Felicity Plunkett Reviews Phyllis Perlstone and Meredith Wattison

By | 29 December 2008

the edge of everything by Phyllis Perlstone
Puncher & Wattmann, 2007

Basket of Sunlight by Meredith Wattison
Puncher & Wattmann, 2007

Phyllis Perlstone's the edge of everything, which was short-listed for the 2008 Kenneth Slessor Prize, is an imaginative cartography, its careful perceptions laying out ways of looking at the crucial ideas the book returns to: ideas about love and the ways it might fade or be lost; about violence and humanity; about perception itself, and how words work to map its contours. Meredith Wattison's Basket of Sunlight, on the other hand, engages with the sensual presence of the body in a direct and dramatic voice.

Perlstone is also a visual artist, and the importance of looking, and perspective, pervades her poetry. Each of this book's four main sections involves a different angle, a different set of ways of envisaging the questions that permeate the work. Before this, the prefatory prose poem 'The Equation' sets out the terms of the cartography that follows, eloquently posing questions that have a mystical grasp to them. The poem dramatises the posing of questions, and begins with several initial statements, curled and reverberant as images in a hall of mirrors: 'Mass and energy cannot be created or destroyed.' These shift into philosophically-informed statements that bear the lilt of questioning, a kind of trace of doubt; the question's echo settling in the hesitancy of a statement, often expressed in its negations or subjunctives : 'So not to fear to love should be easy.' Nothing ossifies into doctrine here, and the imaginative and intellectual mobility is striking, as possibility embraces its antithesis, and hope pushes out from the doubt that surrounds it.

The speaker looks out into the infinite and mythological realms of Venus, the moon and the etymological, then brings a focus to the exquisitely immediate, a green winged insect seeking release. The speaker attempts to release it, but in the fleeting moment of its release, loses sight of it, so that it is uncertain, ultimately, whether it has been saved at all. The mood of 'The Equation' is of lyrical perplexity, and it foreshadows a quality of intellectual agitation, or balance-seeking, that energises these poems:

              If I lose the love of, feel the hurt of – what is it – the thing
that hurts? Nothing comes back quickly enough not to be missed. Is
it something on time, or in time? I don't know the conversion for time.

After this preface, the first section Perlstone maps is 'Attachment', which begins with a sequence of five numbered prose poems, which exemplify again the inviting lyrical perplexity of the work. There is a quality of detachment from words, as though each one is being tasted, weighed, or examined before being placed in a line to assess what it can do in that context. Conventional syntax is sometimes unexpectedly upset, resulting in a clarity that comes from viewing words and their effects from afar. This brings a disjunctive element to the writing, one that forestalls any easy interpretative conclusion, and opens up the possibilities of each line. In the third poem in this sequence, the speaker wanders in a dream-like treed landscape, where avenues are obscured by falling foliage: 'The bareness – that the leaves leave – shapes the air.' Loss is everywhere, but the speaker finds something, I think, like solace in the emptied space, and works not to regret what has vanished. It is mysterious and compelling, as though the reader's perspective is behind the shoulder of a dreamer.

'Attachment' moves into a series of intimate poems about children and grandchildren, mapping again the losses that fall alongside gain; the elisions suggested in an emailed photograph; the glimpses in images that may or may not be revealing; the drama of the photographic subject's blindness – her inability to return the loving gaze. Perlstone's eye takes in the textures of the domestic and the natural worlds into which these children grow, imagining the burgeoning sensuality of small children emerging from babyhood. Once or twice I felt there was a stumble towards the sentimental with the recording of delicious detail, so precious to us personally, but somehow immensely difficult to capture in a poem. But what kind of a criticism is this? It is far more alienating to read work so determined to avoid the sentimental that it excises feeling and works to divorce the emotional from the intellectual. Yet, somehow, I suspect that the perfection of a child's remark, written down, may sometimes lose its magic, or that the magic itself is necessarily ineffable, evading capture so as to retain its wild edges.

The next two sections, 'In the Landscape of Thinking' and 'The Edge of Everything' highlight the melding of the cartographical with the philosophical. In the former, Perlstone engages with the work of two visual artists, the painter Bridget Riley, one of whose works is on the cover of Perlstone's book, in the prose poem sequence 'In the Landscape of Thinking', and the drawings of Kevin Connor in 'Kevin Connor's black and white drawings'. The work of Bridget Riley provides a beautiful visual analogue to Perlstone's poetry, working as it does with optical phenomena, and concerned not only with what it observes, but also with the process of making and observation.

The idea of looking as an act that can be made conscious, even self-conscious, recurs throughout the edge of everything, and informs the objects of its gaze. As with Riley's work, famous enough for its disorienting effects to have inspired the term 'the Riley sensation' to describe these, Perlestone's works with the creation of an observation. Riley's Pointillism provides a useful way of considering the spare lyric technique Perlstone often perfects. Through her engagement with Riley's works, Perlestone returns to questions of the recession of love, and its protean nature, all the while immersed in word play that echoes an almost-Stein-like delight in the origins and destinations of words: 'To forget loss? Make lists of loss? To list is to lean.'

From the abstract wordplay of the Riley sequence, Perlstone moves to the spare, leaner form for the Connors poem, a shift to a mode sympathetic to his vision of his drawings as 'a novel', his ideas, like hers, moving between forms, vitalising the edges of genre, testing its limits.

In 'The Edge of Everything' art figures again, along with a dynamic range of styles, though often with a return to the prose poem sequence, which allows Perlstone to formulate and reformulate an idea, probing the various ways of seeing it. The book's final section, 'This Land of Birds' is gorgeously feathered, and whimsical in its experiments with the bird-like aspects of humanity, mirroring and anthropomorphic bent, and a dramatisation of the bird's eye view, imbuing that with the philosophical. 'The point is', she writes in 'This land of birds', 'we traverse our perspectives.' The book's last poem again seeks some kind of summation, evoking the homewards drive of human instinct in a compelling final statement: 'We rely on going/only forward. On getting home.'

The title of Meredith Wattison's Basket of Sunlight suggests a collection of the fleeting and untouchable within the domestic. The sensuality of Wattison's poems is stunning. If the life of the body, especially the life of women's bodies, has often been excised from poetry, these poems work to reinstate it. The book opens with a section called 'clay', in which a sense of making and moulding in human lives underpins the various experiences depicted.

In 'Slip', memory finds a child's perspective of a mourning grandmother. The mysterious 'loveless moment' at the end of the poem, glossed as: 'secret body, pain, pride,/grief, relinquishing', retains its secrets even as it adverts to them, suggesting the ways that concealment and revelation feed one another. The lyrical 'Body tours' celebrates the intimate and deep knowing of a loved body, within 'night's wide pool' its crystalline imagery returning to water as Wattison does throughout the collection as the element of creativity and danger; a uterine space, connected with the work and vitality of a woman's body. Images of mapping, exploring, climbing and biting give the poem a sheer energy, the opposite, perhaps, of the stasis of eros run aground, or that never got off the ground. In 'Vespertine walk' a couple walks in darkness with their son, his 'self-affirming voice' filling the darkness, and 'walking blind together' beneath the stars suggests the navigation of deep connection vividly.

There is a recuperative energy at play here, finding beauty in that which has been smutted by misogyny, such as the husband who blames his wife's hair for blocking the drain: Wattison has hair woven into unbreakable rope of faith, and her speaker's decorating her husband's clothes, remembering their bond the way their clothes on the clothesline do: 'our hollow clothes' erotic clothesline knots.' This re-imagining pervades the work, and is one point of connection between the text and its author, as each works to re-envisage, and re-make observation.

Like Perlstone, too, Wattison finds ways to express the push/pull of a mother's love. In 'Son in a rip (Tathra)' recalls Elizabeth Stone's description of having a child as a decision 'forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.' In Wattison's poem, the speaker pulls her son in from where he has taken his board too far out into the surf. Reassuring him as she brings him back, she tells him: 'Don't cry. You're fine.' and both recognise in this 'the panic and the lie.' She prays to the sea, pulls him 'like I'm anchoring a wheeling kite', but offers the wry vision of religion in panic, and finds that the shells they later collect 'most resemble a child's ear.' Death's reach hovers around these poems, as though remembering its possibility.

When a son, 'secretly/delighted' by a grazed knee, for its glimpse of the 'liquors of interiors', this resounds with much in the collection, where the inner workings of the body are remembered in glimpses, not occluded, as, perhaps they more usually are. The workings of life are also its vulnerabilities, and this paradox runs through Wattison's work, in which accidents of the body and the emotions are worth risking – her affirmation of the pleasures of connection is strong throughout this collection, which has a vast optimism at its core. Yet at the edges of this, and its condition, is its vulnerability, and the elegiac is woven through a number of these poems.

Wattison brings to this the dailiness of remembering, the re-embodiment of the loved person who has died in other bodies; the tricks of impersonation and ventriloquism that feed mourning. 'Egyptian Cotton' brings Wattison's eye for the surreal to this terrain, as her speaker imagines that she sees a departed woman friend. The poem starts with the spare lines common throughout the work: 'This is a day/when all walking women/look like you.' Wattison creates character with these same lean images, bringing the woman's gait, her self-effacement into focus: reminding us that we remember the small and gestural which is more vociferous than that which is more commonly dramatised to make memory. The poem intensifies as the many walking women are imaged as walking 'without a sense/ of self,/ as though bodiless.' From here, the poem moves to an image of 'Your grave', mentioned in the same casual address one might use to allude to a house. The poem compresses itself further into an explosion of the fabulous economy Wattison demonstrates throughout the book:

You were the meal
the excited bees'
jam, the hot flies'

It is far too tempting, looking at the punching figure that is Puncher & Wattmann's icon, to launch into metaphors about punching and weight, but I'm sure this would not be a good idea for me. Suffice to say that by publishing books such as the edge of everything and Basket of Sunlight, Puncher & Wattmann are becoming an established and flourishing independent press. Wattison's and Perlstone's books are both compelling, fresh and original, each demanding the reader's attention in its own ways.

Felicity Plunkett teaches at the University of Queensland and her next book of poetry will be published by University of Queensland Press in 2009.

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