Plain-spoken poems rooted in real experience
Body Language When Sky Becomes the Space Inside Your Head
ELIZABETH Allen’s first full collection, Body Language, places her squarely among a burgeoning group of young (or youngish) Australian female poets who are dominating the field at the moment.
Allen’s work, however, has an ease and an impact not always found among her often highly metaphorical colleagues. She finds her poetry in ‘‘ ordinary’’ places but it is usually captured from an unusual angle, often the most moving one.
Allen is aware of the fragility of life and of its relationships. Frequently her poems depend for their effect on a low-key display of vulnerability, either her own or others’.
At the conclusion of the first poem, At Winton, she surmises of a friend: ‘‘ how small this corner of consciousness you keep defending / with each breath.’’ Of another, who dies unexpectedly in Venice, she concludes: ‘‘ it seems / he went quietly / as a hand underwater / clenching itself/ into a fist.’’ ( Venice.)
Like those of William Carlos Williams, Allen’s poems are often composed of reality’s fragments, re-ordered to obtain certain effects. In Two Years On, another elegy, the poet writes of how she wants ‘‘ To write a poem about putting on / another load of washing, taking / the rubbish out, catching the bus home. / I want to cut a word here & there: / trimming flowers before arranging / them in a vase.’’
Most, but not all, of Allen’s poems have this feeling of the quotidian but are rarely banal. Some, such as Epithalamium and Channel Surfing, have a formal quality that creates a distancing effect — the latter offering an ironic political commentary of considerable power. Another, such as Evening News, supplies its implications through a ‘‘ found’’ poem: ‘‘ We really had no idea . . . / they had young kids and everything. / They seemed like a nice, normal couple.’’
As suggested, Allen avoids the consciously metaphorical. Something of her ars poetica is suggested in Before Tomorrow, where one of her characters prefers ‘‘ just to listen / to the night / damp, breathing, / not comparing itself / to anything.’’ It’s worth noting here, however, that the ‘‘ night damp’’ is nevertheless ‘‘ breathing’’ and has thus been personified. This is certainly not prose pretending to be poetry.
Earlier in the same poem the protagonist’s ‘‘ mind feels / for that thin space / between breath / and thought.’’ This is indeed the liminal area in which a lot of Allen’s poetry occurs; and yet, for all its potential intangibility, we are almost never troubled by obscurity. Her poems are full of real people and genuine emotion — even if, as is the case in After seven long years underground, the char- By Elizabeth Allen Vagabond Press, 74pp, $25 By Ed Wright Puncher & Wattmann, 67pp, $24 acter is a ghost: ‘‘ the crust of mascara starts to crack and flake. / She claws her way up into your kitchen to stand / wiping the cigarette smoke from her eyes.’’ These are the sorts of people Allen makes it a pleasure to meet.
Ed Wright’s first full collection of poetry, When Sky Becomes the Space Inside Your Head, sits neatly with Allen’s. It is similarly plainspoken, even if somewhat different in its content and preoccupations.
Quite a few of the poems here deal with the counterculture, as lived in northern NSW and elsewhere. They also also have a strong narrative dimension and it is not insignificant that Wright has issued a couple of blues CDs (unheard by this reviewer). Much of the book can be read as lessons learned from this business, even if music is only rarely mentioned explicitly.
An indicative stanza from For C. suggests much of the book’s style and content: ‘‘ In one scene I was drinking you tea ceremony style, eyes locked on eyes / in earnest simulation of the holy, / back in the day when we were baby buddhists: / the drugs, primal screaming and manifestos / second-hand hippy accretions like the pebbles around your parents’ pool.’’
It’s notable that the narrator here doesn’t spare himself any more than he does his interlocutor ex. Neither is the technique here as plain as it might appear at first. The reader relishes the alliteration, as well as the sardonic content, in ‘‘ baby buddhists’’ or ‘‘ pebbles around your parents’ pool’’.
Wright’s work is not without metaphor, however, though it can often be used wryly: for instance in Lennox St Blues when the poet laments ‘‘ the creaking springs of forgiveness’’ heard, rather too loudly, as ‘‘ aural punctuation’’ after a row between two of his neighbours, ‘‘ the rajneesh and her fireman lover’’.
It’s difficult to summarise the appeal of Wright’s book in a few hundred words. Sufficient to say that if you like poems rooted in real experience and not over-processed, you’ll find plenty to enjoy in this relatively short book with its rather long title.