Amanda Joy. Snake Like Charms. 2017. UWA Publishing. RRP: $22.99, 100pp. ISBN: 9781742589404
Luke Fischer. A Personal History of Vision. 2017. UWA Publishing. RRP: $22.99, 112pp. ISBN: 9781742589381
Susan Fealy. Flute of Milk. 2017. UWA Publishing. RRP: $22.99, 100pp. ISBN: 9781742589398
Amanda Joy’s Snake Like Charms, Luke Fischer’s A Personal History of Vision and Susan Fealy’s Flute of Milk are vibrant additions to UWAP’s new poetry series, each exploring poetry’s ability to complicate or transform experience, thought, and memory. These poets offer meditations on threatening Australian landscapes, the fallibility of memory and the permeable boundaries of manmade structures, art forms and the natural world. All three titles are dynamic contributions to UWAP’s series of emerging and established voices in Australian poetry.
Amanda Joy’s debut full-length collection Snake Like Charms navigates family and animal life, memory and the body. As the title suggests, snakes as both subject matter and imagery dominate the collection—Joy produces an unsettling combination of instability, violence and beauty, as might be expected of a collection so closely connected to Australia’s threatening and threatened landscapes. ‘Nigredo’ demonstrates Joy’s snake imagery is at its musical, imagistic best:
You lean in to see
quickened by the sun
Two blue-tongued lizards
in locked roll while you
stop for lunch. (18)
The speakers of these poems are always aware of potential danger: ‘Discomfort will win’, warns the speaker in ‘Chased Seas Urge’. Built structures and their boundaries cannot prevent the relentless incursions of the natural world—windows crack, a snake’s entry turns a legal office into a terrarium, a child’s bedroom inadvertently becomes incubator for a nest of snake eggs, ‘white as magic’ (28).
Though deeply hypnotic, the snake imagery loses some impact as the reader becomes more accustomed to the frequent appearance of snakes in many poems. However in Part Three, the collection’s shortest, Joy’s focus shifts; subtitled ‘The Brookton Poems’, this section explores the intimate terrain of family and pregnancy, uncertainty and hyperawareness of self and body. The pregnant speaker’s claustrophobia intensifies with the recurring refrain ‘Five months and still / not showing’(72, original italics), making this section a bracing counterpoint to the collection’s earlier sections. This section’s heightened tension is given a savagely physical image when the speaker’s father-in-law, holding a freshly killed rabbit, pulls out
a glistening mass of pink
shapes, tied in a clump
Holds them out
The fresh, simple presence
Of the dead mother
In his other hand. (77)
The raw shock of the moment is amplified by the speaker’s sense of isolation in this section, as episodes of human and animal violence reinforce her uncertainty. Snake Like Charms is a rich debut from a poet whose assured voice offers us an unsettling view of family, art and the permeable boundaries between human and animal spaces.
Luke Fischer also unsettles boundaries in A Personal History of Vision. This collection explores the overlap of internal and external interpretations of the world—a complex philosophical project in which ‘what I’m trying to say/can’t be pinned down’ (21). In the collection’s first poem the reader encounters the speaker ‘turning to see/if you’ve missed anything’ (3). As the collection progresses, we find that the poetic, artistic and philosophical elements of everyday life can only be revealed with the right kind of vision. Vision is not limited to sight: the Swiss mountains in ‘Horizon of Alps (K)’ are both imagined and physical boundaries and in the ekphrastic poem ‘Matthew and the Angel’, Fischer complicates the inherently visual act of looking:
See how he
is not permitted to turn
but angling his head
can almost glimpse her.
Or perhaps his listening
Has become a kind of vision,
A mirror (33)
The second section, ‘Seed’, is darker in tone and explores grief, suffering and isolation. ‘Matthew and the Angel’, ‘Death’ and ‘Wind’ are arresting in their use of compact stanzas and spare, precise imagery. For this reader, the broader political and environmental commentaries of ‘Floating Seeds’ and ‘Elegy for the Earth’ are less effective in their reliance on familiar metaphors of victimhood and oppression: ‘This is a poem for those who felt/societal expectations were iron bars’ (39). However, the vast majority of the collection’s poems are meditative and unsentimental; they range from panoramas of Swiss lakes and mountains to a café in Newtown, where
you meet your wife and a friend—
sitting across from you on higher stools
they’re Isis and Osiris
and your soul’s to be weighed
against a feather. (77)
This striking juxtaposition underscores the third section’s preoccupation with ideas of transformation and transcendence, signalled by its title, ‘Metamorphosis’. Mythology, philosophy, music and visual art interact throughout the collection, and in the third and final section the boundaries between art and life are increasingly blurred. In ‘Glance’, a mundane moment isn’t registered as being like art, it is art as vision: a waitress lifts an empty cup and the speaker sees ‘an icon on a chapel wall / glimpsed in a candle’s / flicker.’
Visual art is also a major theme in Susan Fealy’s Flute of Milk. Divided into two parts, the first half of the collection examines light, image and colour, mixing and reapplying the same or similar colours and textures to reveal new depths. The resonance of Fealy’s poems lie in their interrelation—many of the poems speak to each other through the recurrence of colours and textures, revising and revisiting the colour blue, the texture of milk, the immateriality of light, and the unreliable or fallible images that memory creates for us.
Fealy extracts a series of different images and tones from the repetition of colours like blue, green and red in varied contexts through the collection. The painterly approach suits her subjects—many of the poems in this collection are ekphrastic or framed as responses to novels like John Banville’s The Sea and Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping. Fealy returns again and again to ideas about art forms— ‘So many frames/Inside frames’ (60). The poems pose a series of questions about interpretation: how do we make meaning out of images, colours, words, things? How are we to understand the images we retain as memories? How real are they? In the collection’s title poem, Fealy offers us a striking metaphor that complicates memory’s supposed infallibility:
memory prefers to hold things still
but the past, present and future
are a long flute of milk.
Later, this image is reconsidered in ‘What Memory Is Like’:
Anyone who’s received a memory
Knows that you opened
A window into transparent wire. (26)
Flute of Milk is about the (un)reliability of containers—words as containers for thought, body as container for self, memory as container for experience, art as container for image, texture, sound. In the collection’s second, longer half, Fealy explores mortality, decomposition and the body. These delicately constructed poems negotiate the differences between reality and reproductions, and several energetic, emphatic poems like ‘Metamorphosis’, ‘Instructions for Weaning a Baby’ and the vivid final poem ‘Writing with the Left Hand’, each offer intense, sometimes violent, counterpoints to the precise and inquisitive poems throughout the rest of the collection.
As part of a larger group of UWAP titles by a range of established and emerging Australian poets, these are three refreshing, contemplative collections of poetry, each setting out to explore in a variety of ways the relationships between art, place, the natural world, and the lyric voice.
Ella Jeffery is a writer and academic based in Brisbane. Her poetry, short fiction and critical work has appeared in journals and anthologies including Cordite, Mascara Literary Review, Tincture, Westerly and Best Australian Poems. She is a doctoral candidate at QUT, where she is researching the poetics of incompletion and exile in contemporary Australian poetry and teaches in the school of creative writing and literary studies.