Rhook, Nadia. boots. Perth: UWA Publishing, 2020. RRP: $22.99, 124pp, ISBN: 9781760801182.
With her feet firmly on the ground, boot shod or not, Nadia Rhook’s poetry collection boots takes a keen, probing and sometimes painful look at the complexities of belonging in our modern world as well as the history that informs such belonging. Published as part of the UWA Publishing poetry series, this collection is distinguished by its merging of traditional facets of both poetry and prose. The work encompasses the use of fragmentation, repetition, shifting structure and figurative language. It is as if Rhook is seeking a method of writing with uncompromising clarity that plunges the reader first-hand into the experience and concerns of each poem. From ideas about migration, settlement of the land, displacement, identity and belonging, Rhook amasses a number of poems that question everything.
The book is divided into sections headed up by key words, from ‘Docking’ through to ‘Blooming’, suggesting a journey from some kind of arrival to a state of settlement and birth, even if that journey has been a painful one. ‘Docking’ revolves around the notion of inclusion and exclusion through the poems exploring differences of culture, from food, to speech, to prejudice.
From the very first poem, ‘what it is’, Rhook’s use of sensory imagery is apparent;
for now taste buds are much like memories
before dinner they steam (14)
Linking taste with memory is a clever connection, as many of our memories are bound up in the senses, taste being highly evocative of time, place, and what used to be. Her choice of comparison here is unusual and that ‘different’ slant on things is perpetuated throughout the collection.
In ‘Digging’, Rhook experiments with language and structure. The poem ‘Once we were settlers’, opens with what reads almost like two poems on the page. The reader can choose to move down the page or across it to connect ideas and phrases about what is found in backyards. Is it treasure, rubbish or history? The poem literally presents fragments, brief phrases or snippets, rather than traditional lengthy sentences, and through that fragmentation builds a picture of childhood and memory that is strong.
In the backy back
Of the yard
By the saccharine lemon tree
I showed mum
The rusty shoe
Kept it in my room for
As long as I could
‘Digging’ goes on to explore the difficulties of communication and the complexities of voicing different languages. From the prose poem, ‘love past the age of dictionaries’, where the stanzas read like paragraphs and adopt a stream of consciousness style, to ‘the speech act’, with its loose sentences and varied syntax, Rhook demonstrates the importance of language being paramount to understanding, identity and our history. The fact that history, which celebrates white Australia, is shaped by the dominance of the English language is summed up in the line ‘my blood my act my speech blood sing’ (59). Language is core to identity; our immigrants and indigenous peoples are denied that link because of the imposition of English as the dominant language.
Moving from language to place develops that notion of belonging being linked to culture. The section ‘Seizing’ includes poems that address place through locks, title deeds, different houses, homes, the outback and the metropolis. The title poem ‘boots’ is here, heavy with simple statements mapping the past with place.
‘cos I move house every year or two
and my colonists, and my convicts and my loved ones too
on Gunditjmara country
boots crunching twigs
property is always country (82)
Images from Fremantle including the prison, the beaches and High Street are all represented in the fourth section of the anthology, ‘Shooting’. There is celebration of friendship, ‘we danced along the beach after the storm / had passed’ (97) as well as the recognition of memory connected to place, ‘and up the hill the prison walls are whispering’(100). All of Rhook’s observations are linked to physicality in some way, through movement, place or the senses. Her eye for detail is deft and evocative, generating the need to ponder images, ideas and information.
The final section of the text, ‘Blooming’, is personal. She examines the complexities and difficulties of infertility and the processes of conception, connecting the experience with the emotional toll it takes. Rhetorical questions invite a sensitive response to the repetition of ‘how can I tell you?’, in ‘pink petals’, building a rising tension on the part of the persona as she contrasts everyday details of place and situation with the enormity of the injections needed to conceive a child. There is no answer.
Rhook’s poetry is incisive. She manipulates language, shifting form and syntax to find a way to pin-point her ideas and experience. boots takes the reader on a journey of discovery where they realise things about themselves and their society.
Veronica Lake is a Churchill Fellow (2010) and a teacher long associated with Literature. She collates and edits Primo Lux, an annual student anthology of poetry. She is a member of the Voicebox Collective, OOTA Writer’s Group and Poetry WA. Her poetry has been published in journals in Australia and New Zealand.