Lisa Brockwell. Earth Girls. Sydney, NSW: Pitt Street Poetry, 2016. ISBN: 9781922080462
In the back of her debut collection, Lisa Brockwell’s author bio states “she has travelled extensively in Europe, North America, and a bit in Asia, for business and for love”. The poems in Earth Girls traverse these spaces – primarily occupying London and Australia – but concern themselves with far more than business and love.
Brockwell begins Earth Girls with an epigraph from Rainer Maria Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus [trans. Edward Snow], “However much the farmer frets and labours, / he never reaches where the seed / turns into summer. The earth bestows.” Besides the obvious connection to the sonnet form – Brockwell employs eleven – what does the earth “bestow” upon the “girls” in the poems? The opening poem “Seaworthy” begins “She is not a mermaid, nor a siren; / she will never be a goddess. Sitting / on the rocks in her swimming costume”(1), Brockwell begins where land meets sea, the edge between two ecosystems. Mythic images of beauty within water contrast the woman out at the edge, unable to truly belong there. Yet it is “the tug and suck / of the waves” that the woman loves, not the feeling of beauty or belonging. The poem concludes “Now, she sits / on the rocks, thinking, like a man might.” The confidence and entitlement of a male vision isn’t bestowed upon the woman; she takes it herself. Earth Girls begins with not what these girls cannot be, but with what they can be, what they are ready to become.
Poems which dig deeper into the range and depth of Brockwell’s feminist vision are “Chocolate Biscuits” (12-13), “Waiting on Imran Khan” (34-35), and “On Becoming a Housewife for the First Time at the Age of 41” (8). Each poem respectively revolves around the state of girlhood, adolescence, and womanhood. Note how they are not presented in chronological order; Brockwell doesn’t offer a linear transition to womanhood.
In “Chocolate Biscuits” a ten-year-old girl craves confectionary at her godmothers, whose nanna “in years to come, will take to calling me / Two Ton Tessie and wondering out loud / on Christmas Day whether I will ever / find a husband.” While the biscuits are asked for, then devoured with “my face burning with shame” the poem imparts “I am learning something, / later in life I will use it for more / substantial things. I open my mouth.” Brockwell affords distance of voice within “Waiting on Imran Khan”, however, the stakes are higher: not merely the shame over asking for permission to eat chocolate biscuits in a domestic environment, there is the humiliation of serving the Pakistan cricket captain and his teammates in a public space:
I knew they were trouble the moment they walked in.
I was eighteen, bookish, I’d not yet learned
to build a public face. I was laid open like an oyster
on a salted plate. The uniform was no help,
nylon trousers cut into my soft waist and thighs,
standard issue, there was no bigger size. …
(“Waiting on Imran Khan”, 34)
The “I” is able to look back, the six-line stanzas and their rhythms allow a storytelling quality, solidifying the distance. The horror of the story retold is counteracted with the comfort in a voice which has now learned to be more than just a pet experimented on by men, “With my greeting (guinea pig // tentative, I kick myself now).” A comment from Khan creates hoots and snarls from the other men around the table; yet, like the learned revelation within “Chocolate Biscuits” we are left with “Yes, / I was walking the floor: earning my own money, slowly / forming the dense quartz of my opinions, polished and patient.”
Brockwell’s formal elasticity is apparent in “On Becoming a Housewife for the First Time at the Age of 41” with Earth Girls first prose poem. The recurrent use of “I” loosens the previous lyric quality, here it provides the poem with energy, propelling it onward containing all the doubts and anxieties found in a stream of consciousness. The poem includes not just the anxieties or troubles of “I”, but brings in bigger concerns, ” I stand at the sink and cry when the kitchen radio tells me another small child has drowned at sea.” By the end of the poem the “I” has been dislodged, all there is to cling on to is the rhythm and searing honesty, “I cannot believe it is up to me to keep this baby alive when I am all heart, all naked flailing heart: no skin, no ribs, just this. Everyone, please, avert your eyes! I cope by doing more exercise.” Within this anxious tension is a voice matured by experience, a voice which while unsure of so much, is so sure of itself.
In the opening eleven poems – which cover sixteen pages – Brockwell employs a stanza break a mere nine times. These nine breaks often follow densely packed stanzas containing nine lines or more. Mathematics lesson over: my point is that the blackness of text on the opening pages hold our gaze – while Brockwell holds her nerve withholding white space – teaching patience, to wait for the white space on the page to arrive, for the poems to open up. That white space is hard-won. When it does arrive, it is through devastating couplets in “Hoa Hakananai’a, the Easter Island statue at the British Museum, speaks” (16-17). Nearly all of Brokwell’s titles work incredibly hard, allowing the first line to immediately run with or against the title, like here “Do you know how much / the banished long to be touched?” The white space we have waited for brings with it a question about waiting.
A number of poems in the collection navigate the relationship between humans and animals. The most striking is “Laika and Oleg” (18-20) about the dog the Soviet Union sent to orbit the earth, and the scientist who selected and trained her. The notion of outer space isn’t new; it has flickered through several poems; “The Ballad of Monday Morning” : “The sky vast and choked / with stars … we could be heading / to the moon” and “Deep space has a bleak / appeal and this is what I wanted”(24-25), or “Palomar” which begins “I stepped through the wormhole and you were there”(10-11). Outer space is used as the longing for another state or place, or the loss of one, what might have been or what could be. In “Laika and Oleg” though, space is used as a place where, in the name of “progress”, terrible acts have happened already. Split into two sections – both dramatic monologues – Brockwell uses Laika’s experiences in the first section to explore the vastness and claustrophobic terror of the unknown; being alone in space is counteracted with the too trusting nature of Laika, waiting, yet ultimately doomed. The poem closes “I want / his smell, his leg to feel my weight against.” In contrast, the second section of the poem takes place 39 years later at a press conference, Oleg expresses remorse – Brockwell uses a direct quote from him in the opening stanza:
The more time passes, the more I’m sorry.
We shouldn’t have done it; we did not learn
enough to justify her death.
(“Laika and Oleg”, 19)
After that, it is all Brockwell, Oleg is not let off the hook, as she interrogates the guilt and remorse in his voice. We are reminded that: “We all had some choice; the shades of meaning stark, / if we chose to look.”
Brockwell shows herself to be a poet unafraid of tackling the ecological. “Second Exaltation” (56), is the concluding poem in the ekphrasis sequence “Point of View” (49-56). The sequence is an examination of not just how one views artworks, but how one experiences the journey to the exhibition, and the interior of the gallery itself. “Second Exaltation” is worth reproducing in its entirety:
No birds, nothing living in this frame.
Only the judge, reserved in blue,
backing away, keeping
The sky has no job for us.
We look up, she steps back.
An indifference that may go on
until we stop.
(“Second Exaltation”, 56)
This is Brockwell writing down to the bone, the form simple, the two stanzas mirror-like. There is no flesh to be found on these lines, the message cannot be misconstrued. Ecological concerns are presented and navigated through other means. In “Roofers putting solar panels on the old pub in Mullumbimby” (36), Brockwell hones in on the small, presenting an everyday passing moment and expanding out into something bigger. An international event is presented then paired back, as in “When the water leaves” (47). Where the title in the former offers accessibility in locating the reader, it is the epigram in the latter “after the earthquake and tsunami in northern Japan” which does this work. In “Roofers …”, from observing one specific roofer working “each panel a ballerina, / easy across his shoulder”, the underlying action of the installation of renewable energy source is eclipsed by the immediate risk “No one is wearing a harness” (36). The poem closes, or rather opens, with a reaching out, weaving in the Greek myth of Icarus: “The sun is hot, / those big wings of confidence always frighten me” (36). In “When the water leaves”, despite being in the immediate aftermath of an incomprehensible natural disaster, Brockwell ominously reminds us that “the earth has not finished with us yet”(47). This is a world where tragedy is always lurking.
Roughly occupying the centre pages of the collection is “Uluru” (29-31). A poem in three sections, the opening two lines in the first section set everything up, “Three days after my middle miscarriage / we went to the desert.” The final section negotiates Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton, “Within minutes I knew / a dingo took that baby … This country could not / countenance a woman who did not collapse / on prime time”, and harrowing image intensifies in the final lines: “The sky / illuminated, a map of meaning, the earth / dark and still, slumbering like an exhausted child.” The juxtaposition between the earth and sky play out once more, but here Brockwell asks for how much longer? The following poem, “Echidna” did not feel best placed. After the journey of sorrow through Uluru, it is difficult to follow with a poem beginning “Where is your motorbike? / You look like you should you own one”(32). Sure, this poem succeeds in isolation; however, the work in building and maintaining the tension which runs through the preceding poem felt too soon alleviated here. That said, the ordering of Earth Girls hits more right notes than not. Particularly in the bookending the collection with “Seaworthy” and “The Verandah” (58-59), we begin with a woman sitting upon the rocks thinking how a man might and leave with the image of a mother and son: “The visitors have gone and the house / beckons; they stay on the verandah, for now.” The waiting within the collection is still apparent; however, Brockwell chooses to leave us with an altered image, not of movement, but of stillness, although the waiting lingers, it appears it will soon be over. Earth Girls teaches the virtue in waiting – while waiting patiently for future work – let us learn what is being said inside these pages and celebrate the arrival of a vital Australian voice.
Dan Ryder is a poet and editor who was born and lives in Doncaster, South Yorkshire. In 2015 he lived in Melbourne for a year and was a poetry editor for Voiceworks. A recent graduate of the Manchester Writing School, his poems are found or forthcoming in Island, Snorkel, and Tincture. www.danryderpoet.com