Review Short: Chapbooks by Alison Flett, Louise McKenna and Judy Dally

8 November 2016

Vessel by Alison Flett
Garron Publishing, 2016

The Martyrdom of Bees by Louise McKenna
Garron Publishing, 2016

Lost Property by Judy Dally
Garron Publishing, 2016


Garron Publishing’s recent ‘Southern-Land Poets’ collection is a ‘pathway                    trampled with voices’ (Vessel, by Alison Flett), intricately connected by a ‘golden thread/ still hanging from’ the readers flesh ‘like the sharp point of a stylus / forcing its message’ (The Martyrdom of Bees, by Louise McKenna). Composed of five individual chapbooks (of which this review will tackle three) Alison Flett’s Vessel, Louise McKenna’s The Martyrdom of Bees, and Judy Dally’s Lost Property move ‘closer to                                       the beautiful empty                                                                                                   at the                                        centre’ of ‘human’ experience, oscillating between modes of nostalgia, loss and mortality (‘Here is a pathway                   Trampled with Voices’, by Flett). The result of such a collection is a series of coalescing filaments restricting and expanding with experience:

                                                                never really knowing 
who he is 	who she is	where they stop

where the outside 	   begins

‘Vessel III’, by Flett)

Louise McKenna’s revelations of immanence in her titular poem, ‘The Martyrdom of Bees’, are subtle, precise and filled with a ‘deafening silence / as if the whole world tilts on the brink of loss’ (II). Composed of three distinct sections, McKenna’s prologue quote depicts the self-sacrificial nature of the bee to ‘protect the nest’ and the sequenced Passion of Christ narrative is split between the three sections (arrest, trial and suffering). Part one begins:

One of the swarm has left
her honeycombed sanctuary to find him.

This initial aphoristic couplet is suspended by the anthropomorphic possibilities in the ‘her’ and ‘him’; the subsequent stanzas concentrate on the physicality of the turbulent, mimetic world of bees. There’s a swift modulation between human and animal drives before the ‘her’ is resolved to the animalistic, as ‘she alights upon his arm, testing for sweetness / on the inside of it’. This double voice resonates between the three sections as part two establishes the masterful power ‘bees’ possess within this para-anthropocentric world:

‘If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe then man
would only have four years of life left’. – Albert Einstein

Undergoing a perspectival shift to the human, the ‘martyrdom’ the bees embody becomes the inner experience of a modern man who, disregarding the ‘stylus / forcing its message’ and being hallowed of the bees ‘etiquette, / their lessons in humanity’, is doomed to be crowned ‘queen of a desolate queendom’. In part three, the martyr-bees are rendered as a perfect metaphor of humanity’s inner turbulence; this metaphor serves as a loose meditation upon the transience of life and imminence of death. Indeed, the suffering the bees experience at the hands of ‘aerosol venom’ is dual, as McKenna illustrates in the opening line and closing line: ‘Sometimes death is a mist the cell drinks’, and ‘Tonight I dream I am Dali’s wife, naked / beneath airborne tigresses, poised to kill’.

Lost Property adheres to familiar themes of nostalgia and loss, however it is Dally’s meticulous typesetting and spatial-organisation on the page that sets the two collections apart. Take for instance, Dally’s ‘My Mother Dreams’, a vision of mortality impeccably realised through the mundane:

My mother dreams she’s making cups of tea 
for people she doesn’t know
                     or doesn’t like
                     or doesn’t want to disappoint

with tea bags that break	
                     or split
                     or fall off their strings
in cups that overflow
                     or leak
                     or fall to pieces.

These disconnections articulate, spatially and typographically, an understanding that our visceral experience of reality (the lines at the margin) is contingent upon a cerebral counterpart (made manifest by the repeating ‘or’ conjunctions), as the final two stanzas conclude:

In her dreams
my mother thinks she’ll die
if the tea doesn’t get made. 

I’m afraid 
she’ll die
when it does.

In a sense, one feels like Orpheus looking back on Eurydice knowing that if we look too long ‘it will be — / careless, forgetful me —/ who loses / her mother’ (‘Lost Property’). At the same time, Dally demonstrates that by not looking back we become the ‘Lost Property’, our reality simply a placeholder for death:

I missed my father today. 

He died
forty-four years ago

and back then I felt relief
more than sorrow. 

But today
an old photograph 
called him to mind

and I missed 
not missing him then.

In a similar vein, Alison Flett’s Vessel is concerned with departure and revival. The opening poem an embodiment into metaphysical geography, tracing the ‘Vessel’’s departure into time, the ‘hollow                   gaps                   at the surface’ of reality, and peering past ‘CEMETARY SONGS’ to ‘Arrival’ at the beginning again:

No-one else	has seen inside	this child.

(‘Vessel I’).

This establishing line is a synthesis of juxtaposing modes, nostalgia and present, the narrative focused on the existential:

When you get older		do you remember more? 	
And her mother has answered	yes	I suppose you do		

and the child knows		this is		the wrong answer: 
she knows her mother means	you have more things
to remember		there’s more living filling your head

(‘Vessel I’)

Accordingly, the following poem, ‘Vessel II’, traces trajectories of ubi sunt (‘will she remember / where she was / before // she was born’ (‘Vessel II’)) and transform the mundane into memento mori:

a cup is holding itself       together    around      a cup’s 
worth of space.     In her head      something is pulling

(‘Vessel I’)

The after images of the cup taking on a second-life:

She watches her hands    move     apart. 
She watches the cup     drop     and break
The pieces   thrown outwards     making new

(‘Vessel’ I).

‘It seems a thing of itself / a thing that appears / and disappears’, mediating and obstructing reality as a shadow that is always in the peripheral of Flett’s ‘Vessel’ – the splintered fragments of the broken cup oscillate between the ‘fore’ and the ‘after’ of the object. This equivocation of mise en abyme is transfixing and dually destabilising as Flett continually moves between the discontinuities and splintered traces of words. Perhaps best envisioned in her eponymous poem sequence, each half/third is its own absolute entity:

She just asked her mother      a question
When you get older     do you remember more? 
And her mouth has answered      yes    I suppose you do 

And the child knows 	    this is     the wrong answer.

(‘Vessel I’)

In this instance, we cannot help but be captured by the present-tense nostalgia lingering in the final line. There is a remoteness of reality as we see the ‘beginning of / an understanding                   of how we go beyond                   what / we are                   an awareness                   of being and not being’, until we/’she comes to see / the cup                   isn’t                   what matters’ (‘Vessel I). The only concrete knowledge we may possess within Flett’s existential mediation is the centripetal and centrifugal motions of life, ‘the filling and emptying                   of the world’ (‘Vessel II).

These individual collections are a ‘balance of substance & space’ (‘Vessel II’, by Flett), reflections of the same reality shifting between experiences and perspectives. Such a series cannot be perceived alone; it is the whole and not the sum of its parts, to paraphrase Aristotle, that fantastically revises and reformulates aspects of the human condition to determine whatever text the reader experiences first,

                                                                          [w]hatever 
                                                                                 path we took
                                                                                        it didn’t
                                                                                               matter
                                                                                      it was always
                                                                                        going to end
                                                                                              with us

                                                                          (‘Arrival’ by Flett)
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