Aileen Kelly, Fire Work: Last Poems, edited by Joanne Lee Dow. Gloria SMH Press 2016. ISBN 978 0 9945 275 4 7
The poems in this collection are lyrics of emotional and intellectual force. Kelly speaks with a quiet intensity, her language pared down, her images precise and evocative. As in her previous collection Passion Painting: Poems 1983-2006, her subjects vary from witty insights into the human condition, to closely observed meditations on nature. All are drawn from a broad range of experiences. Vital and carefully crafted, the ‘I’ is ever-present in her poetry as she centres herself in the world around her.
In ‘Wallwork’ she engages the reader with the idea of ‘days laced with brick’ the metaphor extended with wit and humour.
These are square small days
laced with brick
across which I line
with a precise nozzle
a few epithets pointed
towards a passing tram
and their freight
the humming fingertapping minds
crammed between their own brick face
Many poems are personal reflections on ageing: an ailing body and hearing problems are considered with insight and wise acceptance. In her metaphysical poem ‘Small Rooms’ she takes us back to an image from her early life in England. The body’s weaknesses are compared to locks on a river. This metaphor continues to build to the end of the poem.
My ills inhabit small rooms of the body
the currents of intelligence and juice
pass through these narrow locks
and I attempt to control on deck
beaten about the face by sun and sleet
and leave the steering to the autonomic horse
trudging as ever along the towpath …
She compares the noise in the witty poem ‘Whirr’ to a constant sound in the ears, like a winged bird. The sound ‘chough’ is both the muffled sound inside the ear and the name of a black bird. Kelly has found the perfect sound to enliven the metaphor. Noun and verb are inter-changeable. Punctuation is minimal.
Some small whirring being
is drilling a hole into the night’s silence.
Wing of feather perhaps
or wing of dust …
The whirr churns itself deeper under hearing
into a quieter quiet, its nest of safety ─
it has no care for the matter it drives into
as it choughs and choughs itself to peace.
Birds feature in many poems in this collection. Small details are captured in short lines and musical language. Kelly works this magic again in ‘Moment Journal’ a group of short haiku-like observations at the end of the book.
Thrush in my stone bath
each dusk her song fountains like
water from flicked wings
A dry leaf scuttles
wind-turned across the mulch bed
practising scrub wren
Gang gangs fire and steel
Gently he nibbles her ear
with his hammer beak
In another poem she presents the ‘Scrub wren’ as ─
A teaspoon of alpha male
who strikes at windows
from his mirrored self, invader
Another bird poem ‘A twirl of air’ begins with a striking metaphor for Spring.
A grin of sky has split the heavy air
and wattlebirds keeps falling out
plunging through the banksias
like rocks into water …
There are also poems that express Kelly’s concerns for the future of the natural world. But unlike those in her earlier books, these are brief poems, the short lines enjambed, the language compressed. In ‘Dry winter’ we are asked to ‘wait and see’ the results of climate change.
In a difficult season
the camellias are blooming
with an air of desperation
and a heavy waft of sweetness.
The earth quakes of course.
This is the drill:
stand in a protecting
overarch or doorway
wait to see
what befalls on the other side.
Kelly brings insight and wisdom to these carefully tuned lyrics. The fragility of the Australian landscape is evoked in ‘Oxbow’, the opening poem in this book. She gives a persona to this shrinking pool, that accepts ‘windlash and the plump of rainfall’:
it has lost touch with any idea of ocean
It has freed itself
from the hard dark fists of the turbulent river
In the celebratory series ‘Autumns seasonal’, cadence and rhythm drive this sensory experience of nature and seasonal change. In the last stanza of the third poem ‘Spray can’, she evokes a personal experience.
Autumn comes in sunflushed and salty
fruitful and not yet mellow
its air is rich with insect flip …
whining past into the human ear
or disgust up the nose or on the tongue.
Autumn begins full of Summer’s loose ends.
Other poems, such as ‘Stiction – Making books 1’, look back to memories from her early life, taking us to a classroom during the ‘restrictions’ in Britain during World War II. Here we see Kelly at her linguistic best. Rhyme and witty half-rhymes together with the repetition of vowel sounds, evoke a child-like playfulness.
As Mixed Infants we learned to salvage
sticking finger across thumb with Clag or Gloy
to clog and cloy, drag and annoy
and paired with bluntnosed scissors to make books
from smeared and scrappy cuttings
or soaked off labels sorted into hobbies.
Theses word rhymes continue in ‘Past up’ as she compare this powerful sensory memory to the ease of mechanical photo-shopped image.
Virtual cut-and-paste smells nothing like this…
gives nothing to the clipping hand
no pull and push of metal
today I pinned a donkey head
above a svelte suit like young jack-in-the-office
who saw me just a queue.
On my screen
the fit is seamless.
There are poems that also point to future concerns. Kelly questions our reliance on computer technology and the social value of instant communication. In ‘The New you’ she warns of ‘anxious news’ that ‘slaps you on the wrist’.
Ignore all bulletins and bullets …
What’s needed now is therapy …
This is the life when you Google up neurotherapy
and ebay wants to get it for you.
Finally, ‘Distant relations’ leaves her questioning technology as a force for change. Will it draw us closer together; bring ease and certainty to our lives?
Silent across country
and another and others mapped by news
unacknowledged by the click of emails
Where are you now?
Your water cooler is not wired to mine
Who should I ask
for gossip in a separate demonic
The title poem ‘Fire work’ also leaves the reader with a warning for the future. It is a metaphysical contemplation on the work ‘fire’ can do. There are spaces, places ‘where word and the fire exist’. Initially these are places of comfort, fire observed as a symbol of love and security. In poem 3, she leaves us with ‘fire as a word’, hidden and destructive.
To survive in landmine country
walk humbly several steps behind
the foraging goat or pig
which are your means of life
but not your life itself.
You hold them out
you offer them to mitigate
the scarcely seeable flash
the pulse of fractured air that screams
your mortal ear.
These last poems of Aileen Kelly, written from 2006 until her death in 2011, are free and at times startling in their accuracy. This collection is representative of the full range of the artist’s voice and reveals new directions in the force and brevity of her language. Thanks should go to the editors and publishers who have brought these last poems to the page. In the ‘Acknowledgements’, the editor explains that these seventy five poems are just a small selection from Aileen Kelly’s final works. On reading through the book, I found the poems do not always sit well together. Perhaps this is due the selection process, which involved many people: her family, friends and other poets. The final edit was clearly a long, difficult process. This is however, a worthy tribute to one of Australia’s foremost poets. As a teacher and mentor Aileen Kelly leaves a legacy and challenge to future generations of poets, who will also look to the lyric as a personal form to confront or understand our varied and challenging experiences of life.
Brenda Saunders is a Sydney writer of Wiradjuri and British descent. She has written three collections of poetry and her work has appeared in major anthologies and journals, including Australian Poetry Journal, Quadrant, Overland, Southerly and Best Australian Poems 2013 and 2015 (Black Inc). Brenda is currently completing a manuscript concerned with changes to the unique Australian environment since colonisation.