Susan Fealy reviews The Non-Sequitur of Snow by Shari Kocher

Shari Kocher, The Non-Sequitur of Snow. Glebe, NSW: Puncher & Wattmann, 2015. ISBN 9781922186829

 

Susan Fealy

 

The Non-Sequitur of Snow reads as coherent and freshly made even though the poems have been written over a twenty year period. The major concerns of this first collection are the relationship between the self and intimate others, and process, including the process of apprehension itself. The poems evoke heightened moments. Some are at tipping points of extremity: integration and disintegration, safety and violence, change and limits to change. Poems disorientate the reader with synaesthesia and dream narratives. The poem is a place for reflection, often after fracture or challenge, and a crucible for change or transcendence.

Biblical imagery recurs: there are halos, angels, ladders, apples. We also encounter water, sky, blue and spears as recurring tropes. Word phrases repeat in pantoums and repeat even in free verse poems. The strength of repetition is that it creates intensity that at times comes close to incantation. It also creates music and cohesion. Kocher largely avoids repetition having a limiting effect because it is balanced with the destabilising impact of synaesthesia, dream, variety and irregularity of poem shape, and her subtle fracturing of repeating forms.

The opening poem is a response to Rumi’s “Be melting snow”. “Snowmelt” evokes a natural process of change: from solid to liquid, from winter to spring. It has the form and cadence of a prayer but mutability rules as the poem leaps from one image to another. The “hush of a halo” heralds “Let there be mourning any time of the day. / Let there be tears and fish in the sky” (11). Thus, “halo” opens into ecstasy or grief and an image that fuses ocean and sky: it disorientates, creates possibility. The poem considers the moment being sufficient, (“Let the grace of a face immersed in hush/be the grace of a face immersed in hush” 11), but the moment gives way to burning and burning gives way to song. It is the human voice singing, not silence, that is divine:

Let the stars, the sun, the enraged flowers

not burning bodies of gas that shine

but Song be let Song be the hush divine.         (11)

“The Non-Sequitur of Snow” evokes genesis in its opening line: “once upon a time on a Sunday”  (12). The poem registers a disrupted, uncanny space where frangipani, that sweet, fragrant falling of white through warm air is “like snow”. Immersion in spring evokes the immersion of winter. The poem plays out as a series of enigmatic possibilities, creating heightened moments of potential. The last lines of the poem collide a sense of limitlessness with the ‘what if’ of menace:

the curve of her own imminent horizon

horizonless and humming what if

the train was full

 

the clouds were heavy

she arrived early and

it began to snow.                           (13)

Her work seems informed by Luce Irigaray and in tune with the writing of Hélène Cixous. Her aesthetic also engages with and evokes Rumi, T. S. Eliot, Dylan Thomas, Dorothy Hewett and Amanda Johnson.

Night occasionally makes an appearance, but, even then, it is often charged with light, a sense of becoming, or both. Most are poems of daylight and burn with living. They conjure a vital three-dimensionality from texture, the kinetic, and strange collisions of size and location. It is the poetry of presence and process: often intimately engaged with another human being or place, and exquisitely attuned to the cyclical nature of connection and disconnection.

Kocher structures the collection to maximise propulsion and multiplicity. A line from the second poem becomes the title of the third. The last line  of the third poem carries forward as the title of the fourth poem. Many poems are in lower case, without punctuation. We find indentation within stanzas, some stanzas swing back and forth across the page. When form or a regular stanza scheme is used, it is used loosely; the line length is often uneven, or a pantoum’s form is broken in the final stanza. It was surprising to realise that there are only twenty-six poems. Inside the pitch and yaw, the travel seems further.

Most often it is the sense impressions of the body, not the ‘outside’ weather, that freights feeling. Kocher’s extraordinary coding of synaesthesia in language is particularly evident in her most strongly felt poems (“My Singing Empty Hands”, “The Scent, the Scent”, “Switch On Day”). It conveys powerfully the experience of being a participant within an unequal intimate relationship where there is no permission to speak. “My Singing Empty Hands” is a dream narrative set in a boat where only the sister rows. The ways in which language can be used as a weapon to denigrate, distance, and hinder change, shifts to a recognition of the narrator’s own retaliatory, if momentary, cruelty, and eventually to a compassionate perception of her sister’s vulnerability:

she flinches when I touch her

shut up she says just let me row

my sister’s hands on the oars

smell of soap and some sinister

 

cheap perfume my daughter sometimes

wears when she is angry …

… my sister’s tears

taste like lamingtons     my sister’s voice

shines with the cut of scales

 

my sister does not see through her crying

the flash of real fish in the flashing waves

my sister sits in our small boat

in the middle of that wide little water         (39-40)

“Strawberries” honours and yet critiques intimacy. By interrogating the relationship between language and textured, nonverbal aspects of experience, it investigates the limits to which even the context of turning points, such as a marriage proposal, can cohere with language and become a shared memory. This poem has a contemplative tone. It plays across time past, seeing in it time future. The sensual collecting of strawberries and the flashing of scales predicts the poet’s future weighing up of the relationship. There is a recognition that intimacy is a cycle of genesis and decay: it is messy, jagged. It is a place where her partner’s tears and ‘ three days stubble’ greet her infant into the world.

“The Scent, the Scent” celebrates body experience in contrast to the spoken language of adults to convey an “all at once” childhood experience of freedom, excitement and integration. The title’s repetition heralds the exultant tone. Sight, sound, touch, movement and smell combine with the heat of summer. As the child breaks the skin of her foot, she is earthed and almost overwhelmed by her senses:

my cousin’s backyard fenceless and airy

the stippled brown grass hot underfoot

a sudden bindi patch                 I drop

to the ground and smell in the blue

and green shade of the water tank the jasmine

of my wounded foot its honey and heat

and animal love bound up

in the whooping and yelling                             (54)

Adult imperatives form a loose fence around a chaotic medley of children who are “crashing around”, “roaring around” and “chasing and squealing”. She particularises her memory of place with details of smell, sight, touch and movement to evoke the pungency of lived experience: “my hands / turning the rose-scented soap grainy and pink / and brown in the sink …” (54). Long lines with ragged edges and gaps, the sudden unexpected rhymes and word repetitions, all yoke with the riotous content.

The poem ends with a glorious skin-to-skin encounter with her mother:

… the smell of cotton

growing on the line        burying my face

in the crease of her knees            her bare legs

hot beneath her dress in the sunlight

with just a hint of jasmine white and brown

the cotton of her skin

stippled scented and shining                             (55)

The return to “stipple” and “jasmine” seals the poem into its own world. The “shining” connection between mother and daughter contrasts with “Spoons” where “shine” seemed reserved for a male child:

until we became mouth

by mouth a set of spoons

unpolished mostly bent

but for the one

sterling silver boy

who would save us take us all

away to some shining place.                               (27)

Two poems reveal the poet’s history of deafness: “Dreaming in Auslan: a Study in Yellow and Grey”and “Switch on Day”. The former poem charges waking in familiar surrounds with dislocating visual and kinaesthetic associations that capture the body sensation of vibration. The experience for this reviewer was like being transported into a surreal painting and shaken up inside it. “Switch on Day” offers an extraordinary insight into what sound is while imparting the high-pitched intensity of how it feels to refind it. Each tercet begins in the same position with each line indented beyond the other to convey sound’s unique flow across time and air.

At first, sound seems all encompassing, then it becomes a flowing sequence. Movement, visual and taste metaphors convey her experience:

Sounds like Hong Kong traffic

high-rise birds and ribbons

streaming out of your mouth

 

in flautist tones that taste

like water—the green

next higher note a thin

 

metal wire flensing

a wolverine wind—

speech is nonsense and I

 

am a sugar-glider reaching

…                                                               (41)

The seismic shift of her perception is captured in the leap of the sugar- glider followed by leaps across tercets into other sensory surprises. The size of the tram and its “threads of ting”, the lightness, and perhaps the isolation, of:

… / a blank sky

departs / cirrus clouds / drifting / /      (41)

contrasts with the density and heaviness of mud. She exults in sound that is plentiful, primitive and undifferentiated because it is shared:

Who cares what the world hears? This is Mud

and You and I, Beloved, are rolling in it.

Glug-glug Glug-glug Glug-glug …    (42)

Kocher throws open the boundary around herself and her Beloved as they breakfast together. The shift to Donne’s style of uppercase in the last stanza visually emphasises her heightened experience while evoking “The Sunne Rising”.

These two poems invite contemplation of how her deafness has shaped her aesthetic, at least up until her hearing returned. Possibly, synaesthesia reflects her experience of other senses working together to compensate for sound and it may also have given her more distance from spoken language within relationships: distance that facilitates her remarkable capacity to separate speech from the other ways we apprehend relationships.

In “Flow, Repetition, Decay”, details of tiny living creatures (spiders, crickets, frogs, blades of grass, and moss), evoke a soft, enveloping, rhythmic experience of a couple sinking into sleep. They are almost at one with the natural world yet ultimately it is a place where human impingement is inevitable and life is both finite and fierce:

a soft green darkness lit with spears

we reach and sink knee deep in grass

sluicing the moss on the bridge with erosion

the gloss of a spider a delicate crystal

 

we reach and sink knee deep in grass

fiercely enfolding the silk inside

the spider’s belly glossed in crystal

clicking with the song of a cricket      (30)

The extensive assonance and alliteration combine with the subtle decay of repeating lines to impart the deep sense of being inside and impacting on a natural cycle. Most often, poems with extensive and varied use of slant rhyme, alliteration and assonance rely least on word and phrase repetition to create music. Were the former types of poems written after Kocher’s hearing returned? Her second collection will make this clearer and it will be intriguing to discover whether synaesthesia remains as central to her aesthetic.

The safe childhood experience in “The Scent, the Scent” is placed beside “The Bridge” which dares to inhabit and critique the inner world of a murderous father. “The Bridge” reconstructs the fateful trip across West Gate Bridge where the father stopped the car, then threw his four-year-old daughter to her death but kept his two sons safe.

There are no fractured short lines suggestive of a disordered mind: rather the long lines emphasis the journey. They also lay out, clear-eyed, that, despite the heat, pressure, and frustration about not being able to reach a goal, there was room to make choices, time to inhibit the sequence of actions that arose from angry, rigid thinking. The play on the meaning of “what’s given” evokes the father’s entitled and vengeful thinking but it also devastatingly underlines that actions have consequences that cannot be taken back.

The poem suspends the girl above the water in lines that hold the callousness of his action, while evoking an almost angelic presence which sings her mortality and her terror as she falls:

and pulls into traffic made lighter and brighter because of the

girl high above water

 

airborne, her bones winging and singing, the fear of her

swimming high above water                (57)

The poem ends with a feminist reworking of Dylan Thomas’s filial pleas to his dying father from “Do not go gentle into that good night”. In a reversal of gender and generation, the poem is an impassioned call to protect ‘every mother’s daughter’:

… Given what men do, rage, rage, against the

steps

the dying of the light across the water, the murder of the night

in every mother’s daughter.                (58)

The word “steps” occupies a whole line, emphasising that a series of decisions led to the tragedy.

The Non-Sequitur of Snow focuses on human relationships with an astute awareness of her sensing animal self and a paradoxical capacity to impart modes of apprehension beyond language.  Seemingly consistent with ecopoetics, Kocher’s sensibility imparts a spiritual awareness of her connection to place, an openness towards the radical otherness of other beings, and ultimately, a reverence for life.

 

Susan Fealy is a Melbourne poet who is widely published in literary journals, including the May 2016 Poetry (Chicago) issue focusing on Australian poets and poetry.

 

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