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.

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