Omar Sakr’s debut collection opens its gauze doors, but soon leaves its readers on the threshold.
It’s a compelling, if challenging, approach. Sakr reflects his subject matter at the level of the collection – experiences of displacement, destabilisation and disconnection, something Sakr’s own introduction says ‘should be rare’.
These Wild Houses has a reader-centredness that at once invites and resists intimacy. The poems seem like direct tellings, where ‘you’ feature. At the same time, the collection is inward-looking – a playful and skilled balance Sakr strikes through his storyelling and linguistic incisiveness. I’m reminded of those first awkward tours of friends’ homes, something emphasised by ‘Echoes of Home’, which chronicles longed-for domestic sounds.
Sakr gradually builds a character that rejects both Otherness and contradiction between Arab and queer. In ‘Call Off Duty’, the speaker pre-emptively memorialises his brother, fearing his love will leave:
‘You reply: ‘Don’t be
silly. I’ll always have your back.’
And everything I thought I knew
broke into a sound like prayer’
From its third of five sections, ‘The In Between Places’, the collection transforms from its house-tour form (descriptive, trust-building, situational) to a reflective and analytical one. See Sakr’s taut pub poem, ‘All In’:
‘The barman at the club delivers drinks
with a smile, asks if I’ll write a poem
on the napkin I require. If I’ll stain
this small white space…
Arabs move away from this white space
Without having stained a thing.’
Border Crossing – Caitlin Maling (Fremantle Press)
Precarious, estranged and bureaucratic, Caitlin Maling’s Border Crossing is of this time. With a gripping and parse text, she dissects borders’ many forms, turning her eye from Western Australia to rural and border America.
I read it as a relentless looping montage of alienation from land and kin. In ‘I-610 Inner Loop’, Maling sweeps me from:
‘…Targets & Walmarts & Petcos & Churches & Night
Bingo & Day Bingo and none of these buildings have any windows
and in that way they are like trees.’
to childhood memories of the Nullarbor. These two worlds blister against each other as our speaker contemplates homes and borders mitigated and spurned. For that millennial trope, aspiration or adventure? It’s never said, but:
‘…where desires land, large and unmistakable. Cast out of country,
on the wind and then the wetness bedding me in the bayou banks, asking me for roots.
Is it brave to refuse the home that’s offered?’
Despite its rose-tinted cover, the collection repels nostalgia. Its free forms resist comfort and pace – ranging from the page-long, regular ‘Closer’; to the stanza-numbered, double-voiced, doubly-metaphoric ‘February in Oregon’; to ‘Islands’, a list of 34 facts or commandments.
Maling is critically focussed on her border subject matter. ‘Checkpoint’ details cruel encounters of documentation and human movement:
‘My fingerprints on the glass cannot be retrieved.
In the mirror I tell myself my dates,
Entries and exits healing over, picked open.’
Yet, the collection doesn’t supplant worse and enduring border grievances. That desensitised suffering of people of colour is brought near(er) in ‘Sad Teen Cancer Movie’:
‘The boy who actually died in New Mexico
is like the other boys who die in New Mexico.
Stories webbing together like film looping.’
Gularabulu: Stories from the West Kimberley – Paddy Roe (UWA Press)
Gularabulu is not a new text. Originally released in 1983, a revised edition was published in late 2016.
Roe (whose texts are spoken; transcribed by an ethnographer) launched a blak writing tradition. Some Indigenous writers now mirror its experimental intensity in conveying space, Lingo, story, colonisation and time.
As a book with its institutional filters, Gularabulu can be a disquieting read. It is clad in notes: about Aboriginal English, explaining stories before they’re told, guiding pronunciation. Its transcription occasionally describes, rather than carries, Roe’s wordwork. His breaths, even background noises, are painstakingly noted.
I describe this as poetry, perhaps incorrectly. Others call Gularabulu a story collection. These descriptions come about because Gularabulu is shaped for page, with line breaks to represent spoken rhythms and transcription breaks creating ‘unitary stories’. Gularabulu must be read with this in mind – this book is not itself the text, it is someone’s record of it.
All the same, to read it is to descend into Roe’s deft word and narrative – at once politically urgent and nurturing.
Roe’s texts, lengthy and varied in style, spill from history to devil stori to trustori. He not only shapes word and narrative dazzlingly, but accounts for himself in both. Gularbulu is a skilfully textured and dense text, poetry or not. It surprises and unsettles the reader without ever being tedious or opaque.
‘he’s a strange man you know –
(soft) they didn’t know who he –
so that’s the thing made me wrong – (laugh)
that made me –
we camp right there where the old man –
they bury the old fella there too –
you know middle-aged –
lotta things wrong’
False Fruits – Matthew Hall (Cordite Books)
In False Fruits, Matthew Hall talks about the settler moment. His own introduction recalls a braided rope – plaiting archive to short story to paint a picture of how the Indigenous is erased by the establishment tales of settler nations.
It’s an apt metaphor for False Fruits. Each page is regular – stanza one: one long line usually building a scene; stanza two: fewer than six short lines on action; stanza three: one long line about their result. Hall’s seven poems are long untitled, numbered braids made from these pages. That structure burns a rhythm. Through it, the reader is open to explore the collection as a story and critique without adapting to new forms or settings. It also makes for a droning read that not all will love.
Colouring Hall’s poem-rope are metaphors of sustenance that are inseparable from their violence; bread, fruit and unfamiliar growth are underscored by their cost, and by their precariousness in the winter of a settler-resistant land. Although Hall writes about the frontier that made Canada, its similarities to what made Australia make it an especially reflective, but not a parallel, read.
False Fruits, a text of sparsity and endurance, should be read as a book. But here’s a typical sample from ‘II’:
‘fire in the hearth
and the seeming
atrophy of hands
Her pledge to each bough, each swarming animal. Jarred fruits above the pressed earth floor of the cellar.’
Best Australian Poems 2016 – Sarah Holland-Batt (ed.) (Black Inc.)
Anthology season has been a deluge. In the last few months, we’ve been spoilt with the Anthology of West Australian Poetry (Fremantle Press), Contemporary Australian Poetry (Puncher and Wattman) and Contemporary Australian Feminist Poetry (Hunter). Best Australian Poems 2016 is among them. Its focus on 2016, a bad year but a good year in ‘minority’ poetry, is a useful point of reflection. These fresh-growth poets are concerned with decentralising and justifying verse to transform what it can do, and why it does it.
Here are just two.
Evelyn Araluen Corr’s poem ‘Learning Bundjalung on Tharawal’ is like a nose-breaking punch. It comes, in a sense, pre-vetted: it was shortlisted for Overland’s 2016 Nakata Brophy prize. It makes Lingo its subject and its poetic instrument, all the while mapping the work of relearning what the body and land knows while the two are disjointed. Her language and use of the page are technically exciting, and reflect the knowledge that makes them.
Eileen Chong’s ‘Magnolia’ looks to Hua Mu Lan, a legendary figure in Chinese history whose story has been (very imperfectly) retold in popularised forms. Chong’s telling, drawn from ballad histories, is unquestionably better. In form it mimics historic text, divided into sections denoting scenes. ‘Magnolia’ opens with two vignettes. One, Hua Mu Lan washing secret menstrual blood at a war-camp dawn; two, her killing a chicken. Chong’s skill in structure and tone brings the poem’s most visceral surprise – the violence of war itself is never in frame, and yet between hiding blood and betraying a pet ‘Magnolia’ is a hauntingly violent work.