TAILS, TRICKS AND HERRINGS
Tails by Kona MacPhee, 64pp, £7.95, Bloodaxe
Vanishing Trick by Sue
Butler, 58pp, £6.95, Smith/Doorstop
Books, The Poetry Business, The Studio, Byram Arcade, Westgate, Huddersfield,
The Yugoslav Women and their Pickled Herrings by Cathy Young, 90pp, unpriced, Cornford Press, 6 Salisbury
Crescent, Launceston, Tasmania 7250
I suppose it’s inevitable publishers bring out books
evincing promise as well as – or, in some cases, rather than – achievement . Nothing wrong with
that. Except that sometimes you are led to suspect the competence and/or
taste of the publisher/editor and/or feel that a judicious bit of editing
would not have gone amiss. In certain instances you wonder whether writers
have not been brought on stage too early or because they are considered part
of an observable trend or current fashion; in some cases you might think some
writers should not have been brought on at all. This latter observation does
not, I hasten to say, apply to any of the writers here. They are, in very
differing ways, all worth reading – MacPhee not least for her verbal
texturing, Butler for her quiet-voiced seriousness, Young for a raw honesty.
Tails, we are told, is an auspicious
debut. It is certainly an ambitious one – experimental, risk-taking – which,
for the most part, pays off. There is versatility here, the trying-on of
different voices and different musical registers (the blurb tells us,
somewhat vaguely, that MacPhee ‘sings with the music of language’). And though the achievement is
considerable, there are times we have to say promise scores over it. In other
words, times when praise has to be qualified – as when the poet is
occasionally seduced by alliteration or goes in for over-egging with
adjectives or produces tautologies like ‘Tilted aslant’, ‘that
veils her skin/in cloudiness’ or when she plumps for the exotic word like
‘sinuates’ or invents one as in ‘wheatstalks perpendict the lines’ or, more
rarely, makes one squirm with a line like ‘Perspective’s engine hauls the eyes’.
However, these are the good faults of over-ambition not the bad ones of
MacPhee grew up in Australia (she now lives in Cambridge working in astronomy
as a software developer) and a number of the poems are set there. In
Melbourne she finds the sun
in until the morning, furling
linen of clean blue ranges
to its chin;
the murmured benedicte
of late sea
breezes to the exorcised heat.
(‘benedicte’ perhaps sounds a little precious?) She is genuinely good at
evoking the exotic qualities of down-under landscapes, the ‘land of subtle
colours, land/or larger air’. All in all, her poetry is a search for ‘the
rightness of things’. But not without entertaining a deep sense of the
fragilities, the instabilities that sensitise ordinary daily lives. Loss and
suffering play their part. During a course of IVF treatment she feels ‘all
hope/leaching from between my legs as blood/tinges the water’; and again with
a nurse’s announcement ‘She’s gone. I’m so sorry…The car stops. Your breath stops. Everything
stops’…those last three clipped sentences clear evidence that MacPhee can
make her lines re-enact what it is they say. The poems in this book cling on
to hope, despite the pull towards its opposite It ends with a moving
four-liner called ‘Home’:
Beside me on
the couch, the cat, asleep,
soliloquy in twitching feet.
shoulder’s warm, our baby breathes above;
need no remedy but love.
MacPhee is surely a poet to watch. Tails (a low-key title compared to Cathy Young’s) contains fine poems, the
reading of which offers the excitement of poetry often working with genuine
precision and poems coming to properly clinching endings. A poem about
misting up a window with breathing ends:
We wake to
the unmistakable trace
of life: this
glass we can’t see through.
In ‘Flying to London’ we find
light comes on; the plane banks low;
spill a last Australian heat.
Having flown back from an Australian summer into a Manchester Airport winter,
I can feel the force of that last line.
Sue Butler’s poems possess a straightforwardness that
reminds me of Jim Burns, poems that are simply a way of saying something
directly and completely without pretension:
in with blood on his trousers,
and with much miming
farmer’s pigs struggle longest
calves have the palest flesh.
Though we’re told she ‘currently lives in Hertfordshire’ I imagine her as
having North of England origins. Her poems have what Norman Nicholson once
called a ‘certain homebred gumption’ about them:
I spit on
is what lumberjacks always do,
rise on my
toes to wield the huge axe
And her poems always ‘arrive’, they get, satisfyingly, to where they are
going. Try this poem called ‘Proposal’, one of the several which explore
experiences encountered on a trip to Russia:
streets with women
age, he queues for pears.
eyes and gills before buying
flesh with dill,
stews a sauce
from their severed heads.
He covers the
gate-leg table with a cloth.
lilac in a milk bottle.
At ten to
eight he melts fresh butter,
sugar, cream, crushed cloves,
mouthful is deafening.
See what I mean? That final word detonates the whole poem.
But the straightforwardness is deceptive. Sue Butler’s poems may be
down-to-earth; they are also subtle.
O what a world of profit and delight is offered by poems that begin:
on the pre-war
to watch my
mother burn leaves:
pear that fell early this autumn.
I once spent
a day as sultry as this
God with Pasternak.
On the back of the book George Szirtes talks of ‘Tiny adjustments, large
effects’ and likens Sue Butler’s world to that of Chekhov: ‘On the one hand,
delicacy and desire, on the other, wild grass.’ It is not hard to see why.
If you like your poetry raw, unpolished, hard-hitting, then The Yugoslav
Women and their Pickled Herrings could be
for you. Sadly, its publication represents Tasmania’s Cornford Press’s
swansong. It is to publish no more books. This one flaunts a subtitle: Some
Hard-Working Women Poems 1960-2000, SA & Victoria, giving
a voice to women who have endured the harsh conditions of ‘migrant life,
institutionalised labour…and other “down” jobs (factories, strippers,
prostitutes, outsourcing).’ It is an uncompromising, nothing-spared account
of the conditions of a marginalised sector of Australian society.
Cathy Young comes originally from my neck of the woods, Bootle on Merseyside
and I can well imagine her having that kind of Scouse hard-knock, no-messin’
toughness that women who live in big ports (certainly the case in Liverpool) tend
to acquire. It is no doubt this that has helped her survive a variety of
hard-life situations down-under and make poetry out of them. (When I was in
Australia I soon discovered that Oz and Scouse temperaments were similar –
both have a kind of mock-aggressive debunking wit).
We soon get the impression that Cathy Young has no time for poetry-niceties;
her work is almost belligerently rough-and-ready: you are going to have your
nose rubbed in it. This also makes me believe that she must be a wow in Australian
performance poetry. What looks raw on the page (not poetry in a conventional
sense) has the sense of being scripted for hard-hitting readings:
ladies on their own
one morning a
$5 per hour
their own systems
to the word
first then a cup of tea and a biscuit
[from ‘We will
have tea in the garden one day]
If you got up
in the morning
2 scoops of
Catholic Girls Home
or yet again
daughter of a
working woman run ragged
cleaning kindies minding kids stacking night
in the front room in her old wedding bed
orders a bit strange on top
[from ‘Another lesson learned’]
These poems have never been workshopped. You turn the tap on, out they come –
blousy, brassy. But they are
politically vibrant, committed, no shit!
Matt Simpson 2004