Liam Ferney Reviews Kate Lilley and Pam Brown

By | 30 August 2018

The sardonic ‘guess not’ and ‘I get it’ crush her rapist’s perverse moral delusions, lending the poems an air of defiance. It’s impossible to separate these poems from this #metoo moment, and taken together they are a searing account, not just of Lilley’s experience but also of an undercurrent of misogyny in Australia’s literary culture. They viciously indict the way some predators distort liberalism to take what they want, but these poems aren’t just a vehicle for levelling allegations. They’re poems, individual works of art, some of almost as good as any Lilley has ever written.

But these poems are also only a fraction of a book that covers considerable stylistic territory. There are more straightforward poems like ‘Tilt’, a poem of a similar species to Ladylike’s ‘Anniversary (Summer Vacation)’, which excavates a slice of half-forgotten Sydney history; while ‘Children’s Hour’ is a neat piece of criticism on a William Wyler film (adapted from a Lillian Hellman play) of the same name. And then there are poems like ‘Garbo at “Wit’s End”’, a poem-essay that opens the book’s third section and recounts Garbo’s post-showbiz life in New York and a posthumous auction of her effects, ‘realia’. Every element of the poem, its length, language and structure, suggest it’s an essay. But it’s not. It’s a poem. It appears in the middle of a book of poems, indistinguishable on the contents page from its more recognisable sisters. It reminds us how flimsy our conceptions of poetry are. Lilley obviously isn’t the first poet to pose this kind of challenge to poetry’s limits, but it is an exercise worth repeating as a perpetual reminder of its possibilities.

It is also a set up for ‘GG’, a list poem setting out a selection of objects from the auction, all of them preceded by the identifier Greta Garbo:

Greta Garbo shantung peg pants
Greta Garbo beach ensemble
Greta Garbo rust velvet knickerbockers
      as photographed by Beaton 1948
Greta Garbo Turkish skirt 1924 purchased in Istanbul.

Decontextualising the objects animates a tension between how successfully they can evoke a sense of Garbo and the absurdity of the notion that anything is knowable simply through its affects. Employing James’ terms, Lilley is both constructing interest and foregrounding the authorial hand to highlight how interest is made.

Pulling back the curtain on the process of constructing interest is at the heart of a number of poems built around the accretion of detail. For instance, ‘School Set’ describes a mid-century children’s toy in a way that seems lifted from a catalogue:

School Set consists of 3 connected wood desks
Teacher’s desk with chair
Blackboard on easel
(3) Cloth 4” Children and the 5 ½” Teacher
Made in Western Germany

‘Outer Wear’ does what it says on the tin: ‘11” White wool hooded cape trimmed with pink silk binding/ 13 ½” Tan rayon duster brass framed mother-of-pearl buttons’. ‘Prodigy House’ depicts an ostentatious Elizabethan country house:

7 courtyards
52 staircases 
365 rooms
a gallery of wastrels and patrons

While these poems further an aesthetic argument and provide a certain stage for language (‘Tan rayon duster’ seems a spectacularly odd but, one guesses, functionally accurate description) they don’t spark like the best poems from Lilley’s earlier books.

What is missing from Tilt is the sharp satire of ‘Baghdad Grammys’ or the sweetness of ‘Anniversary (Summer Vacation)’: ‘On our second date I feel down the steps / of the Museum of Contemporary Art / and got up unshaken. (Another sign.)’. ‘Coda’ comes close with its sly take on consumerism (‘Big Pharma’s on discount everywhere’) and its nonchalant resistance embedded in the co-option of corporate speak:

I take out a loan like a diet I settle into
If you need to get in touch
backchannel me

‘Weather Channel’, written on a writer’s residency at the University of Indiana, is another of Lilley’s fine love poems. Its closing is a familiar one for lovers in a transnational world:

The transatlantic signal comes and goes
six hours out of sync 
your face in close up fills the screen
at 10 am at Bloomington it was fair

Even if these poems are fewer and further between than in previous collections, Tilt still showcases a poet at the vanguard of Australian poetry. The fact that the collection’s standout poems include a suite of confessional works, at least as powerful as anything I read in this mode in recent years, points to the diversity and heterogeneity within what we could call, broadly, experimental poetics.

Turning to Brown’s click here for what we do, this diversity of poetics is obvious, even if the subject matter occasionally overlaps. (Brown not only name-checks Lilley, she also refers to the 70s Sydney video game arcade at the heart of Lilley’s ‘Tilt’.) Where Lilley is continually trying out new forms, Brown is content with her signature rambling mode, weaving long poems out of smaller fragments of short lines and hanging indents. Form is an efficient treillage for her shambling contingency. The smaller fragments give her the freedom to pick up ideas and study them like a browser in a cavernous antiques store. They are assembled into longer poems that seem to cohere even as they disassemble, zigging and zagging before looping back to the comfort of familiar routines and rituals. For example, Brown has a ‘love affair / with weather’ both as a spectator sport –

	         every day
	I check the temperature
		        in taormina
	on World Weather

– and in the seasons’s rituals:

	refining the skill of peeling
		  small oval stickers
		      off the mangoes
	without damaging the skins

These details are the bass drum of a work that begins in October 2014 (‘october already’) and concludes in February 2017 (‘almost February again / (I’m not ready)’). Other details, like meals in Asian restaurants and news headlines, help keep time in between. One way of thinking about the book is as an annual riff on Bernadette Mayer’s diurnal Midwinter Day, which makes an epic of a single day of domestic life. Like Mayer’s poem, click here for what we do toggles back and forth between the mental and the external world. It often appears to proceed chronologically before careening off on various tangents then returning, several pages later, to the point of departure.

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