J.C. Masters reviews Change Machine by Jaya Savige

Change Machine

by Jaya Savige

UQP Press

ISBN 9780702262869

Reviewed by J. C. MASTERS

This is what happens when you binge
on beauty: eventually the orgy kills
you[.]
(‘The Roses of Heliogabalus’, 19)

If you’ve ever sat in on a literature class, at some point you may have heard someone mention Charles Baudelaire’s description of modernity from The Painter of Modern Life (Le peintre de la vie moderne,1863). His essays are often quoted when describing the transition that Europeans in the 19th century underwent, from functioning as a primarily agrarian society to one that depended on industry and embraced new technology built on principles of speed and transition. Baudelaire defined modernity, and the new sense of ‘being modern’, as “the ephemeral, the fugitive, (and) the contingent”, and suggested that instead of looking to the past for guidance, individuals should embrace the “transitory, fugitive element” of modernity.

Fast forward a little over 150 years later, and though we live in a very different world to the one he described, Baudelaire’s words are still appropriate for describing the sense of fleeting impermanence and rapid, unceasing change that our world tends to impress on its occupants. I am reminded of this when I first open Change Machine by Jaya Savige; from its opening to its conclusion; it is transformation of the self and world that carries Change Machine through to its end. The unevenness and dense patchwork of Savige’s poetry, spread across four chapters titled ‘Mean Time Between Failures’, ‘Biometrics’, ‘Hard Water’ and ‘There There’, results in a deliberately kaleidoscopic collection that depicts the subjective individual at the heart of the world’s flux. At times quietly reflective, and at other times wry and snarky, Change Machine is the story of a stone navigating an ocean; mired in sand but bent and smoothed by the waves outside its command.

Savige’s poetry chronicles the impact of various forces that determine the shape of individual experience. There are moments of both tranquility and motion, interspersed with a variety of referential signposts that assist in orienting the reader in space and time. Many of Savige’s references are specific to his own experience, though others who grew up in Australia in the 80s and 90s will recognise various cultural touchstones, such as his suggestion that ‘For a stack of platypus at the corner store,/Pac-Man was our minotaur’ (‘Études’, 18). Mentions of poetry, literature, art, science and history abound: ‘Rimbaud in Salatiga’ (7) borrows from T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Hollow Men’ (1925) and begins: ‘This is how the world ends/with strange foliage, ficus and tamarinds’, while ‘a pissed-off Apollo, deciduous Daphne’ mix in ‘Wingsuit Lessons’ (87-89). References pulled from a Western cultural canon mix with modern Australia (‘I interrupt one of the Maroubra boys/to mock his neck tattoo of Ouroboros’ (‘Inferno’, 29), while poems such as ‘The Keeper’ (30) recount aspects of the years Savige spent in London and overseas. However, though the allusive signposts pile almost galette-like on top of each other, it feels like Savige does this intentionally (and as deliberate distraction) while the paradoxical permanence of memory eddies underneath, accentuated by winking jabs at himself and others:

‘The number of fools is infinite,’
          replied the man from Eccles Street,
          Augustine
          Ecclesiastes,
but not the famous bit about there being nothing new under the sun.
(‘Coloratura’, 94)

It is as though Savige is challenging the reader not to be carried away by his nods to NASCAR or James Joyce (‘the man from Eccles Street’ references Leopold Bloom, the protagonist of Joyce’s Ulysses) but to ride the wave through to the moments of stillness. Closer to the end of his collection, ‘Coloratura’ lists a number of pop culture moments connected by semi-colons (‘Kylie’s hotpants; Dame Joan’s coloratura; Angus Young for mooning Illinois; Michael Hutchence’s death by autoerotic asphyxiation; [etc.]’) heavily struck through with a black line, suggesting the pieces that make up a life, though coloured by these moments and cultural memories, are not defined by them.

Change Machine is self-reflexive and playful. Savige is proficient and impish in his flirtations with language, and uses cultural markers as entry points into a poem such as the delightfully named ‘Bach to the Fuchsia’. His musing on childhood favourite The NeverEnding Story in ‘The Nothing’ uses the movie’s idea of the creeping, all-encompassing Nothing to describe the sense of alienation that has become attached to modern life as perhaps its most infamous condition:

Compared to the Nothing that is nowhere
yet engulfs all Fantasia
in The NeverEnding Story, all other celluloid villains
a child encounters seem vanilla:
none of Scar, the Queen of Hearts, Cruella de Vil,
Sid Phillips, Voldemort, Vader or Jabba
comes close to its sublime incomprehensibility

There are echoes of Wallace Stevens’ poem ‘Snow Man’ (1921), which concludes ‘For the listener, who listens in the snow,/And, nothing himself, beholds/Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.’ ‘Snow Man’ is often discussed in terms of its perspectivism, which suggests that the only way to know reality is through the subjective experience of the self. Savige compares the Nothing from The NeverEnding Story (‘He knew the void, the gist of entropy’) to other ‘celluloid villains’ that are ‘vanilla’ in comparison to the movie’s ominous emptiness. Celluloid means ‘of film’ and references motion pictures and cinema, but the word also implies the one-dimensionality of these childhood monsters; they are single cells in comparison to the multicellular organism of the Nothing. The ‘sublime incomprehensibility’ of ‘the void, the gist of entropy’, is subsequently seen everywhere by the speaker of the poem, once he recognises the Nothing as both existential chasm and the threat of the self’s eventual end that haunts awareness (‘Then you saw it everywhere: in Villon and Nin;/Boundary Street; an episode of Friends; a wind chime;/and later still, in the car park of a crematorium,/say, or a clinical waste disposal bin.’)

The reference to his partner’s miscarriage, explored in more detail in poems like ‘The Cobra of Djemma el Fna’ (5) and ‘Tips for Managing Subsidence’ (70-71), is just one of the many bodies that permeate Savige’s work. He explores human bodies, bodies of water and land, bodies of work, and Savige’s own, but for all the larger and various embodiments of subjectivity, Savige’s poetry manages to create a sense of enduring intimacy that crosses the divide between author and reader. His ode to the humble spork (‘for you were always a bit like me, spork: a half-caste gook, an incendiary Spock’) in ‘Spork’ (78-80) discusses the impact of his half-Asian heritage while growing up in Queensland:

beamed in by genetic monsoon and plonked down hard
          onto a patio on an island
          in Queensland

that gave the most rousing ovation to One Nation;
          a slap in Pop’s face,
          who’d fought in the Pacific;

up-close physical proof of the peril, produced
          in his own
          daughter’s womb.

The distance created in this poem by praising ‘the cutlery of choice in war and prisons’ means that it is heavy with the unsaid. At times, what is unsaid has a more impactful presence in Savige’s collection, due in no small part to the motley of images he collects and arranges. The postmodern proliferation of signs and symbols has tended to function as a postmodern challenge to dominant Western narratives that prioritise a narrow group of ‘classics’ as markers of high culture. Savige aptly reconstructs a vision of what Jean-Luc Baudrillard termed the ‘hyperreal’; an endless generation of images that are copies of copies, while losing any connection to an original. Within hyperreality, experience is composed of auto-referential exchanges and ‘the murderous power of images’ kills any existence of reality beyond that which exists in the reference itself. Savige’s observation in ‘Coloratura’ (94) that there is ‘nothing new under the sun’ (referencing a passage from Ecclesiastes 1:8-10) reveals his postmodern playfulness as deliberately and tightly constructed.

However, one of the effects of Savige’s pastiche is that the iconoclastic assortment of references become just that; pieces of a larger poetics, all equal in allegorical value. In a way, it artfully composes a patchwork quilt of Savige’s life where we are able to take in the cacophony of colour all at once, but it also means that things that could afford to stand out are given the same hierarchical and referential power as Pac-Man and the Maroubra boys. I speak more specifically of Savige’s use of Indigenous place names in poems such as ‘Mirrigin’ (15):

I wish I could say precisely where Yugambeh
ends and Bundjalung begins, but we only had the crumbs
of Indigenous history, local or otherwise, at school.

We were flat out distinguishing Mayor Quimby
of The Simpsons from Chief Quimby
of Inspector Gadget. And sometimes I feel like a fool

or a fraud when I speak with Sam or Tara June, or anyone
really, about the place I come from, grew up in.

While the prophesied effect of hyperreality is that originals are decimated, there is little acknowledgment within Change Machine that this is what is actually taking place, despite the poetry’s strong Antipodean flavour. The original First Nations inhabitants of Australia are given cursory acknowledgment within the collection, and while this lack of presence is noted within ‘Mirrigin’ as being symptomatic of their wider absence in Australian history and culture (which tends to be circumscribed to the last 200 years or so), without greater signposting of significance, Australia’s black history sinks into Savige’s sea of symbolic exchanges.

As the collection evolves, it seems to slow down while simultaneously speeding up. Individual poems, sentences and stanzas get longer, while the flickering rush of images creates a familiar medley. Though it becomes obvious that this is an extended march through the bureaucratic culture machine, Savige’s own self is a constant presence. Quotes from popular songs, newspapers, literary criticism, and 18th century journals dot the pages, while Savige’s ‘Notes’ at the back of Change Machine helpfully explain some of his more obscure references. (This, perhaps, is a kind nod to his audience; one cannot best navigate modern life without advice and assistance from those better-travelled.) Stylistically, longer exhalations formed from luxurious sentences (‘behind the wreck, further up, where the angelfish are flashing/in and out of the rust, and the moon wrasse nose you while egg-hunting’ (‘The Offing’, 32) are counterposed with the crisp staccato of lean word-towers in poems like ‘Work Do’ (21), that emulate the mechanised clicks of clock-in clock-out employment:

Trending
agile
upticks
of rain
ping off
the swish
marquee,

actioning
the specifics
of some
committee
minute
on workflow
policy.

By the fourth chapter, ‘There There’, structures are breaking down and we are left with the self-reflexive pieces of a poetry under pressure. There are hints of this earlier within other chapters; ‘Her Late Hand’ (41) in ‘Biometrics’ splits the poem into two columns and you can read it holistically left to right, or take each column separately. Alone, the right-hand column begins:

wiring hadn’t
handwriting
din, gnat whir
and writhing;
hard tin wing
thawing rind.

nth drawing I hart,
winding…

Savige’s reflections accelerate until they are mostly held together by the community of meaning he has built for us. It is as though language, so ably wielded throughout, has succumbed to the demands placed on it. Context is your map to rebuilding these pieces, which also reflects the necessity of context when navigating the pictures and sounds of an urban environment. In Change Machine, language is simultaneously a vehicle to and obstructor of meaning. In the right-hand column of ‘Her Late Hand’, the final stanza reads ‘rh, giant wind/grand within/writing hand’, which asserts the place of the subjective individual in communication. The emphasis on phonetics helps give the poem a concreteness; words are Savige’s building blocks of meaning but also symbolically function as the divide between the sign and signifier – a divide which is echoed in the distance between image and missing referent, and the Self and the Other. This is highlighted in poems such as ‘Stagger Lee at Her Majesty’s’ (82-83):

Like salacious columnists
                    we’re in bits                    just witnessing
           ‘The Body’            sluice
                      through a bank of tail
           ored suits, still
                             hot as lime juice
on a torn
cuticle,            to blithely dis miss the crab mousse–
                      two decades on            from the all-out
                                 fluorescent assault
of her work          for          Diet Coke in ‘88.

My patois is a heady mix of am
                                 nesia, em
                                          and capital

Savige’s ‘patois’ is demonstrated moreso as the collection wraps up. Change Machine ends with the phrase ‘ache hoof hour crate cram shelled wren,/hand haul off there shelled wren to calm’ in ‘Cinemetabolic’ (98-99), though interpretation becomes possible when surveying similar phrases like ‘you shld quit it at ones’ and ‘–yelp, use gassed it–’, which offer clues into his phonetic play. His recollections of an Australia where ‘Chook, Buddha, Wayne, Stink and Rod/rarely conferred/and even when they did they talked/around it:’ (‘Hard Water’, 63) communicate the place- and time-specific role of memory in building the self, which is a self that exists in the physical body as much as the mind. In trying to reconcile the cultural imbalance that has historically privileged mind and reason over the feeling, living body, Savige uses language’s physicality through sound and structure to underscore the importance of the body as the central arbiter of modern experience.

Ultimately, we, as much as the cavalcade of modern life, are change machines. Bodies penetrate all levels of Savige’s poetry in the guise of machines, and machines in the guise of bodies. After the cascade of references ends, we are left with the collection’s exquisite humanity and colour, which are the quiet skeletons in the densely allusive works. Savige’s Change Machine is an extended meditation on the influence of history and culture on the self, while also skilfully exploring how individuals cut across the din of modern life to embrace moments of personal connection.

 

J.C. Masters is a postgraduate student in English Literature at University of Sydney. She tweets @_jclyons

J.C. Masters reviews A Kinder Sea by Felicity Plunkett

A Kinder Sea

by Felicity Plunkett

UQP

ISBN 9780702262708

Reviewed by J.C. Masters
 
 
 
Growing up on the coast, I felt like the sea and I were easy and old friends. The water framed my first two decades of life; smeared in sun cream and rash vests, my parents would take me to the beach on weekends where I would happily sluice myself in salted air and water. I realised later that I only ever knew the edge of the ocean where its fingers and toes gently touched mine. The one time I was caught in a mild rip, I was panicked-filled with the crystal understanding this was a stronger and fiercer swell than I had known. I knew the water’s strength in much the same way I know the universe is big: as a concept relative to my own smallness. Felicity Plunkett in her new collection, A Kinder Sea, seems to have no such reservations or fear. Her work reads as though she is immersed in the same deep place where the bedrock heart of the sea collects people’s daydreams and elegies. She speaks with penetrating insight and at times, a heartbreaking clarity.

Plunkett is a Sydney poet and critic, and her first collection – Vanishing Point (UQP) – won the 2008 Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize and was shortlisted for several others. UQP’s Q&A with Plunkett, published on the book’s release, asks her what the collection is about and her answer starts to unlock the expansive space the poems contain:

‘There is a widely-quoted and heartfelt letter from Emily Dickinson, in which she wishes her friend ‘a kinder sea’. That she probably never wrote this letter highlights the imaginative space A Kinder Sea occupies: it is a book of unspoken hopes, unmourned losses, of mute and unprayable prays and letters never sent.’

The imaginative space in this collection swells at the same point where sea touches land, with Plunkett having a foot in both camps but neither in both. Paul Celan’s quote that poems make their way to readers like messages in a bottle, used to begin the long poem ‘Glass Letters’ (6-17), is an apt description for the way Plunkett’s poetry caresses and then plunges into the heart of you, crossing the divide between writer and reader. The collection is tenacious and tender. It explores the spaces between solitude and isolation, resilience and dissolution, art and traumatic experience, and vitality and loss, while her technical skill means the barest of ripples articulate the thunder of the moving sea floor.

A Kinder Sea is divided into five chapters – ‘A Corner of the Sea’, ‘Carmine Horizon’, In Search of the Miraculous’, ‘Grace’, and ‘Heartland’ – and accompanied by an introductory poem, ‘Sound Bridge’ (1-2). The chapter titles also describe an ocean journey, an extended metaphor that Plunkett wields to explore relationships, solitariness, connection, and the body. In this respect, the nautical craft of the sailor becomes the worded craft of the poet, each carrying them above the tense sea-glass potential of chaos and loss. The first poem ‘Sound Bridge’ begins with Plunkett’s son and meditates on the struggle of releasing a child into the world:

My son sings the Lacrimosa in Hodonín: joy-
bright teens with a hundred Moravian choristers. Lurch
and tangle, the holding, the letting-

go. […]

Quiet music: tension, strings and frame
of what we can’t teach, because we are still

learning: what I can’t protect you from, can’t
come close to, must damper, love. Words untrans-
latable, but we feel their heft, close: light

as breath.
(1-2)

Lacrimosa, part of the Roman Catholic Requiem Mass and a movement from Mozart’s ‘Requiem in D Minor’, frames the melancholy background to watching a child grow up. Plunkett’s enjambment, used liberally in this poem, emphasises the dual nature of this process. The ‘letting-/go’ is divided between stanzas, showing the space between the hyphenated ‘letting’ breaking off into nothingness and the forward-moving ‘go’ beginning motion in a new line. Line breaks are used to break up compound words, except for when she splits the whole word ‘untrans-/latable’ in the fifth stanza, suggesting that there are parts of this experience that cannot cross the divide between language and meaning. Additionally, the change in this process is between the actors, not the scene; Plunkett notes it is ‘The same/question, same notes in new throats, same lesson strung/across centuries’ but this question is described in terms of the ‘Lurch/and tangle’ of wanting to hold on while needing to let go. The poem compiles the opposing forces acting on Plunkett – similar to the ‘Quiet music’ and ‘soaring bars’ that her son sings – and we are given a clue to a larger purpose that lies quietly but solidly in the collection: the role of poetry and art in healing the self and filling the gap between self and other. ‘As in the piano’s belly, a bridge’ suggests the between-space where individuals can connect and where one can move from being at sea to back on land. The symbol of the bridge also features in her third-from-last poem ‘Bridge Physics’ (82-3), which opens with a quote explaining that two forces act on a bridge at any one time: compression (a force that seeks to compress or shorten) and tension (a force that seeks to expand or lengthen). These opposing forces frame her collection; ‘Sound Bridge’ and ‘Bridge Physics’ enclose her poetry with a controlled but dynamic push-and-pull, resulting in a book that quivers with kinaesthetic potential. It feels a bit like the collection is balancing on the head of a pin: the poems encompass smallness and bigness, silence and roar, and they tightly compress language while expanding through symbolic and allegorical potential.

The push-and-pull of the tides is mirrored in her longest poem, ‘Glass Letters’, which is separated into 12 stanzas of six couplets each and spread across 12 pages. The regular motion of the elegiac couplets bring to mind tidal movements, while the poem is balanced between smooth sentences and jagged edges. It has a number of allusions between the work of poetry and the in-out work of the water; ‘Words wash/and maul me. How diligently we fish/for a noun to release/our correspondence into grace[,]’ while ‘Brine/and absence pickle/your arrival.’ The imagery in these beginning poems set the scene for Plunkett to explore the likenesses between the behaviour of the sea and the experience of the self. It provides a backdrop to poems that detail what I have heard described as ‘big feelings’: the emotions and moments that threaten to drown us, and how art can act as a lifeline in these moments.

‘Songs in a Red Key’ (29-31) depicts Plunkett’s time in St Vincent’s Hospital, with the recurrent call of ‘red keys please’ breaking through the stanzas intermittently. There is a routine when asking for pain relief in a hospital; only one nurse at a time has the keys to the safe, but two people are required to open it and witness you taking the allowed medication. In any ward in any hospital across the country the semi-regular cry of ‘Who has the keys?’ can be heard echoing across rooms and puncturing the quiet. This poem has a regular but razored rhythm, imitating the sharp flashes of memory that piece together a time of sickness. Plunkett intones ‘Doctor, I have swallowed a glass/alphabet’ and the words sting in their jumpiness:

I need your blade to unstring
me, song’s puppet: shaking,
humming, undressing, putting on
slash-backed robes of distress
as though for some mortuary
curtain call, where jagged
breathing staggers still
from each of us laid cool
in Ward EM-U 4-2
       red keys please (29)

As the phrase ‘red keys please’ is repeated, the tone of the poem changes slightly and Plunkett notes ‘my hubris muted/below drug’s sea levels’ and ‘Night’s shadows lose their hold’. The final line – ‘prosody neonate-fragile/dreaming of song and flight, ready/to batter jamb, sash and snapped/cord: open into air’ – describes the separate feelings of the self expanding into a red-keyed morphine haze and a mother’s world expanding when a child is birthed into the open air. The ‘snapped/cord’ is literally snapped between lines, and functions dually here as the self’s medicated release of the pained body and the cord cut between mother and child. Another poem ‘Three’ (68-71) explores comfort and kindness during times of pain and injury. The epigraph is a quote about the importance of being kind, while the poem’s second page ends with the phrase ‘Always alone/when pain climbs to ten.’ Doctors will often ask patients to rate their pain out of ten so they can gauge change over time. Plunkett implores another, describing their head resting against hers, and says she has only ‘small gifts’ to give: ‘a poultice of godless/prayer, mute infusion’, while from their ‘torn mouth’ they offer ‘consolation, calm’. These poems artfully describe what Elaine Scarry has called the “combination of isolation and exposure” that characterises pain. It reminds us that though we may reach across bodies to connect with others, in pain we are unavoidably drawn back into our self’s centre and settled in our own mass. In these times, kindness is a floating buoy given to people in pain to reel them back to shore and remind them that they will emerge in time.

As the journey into Plunkett’s poetic sea continues, her experimentation with form and sound increases. Individual words do the work of hundreds, while poems in rhythmic stanzas meet free verse arrangements. The recycling of lines in ‘Waiting Room’ (78-79) echoes the monotony of time spent waiting, while ‘Cyclone Plotting’ (36) and ‘Bloody Days: Monochrome’ (57-58) are turned 90 degrees to the left and printed in landscape. ‘Cyclone Plotting’ is a prose poem compiled of sentences beginning ‘The danger is that’ and the effect is cumulative:

The danger is that if I’m not lifted out of this hot storm everything will open, slippery and roof-shaking. The danger is that I have invented you, and your hip bumping mine promisingly. The danger is that the rain will wash away by lightning-flash glamour. (36)

Plunkett’s poetic world tilts on an angle and is reflective of the way that when danger comes, it comes all at once, immediately and overwhelmingly. It also ends with the phrase ‘The danger is that.’, though it is not obvious if the phrase ends the poem by re-emphasising that which has already been said, or if it opens out into possibility. The other landscape poem ‘Bloody Days: Monochrome’ is list-based and defamiliarises us to Plunkett’s experiences. These are not memories described in loving detail and delivered from one mind to another; this is an edited recounting stuttering across restricted form and bursting out of the weak spots in its seams. When reading it, I wondered how we would view our own lives if they were listed in pieces and turned on their side. Would my most vivid memories, described sparingly on an angle and totalled sequentially, still ring the same way to me?

1.

Dawn clouds, red as history, press down. I linger under sky-soft counterpane.

2.

Bells that peel the day into segments.

3.

Seams of lost memories. I speak to children about forgetting.

4.

Rising, a flush that says the muse is on her head: the weight of it, the deciding-to. (57)

Many of the sentences bring to mind Plunkett’s school days, from her first years to ‘8./My last school residency, three years ago’ and finally, ‘9./Small voices bring me to my knees.’ Like Plunkett’s first poem, we have come full circle: her earlier reflection that it is ‘same notes in new throats’ (‘Sound Bridge’, 2) finds her bearing witness to her children. There is also a subtle suggestion here: though we learn our tables and grammar at school, Plunkett’s fine-tuning of school tropes suggests a wry rebellion that can come from dismantling the rules of the system. Within the parts of our lives that require neat lists, Plunkett offers the option of literally and metaphorically turning them on their side, dividing the lines so each sentence seems to float in the air, unattached to its isolated number. This is indicative of her collection as a whole: though she has a number of free verse poems, other poems sit in neat couplets or quatrains and are rhythmically regular. It suggests that for Plunkett, form is more effective when wielded rather than abandoned.

Some poems are not as strong as others but in such a tight collection, even an unnecessary word here or there is noticed. I found some parts in ‘Yellow’ (26-28) slightly redundant, with some stanzas losing their punch because of this:

Big. Big as loneliness.
At our wedding he cried
and cried
. She darkens, shoves
scrambled egg into a child’s mouth.
The joy of having once
been wanted congeals. She spoons
a final mouthful. (26)

Here, cogent imagery of congealing egg juxtaposed with a cut-piece from a happier time delivers the impact. Parts like ‘Big. Big as loneliness.’ and ‘darkens’ are already inferred by the strong images, reducing the effective delivery of the stanza overall. However, this feels slightly like splitting hairs because the collection as a whole is powerfully compelling. Plunkett has a unique talent for articulating precise emotional moments, while her experimentation with form and language is expertly employed and never slips into gratuitousness. Some poems manage to weave a vista into words (her closing poem ‘Inclined’ (89-90) is one standout example of this) while others expand effortlessly into emotional landscapes.

Each poem in A Kinder Sea functions as Paul Celan’s message in a bottle, crossing divides between then and now, alone and comforted, poet and reader. Plunkett builds bridges out of sentences, paying homage to journeys that ended in nowhere, words left unsaid, and love felt so deeply it defied language. Reading A Kinder Sea felt like having a hand held out to me; in isolation, adrift in our own oceans, Plunkett reminds us that there are ways back to shore.

Notes

  1. Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (Oxford: OUP, 1987), 53.

 

J.C. Masters is a postgraduate student in English Literature at the University of Sydney. She tweets @_jclyons

Daniel Sleiman reviews Throat by Ellen Van Neerven

Throat

By Ellen Van Neerven

UQP

Reviewed by DANIEL SLEIMAN

 

 

In reading poetry, we look for those rare moments where a creative sequence of words thoroughly subjects our thinking, our feeling and our knowledge to a momentary realisation of reinterpreted or interrupted truth. There are many of those moments one finds while reading Ellen Van Neerven’s poetry collection Throat (2020). Take these three lines appearing in different poems. 

Take me to the back of your throat, I’ll stay
(p123)

Language is empty without ceremony
(p128)

Climate is our only bank
(p33)

Neerven can say so much with so little. In fact, that’s poetry’s appeal and the/ir craft in writing reflects the tightness and complexity of its form. They display a matured economy of expression but are as comfortable writing longer narrative-driven verse.

One of my favourite pieces in Throat is only ten words long and finds its place in the section called ‘Whiteness is always approaching’. It is a title, which based on the section’s themes, could have easily worked as ‘Whiteness is always encroaching’.  

I was a perfect GF                                                                                    but sometimes I was black.
(p42-43)

These words are presented on two full pages, the otherwise emptiness or silence gives them so much more meaning. One is tempted to even continue the writing with their own insecure reflected prepositions in the empty space. There is so much more to be said, and those thoughts are instinctively taking place in the reader’s cognitive play. 

The conscious stylistic choices are also replete throughout the collection. The use of the Aboriginal flag along with text in ‘Logonliveon’ serves as a punctuating reminder, self-identification and reconstructed meaning to fit the changing moment of technology and living. A treaty is drafted and presented to the reader questioning the/ir relationship with the production of the book but also of white Australia—a status quo, often neglectful of Aboriginal voices on the question of sovereignty. Australia of course remains the only Commonwealth country without a treaty with its Indigenous population. 

‘Treaty’ presents the reader with so many questions to unpack. And Neerven does that poignantly. Hard truths demand hard questions. Neerven takes up the role not only of a poet but as an educator. The book comes with a reading list for ‘Whiteness is always approaching’. It includes writers like Ghassan Hage, Toni Morrison and Vivek Shraya. The white reader is undoubtedly urged to spend some time in this section. 

Expertand ‘White Excellenceare two poems that really hit the nail when it comes to white presumptions, white language and the critique of Black Excellence centred around the white gaze. 

Think I got
a non-Indigenous girlfriend
who thinks she’s an expert
don’t know how she got her expertise
(45)

There have been too many white ‘experts’ on what matters to Black people. This was especially noted during the #BLM movement where Australian TV panels got a lot of flak for not inviting any Black speakers on issues that directly affected them.

‘White Excellence’ comes in many forms but my favourites are the ones who cook for me. Listen, make space. Buy black books, buy black music. Never assume to know what we think or what we want.

(56)

T.S Eliot once wrote that poetry is ‘the common pursuit of true judgment’. There is a measured concern in Neerven’s writing, whether it’s the devaluing of Indigenous languages, connection to land and water or gendering. It is a judgment both in critique and insight, but one that opens conversation rather than shutting it down. Whilst subtlety has always been the measure of art, there is nothing wrong with calling a spade a spade, and Neerven even titles one of their poems ‘Call a spade a spade’ where they take issue with the mealy mouthed semantics in our everyday political discourse. Don’t say ‘no worries’ say ‘I worry’.

In ‘Four Truths and a Treaty’ they write: 

We gotta talk about sexism, homophobia, and transphobia in the community. No point pretendin it don’t exist.
(58)

Blunt. 

As a queer Black writer, Neerven explores the sometimes-knotty intersection of sex and race politics. It is a lived experience, and it comes through in their words both genuinely, and in exploratory ways giving no defining answers but retaining our attention nonetheless vividly and honestly. In the section titled ‘I can’t wait to meet my future genders’ their poem ‘Body Flow’ imparts a resounding expectation or even resignation in describing their body. 

I guess it would be fitting to describe my body here.
Spidery
Flowy
nothing to hide
hips in the wrong place
unambitious arms
(67)

Neerven’s writing however is anything but unambitious, with Throat being her third published work following on from Heat and Light and Comfort Food. It is a work that tackles familiar themes, but one that is done with a uniquely sustained style and an undeniably fresh voice; a voice that one can return to on the page and in recitation and find added nuance and meaning and a reason to care. One cannot help but to find a certain affinity with the poems, and the writer, as one reads and rereads Throat.  It feels like a crush. 

In ‘Crushed Ellen writes: 

All my crushes
have been books
(98)

What a wonderful way to think about our relationship with books. With a red, sinuously coloured cover featuring lips, eyes, and with an evocative title in Throat many readers will feel attuned to Neerven’s latest work.

Notes

  1. T.S Eliot, ‘The function of criticism’ first appeared in the journal he founded, The Criterion, Vol 2, No 5, Oct.1923

 

DANIEL SLEIMAN is a Canberra based freelance writer. You can find his articles and works in Eureka Street, Crikey, The Quo, Meanjin, Peril, SBS and Overland.