from the editor's desk

Going Places with A Bird Guide: A Review of Shevaun Cooley’s ‘Homing’

Cooley, Shevaun. Homing. Artarmon: Giramondo Publishing, 2017. RRP: $24.00, 112 pp. ISBN: 978-1-925336-20-7

Robert Wood


 

One of the first things the reader is given in Shevaun Cooley’s Homing are geographic co-ordinates. These are presented in the DMS format of latitude and longitude (degrees, minutes, seconds), and if one is inclined, one can find out where the place is. I will leave it up to attentive readers to discover the exact location but they function as an entry point and a puzzle. Something the reader has to work out to locate Cooley and this book. This co-ordination comes up again and even the most cursory reader will acknowledge that this second area is somewhere else, an opposite place that is North and West rather than South and East in this rationale. They are both specific in a language that is scientific and, as we discover, in the poetic imagination. They place Cooley somewhere and it is up to the poems to articulate what these places ‘actually’ are and why they are connected.

The points of connection in Homing are place, stasis, nature, religion and language. These are places that are haunted by ghosts, memories and history as well as the shadow of global warming, the Anthropocene and climate change. It is home as a real place as well as an imagined one, a kind of lived sense and a possibility at once grounded and airy, an arrival and a becoming. The opening sequence—‘without catching a thing I was not far from the truth’—is an Easter road trip. It is structured as a series of days where our protagonists travel through southwest Western Australia. After a quote from Raymond Carver, it begins on Spy Wednesday with ‘We cross the bridge over Poison Gully’ (3). It is a line that suggests a group journey, maybe even you and I together, and pays attention to the symbols of Christianity in an ecologically precarious colonial landscape. This passing and this threat are present for the remainder of the poem. On Holy Saturday,

we pass more dead kangaroos.
Two dead parrots, a decomposed fox,

the striated ribs of a carcass picked clean. (7)

This is an image, but it also reflects back on the reader (and poem’s speaker) that there is decomposition, or, in other words, the undoing of composing. This idea of putting together and being unwound is explicitly addressed shortly after when Cooley writes:

I might only
write poems when I can feel how death
rides the edges.’ (7)

It is this gothic tautness that permeates the collection as a whole.

In language that is spare, simple and direct Homing is at once an elegiac lament and a frisson of relating. There is care and attention here as well as suggestion. For example, there is the albatross bringing to mind associations of mass and guilt as well as indicator species that covers expanses and the ocean. As Cooley writes in ‘the bone the island’:

as when the albatross takes up the ballast
stone and heaves it downward to break open
a hard mollusc; then plucks up the stone
and begins again

it can’t cry with a stone in its mouth
it will do this until the light dies (18)

It is at once a scene and a metaphor, not unlike the lines in the poem ‘Holy Saturday’. It is a figure that reflects precariousness back to us. It speaks of the struggle we face in light of our era being one minute to midnight, eco-poetically speaking. The albatross returns in other places too, including in ‘not like me whose migrations are endless’:

The albatross is a ship.
It might founder into the sea
for want of wind. The albatross knows

lack is the heaviest thing of all.

To shipwreck an albatross,
make it land on water, then take
the wind out

of its sails. (38)

Here we are told explicitly what the albatross is and this brings with it a host of literary and political associations from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner to the history of the First Fleet in Australia. What these poems indicate is that Cooley has a pleasing voice that is direct and understandable, but that her metaphoric capacity allows the reader in, to find the layers from topsoil to crust to volcano in the middle of the earth. It is a sensibility that I appreciated and that allows one to re-read for depth and presence beyond mere citation. The albatross is only one species among many that readers will find in Homing.

Watery, birdy, shippy, scarped, scaped and scraped, these poems are resonant drops that become a secretive river of knowing. They are an intimate portrayal of wrecks and possibilities that invite the reader into locations that are indicators and suggestions of states and places much bigger than their constitutive parts from albatrosses to ships, to gannets and helmets.

 

 


Robert Wood grew up in southwest Western Australia. He has worked for Overland, Australian Poetry, Cordite, Peril, and The Centre for Stories. His book History and the Poet will be released in November 2018. For 2017-2018, he is a Visiting Scholar at Columbia University and an Emerging Critic with Sydney Review of Books. Find out more: http://www.rdwood.org

Comments

  1. […] History and the Poet we reviewed late last year, along with sessions on Shevaun Cooley’s Homing and David McCooey’s Star Struck. And then there’s Josephine Wilson talking about […]

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