Lauren Williams, Cleanskin Poems. Woodford, NSW: Island Press, 2016. ISBN: 978-0-909771-94-2.
Sometimes a poet’s past is like bitumen in summer, an expanse that gets us nowhere fast, but this energetic collection is written very much in the here and now. The poems refer to past events and past ideas, but reading them is very much an exercise in the present tense. We are being told stories about people – that’s the base line.
The first section is childhood: Barbie dolls, horses, first menstruation, and a defiant refusal to satisfy a crowd of jeering boys.
Later, the sun setting,
the pool deserted, the ladder mine,
I climbed and jumped,
climbed and jumped.
(‘The high board’, 14-15)
In ‘Embodied’, the poet tracks her body to middle age, ending with ‘On chemistry’, listening ‘to my body’s late verse, … like someone / talking over their shoulder as they / quit the room, leaving the door / slightly ajar’ (38).
The HZ Holden owner’s manual gives us the first of some found poems, ‘Why I like talking with mechanics’:
Gearstick Gearbox Honeypot Donk
Dipstick Grease nipple Big end bush …
Check the diaphragm for cracks or deterioration and/
renew as necessary.
Another found poem is ‘New York City T-shirts 2002’, a three-page compendium of unasked-for advice thrown in your face on the streets:
Religions of the World – …
Protestantism: Shit won’t happen if I work harder
Another New York poem is the deceptively simple ‘Repetition injury’:
We see the camera see
a man not looking
as the airliner flies softly
into the great glass building
the man looks up too late
we see again the camera
see a man not looking …
the last thing a man sees …
we see it …
‘Editress’ describes the (widespread, alas) habit of ever-so-clever chaps of using the creative writing scene as a vehicle for ramming their fantasies into a captive audience:
… sex, like it’s exciting
just because it’s written. …
At best they must not think a woman
will read this.
At worst, they do.
The seven-poem ‘Howard Arkley sequence’ is as vivid as Arkley’s paintings, and as varied. House fronts are flat and unescapable. The litany of drugs prefigures Arkley’s death on the brink of material success:
The drug of seeing
The drug of paint on canvas …
The drug of ownership
The drug of control.
(‘How many drugs in this picture?’, 91)
The sequence ends with the irony of $190,000 for a painting:
For the price of that painting,
you could live in it.
The collection closes with an essay on ‘Labelling Poetry’, abridged from a talk given in Wollongong in 2003. Williams quite rightly objects to how easily one label – such as ‘performance poet’ – can follow a poet around forever, usually without justification by the matter in hand. This helps nurture the ‘woman poet’ label by setting up an expectation that ‘poet’ means male poet, and that any other category requires an adjective – the word can’t stand alone except in that one instance. This happened with Williams (among many) and the label ‘peformance poet’; others have been permanently classed as ‘working-class poet’ or ‘page poet’, whereas ‘name poets and their ilk get by very well with no label at all’ (121).
In this spirit, remember that while poets don’t benefit from labels, it’s perfectly fine to try to label poems: in this book we see found poems, a coming of age poem, sad poems, concrete poems, and others. We see many that don’t fit into any category at all: these are cleanskin poems – or, if your dialect of English is the same as mine, maverick poems. They roam together and don’t belong to anyone but themselves. They have no brand burned into them, and they are very much alive.
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 most recent book is Field Notes (a satirical miscellany) from Makaro Press, Wellington, 2017.