Kate Lilley
University of Western Australia Publishing

Kate Lilley prefaces her anticipated second collection of poems, Ladylike, with an epigraph from American feminist academic Lauren Berlant: ‘Everyone knows what the female complaint is.’ It’s taken from Berlant’s book, The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture, which investigates women’s mass culture in America over the past two hundred years, arguing that it returns again and again to a ‘discourse of disappointment’ that is nourished by its own broken promises. ‘If people are returning to something many times, it means it has a story to tell that isn’t finished,’ says Berlant. The unfinished business in question is ‘the desire for and cost of feminine conventionality’.

Berlant’s quote finishes: ‘women live for love, and love is the gift that keeps on taking.’ Dropping the rest of the sentence opens up the question: is ‘the female complaint’ as obvious as it seems?  Is femaleness itself a complaint, perhaps a kind of illness? Who is this ‘everyone’ who knows, anyway? These questions shimmer through the collection, and point to Lilley’s fertile allusiveness. Intelligent, graceful, sceptical, endlessly resonant, Lilley’s poetry gives us a passionately exact language, which opens up the complexities of the inexact; in particular, the complexities of desire and love.

Ladylike is an intricate and fascinating exploration of ‘unfinished business’ of all kinds. It’s divided into four sequences, and the poems are punctuated by black and white images, including some photocollages by Melissa Hardie, that deepen its coils of meaning. As the title suggests, each sequence interrogates different aspects of the feminine and the female. ‘Ladylike’ suggests the conventional feminine, but this book explores the fractures within this most vexed of descriptors: to be like a lady means that one isn’t a lady, opening the doubleness of femininity, the self that looks at the self that’s looked at. And it also suggests liking ladies, the complexities of queer desire.

The book opens with a short prose work, ‘Fifty Minutes’, which introduces some major relationships explored in the book: between teacher and student, analyst and analysand, mother and daughter, the ‘personal and impersonal’.  Fifty minutes is the length of a psychoanalysis session, and, according to Lilley, the length of a lecture: ‘A lecturer, Pound says … is a man who must speak for an hour. If Pound had been more familiar with the etiquette of everyday teaching, he would have known that, above all, the lecturer must not speak for an hour. Every second over fifty minutes sends shock waves through the room …’

This take-down of the modernist master is pretty funny, and as everything does in this book, prompts further speculation. In his review of Lilley’s first collection Versary, the UK poet John Wilkinson discusses Lilley’s allusiveness, suggesting that her poems are best read in anthology because ‘they do not, it seems to me, require the learning of their own new idiom so much as stand clearly in a critical relationship with modernist poetry’. Given Lilley’s references range from country and western music to sixteenth-century texts, from Wordsworth to Beyonce, this is an odd observation. The idiom of these poems is unarguably their own, although their precisions invite divagation, as they cast critical illuminations in all sorts of unexpected directions.

Wilkinson creates a hierarchy of allusiveness, placing modernist poetry – specifically the male ‘ego-driven follies of Pound and Olson’ – at the apex of significance as points of reference for Lilley’s work. It seems to me there is something more multi-dimensional going on in these poems: Lilley’s sensibility creates a poetry in dialectic relationship with almost everything it encounters. (You might equally argue that they can only be properly understood while listening to C&W albums.) However, if there is a single poetry with which Lilley’s work is in critical dialogue, it’s a much more obvious precursor, an aspect of the ‘etiquette of [the] everyday’ with which Lilley taxes Pound. It is the poetry of her own mother, Dorothy Hewett.

Hewett’s troubled and loved influence haunts Ladylike. One of the most significant figures in Australian letters, Hewett was a poet and playwright: a rebel, a feminist, and, for a long time, a communist. In Selected Poems, which Lilley recently edited, she describes her mother as a ‘magnificently unabashed poet of female narcissism’. In Fifty Minutes she asks: ‘in the criss-cross of mother and daughter, student and teacher, poetry and criticism, what is mine and what is hers?’ How is a poet who is the daughter of a poet – and such a poet – to define herself? First, it seems, by what they have in common: ‘her love and mine, our shared vocation.’ For Lilley, winding her meanings here intricately, love and poetry are both ‘vocations’; crucially, they are vocal acts of emotion and intelligence:  articulated feeling. Throughout the book both are performances of kinship and relationship as well as fracture and alienation. These poems can’t be read simply as feminist critiques of patriarchal texts. They are also – and perhaps more importantly – feminist critiques of matriarchal inheritance.

The sequence ‘Cleft’ is an elegy dedicated to her mother and directly addresses the vexed question of heritage. In the first poem, ‘Genie’, Lilley asks:

Anachronic from first to last
what’s left to confess?

Tatterdemalion estate
waste and wild

I’m bound to it as if it were you
your disinihibition

Eat my words to keep them
from resembling your loose lips

‘Melodramas,’ she says sardonically elsewhere, ‘are made for mothers.’ Lilley’s rebellion against maternal excess – for Hewett was nothing if not excessive – toys with the diminutively feminine as well as with restraint, the bitten-back word, in two poems, ‘LITTLE Maisie’ and ‘Maisily’.

‘Maisily’ is a playful list of adverbs, a class of words that possess, poetically speaking, feminine endings. These contrast with the fine, restrained lyric grief expressed in others. The sequence coalesces in a stark image of death: ‘Your wardrobe of opening nights / reduced to a simple party dress / …your bed hacked to pieces for the skip’.  The sequence runs through the complexities of loss – its blankness and emptiness, its richness and forgiveness.

‘Cleft’ comes after the opening sequence of the book, ‘The Double Session’, informing the earlier poems, which are a series on analysis sessions that makes the dialectic movement of the poems explicit. Memories of early erotic experience are placed against a damaged present, to be articulated and notated through the work of analysis (poetic and intellectual as well as psychological): ‘Once this work is done,’ a voice says flatly at the end of the title poem, ‘all these tapes will be yours.’ But it’s clear that this ownership of memory is only a beginning.

Lilley’s questing spirals back and forth in the atemporal spaces of imagination. In the first half of the book, the personal is opened up into the impersonal: Lilley explores the impossibility of distinguishing daughter from critic, poet from lover, self from language. In the second half, which consists of the sequences ‘Ladylike’ and ‘Round Vienna’, the impersonal is rendered as personal. Historical texts – Freud’s case histories Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria (here slyly reworked as ‘Fraud’s Dora’) and The Psychogenesis of a Case of Homosexuality in a Woman, the writings of Marie Bonaparte and the intriguing case of the seventeenth-century bigamist Mary Carleton – are treated with the same acute, almost forensic attention that emotional autobiography is given in the first half of the book. There’s some wicked satire of Freud’s uncomprehending theory of penis envy (‘A girl might harden herself / in the conviction she does possess a penis …’)

The female complaint – ‘the desire for and cost of feminine conventionality’ – is opened out as historical and transpersonal (‘A woman hath no clergy / one woe courteth another’). Lilley continually pushes the language towards sheer exuberance: the poems become a riot of costumes and performance that give her wit and delight in language full rein. The collection finishes with a poem drawn from the writings of Princess Marie Bonaparte, who spent her life in quest of Freud’s ‘vaginal orgasm’. She wrote about her experiences under the pseudonym AE Narjani and was Freud’s major reference in his exploration of female frigidity. In Lilley’s poem, feminine display both conceals and reveals a subversive female eroticism – the feathers on a hat tickle awake the various kinds of clitoral orgasm Bonaparte carefully noted and categorised. These were, of course, orgasms that Freud considered illegitimate: women could only achieve proper sexual satisfaction in the missionary position, with a man.

Napoleonic fur toques decked with feathers


Narjani’s volupté


On the last page, a single line – ‘Give her an inch!’ – answers Freud’s famous question: ‘What do women want?’ Yet even that modest demesne – whether of sensitively nerved flesh, or space for her own subjective experience – has, as Lilley sardonically observes through this collection, often seemed too much. Too much, and not enough.

Alison Croggon

Alison Croggon is a Melbourne writer whose work includes poetry, novels, opera libretti and criticism. Her work has won or been shortlisted for many awards. Her most recent book is New and Selected Poems 1991–2017.

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  1. ‘Give her an inch’ and the feather allusions made me think of the quintessential lady (at least as she is now presented in popular culture) Jane Austen, with her (now) famous question:
    “What should I do with your strong, manly, spirited sketches, full of variety and glow? How could I possibly join them on to the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush, as produces little effect after much labour?”

    A truly enticing review.

  2. Thanks so much, Alison. It’s wonderful to be gifted with such an acute and generous review! Kate

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