D-Napoleon, Natalie. First Blood. Port Adelaide: Ginninderra Press, 2019. RRP: $20.00, 74pp, ISBN: 9781760417765.
In the opening poem of First Blood, Natalie D-Napoleon imagines words as tactile things in the mouth, things that have an excessive quality but are also lacking in presence. This negative capability of language carries through the collection, and D-Napoleon’s words satirise the formal nouns and knowledge frameworks—the ‘-ologies’ and the ‘-istics’ and the ‘-alities’. Representing the signifier as ephemeral compared with the enduring nature of art, D-Napoleon foregrounds the labour and materiality in poems and stories, and the concrete style that she utilises in her own work. An example of this concreteness is in ‘Carrots’, where the beautifully quotidian image of farm childhoods and veggie patches see the lines shorten as the emotion heightens. As with the best poetry, few letters carry immense weight, and throughout the collection, D-Napoleon acknowledges that words are fragile, but when forming the fabric of a text, they have some collective gravity and power.
One way words carry their weight is in relation to birds, which are popular, even ubiquitous in Australian poetry. However, D-Napoleon makes them fresh and original; their crap leaving Pollock-like stains on the floor, a black swan beating wings beneath colonised land. In ‘Black Swan’, the poet weaves surrealist imagery and Noongar mythology, drawing on all visible and spiritual knowledge systems that surround our waterways. D-Napoleon reminds us that poetry can make visible the knowledge systems we can’t directly see, those which co-exist with the bulldozers that
to scrape and wrench
the earth clean (16)
The language of colonialism is tackled subtly in ‘How to make sand’, the poem seeming to be about how to make sand from celestial bodies. However, the sudden turn at the end of the poem, ‘and still you call this a new land’, exposes the ironies and contradictions of our colonial mindset and discourses. Likewise, poems of race and racism are clear and precise, unfolding through the image of the golliwogg and the generational symbols of Pioneer Day. Uncovering the layers of nation and race, D-Napoleon tugs at these constructs with a gentle irony—never bitter, but approximating criticism with a grace that only poetry can achieve.
Speaking of such grace, one of the hallmarks of the collection is its engagement with ideas of girlhood, femininity, puberty, adolescence, and menstruation. ‘Questions’ interrogates assumptions about motherhood through a child’s eye, so we are not positioned to judge the presumptuous, but still the language presses on us, and presses against the language which gave rise to the assumptions. In ‘Bhrens’ the voyeurism of viewing a developing adolescent girl is condemned through layered imagery and intelligent word play. Then, as if moving through the life of a girl and the process of growing up, ‘Short Skirts’ satirises, in sophisticated repetitions, the way moral fortitude becomes the sole responsibility of young women, who are told to keep their legs shut. But the major achievement is ‘First Blood’, the titular, Bruce Dawe National Poetry Prize-winning poem, where blue liquid from sanitary advertisements is contrasted with red blood and the image of a match, unlit and between the subject’s teeth. It strikes the complexity that concerns a girl’s first period, the ‘bloom and decay’, growth and trauma that it can involve. In what is perhaps the most powerful line —‘a girl / is made of words plus liquid minus time’ (34)—D-Napoleon encapsulates, in a strange equation, the relationship between time, language, and bodies, and the way these cumulatively construct girlhood and subjectivity. ‘First Blood’ is delicate and shows that power can come from that which is fragile, bleeding, or in the process of blooming. D-Napoleon’s words are stitched together finely, apparently tenuously, but as a whole—and with the quiet strength of the final phrase—the poem is a feminist triumph.
Particular strengths of the collection are the lyric poems and experimental poems, which have a deliberate sense of craftedness. The more structured pantoum, ‘Fake Plastic Plants’, perhaps falls a little flat, and it seems D-Napoleon’s poems, at least in this collection, seem to sing best when they have space to breathe, where the language isn’t adhering to a formula. In ‘Fake Plastic Plants’, the thinking behind the lines is visible, whereas in other places the thought is knitted deeply into the language, and not apparent at first sight.
In ‘You Say Poetry is Dead’, the verse becomes electric:
get them to believe
that poetry does not breathe and fire
in every being, in every fibre, cell, atom, and neuron;
the tissue connecting your
mind and body like a verse. (59)
Here, D-Napoleon takes Robert Pinsky’s idea—that poetry is a bodily art—one step further, saying, ‘[t]he body itself is a poem’. (60) Her verse not only renders the body into the subject of a poem, but also reminds us that the body can be read as a poem, written as a poem, and enjoyed as a poem, with its rhythms, sounds, and lines of communication. Poetry exists, like the body, in its capacities, its potential. Another example is where D-Napoleon writes that poems flow from her speaker’s
like a wishbone
in waves (62)
and so poems become excised parts of the body, reverberating through space in a way that is both concrete and abstract—building and falling, reconstituting and repeating.
Amy Lin is a Perth-based writer, who has published poems, essays, reviews, and interviews with Westerly, Cordite, Australian Book Review, LA Review of Books, and other places. She is working towards a book based on her PhD research, which focused on the work of mid-century Australian poets – Francis Webb, Bruce Beaver, and Michael Dransfield. Amy has edited for Westerly, Enchanting Verses, Limina and Axon, and has performed her poetry at Perth Writers Festival, Voicebox, and Sturmfrei Poetry Night. Amy currently teaches English and Literary Studies at UWA, and mentors emerging writers through the Centre for Stories. She has also worked in Local Government and Community Law.