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A Book Is A Good Place To Think

Tilt
by Kate Lilley
Vagabond
90pp
24.95 AU
Published May, 2018
ISBN 9781922181879

The title of Kate Lilley’s poetry collection is a poem all by itself. On the title page ‘TILT’ appears beneath the author’s name, making a visual rhyme with the ‘T’ from ‘Kate’, the ‘IL’ from ‘Lilley’. TILT is a not-quite-palindrome, only the horizontal on the ‘L’ throws out the symmetry. Being a little off balance is useful when reading these poems, as Lilley tips things askew to shake out what’s been camouflaged. As we read we’ll learn that Tilt was the name of a movie about pinball that starred a thirteen-year-old Brooke Shields. In pinball, it’s okay to nudge the machine to try and stay in control of the game, but to tilt the table is considered cheating. I’m not keen to make a reading of the word ‘tilt’ that references Don Quixote, despite Brian Bird’s 1948 photograph of ‘Luna Park lighted windmill’ that appears on the cover of the book. The giants Lilley rides at in these poems are not imaginary.

There are lots and lots of poetry books coming out all the time. A perpetual flow of manuscripts, proofs, shiny review copies. When you poke your head up, the sheer volume of books being flogged can make each individual volume look very small, despite the years and hours of labour that were needed to make each one. Every book is important to the person who wrote it, and to those in their milieu who have invested something of themselves in its existence. But what makes a book important beyond that immediate circle? There are books, like 1979: The New Australian Poetry edited by John Tranter, that have signaled change in the field; there are books, like Dorothy Porter’s The Monkey’s Mask, that have had success in the market; there are books, like Black Inc’s Best Australian Poetry series, that have demonstrated the quality and variety of Australian poetry – and there are individual collections that have written Australian poetry into some new and thrilling places. What makes Kate Lilley’s book important, not just to her valiant publisher, her partner, her family and friends, the writers and scholars who are part of the same poetic project? In an interview with Keri Glastonbury, Kate Lilley observes that books of poetry can be important in an unexpected way. Citing the work of American poets Claudia Rankine and Eileen Myles as examples. Lilley argues that poetry can be part of what she calls ‘the conversation’, the debates and dialogues on current social issues.

Kate Lilley made the decision to state publicly that the poems in the first section of Tilt are autobiographical. She and her sister Rozanna Lilley have spoken to the media about the adults who exploited and abused them when they were growing up. Prior to this, they had told their story to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in its session on the Entertainment Industry. Both women have discussed this period of their lives with the same thoughtfulness and care that they bring to their work and the way that they engage with the world. Kate and Rozanna Lilley’s story has been covered in print media, on radio and television, it has been discussed on social media. The publication of Tilt has been more than the occasion for this coverage, the work itself is to do with feminist and queer politics and identity, not just in terms of its subject matter but also in the ways in which the poet uses language. For Lilley, arguments around experimental technique and elitism or obscurity are old hat. She grew up in a family of writers, working through their own battles with social realism and avant-garde aesthetic practice. Back in 1994, Pam Brown wrote a long poem called ‘Mellowly Existential’ that includes these lines,

my loftiest dream
would be to become
the kind of poet
who is an ant
in society’s armpit.
the big problem
is that
already halfway
or maybe three quarters
of the way into
my poetic “career”
I go unread

An ant in a few hundred armpits won’t get much scratching happening, but since Pam Brown wrote ‘Mellowly Existential’, audiences for poetry have begun to rebuild, and poets who would count Brown as a key influence have readerships comparable with Australian literary novelists. Readers are ready for difficult, they are ready for trouble.

Tilt is important because it works on things and ideas that are being publicly discussed right now, and that affect the social and personal lives of most people, things like gender, sexuality, violence and power, and it does so without recourse to dull or didactic writing. Tilt isn’t scary and sad, it’s not earnest. Tilt is an intelligent, exciting, vivid book. It’s not harrowing. It’s a thoughtful book, with confronting moments, but there are also moments that are playful, even fun. It’s brave, but better than brave, it’s fierce and bright and at ease with itself. It has at times been distressing to witness the media coverage of Kate and Rozanna Lilley’s story, as the intelligence, courage and nuance of their own accounts are temporarily obscured by blunt angles and agendas, by media interest driven in part by celebrity and the tropes of news, in part by various investments held in culture wars positions. But Kate Lilley writes poetry, and poetry offers a space for subjectivity that is not bound to the implied causality of narrative. Poetry can disrupt, evade, and effloresce.

The collection is divided into three sections, Tilt, Harm’s Way and Realia. In her interview with Keri Glastonbury, Lilley says that in the first part of the collection she is ‘writing about the sexual predation and abuse I experienced in the name of bohemianism and the literary life; about growing up with a mother who was a left feminist heroine but really believed she was doing us a favour by offering us up as sexual commodities’. The second section of the book, Harm’s Way, takes various real events and repurposes texts associated with these events, cutting things up, leaving things out and adding things to them. The third section, Realia, is mostly about Greta Garbo. On a first reading each section is distinct, they might be three chapbooks that happen to be bound together in between the same covers. But reading again the three are braided, strategies and themes loop and lace the parts into a whole.

In the poem ‘Tilt’, the reader is dropped into another time and place. There’s a narrative to follow, and lots of period detail to recall or research. Originally written for Red Room Company’s The Disappearing project the version of ‘Tilt’ published in this collection has been reworked and extended. Reading the two versions side-by-side is a rapid masterclass in writing and editing poetry. All the way through, the lines that editorialise are cut, making for a work that tells us what happened to who and leaves the reader to infer the why. And if you think this poem might be nothing more than an anecdote written down, let me ask you to read the first two lines out loud –

Fonzies Fantasyland at 31 Oxford St
(now a disappointing IGA)

– then read them again, maybe tap out their rhythm. We know straightaway that this poem is interested in then, not now, and it’s not just word choice that tells us that – after all, disappointment is a wonderful subject for poetry – it’s the rhythm of the words. The first line dances, and the second line lopes along, mundanely. ‘Tilt’ has a slick, diverting surface: an account of the poet’s time as an eighteen-year-old working at a pinball parlour called Fonzies Fantasyland:

I was an original Fonzies girl:
Blue polysatin shorts, nude stockings.
Prior experience none

Lilley told Glastonbury that the poem recollects ‘lost sites and spots of time along the queer strip’. These times and places overlap with Sydney’s underworld, and the sites protected by the Builders Labourers Federation’s Green Bans. The atmosphere in the poem is carnivalesque, with kitchen hands from East Sydney Tech making psychedelic ice cream sundaes, ‘streams of silver’ coins, and Donna Summer ‘blaring into the night’, but the weft of local colour is warped with corruption and violence. From the very beginning, the poem includes references to the club’s owner Abe Saffron, nicknamed Mr Sin, and a number of horrific, headline-grabbing crimes like the Ghost Train fire at Luna Park, the disappearance of activist Juanita Nielsen and the murder of Anita Cobby.

In the poem, the narrator arrives at a turning point when she attends ‘a weird party’ in Victoria Towers, the development built ‘on the street where Juanita Neilsen had lived’. In an image of temptation, she stands high in the tower ‘overlooking the wharves of Woolloomooloo’. She decides to leave, and goes to the Academy Twin Cinemas on Oxford Street, where the film Heatwave, ‘starring Judy Davis/as Kate Dean, a Nielsen-style activist heroine’ is showing. ‘Takings were low but it won for Editing’. What’s left out and what’s cut together is always important in a Kate Lilley poem. The Academy Twin has gone now, but there’s a photograph of the interior in the book, glamorous and enclosed, like the inside of a seashell. As Lilley explained to Glastonbury,

thinking about what had happened to Sydney and to me since that time, was my way in to the whole book’s engagement with realia and the real: the uncanniness of the past, its archives and its objects, and my queer present.

The poem ‘Tilt’ is about place, but it’s also about identity, and something that’s not exactly choosing, more like trying to keep going, like a pinball ricocheting around immovable circumstances. Narrative breaks into confusion, some plans come to fruition, others come to nothing, times and places change.

The opening section includes a series of six poems called ‘Etudes’. An étude is a short study, a musical composition that helps a player improve their technique. The kind of thing you might work at, frowning, over and over, until it comes easily and you can move on to the next difficult thing. The first of Lilley’s Etudes takes us back to school days, the opening stanza summons nostalgia with Cuisenaire rods, iron filings and school carpet. The second stanza discovers that the chemistry teacher is secretly looking at a girlie magazine, and the last two lines of the poem are ‘If it’s on the menu/It must be edible’. It sounds like a punchline, and it’s funny for a fraction of a second, until you realise it’s not funny. The teacher who reads the girlie magazine as though it were a menu is a reminder that to treat the sexual exploitation of women and children as though it were exceptional, unusual, is inaccurate. Would that the experiences described in these poems were rare. The figure of the menu reminds us that objectification and exploitation of women and children are everyday facts. If we’re blind to relations of power in social and personal life, then we are perhaps doubly blind to how power and exploitation play out in sex. How adults use one another, and use children, consciously and unconsciously, how predators are camouflaged by all kinds of ideologies.

In the next Etude the narrator describes ‘the first man to put his hands on me’ – a psychiatric registrar, (‘How about that?’) when the narrator is twelve years old. The narrator of these poems learns, and learns again, the things that girls and women discover about the world and their place in it, ‘Anticipate and serve/keep watch keep count’. The Etudes record details, the reactions of the child in the middle of these experiences, and the reflections of the adult woman, looking back. By the fifth of the six Etudes the narrator is speaking back in the poem, and in the sixth and final Etude she fills the poem with her self. The last four lines –

Your father wants to know what lesbians do
he doesn’t get it

So what?
No one gets him either

– offer a beautiful example of why poets love to write poetry. In these four lines of ordinary talk, the narrator of the poem overturns the authority of fathers in general, but at the same time shows kinship with the father no one ‘gets’. What a thrill, to do these two big things at the same time, without wasting a word or beat.

Lilley has included a very moving poem about her father, the writer Merv Lilley, who died in 2016. It’s called ‘Her Bush Ballad, (Bourke St Elegy)’, a reference to her father’s work as a poet who wrote at times in the bush ballad form. In addition to writing and caring for his family, Merv Lilley worked in dairying, cane cutting, and droving, in shearing sheds, as a fencer and a miner. He served in the army during the second world war, and he was a member of the Communist Party of Australia. He wrote and published, and he saw to it that the work of writers he knew from his life outside the literary world also made it in to print.

‘Her Bush Ballad’ might be a dream or a fantasy – it might be even be a memory. The opening lines –

One morning walking down Bourke St
I hear my father’s voice

– are a contemporary version of the classic ballad and folk song opener – ‘As I was walking out one morning/all in the month of May’, or ‘One Sunday morning as I went walking/By Brisbane Waters I chanced to stray’. The poem takes place outside ordinary time – it’s ‘one morning’, so not exactly now, but then the present tense kicks in,  ‘I hear’, not ‘I heard ‘. This bush ballad, ‘Hers’ is not set in the past tense of regret and longing, but in the floating present tense of the poet-in-conversation, the present tense of anecdote, the present tense of a dream. It’s now, but it’s then, too. The narrator hears her father’s voice and recognises him from the back. He’s sitting in ‘the old Mercedes/with the bull bar’. Old Mercedes have particularly comfortable, comforting interiors, and the addition of the bull bar on this remembered or dreamt vehicle adds to the sense of safety. The word ‘bull’ might also suggest the shape of the head and shoulders of the familiar figure sitting in the parked car. Every second line of the poem of the poem is indented, as though the narrator had need to pause for breath, or perhaps gather herself. This indentation has me reading the poem as though it were in couplets, spoken a little breathlessly. Merv Lilley’s own style was undulating, rushing and easing, as though holding forth to a circle of listeners, and we hear something of his tumbling, rolling writers’ voice when he speaks in the poem, offering a strange message,

He says careful be careful
These hands are lethal they’ll strike …

I told you/my father was a murderer
you might have inherited that gene.

If we’re in the logic of dreams, where the strange and the familiar swirl and resolve, where one thing stands in for another, we can read this warning loosely. Perhaps it’s about families, about inheritance, about the damage one might do to others, or to oneself.  The ballad form is at home with violent death, but it’s also familiar with partings and reunions. There is a line ‘Why didn’t you come? I’ve been waiting’ that might be spoken by father or daughter, but anyhow, the waiting is surely mutual when the separation is that of bereavement. At the centre of the poem, halfway through, the narrator reaches into the Mercedes’ glove box (the place where a gangster or detective might keep a weapon) and takes out a pencil – and here the past tense intervenes, in brackets, ‘(he always kept boxes of pencils)’. An abundance of pencils, the memory of boxes of fresh pencils, is the axis of the poem. The narrator’s hands are not fists. In this poem, her inheritance is a fresh pencil.

This first part the collection ends with the poem ‘Memorandum’, about the death of the poet’s mother, Dorothy Hewett. Not an elegy, then, this poem, not written ‘In Memoriam’. ‘Memoriam’ looks back, recalls and puts to rest, but a Memorandum has work to do, it must be circulated, read, acted on, at least filed, ready to appear again when someone needs it. A memorandum sets out what is to happen in the future, the opposite of a memorial that is constructed to hold the past still. The poem cascades contradictions and ironies. The mother in this poem dies alone despite having lived such a public life:

Name a prize after her call it the sad and lonely prize

Get it out on the airwaves the evening news
your face on the front page
of the Sydney Morning Herald

The sad and lonely prize, it’s one that anyone might win, but perhaps it’s especially suited to a famous writer, who has a working life that involves short bursts of publicity, adoration mixed with envy, friendships that are often rivalries, and long hours of solitary labour, writing, reading, thinking. It doesn’t even look much like work, the work of writing. But sad and lonely is also part of the experience of bereavement, so this prize might be better awarded to the bereaved writer left behind, who has to make do with

all the elegies in the world
their beauties and occasions

in place of the lost person. This poem about a mother who has died looks for ways to live with the difficulties and complications of love and legacy, the relationship between mother and child always as mysterious and complex and vital as the exchanges of food and oxygen and endocrines through the placenta.

The poem has a kicking end that foregrounds physical presence:

FAT FEMINISM
FAT COMMUNISM
FAT ADULTERY

YOUR UNFORGIVABLE LARGESSE
FUCK
THE
OBITCHUARIES

In her interview with Glastonbury, Lilley explains that the final lines of this poem are a response to the digs so often included in writing about Dorothy Hewett, noting that even the obituary published in Australian Feminist Studies describes her as ‘a beached whale’, a phrase that not only ridicules Hewett for being fat, but also suggests helplessness. Lilley rewrites the sly digs and inferences as explicit statements, makes them into headlines, then answers them with a refreshing fuck you.

The second section of the collection is called ‘Harm’s Way’ and again it shares a name with the first poem in the section, ‘Harm’s Way’. The first part of this poem is about a boat. Or maybe not about a boat, maybe about the legal concept of ‘seaworthiness’ that establishes whether or not an object is a boat, insurable, able to carry cargo and people, perhaps boat people, though there are no people in this section of the poem, unless they are implied in the use of the word ‘privity’, a word I had to look up. (There are a lot of words in Kate Lilley’s poetry that I have to look up, it’s one of the things I enjoy about her work.) Privity is a relationship between two parties that is recognised by the law, and privity of contract is the relationship between two parties that exists in an agreement or contract.

The person in the boat comes into focus in the second part of ‘Harm’s Way’. I’m going to quote the poem in full, it’s only five lines:

2

A standing person will look for support
to maintain balance in occurrences per hour

Properly and carefully load, handle
stow, carry, keep, care for

Discharge and deliver the cargo

The words in this poem are all of a kind, and there’s nothing really strange about how they’re arranged, but there are certainly things cut together and things missing. When I first opened Tilt, this was the kind of poem I was expecting to read, a poem that foregrounds language, collages phrases to make something unexpected, leaves things out. I can’t read this poem in the way I read the narrative of ‘Tilt’. I have to operate differently, think associatively. Here is a possible person in a seaworthy or unseaworthy vessel. ‘A standing person’ reminds me of ‘standing orders’, and it also makes me think of a figure standing up on deck, a toy sailor in a toy boat. That standing person is in a kind of peril, looking for balance and support. Then the attention shifts to cargo. One reading is that the emphasis is on offering care to cargo rather than our brave ‘standing person’. But what’s next in ‘Harm’s Way?

The third part opens with a straightforward statement, ‘Asylum seekers who arrive by boat will have no chance’. We can read back now, our guesses and predictions as to what might be going on in this poem can settle on a subject, ‘Asylum seekers’. This part uses a form that Lilley has worked with previously, the pantoum. In a pantoum, the second and fourth lines of a stanza are repeated as the first and third lines of the next stanza. This repetition means the poem has the quality of waves, a metaphor obviously suited to a poem about boats and people. The staggered repetitions of lines in the pantoum is also an effective way of showing the repetitive and circular arguments used to justify policy, especially bad policy.

Part four of ‘Harm’s Way’ is a mashup of possible dictionary and thesaurus entries for the word ‘detention’. These definitions, synonyms, and associations arranged as a list are a series of deferrals and delays. The detention that we have in mind by the time we get to part four of this poem is the mandatory, and especially offshore, kind endured by desperate and vulnerable people, and the phrases in this poem are a kind of unfolding of the debates and rationales around the subject

Deal with and end (a problem)
Find the answer to (something)
Loosen solve dissolve withdraw

This sounds promising, but we soon find ourselves here

Keep (someone) from proceeding
Incarcerate impound intern restrain retard
Keep (back)
Seize and hold (goods).

Another poem in this section, ‘Topeka’ is subtitled ‘Concordance (White)/Menninger Clinic 1954-1982’. Concordance is another word I had to look up. It has a medical definition that refers to a set of genetic characteristics inherited by twins, and it also refers to a list of words in a text – so a concordance of Kate Lilley’s poetry collection Tilt would be a list of all the words used in the book, arranged, perhaps alphabetically, or in order of their frequency of use. Both definitions are significant, and perhaps linked. Both definitions refer to codes and patterns, in the one case the patterns that make a person, in the other, the patterns that make a text. The creation of a concordance would once have been a laborious process, it’s now a momentary function of word processing software, very handy for reviewers who want to check they haven’t tried to hedge by overusing the words ‘perhaps’ and ‘might’ all through their review.

If the reader doesn’t know she will soon guess that the Menninger Clinic is a psychiatric hospital once located in Topeka, Kansas. The Menninger Clinic worked with a methodology called, among other things, ‘milieu therapy’, the aim of which was to look at the person presenting with mental illness in terms of their mental, physical, emotional and social self. We’re not in Vienna anymore. The poem ‘Topeka’ concerns itself with ways of producing and organising data about people, about the production of texts that deal with subjectivity. It opens with a list that could be a concordance of nouns and adjectives from medical histories, or a cast of characters; Claustrophobic Man, Tantrum Woman, Alcoholic Heir, Exhibitionist Dancer, Homesick Psychology Student, Sociopath, Peter Pan, Devoted Son. The poem might be the precis of some Netflix mid-twentieth-century period piece. At the foot of this list is a small illustration, a ring of numbers and letters entitled ‘The Wheel of Destiny’. What job is this illustration supposed to do in the book? The 26 letters of the alphabet are arranged in a circle, and each letter (or occasionally, pair of letters) sits with a number – D 18, R 12, U and V 9, and so on. Is the image a clue that the combinations of words used in the list above are arbitrary – that ‘Alcoholic Doctor’ and ‘Bitter Spinster’ might just as well have been paired as ‘Alcoholic Spinster’ and ‘Bitter Doctor’? Is the wheel of destiny an insistence on predestination, or a metaphor for random events playing out? Is it a suggestion or a question?

The next section of the poem, ‘Methodology’ is another list, at first a list of alphabetically named ‘Forms’ – not poetic forms, the kind of forms that are filled in and filed – followed by what might be some of the fields appearing on those forms,

Suggestion
Abreaction
Manipulation …

Antirheumatics
Muscle Relaxants
Analgesics

and so on. Real and metaphoric pigeonholing is in operation: symptoms, treatments and reactions are a rubric, in contrast to the associative strategies of the kind of psychoanalysis, Lilley thought out loud about in the poem ‘Round Vienna’, from her previous collection Ladylike.

So what’s going on in ‘Harm’s Way’? What makes this cluster of poems work as a section? There are poems about refugees and there are poems about a psychiatric hospital, a poem about property, a poem about a corrupt judge, a poem called ‘Audit’. I take a couple of steps back, tilt my head a bit. These are poems about documents, language, about texts. About how words work in the world. How a vessel might be described as seaworthy or unseaworthy, a person as citizen or non-citizen, how a woman might live out her diagnosis. In ‘Harm’s Way’, Lilley doesn’t set out to write a poem that dramatizes the situation of asylum seekers, she does not write a narrative to involve us or produce a series of heart wrenching images. Instead, she asks us to unfold, upset, rearrange, define and redefine, to step back and look for patterns, associations, to think about what ‘privity’ means and why the laws are different when they deal with people compared to when they deal with goods. We have to take on some of the work of poem-making ourselves here in ‘Harm’s Way’. We have to read lines like ‘where the ship is sent to sea unseaworthy’ and ‘stow, carry, keep, care for’ and ‘Keep (back)’ again and again. We can’t just consume these words, we have to tangle with them.

The third section of the book is headed ‘Realia’, and the title page carries a definition and then an epigraph from Henry James:

Realia, n. Real things or actual facts, esp. as distinct from theories about or reactions to them. Objective or experimental data.

Cf. Personalia, n.

The quote from James is about something else, ‘interest’, not the interest you might earn, but the interest that, in James’ words, ‘must be, exquisitely made and created, and that if we don’t make it, we who undertake to, nobody and nothing will make it for us; though nothing is more possible … than that my quest of it … may entail the sacrifice of certain things that are not in the straight line of it.’

Turn the page, and the section ‘Realia’ opens with a short essay on Greta Garbo. Lilley has written about Garbo before, specifically on Garbo’s screen role as the historical figure of Queen Christina of Sweden. That piece was about negotiating gender and sex: on and off screen in the Hollywood studio system and in twentieth-century social life in America and Europe. This essay, written in accessible language, sets the scene, helpfully, for readers like me who don’t know much more about Greta Garbo than the sort-of apocryphal line ‘I want to be alone’. Lilley efficiently conveys Garbo’s mystique, her importance as an artist and a cultural figure. She includes sufficient biographical detail and commentary to satisfy herself that the reader has the background to read the subsequent poems, but the main purpose of the essay is to introduce the reader to the concept of ‘realia’, real things or facts. For a while I thought this was a contrast with the text work of poems in the previous section, Harm’s Way, then I began to think, as I am guessing Lilley does, of material objects, of realia, as texts that can be read, but texts with a special status or quality.

Lilley has interested herself in Garbo, it’s the interest of the scholar, the interest of the fan, the interest of a poet living in ‘her queer present’ and looking back to the queer lives and cultures of the past. Lilley’s interest in Greta Garbo is an interest in both Garbo as an artist who successfully undertook an ‘abdication from heteropatriachal destiny and studio control’, and as a woman who maintained a ‘faithful attachment to queer, silent Hollywood.’ It is also an interest in Garbo’s interests, her scrapbooks, her projects, her favourite tv shows, her furniture, her art collection, her library.

The first poem ‘GG’ is a long, long list poem, over 70 lines, like this –

Greta Garbo driving caps
Greta Garbo felt cloche
Greta Garbo horsehair toque
Greta Garbo cone hat polka dot textured net overlay

– and on, through flatware and glassware and clothes and books and photographs and receipts and parking tickets, on and on, through –

‘Greta Garbo Olympia De Luxe typewriter
Greta Garbo Gillette razor original box
Greta Garbo mechanical terrier
Greta Garbo musical Jolly Chimp
Greta Garbo wind-up puppy in pink basket
Greta Garbo troll dolls

– on and on, but it’s not boring, because the items listed are interesting, vivid, a catalogue of what would otherwise be a miscellany, but are meaningful because they are real things that really belonged to the real Greta Garbo. Perhaps it is important that this realia does not give a sense of Garbo as ‘everyday’. The objects listed suggest the performance of an idealised way of being a private person – letter writing, listening to music, perhaps playing tennis or golf, looking at art and albums – rather than, say cleaning an oven, changing a fuse, folding laundry, checking the oil. Did she open her letters with a paperknife, seal them with a sponge? ‘The ruse of her own sublimity was her most assiduously sustained and successfully cultivated tease,’ writes Lilley in the essay in this book. When I read that sentence I had to sit with it a while. It’s hard sometimes to connect up all that Lilley is saying because each sentence has its own separate loveliness. Once it settled, I thought about the ruse of sublimity, and how it might be denied by material objects. How objects indicate practices, are immersed in practices. Anyone who has ever had to clean out the house of someone who has died goes through a version of this, both more mundane and more severe than that represented by this poem. So many things, but the person that brought them into meaningful relation to one another is gone.

In her first book, Versary (2002), Lilley often cut together Hollywood, Nashville and inner-city Sydney. It’s a setting that has to do with thoughts more than places, a world of images, characters, personas, songs, that we make in our heads. Skeeter Wagner and Ginger Rogers dance cheek to cheek with moments from a day, conversational asides, thoughts, areas of research, the process of analysis. There’s an offhand coolness like movie dialogue mixed with country and western love and loss. Curtains are ‘drapes’. Drinks and pills popped up from time to time in Versary, as they might in any good Hollywood or Nashville biopic. ‘Realia’ also enters an imaginative space, a space made possible by the cataloguing of material objects. Glamour is about how light falls, how shadows are read as mystery, what’s revealed and what recedes. The voice of the poet enters an imaginary world, a world that holds Garbo. The poems shift between materiality and fantasy. There are lists of objects, counts and measurements, condition notes. Some of the objects are humorous, whimsical, a few of them are dull, many become erotic. Clothes are how Garbo constructs herself for the public, but they are also intimate. Clothes have an outside, to be looked at and appreciated by the public. But they also have an inside. A gauntlet length ‘stamped Edelweiss doe skin’ glove is a place a to slip a hand. Garbo’s feet were encased by those galoshes. Those capes swung and settled on her squared shoulders.

To hide from fame you have to first of all be famous. The things a celebrity supposedly wants to keep private – a wedding, a night out with friends, a day at the beach, these are the public stage in the lives of us nobodies (and compared to Garbo we are all nobodies). The things that us nobodies want to keep private – the sight of us sobbing desperately, or contorted with fury, the intimacies of the face in strong emotion or in sex, these are the things that are right up there on the screen for all to see when you are Greta Garbo.

Talking to Michael Brennan in 2011, Kate Lilley said that she identifies with the ‘multifarious histories of feminist and queer textual experimentation going back at least to the Renaissance’. In her more recent interview with Glastonbury, Lilley says something a little different. ‘I have a very strong sense of being part of a queer scholarly community and a community of progressive experimental poets.’ Added to the genealogy discoverable in the texts of the past is the sense of belonging to a community of contemporaries.

The last poem in the book is called ‘Coda’. This poem takes up – not so much themes as objects and references, from all through Tilt. Observations, actions, texts and realia are all cut together to create a space for an exchange to take place,

I run into an ex-student, an actress
She tells a story about a sexual assault
I tell one too

The swapped stories take us back to the opening of the book, but the poem asks us to see these two women as unexceptional, and unfixed, negotiating texts, and streets, and other people. There’s an almost final line

I take out a loan like a diet I settle into

and for this reader the words ‘loan’ and ‘diet’ don’t matter much – they’re just pegs that attach us to the big and little things of the world, they might reference meals and repayments or global finance and big agriculture, or whatever else is on your mind. The important parts of the line for me are the words ‘take’ and ‘settle’. They are assertive, comfortable words. Even though Lilley describes damaging and painful experiences, experiences of assault and abuse, vulnerability, not the awesome mindful kind that you choose, the awful kind of vulnerability that means you get hurt, the poems in Tilt never made me feel scared or sad or bad for their creator. And it’s better, don’t you think, to think? A book is a good place to think, a book of poems the best place. Lilley tells it on her own terms, in her own way. She’s survived, become a thinker and writer that we are all lucky to have amongst us. It’s not that she was somehow strengthened by adversity, that narrative really sucks. It’s that it is clear that she has now what she should always have had, a safe place to do her brilliant thing.

Works cited

Michael Brennan, Interview with Kate Lilley, Poetry International Web, 1 July 2011

Keri Glastonbury, ‘Keri Glastonbury interviews Kate Lilley’, Rabbit 24 LGBTQIA+, 2018

Pam Brown, ‘Mellowly Existential’, This world/This place, UQP 1994, p36

Kate Lilley, ‘Early Modern Garbo: The Two Bodies of Queen Christina’ in Elizabeth McMahon and Brigitta Olubas (Eds.), Women Making time, (pp. 13-27). Perth: University of Western Australia Press, 2006.

Interview with Kate Lilley and Rozanna Lilley, Radio National, 18 June 2018.

Kate Lilley, Australian Poetry Library.