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)