Intimacy with a political charge
Domestic Archaeology Beast Language
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.