Siobhan Hodge Reviews Contemporary Australian Feminist Poetry

By | 14 February 2017

Many of the poets within the collection articulate concerns about writing our own histories and experiences. One of the most prevalent, on-going issues appears to be that of agency and self-determination. Felicity Plunkett’s needlework imagery, worked into a poem full of cut fragments and ‘stitched up’ narratives of childbirth, ‘A Decidedly Pathological Process:’ complements Jennifer Mackenzie’s ‘Artists’. The first-person speaker in Mackenzie’s poem watches ‘the woman / who didn’t like to sign her work’ undergo scorn from her husband, disdainful in the face of her artistic endeavours. The artist’s silent, dogged insistence on completing her work is symbolically transferred to the speaker:

… one day she gave me an envelope

a square of cut canvas

red fisted mist

a faint outline

I have it here now
in this dripping house
sitting on the table among
scattered claymation props
making a point not to move it

This piece becomes a totemic reminder to stand her ground. Though unable to assist the harassed artist, the speaker will make her own steps towards expression. Such struggles are not only internal. Adversity to self-expression stems from masculine and feminine sources, operating along all parameters of gender identity, particularly in Susan Fealy’s ‘A Mermaid’s Story’:

All my life I have been troubled
by her story.
Have I raised you inside it?
Every step hurts.
Like walking on glass.
Like knowing the window 
is already broken.
At four years old they stitched
your eyes
because your lashes cut them.
At five you rubbed your tongue
until you could not speak.
You are learning
how to walk backwards.
One day there will be more
blood on the sheets:
may your voice 
wake you.

Assumption of true gender identity is framed as a painful series of outsider acts against body parts – sensory rather than sexual – emphasising the intrinsic nature of the struggle as one focused on self recognition. The speaker is posed as a mythological creature in the title, yet the text is a reclamation of wholly human bodily acts, through early childhood to sexual maturity. The violent edge to this journey cannot be ignored – brutal acts are committed upon and by the fraught speaker to herself, recognising ‘her story’ and applying glass imagery in a way reminiscent of Judith Wright’s ‘Naked Girl and Mirror’ poem. To recognise and articulate your own identity, as Fealy does in this piece, is to acknowledge hardship on the way to a more optimistic outcome. This process is central to many pieces in this collection.

It is perhaps this focus on a larger picture that sets up one of the most interesting features of the collection: though titled Contemporary Australian Feminist Poetry, there is no fixed locus on Australia. A firm sense of place steers some pieces, including those by Lucy Dougan and Bella Li, but in both works there is an overarching focus on moving beyond. Dougan’s ‘Features on Artistic Women Who Live by the Sea in UK Magazines’ makes barbed fun of the cultivated trope of the female artist, ‘All that waiting around and holding onto wan expressions, / it’s still the go’. Poets Rosalind McFarlane and Chloë Callistemon draw on the epistolary tradition of women writing letters to other women to transcend borders and boundaries, shifting over distance while simultaneously questioning the transmission of identities in the process.

Cassidy and Wilkinson are conscious of the room for growth within and beyond the collection:

We look forward to future feminist anthologies that exceed the scope of this one: they might incorporate the diversity of sound, visual and performance contributions to Australian feminist poetry; and include communities of writers that were beyond, or unable to respond to, our call-out.

The absence of some Australian feminist voices – Indigenous and translated, for example – is recognised as a necessary gap for future anthologies, and simultaneously presents a symbolic silence, highlighting serious on-going issues of marginality. Even when there is room for expression, it has not been used; clearly there are much deeper gaps to be bridged.

Respectful and poetically diverse, Contemporary Australian Feminist Poetry is a critical but not exhaustive stage of feminist voices. Modern icons sit alongside images of Aphrodite and reworkings of sixteenth century French poets, while celebrations of birth are meshed with anxieties of bodily autonomy. Constant movement in form and theme across the entire body of work ties in well to the collection’s key position as part of on-going, ever-evolving conversations in feminist thought.

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