Helen Hagemann Reviews Flute of Milk by Susan Fealy

Susan Fealy, Flute of Milk. Crawley WA: UWA Publishing, 2017. ISBN: 9781742589398

 

Helen Hagemann

 

I recently visited a small country town in Western Australia and attended Saturday morning markets. I bought a small plastic tray for $3. A memento, I assumed, from the seller’s visit to the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. It’s amazing when serendipity occurs. Imprinted on its surface is Johannes Vermeer’s painting The Milkmaid. ‘after The Milkmaid’ is an epigraph in Susan Fealy’s first poem titled ‘Made in Delft’, and perhaps the first line conveys a museum visit, where ‘White walls melken the daylight’.

Ekphrastic poems loom large in this collection. However, as a reviewer I’m not here to praise how well Fealy defines these works as an inspiration for her poetry. They are merely a backdrop for her visceral language that creates a kind of Droste effect, an image within an image, or her words over art-form: ‘The map of the world / Has been painted over’:

Only a woman, blond

Light from the window,

Her wide-mouthed jug

And bread on the table.

One can almost taste the milk

Escaping her jug.

(15)

An emotional response to this work might be through an ecological valence. The poet responds positively to coloured environmental objects, cultivating Henri Matisse’s blues. ‘A certain blue penetrates your soul’ is a quote from Matisse and used as an epigraph to the poem ‘A Confluence of Blues’. Assorted colours are conveyed in sensual language and provide a visual experience for the reader. Fealy uses the sense of sight (even sound) to convey her various expressions of blue, ones that indeed penetrate the soul: 

Blue—

the frequency

of light that lies

between violet and green

 

Arthur Dove once said

Painting is music of the eyes.

A fleet of blues flute violet

others oboe green.

(18)

This collection published by UWA Publishing is enriched with Fealy’s use of various mediums such as literature, the Melbourne Museum, The Oxford Dictionary, a sculptor, as well Australian artists and poetry. All are referenced as ‘Notes’ (75-76). Michael Sharkey suggests in his review of Flute of Milk that Fealy’s references

go beyond description of the objects and processes of each object or art-form she considers, to suggest an interest in the causes of artistic inspiration across all the modes of art that strike her eye and mind. On the face of it, her poetry is provoked by surprise confrontations with arresting verbal accounts of events and phenomena, and with artistic work in other modes than poetry. Visual art, plastic arts, film, flower-arrangement, ceramics … they’re collisions of eye with object.

I highlight these lines from ‘For Cornflowers to Sing’ (responding to Brett Whiteley’s Still Life with Cornflowers) and ‘The Vase Imposes:

For cornflowers to sing

each line must scar

its making.

 

There must be light

and the idea of a window

(65)

 

 

The Master of Flowers respects

the economy of nature ─

 

confines them

in slim vessels, quells

a mad thirst with still water.

(66)

Leaving the natural world of milk, colour and cornflowers, landscape returns in the poem ‘Gouache, Sheep Skulls, Fence Bracket’, a stark reminder of our Australian rural countryside and its hardships. The image of sheep skulls as bird-beaks is excellent:

Look closer.

The skulls are singing,

more like bird-beaks than sheep.

Forget-me-knots break

across bone

as if souls commune,

call back,

jigsaw a collective self.

(63)

The poem ‘Lake Mungo’ is an eco-find as is the subject matter of Mungo Lady (aka Mungo Woman). In 1968, young geologist Jim Bowler found burnt bones. Later in 1968 archaeologists John Mulvaney and Rhys Jones probed Bowler’s find and determined that the unmistakable human jaw was an adult female. Fealy re-imagines the lives of Mungo Man and Mungo Lady in a beautiful, evocative way ─ an aboriginal burial per se, ‘where the sand blows yesterday / from her face’.

He wants to drive her to a desert

where they ghosted her in ochre,

buried her, standing upright

by a milky singing lake.

 

He wants to walk with her

along a curve of shattered moon,

where human memory

unmade her long ago.

(31)

While landscape is evoked in such phrases as ‘the silhouette of wind’ in ‘Faith is Green’, and in ‘Flute of Milk’ where ‘the water flowed and flowed over our arms / undulations of black satin’, the poem goes below the surface in ‘How to Dive in Kelp Forest’. Fealy expands on Scott and Nancy Barnett’s ‘Tip Sheet on How to Dive KELP in California’. No doubt the thought of being entangled, submerged or trapped in weed creates a sense of alarm for the poet, ‘Canopies are so thick, it is like cave-diving’. 

Do not jump into a mess of greenish-gold. Wait for the swing of the boat

to move away. In thick kelp, the surface is not your friend;

sometimes, even the bottom is not your friend.     

And if you’ve ever been caught in a rip – you’ll know the feeling!

Don’t penetrate so deep

you don’t know where out is. …

(32)

Flute of Milk is a marvellous debut collection from Susan Fealy. I feel like I know her – a little –  having joined her in one of Ron Pretty’s online workshops. I do know that when you are a reviewer and you mine the poetry much deeper for meaning, understanding, emotional engagement or for that sheer love of poetic language, you become more familiar with the poet’s work. I have been rewarded in all aspects. Get a copy and hear her voice, for ‘the earth is made of honeyed cake!’ (‘Two Voices’, 72).

 

References

‘Flute of Milk: Susan Fealy reviewed by Michael Sharkey’, Australian Poetry (Jul 24, 2017), http://www.australianpoetry.org/reviews/flute-of-milk-susan-fealy-reviewed-by-michael-sharkey/

‘Mungo Lady and Mungo Man’, Visit Mungo, http://www.visitmungo.com.au/who-found-mungo-lady

 

Helen Hagemann holds an MA in Writing from Edith Cowan University and teaches prose at the Fremantle Arts Centre. She has been an ASA mentorship recipient studying with Jean Kent, a NSW poet. A Macquarie / Varuna Longlines Poetry Award resulted in the publication of her first collection Evangelyne & Other Poems, 2009. Her second collection of Arc & Shadow was published by Sunline Press in 2013. Currently, Helen is polishing a collection of prose poetry.

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