Jen Crawford, Koel. Melbourne: Cordite Books, 2016. ISBN 978-0-9942596-8-4
The preface to Jen Crawford’s Koel is worth exploring in detail before discussion of its poems for a few reasons. Crawford explains some of her creative process, and issues a generous, and inclusive request of her reader, as equal, as collaborator:
It seemed important to be as close to sleep as possible, so I closed windows and wore headphones. Not to shut things out or make them stranger, but to soften and modulate the tensions of exchange. (ix)
By inviting the reader to be an active participant, rather than sole, passive receiver of words and imagery laid out by the author, Crawford is asking us to bring our own collaborative workings and background to experiencing the text. She mentions that most of Koel was written in Singapore, and is set in Auckland, Bicol, Bangkok, and ‘somewhere else, entirely see-through’ (ix) – this last location is intriguing, and where the reader can explore these collaborative possibilities. Additionally considering Foucault’s ‘epoch of simultaneity’, we can end up with several ways to read the poems that follow:
not all spaces are equally accessible to thought or description … the body’s ability to accumulate and to disperse, to be near and far … Memory, presence, and imagination fold and run together. I was looking for gaps to step through, for ways both forward and back. (ix)
The first two sections in ‘abandoned house music’ are quite challenging to absorb fully, though not due to the language, or sparseness of the text. As an inner-city writer and reader, constructing enough of a cocoon from urban development and traffic is quite tricky, but stripping away one’s internalised noise is worth the effort:
soft as police
expanding its creamy bows
: your standing is a gate
: & yours outlines a slipper
(1, 3, 4, 5)
Ways of viewing and seeing are described in a synaesthetic neutrality of sorts, ‘telescope body / expanding its creamy bows’ (4), yet human presence and investment, a human-animal-space cohabitation of earth becomes more evident with:
: your standing is a gate
: & yours outlines a slipper
Here is a meeting of shadows, or outlines, or a human indoors while the bird is outside? Consider also the combination of usage of nouns as active verbs (with present participle), and vice versa:
- your standing (noun, as ‘stance’)
- a gate (noun)
- & yours (the act of outlining: verb)
- your standing (auxiliary verb with present participle – ‘you are standing’)
- a gate (verb, active; the koel ‘gates’)
- & yours (the act of standing: noun, as ‘stance’)
- & yours (your standing: noun, and existing as an outline: noun)
- & yours (active verb is ‘to stand’)
- & yours (active verb is ‘to outline’)
- & yours (your standing as noun, and outlining, verb)
- a slipper (noun), and lastly,
- a slipper (noun which is acted upon to cause it to be slippered)
- a slipper (verb, active; the koel ‘slippers’ the human in its shadow)
There is most likely a mathematical formula that could work out all possible permutations and combinations of the above suggested ‘readings’. The two lines I’ve chosen to scan are also actually the title of a poem within its section. Throughout the work, the reader is encouraged to create, modify, and delight in their own readings. Divya Victor’s comprehensive introduction also suggests a plethora of such interpretation and collaboration when stating that:
Crawford tills the ecological value of mnemonic and affective archives – where an early subjective attachment to the natural overcomes exploitative human-nature relationships. Koel creates a third mindscape that explores cohabitant intimacies across species within the warm and dewy contexts of childhood memory, adolescent desire, and the adult effort to survive without harming other creatures. (xi-xii)
Where ‘circles and mosses of (Singapore) tilt and transect others … (to) somewhere else, entirely see-through’ (ix) is most evident in ‘a crossing’ from the last section entitled ‘soft shroud’. This particular poem became for me a more personal gateway into the work as a whole. My mind began to mesh childhood memories of living and staying in a then third-world typhoon-stricken Filipino village, to arrive in the gloomy outer north Melbourne which seemed a disjointed mélange of rural countryside with newish British-style country houses, and American-style weatherboard ones decaying, or under construction.
As I write this review, my rereading of ‘a crossing’ has a diegetic soundtrack, both of local fauna, and mass transit vehicles. Again, Crawford asks the reader to accept that constructions for humans, made by humans, can exist simultaneously within and without nature, as well as somewhere in between. These spaces have a neutrality in them if we look at the nature-culture dichotomy as base polarities. Could they be thought of as postcapitalist or decolonised spaces?
The reading I want to suggest asks you to imagine that you are wading through murky flood water, and that paved paths do not exist, and that you are trying to get back to the house where extended family were brought up in relative poverty. The tin roof may be missing in some spots, and it is leaking from several familiar spots into ready-positioned basins.
smashed scattering bulwarks
blond splinters circling
it was ‘someone’s coming out for our furniture
(unhinged gate & circle drive bursting
feet swollen seats
‘sky sky honey the roof’s gone honey the walls oh
soak your ankles look out
perimetres fully ponding
spread earth eats
years goods matchstick restarts
splinter bed circling
glyphs curling weight
over a desert’s honey sliding
carrying that old life on
through foot print cell holes live
(the carried unseen
dipping their feet in under
The reader could imagine that the words of these four pages are rendered onto translucent, semi-opaque material ‘sheets’, and that these sheets flow to hit the ground. They are not entirely stationary, and you can ‘walk’ through them should you choose, and the resistance is similar to that of walking waist-deep through a body of sea’s current pushing against your body slightly. An amalgamation of Clara Bradley’s work for Tenderness Journal where the artist embroiders words onto satinesque fabric, and Alan Robinson’s ‘Forest’ where ‘strands’ of yarn in hang in varying lengths in a semi-enclosed, barely illuminated room enables the reader to imagine that they are wading through a flood, as best rendered by Crawford’s sequence in Koel.
Another imagining of ‘a crossing’ could also be assembled as follows; taking each of these four pages of text, printed onto transparent sheets designed for overhead light projectors, one could envision a syntactical flood by trying to read the legible words. This approach also works for ‘a cut ’:
to the armsto the caravan of bodiesroudcouncil of knifebeaks
to a dry dawnbehindto the bodies’ thin cathedrals shade
stretched wing shadefor grey lips
& shade for standing at the edge of the hole
weight in arms
Here, the text in bold is what is legible when the (paper) page is held up to light. It is a possible realisation of what Divya Victor says Deleuze and Guattari call a ‘haecceity’ – ‘an absolute limit of being entangled in assemblage with ‘an atmosphere, an air, a life’, and how the poems that make up Koel can be construed as ‘a single day or … all the days of life moving in grand and feminine interdependence between biological causality and phenomenological existence …’ (xii).
Despite one full reading, and future attempted rereadings, many more interpretations and collaborations of Koel still feel possible, and yet to be explored. It is initially hard work, and manages to strike a curious balance in its provocation of fresh wonder, with its sophisticated, relatable imagery, and an intuitive yet experimental stretching of grammatical conventions. I confess that it will be difficult to merely hear a bird call and not consider its poetic possibilities – for this book, and for others’ work.
Bradley, Clara (curator, artist). Tenderness. Mixed media exhibition and zine, Melbourne, (2015). Zine archive (Feb 2017).
Bradley, Clara (artist). Blushings. Exhibition (words embroidered on fabric), Melbourne (Jul 2016).
Robinson, Alan. ‘Forest’ in ‘Choir of the Impossible’ (various creators). Mixed media exhibition/interactive experience rooms, Melbourne (2017). ‘Surprise! An exhibition! Choir of the Impossible Recap’. PlayReactive blog.
Gemma Mahadeo is a Melbourne-based writer and musician. Her family emigrated from England to Australia in 1987. Her work has appeared in Concrete Queers, Cordite, Going Down Swinging, Peril, and she has performed in Quippings (2017-2018). She contributes regularly to Froth. Visit her on Twitter / IG: @snarkattack / @eatdrinkstaggger & eatdrinkstagger.com.