Sarah St Vincent Welch, Open. Chatswood West, NSW: Rochford Press, 2019. ISBN: 978 – 0 – 949327 – 04 – 8
Anne Casey, out of emptied cups. Cliffs of Moher, Ei: Salmon Poetry, 2019. ISBN: 978 – 1 – 912561 – 74 – 2
Is a chapbook a book? Many in our community argue it is not. The inherent brevity, the simple centre stapling suggests to them that the chappie is an insubstantial, lesser work … ephemeral and/or limited in scope.
In one book competition some years ago we judges debated for some time over including a particular chapbook in the shortlist, aware of this dismissive argument. But put simply it was one of the best books we had in front of us. I will admit to a stake in this debate given one of my enduring favourite books that somehow got out under my name was a chappie and time has not been as kind to a couple of my ‘full-sized’ others. So, I start from a position that all books are books, regardless of how many trees have been chopped down to produce them or the presence of staples. We the readers should approach a new title looking for some if not all of the following: unity of concept, consistency of poetic exploration, innate veracity and the processes to surprise / enrich / illuminate.
Open meets all these criteria. I love the imagery – have you ever wondered if it was possible for someone to craft a new image from that most observed of phenomena, the moon? St Vincent Welch does it three times: ‘moon lead / bruise’ (5), ‘the new moon follows / like an excited dog’ (9) and the brilliant ‘porthole moon’ (7). Image is not used promiscuously but rather carefully placed like the methodical gardener. Delight in the ‘powder of age’ (2), ‘my breasts are empty sails’ (7), and ‘kneeling bus’ (16), interspersed with a crisp, clear even occasionally vernacular language.
The enduring conundrum of women coming to terms with men and the incarceration of roles is explored cleverly in Nintendo (10) and hilariously in He won’t be any trouble.
Fox (15) is an elegant range across interactions from a child’s perspective
… The church-woman’s stole
mouth biting tail
soft corpse on her shoulders
I stroked it
to a contemporaneous caught-in-the-headlights moment.
The I in this collection does not sit demonstrably within the broader ecosystem nor does it actively seek to engage with it. Location is predominantly either the sea or gardens. As regards the former, ocean is a conduit, the poet struggles for placement or connection for herself and others. Moon and tree form part of the picture of a wrecked ship (7) while pines shape the perimeter of that ‘miniature earth’ – the poet’s past/future.
A sense of enclosure is explored in St Vincent Welch’s garden references. The very essence of garden of course is human intervention, planning and exclusion. There is conscious anthropomorphisation where she relegates pines to ‘bonsai patrollers’ (8). Nature is expropriated ‘A pressed flower falls, the memory of its shape left on the words’ (2) while in Archaeology of gardens (12–14) we share what is important to her – teasing out of linkages / legacies from the mother, the tactile realities of living ‘dirty hands / dirty knees / examining the aphid and bee’ (12) and the philosophies of survival ‘I tend only, only what survives the drought and frost’ (14). But there is still the assertion that gardens ‘are dreams for me’ (12) suggesting that coexistence of engagement and separation.
But both limitations are thrown aside in the final poem Open. This delightful piece asserts ‘inside is outside, outside in, all at once’ (18). Human status is thrown alongside fish, gecko, kangaroo. Self is food/drink. Self is Venus. The writer is both swimming and part of the swell. There is joy in this abandonment achieved /aspired-to.
Open is an enriching book with a reach far beyond its limited number of pages.
Anne Casey’s second book, out of emptied cups, talks of ‘spearing through the clear / blue air …’ (13) in the first poem and this telegraphs much of the journey ahead for the reader. With deft precision (but certainly no coldness) zooming out we are led from the personal to the travails / wonders of women/men then on to observation of peoples concluding with a broader planetary view.
As the title suggests much of the book returns to the notion of cups which was, for me at least, a previously unencountered theme. It’s there explicitly in poems like ‘Observance‘, ‘storms in teacups’, ‘cup in hand’ et cetera. ‘Mugs’ are not invited to apply. Cups are the vessels (bodies), a phantom moon, sippy cups … , even emptiness is cupped. Cups are both brimming and vacant.
With the personal poems there is joy, vulnerability and outrage:
the nuclear weapon
of the sexual predator
no–one will believe you
The I in this book (and the I is very present) both yearns to fly while celebrating moments when:
… there is nothing, absolutely nothing
i would change
Anyone believing gender equality is an old issue should immerse themselves in this book. Men are not stereotyped, there is an exuberance in the I’s relationship with some and her son is cherished while being simultaneously admonished to treat a woman
Like a crystal glass
to be handled delicately
with due deference
and only after permission is clearly granted
It is about
being the kind of man
who makes your Mama want to weep
But we as a gender have a lot to answer for and this book holds us to account with poems ranging from the refutation of victimhood by someone stalked (40), creepy doctors, abusive partners and rapists. Throughout the subtext celebrates women rising above it all.
As an Irish émigré, Casey well understands the bravery and frangibility of those who leave or are ejected from their home whether it be from her ‘grandma’s front room’ (52) or Aleppo. The emigrant remains in two worlds simultaneously:
in the nowhere
Up until ‘Three hours to midnight’ the book is very much human-centred. In this poem we are presented with a seemingly idyllic picture of a day at a waterfront park. But it ends:
on this perfect evening after
another record-breaking day
towards the end of the earth.
Adroitly Casey steers our eyes past the personal, the momentary and the societal into reflections on the environmental degradation of our world in the latter part of the book. Wit is combined with rage in ‘Recipe for a Giant Pickle’ (59) and ‘THANK YOU FOR SHOPPING WITH US’ (62). This is no condemnation from afar, the I is complicit as she flies into Hong Kong or contemplates her willingness to kill a fish. In describing fauna there is careful delight and little sense of appropriation via anthropomorphisation:
nectar-drunk bush bees
far above the middle of
everything that is all
as a bird takes in the sky
as the earth sustains a body
as a cup holds its contents
as a tree releases its leaf
as a speck drifts in space
The final poem, ‘All Souls’ (97) ties all the themes together. We have glorying in the natural world, the constant intrusion of our end-times environmental degradation, the abuse / transcendence of women all underwritten by a personal commitment to always look out and up.
Les Wicks has toured widely and seen publication in over 350 different magazines, anthologies & newspapers across 28 countries in 13 languages. His most recent books of poetry are Belief (Flying Islands Press, 2019) and Getting By Not Fitting In (Island, 2016), leswicks.tripod.com/lw.htm