Alice Allan reviews Lisa Brockwell and Tamryn Bennett

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Earth Girls
by Lisa Brockwell
Pitt Street Poetry, 2016

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phosphene
by Tamryn Bennett
Rabbit Poets, 2016

Lisa Brockwell’s Earth Girls and Tamryn Bennett’s phosphene are both compelling first collections in their own right. Reading them side-by-side, however, an equally compelling contrast emerges. Where Brockwell looks for clarity and direct engagement with her audience, Bennett invites interpretation, offering many clues and few concrete answers. This contrast reveals something else: the strengths of one approach do not threaten, or cancel out, those of the other.

In an interview with Northerly editor Barnaby Smith earlier this year, Brockwell outlined her approach to writing poetry: ‘Accessibility is a priority for me, but not at the expense of intelligence, nuance or complexity,’ she said. ‘I want my poems to be accessible, but by that I just mean that I want a reader to be able to engage with the poems, to find something there. That doesn’t mean the poem is easy, or able to be explained.’

This balance is clear in every one of the poems that make up Earth Girls. Often it’s Brockwell’s titles that do the heavy lifting, spelling out a subject and allowing the rest of the poem to move freely around it. ‘On Becoming a Housewife for the First time at the Age of 41’, for example, begins:

I learn to cut up a melon, though remain unable to bring a knife to a whole chicken. I save small lizards from the dogs. I find myself on tuckshop duty with my dearest friend; at university we didn’t see this coming.

In other poems, such as the short, seething ‘Honey’, it’s the slow reveal of a story that holds our attention:

Where is the honey? You asked me
that morning, wide awake to the menu
of the world. I hadn’t seen the honey
in years: the jar a harem of sun,
radiant and louche, perfected by a city
of drones

In her interview with Smith, Brockwell explains that Earth Girls brings together seven years’ worth of work. The care she has taken in choosing pieces for the collection is obvious. With the exception of one or two minor poems, most are strong enough to hold their own ground. More than a few offer the satisfying jolt of an original comparison: ‘Window box platonic’ for example (‘Waiting for the train’), or ‘tambourine / of wind in trees’ (‘When I run’).

The two-part poem ‘Laika and Oleg’ is one of the high points in the collection. This is a moving account of the fate of the dog Laika, the first living creature to orbit the earth, and of the man who selected and trained her:

Metal walls, the only smell is chemical,
disorienting me like those blank
corridors in the lab. When I close my eyes
he comes to me with ‘good girl’, with his warm hands

It’s an unflinching poem, almost bruising to read. There are points when it’s tempting to stop altogether, but Brockwell leads us gently forward through Laika and Oleg’s story.

Brockwell consistently combines line breaks at natural pauses, with those that draw the reader down to the rest of a phrase. This technique creates a steady rhythm that supports her exploration of other difficult subject matter. For example, the three-part poem ‘Uluru’ – another crest in the collection – begins with characteristic openness: ‘Three days after my middle miscarriage / we went to the desert.’ Further into the poem we see another of Brockwell’s strengths: her insistence that her poems share personal experience, then stretch beyond it:

… Within minutes I knew
a dingo took that baby. Then grief grabbed me
with its jaws. This country could not
countenance a woman who did not collapse
on prime time, who would not unstitch herself
in front of strangers. A woman at her very edge.

In her acknowledgements Brockwell mentions contemporaries including Judith Beveridge and Dorothy Porter – two poets with a breathtaking ability to communicate both lurking menace and joy in apparently everyday subjects. At its best, Earth Girls reaches toward these unspoken things with the ‘lucidity’ Porter spoke about in her 2001 Judith Wright memorial lecture. ‘Lucidity can write with a tongue of fire,’ Porter said. ‘Often it’s a sense of urgency, a sense of dire times, that can make a poem searingly lucid.’

While Brockwell’s subjects generally remain close to home (her poems on the aftermath of Japan’s 2011 tsunami and the amusing ‘Jennifer & Angelina’ notwithstanding) this ‘sense of urgency’ is achieved on a local scale. Again she pushes beyond personal experience into wider social observations in the ekphrastic series ‘Point of View,’ which responds to the work of Tasmanian landscape artist Philip Wolfhagen. At one point, the speaker expresses her relief that the painting in front of her is not:

… one of those where she
is waiting around, always out of frame
while some idiot she is married to
takes their only horse, dresses up
in a tin hat and does some grandstanding.

The points where the collection could be stronger – and they are rare – occur when Brockwell strays beyond clarity into over-explication. Indeed, it’s the polish in the majority of the poems that makes a meticulous reader itch to pull out a word here and there. For example, the lines ‘Sitting / on the rocks in her swimming costume, / her hair wet and loose down her back’ (‘Seaworthy’) are enough to complete the picture without the next line: ‘a woman who has just finished her swim.’ Similarly the qualifiers in these lines could be left out: ‘For me, it’s after the harvest, only just / but even so, a different season’ (‘Waiting for the train’).

While Earth Girls generally adheres to structures and themes familiar to readers of Australian poetry today, Tamryn Bennett’s phosphene occupies an entirely different space. This is the fourth book in the Rabbit Poets Series published by Rabbit: A Journal of Non-fiction Poetry, adding to collections by Jordie Albiston, Tim Wright and Geraldine Burrowes plus three more debuts launched with Bennett’s collection. It continues editor Jessica L. Wilkinson’s exploration beyond the bounds of the poetry we’re used to – bringing attention to the experimental, and testing the limits of nonfiction.

Phosphene is made up of four poems and spans 50 pages, using meticulous typesetting and blank space to create movement – a sense that the poems are spreading across the pages. Each English stanza is mirrored by a Spanish translation courtesy of one of Bennett’s collaborators, composer Guillermo Batiz. The work of visual artist Jackie Cavallaro also complements the text, adding an intricate visual layer to the book. In Bennett’s introduction we learn that phosphene actually began life as a collaborative exhibition with Batiz, Cavallaro and performer Tamara Elkins.
Bennett explains that her work on phosphene began in Mexico ‘as a series of rituals and offerings at sacred sites’. ‘Offerings were tied with thread and placed in the ashes of shrines, cracks of temples and beneath desert dust,’ she explains. ‘Mirroring ruins and fractured histories, the fragmented elegies of phosphene are what remain after the light of the moment has passed.’ This is lofty subject matter and it’s to Bennett’s credit that she works toward her goals through scarcity of language, rather than weighing these ideas down with words. The following stanzas from the first poem, ‘at the temple of letters’, give some idea of Bennett’s compact approach:

white on red
we roam the ruins

blanco sobre rojo
rondamos las ruinas

the rocking bridge,
the dried river

el puente que mece,
el río seco

white on red
all sins, all saints

It’s clear that Bennett wants more than just the physical space created by short lines. There’s also expansiveness in terms of subject matter. The third poem in the collection, ‘the invisible’, best illustrates this. It begins in a misty valley before moving ‘through fields of cactus / to the desert by the sea’. The poem then begins to switch between confined spaces – rib bones, a wardrobe, a hall, a mirrored room and holes in a wall – and open spaces: a green stream, the sky, and a ‘garden of bones’. The elegiac quality of the book is perhaps most pronounced in this poem. ‘the invisible / keep living’, Bennett tells us, ‘sadness stacked / in towers / surround the bed’.
Along with Cavallaro’s finely detailed images, punctuation marks are also dotted around the poems on most pages, suggesting the desert dust Bennett encountered when first creating the work. This also adds to the sensation that the poems are floating, suspended above the page rather than printed onto it.
The fact that each line is doubled through its Spanish translation is another crucial element. As each poem progresses, it feels natural to match each English word with its Spanish translation. ‘Owl’ becomes buhó, ‘chance’ becomes azar and ‘holy nothing’ becomes bendita nada. This pattern concentrates each line, bringing the shape and meaning of every word into focus. With shorter lines, this focus becomes sharper still, as in this section from ‘the invisible’:

aquí,

here,

*

and here,

y aquí,

the ground remembers

el suelo recuerda

Taken as a whole, phosphene is a wild, open landscape with features that only gradually become familiar. Finishing a first reading, we find hints of this expansive, quiet world, but the full picture isn’t clear. This is a space that invites many repeat visits. It’s with each subsequent reading that phosphene rewards us.
As the book becomes more familiar, each page takes on the quality of an individual artwork as well as being part of a greater whole. The book’s rhythm can be heard as the speaker, the accompanying ‘you’ and the minor characters, move back and forth between confined and open spaces, and through time. This movement is anything but linear – it’s closer to a spiral or a layering of images and memories. As the book ends, Bennett hints at completion without giving in to neatness:

here is where you leave
your hair,

here,

in the desert,
in his hands

With each reading it becomes easier to see how Bennett is contributing to the tradition she notes in her introduction – that of the ‘xopan cuicatl’ or ‘spring song’ of Nahuatl poetry: ‘Each of these acts is part of a longer thread,’ Bennett says of her work. ‘Each a knot to remember the past and our place within it.’
It’s tempting to end here by finding similarities between phosphine and Earth Girls – to look for a way to bridge any perceived ‘gap’ between an experimental project and a lyric one. These two works do share many strengths. Both have a clear goal, are precise in working towards that goal, and show wholeheartedness in each step taken. But their real strengths are actually entirely independent. Far from placing them in opposition, these differences reinforce each poet’s place on the flourishing continuum of Australian poetry today.

*Alice Allan is a writer and editor living in Melbourne. Her work has been published in journals such as Rabbit, Going Down Swinging and Offset.

**Taken from Cordite Poetry Review at http://cordite.org.au/reviews/allan-brockwell-bennett/

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