Inner-city arty blak
Remote yet so connected blak
Welfare woman villain blak
Pension weaver striking blak
Work two jobs to make rent blak
Lawyer and professor blak
Third week on my couch now blak.
Alison Whittaker concentrates her second collection of poetry on the consequences and complexities of the unrecognised/unacceptable/unjust Indigenous labour that has been worked – and is still being worked – in this country. As such, it’s not redundant to emphasise that writing a book about such concepts requires an unquantifiable amount of labour.
Within our colonial, capitalist and patriarchal society, the common question of: ‘so, what do you do?’ really means: ‘what do you do for work = money?’ And the type of answer to this question is habitually associated with preconceived assumptions based on race, class, education and socio-economic status/potentiality. Whittaker’s Blakwork works to expose, disrupt and denounce these modes of thinking.
Blakwork is divided into fifteen sections; the majority entitled with a distinctive form of labour including: ‘bloodwork’, ‘heartwork’, ‘workwork’, ‘newwork’, and ‘blakwork’. The intentional absence of a space or hyphenation separating each specific form of work could be understood to enact pressure – demonstrating that these forms of labour have been enforced by colonisation rather than selected. The terms ‘work’ and ‘blakwork’ are necessarily repeated throughout the collection, because as Whittaker establishes, there is more than one form of ‘blakwork’. Whittaker’s poetic repetition also signals to white readers (such as myself) that the writing of this poetry is another form of ‘work’. Whittaker stunningly complicates the overall collection by including three sections which still address forms of labour, but are instead written in what may be read as prose: ‘the abattoir’, ‘the school’ and ‘the centre’.
The collection’s eponymously title poem, ‘Blakwork’ closes with the lines:
it’s naff to say, but compul—
—sorry to do. Indentured blakwork, something like:
nine to five, forgiv—
The unfinished words and fractured words in this poem disrupt the linearity of reading and reveal the problematic and distressing experience of working within ‘Fresh blakwork; industrial complexes’ and amongst the ‘white guilt’ explored at the beginning of the poem.
Poems such as ‘housemade’, ‘rework’, ‘palimpsest’, and ‘a love like Dorothea’s’ are all symbolically printed in landscape on the page. The action of turning the book on its side to read these poems reflects the way bodies must move in specific ways when it comes to undertaking ‘work’ and again disrupts an expected linearity. Whittaker consistently calls for a revision of colonial understanding and this is especially significant within the poem ‘a love like Dorothea’s’, a revision of Dorothea Mackellar’s colonially canonised poem ‘My Country’.
Whittaker literally and figuratively demonstrates the subtle – yet radical – ways in which poetry may influence perceptions, particularly with regards to the colonial romanticisation of so-called Australia. One of the ways Whittaker powerfully does this is by mimicking Mackellar’s use of rhyme, and reveals how it creates nostalgia = settler ownership/entitlement = systematic racism. The poem opens:
I loved a sunburnt country, dislodged in a memory
I never lived in a time to love a love like Dorothea’s.
We’re cannibals of other kinds; the white woman has eat the sky
and where’s that leave them girls like I?—lost creatures chewing o’er the night
of our missing sunburnt country, on which our prone feet land.
Yet onto which Mackellar’s gaze turns rivers into sand.
It burns my eyes to turn to hers, my wide brown land out of like hands
but traced in fetish verse—
Whittaker’s parody of Mackellar’s constant return to the ‘I’ allows for her to counteract Mackellar’s colonial gaze. Such a poetic technique also allows for a significant and personal reference to Whittaker’s ancestral connection to this land:
I love white nativity
that digs its roots and ticks to suck the floodplains and the sea—
the love that swept those sweeping plains from Nan, from Mum, from me.
With hope, Whittaker’s collection, and in particular her revision of Mackellar’s poem, will be continuously referenced whenever ‘My Country’ is discussed or is included in curriculum. This review closes with Whittaker’s words:
I loved a sunburnt country—won’t it
please come back to me? Won’t it
show me why my spirit wanders
but is never free?
Calenture – Lindsay Tuggle (Cordite Books, 2018)
The explosion that is my face
always was political
wearing my dead
of curling hair and ash.
For those unfamiliar with the explicit meaning of ‘calenture’, Lindsay Tuggle provides a definition, and her relationship with this expression, in her collection’s preface. The definition reads that ‘calenture’ is: ‘A fever incident to sailors’ occupying tropical climates and is ‘characterised by delirium in which the patient fancies the sea to be green fields, and desires to leap into it’. Such a specific hallucination incites the subjectivities of loss. Calenture: a specific word for a specific state – which is paradoxical in the sense that much of Tuggle’s poetry circumnavigates the abstract and ineffable complexities relating to death, mourning and melancholia.
Tuggle’s Calenture is written in the memory of her sister and the closing line of ‘Where Moderns has no Myths’ painfully reads: ‘What remains after the end: one sister is / never enough’. Tuggle’s expansive question isn’t alleviated by an expected question mark, but rather a colon: an openness that cannot be closed, and as Tuggle reminds us there are always: ‘So many rooms to leave.’
While Calenture begins with an autobiographical expression, it is also an elegiac exploration encompassing the violent realities/histories imposed upon non-conformist individuals and their bodies after death. This includes a return to asylums, psychiatric case histories, and the criminalisation of mental illness. The opening poem of the collection, ‘Asylum, Pageantry’ includes the lines:
if there were amnesty for the dead
we’d be strangers still
our tongues bruised by
the flesh of angels
this, my apologia
they only come when you call
The lines reveal the responsibility the living may feel they owe the dead, and the haunting ways in which such an obligation is bound with unspeakable intricacies, particularly with responding to death in ways considered to be artistic (such as poetry). Tuggle acknowledges this fragile process with the lines:
her assassin said
I’d love to work
but there’s no money
in art only death pays
upon morning we wear
each other’s faces
Tuggle exposes and concentrates many of her poems on the political economies of death and mourning, with the elegy as a form of ‘transaction’ with loss = a form of artistic gain. Tuggle writes in subversion to this: ‘In order to emerge from a transaction / unharmed, simply withdraw the possession’. Simple…right? Because ‘the walls have been hollowed / for your convenience’, and it’s been said that: ‘The only party worth /attending is a funeral’.
Tuggle’s collection is divided into two sections: the eponymously titled ‘Calenture’ and ‘An Elementary Treatise on Human Anatomy’, both demonstrating the abstract and the visceral elements of death. The ‘Calenture’ section focuses more on emotion and memory and the second sequence is a twelve-part poem written after Joseph Leidy, who Tuggle informs in the book’s ‘Notes’ was an ‘anatomist and naturalist’, who in 1861 published a book with the same title, which ‘exemplifies the fetish of certain nineteenth-century bibliophiles, who collected books bound in human skin’. Unnervingly, the ‘bibliophiles’ who exhibited such a fixation ‘were usually surgeons’, and the leather for their collections ‘originated from autopsied bodies of their patients’.
Calenture is not: ‘Just another posthumous seduction’ and Tuggle’s poetics refuse to be ‘sentimental’. There are multiple forms of bodies focused on throughout Calenture, including the bodies of the deceased, grieving bodies, the bodies of books bound in human skin and Tuggle’s body of poetry. Calenture strikingly entwines these bodies and allows for the insight that: ‘We are all flesh / toying architecturally with bone’. And as Tuggle stresses: ‘Every elegy needs an author. And then, an autopsy’.
I Love Poetry – Michael Farrell (Giramondo, 2017)
There’s no before the poem to look back on, no
accident creating a rhythm or potent
movement. Not that we poem-created
entities can see at least. There
is outside the poem, any-
more than an outside of music
The title of Michael Farrell’s recent collection I love Poetry is both declaration and provocation. While there’s a consistent parodic tone throughout the collection, the poems also demonstrate sincerity, allowing Farrell to reveal the similarities between these modes of expression and to problematise fixed notions of understanding. Farrell also situates his poetry within past/present colonial Australia, alongside pop culture references, to subvert the effects/affects of Australiana and nationalism.
In the poem ‘Four Tame Impalas And A Kevin Parker’, Farrell merges in and out of humour and seriousness in dealing with how poetry has/might/can be written. The poem begins: ‘The dust mites with their hands in their pockets wrote it / And hippogriffs leering down from old poems wrote it’. Although this poem is rich in intertextual references, recognising each one isn’t the point, as the poem shifts towards a necessary seriousness and acknowledgement of the colonial violence that so-called Australian poetry is based upon:
Let it happen, make it happen: it’s
a poem world if you want it
The wind in the multiple leaves wrote it
and the wind in the leaves in descriptions
Massacres – not just good things – wrote it
Prose is predominantly valued over other literary forms in Australia, most especially oral traditions, and Farrell refers to and contrasts poetry with other genres and forms. The collection’s opening poem ‘A Lyrebird’ has the repeated refrain: ‘All genres are destroyed at last’. In the same poem, and in a playful yet blunt statement, Farrell writes: ‘The enclosed imagination buys a hunting gun’. Such a line, as with many of Farrell’s poems, mocks and challenges the actual physical harm that capitalist ideologies encourage as a means of overriding alternate or shifting perspectives. Farrell refers to a traditional poetic technique of rhyme (often found in what is conventionally known as ‘bush poetry’) to reveal how it may conceal, or reinforce, the markers of this country’s violent colonial history: ‘A rhyme’s a moral that becomes a fence; a fallen-down fence / is a joy forever.’
The poem ‘Acadreamia’ powerfully satirises academic institutions by focussing on the work of Farrell’s invented ‘Professor of Milk and Sugar’. The Professor in question is ‘preparing a lecture while / poking at a fish with a chopstick’. Just as one might take ‘Milk & Sugar’ in their tea/coffee, the Professor’s title gestures towards leisure and comfort (rather than ‘smoko’). And the protagonist in this poem is clearly brimming with luxury:
… His bin was full. A banana
had fallen behind his desk: he could smell it. He
asked a graduate student to get it for him. You
have long arms and must be able to reach all
kinds of ideas, he murmured.
Farrell’s Professor (and perhaps actual professors readers may have encountered?) trusts his authoritative position so completely that he feels qualified to gaze upon a student’s physicality (read: race and gender) and is able to judge their effectiveness not only in waste removal but their potentiality of academic prowess = desirability.
This collection challenges what we have/might/could think about the reading and writing of poetry. As Farrell stirringly writes: ‘It’s as if you’re writing for those who might not read / you rather than those who might’.
Angel Frankenstein – George Mouratidis (Soul Bay Press, 2018)
almost half my life had to pass
for me to see
I am no more or less than a
note in this song I know I will never hear
sung the same way twice
George Mouratidis’ debut collection of poetry, Angel Frankenstein, ‘gets underneath’ the writing of poetry as a means of political resistance against racism, socio-economic divisions and the gentrification of working-class migrant communities. In the opening poem of the collection, Mouratidis provides a nihilistic, yet all-too-common fear of what could/may become of a writer’s work, and possibly in turn his identity/culture as a person who has migrated from Greece with his family to Melbourne’s northern suburbs. ‘That Poem’ commences with the lines:
That poem was not available now at all reputable book retailers
It was never going to be a literary classic, slurred drunkenly by poet
types, or interred on a library shelf.
It wasn’t quoted in campaign speeches, eulogies, wedding vows, or a
‘poem of the day’ calendar.
With the hope of not limiting this poem to an autobiographical reading, ‘That Poem’ may be interpreted as exploring how this country’s dominant colonial culture has impacted on Mouratidis’ formative years, and his interaction with the types of literary consumption that have historically been elevated over more marginalised voices/communities. The poem expresses the extremities a person may experience when they’ve been exposed to a literary realm that has historically silenced/erased expressions of diversity – something which this collection intends to counteract. As Mouratidis writes in the poem ‘Corner of Main and High’: ‘the unceasing hammering of master myths whose / formaldehyde keeps leaking on your shoes … your living / never caught in those sample photographs that / come with the frames’.
As the title of Angel Frankenstein suggests, Mouratidis’ poetry is also concerned with the construction of dichotomies, what’s between them and how language might break them down. This is evident in the reference to Mary Shelley’s character of Victor Frankenstein, the creator of ‘the monster’ which has had a long history of mistakenly being referred to as ‘Frankenstein’ (rather than ‘Frankenstein’s monster’). The inventor’s name has become synonymous with their creation, and this is Mouratidis’ point: that there is a commonality of mistranslation/misunderstanding – which isn’t actually incorrect at all, in a sense.
The ‘Notes and Acknowledgements’ section provides some translations (including Mouratidis’ own). But significantly, most of the Greek language isn’t translated. This resistance to translation becomes one of the main ways in which this collection refuses to conform. Such an approach allows Mouratidis freedom to write in his first language. It also represents the violence of this country’s dominant dismissal of non-English languages and the impacts of this upon perception and identity. The emotional and physical pain caused by this is stunningly captured in the poem ‘Little Skies’:
nothing worth a damn, worth
your while on earth can ever grow
beneath a bloated claustrophobic sky
of bitterness, regret and shame –
Mouratidis is determined for his poetry to not be ‘colourfully ethnic, delightfully quaint, gritty, gungy, edgy / loud and sassy, or authentic’. Mouratidis’ refusal to assimilate encourages readers to consider if they themselves have had their mother tongue suppressed by this country’s monolingual = English-colonially dominated expressions. Returning to ‘That Poem’:
It would not perform its ethnicity for you, μαλάκα.
Εκείνο το ποίημα δε βολεύτηκε με λιγότερο ουρανό.
It would not translate itself or keep its voice down.
Angel Frankenstein emphasises that the past attaches to the present: ‘…the / entrails of our histories aren’t dissected by cadavers / but scab over’. This concentration on the physical consequences of othering, specifically within this country, allows this collection to reveal that unlike a scar, a scab still has layers to connect and Mouratidis has chosen poetry to express the need for new imaginings to form.