Plain-spo­ken po­ems rooted in real ex­pe­ri­ence

Body Lan­guage When Sky Be­comes the Space In­side Your Head

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ge­off Page Ge­off Page

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.

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