Ella O’Keefe Reviews Claire Gaskin

19 March 2014

Bird eggs and the work of hatching them translates to the human realm, where the hen does the sitting and the man rattles the domestic sphere made miniature, the dollhouse, above his head. The female hen is flightless while the male figure can exercise his wings and stain the sheets of ‘his bed’s tightening sky’.

Lines like ‘the blue sheets’ white clouds of masturbation’ show Gaskin’s knack for jolting, visually striking images present throughout the collection. In ‘vessels and implements’ she writes, ‘I can feel the amputation / he stands on a spoon overlooking the bay’. In ‘darkness immovable’, ‘she walks through the mist without any fingernails’. Gaskin acknowledges a Modernist inheritance in ‘dreaming of the dreamer’. There, William Carlos Williams’ ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’ is reinscribed as, ‘so much depends on the red book covered with mould beside the white phone’. The concise power of the Imagist line is certainly present in Gaskin’s writing, but so too are the dream visions of Surrealism, the sparse clarity of the haiku and the ingenious metaphoric conceits of the metaphysical poets (this list is provisional and could keep going).

The unexpected relations of a Gaskin image – ‘the seagulls lit from below flash break into migraine’ (‘the fall of man’) – are circuit breakers for ordinary vision. They make things strange again. Theorist Paul Ricoeur has written on the significance of the literary image: ‘In the measure to which image gives a body, a contour, a shape to a meaning, it is not confined to a role of accompaniment, of illustration, but participates in the invention of meaning’ (1. Ricoeur 1979, p.129). The startling image-combinations in Gaskin’s metaphors move beyond decoration. They re-calibrate our view of the world.

The final poem of the book, ‘thirty-six aphorisms and ten-second love stories’, combines images with broken off moments of action and reflection. It is a list poem, as much about the connection or disjunction between each fragment as it is about the fragments themselves. In his 2005 book of aphorisms Microtexts, Martin Langford suggests that poets, in writing aphorisms, trust rather than lead their reader. He describes ‘the clarification and shaping of an idea, rather than on the elaboration of an argument’ (2. Langford 2005, p. 7). Langford also speculates on the emergence of a poetic tradition of aphorism in Australia. We could now add Gaskin to his diverse list of Australian aphorists: Les Murray, Robert Gray, joanne burns, Alison Croggon and Phil Hammial.

Langford argues that ‘aphorism is, above all, a formal device’. Paperweight sees Gaskin experimenting with this and other formal devices, a neo-formalist bent that counterbalances her dispersed, line-by-line mode of composition. Michael Farrell has suggested that Gaskin is one of the most ‘interesting practitioners of the line’ writing in Australia (3. Farrell 2011). The pantoum, which repeats lines to build its form, is notable in Gaskin’s work. In this collection, her poems ‘walking away down the bluestone lane’, ‘mosaic woman’ and ‘vessels and implements’ are all pantoums. In these poems the form’s interlocking repetitions emphasize the line and draw out its incantatory possibility. At other times, Gaskin takes on less expected forms. ‘The breeze’ is a sonnet, with end rhymes to boot:

the breeze lifts the fabric to include
spinal staircase with a balcony brow
bats blacken the flawless sky’s magnitude 
at the mouth saying give me your breath now

Gaskin interrogates and reenergizes the sonnet with the tension between the closure of the traditional form and the openness of her lines.

As well as attention to poetic forms, in this collection Gaskin emphasises the materiality and physicality of text. In ‘exile’, cormorants form letters in flight; she describes the ‘sky of un-rhyming’ in ‘darkness immovable’. The intimate connection between living and writing is the subject of ‘standing under the fountain’:

writing is staining the sheets
that are not yours to wash of a hospital or hotel bed
the page is where two surfaces meet

Writing is also a means of existing and of surviving. In ‘gratuities’ Gaskin says: ‘I had to write myself back from the brink’. While the self-help set might instagram a gratitude list, Gaskin in her poems offers gratuities – tips – or small sums for getting by.

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About Ella O'Keefe

Ella O’Keefe is a poet and researcher living in Melbourne. Her poems have been published in Cordite, Steamer, Overland Blog and Text Journal. She is a former director of the Critical Animals research symposium. Her work on radio has been broadcast by The Night Air on Radio National, All the Best on FBI Radio and Final Draft on 2SER FM.

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