Removing the Kimono
Life and Loss: Poems to Treasure
Anne M Carson has published a vivid, heartfelt volume of poetry, Removing the Kimono. This, the poet’s first full-length collection, demonstrates consummate skill in painting metaphor. With her keen artist’s vision, she sees animals, plants, landscape and human experience in a rainbow of colours from cocoa and ivory to light lapis.
In ‘The crucible’, Carson conjures memories of a mud-brick hut where she lived for seven years:
In the light of ecumenical candles, witnessed by foraging rodents,
my longing took the long journey of translation into practice
of the craft, the work. Other self-sufficiencies followed;
swinging a decent axe, stacking a sturdy woodpile.
I returned to the city, newmade, leaving the mudbrick cottage
to its fate. (15)
She revisits the cottage after it has passed through the crucible of bushfire. This visual story is a cathartic meditation singing with profundity.
The person of the poet is prominent in this volume: in her autobiographical trajectory, poetic voice and artist’s perspective. The theme of the volume could be: emerging from the chrysalis of grief. This happens most clearly in the title poem, ‘The dresser removes The Kimono of Mourning’:
The dresser’s hand and arm ripple around me.
I recall the movements in my mind’s theatre –
remember our rehearsals.
Back and forth, her hands are tireless,
eddying like wind over rice fields.
She is to empty
me of grief. A dark spirit emerges – long
as obi. She is a noh dancer drawing
from my ears, mouth, nostrils
the colours of sorrow. A final red, arterial scarf
from the belly, drawn out, dissolving in ether.
She has removed
the inner and outer garments of
my bereavement. Unmade, I prepare to start
over, alone on tatami. (48–49)
As the footnotes explain, noh dancing is a ‘ritualised Japanese dance/drama concerned with the timeless concerns of the human condition’; obi refers to ‘wide and long pieces of fabric, often of a contrasting colour and design, used to secure kimono at waist’; tatami is a ‘woven floor mat’ (49).
This grand silk kimono, dark as midnight, may have had a precursor in the black silk dressing-gown embroidered with magenta lilies the poet donned when fragrant with lovemaking, in ‘The seduction of shaving’ (29–30). She grieves for her husband. His diagnosis with an unnamed fatal disease triggered their marriage (‘Partaking of the other’, 40). The poet reflects on the sanctity of her wedding vows in ‘Transubstantiation’ as she flies with her husband over Lake Frome on their Lake Eyre honeymoon (41–42). The tragic undertones give these love poems added emotive force.
The volume is divided into a prologue, parts I, II, and III, and an epilogue, each introduced by verse of another poet, from Basho to Rumi. Most poems are free verse. Some are also narrative poems, for example, ‘The limits of Goodwill’ recounts the poet’s adventures in Germany. That many poems relate to specific places is explicit in the titles of 29 of the 51 that appear in Removing the Kimono. Others are dedicated to named people. Many of the poems won prizes in former lives before publication in this volume.
Part II charts the poet’s bond with her husband from ‘Spooning under the Milky Way’ to ‘A lesson in … letting go’. Primal forces of love, sex, life, death and grief are portrayed here. ‘A lesson in … letting go’, the shortest poem in the volume, is striking because it makes a visual poem on the page and graphically describes a moment when human remains tether with the landscape. As the poet scatters ashes in the elbow of the river:
All I can do is release you, trickle you into the tree-fringed
flow, let the water in its wisdom carry you away, let you
sink, white and ethereal, to the pebble floor. (50)
The lovers, in ‘Spooning under the Milky Way’, are ‘poised/ in the whirling night’ (27). Carson’s poetry steps in the lineage of Judith Wright for its power. For example, ‘Blind head butting at the dark’ in Wright’s ‘Woman to Man’ reminds me of the moth flailing around the darkness of the bed in Carson’s ‘To a flame’: ‘delicate caress on cheek,/ chest, the blunt butt of its head’ (38). Wright’s ‘Cycads’ and Carson’s ‘Trusting the eloquence of seeds’ (53) both explore metaphysical questions and testify to the value of plants.
Carson’s skill is evident when she listens and introduces an aural element. In ‘The sound of absence’ she achieves both high impact and subtlety:
… I turn
aural. Sounds become equi-valent; rich,
intricately textured. The fridge’s groans and
shudders no less pleasing than the liquid
melody of the magpie or the whistle of wind
in the elm. ... (31)
Carson’s ability to find the poetic in the domestic resembles Irish poet Eavan Boland’s ‘Domestic Interior’.
The poet’s frankness means that this volume achieves one of the key purposes of poetry: to teach us what it is to be human. The poet is also concerned with deeper metaphysical matters. Carson uses vivid word pictures and precise imagery to depict the wildness of humans. For example, in ‘Self-portrait’,
You can pour out the self you imagine real in the world
like you pour your body into the brine-warm rockpool.
Let light invade the body, the way the sun shines
through ruby panels in the black cockatoo’s red
tail feathers – stained-glass brilliant against the sky. (9)
The prominence of the person of the poet means that much of the collection has an anthropocentric perspective. However, this is saved from being exploitative by the beauty of the language and the reverence with which animals, plants and landscape are portrayed. For example, in ‘Heron ministers to the morning’, birds on the Yarra River are given human qualities:
… From his pulpit,
a heron ministers to the morning,
dove-grey coat, delicate manners,
so softly spoken the wind takes
his words, whisks them into ether. (8)
This poem also shows concern for environmental balance, as the heron-minister warns:
… – is there water
enough for migration? If the adults
don’t venture north, no elvers will
return to the Yarra … (8)
Carson’s verse shows, too, the breadth, sophistry and nuance of human culture. ‘The Propinquity of the Past’ traverses the boundaries between dream and real life. ‘Broken, rising’ draws on the six principal tones of Vietnamese language from mid-level to low-falling broken (64–65). Likewise, Carson mines the culture of Japan. The prologue is an unattributed story of ‘The Kiri tree and the girl’. The girl in the story does not appear to be the poet. The poet’s connection with Japan is not explained and remains a mystery to tantalise readers.
The title poem features the line ‘Torihada rises’ (48). A footnote explains that torihada means ‘goose bumps’ in Japanese. As this poem is in English, I would suggest that ‘Torihada rise’ were preferable and, arguably, would have more direct impact on the reader. This is the only jarring note in the entire volume.
Many of the poems are inspired by experiences in Australia. But this is no insular collection: pieces of Japan, Vietnam, France, Germany, Scotland, Iceland and Denmark can be found here. ‘On giving away your old red scarf’ tracks the journey of a scarf, belonging to someone long-dead, from a rug shop in Marrakesh—once red as cyclamen, vivid as blood, faded now to palest rust (55). ‘The detective’s chair’ also signifies cultural sophistication. This poem stands out in the collection for its contemporary intertextual references. It spins a cracking yarn and asserts the importance of musing in chairs to solving cases. A sense of place from Edinburgh to Reykjavik and Copenhagen runs through this poem and culminates as Erlendur in Reykjavik offers his tired thoughts, his despair to the open sky. (59–60)
Carson depicts the dance between humans and other creatures. She shapeshifts from a fox to a woman in ‘Digitalis’ (76). Many poems simply feature observation of the animals, plants and landscape. The act of looking is clearly very important to this artist-poet. She can even see story (in ‘Broken, rising’, 64–65). The moon provides counsel (‘Compression’, 43–44), the riverboat cradles us to sleep (‘Songs of the mysterious river’, 34–35), her husband turns tawny and grows a pelt in moonlight (‘Turning Tawny’, 37). The poet mines a treasure-trove of metaphors from flora and fauna: her ‘throat opens like a gull’s’ (‘On the ebb-tide’, 45), the elegance of a dance is ‘like brolgas courting’, she lugs a bundle of death around ‘like weighted animal skin/ through the years’ tundra, eating dirt and rock’ (‘On giving away your old red scarf’, 55) and trees ‘turn into torches’ (‘A body you cherish’, 54). The crows are personified in ‘Corvid’ (7). In ‘On the ebb-tide’, the poet scoops up a gasping fish on the beach (between cuttlefish bones as she is squeamish about slime):
… The fish eye’s iris flares, registering
touch. We have the rudiments of communication (46).
The poet grounds moments of grief in more ordinary phenomena: she walks through the cottage ruins in ‘The Crucible’ (13–16), ‘the air holds its breath’ (21) at her father’s funeral and she leaks ‘tears and fury’ (69) as she digs into the compost of the corpse of her first marriage. Other losses are charted by the poems: the death of her cat and dog. Michael Sharkey’s review of Removing the Kimono for Cordite compared Carson’s mastery of loss to Elizabeth Bishop in ‘The Art of Losing’. Both women offer immense wisdom.
Carson leads readers to the conclusion of her thesis that humans are wild (albeit sophisticated and nuanced) when, in ‘The lovely wild’:
… A breeze falls
on my upturned face;
I inhale the lovely wild. (78)
The paradox of the wild being lovely rings through in the finale: ‘Oyster of the soul’, a poem replete with renewed hope. Carson demonstrates with a flourish her metaphorical skill; wattle pollen scattered over gravel signifies beauty and grit between two people turning to pearl in the oyster of the soul (81).
These poems are immensely enjoyable to read in silence and aloud. I am longing for a hardcover version to hold and savour and hand down over the generations, and an audio version to play while going about life. The breadth of subject matter and technique marks Anne Carson as a virtuoso. She has made an eloquent, intimate contribution to Australian poetry.
Anne M Carson, Removing the Kimono. Melbourne: Hybrid, 2013. ISBN 9781925000245