Weaving Nests with Smoke and Stone by Gina Mercer, Walleah Press (2015), was launched at the Hobart Bookshop, 25 November 2015, by Anne Morgan.
Even the title of this work, Weaving Nests with Smoke and Stone, sings. Gina Mercer’s whole collection sings. Like the eloquent title, the cover design by Lynda Warner gives you a frisson. Look at its photograph of a nest woven from grassy fibres, moss, feathers, horse hair, sheep’s wool and the secretions of spiders. The nest contains, not an egg, but a stone. Many more surprises await you in Gina’s collection of eco-poetry. This is a book of poetic surprises, a work to cherish, a present you will want to buy for yourself, and for others.
Gina has gone fossicking for inspiration through the landscapes of Tasmania, Far North Queensland, the karri forests of southern WA, the Blue Mountains, and Melbourne, for these poems. Having assembled her materials, she has seasoned her observations, emotions, insights and metaphors with the smoke of human existence and spun them into a collection which is as memorable and eclectic as the treasures in a bowerbird’s nest.
Weaving Nests with Smoke and Stone is the work of a skilled, inspired and mature poet, whose work illuminates, never obscures. From small natural wonders in suburbia to majestic expanses of mountains and ocean, Gina’s graceful and economical voice sings nature, and humanity, and the intersections between them, in pitch-perfect images, rhythms and tone. As poet Lyn Reeves so eloquently writes in her encomium: ‘Gina Mercer’s poems are a delectable feast. Roll her words on your tongue. Savour their sound. The delicious and satisfying feel of them in your mouth’.
In this bowerbird collection you will find treasures ranging from small haiku-like poems to prose poems, to works which are complex, profound and challenging. Gina’s poems sing marigolds, nasturtiums, rhododendrons and jonquils, fallen plums plundered by a fat waddling blackbird, the plurality of little brown birds, as well as majestic expanses of mountains and ocean. She sings frog song alongside the gnawing drawl of buzz-saws and angle-grinders. She sings weather and time, the songlines of birds, soundscapes of sliding light, the zinging air, the taste of citrus, paperbark trees, eucalypts and Tristania, raptors and raucous parrots in vivid plumage. She conjures intriguing metaphors: the ‘spider of affection’; ‘the sleek otter of sleep’; the wheeling ‘hawks of doubt’.
The last common ancestor of birds and humans lived more than 300 million years ago, yet humans and birds can be considered examples of parallel evolution. Like us, birds communicate using body language, calls and song. They flirt and mate, sometimes for life, sometimes not. They build homes and often share nesting duties. Like us, they can steal, squabble, and wage territorial battles. Some hunt in teams. Solve problems. Make tools. They lay down long-term memories, caching food, managing their time through the day, over seasons. They exhibit complex emotions, from joy to grief. They have advanced visual and navigational abilities. Their frail bodies belie their robustness. But most bird species have one super-power which most of us here would envy. Their ability to soar with their own bodies. To swoop, hover and glide. To air dance ‒ which is exactly what Gina’s poems do.
In this collection Gina gives us bird-like people and human-like birds. ‘We chat like lorikeets’ she writes. Silver gulls form commuter streams. Pacific gulls wear pink ‘lipstick’ on their saffron beaks. Birds are performers, acrobats and ballet dancers. They perform pirouettes and arias. They are also ‘ancient restoratives’. Their calls ‘renovate our beige-busy days’. A woman who walks constantly has feet as ‘resilient as elderly sparrows’. Rosellas perform ‘the laws of aerodynamics and propulsion’, thereby becoming ‘the brilliant red and blue arrows so beloved of physics teachers’.
The ochre of Australian landscapes is pounded, mixed and stirred with an array of emotions. There is the joie de vivre of a mother-daughter rain dance. Poems of tender love. Poems infused by compassion or gentle irony. Her poems are playful and funny and occasionally savage. There are poems of grief and loss. Birds, to Gina, are companions and consolers. They can also be totems. Birds have long been thought to be harbingers of death in most human mythologies, and to carry the souls of the dead. In ‘Messenger?’ Gina writes of a visitation from a masked owl: ‘on hissing wings/ she circles thrice/ our bright-lit rooms –/ two weeks after your death’. The final poem of the collection, ‘After, there are the birds’, is an elegy to her sister. It may haunt you forever. Be sure to read to the end.
Because a book launch is a joyous occasion, I am going to read you ‘Tell us about Old Joe, the Galah’, not because it is representative of this collection (it’s not), but because it’s brilliant and hilarious, and we are in a celebratory mood this evening:
Well, old Joe, ’e was quite the meanest bird I ever knew. We saved ’im from a nest. The bloody ants ’ad eaten all the other nestlings. ’Orrible sight. Anyway, I know you science types don’t go much on birds ’aving their own personalities but old Joe, ’e was a mean bastard from the get-go. And bloody clever. Pretty quick smart, ’e learned to whistle the dog, sounded exactly like Dad’s whistle. And I mean, identical, bloody impeccable. So, the bird would whistle the dog, the mutt’d come lolloping over to the cage, all slobber and tongue and dumb enthusiasm. Joe’d hold out his biscuit through the wire, offer it to the fool animal. Well, what hungry farm dog can say no to a biscuit at the end of the day?
Soon as the dog’s face got close, eyes fixed on that biscuit, Joe’d go for it. ’E’d peck the bejesus out of the dog’s nose, mouth, eyes, any part of the poor bloody mutt ’e could reach. Talk about vicious. The dog’d be yelpin’, trying to pull away but old Joe, no way was ’e gunna let go. And you know how strong a parrot’s beak is? Well, let’s just say, them beaks, they’re designed to crack tough nuts. You can imagine what one of those bastards can do when applied, vicious-like, to a dog’s mouth. I tell you, it was on for young and old. The dog’d be yelping, Joe’d be hangin’ on, and Dad’d come runnin’ full pelt across the yard yellin’ blue murder, all us kids followin’. Complete bloody circus. Finally we’d drag the miserable mutt away, take ’im in for mum to patch up a bit.
Then Dad’d ’ave a good yell at Joe, curse ’im from ’ere to Sunday. And Joe? Well, ’e’d bung it on, lookin’ all downhearted, hunchin’ himself up in the corner as if ’e were the one hardly done by. Then ’e’d call out, “Joe wants a biscuit”. Course, Dad always said “No bloody way” to that, after all this malarkey. What do you reckon Joe’d do then? Well, ’e’d empty ’is water tin, stick ’is head inside, and cough. Why? Why do you reckon? Yep, you guessed it, the empty tin amplified the sound. Ever heard a galah coughing inside a tin? I can tell you, it sounds bloody dire, as if the bird’s at death’s door. I don’t know how ’e knew about amplification but as sure as my name is Bluey, that bird knew exactly what ’e was doing. Worked every time. One of us kids would feel right sorry for the bastard bird. We’d wait til Dad was off on the tractor, sneak by and drop a biscuit in Joe’s cage, fill his tin. It was ’ot out there, couldn’t leave ’im without water, could we? Then the stage’d be set for the whole bloody show to go again. Yeah, old Joe, he was one mean bastard of a bird, right from the get-go. But smart, bloody smart, you gotta give ’im that.
If you don’t know Gina already, you will glean from her writing that she is a woman of many facets and talents. She is a poet and writer of prose, an academic, an editor and teacher of writing. In her biographical note at the end of Weaving Nests with Smoke and Stone, she writes that she is ‘currently revelling in Tasmania’. As we launch her latest poetry collection on its fledgling flight, we hope it is greeted with flocks of critical acclaim. On behalf of Tasmania’s community of readers and writers, I would like to conclude by saying that Tasmania is revelling in Gina Mercer.
– Anne Morgan
Anne Morgan is a genre-hopping writer based on Bruny Island, Tasmania. She has a PhD in Writing, for which she won a university medal, and has been published in Best Australian Poems. Her poetry collection, A Reckless Descent from Eternity, was published in 2009. She is the poetry editor of the beautiful cross-arts anthology, BIRDSONG: A Celebration of Bruny Island Birds. She writes the Captain Clawbeak junior novel series published by Random House Australia, among other children’s books. She is a past winner of the Environment Children’s Book of the Year and is looking forward to the publication of her next picture book, The Moonlight Bird and the Grolken.
Weaving Nests with Smoke and Stone is available from http://store.walleahpress.com.au/Gina-Mercer–Weaving-nests-with-smoke-and-stone_p_71.html