Collyer, Emilie. do you have anything less domestic? Vagabond Press, 2022. RRP: $25.00, 112pp, ISBN: 9781925735406.
Miriam Wei Wei Lo
This is Emilie Collyer’s first book-length collection of poetry, but not her first foray into writing. This award-winning playwright has published prolifically across multiple genres: plays (obviously), essays, short stories and scholarly writing.
Domesticity, as the title indicates, is one of the flammable topics this collection explores. There is definite resistance to the Victorian ideal of the angel-in-the-house: the opening poem, ‘Friday Night at Jimmy Wong’s’, depicts the poet eating Chinese takeaway in front of the TV (11). ‘Cocoon’ gives the finger to the notion of women being solely responsible for housework:
Years back, when I moved in,
his friends tutted, Good thing she’s here now.
It needs a woman’s touch.
But I don’t woman well.
Shoes rubble the floor,
clothes weep from drawers. (22)
One of the strengths of Collyer’s work is nuance. In ‘Homemaker’, even as she plays with the idea of what makes a home (domestic arguments?), there is a reluctant admission:
now I am the adult in this house
try and keep the fruit bowl topped
I cannot edge around the fact that I
have made a home (19–20)
Reluctant admission is also the frame for Collyer’s depiction of step-parenthood:
This child did not grow in me, but has found a place
under my skin each time she leaves I am a little more
pulled out of shape. (‘The Space Between’ 33)
If part of the work of poetry is naming complex experience, Collyer does this with aplomb, tackling not only step-parenthood, but also infertility and dying parents. ‘Mid Point’ is particularly accomplished for the way it holds the tension between honesty and tact. It acknowledges the loss of death as well as the losses caused by alcoholism, but is cleverly written from the point of view of the speaker’s dead father:
I see you trying
to drag a thread through memory and corpse
how did this beginning lead to that end
what mid point was the point of no return
from that cautious blue-eyed boy
to brash young man
looming father god
to fallen hero (52)
Note the two-line stanzas, which Collyer favours. There is a way of thinking here: a progression through small statements: ideas building towards revelation and insight. There is also careful timing in the enjambment and, elsewhere, in the caesuras. Collyer’s skill extends to wry comedic timing too: take this ending from a poem about a mammogram (aptly titled ‘Norgs’):
After, I lie down in a room and a young guy
with efficient cold hands examines my recalcitrant bosoms.
I want to ask what he thinks:
Is it just our species? I mean, do bulls find udders a turn on?
I never find the right moment. (87)
Part of Collyer’s ‘genuine feminism’ (85) is her determined engagement with embodied female experience. Menstruation, the effects of cancer medication on the ovaries, crude male comments on female body parts—she covers it all. There is an underlying dissatisfaction with her body that resonates with this fellow Gen-X female reader. While this could be overwhelmingly negative in the hands of a less capable poet, Collyer manages difficult subject matter with a light touch, knowing when, after she has completely unnerved us, to pull back into humour, or even hope.
This light touch is evident in one of the stand-out poems of this collection: ‘What You Learn (TV Lessons)’. The subject matter is heavy (rape-murder), the form is complex (parallel construction, like the twin cinema form), but where a poet like Eunice Andrada is gloriously in-your-face, Collyer is more subtle, letting the stream of comments build to a crescendo, before taking us to the sorrow of self-recognition:
[or will never get to be] (72–75)
A few poems do not reach the level of the others: ‘Instructions for Colour’, for example, and ‘Still Beating’ do not quite succeed in bringing their complex strands together. This does not detract, however, from the achievement of this astonishing first collection which has an intellectual range that encompasses ekphrasis, Greek tragedy, women’s sport, and the more dubious aspects of internet usage. Collyer’s poetry is fiery, sardonic, surprisingly tender and always entertaining.
Miriam Wei Wei Lo writes to wrestle with meaning, motherhood, faith and doubt, from an Asian-Australian perspective. She is a Westerly Mid-Career Fellow for 2023 and her latest poetry collection Who Comes Calling? is fresh off the press with WA Poets Publishing. Check it out at www.miriamweiweilo.com