Clarke, Josephine. Recipe for Risotto. Perth: UWA Publishing, 2020. RRP: $22.99, 104pp, ISBN: 9781760801458.
The lyricism of the Italian language, its lilting rise and fall, rhythms and luscious sounds, permeates the poetry of Josephine Clarke. In her collection, Recipe for Risotto, part of the UWAP poetry series, Clarke unites a rich Italian heritage with her current and past lives. The result is beautifully balanced. Clarke moves smoothly between family and place, past and present, beginnings and endings, country and city, heart and head. The total effect is one of a life cherished and well lived which the reader is invited to share.
The collection is carefully divided into four parts, beginning with the charting of family. The title poem, ‘Recipe for Risotto’ (14), works the extended metaphor of a recipe, its ingredients and methodology to bring a family together. The history of the family is evoked in the line, ‘Remind them of where they come from’ which leads into the various sources of the ingredients: ‘butter from the Alps, rice from the sodden Lombardy plains’, and fuses with family lineage here in Australia: ‘lines of brothers, the Goldfields, the woodline, to abandoned shacks in the karri’. Throughout the poem, Clarke moves from the process of cooking risotto to connecting with family, memory and tradition. The ‘note’ that unites the ingredients is memory, of ‘the journeys, the sacrifices’, and is summed up by the final line, ‘Don’t let in any forgetting’.
The poems in this collection are measured and carefully paced, allowing time for the reader to reflect and connect with their own families and traditions through Clarke’s exploration of work-a-day experiences and strong characters. A favourite of mine is ‘Nonna’ (24). At a family wedding, ‘Nonna’ emerges as a woman who has undergone much. She embodies the immigrant experience of women who left behind what they knew, summed up in the lines,
hangs in gold hoops in her ears (24)
Such women came to a world of difference to do their duty. And Nonna endures: shaped by war and sorrow, she remains ‘tight-lipped’ with ‘her strong jaw’ and ‘her straight stare’ (25). She is instantly recognisable too, as such matriarchs exist in many immigrant cultures, holding families together as they settle into a new life. More poignantly, the character of Nonna reappears in ‘The Silent Nonna’ (16). Nonna never learns to speak ‘their language’ and at night ‘wanders the hillsides’ and the ‘cold hollow earth’. She is an alien in her own home and memories from a distant life of guns and fear emerge in sleep. Her husband’s bed is that of ‘the patriarch’. She lives knowing ‘my love is not here’ (17).
Clarke’s style utilises poetic conventions including vivid sensory imagery, personification and metaphor. These are particularly evident in the poems about Pemberton and its forest of karri trees. Clarke evokes the transient beauty of the Pemberton Forest with lines such as,
drip wet light
draw a veil over me (42)
I cannot shake off this place
its dewed webs
its months of aluminium sky
the trees that ache in the breeze (44)
The trees come alive with emotion. They sigh and whisper and ache together in their majesty. The tone of these poems is reverent, as though the light falling through the trees has entered the poet’s soul. Anyone who has been to the forests around Pemberton will instantly recognise the colours, the shapes and sounds. References to and images of light abound, falling through branches, across the surface of a dam or glistening on raindrops. Leaves drop and ‘stud the path / lost pieces of stained glass’ (42) while wild flowering vines bunch into ‘bridesmaids’ skirts silver underleaf’ (43). The result is a tapestry of forest, shifting and beautiful, creating a stage and perfect setting for a red-tailed black cockatoo, that ‘flamenco dancer of the marri’ (46).
The latter sections of the collection investigate cityscapes and suburbs. A stand-out poem is ‘Word photography, early mornings, Blackwall Reach’ (75). This section of the Swan River is conjured into existence via seven small stanzas recording impressions of the morning. Here ‘water sits in gleaming puddles of mercury’, and ‘jellyfish expand and contract like showercaps’. The focus here is on the photographic or visual elements and embodies the stillness and beauty of the river in early light, like an impressionist painting.
Family and nature return in the final poems as something to bind identity in tradition, ritual and place. In ‘Our Mothers, the trees’, the notion of trees as a source of strength and endurance linked to mothers and their survival harks back to Nonna and her stoic existence:
All our mothers.
Our mothers’ mothers;
icons in silver,
years of living ingrained,
scars worn to a gleam. (84)
Mealtimes remain a source of connection and understanding of family origins. The domestic details included in ‘Senza Parole’ (‘Without Words’ 92) are simple yet powerful, as when the persona seeks recognition in her mother’s old village on another continent. Like ‘Risotto’, a family comes together for a meal in the poem. It is here, when ‘Finally, at table,’ that sense of belonging is realised and ‘Recognition / by the mouthful’ (92) is achieved.
Clarke’s collection is meticulous. Her eye for detail is a constant delight and her combination of images creates so many vibrant and exquisite representations of life, past and present, that the reader is flooded with sensory impressions. Like the note of the title poem, Clarke’s poetry sings fortissimo, pianissimo and sostenuto, allowing its melody to linger when the reading is done.
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.