Tina Giannoukos. Bull Days. Melbourne: Arcadia, Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2016. 9781925333626.
Bull Days contains 58 sonnets – connected but entirely self-sufficient – that float through the book like prayer flags on a line. They are full of sound (and silence), motion (and stillness), of sky and air – moving through love in its welcome and its unwelcome manifestations.
The sound of your name, like the echo of birds,
hovers in the honeyed space between eternity
and this instant. I nest in arms too strong
for this slight love, night floodlit by dying stars.
The shimmering breath of Scheherazade
floats across the contracting room, a charm
to wear around the neck, like a spell, the crazy
word that will keep you entranced, or not.
I drink the wine of your kisses as if hemlock,
the symphony of death plays its final tune—
before there’s nothing and afterwards
the world fades with the sweetest call.
Fragments survive, echoes of sound, but
the exploding world must forget or perish. (XXXVIII)
The wonderful range and variety of the poems’ content is matched by the variations on the sonnet form. A series of poems dealing with anger and regret leads up to one poem whose fourteen lines end with abrupt expletives:
All this politicking. It’s a sign. Yeah!
Nothing in it if you’re single. Fuck!
Thirty per cent of women live alone. Whoa!
Let’s work out a way to tax silence. Cool!
Sixty per cent of men roam the streets! Shit! … (XVIII)
And then, on the facing page, a change of meter, vocabulary, and register:
Some nights I smell the sea the oyster smell of brine.
The epic journey begins at the shore of the black sea.
Into the deep seas of hell I pour the libations of sorrow.
The pool of stagnant water at the edge of the world
lies across three mountains I will never scale or see. … (XIX)
All but one of the sonnets here don’t rhyme; all but one have fourteen lines; most of them have turns; all of them feel like sonnets, though I would be hard put in some cases to say exactly why I say this. I read the book at one sitting the first time I picked it up, and in some ways it reads like an unbroken conversation, testing how far a poet can get and still keep the sonnet label. Given how robust this poetic form is, how long it has lasted and how hard it can be to pin down, I’m inclined to think there is an eidos of sonnets out there lending its (Platonic) form at intervals to hard-working poets, as and when it pleases. It has certainly given its approval here.
The images of sky, sea and space, reinforced by images of birds, carry us through the collection. In one sonnet we see a sequence of birds, balanced but in danger of falling:
A raven balances on bare branch,
grips bare bough verdant with promise,
bark, grown paper to touch, sheds strips.
A helicopter hovers, stuns
starlings to rooftop in fluttery flight. … (XLI)
And a few poems later, the sound of one gull brings sea, loneliness, injury, and recovery all together:
The gull’s plaintive cry, high-pitched,
upset me above the din. To be frank,
I felt unsympathetic when I cocked
an ear. The gull had a monotonous weep.
It knew only one note. What gall!
I expected when the sea receded,
the tide being far out this daybreak,
its brother gulls, squalling over pickings,
would be directors of my view.
Instead, I saw a pelican amble ashore,
one deep, dragged eye cocked towards eternity,
but the wind picked up and gunmetal seas
pounded the shore. I spun, dazed: Oh, to glide
out of view like the wandering albatross. (XLIV)
The sonnets reflect the varied voices that speak through a love affair, moving – always moving – through the poet’s memory and consciousness. She begins in (inhabited) space:
The astrophysics of our encounter,
this dark energy of love, are unknown.
In a singular moment the explosion
that drove all things apart drove us too. … (I)
I begin the long march in death’s dominion.
I bear imperfectly the thought that I’m alone.
I was beautiful but that was rapture.
The tongue of love tastes tough in these bull days. (II)
Like a bull market, the affair is on the way up. The bullfight image comes up later in the book, first in the straightforward cut and thrust of the Spanish style (‘I am your bull charging you’, XX) and again in Sonnet XXII:
Kneel in the arena and pray I kill you.
Mouth a silent prayer when I charge you.
Now greet me with the best manoeuvres,
let your cape swing in the sun. I said pray.
I am a bull and must die. That is the point. (XXII)
The next poem redeems the bullfight, changing it into a question that suggests the many-layered ritual of Cretan bull dancers, rather than any insistence on death as the end / purpose of it all:
… What is the last image of you?
A man pouring wine. You wore the bracelet of
gold and lapis lazuli, like an invitation. In my cement
backyard, a young artist painted the fresco of me bare-breasted.
I search for your image in the disc before my eyes.
It wasn’t some luscious youth I sought, his sensuous fringe
like blond rivers of yearning. I wanted an elaborate dance
of mind, pure spirit, and of a wish for the fall
of your shadow. …. (XXIII)
But we are left with both possibilities.
Another alternation is between sound and silence. The sonnet quoted at the beginning of this review is a return to sound, flanked by poems saying
I don’t mind your absence. I endure your loss.
Where you travel there is only silence
Bring out your lyre. Compose a song of praise. … (XXXVI)
Our bones and ashes carry the words
that holy men, accustomed to love’s cancer,
put to music or poetry when in temper.
I gather-in the silence that haunts the seas. (XL)
There are frequent flashes of blue between the moving prayer flags, reminding us that these poems are being read against the sky and the constantly breathing spirit that inspires love – both love as sky-blue heaven, and love as smouldering hell:
The eruption of this love turns blue. I
saw the crescent moon turn blue. I saw
the half-moon turn blue. I saw two blue moons
in a month. All the moons I saw were blue.
The plumes of ash from the eruption of
your love rose to the top of the Earth’s hardwired
body. And I saw the moon turn blue
in shame. The ashes of your love bled
into the red sunset I saw in Egypt.
The fire in the forests of your love had
smouldered for years. Blew up into the blaze
the wind fanned from spite. The sun turned blue.
In the smoke-filled sky the sun was indigo.
The moon was blue again that evening. (XVI)
This is a wonderful collection, a pleasure to read in all sorts of ways, whether or not you have a technical concern for the sonnet form, or whether you simply like to read really good poetry.
Mary Cresswell is from Los Angeles and lives on New Zealand’s Kapiti Coast. She is a retired science editor and volunteers at a nature reserve and at a women’s centre. Her new book, Field Notes (a satirical miscellany) is due from Makaro Press, Wellington, in mid-2017.