Brenda Saunders reviews Fire Work by Aileen Kelly

Aileen Kelly, Fire Work: Last Poems, edited by Joanne Lee Dow. Gloria SMH Press 2016. ISBN 978 0 9945 275 4 7


Brenda Saunders


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

inflamed joint-capsule

atrial fibrillation

vestibular labyrinthitis


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

claiming territory

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

and documentaries

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.

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