled to Australia: ‘My grandmother / flees, staring down / at the deep sunken and skeletal. / Her belly is huge … their leaky boat tears open the sea.’ The impact of Idil’s book lies in this brutally straightforward imagery – birth becomes an act of escape and violence, an invasion, a ‘tearing’ into foreign lands. It is an experience incomprehensible to so many readers, yet singularly evocative in its imagistic rendering, made real.

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