Caitlin Maling Reviews Dennis Haskell, Maree Dawes, Amy Lin and Miriam Wei Wei Lo

By | 6 December 2023

The four volumes also share a trend of locating Western Australia less towards European cultural centres, and more towards a geographical closeness with Asia. This is a trend shared with the publication arm of Centre for Stories, with Portside Review having a “special connection to Boorloo (Perth), Mumbai and Singapore,” and the aforementioned Red River Press being co-published in Western Australia and India (Portside Review, About Us page). Haskell’s collection includes work developed from the Philippines, Amy Lin’s in response to familial connections to Myanmar and travels in Japan, Malaysia, and China, and Wei Wei Lo’s reflects on transnational diasporic experiences. Lin’s and Haskell’s collections share a sense of travelling out from Western Australia, while Wei Wei Lo’s – unique among the books published thus far in the Master Poets – does not centre Western Australia but agilely switches between places. Adding to the complexity of how Wei Wei Lo’s Who Comes Calling? intertwines place/s and identity/ies is how her Western Australia is not – like Haskell’s and Lin’s – a suburban Perth one, but stretches to encompass many years lived “douth” in and around the Margaret River region. In this sense, Wei Wei Lo offers us the rural WA landscapes as an island in an archipelago extending beyond Australian waters. This is underscored by Wei Wei Lo’s formal innovations, embracing prose poems, section poems, and two column poems, such as ‘A Few Thoughts on Multiple Identity’ (6-7). Beginning as a prose poem in which the speaker’s brother asks their mum, “if you’re from Australia and Dad’s from Malaysia and he’s Chinese and you’re Caucasian and I’m an Australian citizen but we live in Singapore what does that make me?”, the poem after the prose section turns into two columns where a river in Singapore is placed next to one in Australia (6):

A River.                                             There is
there is a                                           a river.
river with                                         A river with water
like smooth liquid mud                 wide choppy blue.


Sharing with Wei Wei Lo a regional lens, Maree Dawe’s Living on Granite is a more familiar rendering of settler Western Australian pastoral spaces. The early sections tracing childhood in the Wheatbelt are very much in the vein of John Kinsella’s continuing interrogation of rural violence against peoples and environments. In ‘I am the killer of half-dead things’:

Twenty-eight parrots
green and yellow notes
on York gum branches…

a squawker parrot
must be shot in the wing
to descend
in a flutterwhirl.


The collection as a whole, as spelled out in the introduction, “spans years” and reads like a loosely arranged chronology of a life, stretched back to encompass family history (x). Across the volume we see a developing consciousness and interrogation of the gendered nature of rural work. There is a shift from the rural exterior into the blooded spaces of women’s bodies, from childhood to childbearing and raising, most clearly seen in the poem ‘Etui’ which has five sections each on a strong memory associated with some type of needlecraft. It opens on the poet reflecting how in childhood “[s]omewhere in half-memory / I hold wheat bags / / my father must’ve sewn them closed” and ends on her giving “up embroidery / after the children were born” (24; 26). The latter sections of the book move south to the lushness of the area around the Frankland River “here at home in trees / white froth and sparkle” (‘Kwakoorillup’ 50). Dawes is careful not to position her engagement with place as innocent, sublime, but shows it as threatened by climate catastrophe, her life entangled with the other-than-humans lives with which she shares place; in ‘After fire,’ she writes “I have to believe / that for wrens and eagles / grasstrees and hakeas / that this thin wedge / kept back from farmplots / will be enough” (71). Across the whole of the collection, Dawes’ poetics are consistent, insistent: columnar, left-justified, minimal punctuation. I’m tempted to use a stitching related metaphor, to suggest it has the precision of needlepoint with the undercurrent threat of the pointy end of a needle.

Compounding the sense of minimalism in Living on Granite – when considered in the context of the Master Poets series as a whole – is the absence of the colour-plate reproduction of artworks and photographs which pepper the other three volumes under review here (Temperton’s Ghost Nets is also absent any illustrative material). As the critical work of Cassandra Atherton and Paul Hetherington – among others – has made clear, ekphrasis has been an increasingly dominant formal trend in Australian poetry. But simply writing ekphrastically does not necessitate, as is the case with Haskell, Lin, and Wei Wei Lo, the inclusion of the image being responded to. It appears a definite choice by WA Poets Publishing to emphasise the link between poetry and visual arts. The question becomes, how does the inclusion of the image alter the reading of the volume? Does it augment it, beyond providing a resting space for the eyes outside the black and white blocks of text? Wei Wei Lo incorporates four images from contemporary regional Western Australian visual artist Jenny Potts Bar, noted as a friend of the poet’s in the acknowledgements, bringing a sense of distanced collaboration, intimacy between writer and artist occupied with similar questions but answering them in different ways. The poems stand as their own texts, but are in elliptical conversation with the paintings, each extending our understanding of the other. Potts Barr’s digital drawing ‘In Defence of the Seemingly Random,’ offers sketches, glimpses, of reptilian life against what might be discerned as a sea-shore, and Wei Wei Lo answers with ‘Out from the Water,’ an ars poetica of sorts: “If life’s a leap from one unstable platform to another then poetry’s the sodden dog that climbs onto my shoulders as I turn to catch a wave” (71).

Returning us to the question of what is a master, Haskell’s has responses to works by Rembrandt, Rubens’ and Brueghel the Elder’s ‘The Garden of Eden with the Fall of Man,’ and Hopper’s ‘Nighthawks.’ A minor quibble is that these works are so well-known and reproduced they almost don’t need inclusion, particularly as there is strong correspondence between the poems and paintings. Most successful is the tension between two photographs, a black-and-white portrait of a young girl in Carlos Muro Aguado’s ‘Paula, I’ inspiring the sonnet ‘A New Song of Innocence and Experience,’ and a personal photograph of a newborn sitting opposite ‘Wisdom: for Leah, born 7 Nov 2016.’ Here the thematic similarities between the two photos join the poems in unexpected ways. The obviously Blakean ‘A New Song of Innocence and Experience,’ with its universal questioning of “what we’re doing, why we’re here / starting to grow” finds rejoinder in the specificity of ‘Wisdom,’ how “[w]hile you slipped into the world / two urgent candidates for President / abused each other ferociously” (46; 72).

Amy Lin’s approach to images in Infinite Ends is judicious, each of the three images (a two-page spread from a Drew Pettifer exhibition, a photo from her great grandfather’s war battalion and a personal photograph serving a different purpose at a different point in the book, matching the eclectic nature of the collection (76-7; 62; 34-5). Described by Julie Watts as being “presented chronologically,” it echoes Maree Dawes’s introduction to her own work as being like “a poet’s first collection; poems ranging over years, themes and subject matters” (x; x). And, like Dawes and Wei Wei Lo, it offers a distinctly female view of their settler Western Australian experiences, Lin writing in the introduction that “this collection explores femininity and girlhood, and the ways women can regain power in small ways” (vii). This seems tied in the collection to grief over the passing of multiple maternal figures, the elegiac sections of the book among its most powerful. ‘Things I Learned from my Mum’ ends on how:

Our houses, our things,
our money,
will outlast us¬—you cannot
take them with you—

and never, ever, wind a lipstick
all the way to the top.


Later in ‘Throwing Away Your Things,’ the speaker tips her deceased mother’s ugg boots “into the / equalising space of the bin’s mouth. / The lid bangs shut / like the gasp before a final breath” (57). Suburban Boorloo/Perth occurs as a background to these small and large domestic moments, Galup/Lake Monger being a consistent space of return, a photograph of the lake is shown opposite the poem ‘Ashes at Lake Monger,’ where “[w]e pepper your ashes / between water reeds / and dry tree stumps— / where you played / make believe as a child” (63). The other strongest moments in the collection share with grief an irresolvability. ‘Roman Holiday’ allusively and intertextually assesses a formal ball as a right-of-passage where “[d]uties gleam on the ceiling, and a tiara glitters by the bedside. You shun them all for poems” (26). In the centre of the poem, we hit the startling rhetorical statement, “[w]e place hands in the mouth of truth, they come out clean as lies” (26). Here, as in Lin’s other prose poems, the lack of structural formal markers seems to allow the poet space to form unusual connections between ideas and to leave large questions unanswered.

The greatest sense, across the WA Poets Publishing series as a whole, is one of generosity. The extensive paratextual information (bio, intro, photos, acknowledgment) acting together to open the texts, and the series, outwards for readers. There’s also the generosity of this being a community concern, voluntarily run by poets in the community for poets in the community. I’m not sure the hierarchisation of separating the volumes into master and emerging is fully reflective of this. Both series expand the potentials and possibilities of poetry being written from/of Western Australia. But there is room (as the broader development of poetry within WA suggests) for further pushes outwards, more voices, more types of poetry; WA Poets Publishing, Haskell, Wei Wei Lo, Dawes, and Lin are valued contributors to the larger conversation.

This entry was posted in BOOK REVIEWS and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Related work:

Comments are closed.