Jenny Henty Reviews Taking My Breath by Cassandra J O’Loughlin

Cassandra J. O’Loughlin Taking My Breath: Ecopoems. Port Adelaide: Ginninderra Press 2018. ISBN: 9781760414993

 

Jenny Henty

 

Cassandra O’Loughlin classifies her collection of poems as ‘Ecopoems’ and she gives the following definition of ecopoetry:

a relatively new term for describing contemporary poetry that has a strong ecological emphasis and an ecocentric perspective. It moves beyond the scope of ‘landscape’ and ‘nature’ poetry. While precise definitions vary, ecopoetry implies responsibility for the environment. It is concerned with preserving the stability and integrity of the natural world. Ecopoetry is a positive affirmation of our embeddedness in ecological relationships.

Belonging is the chief concern of these poems: belonging to country and to an extended family with early-settler ancestors. O’Loughlin’s lived experience of the Hunter River region of NSW is a recurring theme. Rivers, in all their seasons (and the rivers that run through us) are depicted with vivid imagery. Tied up with this geography are memories of special familial relationships: a grandmother, a mother, a sister / friend, a daughter and (possibly) grandchildren. An outstanding example of where the two streams of belonging converge is the poem, ‘Floods’.

‘Floods’ is typical of O’Loughlin’s poems where a visit to, or drive through, particular terrain triggers personal memories and historic imaginings such as when antipodean days were ‘sunny as peeled corn’ (23) and an immigrant ancestor gathered ‘her clan around the starched white cloth of discipline’ (24).

O’Loughlin not only closely observes traits of geography, but she looks for, and finds, herself.  The

 … flash-flooded fields

and a diary awash bail-high

remind her of 

… other floods

that have poulticed this earth’s ailing chest.

and then

… to a raft of women who have voyaged down

to the ebb and flow of their destinies.

‘I belong to this tribe’, she writes. (23–24)

The rich imagery of rivers is used to great effect to describe the subject of ‘River Guide’. In this prose poem, O’Loughlin paints an authentic picture of a man shaped, and inhabited, by his environment:

        The man’s trousers, rolled at the hem as if prepared for wading, and his shirt, are the white-grey cloud colour of the naked gums, his boots, brown-black like the bark, and chipped.

Water brims the banks of the man’s eyes.

(54–55)

One of the best prose poems in the collection is ‘Nourishment’; a delightful rendering of a quirky event witnessed on a train. It satisfies all of Jordie Albiston’s criteria for good prose poetry: unity within brevity, poetic quality, sustained intensity, contracted emotion and compactness.[1]

‘South of Birubi on Newcastle Bight’ is full of inventive compound words and ‘liquid language’ used to describe a visit to a shantytown on the beach where ‘the ocean spills its long syllable’.  A woman is scaling fish by a beach shack:

It’s mullet-coloured, makeshift,

with a low-hipped lean-to

(25)

In the final stanzas, the first person persona becomes the subject. This is a common pattern in O’Loughlin’s poems. Here, the ‘I’ senses:

… a lifetime

is creeping up behind me

(26)

And among rock pools, ‘my name is uttered’ (27).

The poem, ‘To Paint the Day’, is written entirely in the third person and benefits from the distance that is created from the subject. The warm, sacred tone of a woman lovingly attempting to paint ‘a pelican coasting’ onto ‘a tidal glimmer on the lake’ (56) is maintained as she is interrupted by a boy, as loved and regarded as her environment and her efforts to represent it. In this poem, O’Loughlin achieves both unity and clarity.

Apart from the fine sestina, ‘The Room and the Tree’, about a grandmother and grandchild (inspired by Elizabeth Bishop’s sestina on the same theme), the poems are free verse or prose poetry. There are a wide variety of forms on the page, both line length and stanza length and, on the whole, they are well-chosen: ‘Floods’ is in couplets, ‘Luminescence’ in quatrains, ‘Yesterday’ in quintains with a final monochord and ‘Enduring Things’ has eight line stanzas. Some of the longer poems have no such regularity.

In ‘Muloobinbah’, the varying line lengths, the spaces between the words and their placing, reflect the poem’s grave theme of displacement of the original inhabitants:

Home is not only a miamia or a house,

an address where someone                 waits

for news of a loved one, but a

time –

(31)

‘Driving Inland’, a poem in 7 sections, tells of a car trip from beyond the Blue Mountains to the Adelaide Hills. It is introduced by an epigraph of lines from Rainer Maria Rilke on the nature of success. This theme is explored further in conversation with a male passenger. However, as the journey penetrates further inland, conversation gives way to introspection.

True to the ecopoetic genre, section iv of ‘Driving Inland’ contains an imagining of what it might be like to be other-than-human: in this case, an endangered plains wanderer (15).

O’Loughlin is an observant poet with a gift for imaginative language and a solid repertoire of poetic devices. She writes with a knowledge of, and feel for, the natural history and settlement of regional Australia, particularly from a female perspective. However, at this precarious time of threat to our planetary life-support systems, I hungered for lines that were more unsettling than the wistful tone typified by: ‘Perhaps this land wants its ancient self back’ (52).

 


[1] Albiston, Jordie (2014) The Weekly Poem Puncher & Wattman p130

 

Jenny Henty is a member of Melbourne Poets Union and Australian Poetry. Her poetry was initially inspired by a deep ecology retreat and has developed thanks to generous teachers and participants in various writing groups. She has a Graduate Diplomas in Environmental Science from Monash University and in Integrative and Transformative Studies from the OASES Graduate School.

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