Pettitt-Schipp, Renee. The Sky Runs Right Through Us. Perth, Western Australia: UWA Publishing, 2018. RRP: $22.99. 122pp. ISBN: 9781742589596.
The Border that is the Ocean
Divided into four sections, Renee Pettitt-Schipp’s new collection of poems The Sky Runs Right Through Us examines place, ecology and relationships. It is a collection that is aware of where it is and chronicles the negotiations between people, animals, plants, the stars and emotional being. Of central importance to Pettitt-Schipp’s poetics is knowledge of ‘the Islands’ (Christmas and Cocos (Keeling)) though her reflections on place back ‘home’ in the suburbs of Western Australia have a certain archipelagic quality. And so, her islands are literal and metaphoric, being places with distinct and unique characteristics surrounded by an ever-present sea that can be gentle, cruel, ambivalent, changeable, deep. Indeed, as much as her father and her self both loom as central to the book, it is the ocean, the sea, the water that is the main protagonist.
This is, of course, the same ocean that divides the ordinary from the extraordinary, the self from the Other, the accepted from the cast out. There are many valences to that here. As commented upon by other critics, including Mike Ladd in a quote on the inside cover and Pettitt-Schipp herself in the acknowledgements, this includes asylum seekers currently in offshore detention. I do not mean here that they are an ‘Other’, but that ‘we’ on the Mainland are literally separated from their living conditions; that they have often crossed a sea to arrive where they now are; and, that history, politics, government has made our international waters a moat rather than a bath of warm welcome. And so, Pettitt-Schipp becomes a guide between us, a kind of tug-boat pulling the Australian continent (and polity) to its territories, trying to captain a safe passage for the people who need it most. This is based on her personal experience as a teacher who worked with asylum seekers. The poems reflect a measured care, a gentle tenderness, and a moderate anger, never righteous or self-important, but factual and attentive (in particular ‘Me. You. Us.’ (19), ‘The Haunting’ (24), ‘Boys with Wings’ (41), ‘What Water Brings’ (48)). It is a delicate balance to voice, and a great accomplishment.
And yet, the asylum seeker poems are a small minority in The Sky Runs Right Through Us. The majority of poems are about personal relations, particularly with family. They are situated in an environment however, and it is the ecological features of those places that dominate. In section one, set in Christmas Island, we find a place of oceans, crabs, turtles, palm trees, coral. In section two, set ‘In Between Islands’, there are magpies, ports, kites, sunflowers. Section three, of Cocos (Keeling) Islands, we find sharks, rain, tiny fish, lagoons, herons, terns, frangipani. And, in the final section, which accounts for a full half of the book and is set on ‘the Mainland’, we come across twigs, branches, buffalo, arrows of rain, crows, ants, sheoaks, axolotls, lobelias, grass, spiders, honeyeaters, mopokes, wagtails, dragonflies, karri, corellas and tuart. This fourth section takes the reader a great many places including Bicton Baths, Bridgetown, Donnelly River, North Fremantle, Fitzroy Crossing, Northcliffe, Beeliar Wetlands, Delhi. Often Pettitt-Schipp’s gaze is focused, attentive and judicious; seeing both the particulars as well as the cosmos as a whole (see ‘Perspective Passes Over Us’ (113)). It can reach heights of rhythmic profundity as seen in the ‘Debarl Yerrigan Addresses Mooro Katta’:
I am metallic in winter
mercurial answer to sky
in me the black swan
lends fragility of feather
pushing webbed feet down
into my warm body steeped deep
with tannin and leaf (100)
In this poem, Pettitt-Schipp becomes the water, taking on a persona of living fecundity that is warm. The heavy emphasis on ‘e’ and the rhyme scheme lends it an air of comfort and familiarity, not unlike the warm bath we should be running for the ragged and tired who have arrived on our doorstep seeking help.
And so we come to the final type of poems in the book – the type where the concerns of asylum seekers and environment are brought together. This varies in explicitness, but I would argue that it includes ‘Parting Glass’ (25), ‘First Flight’ (40), ‘Song to Self’ (118). This final poem is particularly impressive with an important message, a beautiful cadence, and memorable wordplay. Unlike the first grouping of poems I mentioned, it is metaphorically concerned with asylum seekers rather than rendered explicitly. ‘Song to Self’’s final stanza seems to me to offer what Pettitt-Schipp is capable of—warmth, empathy, humanity itself—and I would encourage readers to seek the volume out for these qualities alone. As she writes herself writes in ‘Song of Self’:
tell me, like the moon tells the tides
pull me, like the season draws thick fruit
claim me, like the hearts of children
be me, and I will
be still. (118)
The Sky Runs Right Through Us is a volume that stills us, that helps us see where we are now, reminding us of what is possible when we are open to the ocean, the sky and the world.
Robert Wood is the author of History & the Poet and Concerning A Farm. He has been an Endeavour Research Fellow at Columbia University and is currently based in Western Australia. To find out more please visit: www.robertdwood.net