Melinda Smith reviews Everyday Epic by Anna Kerdijk-Nicholson
by Anna Kerdijk-Nicholson
Puncher & Wattmann
Reviewed by MELINDA SMITH
The cover design of Anna Kerdijk-Nicholson’s dense and rewarding new book plays knowingly with the title, splitting the word Everyday across two lines and hyphenating it. Everyday Epic. Every day, epic. Fortunately the book lives up to both kinds of promise.
Starting with The Bundanon Cantos in 2003 Kerdijk-Nicholson has developed several distinct strands in her work. There are poems engaging with Australian history, poems in the lyric mode grappling with landscape, love , loss or all three, ekphrastic poems, and experimental works. In Everyday Epic each of these strands appears again, sometimes separately, sometimes woven together, all realised in Kerdijk-Nicholson’s precisely achieved language. She is a deft wielder of vivid one-syllable verbs (‘lug’ ‘swill’, ‘rasp’, ‘wrap’, ‘score’, ‘brand’, ‘pound’), which gives her work a muscular quality, a sense of hard physical work in the words like the hefting and honing of rocks. While working predominantly in free verse she is also technically adept in a range of forms, from the sonnet to the syllabic, skilled examples of each of which appear in this book.
Kerdijk-Nicholson’s landscape lyrics in Everyday Epic grow out of the beautiful poems in The Bundanon Cantos, and in fact this book contains two of the Cantos, slightly reworked: ‘Survivors’ (Canto XIII), and ‘Funeral Pyre’ (Canto XXXII). In this vein there are several more fine, sparely emotional yet resonant poems combining outer and inner landscape, such as ‘Driving to you’ and the perfectly achieved ‘Griefs’. There is a luscious sensuality in ‘Pears’ and ‘The first mango of summer’ which echoes Bundanon Canto XXXIV ‘Grace’. There are also fine elegies like the beautiful (and visceral) ‘Allotment’. These represent a broadening and deepening of her lyric achievement.
One of the central concerns of Everday Epic is art. There are several ekphrastic pieces: ‘Sketch and Oil: Picasso’s Desmoiselles d’Avignon’, contrasting the two versions of the famous work viewed side by side in New York’s MoMA; ‘The Polish Rider’, imagining the origins of Rembrandt’s painting, and the devastating ‘On the Exhibition of Yosuke Yamahata’s 119 Photographs of Nagasaki’. The ‘Truganinni’ sequence (discussed below) also falls into this category . Several more poems, concentrated in the sixth section of the book, consider the nature of art and making more generally, and their complicated relationship to ‘reality’ (‘Life Drawing’, ’Studies for a Nude’, ‘Notebook’, ‘Still Life’, ‘Bangarra’, ‘New York Lens’, ‘A woman walks towards a horse, in a poem’, ‘untitled’, ‘The mind travels’, ‘About seeing’, ‘What Landscape is telling’). Kerdijk-Nicholson’s position on these matters is perhaps best encapsulated in the ‘Jet vapour-trails’ section of ‘What Landscape is Telling’:
Back here, bees throb on purple
stitch herringbones, fall quiet
In this landscape
idea and picture compound.
To steal one damages the other –
as in trying to get sand
back from glass
This book also contains new experimental poems, harking back to works like ‘Cento’ in The Bundanon Cantos (Canto XXIII). Chief among these is ‘The Gubba Effect’ sequence, re-mixing the words of Brenda Saunders and Patti Smith into an unsettling meditation on the dispossession and denial at the heart of the Australian nation-state. She also ‘speaks back’ to poems—‘Pears’ is a riff on Stanley Kunitz’s ‘My Mother’s Pears’, told from the point of view of the pear-sender rather than the pear-receiver.
Everyday Epic continues Kerdijk-Nicholson’s engagement with Australian history in the sequences The Factitious Tragedy of Burke and Wills (of which more below) and ‘Truganinni’. The two main Truganinni poems compare an 1830 painting and an 1866 photograph of the woman named variously as Truggernana, Seaweed, and Lalla Rookh. Not surprisingly both poems think very hard about the concept of ‘gaze’; in both of them Truganinni herself is described as frowning, and in the second there is ‘No doubt who looks at whom’. In a postscript to the sequence (‘The interpretative nature of art’) Kerdijk-Nicholson enacts the complexity of viewing the images today, through a post-colonial lens, as it were. Language almost breaks under the strain, leaving the reader (and the poet)
with interpret, crucible, mutilation
with stupid heart
why not leave what’s done alone
neighbour, we live in your home.
To the pre-existing strands of history, landscape lyric, ekphrasis and experiment, Kerdijk-Nicholson adds in this book a group of poems dealing with contemporary political and social issues: ‘The Goat-Song of the Bone Folder’ traces the journey of a maker of books who has become a refugee and is interned on Christmas Island and then Villawood. The poems use conceits of ink, stitching, leather and text, while the bone-folder of the title, a book-tool, comes to symbolise lost livelihood, agency, and love. Everyday Epic also contains (perhaps less successful) attempts to render contemporary life in Sydney (‘Diurnal – Slurry Heights’ and ‘Greek Orthodox, Surry Hills’) (although she does explicitly state this is a ‘diurnal that won’t be grasped or writ’). Here, too, are engagements with casual violence (‘From the kitchen window’, ‘At Sculpture by the Sea’) which are laudable in their witness-bearing, but which perhaps do not quite attain the resonant quality of her other work.
And so to the final section of the book, The Factitious Tragedy of Burke and Wills. These eight long, linked poems continue Kerdijk-Nicholson’s ‘Australian History from Inside the Heads of Historical Personages’ work—seen previously to great effect in Possession, her acclaimed 2010 collection of Captain Cook ventriloquy.
The Burke and Wills poems are impeccably researched and follow the sprawling farce of the ill-fated 1860 ‘Victorian Exploring Expedition’ in chronological order, with a nuanced point of view that takes in the broader tragedy of the colonial enterprise. As she did with Possession, she has taken the poem titles from the lines of poets completely removed in time and place from the events recounted: in this case mining Louise Gluck and one of her favourites, Charles Wright. This tactic produces a distancing, estranging effect which in most cases works to freshen the well-worn subject matter.
There are, characteristically, perfectly-wrought images: ‘dams, great plates of sky nailed to the ground’, and narrative salted with comic dialogue, like the German-accented asides of ‘Dr Becker (the Surgeon)’ : ‘Vot is he saying?….Zere’s a lot of camel excrement’ and Charley Gray’s ‘lor luvva duck’ on riding over an eight-foot snake. The poems also, as they did in Possession, speak fully to the grit of the experience: ‘A man farts. Wills runs fingers/ through last night’s beard-spit…’. Small moments open out to greater historico-political resonance, but with a light touch: watching Dr Becker sketching a vividly coloured spider, ‘Burke thinks: anything that / colour red, in this place, means death./ And then he thinks this is just the place/to run a steam train through.’
As things become increasingly desperate for the expedition (spoiler alert: almost everyone dies) she does not shy from depicting it in spare, telling detail, so that the last lines in the sequence, spoken in lone survivor King’s voice, feel like a necessary unfolding rather than hyperbole. King is sitting in the camp of his indigenous rescuers, reliving the trauma of seeing Wills’ body after ‘wild dogs had eaten bits of him’ and sobs, startling the children playing near him, ‘survival,/ starvation’s bottom line, what we discovered/ – loathsomeness, vileness, horror – /is about me, it is me, it’s us. ‘
In Everyday Epic, Kerdijk-Nicholson continues her important engagement with history, politics and the continuing legacy of colonial violence and ignorance. She has, in addition, contributed several beautiful sentences to the never-ending conversation about art and life, and has also arrived, in her lyric poems, at a new clarity and tenderness. This is a hard-won, meaty collection, and a worthy addition to a significant body of work.