Mary Cresswell reviews The Herring Lass by Michelle Cahill

Michelle Cahill.  The Herring Lass.  UK: Arc Publications, Arc International Poets Series, 2016. ISBN 9781910345764.

 

Mary Cresswell

 

This collection is a concatenation of loss: not just an assemblage but a linked chain in which each loss adds to the weight of the length of chain yet to come. The title poem shows the Herring Lass:

Not far from the stone harbour, herring kilns

pump wood smoke, smudged into an enterprise of masts

and the hemp rigging of a whole fleet, outward bound.

 

Her knife flashes in four-second strokes,

her wet hands never stray from a salted barrel

(11)

as she stands in mute drudgery while a whole living world moves and bustles around her. The cover (Winslow Homer’s ‘The Fisher Girl’) shows a woman standing in a fog on an indeterminate shore, looking out to sea for fish which may (or may not) appear this year (or next).

Losses in the natural world pile up, all at the hands of humans claiming to settle some sort of brave new world at the other end of the sad old world. ‘Day of a Seal, 1820’ begins as ‘[a] tall ship patrols the coast’ and the living seal hides in the ‘slaughter sands’ of Bass Strait. It ends as

Black women from the camps pile our skins on spits for tobacco, for oil.

I cannot strike back.

(22)

A hundred years later, in ‘Twofold Bay, 1930’ killer whale Old Tom is caught in ‘sixty fathoms of double coir’ as ‘Norwegian guns cull the pods of hunted Orca spirits/ bathypelagic ancestors. I can taste the words whiten/ into thin milk of settler culture, …’ (23). In Tasmania, the thylacine stands ‘The Vanishing’ on its head, disappearing the settlers themselves:

I’ll escape into ferneries, veils of Time

from the experts, bureaucrats, Lake

St Clair’s crags, from grotto to Sphinx,

jerking all the levers – till they

vanish from my world.

(26)

There are so many themes, so many layers in these poems that it’s impossible for me to find one obvious point of entry. So, I will jump arbitrarily to Cahill’s six-poem sequence of ‘The Grieving Sonnets’ and quote the fourth one in its entirety. It includes not only the losses to the natural world for the sake of money, but also the loss of words:

The river meanders from killing fields to half-light.

Never ceasing, nomadic running the scree. A lyric

festering, we ply her spirit with a destitute tongue.

Been fond of escape, been trading words for flight,

a bright skin of language, a second nature. Bring on

the sobriquets, take a few pills in the amber dawn.

I’m guessing the forecast is erratic, that dreaming

is my abode, but we have mansions for lovely forms.

We have harbour side galleries and Bindi Irwin.

Money jangles, and while it’s hard to get this straight,

I’d swear by the riotous retort of raven or wattlebird.

Hear the mulloway leap with a hoary splash to shoot

the silence and you understand the fanatic – oh fish,

our common antecedent, remind us of difference.

(44)

The poet’s abbreviated, telegraphic style reinforces our awareness of what has been ignored or cast aside in the trip from the killing fields to the safe dimness of half-light. The sonnet immediately preceding this one advertises ‘Borderline poet with GSOH seeks discreet patois(43). In the final sonnet, ‘We feel the ignominy of territory, we chase idioms / borrowed from culture, memory, the past’s psychosis / and prison’ (46).

The uselessness of language (which we fondly believed showed our superiority to the other animals) and the terrible track of destruction leave us with intolerable grief and shame, and no hope. We know only that we are far down the track of a process we ourselves began:

No tripping in the aleatory light, no thesaurus

for radioactive dusk with incurable ciphers. …

All that remains is the running brush, a train

and a whisper in the machine, half-wilting.

No figures of speech – nothing to speak of.

(‘After Fukushima’, 66)

Looked at from a different angle, loss can bring awareness of what might have been, what could have been. Joseph Conrad’s short story ‘Youth’ comes from the heart of Boys’ Own Tales of Empire: it follows a lad on a cosmically unseaworthy coaler taking coal from Newcastle to Bangkok, a nearly endless voyage in which everything possible goes wrong; the ship is saved only so that Marlowe can, years later, regale his worthy friends (retired mariners all) with the story of how his youthful spirit flourished amid it all – as his guests harumph in admiration, pass the bottle back and forth, and reflect that this is how Men are Made. It’s an story of mindless acceptance and takes place entirely on one level, in the grey, indeterminate world that surrounds one small ratty vessel. (Actually, not ratty: the rats leave early on in the piece, necessitating a whole new crew.)

Now look at ‘Youth, by Josephine Jayshree Conrady’ a glorious five-page narrative that brings life to a voyage geographically somewhat similar to Conrad’s, but one that revives and resuscitates the story by adding anecdotes and layers and a personality – as though the Technicolor has suddenly been switched on. J. J. Conrady asks and wonders:

Even as it recedes, why do I miss London?

Houses that reek of lime and coal smoke,

a crowded chaos spilling into Gravesend’s

noisy piers, stevedores, a jungle of wharves,

dock gates, Tilbury’s mastheads. …

 

I dressed in kurta with kersey breeches,

brass buttons, my hair clipped to the ears.

The sea beckoned, lingering

as in a dream, one does not wish to wake

from since it returns us to the cargo

of the drowned, unalterable past. …

(34)

There is travel, there is drama; above all, there are three dimensions and five senses making a wonderfully rich story – ultimately reflecting an immigrant’s sense first, of the confusion of new places and customs, and then of the fated, inevitable destination (which may not have been planned to begin with):

There’s only ever been one passage:

this deck I’ve paced, facing south.

Larrikins brawled with Arabs en route

to Melbourne. … English was a blank verse

that colonised our minds;

the full moon left us unbalanced.

Youth is intrepid of all mystery.

She plys a corridor to the Torres Straits …

 

All day the endless toil

of shovelling sand, pumping water,

a feat, like life itself. Or futile words –

Black. Arabian. Baltic, Ivory. Atlantic.

But through all the colour and headiness of human life, the loss awaits:

The sea is restless for her prize, the reefs patient.

Mercy we cry, each one of us

dreams of our poor carcass, swept asunder,

while in the harbour the hungry shipwrights wait.

(36-38)

This is a passionate book, full of grief and time travel, of keen observation of the world along with anger and shame for humanity. The poet’s voice is the voice of the Pythia at Delphi – not cryptic as some traditions have it but rather speaking from the very heart of the earth, original and powerful. The book is worth reading – and re-reading.

 

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.

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