Dimitra Harvey reviews Kin by Anne Elvey
by Anne Elvey
Reviewed by DIMITRA HARVEY
Val Plumwood wrote, “the ecological crisis requires from us a new kind of culture”. She was of course referring to the set of human/nature dualisms that underpin the contemporary West, and which “promote human distance from, control of and ruthlessness towards the sphere of nature as the Other”. Unprecedented anthropogenic climate change and ecological degradation threaten not only the survival of our species but myriad others: we must reevaluate our definitions of our humanity or “face extinction” (Environmental Culture 4-5).
Researcher and writer Anne Elvey’s first full-length collection of poetry, Kin, shortlisted for the 2015 Kenneth Slessor Prize, emerges out of this need for “a new kind of culture”, exploring human identity in relation to, in relationship with – what Elvey has described as – “ecological networks of kind, otherkind, country, air, sea and cosmos” (Plumwood Mountain). At her best, Elvey observes human embeddedness within complex, vibrant, non-human spheres with keen linguistic control and playfulness. It is a pleasure to return to the crisp imagery, and trim, silvery music of lines such as, “the cool acreage of canary light” (12); “All at once, bees fill the flowering gum. / Seed pods tick their dry rain / on the ground” (24); “he dips his finger into a font / to wet your tongue” (72). In “Romancing the creek” (39)
a lizard slips
where the rock face
shears from the earth
and stone stands
stacked like crates
against the sky.
a gap with serried
pick out a corner
and an edge.
…beside the track
a rusted bike,
a guitar past
a frail skin
to toss over a lamp…
…the rock wall
pulls the creek
up to its chin.
The human presence – in the form of our detritus, as well as the more subtle presence of the speaker – is decentralised within a sphere of other-than-human, interconnecting lives. Lizard, rock wall, moss, weeds all have their own agenda and agency. The poem bears witness to ecologist Barry Commoner’s observation that “everything is connected to everything else”: there is no “away” to which rubbish can be thrown (19-20).
Even within the highly-developed context of the highway in “Over Eastlink” (37) – where, as Judith Wright wrote in her poem “Sanctuary”, “only the road has meaning” (139): the “wide-winged body” of a pelican “steps / down the air, hangs / at each turn as if at a landing”, and perches “high up on [a] tollway light!”. The poem captures the bird’s strength and agility, its “gravity”, as well as its utter disregard for human demarcations: the pelican is a palpable, powerful presence, “surveying the traffic” with a will, that disrupts the human-centrism of the urbanised landscape. Everything is in relationship: “the cup” of the bird’s “under- / beak / shapes [its] silhouette against / the sky”; the human speaker “drive[s] on” only because she is “neither fish nor water” to the bird.
Elvey’s acute attention to these “ecological networks” means Kin also bears witness to their degradation, to profound loss, including as a result of colonialism. We see this in poems such as “Ecos echoes” (42), which addresses Australia’s extinction crisis. The poem’s disjunctive line signals brokenness: how “(earth things)” are “(riven from) / (the well world)”. In the repeating, dirge-like refrain cataloguing the losses: “gone the eastern hare wallaby / gone the pig-footed bandicoot / gone the silver mulga”, we hear echoes of the last lines of Oodgeroo Noonuccal’s famous poem, “We Are Going” – “The scrubs are gone… /The eagle is gone, the emu and the kangaroo are gone from this place. / The bora ring is gone. / The corroboree is gone. / And we are going” (78) – which hint at the ties between cultural and ecological losses.
Explicitly and more subtly, Christian symbolism and ritual permeate the ecopoetic framework of Kin. From the description of Elvey’s mother in “The honour of things” who “told the beads” (19), to the “nails / hammered on a Friday” in the powerfully poignant “Nanoq” (48). Significantly, Elvey’s opening poem “Sheet Music”, begins with two line’s from Kevin Hart’s “Mud”: “We met there, Dark One, all those years ago / You smelled of mud” (11). “Mud” is one in a series of poems by Hart which address the “Dark One”, who, as Davidson points out in Christian Mysticism and Australian Poetry, “is undoubtedly God” (203). Given Western Christianity’s influence on contemporary Western secular thinking (White 1204-1205), and its culpability in the human/nature dualisms that not only underpin the ecological crisis but have authorised colonialism and its violence (Plumwood, Feminism and the Mastery of Nature 88-89; 41-68) – perhaps engaging with its tropes is part and parcel of the ecopoetic task.
In her essay “On (not) speaking about God ecologically”, Elvey writes that in addressing “patterns of domination and alienation” which “Christianity and the biblical images on which it draws have in part at least supported…[w]hat may be needed is to hold our Christian faith story loosely, not necessarily to turn away from it, but to be open to a mode of attentiveness to Earth and its atmosphere…as part of an ecological spirituality attuned to the community of more than human others with which we are intimately interconnected and interdependent”. In many ways, Kin shapes itself in these terms: not necessarily seeking to scrutinise these “patterns of domination and alienation”, but rather considering ways aspects of the Christian tradition might be re-imagined or reinterpreted to encompass an “ecological spirituality”. This proves both ingeniously dynamic – offering inclusive alternatives; and problematic.
In “Bayside Suburban”, Elvey deftly re-imagines the Eucharist as a ceremony in which everything – humans, gulls, possums, light, wind, sea – takes part. The poem, divided into five parts, is not presided over by the ceremony. Rather, the ceremony is gently inferred in the fabric of everyday goings-on of “Port Phillip” – in the “old / meals the gulls enjoy…the refuse of blood / and wine, the suburb’s flesh, the greasy joes”(61); in the “sand…thin / and brittle as a wafer. The skin…the tongue / to which it clings” (63). We see those who eat and drink are not only human. Everything is implicated in an ongoing sacrament of relationships, exchanges, communions: “A soft light traces the shore’s / length. The wind pushes southward along / the beach. A dog romps and a woman / dressed in rough wool casts a line. Banksias are sculpted against the sky” (62). The passing of time, the rhythms of natural systems and of human and non-human activity inform and open out the ceremony. The poem concludes: “Strewer of a communion march, the day / empties its apron of blossom… / …The sacrament is celebrated slow / with gulls like restive children… / …the tide arrives with the bounding-sea, the soul-fetching night” (63). This inclusive re-visioning of the Christian service of bread and wine engenders a sense of the “radical equality” of all “members of a larger earth community” that Plumwood called for (“Tasteless” 71); or of Mary Oliver’s “citizenry of all things within one world” (34). Here Elvey is indeed “hold[ing] [her] Christian faith story loosely”, allowing other-than-human presences and systems, and our relationships with these, to move through it and develop it.
This re-visioning stumbles in “Claimed by country 3”, the last of Kin’s “Claimed by country” set. The speaker of “Claimed by country 2”, observing how colonialism is an ongoing process as she “com[es] into, out of / country”, asks, “is this / the colonising moment / once again?”(65). In “Claimed by country 3” (66), one has the troubling sense that this is indeed the “colonising moment”, that the land and its inhabitants are being co-opted into a “Christian faith story”. The opening declaration, “This is the rose on the gum”, seems to deny, or seek to supersede, the agency of an already storied land. The rose’s religious connotations, its association with Christ’s five wounds as well as the blood of the Christian martyrs, are heightened in the context of the poem’s other religious imagery. Superimposed on the gum, it not only has the effect of “put[ting] the flag” (Munnganyi qtd. in Rose 24) – a kind of colonial staking of land, but it also converts the tree into a cross, sublimating the tree’s “own meaning”. Similarly, in the lines –
where rocks shift to wallaby
and edge toward the altar,
the congregation stirs as
by degrees, a full moon
climbs the far side
of the range. With vested
hills, the dancers and the priests
attempt a fugue of ways…
…Insects light upon my
hair and on my skin.
We stand. We sing.
We give a peace
that takes a breath.
– we see country converted into a church; it’s inhabitants into a “congregation” and “priests”. All the complexity of the land’s “own meanings”, the agendas and agencies, the interactions and relationships are reduced to, are described as being in the service of, a very particular kind of worship.
While the closing image of the speaker, who “by the iconographer’s / grace” is “a smudge of white / in the corner of the frame”, acknowledges the smallness of the human element in larger systems, it also literally and figuratively flattens out the dimensionality of country into a religious painting – an image intensified by the metaphor, presumably, of falling sunlight at the beginning of the poem: “the fragile leaf of gold’s / applied to the ground”. Ultimately, the poem lacks the suppleness and expansiveness of other poems such as “Bayside Suburban”.
Despite one-offs such as “Claimed by country 3”, Kin’s strength is its awareness of poetry’s potential to step outside of presiding cultural and social paradigms, to imagine more ethical and compassionate ways of being with each other and our other-than-human kin. As Elvey writes in her poem “Recycling the possible”: “tear into / pieces / the possible /…feel for a place / in the grain and start / writing” (74-75).
Though Kin emerges out of the trauma of ecological crisis, ultimately it gives voice to hope: that through attentiveness to our deep kinship, to our inextricable entanglement with the other-than-human, we are capable of embracing another mode of life on earth.
Commoner, Barry. The Closing Circle: Nature, Man and Technology. New York: Knof 1971. 19-20.
Elvey, Anne. Editorial. Plumwood Mountain. Volume 1 Number 1 (2014). Web. 26 Aug. 2015. <http://plumwoodmountain.com/editorial/>
—. “On (not) speaking about God ecologically: Ecofaith conference presentation 23-25 May 2014”. Leaf Litter – Anne Elvey’s research and poetry blog. Web. 26 Aug. 2015. <https://anneelvey.wordpress.com/on-not-speaking-about-god-ecologically/>
Davidson, Toby. Christian Mysticism and Australian Poetry. New York: Cambria Press 2013. 203.
Plumwood, Val. Feminism and the Mastery of Nature. London: Routledge 1993. 41-68; 88-89.
—. Environmental Culture: The ecological crisis of reason. London and New York: Routledge 2002. 4-5.
—. “Tasteless: Towards a Food-based Approach to Death”. PAN: Philosophy, Activism, Nature. Number 5 (2008). 71.
Oliver, Mary. Long Life: Essays and Other Writings. Cambridge: Da Capo Press 2004. 34.
Oodgeroo Noonuccal. My People: A Kath Walker Collection. Milton, QLD: Jacaranda 1981. 78.
Rose, Deborah Bird. Nourishing Terrains. Canberra: Australian Heritage Commission 1996. 24.
White, Lynn. “The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis.” Science. Volume 155 Number 3767 (1967). 1204-1205.
Wright, Judith. Collected Poems. Pymble NSW: Angus and Robertson 1994. 139.
DIMITRA HARVEY has a Bachelor of Performance Studies from UWS and a Master of Letters in Creative Writing from the University of Sydney. Her poems have been published in Southerly, Meanjin, Mascara, the Jean Cecily Drake-Brockman Prize anthology Long Glances, and speculative poetry anthology The Stars Like Sand. In 2012, she won the ASA’s Ray Koppe Young Writer’s Residency.