Dirty Words – Natalie Harkin (Cordite Books)
At the bottom of the poem for E ‘Eugenics’ is the parenthetical note: ‘(see Domestic; Genocide; History Wars; Mythology)’. The indexical alphabet-archive of the never-ceded sovereignty of Indigenous Australians is itself indexed along the bottom of each poem. The poems themselves borrow from archives of royal commissions, historical accounts of Indigenous domestic servants, statements from Coalition politicians (prime ministers, ministers), Barry Spurr, etc. The archives of the royal commissions include the voices of the aunties and elders. There are historical artifacts. Harkin’s poems delve through these with her own confronting lyric of simmering rage. They are dark and ironic, reworking and reframing the fragments from past and present colonialism. The poems, like T ‘Tall-Ships’, return to the founding myths our leaders encourage us to revere and tear them down.
And then, more directly, from G ‘Genocide’:
How do you dream John Howard
when your Lucky-Country does not sleep?
The lines of Harkin’s poems play with spacing – wide spaces that work like commas, italics, hanging words. Recovering a history of a colonised people might be like sifting through fragments. Or it might be that the poem, as Harkin writes it, is the representation of split histories, flicked off families, fractured homelands.
The ecological is ever-present too. C is for ‘Climate Change’. L is for ‘Land Rights’. As far as I could tell the pastoral was done with, until I read this book. It’s beyond pastoral: it’s the politics of the land lived on for centuries, the poems the battle cries. But they are also expressions that have been aesthetically thought through. The voice threading among it is one of militant consciousness that uses words as weapons. They are ‘dirty’, but also wieldable.
Throughout the book epigraphs appear from Christopher Pyne, George Brandis, Tony Abbott, John Howard and others. They are easy targets – they have given us remarkably stupid quotes that can be written against, but I wonder if the poems consciously mean to let the Labor party off the hook. Perhaps not, but their absence is conspicuous to me. This is nothing but an aside – if the poems are indeed an index, which I think they are, then the constraint of time alone is enough to give us this work (and, of course, if Harkin were to include a full epigraph-archive of all the absurdly racist and awful things politicians say while in office, the book would probably be too long to print). Harkin’s poetry is fresh and bright. R is for ‘Resistance’, and in that poem, we see the Aunties –
I remember with respect my thanks I love
There’s a reverence and remembrance – one gets the sense these poems are capturing something big, something that reaches into the pasts, distant and near. The epigraph to the entire book is an Audre Lorde line – ‘Speak loud/speak unsettling things/and be dangerous’ – and it not only a line that will arm black women, but also an illuminating beginning of a book such as this.
Lemons in the Chicken Wire – Alison Whittaker (Magabala Books)
There’s something fluid and biting and multiple in the ‘I’ of Whittaker’s poems. There is a lack of folios, so I must fold the corners of the pages I need to return to. And there is also lots of blood. Sometimes, wonderfully, it is blood as a hot messy shameful body fluid, such as in ‘Whatcha’:
Whatcha doin’ not showerin’ when you’s bleedin’, girl?
And not usin’ a separate bar of soap?
(I note the grammatical comma before ‘girl?’ despite the dropped g’s throughout – unexpected but satisfying.)
The poems in this collection are often loud and wild (‘If she’s wearing fists/you’ll feel it on your face’), and sometimes gutting, such as in ‘Taste A//Verse’.
Whittaker’s poems play with vernaculars in a way that renders her poems – in combination with unexpected and fun internal rhythms and rhymes – a wonderful intervention into poetry that bends linguistic–family–colour–colony lines. (Not poetic lines but the invisible lines that reside in a person or in a poem fragment.)
There’s a queer poetics, too, unafraid of pulling back, yet never seeming to sacrifice the joy of a robust line (a line of a poem, I mean). The ampersand and forward slashes (two of my personal favourite punctuation marks) that appear in ‘Sharp Tongue’ are delightful and at the same time the audibly pleasurable lines are able to reach out to the reader, to remind them of common consonants.
and then she says t’me
I heard the limp throngs thump and smack
her nail-less toe beds heave and slack
to this silent rhythm, foot out and back
come back black, come back black
(From ‘Come back Black, where the rejection and violence in the words form along the rhymes a twisted smile, like one might imagine from a children’s entertainer who has seen dark things but needs to put on a brave face for the toddlers.)
None of the playful aspects of certain poems alleviates the darkness that runs throughout this collection. The ‘joke was that they were gay’ (in ‘Insider Knowledge’) turns to what could be a declaration of unconditional love but is more like a threat – ‘You don’t know what you are, but we do’.
One of the more powerful poems is ‘The Body Country’, in which I was drawn to the nose – that heavily racialised body part. The poem throws into the air around it how identity is not a classification but heaving spaces within moving breathing bodies, how it is traced through no longer moving or breathing bodies from before, how Aboriginality is made invisible and visible in different painful ways – and that this might inspire defiance, as found in the tone of this poem.
It’s difficult to write about this collection without losing what I’m trying to convey: the sense of transformative combinations of the different parts a person takes to make themselves and how these parts might be like cars in a multi-lane highway and poetry is the only car we might need for a while but we also still need those other things.
The Devastation – Melissa Buzzeo (Nightboat)
The reader is given a treat (which is how I like to think of it) in the form of an opening preface from the author, foreshowing the long poems of this book that are connected by the sea, or a recent absence of it. The Devastation is post-apocalyptic, post-language even, rooted in biopolitical waste products, addressing loss, water, devastation (as in the common noun) and love.
Sparse pages throughout, then densely inked pages still with a light touch, though syntax is pulled at and rebuilt for an emergent grammar:
You punctured the air
You would not drain being
It was expensive
(from ‘The First Day’ in ‘Part III: The Sky)
–How can one write a one book? –One picks up a heavy sheet of ice. One slips and falls. One evades the presence in oneself these heavy winds which become book. One dies and that is the fire.
(from ‘Part IV: The Basin’, where these are all either a very long poem spaced out with page breaks or individual untitled poems that nonetheless trail along like lengths of seaweed knotted together at each end.)
Bones, like memory, are brittle. The dankness these poems are steeped in shows us Buzzeo’s ability to make palatable the unpalatable, for throughout this dankness, we never want to leave. Comfort, then, is a surprising side effect – perhaps in a city on its path to ruin (I speak of Sydney), we do not yet want rage, or action, but require a book for which the peace of sinking can harness or buoy us.
To stay here when there is nothing
not even bone breaking over skin
The long haul of nothing indivisible from self
Everything slowly undone. After Buzzeo’s post-language world is settling among the dust. I suggest reading once very slowly, then again rapidly, then once more slowly, but end rapidly. It is in the rapid reading that I find a Muybridge-type world in movement, propelling towards perpetual repeat. And in the long, slow parses, open-plain pages, angular grammar, I find a reknitted sense of ability to bear one more day in the world. The poet here is as one in commune with the earth and soulless beings, yet who maintains her own fierce heat.
Unexpected Clearing – Rose Lucas (UWAP)
you slip my planet side- ways
This is the second stanza from ‘Unkiltered’, from the section named ‘Night Road’. At this point in the collection, the poems are mostly a soft, gentle lapping kind of touch. They are usually attentive to the visual components of a line – shifting, scattering – but, as in the lines above, I’m also reminded of how a planet is a sphere and how can it be sideways – ‘my planet side’, as opposed to my star side, or my black hole side. The planet is roundest when it’s sideways. The rest of the stanza reveals a snow globe, or that could be one reading of it.
Many of the poem titles in Lucas’s book denote and declare the contents on a certain level, but ‘Unkiltered’ the title follows with the lines
by the rising thought of you –
So it is like a broken line, or we are entering halfway through something already begun.
Most of the poems here are one or two pages long. They linger, too, in a spectral sense – but perhaps this occurs somewhere above the poem, for on the page there is precision and lucidity. ‘Cleaning in the Wood’, from the section ‘Unexpected Clearing’, is suitably pastoral. It is here that stillness can be observed, even as it acknowledges the loud cries from within a person’s being that simmer beneath the surface, and the bodies and personalities jostling for the smallest piece of pain.
leaves ride the tunnels of air down to find the ground settling in still damp grass, a flecked universe of colour and shape and angle.
Are these separated words (‘down’, ‘settling’, ‘angle’) meant to juxtapose against the flatness one might imagine of a clearing? I was too caught up in words and lines to know if anything deeper was afoot. This is not to say the poems are shallow but rather there is a pleasantness Lucas evokes in contemplating still but not-so-still scenes. The tangible erotics of ‘Daylesford Massage’ suggest the corporeal nature of repressed desire. Or the predatory nature of unfulfilled desire, as in the poem ‘What Remains’ (‘her meaning always stays/just out of reach’).
One can’t help but think of that symbol of global market when they come across ‘The Container Ship’, and ‘their vast metallic arms’. But there is a reference to straight fruits and it troubles me slightly. For me, the phrase can never be innocent of Billie’s meaning. There are historical poems, too. In the case of ‘After Bosworth Field’, after the location where Richard III’s remains were found, the poem almost dutifully responds to the death of ‘important’ men of history in all its earthly banality.
This is a collection meditating on land, woods, daughters, mothers and death, engrossed in the quotidian, while the reader resonates and glides along from verse to verse.
Fale Aitu | Spirit House – Tusiata Avia (Victoria University Press)
In a certain country the thirteen-year-old girls are border guards
The typography of the poem pages in this riling collection intrigues me. The titles are sentence cap and maybe one or two point sizes more than the poem text: streamlined and subtle. It seems as though the authority of the title is obscured deliberately. It’s a suggestion, not a direction. Avia writes poems through her body, through her lived life, through events that have shaped her country (New Zealand) – a typographically pronounced title would get in the way of that. She provides notes at the end for many of the poems in the collection – sources, moments, meanings and translations. It suggests she wants to be alongside the reader. It’s a friendly and open gesture, one that I’m grateful for.
Avia responds in poem form to the border guards, immigration officers, newspaper clippings – of natural disaster, family, ghosts. Indeed, this book pulsates with the supernatural. It’s better to acknowledge the spirits than to pretend you don’t know about them. Avia’s rendering of her Samoan heritage is tapestry-like and somatic. The ultimate somatic poetry comes from ‘Apology’: ‘my body is a herd of animals’. I understand immediately a sense of separation forced between a woman and her body – especially one of colour – and how she must reconcile this fact each day.
Avia’s refrain ‘I cannot write a poem about Gaza’ reminded me of Anne Boyer’s ‘not writing’. She can only write it by not writing it. The gruesome business of thinking about Palestine, the poem encourages us to believe, can only be conceived in this way right now.
‘What collection of molecules are you?’ (from ‘We are the diasporas’), a zooming out and zooming in of the moving peoples of the globe. After the colony is this.
‘My body is a herd of animals’. This line lingers.
Avia’s collection is round, smooth, singular. With its dexterous weaving of myth and memory, and refusal to lay down either as a means of seeing the world, this is a book that looks beyond borders.
Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.
Subscribe | Renew | Donate November 9–16 to support progressive literary culture for another year – and for the chance to win magnificent prizes!