Review: Jessica Wilkinsonon new poetry

Fruitful Playgrounds

Three new poetry collections, three Australian women poets: Present by Elizabeth Allen (Vagabond), Domestic Interior by Fiona Wright (Giramondo) and Passage by Kate Middleton (Giramondo). All three women are award-winning authors, and each has won a major prize for their previous volumes: Allen won the 2012 FAW Anne Elder Award for Body Language, Wright won the 2012 Dame Mary Gilmore Award for Knuckled, and Middleton’s Fire Season was awarded the 2009 WA Premier’s Literary Awards for Poetry. All live in Sydney. These are easy things to report, biographical facts. What is perhaps less known is that each of these poets is a generous spirit and supportive presence in the world of poetry and writing in Australia, as editors, associate publishers, event organisers, colleagues, mentors and poetry champions. I have witnessed this generosity not only from afar but first-hand, at readings, launches, and even through unexpected encounters in cafes; it’s the only thing that would make me consider moving to Sydney. So I emphasise this to begin with, because I think it is important to recognise their contributions in this regard too, and to convey the respect that I have for all three authors not only as poets, but as literary community gems.

To turn to the books themselves, a relation between them; for me, each is a living document, a performance, by and of its author; each is rich with a frightening knowingness about the world, about everyday rituals and the spaces we pass through, an attentiveness to the power of text and how it is capable of sorting through experience. In interview, Fiona Wright said that ‘Writing for me is very much about making sense of the world, and of organising experience, finding patterns, finding meaning’– and there is a sense that all three authors draw similar strength from their writing practice.

I was asked to write a blurb for the back of Allen’s book, and so I read the manuscript a few times earlier this year. I wrote, ‘I haven’t laughed so much in a long while. It is as if these poems are the distilled memoir of a wit and a raconteur with heart…’ and so on. I remember reading the poems on my couch and laughing and my partner asked ‘what’s so funny?’ and I said ‘Liz, Liz is so funny!’ Here is a passage from the poem ‘Jetty’ that gives us a little glimpse not only into her relationship with her sister, but how such observations bring about a modest self-awareness:

Once she saved all the chocolate eggs
the doctor gave her so she could slowly eat
them in front of me, who had scoffed mine
days earlier. She could punish me with
her stubborn eking out.

Allen’s tongue can be mischievous, probing sincerity in an age of social media. In ‘Status Update’: ‘I watch your life passing:/ the death of your father,/ your courageous struggle/ with breast cancer,/ your decision between caesarstone/ and corian for the kitchen bench tops.’ She talks of a ‘new vocabulary’ learned via Bunnings for home renovation: ‘Let me sing to you of putty, expanding foam/ and other more multipurpose gap fillers.’ So too is there ironic humour in Allen’s cut-and-paste of text – from medication boxes, dating websites, children’s sticker fun books, Wiktionary definitions, magnetic poetry kits, warning notices, instruction manuals and more – in different poems throughout the collection.

Reading the poems months later, now that they are published, I fear, for a moment, that I was mistaken in my initial assessment of tone. These poems are sad! I wanted to cry! How is it that the chocolate eggs overshadowed, in my initial reading, the heartbreaking recollection of a father’s illness? How could I roll around on the couch, chortling at her ‘small and ugly’ oranges (‘Orange (Delicious)’), and not be led by the emotion of the final lines that wonder ‘if there is something/ sweeter/ more right, more real/just out of reach’? And this time around, the final sequence, ‘Inpatient’ – a long poem in fifteen parts that provides a droll account of turning to institutional help to cope with mental illness – hits me with a different kind of force as the speaker says: ‘I hate this body I love this body it is the only one I will ever have.’ The cut-and-paste not only creates poems that are light and fun, but also reveals deeper connotations about loneliness, distraction and mental illness. There is a sense that Allen is looking for her own language of sincerity, a way to express her self amidst so much performed emotion and ‘empty’ discourse.

These contrary responses I had to the volume, separated by months, made me realise that these poems, deceptively unadorned, are capable of moving the reader in many different ways, perhaps depending on our own mood or receptiveness as we read. It is a sentiment that is summed up in a poem called ‘Thread’, where Allen writes:

The hypnotism of watching a line
pulled behind the boat for hours,
the lure skipping along the water—
thinking it must feel good to drag along
the surface like that and not go
too deeply into things.

The poems in Present are a little like this image – we can delight in their perceptiveness, the forthright nature of the speaker as she navigates her own life in suburban Sydney with a delicious, self-deprecating humour; but we can also be pulled to greater depths, resurfacing with a series of epiphanies, not least that pain is inevitable, delight is necessary and life is absurd: ‘I often cry with laughter’ says Allen. It is a perfect line to summarise Present.

To place Present alongside Fiona Wright’s Domestic Interior is to recognise how many-faced humour can be – or, more significant to the current context, how diversely humour can be expressed through poetry. Wright is a wit of a different kind, cutting and wicked; and where Allen carefully directs a series of self-critiques from varying perspectives, Wright turns her critique outwards, locating the absurd and amusing from a little distance, as if viewing something passing by the passenger seat window of a moving car, or by peeking across the threshold into a kitchen or living room space, where one feels one doesn’t quite belong.

There are a number of poems that seem to be comprised of overheard conversations – at a café, perhaps, or on a bus or on the street. Wright delights in banal monologues streaming from everyday consciousness, the language that people use to prove a convincing or valuable existence; she captures unusual epiphanies that people feel compelled to share, as we see in ‘Thank you internet’: ‘It was the synchronicity. That was what/ amazed me, the synchronicity, that sometimes, it’s like/ the internet just gets you, better than any person ever can.’ Or in ‘Vibrations,’ ‘I’m always thinking,/ sexually, mentally, physically, whatever, there’s always an end/ and that makes it less. Just less. Even if it’s just/ that one of you dies.’

In ‘Tupperware Sonnets’, these conversations invade the home, create discomfort, anxiety. The poems revel in the kooky language of commodity fetishism – Happy Choppers, Funny Munch Packs, Breathables and Munchettes – as the speaker (a retailer?) lavishes praise and adoration on these items in a similar manner that traditional sonneteers may once have lavished praise on human lovers. I spent some time attempting to decode what it was that Wright was saying here: Do these poems spell death for the sonnet? Are we too cynical for genuine expressions of love? Are we so detached from one another that we could mistake consumables for love objects? Or, is this postmodern emotion, when a lover says ‘drive us home. My god, I’m missing my barista’ or a tanktop slogan tells us that ‘Sweat + Effort = Miracles’? I get the impression that the observer transcribing these conversations is somewhat disenchanted and certainly anxious, that she is longing for a purer use of language—free of the market—and a sense of domestic quietude. But, then again, this postmodern quagmire of grafting and misappropriation presents an unlikely and fruitful playground for this contemporary poet. We see this in ‘Bells Line’, where the speaker remembers Oktoberfest celebrations at a local Sydney tavern: ‘I laughed when the accordion wheezed Edelweiss,/ but my brother’s face was limpid, his arms out-flung/ he called it awesome—/ I held my bitter beer,/ and I was quiet.’ A different tone is revealed in ‘Love Poem: Miranda Fair’, where the speaker lists the things she loves—a sort of Elizabeth Barrett Browning ‘How Do I Love Thee’ for the twenty-first century—about the Sydney shopping centre Miranda Fair:

                                                                                                 […] I love
the way the florist has a second stall beside the escalator
every Saturday, and I can buy
red gerberas on the way back to the car. I love to watch
the women tucking cheese
into the bottoms of their prams and smiling
at security as they coo past. I love the highway
hissing underneath my tyres after I’ve spiralled
down the carpark […]

Not mocking nor ironic in this context (at least, I don’t detect it here), it is as if Wright is saying ‘It’s not that bad’  .

The title Domestic Interior suggests that the poems in this collection will be situated within the home, and some of them are: one of the most moving poems in the collection, the titular poem ‘Domestic Interior’ asks us ‘How do these houses hold us’, these houses we occupy, momentarily; what remains when we move on? Do ‘The bare rooms echo, hum’? But ‘domestic’ is refracted multiply in this volume; through shopping centres, school settings, Sydney suburbs, hotel rooms, hospital rooms. Wright writes of and ‘in the spaces/ where we coalesce/ and where we long, we long/ and wonder.’

Kate Middleton’s Passage is a curious collection. The opening poem, ‘Lyric’, operates as a sort of preface introducing the main themes of the book, not only through mention of explorers, voyaging and history, but through reference to a weave or collage of historical voices, as seen in the lines ‘The song by song’s own mesh of I/ of we’ and ‘Voices torn,/ pieced, re-sewn’.

‘Lyric’ provides, I believe, a key to a full appreciation of the collection; through hints of collage, Middleton opens her own voice, her I, to voices of others, to present a history-making ‘we’. ‘Lyric’ sets up the poems to come, their mesh of plural voices, their folded fields across time. How apt, then, that the first poem to follow, titled ‘Untrod’, is a cento after artist and filmmaker Tacita Dean. Dean works with old film, ‘a dying form’, as she calls it, splicing and cutting and so on, and she expresses delight at having worked with a technician in order to mix different times into one frame. So too does Middleton, the ‘I’ becoming ‘we’ – ‘I shall tell of all the towns and cities’ is as much from Middleton’s mouth as it is from that of Sir John Mandeville.

Many of the poems in Passage are centos and erasures – lines are drawn from other texts and stitched together to make poems. The source texts are various, although a common interest seems to be travel and exploration, including zoological oddities: Rebecca Solnit, Dan Beachy-Quick, WG Sebald, Barry Lopez, Hans Zinsser, SPB Mais, Sir John Mandeville and Isabelle Eberhardt, are just a handful of the ‘voice/lines’ that feature. As well as centos and erasures drawn from these authors, there is a poem about Marie Antoinette’s interest in the ‘discovery’ of Australia, which includes text from the journals of Captain Cook (‘The Queen’s Ocean’) and poems that appear to represent the poet’s own global travel encounters (as in ‘Lighthouse, Cape Otway’, ‘At Skagen’). There is a poem about the oldest living animal, a tortoise, born in 1832 and living on the island of St Helena (‘Aged’), poems on rats and mice, and a poem about a gynandromorph butterfly born in London in 2011, half-male, half-female. We travel, with Middleton, across time and space, as if this is a museum featuring string pinned across maps old and new, specimens in jars, and looping film footage projected on improbable surfaces.

Middleton’s humour is, perhaps, more hidden than that in the collections by Allen and Wright, but it is there, as quiet as a wink, if you turn to the ‘Watching Science Fiction’ poems that appear throughout the collection, each with the same title, and each drawing on episodes of the cult TV series Fringe. I read these in two ways: first, that poems can be found within popular culture and the kitsch as much as in diaries, art and history books—let’s not be snobs; second, that this book opens the way for our own vicarious passage not only through the past, present and future, but into alternate landscapes or universes. To quote from one of these ‘Watching Science Fiction’ poems: ‘Before memory takes the graft, the stasis of the past/ the real past – if there is real anymore – plays like the engine/ of a fear whose source is lost’. And from another: ‘When you turn to your/ science to explain it nothing pierces the mystery of loss. The/ loss was years ago the loss never happened the loss is there at/ your side just behind you.’ What is ‘real’ and how many ways can we experience it in time? Cryptic as these poems may seem, I sense that Middleton is testing the bounds of her own vicarious travel, unrestrained by charted territories.

Middleton’s books, I find, are always an education. She is a bibliophile and a bookworm, an art and film lover and it seems, she also has a taste for science fiction. She shares this love of diverse texts with her readers here. Passage showcases the height of Middleton’s bowerbird techniques, as she sets lines down for our safe passage through fields of voice, text and time.

It is difficult to write about three volumes together without noting – or at least attempting to find – the common threads. Perhaps the strongest connection is that all three poets show their readers how poetry can be gleaned from the most unlikely sources – Allen samples texts that swirl around/interrupt her daily living to produce an ironic pastiche of contemporary language; Wright eavesdrops on private conversations had in public, turning the mundane, the nonsensical, and the most up-to-the-minute expressions ‘on the street’ into daring poetic lines; Middleton trawls books, interviews and art to produce centos and erasures, but she also tempts us beyond the boundaries of the known, to consider new landscapes, new dimensions. All three volumes showcase strong and varied voices in contemporary Australian poetry; all three make me wonder if poetry is at the forefront of a new alchemy.

This essay is based on a launch speech delivered in Melbourne in  November 2017.