Pete Hay Reviews Rachael Mead and Amanda Joy

16 January 2018

I have noted, though, that the snake is an ambiguous totem in these poems. It evokes the sensuous, for instance, and this also appears in these pages; and sometimes the snake’s informing power is present even when the snake itself is not. Among very many favourites, I have come up with a top two – and in one of these there is no snake as such. But spot its shadow in these lines, from ‘Rhizanthella Gardner’:

He rolls away from her and the smell of them
puffs from the sublayer of sheets, meeting places
of bodies wet and sticky shrink back in the quiet
away from the heat, sound sinks deep into
their inner ears

I have used the word ‘totem’. The snake is a totem. It is an emblem of primal fear, of the distance we have carved between our cultured animal selves and the rest of the quick world. But, Joy reminds us, to be at home in the world is to acknowledge this distance, and to bridge it anyway. This is made explicit in a very fine poem entitled ‘Your Ground’: ‘an elder from Broome’ explains to the author that ‘the snake is your guardian’, and paints ‘its likeness in repose on bark’. The image then hangs above the author’s writing desk:

And for a while
it all makes sense
The brute matter
how dangerous you are
how safe
the circuitous journey
then one morning you get it –
that paired wisdom
Your bodies make

Snake says
Be still
Stand your ground
It’s the only protection
we have

I confess to not seeing the point of the right-justified format chosen for this poem – perhaps there isn’t one. One other structural choice puzzles me – the book is divided into four sections, and except for the third, five superbly-wrought poems identified as ‘The Brookton Poems’, I’m unable to discern any rationale for these subsections. It’s almost as if the author wrote each as a chapbook, then opted to bring them together under the one roof, so to speak. No matter: this is strong, original, ambitious work. Strange, then, that my other ultimate favourite is quite a simple poem, ‘Collateral’, in which the author sites at a roadside, watching traffic pass over a dead snake. Finally, she places ‘one finger under its tail’, and lifts it ‘as one rigid piece’. The poem ends thus:

Looking back to where it had been
I found no trace, no shadow, imprint
Hard tar, a finished business

And for my finished business, I cannot avoid noting the aptronymic delightfulness of a book of snake-themed poetry, having, as its place of publication, ‘Crawley’! Ah, language. I should note, too, that Amanda Joy’s collection chimes nicely with Rachel Mead’s chapbook. Each collection has a thematic coherence and that broad accessibility which I saluted in my opening remarks. And in each case there is a breaking from the standard lyrical traditions of nature poetry, extending and enriching the genre in non-romantic ways.

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