Free Logic by Rachael Briggs, University of Queensland Press, 2013.
In a recent radio interview English novelist, Zadie Smith, argued that book prizes are now “everything” to up-and-coming writers. A prize is ‘not some kind of cherry on the top,’ Smith explained, ‘it’s essential to getting noticed, to getting readers.’ Rachael Briggs can attest to this as several doors have opened for her—in the way of commissioned writing, teaching and judging opportunities—since she won the 2012 Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize for Free Logic, which was originally titled Cryptids of the Interior in manuscript form.
Thirty-one year old Briggs, who is US born but divides her time between Brisbane and Canberra where she is philosophy research fellow at both Griffith University and the Australian National University, also won the Val Vallis Award for Unpublished Poetry in 2011 for her suite of seven sonnets, ‘Tough Luck’, that form the third section of Free Logic. Only one poem (‘Singularity’) is acknowledged as being published in a journal prior to the publication of Free Logic. This seems quite remarkable on two levels: Free Logic is a 118-page collection and collections by other poets would require a succession of published works before any publishing house would consider reading their manuscript. I guess this is the beauty of having manuscript competitions because it fosters opportunity and egalitarianism.
According to the University of Queensland Press media release for Free Logic, ‘the Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize is recognised as the leading award for discovering the best new Australian poetry talent’. It is also a publication prize for first poetry collections.
The first collection is a fragile creature and Free Logic brings up a really interesting quandary for this reader. When compiling a manuscript do you include everything—or mostly everything—you have ever written thus far? Or do you only include those pieces that you believe will last and will provide a touchstone for your overall voice and preoccupations? Do you kill your darlings? Or do you nurture them? It is a very personal decision to make and only the poet concerned can make it.
What is evident though in Free Logic is that these pieces have been written over a length of time that includes adolescence and fledgling adulthood; as such this collection has the feel of a much younger writer than someone in their thirties. Throughout the collection Briggs has an incredibly angry voice that unfortunately echoes angst-ridden confessional and semi-confessional teenage poetry.
In every sense Free Logic is about navigation and finding a way through the world we live and love in. A sizeable landscape of identity and body politick (same sex and third gender), love and loss, surrealism and popular culture, as well as philosophy is charted throughout its pages. The collection is made up of nine sections that total 76 poems overall. Briggs treats these nine sections as individual suites and this brings a thoughtful touch to the collection that is admirable.
Free Logic begins with, ‘Twelve Love Stories’, that venture through one year of linked and seasonal narratives about love. Section two, ‘Solve for X and Y’, acts as a suite of micro stories that are both futuristic and surrealist. Here Briggs discusses private burdens often held within the body. This is best illustrated through the poem, ‘Minnow’:
Simone, always terrified of fish,
caught a pink minnow
in the deadfall of her stomach.
… To fling it out to sea,
said the doctor,
would require either a completed parental notification form or a judicial
…………bypass, in addition to an ultrasound and two counselling sessions
…………with a clinically-trained psychologist …
She leaves the doctor’s surgery with the fish still inside of her, punching ‘… it in the stomach, / but each morning, it failed to appear belly-up in the toilet bowl’. By the poem’s end the reader begins to understand the reasons for Simone’s misfortune:
When it reached the size of a largemouth bass,
the minnow swam for land,
with its fin, thin as the one
Simone has drawn through her mother.
Fish as subject matter appear elsewhere in Free Logic, making up one section or suite of poems, ‘Toothfish’, about the tale of a pet fish that reads a little like Finding Nemo and Godzilla with a (Tim) Burtonesque twist. Like the poem, ‘Minnow’, (above) not all is what it seems.
What is clear is that Briggs is a storyteller. A lot of the work is best suited to and written for performance poetry in mind. However it is the same sex love poems and gender poems that bring out the authenticity of Briggs’ voice. In the award-winning suite, ‘Tough Luck’, she explains: ‘I twist / the bandages around my chest—too tight— / can’t breathe—unwrap and start again // … I check the mirror. Half a man looks back’ (from ‘King for an Evening’).
Similarly in the poem, ‘Confessional’ from the ‘This Poem Is Not About You’ suite, Briggs explains: ‘Forget Rachael. I’d rather be Rae, or Ray: / a brass flourish that could announce anybody.’ Elsewhere within the ‘Tough Love’ suite Briggs discusses wearing a dress to a wedding and how it makes her feel like she is in drag (‘Thanks for Inviting Me’); and in a memory of herself as a young girl written in the third person she describes how, ‘she cracks her / knuckles, acting butch, but then, / she’s crying in the bathroom yet again’ (from ‘My Feet are Three Sizes Too Small’).
Free Logic ends with the poem, ‘Third Gender Roles’. The last three lines of the book encapsulate what is most pressing for Briggs and what are her major preoccupations: identity and exploration for what is most authentic to Briggs as an individual and as a poet:
Let’s do it. Let’s be anything
…………except the boy and (God forbid)
Overall, Free Logic does feel for this reader like two collections in one; as such it leaves the impression of being a little too corpulent. For a more intimate and rewarding read the work could have been separated into love and loss poems as one volume and fabulist pieces as another. But Zadie Smith is right, book prizes are “everything” now, and Rachael Briggs is sure to gain a lot of attention and readership through the publication of Free Logic.
– Libby Hart
Free Logic is available from http://www.uqp.uq.edu.au/book.aspx/1262/Free%20Logic
Libby Hart is the author of two books of poetry: Fresh News from the Arctic, which won the Anne Elder Award and was shortlisted for the Mary Gilmore Prize; and This Floating World, which was shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Awards and The Age Book of the Year Awards, and longlisted for the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards. This Floating World was also devised for stage and received the Shelton Lea Award. Her third collection, Wild, is forthcoming in 2014.
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