Nadia Niaz reviews The Herring Lass by Michelle Cahill

The Herring Lass

by Michelle Cahill

Arc Publications

ISBN 978-1910345-76-4

Reviewed by NADIA NIAZ


In a 2011 interview with the Goethe Institut Australia, Michelle Cahill spoke of how her work explores an ‘imaginary habitation in many places’. The Herring Lass is the latest phase of this exploration, demonstrating Cahill’s ability to move and connect repeatedly across massive distances.

The sea, oceans, and bodies of water all serve as the connective tissue of this collection, tracing the edges of the world and all the stops Cahill makes along her way. But expansive as this movement makes the book, the individual poems themselves are acutely observed, the images sharply drawn, the character studies intense and specific, so that each poem has at its centre a stillness, a feeling of a breath held so as not to disturb the moment.

The titular poem opens the collection on the east coast of Scotland. In a few sonorous strokes, Cahill sets the scene:

Not far from the stone harbour, herring kilns
pump wood smoke, smudged into an enterprise of masts
and the hemp rigging of a whole fleet, outward bound.

The long vowels and nasal consonants have a languid effect, creating the sense of a scene that has been repeated for so long that all sense of time is not just lost but irrelevant. But just as the opening stanza lulls the reader, Cahill follows it with:

Her knife flashes in four-second strokes,
her wet hands never stray from a salted barrel.

These shorter, sharper sounds break the spell and focus the reader into the reality of a lone woman gutting fish, of what she sees, of how she must make do while ‘the sailmaker, cooper, boat builder have all prospered’. We leave her then, making her journey up and down the coast to make a living as the ships return with their catch. There is no resolution offered or needed. In zooming out once more, Cahill reminds us that the scene, woman and all, is timeless.

Cahill’s ear for of language is a delight and provides a counterpoint to the contemplative, often dark tone of her poems. Here is a poet who is at ease referencing everything from Classical Greek dramatic conventions to text and internet speak, so that each poem feels like a treasure hunt. She revels in words, in sound and reference. Take for example the marvellous ‘Night Birds’, which contains lines like, ‘Once we chased Mallarmé’s swan, dragging dissolute/ wings into flight,’ and:

…Words broke their
baroque chords creaking in my nest of bones. You wrote
me tempting alibis, singing the frost, blotting out stars.
Night birds slumber. Stay – with arms unhinged we’ll
watch sparks flame as dancing roses, souvenirs of silence.
My body rivers over absent fields, where words rescue
or reduce me…

This is work that demands re-reading, that requires the reader to taste the words, to feel them rolling off the tongue, to hear them ringing in the air.

Migratory birds appear often in these poems, appropriately enough. Cahill’s observations of swans are masterful, but more startling still is the poem ‘Houbara’. At the centre of this poem is a brutal description of the kill, when the hunter’s falcon catches the bustard.

He points from the dunes, he circles her, melding
in a riot of awkward feathers. She cannot be twisted
back, her neck, a broken string he jabs in agony.

But there is more to the poem than just the murder of this endangered bird. Cahill conjures up a vision of the hunt, the technology deployed to locate and track an unassuming bird, the thrum of a generator, singing, four-wheel drives, campsites humming with activity, all against the backdrop of an enormous desert in the Arabian Peninsula. Even the falcon is invested with intention. Most sinister of all, however, is the ‘you’ to whom the poem is addressed, the ‘you’ who turns the organisation, the hunt, the kill into a metaphor for desire that destroys its object.

In the middle of the book sit ‘The Grieving Sonnets’. Unlike the quick shifts of scene in the preceding and following poems, these are all firmly anchored in Australia, even if the speaker is not. Kangaroos, kelpies, wallabies, lyrebirds, Tasmanian devils, eucalypts and many other recognisably Australian fauna and flora crowd these six sonnets, but the mood is still empty, the speaker still lost. The grief at the heart of these sonnets is never named, but in the fifth sonnet, finally, Cahill suggests what has seethed beneath the surface all along. ‘I’m twice in trespass,’ she says, and later, ‘history’s a genocide’. In the sixth, she says, ‘We feel the ignominy of territory, we chase idioms/ borrowed from culture, from memory, the past’s psychosis/ and prison.’

The book continues past this echoing stretch into poems that feel more rooted in the present than the ones in the first half of the book. There is air and vitality in these poems, and although the wind is still often cruel, the present still alien in some way, there are spots of sunshine and even heat that seem to radiate off the page. In ‘Renovations’, for instance, we find ‘the violence of time/whistling through a sou’westerly’ as the speaker packs up her life, copes with growing older and accepts ‘all the drop sheets, all/the brawn and Epoxy sealant it took to keep me single.’

The book continues its exploration of the present in the ironic ‘Real Life’, which is bursting with digital and virtual life. The idea of reality, of a life, of the self, is questioned and re-questioned as the poems goes from connection to alienation and back again. Although this poem stands out because it is the most conspicuously ‘modern’ in terms of reference, it grapples with the same questions and ideas that the entire book does, perhaps most acutely so.

This is a collection of great depth, both intellectual and emotional. Cahill’s voice never falters as she sweeps the reader along from location to location, bringing each alive for the duration of the poem. Through it all, Cahill’s voice is erudite but also curious – there is a sense of deep thought given to the smallest details, and an understanding and appreciation of their importance. Although she covers great physical distance, the poems are emotionally involved and keenly felt, showing the multitudes that one individual can contain. The itinerant Herring Lass haunts the whole book in this way, her small, sharp knife probing moment after moment before she must move on.
NADIA NIAZ is  a Melbourne-based writer and editor. She has a PhD in Creative Writing and Cultural Studies from the University of Melbourne where she teaches Creative Writing.  Her work has previously appeared in CorditeTEXT, Strange 4 and The Alhamra Literary Review.