Alice Allan reviews Domestic Interior by Fiona Wright

Fiona Wright, Domestic Interior. Artarmon, NSW: Giramondo, 2017. ISBN 978-1-925336-56-6

 

Alice Allan

 

Fiona Wright’s Domestic Interior is a quiet, heartfelt and deeply rewarding collection. As much as it is concerned with interior spaces – those our bodies take up and our own inner worlds – I would argue it is as concerned with the connection between these interiors and the land that supports, surrounds and is sometimes damaged by them. In fact, the position of each poem in relation to land is so omnipresent that it could easily be missed.

Just as it is easy to overlook the activity occurring in a still or ‘barren’ landscape, it is easy to mistake quietude for reticence or even detachment. But the stillness of these poems is not any reflection of remoteness from their subject matter. In fact, they often seem to come from an extreme closeness – a point at which the true strangeness of objects, relationships and experience comes into focus.

There are many examples of this focus, but one of the most stunning must be ‘Crisis Poem’. Over in just ten lines, it resonates like a scream:

And suddenly

the men

are holding beers

and standing round

the trampoline

and not the barbecue,

turning over toddlers

instead of steak.

The women

make the salads.

In many respects this poem is not representative of the collection as a whole – Wright is more likely to use longer lines and looser structures – but it does show the poet’s precision and her attention to the unsettling realities that are present inside every domestic scene.

The collection is organised into five parts, the first three of which address relationships to space most directly. ‘Origin’ points to foundational spaces and experiences, ‘Never Simple’ looks more closely at some of the more bizarre aspects of suburban life, and ‘Elsewhere’ points this lens beyond the suburbs to zoom in on places such as Perth, Katoomba and even Berlin borough Neukölln. Here again, Wright is unflinching:

Make the poems squeal –

I’m making your fucking tea,

and I’m gonna let that puppy steep.

You can’t tell me no one’s ever

put a baby in a bath in Berlin before.

This one isn’t mine.

This work of writing about locations beyond the familiar is common to many poets writing within Australia. In just the last few years we have welcomed Robert Wood’s ‘book of place poems’ Concerning a Farm, Eileen Chong’s Rainforest, which takes in Sydney, Singapore, Scotland and Kunming to name a few, and Phillip Hall’s Fume, which was written specifically ‘for Borroloola’ – these are only recent examples that come immediately to mind. In fact, we see this preoccupation with place so regularly it is near invisible.

Tracking this concern throughout Domestic Interior, I began to wonder whether there was more at work here than a stereotypically Australian desire to write ‘travel poems’ or ‘poems of place’. Does writing in the shadow of a largely unaddressed colonialist history mean non-Indigenous Australian poets are compelled to examine and question the spaces they occupy? Perhaps this kind of work is happening even if the poet doesn’t overtly intend to address these issues.

A poem such as ‘Ode to the Metro’, for example, first appears as a record of suburban objects and inhabitants. But here again Wright is also exploring the surreality of spaces that have been settled, cultivated and gentrified:

I’ll take a sample shot

of lukewarm wheatgrass – it’s not that bad –

and run my fingers on the pelts of peaches,

become certain of their gravity, the point

where they might overspill

and scatter.

In this suburban space, the pastoral is made strange. Peaches become animal-like and vaguely threatening, while grass is something to be choked down.

In the final two sections Wright moves into more personal territory with ‘A Crack in the Skin: On Illness’ and ‘Enviable: Love Poems’. It’s here that Domestic Interior connects with Small Acts of Disappearance, Wright’s essay collection on living with an eating disorder, that was written at roughly the same time. While both these works are emotionally and intellectually generous on their own, their cumulative effect is particularly rich.

Reading a poem like ‘A Queer and Sultry Summer’ in light of Small Acts of Disappearance, it becomes clear how Wright is able leave certain particulars unsaid, becoming free to reveal more than she could within an essay’s constraints:

There’s a fig tree tattooed on your hipbone

but you want, almost,

the fruit to fall,

for the way the seed within your belly burn

 

… I can’t resolve

 

your need, but feel it spit against my windscreen

the whole way home.

Your wear a talisman that scares you.

Similarly, in the love poem ‘Almost Aubade, Melbourne’, Wright gives us place, longing and perhaps even regret without including anything explicitly personal:

Seven hundred and forty-eight

(give or take)

kilometres of distance. My fingers

are starlike, longing for orbits of their own –

how can I feel gazed upon,

I have lived all these years

as a child.

One of the deals we make with writers (and with female writers in particular) is that the more they reveal, they more they win our admiration. One of the many things Wright has achieved through this collection is to write about themes such as love and illness while resisting this demand. The poet is in full control here, sharing with us only the words she chooses. There are rooms here we may not enter.

There is a sadness that runs through this collection, but there are also many moments of playfulness and of joy. Domestic Interior is punctuated by poems that take pleasure in daily language, once again revelling in a deep strangeness. ‘Tupperware Sonnets’, for example, brings the language of motherhood into focus:

No plastic? But what about their sandwiches?

No, you don’t need plastic on their sandwiches.

Don’t they go yuck? I mean, I hate using plastic, but always worry, won’t their sandwiches go yuck? They won’t eat their sandwiches

if they go yuck.

In one of the collection’s funniest moments, ‘Thank You Internet’, Wright is both satirical and sympathetic while using language that sounds completely unembellished:

lean the fuck in, Louise

and don’t be tied

to some idiot man

who can’t even

cook frittata –

it’s just an oven-omelette,

it’s not that fucking hard –

Whether Wright is favouring her own voice or writing through the language of others, each of these poems represents a moment of close attention. Moving through the collection as a whole feels akin to walking slowly through an exhibition in a gallery free from other visitors. Each poem is its own painting, quietly revealing the stunning colours and jagged edges we usually miss: the laughter that waits inside loss, the love that is sometimes present within illness and the alien that is always there inside the domestic.

 

Alice Allan is an Australian freelance writer and editor with work published in journals such as Australian Book Review, Westerly, Cordite and Rabbit. She publishes a poetry podcast at poetrysays.com.

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