In­ti­macy with a po­lit­i­cal charge

Do­mes­tic Ar­chae­ol­ogy Beast Lan­guage

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Michael Far­rell Michael Far­rell

By Kelly Pil­grim-Byrne Grand Pa­rade Po­ets, 76pp, $21.95 By Toby David­son 5 Is­lands Press, 80pp, $24.95

APOEM that ends with some­one wait­ing for a ghost may seem like a rel­a­tively charged mo­ment, but Kelly Pil­grimByrne re­lies too heav­ily on se­man­tics: the last words, ‘‘ I’ll wait’’, are too flat to res­onate ( Birth­day Wish). This is not the case with the ti­tle poem Do­mes­tic Ar­chae­ol­ogy, which at first seemed partly off and partly melo­dra­matic, yet it re­solves in gen­uine creepi­ness: two friends ‘‘ cul­ti­vat­ing peo­ple from bones’’ as they seek an­tiques in op-shops. What at first seems a hum­drum ti­tle that’s a metaphor for mem­o­ries of home life shifts to a de­scrip­tion of poet­ics, un­set­tling as­sump­tions of au­to­bi­og­ra­phy in the process.

In the book’s do­mes­tic con­tent, cosi­ness risks be­com­ing twee­ness. Per­haps nei­ther is ac­cept­able: yet a def­i­ni­tion of ‘‘ cosy along’’ is ‘‘ re­as­sure, de­lude’’, a neat enough am­bi­gu­ity for po­etry if not life. Twee­ness is the risk, es­pe­cially, of rep­re­sent­ing nice chil­dren, and adults in ex­change with chil­dren. Pil­grimByrne doesn’t seem to be­lieve in the mean­ness of life, and it’s this good­ness that saves her from twee­ness. Other po­ems are per­haps too per­sonal or too naive: believ­ing Mal­larme that all po­ems ex­ist to end in a book.

Don’t worry: there’s plenty of irony here too, mainly of the so­cial kind that ges­tures to­wards a gen­eral au­di­ence. De­spite the many in­ti­mate scenes of home life, th­ese are very much so­cial po­ems, po­ems that are aware of what home life means: the pre­cious­ness of home life that is both bi­o­log­i­cally and po­lit­i­cally chal­lenged. The risk here is that the author gives the orig­i­nal­ity of the theme more weight than the lan­guage sus­tains. This, too, is of course po­lit­i­cal: there aren’t nec­es­sar­ily the words for this fa­mil­ial struc­ture.

Pil­grim-Byrne gets mileage from the themes of in­fer­til­ity and les­bian par­ent­ing — the open­ing poem Venus of Wil­len­dorf ob­jects to ver­sions of a fer­tile icon. The fol­low­ing se­ries of po­ems ( In­fer­til­ity: Four Vi­gnettes, Belly Envy) di­rectly con­front in­fer­til­ity and the as­so­ci­ated feel­ings of de­sire, de­spair and jeal­ousy in­clud­ing ironic pouch envy of a kan­ga­roo statue ( My Maiden Aunt’s Lips); yet sub­tly an ac­tual child is in­tro­duced: some­thing has worked. The greater dis­tance in­volved in the fol­low­ing sec­tion, Fauna, al­lows the poet slightly more for­mal va­ri­ety in a se­ries of quasi-nat­u­ral­ist ex­er­cises.

The stand­out for me was the am­bi­tious se­quence of nine short po­ems with the over­all ti­tle of Ju­ve­nes­cence, vari­a­tions on a theme, where Pil­grim-Byrne em­ploys meta­com­men­tary, haiku and a one-line poem: ‘‘ here, boys are mea­sured in an­te­lope hide’’ (from the sixth poem, South). Both the theme and the form al­low the nar­ra­tion to take a step back, al­low­ing me to be in­trigued. A dif­fer­ent fa­mil­ial tri­an­gle (of daugh­ter, dead fa­ther and mistress) uses the ses­tina form to good ef­fect in the fi­nal poem Fa­ther’s Mistress, which is both vivid and af­fect­ing.

Coin­ci­den­tally, Toby David­son’s Beast Lan­guage also uses the word Ju­ve­nes­cence, in his case to ti­tle the first sec­tion. In the first few po­ems we are in­tro­duced to pre­oc­cu­pa­tions: place, myth/re­li­gion, lo­cal al­lu­sion (in the lit­er­ary sense) and het­ero­sex­ual re­la­tions. What is also ap­par­ent is an at­ten­tion to vowel sounds; from Ge­n­e­sis 1.2: ‘‘ Breeze teases at a lace cur­tain’’; ‘‘ Thin py­ja­mas and blue skin qui­eten­ing’’; ‘‘ Lips, mid­sum­mer olive eyes’’; ‘‘ Rooftops peel­ing blue, green’’.

Yet de­spite this deco­rum of sound David­son’s con­tent is com­mend­ably hy­brid, even dirty: po­et­i­cisms, ver­nac­u­lars, in­dige­nous and English place names. The first few ti­tles with the rep­e­ti­tion of ‘‘ o’’ sounds them­selves set up a poem across the page head­ers: In­dian Ocean Ded­i­ca­tion, Ge­n­e­sis 1.2, Sun­set, Cottes­loe, Black Swan, Skyshow. The con­straint of be­ing in a se­quence, not to men­tion the ro­man nu­mer­als, al­most over­whelms the po­ems (I-XII) of Re­li­gion: Road. Poem X of this se­quence, To the Guide, is an am­bi­tious so­ci­ol­ogy and geopo­et­ics of a car that would run, so to speak, those hoary po­ems of my-car-as-my-woman off the road. It be­gins: Guide, much-revved and still once and more in front of me, through a car, and a car. Your golden har­vests of liv­ing fuel burn DNA from the fa­tal kilo­me­tres, scythe and scoop dou­ble-bar­relled corol­lar­ies: life, through re­sis­tance, frees des­ti­na­tion. Sim­ply, you came, as if out of the cold, as cold it­self in deep Western Tas­ma­nia . . .

David­son’s po­ems can be dense, but I didn’t need three white pages and a ti­tle page be­tween sec­tions. I’m sur­prised no one ad­vised him to drop the women-as-fruit poem Signs of Sea­son, and Beast Lan­guage is too Mur­ray-lite to serve as the ti­tle poem. It’s a very male book, the nice trio of Three Women not­with­stand­ing. To My Lady Un­der the Sur­geon’s Hand is per­haps a chal­lenge to David­son to write a poem that doesn’t stray into bad taste, and he suc­ceeds, of course; he knows what he’s do­ing, pro­duc­ing a sub­tle and sen­si­tive poem. Yet the poem would be too sub­tle to stand with­out its ar­rest­ing pas­tiche of a ti­tle, and the ti­tle is part of the poem.

The book ends with ‘‘ Not a cloud in the ground! / Why’d you fin­ish with that? Mate . . .? Mate!!’’ ( You Will For­get This), again hav­ing his po­etry and eat­ing it, with tomato sauce. And for me it’s this poem rather than the Lady poem that con­veys pathos: the clever or cruel forc­ing of the apo­etic bloke into mak­ing a metapo­etic comment.

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