Knuckled by Fiona Wright. Giramondo Poets 2011.
First collections are always interesting. On one hand we have the scenario of the new poet bursting out of nowhere with a collection that takes everyone by surprise. On the other we have the poet who has already published extensively, whose poetic style is well known and who is offering up a collection of poems for our consideration. Fiona Wright’s first collection, Knuckled, falls very firmly into the second scenario.
Wright has been widely published in literary magazines and journals, both in Australia and overseas. She has been supported by the Australia Council in the form of an Emerging Writers’ Grant and has been mentored by a number of leading poets and supported by the Writing and Social Research Group at the University of Western Sydney.
As a result there was a sense of anticipation surrounding this first collection. Would an entire collection live up to the promise suggested by those individuals poems scattered through various journals? Would the grants represent money well spent? Fortunately, in this instance, the answer is yes.
There is a confidence to Knuckled which is rare in first collections. We quickly sense a poet at ease with words, confident enough with them to pare them down to their core, throwing away those words which don’t pull their weight, until we are left with little gems of poems where each word has an earned importance and where we sense that each line break has been carefully considered. In fact many of the poems in Knuckled, suggests an approach to poetry almost boarding on the traditional.
Wright’s collection is divided up into a number of distinct sections – each one defined by its subject matter. In the first section, ’West’, the urban and social landscape of western Sydney provides Wright with a rich tapestry. In ‘We drove to Auburn’ she adopts the voice of a middle class woman from Sydney’s North Shore who has been, no doubt, inspired by TV cooking shows:
“…googled Moroccan grocers, there wasn’t anything,
so I figured that Turkish would do… “
There is genuine surprise in the poem at the ‘difference’ between the two areas of Sydney: “I didn’t know it’s so economically challenged”, but that doesn’t prevent a comment on how much petrol had to be used to access the source of ethnic delicacies for her dinner party. This sense of ‘otherness’, of difference, between the world of the North Shore and that of Auburn is highlighted in the final lines:
I think my off-the-shoulder embarrassed them. It’s a long way
from Kirribilli. There was a Torture Rehabilitation Clinic
right next to the delicatessen.
The twelve poems which make up the third section, ‘Inheriting Colombo’ are, for me, a highlight of the collection. These poems combine the poet’s experience of Sri Lanka with those of her grandfather during World War II when the troopship he was on was diverted from Singapore to Colombo. Wright’s experience is shaped by the stories her grandfather has told her:
My grandfather’s tongue
……………long before his body
I have only these stories of his war.
There are images in these poems which connect the two experiences. While war was central to her grandfather’s experience, Wright also senses the proximity of war in the modern Colombo:
I can smell war in this city, sour.
……….The khaki jeeps creep through the bus queues.
A thin-fingered soldier
………..invites me to hold his riffle,
and calls me beautiful.
But there are also experiences here which are her own. In ‘Night’, for example, Wright’s use of language and her skillful use of line breaks and spacing lines across the page create some wonderful images:
The crevasses of language
……..I step outside and slip between,
snagged on their sharp edges
This is a raw and honest poem, highlighting the poet’s response to a landscape and culture very different to that of the urban Australian landscape in the first section.
This response to landscape is again highlighted in the poems about the flooded towns of the Snowy Mountains. In ‘Old Jindabyne: Flood’, the rising waters provide a ending to an old life, marking off a childhood that now lies buried below the water. There is a sense, however, that like memory, the buried past still lingers:
They say the soggy shadows of ourselves
………….still walk on the old roads,
………….stand in queues in banks,
………….buy groceries in plastic bags,…
Years later, as the waters retreat in drought, these memories emerge:
We see our old town excavate itself –
…………..and our younger wanders,
………….their corrosions and pockmarks
………….with the hard chemistry of time
‘Old Adaminaby: Drought’’
Knuckled is an impressive first collection from a confident poet who has shown she can combine a rich poetic sensibility with a mature understanding of form and structure. Her best poems sit confidently on the page, lines break not only driving the structure of the poem, but also using the white space almost like a minor work of art. I look forward to her next collection.
– Mark Roberts
Mark Roberts is a Sydney based writer and critic. He currently edits Rochford Street Review.
Nice to see you review this collection Mark. One thing I would think about though: the voice of the middle-class shopper you locate as a “Sydney North Shore” voice, but I would say Fiona’s use of voice is just as much a “Sutherland Shire”, or possibly a Western Suburbs aspirant voice, which she constrasts with the North Shore – so your point about her poetry setting up dialogue about differences among Sydney locales is spot-on.
I agree Adam – the voice is perhaps more aspirational than North Shore (though having said that…….). In the context of the poem reference is made to Kirribilli three times (“It’s a long way from Kirribilli”). BTW Auburn is one of my favourite areas of Sydney…..