Jealous, Virginia, editor. Flightpath, illustrated by Victoria Castiglione. Denmark, Western Australia: Hallowell Press, 2017. RRP: $30.00. 91pp. ISBN: 9780987208958
Inspired by migratory birds and encompassing a range of human experiences, poetry and prose from a wide range of contributors has been anthologised in Flightpath, a limited cloth-bound, pocket-size hardback. Here is another rare and beautiful artefact from Hallowell Press, using archive-quality ink on mould-make paper. Its linocut illustrations by Victoria Castiglione, printed with Nineteenth Century treadle platen press, seem to lift off the page like the birds they depict.
The birds ‘are here in their thousands and their names are poetry’ writes editor Virginia Jealous in her introduction (8).
As though taking his cue from Jealous, Singaporean poet Tse Hao Guang risks a list poem in ‘A Guide to the Extirpated Birds of Singapore’ and succeeds, leaving just the trace of throat-catching bird names on ‘the aching sky’ (72) and achieving the pathos of threnody with minimal comment from the poet, other than his pointed title.
Contrast this with ‘Birdman’ by Keren Heenan, prose which at first seems a lyrical dreamscape of dense lacustrine swamp at dawn, in which however one soon senses the heart of darkness casting its shadow – not only on the bird shooters, but even on the saviour-like Birdman. When the denouement arrives, told slant as befits poetic prose, it’s accomplished with the restraint which gives tragedy dramatic impact, and hinges on ‘the shadow of the chopper shuddering its way across the surface, ‘black and small’ from ‘another lake’ and ‘another time’; ‘But mercy was not for that place.’ (69-70)
Flightpath re-confirmed for me ecologist David Abram’s belief that ‘Our animal senses, co-evolved with the animate landscape, are still tuned to the many-voiced earth.’ (Abram 264). Take Susan Fealy’s ‘Shearwaters at Dusk’, such a deft and exquisitely articulated poem that I dare not dismember it.
‘Shearwaters are alone
in their returning
though the small and silent flurries
could be called a group.
The sky shrugs its shoulders
and a few slip
from behind its back.
Their wings pulsate
as if they absorbed
the vastness of the sky.
Each hungers for its young
and that one still point on earth
that hole in untidy ground
that particular tiny entrance.’ (42)
A similar shiver of recognition could be generated by Olga Pavlinova Olenich’s ‘Siberian Birds’:
‘Out on the sandbank
my Siberian brethren have closed their wings
after the long flight
feather rests on feather in the forgetting.’
As the poet ‘wades towards them on my egret’s legs’ she becomes aware that they sense her coming:
the ruffle of fear the instinct to fly
stops when I stop
She concludes with a penultimate line which in its stretch, bridges the distance not only of water, but between species:
my family’s history swims out to meet the resting birds
on their own terms. (35-36)
This is a collection watermarked by compassion, in several poems specifically oriented towards the inescapable and perilous journeys of humans displaced by tragedy, whose resilience and suffering is not a chosen path but, like the transiting birds, the result of a survival instinct.
‘It is a hazardous migration’ writes marine ecologist Chris Surman in ‘SE Asia on a Shoestring’ . This is prose infused with intense observation (Surman spends time in a research shack at the Houtman Abrolhos Islands) and the singular lexicon of Surman’s scientific inclination: ‘delicate marine ichthyofauna’; ‘hovering flight intercepts wind drift – moths and other insects blown seawards by continental easterly winds’; ‘windrows of sargassum weed, torn from coastal reefs’ (50-51).
But we are never far from stories of humankind, and in an example of this little book’s sensitive sequencing, ‘Shearwater’, a poem by Paul Dolphin,
landfall ten thousand miles away,
sea-path marked with bodies of their kind. (24),
faces the page on which, in ‘Boys with Wings’, Renee Pettitt-Schipp writes of how she imagined
… the Sri Lankan boat alone
in a place in the ocean where ocean
is all that there is
while the youthful pilot of a military plane, sent to Cocos Island in anticipation of the landing,
says it should be here by tomorrow afternoon adds
that is, if it comes at all and I wonder if he knows
what he means (25)
There’s a church in Beaconsfield where contemplative readings are introduced with an exhortation to ‘hear our names in every story’. This not only relates to Flightpath’s narratives of global human displacement, but also its depictions of other intensely private dislocations, caused by personal loss. The final stanza of ‘Lost Albert Ross’ by Allis Hamilton conjures up others who endure bereavement and reconnect with quotidian life after a long period of seemingly remaining airborne, like the grieving albatross.
‘When land you finally did,
you found yourself in a place
where the water whirled backwards.’ (32)
Flightpath is a slim volume, the kind you’d leave on a guest’s bedside table or give to someone significant. This collection’s themes and voices are so varied that it delivers much more than the sum of its parts, and rewards close re-reading.
Abram, David. Becoming Animal. New York: Pantheon, 2010.
Annamaria Weldon’s forthcoming collection of poems traces the remains of Neolithic and Phoenician cultures on her natal Maltese islands. It will be released in October 2018 by UWAP, who published her last book, The Lake’s Apprentice, in 2014. Earlier collections are The Roof Milkers (Sunline Press 2008) and Ropes of Sand (Associated News Malta 1984). While Writer-in-Residence at Symbiotica from 2009, Annamaria won the Tom Collins Poetry Prize 2010 and the inaugural Nature Conservancy Australia’s Prize for Nature Writing 2011. A former journalist, she has been writing for publication since 1978. She is a founding member of OOTA and in 2013 was made a Fellow of the Fellowship of Australian Writers W.A. Her creative work has been featured in anthologies and journals including the Australian Book Review, Westerly and Island, and broadcast on ABC’s ‘Short Story’ program, and RN’s ‘Poetica’. Several poems from her forthcoming collection are currently featured in the national anthology ‘States of Poetry WA Two’ online at the ABR.