Alex Griffin reviews In Some Ways Dingo by Melody Paloma

Melody Paloma, In Some Ways Dingo. Melbourne: Rabbit Poets Series, 2017. ISBN: 978-0-9953901-4-0.

 

Alex Griffin

 

Relevant topics not included in this review: road romance, failures of assistance, Taylor Swift, the glibness of council preservation materials, sinkholes.

As a form of orientation, like this book, I am going to take the long way round to a shortcut.

***

In Googling I find a lack of consensus (scientific or otherwise) about what ‘dingo’ is, let alone the ways of. What I grew up understanding  (( – colloquially, at a distance, from the vantage of outer suburban swamps – )) as ‘dingo’ was n: the canine that is over there, out there. Dogs were the lank things panting on shaded concrete, the things that ran away and came back, the things that howled when the wind came and the gust quickened up to ominous, the things put down. Dingoes don’t bark.

The dingo-concept in invader-colonial-settler English – both casual and scientifically nomenclatural –  has been alternately named ‘wolf’, ‘dingo’, ‘dog’, and ‘wild dog’. There is, from my Google understanding, little consensus whether the dingo is a feral or native animal, or what kinds of dogs should be classed as ‘dingoes’. In its habits and history, too, the dingo itself is perambulatory, mythic in origin, always both coming and going. Wikipedia: Dingoes came to this continent somewhere between 3500 and 12000 YBP. Google: Asian seafarers brought them here. Different storytelling traditions tell different truths, singing them into creation differently.

Perhaps one day they may just leave for somewhere else. They do not particularly seek human friendship, kinship or kindness but return it in spades when they decide to. Amidst the ecological stigmas of invaders, about the right kinds of dogs, the right kinds of seeing, never has this language mapped the dingo to a point, and as that grasping continues, the point keeps moving out of sight: through interbreeding with other dog breeds, it seems that no ‘pure’ dingoes remain: all dingoes are only in some way. That is, we keep looking as the dingo obscures before us.

***

Another detour, like this book moves: I have a memory (or it has me) of being at the top of the lighthouse in Esperance as an eight-year-old child on a grey day in high wind, of vomiting over the railing and watching the matter scatter onto the rocks and sea below, before the waves rearranged it all completely out of sight. It was cold: I was wearing thick clothes. I remember little else, though it was the first time I left my suburbs, the first time I had spent hours in cars, going simply to go. Somewhere in my mind is also carsickness, crayon melting like lipstick into a rented carseat, feeling terror in a cave. Like Gerald Murnane’s re-mis-collection from his reading of Don Quixote – of wind-borne vomit splashing on the side of a ship – I have not conferred with anyone to confirm it. This memory simply is, and is true for being is, though perhaps false for being not. It is, or was, or has been, or sits somewhere on the edges of all of these. In playing it back, this was how I learned to travel. But I google the lighthouse and never find it.

When we came back from the trip, our dog was gone. She was a dog who had bitten me several times, and I did not grieve her absence particularly – I was the kind of child called sensitive in a euphemistic way – but was puzzled by it. My parents stated that she had gone to live in the country because she was part dingo (that is, dangerous, not suburban, a there not here). She had bitten me, so I accepted this with some guilt, and on some deeper level, maybe, the sense that travel and movement are a loosening inasmuch as they are a reconstruction, an addendum. You return to the suburb, the pale construct of the unchanging, to change and to changing and changed. I don’t think she was really a dingo, but in some ways dingo.

***

Track forward—

I want to know more about trees.

(15)

Why am I writing about the dingoes of my life? Because this book is In Some Ways Dingo and in some ways dingo, invitational in a sort of unfussed, casual, incantory way, like both a map and the act of traversing. These are poems about what it is to wonder about space before entering it, and then to do so, and to keep wondering the whole way through. A desktop background of the RAAF Lake outside Point Cook, and the seeing and tasting of the air, and the absurdity of all of them, like travelling with someone as they fiddle with the radio or Google Maps while you focus on the road, and vice versa. These short, casual, intensely focused poems run astride Elizabeth Bishop’s call toward the close of ‘Questions of Travel’ –

Is it lack of imagination that makes us come

to imagined places, not just stay at home?

Or could Pascal have been not entirely right

about just sitting quietly in one’s room?

(Elizabeth Bishop, The Complete Poems 1927–1979, 94)

– except framed in a way peculiar to a generation reared amidst screens, a new form of movement: Paloma asks on one level, in a life with Google, what is the relationship between imagination and space? What does it mean to think about place, and know the data of it intimately without the datum of it. When the whole world is within reach, what is it to actually touch it, before and after being there? How are we dingoes at the edge of in/un/experience?

This book interrogates the dissolution of having been and not having been when the mediatised seeing corrupts the gap between fantasy and experience, something historically new. Ibsen travelled south to see the paintings he had never heard of, and was transformed. I have seen them all through a screen before the age of 25. Yet motion still exists and beckons. Maybe it’s not a meaningful distinction to say here or there unless there is a when attached. In Some Ways Dingo navigates this like a trout upstream, not against reductive logics, but straight, clean, through them.

Paloma begins with ‘Hyper-reactive’, at traffic lights in Brunswick, in the middle of the Melburnian inner north – the panoptical paradise from which many things are seen and discussed and seldom experienced (I live off Sydney Road, this isn’t a dig), but moves out relentlessly, to Esperance, Milat territory, Gippsland, everynow roadside Australia. That poem won the 2015 Judith Wright Poetry Prize, and is a taut yet expansive marvel, a winning, blooming thing that establishes the themes of the book: ‘one thing leads to another / until it doesn’t / active now’ (3), draws together the movement through space, digital and otherwise, and the sense of being there – activity, not as a means or ends, but a language that transcends both.

This movement is never linear, but intentional, unplanned and aleatory: ‘We take the turnoff at the last minute’ (‘Wolf(e) Creek’, 32). Shoes grip puddles, hands are held on planes, wombats are warned against. Empty turned over cars are inspected, ‘Itemise lives … / … then leave them’ (‘On reality TV’, 31). Listing the aphorisms of movement here would be an itinerary in itself, but none of the travel here is low or lonely nor yearning for comprehensiveness, only the register of comprehension: when the speaker is isolated, it’s at a screen, scanning the opals of, looking at YouTube sinkholes, the websites of whales. How here is only ever here becoming there, first reconnaissance, then experience, mediated by the fact of doing, but all overlapping:

… me watching                            exhaling loudly

 

Scrolling                                      exhaling loudly

(37)

‘I had only ever seen Redwoods in California but forgot to touch them’ (‘Periphery’, 7) follows hard on touching the screen to save an image of the self to the desktop. ‘Hands disappear into wood’ (7), or firmament, or the self, or somewhere.

This is no mere phenomenology of space and travelling through, though. Stylistically, Paloma’s charm and wit is never far from the surface, replete and warm, with dry punchlines, never simply motion but the vexed pleasure of it, too. ‘Poem’ inhabits a delightful Ashbery-like humour:

 

It was called Blackbirds

then it was called In Memory of Blackbirds

but now it’s called Artificial Choir

(30)

 

Like the travel, the poem itself sings that ‘Nothing is ever really still’ (23). Indeed, reading itself has no place (Bachelard): all here moves with the same opaque tenacity of fossicking, internally and externally, for what the fossicking itself means. Underpinning the rich insight is always a vivid curious hunger for experience: the final poem ‘Gimme Gimme Gimme’ observes ‘The kid with the bubble-o-bill / who just can’t get past his face (45): there is no end of the road, but not in an ouroboros way of a closed loop. Just the tasting of being.

To insist on a failure to capture something is to insist on an unavoidable futility instead of foregrounding the innate fragility of the thing which cannot be wholly captured. From the Lehmann Brothers to Russell Coight to everything in between, from Burke and Wills to failed present science, encounters with landscape one does not dwell on in post-invasion poetics settles things into a reductive acquisitive dichotomy of beenthere/donethat. In Some Ways Dingo patiently emphasises visions slipping and impressions accreting beyond the sum of any possible part, and parts beyond any possible sum. To be presently being is to be dingo. Sure, the dingo is out there. It has a Wikipedia page. There are approximately 21,000,000 google hits that are returned. But what is it like, and in which ways dingo? Paloma suggests both thinking and doing, both looking and searching, both deciding and not.

 

Alex Griffin is a poet and researcher from Kenwick, WA. His work has appeared in places like The Lifted Brow, Overland, The Australian, Cordite and The Age. He was shortlisted for the 2018 Judith Wright Poetry Prize.

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