Chemistry by Jamie King-Holden
Whitmore Press, 2011
Love and Fuck Poems by Koraly Dimitriadis
Self published, 2011
Jamie King-Holden is the 2010 winner of the Whitmore Press/Poetry Idol Manuscript Prize and this is her first collection of poetry. I am reminded, upon finding this out, of a series of miniature chapbooks published by the Australian Poetry Centre which I reviewed for Cordite a year ago. Whereas those prize-winning new poets were underrepresented by poor editing and production quality, Whitmore Press have done King-Holden’s poems due justice by publishing a tight little collection that boasts charming presentation for a limited edition chapbook.
The uniting theme of King-Holden’s twenty-poem-strong collection is, essentially, youth, and her poetics oscillates between confessional and surrealist. Some of the poems are about family life, some are about love and/or death, and most of them are set in suburbia. All of the poems, however, are clearly about being young – naturally, since the poet is in her mid-twenties. I like it that the speaker in the poems is unselfconscious about her youthful perspective, and actually uses it to her advantage, capturing images from her child-self with ease and immediacy. In ‘The purple Labrador’, for example:
When I was seven I took a pair of Crayola scissors And cut cookie star holes in all of dad’s jocks, Because I didn’t want Him to go to work. I got a smack. He told me he Wouldn’t get me a puppy.
There is an evident attachment to each of these childhood vignettes that is also unselfconscious. Between references to brand names and television programs, which act as another signifier that this is the work of a young poet, there are little life experiences described which drawn together form a picture of growing up in a suburban Australia. Indeed, the imagery is one of the real strengths in this collection.
Whereas poems about everyday suburban life drawing from childhood memories risk reading as indulgent trips down mundane memory lane, King-Holden mostly dodges this cliché-bullet by presenting imagery through starkly honest observations; these moments of candour allow her unique voice to shine through the more superficial (albeit, fun) pop-culture adornments in the poems. In ‘Backyard violence’, the confessional and the surrealist poetics meet to describe burying a dead family pet:
From my window, I watched you Wash blood from a shovel with The hose. In the sandpit, A coiled Taipan lies beside its own Head, and a platoon of plastic Amputees and Tupperware containers. The trampoline holds a calamity Of toys; a naked doll’s sun-warped Face frowning at the universe.
Despite the many delightfully apt turns of phrase in these poems, the reader is sometimes left wondering about the central point. King-Holden has a way of tapering off at the end of some poems in a way that leaves internality or emotionality up to the reader’s own interpretation of all the images that precede the last line. In this way, the poet actually surrenders her control over the poem. Whereas the external worlds in these poems are starkly honest, the internal worlds are often guarded and, at best, implied. At the end of ‘The scorpion and the frog’, for example, she writes:
That these glowing tragedies that we could Never agree on are broken satellites, Floating rock and burning space junk, Diving into our atmosphere. At the local Fish’n’chip shop I buy a postcard filled With a garish poison-dart frog on the leaf. In blue pen I tell you we’re both wrong About stars, and quickly send it away to The scribbled address you left on the fridge.
Is the intended meaning here that both people were wrong at the cessation of the relationship, or that apparently neither party cared much in the first place? And if the answer is a little of both, then what is the point in sending a postcard? In endings like these, the poet shies away from an impactful conclusion, which in turn lessens the overall impact of the poem. Interestingly, there are poems written in couplets all the way through until the last line which stands alone; for example, ‘Before’ ends:
I’d mistaken a park for a park, Stretched out my arms and Believed that this was magnitude.
In this particular example, the standalone line at the end contributes to the communicated naivety in the preceding couplet. In other examples, though, if the poet had committed to the stanza structures she set up, she might have used the extra line or two at the end poems to elucidate her intended communication. In ‘Snow sickness’, for instance, there is a seemingly clichéd and-then-I-woke-up type ending which fails to deliver a satisfying culmination of scattered imagery:
I turn around, turn around, Alarmed to find my own footsteps And remind myself to stop counting sheep.
As well as some unsatisfying endings, some of the longer lined poems are overwritten with affected vocabulary and protracted phrasing – I suspect in an effort to keep line lengths consistent. These two issues together create a disconnection from the moments of directness, creativity and testimony which make the poems a joy to read. I am left feeling like I have seen something unique but I am not sure why or quite what it is. Overall, however, this is a promising first offering from a new poet whose voice is still developing.
Almost the literal antithesis of my summary of Chemistry is true for Koraly Dimitriadis’s Love and Fuck Poems. I understand the base intentions for Dimitriadis’s poems and I appreciate their social and cultural significance, but the voice reads like a teenager’s diary, the phrasing is specious in many places, and there is no distinguishing poetic in the communication of the central ideas. This is a pity because these ideas deserve to be done justice. I am aware of the intentions behind the works largely because many months ago I read Dimitriadis’s blog about Love and Fuck Poems on the Overland website – but what manifests in the poems is quite different from the expression of reclaiming repressed female sexuality that the writer was aiming for. Instead we have expressions of a new kind of repressed sexuality, wherein the conflicted submissive female speaker is repeatedly dominated and pretends to enjoy it.
I am also led to believe that perhaps as spoken word these writings might pack a punch; on stage Dimitriadis can control the delivery and use non-verbal cues such as eye contact, posture, gestures and aural cues, such as volume and tempo, which fail to appear notated on the page – here the writings would surely come alive. Also, the phrases throughout the work which are grammatically unsound and inarticulate might be more intelligible in performance.
Arguably the problem with this work is the medium in which it is presented rather than necessarily the text itself. This brings to light an important problem contemporary poetry struggles with in the face of the popularity of slams and other spoken word events – that spoken word is confused for poetry. Had this chapbook taken the form of, say, a series of video performances on Youtube, or sound bites on a dedicated blog, or even possibly text presented as a series of blog posts, it would have reached its potential as an independent project.
All that being said, I am given to understand that this collection of writings has done quite well for itself. For any chapbook to sell even one hundred copies it must have some significant appeal. And so, I will try to focus on determining what the appeal of Love and Fuck Poems is, in spite of its weaknesses, for the remainder of this review.
The first appealing aspect of this collection is that it really does read like a private diary. The voice in each piece is in the heat of emotion and reactivity and therefore there is no intellectual distance between what she feels and what it means to feel that way. There is little self-awareness and a lot of catharsis in such communication of ideas. Sometimes this type of writing is described as raw. I suppose this is because it is about the immediate experience of emotions and nothing else; the works expose the author’s most vulnerable self and they are written to be written, not written to be read. This has voyeuristic appeal for the reader. In ‘Puzzle’, for example, Dimitriadis writes:
Every time I see you it’s better than the last Just when I think it couldn’t be any more intense it is, and that scares me, more than I want to admit. But I don’t want anything serious and you’ve made it clear that you don’t and so, I don’t think it’s a good idea that we see each other anymore and you’ll never read or hear this poem and you’ll never know, why I ended it...
Here we have totally random line breaks, capitalisation and punctuation. Not only does it lack a poetics, it is also grammatically mystifying. Nonetheless, the fact that the reader is being told things that the speaker is shy to admit is an effective hook. The line ‘you’ll never read… this poem’, gives the reader a feeling of bearing witness to something exclusive. This is similar to the technique used by tabloids to appeal to the reader’s sense of voyeuristic curiosity.
As well as having voyeuristic appeal, most of the writings are written in first person to an unidentified ‘you’, except where the ‘you’ is identified as being the speaker’s ex-husband. Since many of these pieces are about the speaker’s (usually misplaced and therefore emotionally unattached) lust for ‘you’, the reader becomes the object of the speaker’s lust. I imagine that for male readers, especially the ones who are not privy to the carnal side of female sexuality, this might be quite confronting and enlightening (but potentially also dangerously misleading). Here there is narcissistic appeal for the reader who can escape into the world where he (or she) is the object of desire. In ‘How to get a fuck’ the reader is addressed:
Hey guy from across the bar, you like what you see? Come over here, you want to fuck with me? You haven’t got the balls to deal with me. Don’t worry I’ll only take what I need. You can penetrate my cunt but I’ll be fucked if I let any guy ever again, penetrate my SOUL
Never mind about the gross contradiction of the last two lines, or the fact that the first four lines are a series of seemingly unrelated self-contained statements – it can be assumed that the speaker is simply demanding a one night stand from a stranger who might as well be the reader since she refers to him as ‘you’. This might be likened to pornography wherein the viewer has the sense that he/she is being addressed directly by the performers.
Finally, the writer is oversimplifying poetry by neglecting to use any poetic elements, save for some very basic sound techniques such as alliteration and also occasionally the repetition of a refrain – a poetics which serve particularly well in performance. Readers who might ordinarily shy away from poetry will be pleasantly surprised to find a book with poetry in the title which is an easy read. For the reader the appeal is that the writing is very accessible. My hope is that readers who are new to poetry and find that they enjoy this chapbook might read more poetry in the future and enjoy that even more.
In conclusion, the fact that there is little poetic merit in Love and Fuck Poems does not necessarily render it unlikeable, just as its likeability does not make it poetry. The greatest strength of the chapbook is that, if viewed in the context of contemporary Australian poetry, at least it’s something different. I am quite grateful to Dimitriadis for giving me something new to talk about in a review.
Tara Mokhtari is a poet and academic, with a PhD and a Masters in Creative Writing. She is currently a lecturer at Victoria University.