Toby Fitch Reviews Mathew Abbott

1 January 2013

In the poems ‘twelve surfaces’ and ‘ten maladies’, Abbott riffs on the metaphoric and semantic possibilities of the words ‘surface’ and ‘malady’ respectively, two key words to think about in his poetics – ‘surface’ representing the abstractions of language, the 2-D-ness of it; and ‘malady’, representing the anxiety and melancholy in his poetry, and a pun on ‘m’lady’ to boot. Throughout these two playful list poems, he gives these words new meanings while, at the same time, rendering them meaningless. Unfortunately, ‘ten maladies’ has a formatting issue, which shouldn’t be attributed to the poet, but issues like this can often attenuate the poetry. The last lines of the poem clearly end up adjacent to the page number at the bottom of the third page, breaching the page margins, instead of going over on to a fourth. This might sound picky in this case, but there are conventions1 when it comes to book production – including a legible font size – and these conventions are there for a reason: to present the written word as suitably and transparently as possible, so that a reader just reads it.

In any event, most all the poems in wild inaudible come down to language and how it restricts or expands experience. The word ‘wild’ comes to represent something that is silent, unencumbered by language. At the same time, by abstracting this word, there is a distinct awareness from the poet that we are never fully devoid of language – again, that Stevensian tension between imagination and reality.

As a collection, the poems are neatly arranged, some speaking to each other purely by their placement. As the book progresses, it becomes more tender, the self unravelling –becoming, revealing. The final poem, ‘cusp’, is the most intimate and spare of the book: ‘i wake to the good / of the small of your back / heat at the skin’s hand…’ (39).

At times, the gravitas of Abbott’s philosophical mode strikes an overly earnest tone, but Abbott alleviates the pressure with a self-reflexive humour, such as in the aforementioned ‘twelve surfaces’ and ‘ten maladies’, and then in this moment in ‘new mexico’:

			the moon 
			is a ping pong 
			death star 

 				bright eye
				blind and arnica

			sure of itself

			it deadpans
			what goes on  (18)

In the poem ‘theoria’, the title giving us the Greek word for the English ‘theory’, but also related to the Greek word for ‘spectator’, Abbott writes with a keen feel for punk aesthetic, tongue planted in cheek:

			we talk around
			when weather is here
			the raincloud gets amongst it

					o gaudy geed up
					bringer of ruckus ...  (12)

And to finish the poem:

			... liberal piety so puzzled
			coming in for cosmic latte

			the picture true as
			we are starry creatures

				the round world
				glittering exitless  (13)

Abbott has the ability to move in scale from large to small and back out again, reflecting how a mind might move and focus, often using an entire poem to dwell on a small but significant moment or observation. Take the poem ‘wild’, which acts as the title-poem. After a short but wide-lens opening (‘if we are unaffected // pinned by wild / at the wing of us’ (24)), the speaker of the poem zooms in on a puddle with oil in it. The thought, the sensation, and the conscious perception of this image translates a sense of awe, touching on something inexplicable but essential about existence:

			rain was oil last night

				remnants still
				as rainbows
				on the deck

				the splitting
				of the spectrum

				to relieve
				our living slightly
				lifted here

					we are bone hollow
					as flightless with wing

			the wild
			inaudible wild
			makes no demand  (24)

Australian Poetry Ltd has published a strong voice in Mathew Abbott, as they have with Eileen Chong in her first collection burning rice. What Australian Poetry Ltd should focus on in their next series of emerging poets, however, is the production of the books that poetry like Abbott’s deserves to be read from. While the small dimensions of these stapled books is a welcome format, the font size chosen is too small. And, as mentioned earlier, for some reason (maybe cost-cutting?) there are a couple of poems in Abbott’s collection which breach the page margins. Attention to detail is important when producing books of poetry. Thrifty production runs the risk of misrepresenting the poets’ work when published. Thankfully, the poems in Mathew Abbott’s wild inaudible manage to rise above any production inadequacies.

  1. Unless, of course, the brief for a book’s production and layout is to deliberately circumvent said conventions, of which wild inaudible is not an example of
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About Toby Fitch

Toby Fitch (he/they) is poetry editor of Overland and a lecturer in creative writing at the University of Sydney. He is the author of eight books of poetry, including Where Only the Sky had Hung Before (2019), Sydney Spleen (2021), and, most recently, a newly expanded and full-colour edition of Object Permanence: Calligrammes (2023).

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