Poety Review: Fiona Wright’s Emotion (Domestic Interior, 2017)

Overgrown House near Sha Lo Wan 2017

Is there a place for emotion in poetry? Many of the poems we read these days vehemently self-express, describe, confess, narrate, think aloud, protest, experiment, puzzle, but there is rarely any power of deep feeling in them. In his essay “A Defence of Ardour”, the Polish poet Adam Zagajewski notes that we find ourselves in the twenty-first century “in a very ironic and skeptical landscape” and, as a result, react with automatic suspicion to “ardour, metaphysical seriousness, the risky voicing of strong opinions”. It is precisely for this reason that a new collection from Fiona Wright — someone who feels keenly in her lyricism — is a significant event in Australian poetry, and one that gives us the opportunity to reassess what it means to write from the emotional textures of a small, private self.

It becomes quickly apparent that Wright is particularly drawn to melancholy in this book: wistfulness, despondency, sadness. She offers some insights into why this might be so in “Small Sad Poem”:

How did it help us
when we were animal?
Did we carry sadness in our heavier bones?
It rests inside the body, hot and wet,
it sits in the scoop of the clavicle,
all our cavities. How did it help us,
the sorrow in our marrow?
What could we harvest
from the salt of our own skins?

The brute fact of our upright human skeleton and the “heavier bones” gives unhappiness a physical cause. The gravity that weighs us down also diminishes our buoyancy. However, the poem also suggests that sadness leads to stasis, rest and interiority, all states conducive to reflection and contemplation, hence the insistently quizzical note of the text. The final question may also contain an interesting verbal ambiguity: what if the “could” in this poem is not the past tense of “can” but a modal verb suggesting future possibility: in other words, what may sadness help us to harvest from the unhappy “salt” of our lives? This recalls the ending from a hospital poem at the end of the book’s long fourth section: “and know / I have to make this fertile . . .” (74). These clues tell us that Wright sees poetry as a means of “recycling” her sadnesses; through writing, they are converted into artful, life-enhancing and meaningful literary artefacts.

Wright’s default unhappiness is provoked by many of the things that blight the human condition: debilitating sickness (readers of her essays on hunger, Small Acts of Disappearance, will be familiar with this), loneliness and the loss of love, an existential anxiety about not fitting in anywhere, feeling out of place and alien in a new town or a foreign country, the Great Australian Ordinariness, the inscrutability of life-events and, of course, transience and the inevitability of personal death. The weather, too, plays its part, as she demonstrates in her subdued “Autumn Poem”:

I am ankle-deep in leaves
and though the days burn bright
the fast-falling evening has a bite now:
I watch a small child pointing
with blunt fingers (yours are moon-like,
soft, nails longer and lovelier than mine)
at the dessicating leaves along the footpath,
more rubbish! she cries, more rubbish!
more rubbish!

and I walk home
past three damp-cornered houses
in which I used to live: autumn
is soft and slow
and spacious. I think
of how I curled
away from my cold feet
hooked behind your knees,
each finger in between yours.
I still fear that
there’s a hollowness
within me.

For a moment on the freeway
the next morning
a huge crow hovers
in the middle of my windscreen.

They too are smarter than they need to be
and I wonder if they feel it
like I feel it, wing-dark
and sinking.
There’s a crack
in the skin of things,
the dry air.

Various factors contribute to the atmosphere of this poem. Many of the lines end with a stressed long vowel, a fact frequently signalled by a doubled vowel (moon, footpath, feet, knees, freeway, windscreen, need, feel). The small child with its “blunt fingers” recalls Gerard Manley Hopkins’s Margaret, the young girl who grieves at Goldengrove’s “unleaving” in his “Spring and Fall”, but, there is nothing thoughtful about the response — “rubbish” suggests the mentality of a disgruntled householder rather than an imaginative kid. The word “desiccating” is a delicate touch, implying that the leaves are still in the process of drying out and dying. Nostalgia, romantic love, and a grim confession of “hollowness” all develop the mood of the season in various ways, before we come to the effective, if not entirely surprising, image of the menacing crow and the conclusion that there is a fundamental flaw at the heart of things.

But is mood enough, and is it strong enough to make a poem cohere in all its parts? A piece like “Autumn Poems” depends largely on its choice of details. All of them help to convey the speaker’s emotion(s), but does this loose affiliation of impressions go any way to clarifying the experience of sadness for the reader? The poem is structured as a walk: as the protagonist moves through the stages of her itinerary, she notes impressions as they crop up along the way. There’s a walk at the core of quite a number of her lyrical pieces (“Ode to the Metro”, “Surely”, “Flowering Cherry”, to name just a few) and this helps knit the impressions into a plausible sequence. But a walk simply ends when a destination is reached, while a successful poem generally moves towards some culmination of all its parts in a memorable, encompassing design.

This difficulty with regard to achieving close-knittedness inspires a substantial number of experiments with cohesive “devices” in Domestic Interior. In some cases, this device is merely a repeated phrase that serves as a refrain. In “Love Poem: Miranda Fair”, for instance, “I love the way” is repeated for this purpose; in “There is Repetition”, each one of the seventeen lines starts with “In the dream”; while in “Neukölln”, German words (sprüdeln, widerstand, Pfingstrosen, Scheiße) are interspersed to help shape the text. A variation of this approach involves the quotation of glib self-improvement slogans used on sporting apparel — NEVER EVER GIVE UP; SWEAT + EFFORT = MIRACLES; DREAM BELIEVE ACHIEVE, etc. — in “Coastal Walk (with Tanktops)”. Such strategies provide an effective (but sometimes mechanical) means for preventing the diffuseness and loss of focus that sometimes diminishes the lyric poems.

Wright employs more ambitious strategies in a number of other poems, where a simple but ingenious idea is developed through a series of variations. For instance, “Inner Suburban Omens” takes the fortune-teller’s idiom of auspicious and inauspicious signs and transposes it to a suburban context: “A frangipani or a franger on the footpath both retain good luck / if you step lightly, and cross the fingers / of your left hand. / A DA notice for a cheese shop / means your rent will likely rise”. Other examples of this kind of poem include “Suburban Monsters” and “Charm against Casual Cruelty”. My favourite in this vein is the gentler “Charm for Unexpected Kindness”:

Take a kitchen sink (that beautiful object)
two permissions and three confessions,
gather a scattering of excess prepositions and a length
of cotton twine.
Steal a kiss at a traffic light
and hold it in your pocket until lunchtime.

Collect loose coins (legal tender), buttons
and dropped bobby pins
from in between the cushions of a couch,
goosedown, a rabbit paw,
an unblown dandelion seed,
a cirrus cloud. Make a grid

out of your fingers, and then
breathe into the bottom of your ribcage.
Hold your own reflection in someone
else’s mirror: that you might
grow to fill the outline that you find there.

In this case, the primary organizing device is the recipe, made up of a list of incongruous objects and locations. There is pleasure in this nonsensical catalogue — poetry perhaps at its most rudimentary level — sustained by the care with which the terms have been selected. Cohesion is also created by the instructive imperative verbs (take, gather, steal, hold, collect) that regularly appear at the start of phrases. Wright also demonstrates her typographical alertness in several places: she enjoys the alignment of graphically similar word-fragments as in permissions/confessions and goosedown/unblown. Surprisingly, there’s a slight shift at the end away from the explicit theme of kindness in the direction of growth. In these more structured poems, in other words, Wright gives her uneasy ego the slip for a while in exchange for a hint of modest hopefulness. But what she gains in cohesiveness, she loses in spontaneity and range.

She doesn’t just write with feeling, however; in eight texts she does her best to write against it. Such pieces are described as “overheard” poems in the back-cover blurb and are supposed to convey both “their speakers’ vulnerability and their attempts at resolution”. To some extent, they also present what Peter Hershock refers to as “the new grammar and vocabulary of ‘I Am’”. By and large, they are acts of ventriloquism, deriving most of their force from the tension between an alienated, media-saturated mode of language and the tones and ample energies of spoken English. There is no doubt that they provide a stark contrast to her dominant self-expressive mode. Here’s the opening of a longish piece called “Vibrations”:

“I just ended that one with the Hispanic boy. I’m always thinking,
sexually, mentally, physically, whatever, there’s always an end
and that makes it less. Just less. Even if it’s just
that one of you dies. It makes it less.
My last one, you know, he’d go down
stairs and play the piano, anytime he was happy
or angry, or sad, or bored, whatever, he’d go downstairs
to the piano, it was instead
of conversation. Which was fine,
because he was talented. He brought the baby
grand home from his parents, they were fine.
Downstairs, the vibrations
from the baby grand, were really something. . . .”

The entire text is placed between quotation marks to signal its oral nature, and this quality is further enhanced by the conspicuous repetition (for example, of “always”, “less”, “fine”), the use of colloquial features such as “whatever”, and the rather loose syntax that tends to string along indifferently rather than to punctuate for greater grammatical finesse. It is, however, a virtual monologue, a one-sided conversation (despite the “you know”) that seems to actively ward off any response to it. For the reader, the contents is of little immediate interest, but the suggestion in the poem that the “he” prefers music to conversation is a hint that we should listen to the rhythms and sounds instead. Pieces such as “Vibrations” are certainly much more rhythmically supple and varied in comparison to the lyric poems: there’s a relentless drive in them, as well as a slightly hypnotic momentum.

Perhaps a curious kind of fragmentation is going on in Wright’s writing. Alongside the dominant lyric mode, with its gradual unfolding of I-centred states, there are these two competing minor modes that exploit poetic resources excluded by the major form. In response to the tendency to diffuseness and inconclusiveness, the first minor type creates various degrees of intricate organization, while the second explores versatile speech-rhythms and a more rapid pace than the lyric poems. They both provide striking contrasts to Wright’s major style, and perhaps they are also meant to protect her from the criticism that her writing is too personal, too private, too emotional.

There are times, however, when Wright manages to combine these disparate poetic modes in a single integrated text. An outstanding example, for me, is the poem “Bankstown: Centro”:

As the old men displayed their orchids
by the escalator and pram-strapped children
thrashed at the Kmart counter

we would watch couples in stiff jackets
unwrap their discs of margarine,
the iceberg lettuce shrivelling in their silence.

We loved the sheen of the one-way mirrors
and lined up quietly before them, both of you
taller, already, than I was, even though
I’d been born in between. We waited

for that day
when we might finally pass behind them,
suddenly unable to see out:
our own faces pinking blankly back.

We wouldn’t touch the cutlery,
just itch inside our handmade party dresses,
still ogling the soft-serve machine.

I imagined we’d imagine
the other children out there
planted on the patterned tiles,
wanting to wipe their cheesy fingers

on the velveteen booths, and watching
as their mothers spoke to other mothers
or lined up inside Medicare and didn’t let them
try the frames at the optometrist next door,

we’d let dried parmesan float
like snowdome glitter
on miraculous, tricoloured pasta.

Immediately impressive is the tension between an inventive diction and the banal setting. Words such as “pram-strapped”; “thrashed”; “pinking”; “cutlery”; “itch” and “ogling” all contribute vitality against the suburbanality of “Kmart counter”, “lettuce”, “margarine”, “Medicare” and “optometrist”, and enhance the text’s bite. This contrast is further underscored by a complementary play of opposites in the poem, opposites such as the gorgeous natural beauty of the orchids as opposed to the commercial and unlovely department store; the sharpness of cutlery as opposed to the soft serve ice-cream machine; and the clean geometric tiles as opposed to the grubby cheesy fingers. These contrasts contribute in turn to the theme, a portrait of childhood that juxtaposes an occasionally malevolent dullness with genuine, wide-eyed wonder.

In the poem “Pasticceria”, Wright is called to account when she uses the word “indescribable”: “I called it / indescribable, and was called / on it: poet, do your work” (51). Wright certainly possesses a descriptive flair, and there are many examples of such attentiveness in this collection (in Small Acts of Disappearance, she writes that “it has always been detail that I’ve thought makes the worlds we write specific, poignant and, in essence, poetic”.) In the second stanza, the couples wearing “stiff jackets” seem to be sullenly angry with one another, and this is reflected in the unnaturally restrained movement of their clothing; at the same time, however, Wright looks to heighten the strangeness and discomfort in human behaviour as seen through a child’s eyes: the oddity of “unwrap their discs of margarine”, “just itch inside our handmade party dresses, / still ogling the soft-serve machine” or “wanting to wipe their cheesy fingers / on the velveteen booths” is not so much observed as thoughtfully composed to express a sense of an everyday weirdness.

Observation, too, is valued for its own sake. In “Centro: Bankstown”, lines such as “we would watch couples” and “watching / as their mothers spoke to other mothers” indicate the fact that children, as minor actors in the drama of adult life, spend much of their time as on-lookers. But there is more to it, I think. Throughout this collection, Wright shows herself to be constantly on the look-out —

       I just watch crossbreeds with shredded paper stuck to their paws (21)

I watch a woman in pink boardshorts hold out white bread (23)

. . . and I watch schoolgirls making fish braids (35)

I watched a black light flick behind a balcony (53)

and this endless looking hints at a disengagement from her surroundings and from other people. She’s not a misanthropist, but she infinitely prefers — to use one of her favourite verbs — to curl herself away from intimacy. In “Poppies, Katoomba”, she records an anecdote from her childhood told to her by one of her father’s friends — “he says that as a child / I’d said I want to be alone / with my own thoughts and this winds me” (42) — and in another poem she writes about strangers passing by just beyond where she sits observing, “their faces blue-lit / by their phone screens, and beautiful” (71). In other words, she is drawn to people most intensely in her work when they are preoccupied and firmly ensconced in their own private worlds. Perhaps this is ultimately why she feels a special attraction to “the sheen of the one-way mirrors”.

In this collection, the diffuseness of the lyric poems and the fragmentation of poetic resources might indicate just how difficult it is to write with feeling. This difficulty is further reflected in Wright’s handling of similes.

You might have already been struck by her simile-building in the examples quoted so far. For instance, the example of “moon-like fingers” in “Autumn Poem” is intended to provide a contrast to a previous reference to a child’s “blunt fingers”. Of course, she is referring to fingernails here, but this is obscured by the misleading use of “fingers”. I also found myself hesitating over the simile in “Centro: Bankstown” in which parmesan cheese is said to “float like snowdome glitter”. I can appreciate the mood of child-like delight that Wright wants to convey, but I can’t imagine the cheese doing anything else but fall, no matter how finely grated.

See for yourself whether the following further samples give you any pause for thought:

That night, with wineglasses budding like bacteria / along the table (54)

In these last cold mornings of the season / my hands grow thick and lumpy / as air-cured salami. (70)

I eat sandwiches against a headstone, / the moss plump and wet as over-cooked rice (72)

. . . our temples / are pressed together, / like a prayer, I want to say, / but can’t quite. (83)

The last simile linking temples with prayer is particularly striking. Wright has a difficulty with it because she can’t say that the temples resemble hands held palm to palm — that’s too many body-parts! To avoid this, she opts for the comparison with “prayer”, even though prayer itself does not resemble the gesture employed for the act. Finally, she adds the phrase “I want to say but can’t quite”, as if acknowledging the difficulties she is in with her figure of speech and creating as a result an endearing, deliberately clumsy simile that effectively gives voice to emotional awkwardness. It’s an arresting technical innovation.

Although at times the phrase “domestic interior” seems to function as a simile for suburban life, for the most part its true designation is the private world of the writer and the power of her feelings. Wright’s fondness for the verb “to curl” and the attraction she feels for images of enclosed emptiness — “the winging halves of the bridge / holding their emptiness / their own suspension” (70) — are emblematic in their own way of her lyrical style: it too closes around something hidden with the details. Her evocation of this existential hollowness is intriguing rather than genuinely engaging. She embraces it, but I wanted her to comprehend it and come back to us radiant with meaningful discovery. It may be that the strength of emotion is not intense enough; or perhaps the skeptical ambiance in this country prevails. That may explain Wright’s recourse to anti-lyricism in this book. Certainly, lines such as “Still, there are things / the tongue can do / that are important: / cake’s one of them, / and so is speaking / of our sadness” (52) imply a mild and rather muted emotional range. If ardour is what you long for in poetry, the poems in Domestic Interior may fall short.

Domestic Interior is published Giramondo Publishing.

 

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