The Interplay of Tones and Images: Shane McCauley launches ‘Conversations I’ve Never Had’ by Caitlin Maling

Shane McCauley launched Caitlin Maling’s first colection, Conversations I’ve Never Had – Fremantle Press, at Fremantle’s New Edition Bookshop last Sunday (15 February 2015).

conversations i've never hadIt is an exhilarating occasion to recognise and welcome Caitlin Maling’s poetic talent and achievement consolidated in the form of this book, Conversations I’ve Never Had, published by Fremantle Press. Caitlin joins an already considerable flowering of diverse and sophisticated poetic accomplishments here in Western Australia. Perhaps something in the water supply is compelling more people to attempt this form of expression. Whatever the cause, the results of recent years are there for all to see and read, and are here today in the form of this finely produced collection.

Although Caitlin has been away studying in the United States, experience partly reflected in her book, the overwhelming impression it makes is of a sense of place, this place, WA. The English poet Craig Raine remarked that: “Poetry gets landscape and weather for its subjects; the novel gets boxing and tattooed women and sex.” I think the readers of Caitlin’s book will find that they discover far more than “landscape and weather”. Perhaps not the boxing.

For Caitlin, this place that she evokes is not so much the city (in the poem “Holiday” she says that “Perth from above is a cockroach” – I assume this is meant in the nicest possible way?) but the vast open spaces, the deserts, the mining towns, the sleepy holiday places – Cervantes, Leonora, the Pilbara, Donnelly River. Referring to the Pilbara, but applicable elsewhere too, the final line of the poem “Living Waters” states: “Wherever I fly in this land I’m thirsty.” The concluding poem of the book, “Directions”, is a catalogue of WA’s many far flung destinations, a lyrical and geographical tour de force.

Another major thematic strand of Conversations I’ve Never Had concerns the childhood, development and maturing of the writer herself, most expressively conjured up in the directly autobiographical pieces such as “Fourteen”, “Sixteen” and “Eighteen”. And also in the remarkable “generation why”, a sardonic and discomforting glimpse into the technology-saturated and influenced lives of the young, the compulsiveness of it all rendered in phrases such as “I can hear you screaming over email” and “my ringtone is in my blood”. Michael Schmidt, founder of Carcanet Press and author of the magisterial Lives of the Poets, said, 20 years ago, “There’s a huge premium attached to being a young poet. The critical culture has collapsed and been replaced by a fast-food one.” Perhaps as in poems such as “generation why”, younger poets must take on the dual roles of creator and critic.

Time does not allow for more than a brief mention of other stances, changes of voice, positioning, that are especially represented in the dramatic mythic-personae poems. Being a bit of a myth-freak myself, I was fascinated at how Caitlin could infuse or embed both her own preoccupations in the guises of Medea, Eurydice, Cassandra and others, refreshing the myths while leaving them fully recognisable through a kind of layering effect.

There are also poems written in or about the US. One of my favourites is “Terroir”, in which the ex-pat poet receives a bottle of Australian chardonnay. This uncorks, as it were, a flow of reminiscences (a la Proust) of working “south among the grapes” and how “my body is a calendar of such summers” and “Like wine we carry our terrain within us”. I suspect there will be more fine poems about the time in America, as recalled people and places are edited by memory to reveal their fuller significances.

There is a Bedouin form of poetry called the ghinnewa, and in reading about it recently in Lila Abu-Lughad’s Veiled Sentiments its underlying intentions reflected much of what Caitlin deals with, confronts and conveys, in Conversations I’ve Never Had. Abu-Lughad writes that “The ghinnawa is the poetry of personal sentiment. It is about feelings about situations and human relationships, often poignant. It is the poetry of intimacy. It is also a discourse of defiance.” For there is a tension in many of Caitlin’s poems that closely resembles a variety of anger, suppressed or channelled. Accessible as the language is, it partly camouflages much that is complex, and the reader’s experience will be enhanced as he/she deciphers something of this in the interplay of tones and images. There is certainly much to explore.

In closing, I should like to read a poem that is sort of an exception to the loose categories and themes previously mentioned, though it is emotionally related. This is not so much an inwardly directed poem, though it is that too, as an outward expression of a restrained and beautifully controlled empathy. It concerns the recent earthquakes in Christchurch and commemorates that the funeral of the first victim was for a baby. It is about this sad event, yes, but hints at broader musings on what used to be called the human condition, and what I think still is the human condition: birth, life, death. The poem is called “Aftershock”:

The skull of a nine-month old
is no harder than a rockmelon,
with wobbly fissures
that can only balance
momentarily on the atlas.
And this is all there is
To cradle all that potential.

An infant’s casket
differs from an adult’s
in that the wooden box
is heavier than what remains
of the body.
The weight of all that empty air
enough to suffocate
a church-full.

Did you know
the word for children’s teeth
is deciduous?
They are the leaves
of the mouth
that fall only at the beginning
of life’s second season.

After the earthquake
that small body,
in that white box,
had not had the time
to unfurl even one leaf.
And it’s hard to believe
it took so much to
destroy so little a thing.

It has been a great honour and privilege to be asked by Caitlin to launch Conversations I’ve Never Had, and, as may be inferred, I cannot speak too highly of it. I hope it finds many readers – and I happily declare it launched!

– Shane McCauley


Shane McCauley has had eight collections of poetry published, most recently The Drunken Elk (Sunline Press 2010) and Trickster (Walleah Press, 2015), as well as over a thousand poems in national and overseas journals. He was awarded the Max Harris Poetry Prize in 2008,and now enjoys conducting poetry workshops for the very talented OOTA Writers’ Group, of which Caitlin Maling is a member.

 Conversations I’ve Never Had is available from

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