Maling, Caitlin. Fish Song. Fremantle: Fremantle Press, 2019. RRP $24.99, 128pp, ISBN: 9781925591484
Salt from the mid-west coastal plains of Western Australia permeates the pages of Caitlin Maling’s third poetry collection Fish Song published by Fremantle Press. It sticks in your heart and you can taste it on your skin after reading the poems. Fish Song explores a country that is bright and hard and achingly familiar to those of us who live in the west. We have read about ‘Stow’ country with its delicate surreal beauty, but this is different. Maling writes poems that are filled with intensity, and a restless driving force compelling us as readers to look again without romantic illusions. What we discover is a stark world, one where people endure the seasons and the push of time that shoves the individual into experience. ‘Everything is harder here // it takes a practice to live, a way of working.’ (97) Nonetheless, there is grim beauty to be found, bound up in the lives and dwelling places of the people who cluster on the shoreline, who live and survive.
‘And yes’, as one would expect from the title, Fish Song, ‘there is the ocean’ (106). To me, Fish Song suggests siren songs, full of allure and mysticism. Instead the poems reveal ‘blood and ocean’, (18) the hope that ‘every boat make it back safely through the storm’ (115), and a place ‘where everything is louder than you imagine loneliness to be’ (84). This ocean is implacable. It is the green backdrop to life, ‘even the crops and dust are churning towards ocean’ (96). The narrator of the poems cannot help herself as she ‘walks the beaches’ (85) to find balance and escape.
Part of the collection is divided into a series of sections. ‘Betelgeuse Star’, ‘Four Poems after Randolph Stow’ and ‘An Account of My Days’ are three. The first, ‘Betelgeuse Star’, examines concepts of fate and the puny span of a man’s life in the face of a star whirling away in the distance.
splitting and splitting
until what supports
the way a sun
grows too heavy
Seventeen poems circle around the doubt, uncertainty and anxiety felt by a family when confronted with sudden cancer in a loved father. These poems are unflinchingly honest. Life goes on with its humdrum everyday concerns, even though the difficulties of coping and simply trying to understand are at the forefront of the experience. In the four poems that reference Randolph Stow’s poetry, Maling contrasts her vision of country with his. In her country, composed of ‘roo ticks, melting roads and squashed rabbit skulls’, ‘A man’s song is pain’ and individuals grieve for ‘a future without a past’ (76). There is no room for nostalgia, Maling’s eye and choice of imagery expose reality. Likewise the series of poems making up ‘An Account of My Days’ and moving from June through July, record a diary of living, the weather, the news and day to day concerns of farmers, fishing shacks, country and wind, where ‘life is ugly-simple’ (95) and ‘the tides retreat and come again’ (104).
Maling has taken poetic form and shaped it to suit the landscape within her poems. There are prose poems, such as ‘Feral’ (66) and ‘Fisheries Raid’ (59) as well as free verse poems such as ‘Cervantes Colloquium’, (79) that allow the author to play with voice, employing a stream of consciousness style, building detail and creating a mosaic of events and characters that vividly come to life. Names such as Johnno, Stringer and Occo Bob (79) conjure oddball characters who are tough and raw yet believable. Her inclusion of the vernacular fits these characters and sums up their laconic style of communication. ‘He’s carked it’ (77) says it all.
Reading Fish Song brings to light a series of images that evoke an honest, thought provoking version of a way of life from which most of us are remote. As city dwellers we are far away from the vast relentless cycle of seasons, growth and death, where the ocean is ‘a blue desert: a paddock of clouds’ (123). Maling challenges the reader to investigate the truths of life through poetry that is gritty and precise. Her fish songs sing out with authenticity opening an opportunity for the reader to discover those painful truths and some understanding of the patterns, emotions and experiences of which that world is comprised.
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.