Review Short: Aileen Kelly’s Fire Work: Last Poems

13 September 2017

Fire Work: Last Poems by Aileen Kelly
Gloria SMH, 2016

This is the last collection by a major Australian poet, and it is a firework in the tightness and effervescence of its poems. Like Aileen Kelly’s previous book, The Passion Paintings: Poems 1983-2006, it concentrates the work of many years. Unlike that book, however, this one was assembled and edited after its author’s death in 2011: firstly by her husband, Paul Grundy, and then by Catherine Bateson and Joanne Lee Dow. At that stage, the text was finalised by Dow and editor, critic and anthologist, John Leonard, who had been Kelly’s mentor for some years and whose press had published her previous book.

Fire Work is also the title of an enigmatic three-part poem about halfway through the collection. There, the fire only appears directly in the second and third parts; the quiet, first section is concerned instead with enclosure and a sense of pressure:

There was a wall around
of course
the vulnerable loves.
Windows, and they looked.
Doors, they went and came

and went. All correct.
The closed space quivers
shocked by the loss of sound.
The windows lapse their hold on light.
Only remains.

This first stanza, like many in Kelly’s poems, leaves open exactly what has happened, preferring to give an impression than to limit it by naming a cause. The poem as a whole, like many in the collection, holds silence and its rupture in tension against each other. Its second section brings words out of the silence, where ‘splinters of darkness might make a blaze upon the hill’. This fire, which becomes the one behind a grate in a fireplace, is both domestic and wild. It might be ‘Blake’s tiger’ or ‘morning day long watched for at barred windows’ or ‘the flare beyond surrendering branches / that must be next to burn’. In its final part, the poem turns to a grimmer kind of firework, in the practicality of letting an animal, even one on which one’s livelihood depends, walk in front ‘in landmine country’. The poem is a miniature of the collection as a whole: in the subtle balances which it works between contrasting elements, in the astute and unexpected selection of details, and not least in the ambiguity of the chosen elements themselves. The comforting is also potentially unstable or destructive.

These poems show an acute awareness of death and dying. Though these are, of course, staples of lyric and elegy, Kelly had an unfailing sense of how to make these old themes new. Her instinct for the concrete and specific is on show in, for instance, ‘Sunday afternoon’, on the weekly ritual of visiting a friend in a hospital (‘Save your jokes all week / for this performance’) or ‘Emeritus’. She sketches the title character of the latter in two uneven stanzas. The first catalogues the marks of surgery on his body:

The long cobbled seam of your heart scar
folds out under the twisted eye of sleep
into the brutal Y of a postmortem …

And yet in the second stanza:

still you carry your laptop
pro bono 
through the transit lounges of the dizzy globe
showing the way to mitigate disasters.

It is this combination of fragility with resilience, unavoidably temporary, which is perhaps most characteristic of Kelly’s collection. In ‘Contract’ the title refers to both book and mafia contract. The unnamed character has had, it seems, a stroke and is aware of her approaching death, still writing, but as if with a contract on her life. The description of her work in this stage as a return to writing on a typewriter, when ‘second thoughts were heavy effort’ is beautifully evocative and prepares the poem for its powerful final stanza:

But now again each touch
seems on the record,
flavoured Send or Print.
The trivial over coffee might become
the last thing she said.
The surge of making
heavies along her fingers.

It is the surge and the heaviness together that make these poems what they are: deliberate but never lapidary, produced by the surge and the heaviness.

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About Graeme Miles

Graeme Miles has published three collections of poems: Infernal Topographies (UWA Press, 2020) Recurrence (John Leonard Press, 2012) and Phosphorescence (Fremantle Press, 2006). After completing a PhD in classics at the University of Western Australia, he spent six months as an Asialink writer in residence at the University of Madras, then a year in Belgium as a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Ghent. He has lived in Hobart since 2008 and teaches ancient Greek language and literature at the University of Tasmania.

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