The Flaw in the Pattern
Reading Rachael Mead’s collection of poetry, The Flaw in the Pattern, is like plunging through the wilderness – there are patterns a plenty to be found, but they can be hard to perceive amongst nature’s exuberance. Mead’s poems have an amazing range and vitality, yet they strangely jag. She uses images and metaphors that catch at the imagination, forcing it to strain and pivot, and yet perhaps grow through to new ways of thinking. If these sharp little hooks are Mead’s ‘flaws’, they must be read as a strangely constructive, positive force, which vitalises her poetry, a sting that makes you more alert to the world.
Pete Hay observed, in a review of Mead’s chapbook, The Quiet Blue World, and Other Poems (Garron 2015), how Mead’s poems resemble Meyer and Schapiro’s ‘femmage’, in that she has a proclivity for using feminine metaphors. This can make her work discomforting, giving pause to the reader. For example, in ‘What we call life, Lake St Clair – Day 7’, she writes of lake shore forest, fallen limbs and trees:
Under their bobble-ply sleeves of moss and lichen we scurry
like brittle insects through leaf litter; . . .
This metaphor is wonderfully apt in its evocation of the soft bumpiness of mossy rainforest. Yet, coming at the end of a cycle on walking Tasmania’s Overland Track, a seven day immersion in the wilderness, Mead’s insertion of such a human artefact grates. I expected a smooth, sensory, immersion in nature at this point in the cycle, in which the natural world would be foremost and undisturbed by human ideas or artefacts. The bobble-ply metaphor, however, causes the human world to leap out of the poem, garbed in all its anthropocentric inevitability. Reading Mead’s poetry I had similar experiences, which made me question why this might be so. Mead’s subject matter is often an encounter with the natural world – in ‘Kati Thanda – Lake Eyre Cycle’ (30-39), she writes of leaving urban land and farming areas behind in a drive into the desert, and of immersion in the ‘thereness’ of being at the lake; in ‘Reading poetry on Lake Eyre’:
The only sound comes from us.
Even the wind is so gentle
I must turn my eardrum like a sail to catch its breath.
These lines cleanly recall a sense of quiet, emptiness and space, perhaps answering our own expectations of this remote, low place. They allow the attention to be tuned to the sensory experience of being there, in the wilderness, not here, in the human world. Yet in this poem too, there is a manufactured artefact, a sliding simile, a ‘sail’. Why is Mead’s use of this word so unobtrusive, when ‘bobble-ply’ is not? Does this simply reflect the gliding character of the one word, compared to the bumpiness of the other? I think not. Rather, Mead’s use of feminine metaphors is what stand out as ‘flaw[s] in the pattern’. They reveal how we are so used to certain language, a language full of masculine figures of speech which we barely register, let alone question. The commonplace ‘sail’ glides by unremarked, whereas ‘bobble-ply – what is that doing here?’, we ask.
Understanding how Mead challenges patriarchal language and enables us to tune our ear to feminine ways of experiencing the world will allow readers to appreciate the ambitious breadth and scope of The Flaw in the Pattern. Mead consistently questions the cultural artefacts we are so accustomed to in language, emending a female perspective. In ‘Lonesome cowboy blues’, she brilliantly embraces a clichéd old song whilst simultaneously turning it around, summoning the perspectives of a mother and daughter who have been abandoned by the wandering, idealised man:
. . . He left her out west with a heart
collapsing in on itself and a child with his eyes, learning
that the belly is the most vulnerable part of the beast.
She would say that bad choices hang in the air like notes off-key
and that metaphors are just beautiful, empty lines.
Mead’s choices could, likewise, hang in the air like off-key notes as she wanders, freely, through the frontiers of poetry, but she shows, quite startlingly, how the off-key can stimulate new ‘becomings’ in a way that beautiful metaphors drained of their vigour do not [i]. For me, the most startling way in which she does this was through the challenge thrown down in another of her poetic cycles – the one in which both the titular poem and the one mentioned at the beginning of this review can be found – the Overland Track cycle. Opening the book and finding this right at the beginning really threw me! That’s because for several years during the 1990s, I was a guide on the Overland Track. I had to give this up eventually. As with many guides, it was not the physical toll of carrying 25 kilos, nor the repetition of travelling the same route day after day that became too much (in fact the landscape is infinitely variable and fascinating). Rather, it was because one begins to fear a creeping cynicism about humanity – one begins to notice how there are patterns in walkers’ reactions to the Track. Each begins to seem a little like a die-cut model, traversing the same track, moulded by identical processes, clone-like. Such cynicism makes it difficult to see through to the really individual and vivid experiences people have when they walk the Overland Track, which are actually enormously valuable.
When I read Mead’s Overland Track cycle, I see both the similarity of her experiences to those of others, and their uniqueness. There is a pattern in their trajectory, through the self-questioning caution of the first, difficult day, to an opening up to the environment and an embrace of the earthiness of living with just what your pack contains, a developing awe in the face of age and the irrelevance of human affairs, and then a final, tentative return to ‘our’ world. Yet the ‘flaws’ are in the uniqueness of Mead’s perceptions. I particularly loved her account of an encounter with leeches in Kia Ora Creek:
My hands slap at apostrophes and commas,
these possessives and contractions claiming my blood.
They engorge into dashes Emily Dickinson would covert
and full of stolen content they race end for end
across my skin, . . .
There is no romanticism here. Yes, there is Emily, an irritation, but if you read her with salt, like a leech she deflates and becomes tolerable, even understandable. Similarly, in the next poem, ‘On not being lost, Myrtle beech forest – Day 6’, there is ‘dark laundry’. Perhaps we should just let this quietly dry though; we could breath in its evaporating vapours, then expel them in our language, in new ways of knowing the world and in communicating it. Mead’s poems are challenging but wild with rewards. I have stressed throughout this review, how they ‘jag’. That is Mead’s own word. She writes with conscious violence, hooking you effectively, if you allow her. In ‘Deviation Road, after Emily Bitto’, she writes:
Cows watch you from their shared destiny
as you swallow hard, hit the brake
and take the barb deeper inside
hoping that for a few more quiet hours
you won’t feel the jag.
My mother would say – ‘swallow it, it’s good for you’. I definitely recommend taking some of Mead’s The Flaw in the Pattern; even the whole bottle.
Rachael Mead. The Flaw in the Pattern. Crawley, WA: UWAP, 2018. ISBN:9781742589602
[i] For interesting theory on ‘becoming’, influencing my use of this term, see Elizabeth Grosz, Becoming Undone (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011).
Grosz, Elizabeth. Becoming Undone: Darwinian Reflections on Life, Politics and Art. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011.
Hay, Pete. ‘Pete Hay Reviews Rachael Mead and Amanda Joy’. Cordite Poetry Review, 16 Jan. 2018, http://cordite.org.au/reviews/hay-mead-joy/