Kevin Brophy reviews Backyard Lemon by Wendy Fleming
Melbourne Poets Union Series
Reviewed/Launched by KEVIN BROPHY
The first thing we might say is that the backyard lemon tree is an iconic fixture in Melbourne’s northern suburbs, as heraldic as the Hills Hoist clothes line is for the rest of Australia’s backyards. The lemon is a humble icon, usually hard working, long living, and it packs loads of zing. Those who know Wendy Fleming, and that is most of us here today, know that she is a Melbourne icon, she is hard working, she has endurance, and she packs considerable zing. I have never been able to say no to her.
It is worth noting that Wendy took particular care to choose the lemon on the front cover photo. It had to be a lemon that showed signs of being battered by the weather, knocked around by insects, blemished by life. So, you can take the lemon as a kind of self-portrait of Wendy.
This is Wendy’s first book, after 25 years of writing poetry, and even longer reading poetry. In fact, the first piece of writing Wendy had published was in Going Down Swinging, when Myron and I were the editors, a short story called ‘The Mission’, featuring a nurse caring for a woman who had killed her baby, a very going down swinging story. The nurse was no accidental character because, as you know, Wendy spent most of her working life as a nurse and nurse educator, beginning at St Vincent’s where she trained and lived with a group of 15 other young women, most of whom are still in touch with each other. In fact, the recent deaths of two of these almost lifelong friends and comrades form the material for poems of grief in her chapbook.
Wendy began writing poetry in earnest by going to a workshop at the Victorian Writers Centre when it was located in George Street in Fitzroy. That is where she met Connie Barber (who seemed to be in charge of the group), Charles D’Anastasi, Leon Shann and Marietta Elliott Kleerkoper. It was from this group, and with this group’s support that she found her way to her pivotal place in the Melbourne Poets Union. Wendy knows how to work with people.
Her acknowledgements page impresses on us the fact that she is part of a family she has long loved, and she is at the centre of a wide community of poets. Even though writing is a solitary vocation, we poets know that there is a deeply felt communal, even tribal element to our particular kind of writing. The scratch of the pen is balanced by the buzz of the spoken word for poets. We cannot help but come together to speak our poems to each other, and eventually form committees and workshop groups and fund raising events of one kind or another. Wendy has been part of this activity for a long time, and all of us want her to keep doing it.
She has also been away by herself with her keyboard and pen, doing what poets must do when they are left to themselves: write poems.
Wendy’s book presents 21 poems to its reader. Each one of them is as real, as pungent, as marked by weather, time and experience as any lemon worth its juice hopes to be. The first phrase in the first poem is one that might fill the head of every lemon that ever lived: ‘The morning sun’.
Titled, ‘The New Order’, and beginning as it does with a breakfast scene, it promises to be a domestic poem, an aubade perhaps, welcoming reader and sunlight to a new beginning. But it is a far darker affair than that, and more complicated, because it is about, as it turns out, how to start a new day alone, suddenly, after thirty years of marriage, family and companionship. The beauty of the poem is in its spareness, its brittle sparseness, combined with a vivid sense of line and image. Wendy uses the ten-syllable, five-beat line neatly and persuasively with ‘The garden beds soak up the recent rain’—a line that also makes music with the chiming of garden with recent, and the alliteration in ‘recent rain’. Similarly, she knows how to use the spondee, in the strong phrase of one-syllable words: ‘full buds ripe’ a couple of lines down. What I am wanting to point out here, is that at the level of the word, phrase and line this poetry has been attended to with care, with clippers, with a no-nonsense attitude towards shows of fussiness in language. I can’t resist bringing your attention to Wendy’s sly humour too in the construction of her lines. The second poem in the book, ‘Changing’, begins with the line ‘I’m good at getting into my clothes’, a wonderfully curious and eccentric observation, making me want to go on with that poem. This is an artfulness that makes an art of speaking plainly, of bringing art out of the galleries and academies, and into the streets, onto the trams, into the homes, airports and change rooms of our ordinary lives.
I want to say more about this form of artfulness in a moment, but first, I want to step back a little further to see what kind of stories, what kinds of thinking and feeling are going on in these poems. They seem to be so smoothly accomplished, so sure in themselves of their range of diction and voice that you don’t expect them to be coming up against the difficult themes that do emerge.
That first poem deals with imposed change, including the losses that time and aging must bring, and the second poem too, contrasting two women in a public change room, one older and the other so young that ‘in a T-shirt neck to thigh/her two new bumps barely move the cloth’, brings us up against the knowledge that life imposes change upon us. There is the frightening poem, ‘Hannah’, a glimpse of the holocaust juxtaposed with the images of cleaner and nurse. Her poem, ‘Beijing Airport 1998’ might be the one that brings to the fore a line of thinking running through the book: a series of reflections and observations on the way we ‘follow the coloured lines to Go’. She writes of her experience:
[I] go through x-rays, checks and gates,
point at the pictures in my passport,
(not a good likeness). No one cares.
Take directions from Mao-jacketed
Women, unsmiling, wordless ….
What I find here is a detached voice, an observing woman acutely aware of the way time and life impose themselves upon us. ‘I stand bereft on this side of the eternal flow,’ Wendy writes. When I told Wendy that I found the voice and stance of her poetry a steady, detached one, she agreed and had two comments to make. Firstly, she said that through her nursing training she has become an accomplished diagnostician. She is always working out what is wrong with the people she knows and meets — medically wrong. I couldn’t help it, I asked her what was wrong with me. ‘I’m not telling you,’ she said. So there. The second comment she made was that her detachment is part of her being a third child. The third child has to please everyone, she said. The third child cannot take up too much emotional space in a family, and must become self-reliant. Wendy has perfected this stance of the diagnostic outsider. This stance of detachment is not all there is to the book in the way of themes and emotions (The final poem, ‘Letter to my Husband’ is as powerful a love poem as you could ever wish to read: in fact there are a series of poems that are love poems to her husband).
To return to the theme of change imposed upon us, ‘Sylvan’, makes the point most starkly: her companion tells her, ‘There is no five year plan.’ Indeed, there is no plan without that plan’s helplessness in the face of both the unpredictable and the predictable ends and impositions we face. The paradox here is partly the perfection of the poems as they speak so tellingly of helplessness, and also the sense of indestructible force in the voice of each poem as it tells us of the mist spraying over us, silent and insidious, obliterating us. Even the lemon tree, in its poem, is the scenery for a photo shoot featuring her friend, ‘elegantly gaunt’ after treatment for cancer. The speaker in the poem, asks, ‘Grant me a moment to complain’, but of course that moment does not arrive, because these are no poems of complaint in this book, the poems are something else, something more difficult to pin down and sum up.
Perhaps, all across this book, like a mist weaving though it, is that feeling we call grief, and for Wendy, it is the loss of her husband in stages to absence, illness and death, and the recent loss of good friends. The poems that detail these experiences are not strictly autobiographical. They are in fact calmly, delicately, unswervingly observed. The poetry is committed always to what images, scenes and sense experience might show us. The poem, ‘The Message of Flowers’, is one of these, superb in its attention to detail, and both tough and poignant in its approach to the relation of language to feeling. Her repetition, of ‘blooming, blooming; blooming not dying’ in the final line of this poem takes up an echo of the grief expressed in Tennyson’s most famous poem, ‘Break, break, break,/On thy cold grey stones, O Sea!’
It is utterly fitting that in the centre of her book there is a poem on Ron Mueck’s sculpture exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria in 2010. Ron Mueck’s is an art without art. When Marcel Duchamp upturned a urinal in 1917 and presented it as an art object, it was art because he found it, he chose it, and he recognized its possible strange doubleness as urinal and fountain, as hardware and art. Ron Mueck has made his utterly real sculptures art through isolating them as figures for us to inspect. This is not the realism of a Vermeer or Rembrandt because technique is not the point. Making vivid, for once, or once again, what has always been in front of our eyes is the point. When Wendy writes,
Each sculpture is a masterpiece of detail
Very lifelike, every hair, skin pore, crease
Of thigh, arms, chest, tits, and vulva
Reproduced in fiberglass. Silicone. Epoxy resin
And ends with, ‘It is very real and it doesn’t feel like art’, we know she has found a way of describing what she does herself in her own poetry. In the repetition of that word ‘very’ I hear her voice too.
And is it art or is it simply documenting the world? Wendy Fleming is working in this highly contemporary documentary tradition, perhaps most spectacularly exemplified by the English artist Damien Hirst, and also she works in the now hundred-year-old tradition of William Carlos Williams and the imagists that followed him. The historian of modern poetry, David Perkins, made the observation that William Carlos Williams’ ‘naturalness and ease involved a lowered pressure or intensity and for his followers made poetry easier to write’ (p 254 A History of Modern Poetry Vol 2). It might have seemed that this new poetry of plain speaking was not artful, or not artful enough. It can seem spontaneous at times, and at other times it might seem merely simple. But I hope that you can understand by now through my comments that this mode of poetry in fact activates reflection, and provides for the reader what Williams called ‘a fresh beginning’—and by that he meant each moment we live must in some sense un-do, must subvert the previous moment. He wanted poetry to ‘breathe the air of the present-day’ (Perkins p 263).
In his uncompromising poem, ‘Credences of Summer’, Wallace Stevens declared,
Let’s see the very thing and nothing else.
Let’s see it with the hottest fire of sight.
By keeping her poems clear, uncluttered and unscattered, by allowing the nuances of speech and thought to work on us if we are attentive enough to the attentiveness of her poetry, Wendy Fleming achieves a fine fire of sight, burning everything to ash that need not be there. Admiring her spare poetry immensely, I asked her if she might, after publishing this book, move to a more expansive mode of poetry. She told me that sometimes you workshop the poems and people cut things out, then they cut more things out. I know what she is talking about. She confessed that there are some poems in this book where she has not in fact cut out as much as her workshop group wanted her to. Strangely enough, her editor for this book, Garth Madsen, urged her to be more expansive sometimes.
All of which brings us again to the community that surrounds Wendy. A book of poetry is not produced in isolation, and during those final months of preparation, poets often lean upon friends and editors. In this case, Garth Madsen has been the critical eye and the strong support the poet needed to get through to the end and to find the book that was always there in potential. Wendy and Garth have made a great little chapbook. The chapbook does carry the shadow of a poem that Wendy wanted to put in because, she said, ‘People love it,’ though her editor didn’t, and her editor’s judgment won the day. All poetry books carry the shadows of poems that almost made it in but didn’t, and this is the mark of books that have been brought to us with love for poetry and respect for the reader who wants only the juiciest, most pockmarked, and character-filled lemons between the covers. Buy it. Taste it. Enjoy it.
KEVIN BROPHY is the author of thirteen books of poetry, fiction and essays. He teaches Creative Writing at the University of Melbourne. His latest book is Walking,: New and Selected Poems (John Leonard Press, 2013)