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Obligations of Voice by Anne Elvey
Recent Work Press, 2021.
ISBN 9780645008937
Julia Clark reviews

Obligations of Voice

by Anne Elvey

Anne Elvey’s fourth poetry collection, Obligations of Voice, considers the impact of words, language, and speech on the relationships between both humans and environments and humans within environments. In the blurb on the back of the book Obligations of Voice explicitly poses the questions, “If we are to speak, what is it we must speak? If we are allowed to speak, what is it we must say? Who constitutes the ‘we’ that speaks?” In these questions and the poems that answer them, Elvey draws on ideas of obligation and responsibility, power and influence, individuality and collectivity in navigation of the modern world.

The framing of the collection specifically places the writer in a visible position within or between environments, such as in the opening poem, ‘Winter writing’:

Air gathers into green, inhabits
each gap between leaves that cup
the cold. Nights begin too early, end

too late. My eyes close on a sentence
on a graphite word. A hexagonal shaft
loosens, falls from my fingers. I stir. (3)

The environment enters the writing process when the cold air infiltrates the writer’s body, slowing it down, sending it into hibernation. Even while the writer commits to this literary life of observing, recording, bearing witness, the environment crosses that boundary, interrupts the writing process, and asserts both the material presence of the environment and the writer’s place within it. Many poems in the collection touch on the human/non-human divide by considering how representation in language can sharpen either their similarities or differences. For example, in ‘A black swan’ a parent sees their grief reflected back at them from the environment:

In these moments the air rings and death walks about the garden like a pigeon who picks through dry leaves by day or a possum that clatters each night across the tiles. (33)

In this instance, the metaphor used to connect the non-human animal world with the human conception of death and grieving feels like a kind of pathetic fallacy imposed upon the environment, which emphasises how the human gaze employs indifferent natural occurrences for meaning or comfort. Other instances depict the similarities between humans and non-human animals more organically, like in a poem about giving birth for the second time, where a mother is kneeling down “Orang-utan arse / blooming” (36). Other than being funny, this kind of metaphor is more compelling for the way it resonates in similarities of appearance, reproductive processes, and evolutionary connections between humans and orangutans.

While Elvey’s ecopoetics in Obligations of Voice covers conventional considerations of natural environments, it also incorporates social, political, religious, and literary environments as processes overlapping, overwhelming, infiltrating, and changing those natural environments. The lens through which Elvey explores these environments ties into her overarching interest in voice and, specifically, the tenuous relationship between words and action.

Structured in four parts, the collection shifts focus through particular angles of what Elvey describes in the afterword as “where the body in its habitat meets the political and social” (84). The introductory part, ‘Breathing out’, establishes the collections’ themes of voice and human/non-human environments; part two specifically considers illness, death, birth, and the spaces in which lives cycle; part three, ‘To write the wind’, is more political with references to COVID-19, press conferences, and asylum seeker policy; and part four ruminates on religious institutions in light of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

Some particularly potent passages demonstrate Elvey’s ability to represent the compounding effect of historical mistakes and current crises facing humanity. ‘In apocalypse’, dated April 2020, remembers the overlapping disasters of the summer bushfires of 2019-2020 and the beginnings of the COVID-19 pandemic:

In that dawn night     an orange morning came
         as charcoal sky. (16)

While Biblical and Shakespearean allusions in ‘Storm parable’ illuminate the repetitious history of denial and cover-up in oppressive institutions of power:

                                                 Afterwards      the woman
                                                                       bumps into
      Caliban. He’s been with Porter       writing Jonah
at a whale’s behest. (13)

The titular poem, ‘Obligations of voice’, uses rhetoric and repetition to challenge assumptive relationships between humans and environments with a particular focus on the distinction between Aboriginal and settler-colonial relationships to land. The horizontal stanzas share a repetitive language that is melodic and absolute in its accumulation:

over the house
is a sky
that is not yours

over the path
leans a paperbark
that is not yours (10)

This assertion of a lack of ownership or connection in the repetition of “that is not yours” develops down the page into:

over eyes' blur
is a social
that is yours

over your garden
is a theft
that is yours (10)

The landscape as represented in the “sky”, “paperbark”, “canopy”, and “breath” do not belong to the poem’s addressee, the settler-colonial presence on the land, but instead they are able to claim ownership of abstract, imported ideas and actions of “theft” and “social” systems. In moving through these stanzas, across and down the page unevenly, Elvey develops an anti-colonial sentiment that begins with the land and expands to the human presence upon it until she brings them all together with language in the final stanza:

over your voice
a duty
that is given (10)

Overtop these relations of Indigeneity, colonialism, ownership, and environment is the obligation and responsibility of voice as a tool for protection, advocacy, and change. In the vertical stanzas, Elvey uses rhetorical statements and questions to illuminate the distinction between First Nations and settler-colonial relationships to land:

whose ceremony
do you interrupt
striding your own
dimmed genius

what is it
to open to place
of its taboos

what do you see
through a scratched
lens in your
laboratory of guess (10)

This stanza is particularly illustrative of the traditional relationship between settler-colonials who position themselves as researchers and scientists who study the land at an objective distance, unaware of the faultiness of their approach, as Elvey represents in a “scratched / lens” and “laboratory of guess”. 'Obligations of voice' is the only example in the collection where Elvey uses punctuation, i.e., underscores and slashes, and flips the text vertically. The punctuation of lines and circles creates pathways through the poem with their indicated directions and flow of shape and movement, while the vertically printed text creates a multidirectional reading experience that literally directs the reader’s movement and mind in turning the book or head while reading. In doing so, Elvey brings together thematic concerns of the relationship between humans and environments with her additional consideration of language and voice by representing and then bringing about action and movement in the poem.

Similarly, a later poem titled, ‘Briefly suddenly’, written in memory of poet Martin Harrison, uses an unusual structure to convey the connection between words/language and action/movement. Written in a style reminiscent of Kate Lilley’s ‘Maisily’ (Ladylike 2012), ‘Briefly suddenly’ is a found poem constructed out of adverbs from Harrison’s poem ‘A Word’ (The Best Australian Poems 2009, 2009), as well as from other poems published in his collection, Summer (2001):

slightly cheaply           suddenly simply seriously

occasionally                            distantly
slowly              nearly recently            finally

usually mostly perfectly
occasionally consciously

nearly daily

            only only                     entirely entirely (47)

The accumulation of adverbs generates a zany energy of movement that is both unspecific and unproductive but still constant. The excess of energy without an outlet for action represents a build-up of frustration and wasted time in many avenues of justice and equity across climate action, institutional abuse, and patriarchal oppression. The words contain the potential for action and change but they remain underutilised and eventually burn out.

Two other poems in Obligations of Voice chime into the sensation of being burnt out or worn thin by, for one, inaction and/or empty words and, for another, the thinning barrier between world and body. ‘Eden’ sees a writer grown disillusioned and considering her tools of words while doing housework:

she notes that the knees
of her Sunday pants are worn             sometimes

she finds the vowels
missing            from the script

she fills the irrational
spaces   between the more readily-defined of the reals

she notices that sentences
have become threadbare         only fit for rags (54)

This sentiment of being threadbare and worn out at the knees would be a familiar one for many completing the daily tasks of living beneath the climate crisis, global pandemics, and growing inequality. The writer moves the metaphor from her clothing, through her words, and then to her body when she says, “she is the cloth / she unpegs and folds / roughly for cleaning / a thing too worn for wearing” (54). Her body and its skin have also grown thin through too much wear. Thus, Elvey evokes the image of a body without a barrier between itself and the world, an idea explored explicitly in ‘Skin world’. The setting of this poem is illness and a family with a sister and daughter experiencing myoclonic seizures:

the parent’s

delirium, the coast’s
erosion in the king

tide, the body’s
flesh. The body’s

memory of event
where skin

and world fuse. (39)

The language of illness and care and physical strain and exhaustion are connected with natural processes of the sea and land in a similar example of wearing away boundaries. In this metaphor, like the orangutan from earlier, Elvey uses language to find similarities between the human processes and environmental ones, but this instance specifically breaks down the barrier between human and non-human such that there is continuous, mirroring flow between the worlds.

Elvey’s ecopoetic contemplation of language as obligation and action in the face of great social and political forces covers a lot of ground in this collection. Her considerations are most successful when placed squarely from her perspective as a writer, and when they incorporate the language itself into representations of obligation and responsibility, power and influence, and the boundary between the body and the world.

Published: September 2023
Julia Clark

is a PhD student, poet, and reviewer based in Sydney, living on Ku-ring-gai and Darug land and working on Gadigal land. She is currently writing her doctoral thesis about the aestheticisation of bodies under consumer culture in contemporary feminist poetry at the University of Sydney. Her criticism has appeared in Cordite Poetry Review, Rabbit Poetry Journal, Plumwood Mountain Journal, and Audrey Journal as well as on her Sydney performance review site Night Writes. If she’s not reading or writing, she’s at the theatre.

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