Andy Jackson Reviews Mary Cresswell and Natasha Dennerstein

By | 23 March 2016

Where Fish Stories is personal primarily through the collective and through the writing of others, Anatomize is much more interested in the particular. It certainly draws voraciously on music, cartoons, food, literature, religion and visual arts, with confidence and often humour; but these are materials for a poetry that emerges out of individual corporeal experience, bodies engaged in transformation and stabilisation (however temporary), rather than reinforcing identity. ‘Becoming’ presents as a mythically-tinged paean to sex reassignment, but becomes in the end a witty and joyous poem of queerness: ‘Dance, boy, limp your way towards / womanhood. Dance, woman, / shake your narrow hips / with the energy of the boy’.

Here and elsewhere, what Anatomize emphasises is not a singular, egoistic body, but a contingent body, dependent on others, implicated in a lineage and in the commonality of flesh. One of the most potent examples of this is ‘Cranium’. It begins, ‘Skull is to brain as pot is to stew / My skull: the superstructure upon which / the parchment of my face is stretched’, a skull which ‘encapsulates the ancient pathways / and neural channels of generations of begats’, a heritage of literally biblical proportions which gifts ‘tiny, workable bones, but tough’. Similarly, ‘Gum Boy’ travels from conception to death in a mere thirty-six lines, nine matter-of-fact sentences deployed with an almost subliminal pathos. This careful integration of sober realism and tenderness, of matter and spirit, is one of the major attractions of the collection.

Where Dennerstein engages in formal poems, such as ‘Respire, beat’ and ‘Ghazal of the Nail Artist’, the effect is more centripetally psychological than viscerally energised. While certainly successful as poems, the contrast with the conventionally free-verse poems, which are notably more surprising and memorable, is intriguing. Are traditional forms somehow less able to foreground the fleshliness of experience? Or is this particular poet’s embodied consciousness more free-verse in its inclination? It is a testament to the strength of this debut collection that it has me considering such questions, and also anticipating the follow-up.

The poems in both Anatomize and Fish Stories are drawn to the tension and ambiguity inherent in unavoidable moments of rupture or transformation. The former focuses on bodies, the latter on the social and ecological; both poets face formidable challenges of translation. Interestingly, Dennerstein was born in Melbourne, Australia, studied writing in New Zealand and now lives in San Francisco; while Cresswell was born in Los Angles and now lives in New Zealand. So, on one level, these two collections could also be seen as translations of place, of the difficulties and insights of transplantation. They both recognise that otherness and loss – of place or of body – is not far away, but intimately close.

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