no matter what you dream, how uncomfortable,
this is where it happens, where it passes,
a creek bed, thunder clap.
The dedication page in Jill Jones’ tenth collection of poetry finishes/begins with lines that lovingly and fearlessly state:
make open secrets
fold them into your cheek
there’s not always need
This acknowledgement and the erotics of Jones’ language reveal the physicality and the non-abstractedness of ‘love’, yet contradictorily, and tenderly, gesture to the unutterable. Words become _____________ in our desire to express what is felt, so much that we are on the edge of spilling inside/outside of ourselves.
Like in previous collections, Jones divides/connects each section of Brink with fragmented epigraphs – allusions to what each section may explore – though they never summarise. These epigraphs offer extensions of thoughts/sensations. The poetry in this collection veers and stirs to unite physicality-with-language-with-weatherly-conditions: ‘the shape of an ear, marginal facts / blown about by a northerly’.
The poem ‘In My Shifts’ may be interpreted as questioning the way language, and specific metaphors, have the propensity, often brutally so, to influence the perception/interpretation of identity. The poem opens: ‘I come in with language. / I come out of.’ The unconventionally punctuated and syntactically unfinished line may be read as the way that identity can be forcefully limited by hegemonic conventions of language and sexuality. To read this line literarily rather than metaphorically (as assumed is wanted), the seemingly unfinished yet punctuated sentence reveals how the concept of ‘coming out’ is also overshadowed by the term itself. The poem ends with its persona finding a way to navigate through such liminal spaces: ‘And my hand that allows / me to come / in with language / then without.’
In continuation with a lot of poetry responding to ecological concerns, Jones necessarily merges the ecopoetical with the elegiac and alludes to the dystopian. As each page of the book is turned the poems become more experimental – to fracture is sometimes to articulate. In a world where the poet’s ‘consonants drown’ and ‘[i]t’s hard to balance words, they fall off clouds’, there is no solid ground for Jones – only the land that is being dismissed and destroyed: ‘Loss spreads like highway, wings, disease, excuses.’
we will gather and mutter
about pontianaks and magic
Maybe they exist, maybe not.
To designate a ‘name’ is to offer a form of beginning/connection and be distinguished from another. Yet the possibilities and limitations of dominant forms of nomenclature in relation to culture/identity are some of the major themes Aisyah Shah Idil interrogates in her debut poetry collection.
Multilingual and multidimensional in form, Shah Idil writes in Malay and English to disassemble the more conventional forms of poetry such as the lyric, as well as offers experimental insights into textual redactions, erasures, and the essay.
The poem ‘Where were you on 9/11?’ is in entirely written in capital letters. Shah Idil’s capitalisation of each word necessarily emphasises the urgency of the poem’s content and symbolically conjures the violence of western capitalist ideology without specifically referring to it. Aside from the title, the poem contains no punctuation, with lines such as, ‘I SAID I LOVED YOU AND I WANTED I WANTED’, allowing for no space for pause because amongst the Islamophobia and warmongering of a ‘post-9/11 era’, some people have had no such reprieve.
‘Where were you on 9/11?’ is contrasted with the lyric poem ‘Water’. Shah Idil conveys gravity as the poem falls down the page like liquid, yet it jarringly echoes the violence of the previous poem. Like many of the poems in this collection, ‘Water’ signals to the contradictory and liminal concepts embodying both potency and delicateness. The second half of the poem may be read as the conflict the poet experiences when it comes to her expressions of her culture, religion and gender:
I have been struggling, Lord,
with my hijab.
The letter ‘a’ in hijab is written eighteen times – a sacred number in The Holy Qur’an. The number eighteen also suggests the poetry of the thirteenth century Sufi poet Rumi, and his instrumental work Masnavi-i Ma’navi.
In the poem explicitly titled ‘The Essay’, Shah Idil presents three sections of poetry, all unnamed and without any content except for accompanying footnotes. Shah Idil refuses to materialise, and therefore reduce, the unspeakable. Each footnote offered within these three sections refers to experiences of racism within Australia. The third footnote in the second sequence of ‘The Essay’ must be read in full:
To the woman who imitated my mother’s accent, I say:
can you? Can you get that inflection of humour in your t’s /
Can you coax the grief out and
feel it tremble / Can you wean
softness out and hold it open /
Her words are weighty for those who don’t know how to carry them, and
so can you?
It would be limited/limiting to state that Shah Idil’s poetry explores impacts of colonisation, migration, Islamaphobia and transgenerational trauma – this collection is filled with hope, tenderness and ‘reminders’. As Shah Idil writes in the poem ‘Reminder’: ‘Hold out your memories / in your palms without shame. / They are all we have / and they matter.’
What do you make of our world of missed?
I read an aerogramme in every song,
trace a lineage of sun for the book of every thought.
Fiona Hile’s Subtraction is the poet’s second full-length collection as well as being the second inaugural winner of the 2017 Helen Anne Bell Poetry Award. If 2 + 2 = 4, then this collection defiantly pushes 4ward outmoded (and often complacent) indulgences of philosophies and literary representations of love, loss, and those aches desire makes feel like ‘The shimmering / tip of a wave, replicated innumerously.’
The mathematical procedure of ‘subtraction’ is apparently one of the easiest numerical tasks to perform – yet such an account has no consideration for the ‘numerous affinities’ related to feeling or articulating the physical/emotional response to loss/es. Subtraction debunks canonised and contemporary Western understanding of chivalry, romance and heteronormative constructs. This can be demonstrated in poems such as ‘The Satisfaction of Speech’, where Hile writes: ‘I fix on a mood in the high key of you, / twiddle my hi-viz wedding ring / and laugh at the way rhyme and metre / protect us from happiness’.
Hile opens the poem ‘The Illustrious Formations of Absolute Contingency’ with the line: ‘Walking in the country you remember how to write fiction’. With such a seemingly straightforward line Hile alludes to the pastoral and the way this poetic form often stems from a false entitlement to land, which is especially important in the context of so-called Australia and how a quick ‘a country get-away’ from the city often encourages an acceptance that one has opportunity escape ‘reality’ for ‘romance’.
Self-referential and self-aware, Hile addresses the thematics of this collection with the closing poem ‘Whatever’: ‘To pluralise one’s contractions with an apostrophe is a sign / of trustworthiness, the formal vanity of the tuxedoed / vernacular. Everything that is hidden becomes crucial.’ The poems in Subtraction allow the reader to ‘Reconstruct [themselves] / as the indefinite article of an unanticipated need for tissue.’
Walk Back Over – Jeanine Leane (Cordite Books, 2018)
In what suburban backyard, rural block, museum,
university or science laboratory do these bones lie?
We’re still looking for pieces of us in Australia,
Jeanine Leane’s second poetry collection, Walk Back Over, emphasises ‘the crime scene that is Australia’ both from inside and outside this country. Leane is a Wiradjuri writer, teacher and academic who grew up in Gundagai, which ‘means bend curve’, and in many of these poems Leane turns/returns into this ‘town of [her] childhood.’ Writing into such homecomings and departures ‘a long way east of Eden’ is an act of resistance against white Australia, and a mode for Leane to honour her history and the women who nurtured her within such colonial violence. Leane writes in the Preface of this collection:
Aboriginal women are the great gatherers of many things – food, of course, but also stories and inner strength, and to pass that on was a powerful act of activism. In particular, they taught me to listen to the past as it speaks in the present.
The title of this collection, Walk Back Over, is exceptionally meaningful for the way Leane invites/challenges settlers to ‘walk back over’ the fabricated ‘bridges’ of history on a land where Indigenous sovereignty has never been ceded. A ‘history’ which includes: ‘… assimilation policies, the Stolen Children, forced removal, institutions, deficit theories, mining booms, blue range rockets, uranium, incarceration, deaths in custody, gaps in health, gaps in health, education, employment, housing and justice…’
Leane exposes and destabilises the racist procedures of colonial and institutional archives and instead ‘explores the body where memories are stored as an archive; anchored and etched.’ The poem ‘Don’t let ‘em tell you’ is dedicated to ‘the Black women in the white archive’. The poem is written in italics, conjuring the notion of active speech – a reoccurring feature in this collection – from the voice of a woman, yet also echoing the voices of many First Nations women whose identities and cultures have been violently and unlawfully stolen/coded/stored as colonial ‘records’. In the opening poem ‘Cardboard incarceration’, Leane refers to a ‘cardboard prison they call an archive’ that remains ‘cold, airless and silent as death.’
Leane’s collection is divided into four sections, that cycle back to the overall purpose of the collection: ‘Walk Back Over’, ‘Country’, ‘The Montego-Yangshou Express’, and in the last section, for readers again to ‘Walk Back Over’ colonial myths, the so-called Australian and Western literary canon, and continued/continuing oppressive and discriminatory government policies.
This review ends with Leane’s own poetry/resistance with the closing (yet unstoppable) lines from the poem ‘Unassimilated’:
We call ourselves Black today
because you only changed the surface –
the skin we’re deeper than.
My children’s children and theirs live to remind you, that you did not.