Shadow Selves by Deb Matthews-Zott
Ginninderra Press, 2003
Poetry about erotic desire is fraught with perils. Just look at some of the worst on thousands of teen websites and you'll get some idea of just how bad it can get! Contrast this with Shadow Selves, Deb Matthews-Zott's latest work, and the difference is striking, showing a sophistication that welds the physical to the intellectual. She achieves all this without resorting to anatomical diatribe. But it's still hot.
In describing 'the slow burn of addiction', she writes:
to hang on your lip
like that cigarette
you just rolled
and set alight
the way you drew
as if life, or death,
depended on it
and dragged its smoke
down into your chest
then let it escape
— satisfied —
from your throat.
to be that rich tobacco
when you can't resist
its open pouch
your nose in
for the aroma it exudes.
(Phew! I'm considering taking up smoking …)
We can go to hundreds of sites on the web if we want erotica, bad poetry or both. What's wrong with them? For one, they're predictable in rhythm, rhyme and vocabulary. Still, they're harmless enough — no doubt these amateur poets (and, let's be honest, we're all amateurs. I mean, how many writers make a living solely from poetry?) are a big hit with their partners. It's serving a socially useful function, and isn't some self-expression is better than none at all?
We could debate the nature of 'good poetry' forever, but we'd probably have general consensus that powerful poetry avoids cliche and presents a new perspective. Why write something that's been done better before by someone else? Deb Matthews-Zott recognises that good sex begins in the head, so to speak. She zeroes in on the psychological seduction, avoiding the temptation to sound all Mills & Boon, or like some page torn from a textbook on gynaecology. She's also adroit in employing all the senses, as here, when she describes pure animal lust:
His hunter's breath
stalking my throat.
Knife of his tongue
carving its silent language
between the rise and fall
of my breasts…
…The aphrodisiac armpit-
I lick the scent
from its dark cave.
('from Home From the Hunt')
Matthews-Zott doesn't limit herself to sexuality. There are references to pregnancy and motherhood, failed relationships, loss, grief and memories of childhood, violence and tenderness. On the ache of separation from a twelve-year-old son, she writes:
It's only another suburb, another world.
Our telephone voices
Are all that connect
Through unbearable space.
('from Slipping Out')
The 'I' in these poems may, or may not, be Deb Matthews-Zott. The 'I' may also be a teenage girl, a black man, hetero- or homosexual. Writing from these perspectives adds another dimension to an already multifaceted collection. It seems a little superfluous and self-defensive for the poet to preface the book with a 'rider' (in the form of a poem) that she isn't necessarily always speaking of her own experiences. These characters may be real or devised. Or even aspects of the poet's self, as the book title suggests. Do we need to keep explaining this?
There are some unique and masterfully sustained metaphors in Matthews-Zott's work, especially evident in one poem, where a car engine works as an analogy for her (or her poetic character's) separate relationships with her former lover and with her son:
They drive me over the darkest pit
With its descending steps
Into their Eden of grease.
They look right into me.
I thought I was immune
To their mechanics,
Their ability to strip down
('My Son Walks In')
And this, from 'My Lover, the Technician' where word-play is much more than play:
Then I'd get tired and wish his eyes on me.
I'd want to climb onto that bench
and be the focus of his gaze
lay myself open to his inquisitive nature…
holding the solder…
as he melted it with the hot tip of his iron rod …
(Surely this is the forlorn hope of many women jealous of the machine in their man's life?)
When expressing deeper emotions the poet doesn't need to reach for the thesaurus to find the synonym that's longer, more abstruse or arcane. Matthews-Zott writes in the vernacular and as a result her poems are more powerful, not less. The added bonus is that the reader doesn't have to be an academic to access the imagery. We can all relate to the woman in red who seems destined to continually make the wrong decision:
The day her boyfriend came home from gaol
She spilled out onto the quiet street
In a sheer red dress which showed
Her flattened breasts, her bones.
And the mad edge of her laughter
Held itself to the neighbour's throats …
.. Her ecstasy lasted a day or two.
Then, in the middle of the night,
They screeched in the yard
Like a pair of ill-matched cats
Tearing at cloth; at hair and skin,
Drawing each other's animal blood.
And, in the same poem, we can all recognise the hypocritical disapproval of neighbours who don't want to get involved:
They all wished she would go back inside
And lie on her bed with a bottle of gin,
Or sit in a haze on the lounge-room floor
Flicking her lighter at a pack of burning cards?ñ
… They preferred the hysteric of her scream
Bouncing off inner walls
Of crushed and shattered plasterboard.
There a fist or two,
There the crater of a skull.
The whole panel gone
Where he pushed her body through…
('My Lover, the Technician')
The book's acknowledgements section indicates these works have been written over a number of years with many achieving awards along the way. The selection is also varied and well-ordered, resulting in a collection of vignettes woven into a narrative — what everyone currently refers to as a journey. There should be more of this kind of work — the expression of real human experience and ambiguity. It's infinitely more satisfying to the reader than so many of the works around at the moment that have the appearance of clich?àd poetics exercises created in Poetry Workshops. But I digress. Shadow Selves is of great value and variety.