Connor Weightman Reviews Gregory Kan’s Under Glass and Caitlin Maling’s Fish Song

By | 14 April 2020

Next to the brevity of Under Glass, Caitlin Maling’s Fish Song is a long, dense collection. There are 120-odd pages of one- and two-page poems, often with the lines running two thirds to the margins and packed together, stretching down to push the bottom of the page. Fish Song is Maling’s third collection, and much of it will feel thematically familiar to her previous two collections. The localities of Perth and towns north of Perth featured heavily in her debut, Conversations I’ve Never Had, while the sense of travel and spatial movement through a place, as well as the concern with climate change, builds on Border Crossing. Stylistically too, there are no huge leaps. The poetic form tends toward prose, with less emphasis on the construction of the line than on the accumulation of lines into an image, multiple images into a plate of observed circumstances ready to schism in the reader’s mind. If anything, there is a relative uniformity here (particularly compared to Conversations), that perhaps speaks of a poet comfortable with their method and voice. The poems are uncluttered, scannable, still with clear, powerful and fresh imagery that amounts to some engaging and thoughtful insights, written in a conversational tone that belies how much extra can be picked up on a third and fourth reading.

Though it has no formal demarcations, Fish Song follows a fairly clear geographic and thematic trajectory. The first third sees the author-character moving back to Fremantle to care for her father who is dying of cancer, culminating in the devastating long poem, ‘Betelguese Star’. The second third shifts north along the coast of Western Australia to Cervantes and Jurien Bay and surrounds, with poems thematically centred around coastal towns, highway incidents and pastoral meditations. As the poems move, so too does the tone and point of view, with a sequence of poems written in starkly different voices or dramatising characters, where Maling’s performance of autobiography is temporarily dropped. The book remains located in the north for most of its second half, which includes a series of response-poems to Randolph Stow and others, before a series of diaristic poems called ‘An Account of my Days’.

The poetry of Fish Song is melancholic, as the author attempts to hold together memories – personal and collective – of a coastal life for which signs of erosion are cultural, physical and spiritual. The publisher bills the book as questioning ‘what poetry might offer by solace in an age of climate change’, though I’d argue the book investigates interlocking systems of loss that equally centre around the personal (such as the author’s father’s illness), the colonial templating on the land, and ingrained patriarchal structures and toxic masculinity. These are held alongside an author’s eye and memories that find love and pleasure in localities and ways of being on the WA coast, and for that reason Fish Song is a collection that often feels unsettlingly sad, but rarely outright angry.

The first third of the book feels the strongest to me, but that is possibly because of its setting – in and around Perth, where I’m from, and where I’ve gone back to for Christmas as I finish try to finish this review. Maling captures some of the laconic strangeness of contemporary Perth that I’ve rarely seen elsewhere, familiar and upsetting:

collecting only what I’m into. Like the universe
is this small city, isolated by thousands of km
of desert, where everyone went to school
with everyone else’s siblings and we all feel
the exact same shame about the treatment
of refugees but don’t know mate what
the solution is but it isn’t getting easier
what with the global warming. (‘To the Planets Undiscovered in our Solar System’)

The poems set north of Perth don’t quite resonate in the same way for me, again perhaps because despite growing up in Perth I never managed to get north of Yanchep. Living in Perth, ‘up north’ is where you go in winter to escape the cool and wet that settles on the city, though as Maling’s poems describe, it’s a tourism fantasy that is becoming out of sync with the new reality, as the reef is inundated with kelp, the fish disappear, the crayfish industry dwindles due to changed conditions, the summer heat sticks around or arrives early, the rainfall stops altogether. Climate change and cancer make useful, if unhappy, twinned analogies for a lot of reasons: the relation of growth to excess; the deference to specialists to make sense of the evidence; the want to look ahead, to mentally distance using specialised words, to find some space between the self and the event; the refusal to look at or talk about a thing properly, or the apparent instinct to put off doing anything about it until it is too late. As the pertinent final lines of an early poem read, ‘we sit in the heat out back and pretend / not to notice the smoke from out the front’.

Interestingly, then, Fish Song lapses into different kinds of silences. After ‘Betelguese Star’ the cancer narrative is never directly mentioned again for the remaining two thirds of the book, though some poems do make more veiled references to loss and grief; meanwhile, though observations and anecdotes pertaining to climate change are frequent throughout the collection, the causal connections of change and the underlying self-implicative practices that are part of climate change (such as the act of travel itself) are allowed less space. There are some exceptions to this. One comes from ‘The Mower’, toward the end of the book:

No need for ride-on mowers when it takes
constant retic to grow grass and the winter
water restrictions mean no sprinklers, 
except for the council-maintained verge and beachside park
kept green with the desperation of a painter
mixing oils for a landscape he hasn’t seen.

Elsewhere though, the social and cultural systems propelling climate change go a little underexplored next to its bare impacts. I am torn about this. On the one hand, observing impacts are vital and necessary, still critically under-represented in Australian poetry and literature more generally, even as the problem intensifies and the lack of action at the top becomes more difficult to explain. But while there are certainly many poems in Fish Song that invoke stark images of heat, drought and disaster, and while most poetry readers will infer representations of climate change from much of this, I can’t help but worry that simultaneous (albeit complicated) representations and memories of tough rural Australians, or tough older generations, tend to feed into a collective imaginary that sustains climate denialism, as evidenced somewhat by the comment section underneath any given report of a newly reached record of extremity (temperature, drought, otherwise) – the notion that things were tough before seems to strip oncoming and future precarity of power and meaning.

Maling’s poetics emphasise observation rather than activism – her work is more passive in this regard than, say, John Kinsella’s. Still, the question of how to represent climate change in poetry is a big and difficult one, and Maling’s approach here has a lot of merit, given that seeing the problem unfolding seems to be half the battle. What permeates Fish Song is, in some ways recalling Kan’s very different book, a meditation on patterns of loss of control; an expression of a felt inability to do much but observe as damage is wrought through biological and physical systems on very different scales.

We spend
so long looking
and then saying
there’s nothing.
The fire spreads
over all the twigs
we glanced past
at high speed. (‘A Wish’)

I feel this frustration deeply and am thankful for how Maling has gone about putting it into words, even as I recognise an equal frustration at being able to do no more than that. Against cancer we can only watch, hope, accept, grapple with probabilities while feeling no real agency over outcomes. The climate crisis has an arguably more complicated relationship to individual agency, but the feeling is, increasingly, understandably similar. As I write, Australia’s temperature record has just been broken on consecutive days, by large margins. Sydney, eastern Victoria and now Adelaide are enshrouded in bushfires, at a point at which they hardly even qualify as news, because it’s been happening for nearly two months with no end in sight. Quite what poetry as solace means in these circumstances is unclear, but more should be following Maling in giving the observational process its dues, recording the quiet, long losses even as they are immediately overwritten with louder ones.

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