David Gilbey Reviews Adam Aitken and Elizabeth Allen

19 December 2018

Allen’s final, powerful sequence of fifteen poems, ‘Inpatient (Impatient)’ recounts an episodic narrative of admission to a psychiatric hospital and conversations with doctors, nurses and the other ‘clients’, exploring some of the littorals between madness and sanity, incomprehension and understanding, embrace and rejection. Identity is fluid and unstable (‘One of the other patients mistakes me for a staff member. / One of the staff members mistakes me for a visitor. / I mistake a women [sic] who is here on her uni prac for a nurse.’) Experience is tensioned (‘I long for sleep I don’t ever want to sleep again. / I long to leave I don’t ever want to leave again. / I hate this body I love this body’) and deceitful (‘It is a white lie. Similar to the white lie you tell when you change the pronoun in some of your poems from ‘I’ to ‘you’ or from ‘she’ to ‘he’.’)

Here, contexts of finding a costume for a Day of the Dead party and getting roped into watching the Melbourne Cup (when Michelle Payne wins) set up ghostly carnivalesque backdrops for Allen’s juxtaposed scenes. The possibility of (self-)harm and death pervade these poems, both as desired and to be feared. Allen offers brilliant, poignant insights into the relationship of the self to the ‘outside’ world, invoking Frida Kahlo and Australian poets and artists in her non-pilgrimage, ironically distancing herself from the contemporary Australian (Sydney?) poetry scene (‘One of the nurses asks me if I know a certain older male poet, apparently he’s a mate of his. I tell him I know who he is but I don’t think he would know who I am as I’m not young and pretty. I’m one of the fat intelligent ones and I suspect I’m not his type. But maybe that is just being bitchy.’)

Present and Archipelago are deeply and continually satisfying collections – there is much more richness and variety in the poetry than my brief teasing-out has conjured. Both poets explore vernacular and formal registers in negotiating ‘the difficult business of intimacy’. The ghosts of Kenneth Slessor, Allen Ginsberg and Virginia Woolf dance mischievously through Allen’s poetry. And amongst Aitken’s many fine poems about (French) history and politics, perhaps the most wicked is ‘Flaubert in Egypt’ (a should-read for contemporary senior university managers – had they only the wit to understand). I do wish the final proofreading of Archipelago were better – there are far too many typos – English and French. Notwithstanding, both poets dazzle with their supple, scandalous synechdoche.

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