Review: Geoff Pageon Kathryn Lomer

Reverse the skin: Night Writing by Kathryn Lomer

Back in the days when Australian women poets were seriously under-represented in successive anthologies and in our poetry publishers’ stables there was an idea that an almost universal and coherent ‘feminine’ (rather than perhaps ‘feminist’) viewpoint was missing. Now that the imbalance has been addressed by many more women writing more energetically and ambitiously, we can see what an oversimplification this idea of a missing ‘feminine’ viewpoint was.

This can be seen dramatically by looking at the recent work of just two highly regarded but very different Australian women poets, Kathryn Lomer and Jennifer Maiden. Maiden’s recent prize-winning collection, Liquid Nitrogen (2013), destroys any ‘feminine’ or ‘feminist’ stereotype. Yes, the book is written by a woman and has an unusually large number of female protagonists, but it is essentially political and not at all difficult to re-imagine as having been written by a man, albeit a sensitive one. As Maiden says at one point in an earlier book, Friendly Fire (2005), ‘I have always agreed with Freud that the imagination is bisexual’. It is less likely that Freud was correct in Lomer’s case, as we shall see.

If someone were to brutally summarise Liquid Nitrogen (and, indeed the two books that preceded it) the sentence might read: ‘A series of narrative, discursive poems, linked by two somewhat disconcerting and recurrent figures, where contemporary politicians are shown conversing with their long-dead personal inspirations.’ The narrative, dramatic and discursive modes have been neglected in Australian poetry recently. The current poetic orthodoxy demands that poems be lyrical, fragmented and tending to the opaque. Explicit political opinion is frowned on as naive. Satire is thought to be too crude by half. Dialogue, we are assured, belongs in the verse novel, if anywhere. A book such as Liquid Nitrogen, which breaks all these rules, ought not to be successful at all, let alone carry off two of the country’s richest prizes. Kathryn Lomer, on the other hand, is much closer to this orthodoxy, but she too brings it into question. It is an aesthetic that is most often embodied by women but it does not, on closer inspection, diminish the range of what Australian women poets are currently writing.

Maiden began her narrative of George Jeffreys (a descendant of his namesake, the ‘Hanging Judge’ of the Monmouth Assizes) and his sometime lover, the white-haired sibling murderer, Clare, back in her second novel, Play With Knives (1990). They re-emerged in 2005, taking over the second half of Friendly Fire, and most of her next collection, Pirate Rain (2010). In Liquid Nitrogen, they and the narrative strategies associated with them are again crucial. Although the poems nearly always start with a line such as ‘George Jeffreys woke up in Beijing’ or ‘Eleanor Roosevelt woke up in Paris’, Maiden stops short of the livre composé or the verse novel. Fortunately, or cleverly, she also has a number of ‘stand-alone’ poems (such as ‘My heart has an Embassy’ and ‘Sphinx on Stilts’) which diversify the texture and provide variety.

It is in this political commentary, both implied and explicit, that Maiden is at her most distinctive. While broadly of the feminist left, Maiden does not let her heroes and heroines off lightly. There is a persistent sadness about how role models such as Hillary Clinton, Eleanor Roosevelt and Julia Gillard fail to live up to the expectations aroused by their own rhetoric, but Maiden also displays a compassionate understanding of why this should be so. Kevin Rudd and Bob Carr receive sharper treatment, but even they are indulged slightly (though Rudd’s conversations with his mentor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, don’t go as well as they might: ‘I did mean / to somehow be like you,’ Rudd says at one point, ‘although I wouldn’t / make a good martyr, a Luther or a spy’). Even Maggie Thatcher, touched on only briefly, is not entirely dismissed.

Nothing about Maiden’s political judgements is predictable beforehand but they tend to make convincing sense afterwards. Bob Carr’s infatuation with American politics is a good example. Maiden has the veteran US senator Robert Byrd posthumously inspecting Bob Carr’s famed library of American books,

a bit

disappointed not to find his own but Elroy’s.
Their tense elegant violence reminded
Byrd of his right-wing youth before
he learned tradition to resist power
and any easy war …

Maiden’s ambivalence here is typical. Carr is made to seem less than the sum of his pretensions and the elderly Byrd is forgiven the conservative errors of his youth. Typically, too, what could have been a flat descriptive passage is enlivened with the clever, assonantal phrase ‘tense elegant violence’ – which again is ambivalent. Elroy’s writing is admired; its content, we presume, rather less so.

It is with writing of this order that Maiden endeavours to restore discursive poetry’s good name. She explicitly acknowledges her digressions:

Somewhere in this poem, I may be going to tell
you that Grace Perry boasted that
her sperm was better than Malcolm Fraser’s …

Some might uncharitably argue that such cavalier freedom with the subject at hand may well be an inherently female characteristic. Maiden’s readers (of both sexes) will, however, almost certainly forgive such authorial intrusions, along with her obsessive references to her daughter and her ‘telling’ not ‘showing’, in exchange for the political wisdom offered and the pleasure of her playful, almost whimsical tone. The powerful ‘one-off’ poems, here and in her previous two collections, suggest the possibility that her next collection could well be a ‘normal’ one, rather than this quasi livre composé, which is perhaps now too convenient a vehicle for her persuasive political commentary, a poetic genre she had done much to rehabilitate.

Kathryn Lomer is almost certainly closer than Maiden to the stereotypical concept of a ‘feminine’ poet, but a careful look at her recently released Night Writing shows a much more complex picture. Lomer has also worked successfully in fiction, short stories and young adult novels. One almost has to remind oneself that Night Writing is only, in fact, her third collection of poetry, after Two Kinds of Silence (2007) and Extraction of Arrows (2003). Though Maiden has many more volumes of poetry to her name  – the first, Tactics, was published back in 1974 – the two poets show a similar maturity in very different ways. While Maiden is often cerebral and political in her approach, Lomer is directly emotional and not afraid to show vulnerability. This may be too simple a binary but will do as a starting point.

Night Writing is divided into five thoughtfully arranged sections which nevertheless bleed into one another. The first, entitled ‘The mother hand’, is something of a miscellany, foreshadowing several themes and concerns that re-appear later — among them parenthood, unrequited love, significant childhood episodes, and tributes to other women of courage and achievement. ‘The Lion’, for instance, finishes with a tribute to the murdered Russian journalist, Anna Politkovskaya. It is a poem not impossible to imagine Jennifer Maiden having written. It concludes:

I once read that love is mainly courage.
It makes me think of Anna Politkovskaya
who loved truth
even the hard truths of Chechnya and North Caucasus.
Born in 1958, like me,
she got all the courage there was that year.
They shot her too.

In the book’s second section, ‘Rainbow angle’, Lomer, in poems such as ‘Night Writing’, ‘Body Language’ and ‘Just a phase’, offers some fairly graphic erotic poems which are not in any way self-regarding or seeking to shock. The action occurs between two mature people who are three-dimensional and with whom we sympathise – even though events do not necessarily progress as either might wish. All three poems also have highly memorable endings which, at once, move in a slightly new direction and intensify the substance of what we have just read.

In the book’s title poem, Lomer, with an imaginative reach worthy of Pablo Neruda, talks about ‘our text written on my body … To read, you reverse the  skin …’. Her lover has understood ‘the forthright code of my nipples’ but, even so, at the end the poet finds herself writing

letters to you
in this complicated script.
I explain all the things I think are good,
ask the questions I’m not brave enough to ask.
I will send this parchment to you, soon,
for what good is my skin
without your hands.

In ‘Body language’, seemingly addressed to the same man, she notes that ‘Love is a physical thing after all’ and boasts how ‘In your pleasure room we are artisans // of an insomniac craft’.  It leads, naturally enough, to the conclusion of ‘Just a phase’ where Lomer suggests in the last couplet:

happiness takes practice
and I’d like to begin.

This slightly unresolved element is extended further in the book’s penultimate section, ‘Eclipse plumage’, where the poet seems to be at the edge of a relationship that doesn’t really ‘take off’, despite a growing closeness between the couple. Unrequited love is dangerous territory for poets and is probably best left to country and western singers. It can be very poignant, though, if handled with subtlety and a lack of self-pity – or recrimination.

Several poems in this section are set on the Shoalhaven River at ‘Bundanon’, Arthur Boyd’s gift to our nation’s artists. They deal with what seems almost a ‘holiday romance’ between the poet and another visiting artist. Sometimes the relationship is objectified into the third person, as in ‘Lovers below Brasso tin’ where

She will talk of elephants’ feet

which contain rare cells more sensitive than the clitoris;
he will tell her what colour he sees when he comes:
their artist knew there was cruelty in sex.
They are caught between what they have

and what they want:
add fear, shame, desire, guilt,
and you understand restraint
in drypoint black-and-white.

At the end of the much more subjective poem, ‘Men without sorrows’, the poet reluctantly is forced to admit that her dreams of the relationship’s development and longevity are misjudged:

There’s an old Arabic saying: men are birds without wings
and birds are men without sorrows.
Birds seem to have the best of it.
Despite all appearances
the world is discontinuous,
split into separate parts;
we are two.

In the book’s final section, ‘Holy Days’ the love narrative is further extended but this time much more to the poet’s satisfaction. It is not clear if the man addressed here is the same one as in the previous section. It seems unlikely but not impossible. Here the love poems are straightforwardly celebratory – though not naively so. They could even be flashbacks to an earlier, very sensuous holiday with someone else entirely. We are not to know. We are certainly convinced though by lines such as ‘We stand on your Juliet balcony naked, / the touch of air like that of kisses.’ (’One summer’) or ‘We make love below sea level / and sleep in the warm womb of boat, cabin, / the bay so calm our bed is as still as a house’ (’Night’). There is still perhaps a hint of the unresolved in ‘Piano’ when the poet suggests, perhaps to a different man again, that

You could, I suppose, at this late date
teach me piano.
Or you could gather me in your arms,
tenuto; I am a note
waiting to be held.

The collection ends with what seems almost a signature poem, ‘Skin’. It starts from the scientific premise that

… the average man’s skin
covers 1.9 square metres,
the average woman’s 1.6,
we have a big, private pleasure garden …

Towards the poem’s end she notes ‘We are like slow comets / leaving a trail of skin cells … / eighteen kilos in a lifetime.’ With a typical carpe diem touch, Lomer reminds us

The whole epidermis is already dead;
the rest will follow suit:
now is the best place
for everything.

The last couplet could be a bumper sticker.

All this is very different territory from that normally examined by Maiden. Having traced Lomer’s love narrative as best we can, it is important we remember too that in Night Writing, as in Liquid Nitrogen, there are also several ‘one-off’ poems, which do not fit the scheme and which are as good as, if not better than, anything else in the book. One that persists strongly is ‘I want to be a cow’. As writers, we are often warned away from ‘anthropomorphism’ and certainly there have been many simplistic poems based on this strategy. Lomer avoids this danger altogether by playfully, but seriously, giving us the whole picture. Yes, she is probably idealising (what human, man or woman, would really want to change places with a cow?), but somehow we are persuaded. The cow in question is ‘Clever enough, too, to know a bolt in the brain / is always at the end of this story’. The poet (or would-be cow) is a bit concerned that ‘You lose track of offspring, / confuse their smells’, but is relieved that she ‘will not suffer aged indignities’.

The last three lines neatly complete the argument, though not perhaps to a vegan’s satisfaction:

If the prime of life is all I get,
I’m content. Watch me graze,
gaze, dream. Watch me simply stand.

It is remotely possible that all this is a satire on our cow-like contentment in the suburbs (‘Let’s face it,’ the cow says at one point, ‘we’re all domesticated’). There are certainly some funny lines in the poem but, ultimately, it is too serious to be really a satire.

A second ‘one-off’ that is similarly difficult to forget is Lomer’s five-page poem, ‘The fencer and his mate’. Printed ‘landscape’ across the page, it reads as a highly effective, extended version of Les Murray’s classic, ‘The Mitchells’ – or even of William Carlos Williams’ great poem, ‘Fine Work with Pitch and Copper’. While Murray’s poem celebrates the putative classlessness of Australian society (‘Of the pair, one has been rich / but never stopped wearing his oil-stained felt hat’), Lomer, like Williams, is concerned to emphasise the dignity of skilled, physical work – and, beyond that again, to evoke the almost self-contained world in which the two fencers and competitive axemen exist, and which they have partly created. Fencing is more than a little analogous to poetry, though Lomer never makes the point explicitly.

The whole subject is one which would once have been most unlikely to have been taken up by Australian women poets (and is still probably of small interest to Maiden). It illustrates though how our not too distant stereotypes about female poets and their chosen subject matter can no longer bear much scrutiny. In their very different ways, both Liquid Nitrogen and Night Writing are eloquent testimony to that proposition.