Diving In: Stevi-Lee Alver reviews ‘Conversations I’ve Never Had’ by Caitlin Maling

Conversations I’ve Never Had by Caitlin Maling, Fremantle Press 2015

conversations i've never had

Divided into four somewhat chronological sections Conversations I’ve Never Had—written from Perth, Houston and Cambridge—seems to anecdotally dance around the conversations Caitlin Maling has never had. With an observational and reflective tone, these conversations are left all but uttered.

Travel glorifies images of home: ‘I miss you sea-shallow with blue-sky flotilla / of surf-spray above the armada of adolescence’ (‘Homesickness Song’). With a sense of resentful nostalgia, homecomings shatter these notions: ‘Perth from above is a cockroach. / It sits there, brown and laconic’ (‘Holiday’); and:

I wish I had not flown 20 hours over
15 countries in darkness only to meet you
and the parts of self I left behind

(‘Back in Perth’)

The poem ‘Family Rule’ illustrates how interactions with place define and shape experience as well as the narrator’s struggle with the inadvertent nature of becoming, belonging and being:

Sometimes I miss the man I should’ve been
if I stayed under longer,
learnt the limits of my lungs.
In Houston now, the weed is storm-tangled
and I take puckered steps
among domestic debris,
into an ocean that doesn’t rage,

but every time I still wade out,
put my head down as far as it will go,
tell it to test me,
                        come on, test me.

Imagery of ocean, of being under the water and of holding one’s breath recur throughout the book, conveying a desire to escape. In instants of sudden movement, such as diving through air or deep down into water, the narrator momentarily flees and redefines herself. In ‘The path to the dam’ a young child puts her head underwater ‘for the first time, / past the warm spot, / swam deep, / it was so dark / and so cold, / there was no / way up.’ Then, in Donnelly River, 13’, we witness a teenager wishing ‘the water wasn’t water’ and when diving into ‘where the water’s only brown, like you’re inside amber’ she contemplates planting herself ‘among the weeds’ in an attempt to ‘let the bottom-dwellers refine me, skin-fleck by skin-fleck’. And in ‘Shark days’, while freediving with her father, she grips the reef, letting the current shake her as if the movement and force of the ocean can redefine or transform corporeality.

In ‘To Robert Thompson’, we witness a traumatised ten-year-old girl processing the murder of two-year-old James Bulger through, in a sense, becoming the toddler’s ten-year-old murderer Robert Thompson. She practises hardening her hands, picturing her little sister’s fingers ‘as prison bars I had to break’ and in envisioning the weight of the brick she develops ‘imaginary callouses.’ Again, in ‘Aftershock’ and ‘Gendericide’, Maling delicately deals with the impermanence of life and the loss of innocence with minimalistic ease.

Contradictory states of belonging are present; however, this complexity is only ever alluded to and never critically discussed, creating a conceptual reflection of the title, Conversations I’ve Never Had. What appears ineffable, for the narrator, is initially identified in ‘Donnelly River, 13’:

On the banks below, all my parents’ friends are on 2nd marriages,
3rd homes, and my divorced parents who are 4th and 5th generation
go back just as far as this country will let us.

The dialogue and specific language of ‘Pine’, a reminiscent poem of Christmas-tree hunting, probes belonging and is suggestive of Australia’s silent history:

my stepfather saying they aren’t natives
anyways, they are only there to be taken down,
you can’t thieve something that shouldn’t been
in the first place.

And, in part two:

Driving round the Donnelly we crest
among the jarrah to a massacre
of old-growth, pine saplings, creeping
with a tender hunger,

air sugar-thick as blood or toffee and silent

Textual gaps invite the reader to inject and decipher meaning, creating multiplicities of interpretation. The poem ‘Pine’ is followed by ‘After a girl goes missing’, which is difficult to read without the dialogue of the previous poem echoing in the background.

The poem ‘Leonora 2010’ exposes the prevalence of present day racism and segregation:

lady at the store tells me i’ll be fine
that those abos won’t bother me because
they know what will happen if they do                 &
they mainly stick amongst themselves anyway

at the pub I get directed to the side of the bar
where everybody looks like me                     but
with haircuts and jeans from the 1990s
these people smile and greet me like i’m
something lost  they’ve just found under a cupboard               &
after dinner someone offers to walk me home for protection

Here, the narrator embodies the danger of silence, of remaining silent under the pretence of keeping the peace and questions how she should react in such discriminatory instances. The inconsistent lack of capitalisation seems to signify moments of subjectification. Experiences of ‘subjectification’, ‘identity’ and ‘privilege’ appear to be implicitly understood yet profoundly perplexing, leading Maling to cautiously deconstruct them. ‘Leonora 2010’ is a display of racial partiality and draws our attention to conversations that must be had.

As we move through the pages, Maling moves through the years and her position, voice and style shifts, changes and matures. Nevertheless, in this collection place always shapes experience, and even in ‘Marriage’ intimacy is a coastline:

My husband holds me to him like a clam shell,
arms clenched like barnacles
to the jetty at Point Walter.

It’s 4 am and I can’t sleep.
He has settled his weight around me
sandbags keeping out the tide.

His ribcage on my back opens and
closes with a surety that forces
my breath with his.

‘Living waters’, in part three, laments the mining destruction of Pilbara’s underground creek system, describing Elders painting the Jila ‘for grandchildren who will never know the desert / and its waters.’ This poem reveals the source of the income used to purchase 1000-count linen and pictures to hang on the wall mentioned in ‘Family Rule’:

I’m sick now of recklessness and bravery.
I’ve found a warm bed,
enough money for 1000-count linens
and my pictures to hang on a wall
in this other country.

The paintings of the Jila capture a sudden transformation of nature and portray a helpless sense of being apart of, identifying with, and becoming defined by something destructive and toxic. The closing verse produces a violent juxtaposition and casts the narrator in an untrustworthy light:

These paintings map ways of remembrance
I can only ever trace the hollow of.
I will fly to Perth in the morning
with my husband’s desert-money
from minding metal solos that hold fuel
to push the ore-train screaming like a ghost of a serpent
through the Pilbara.

Wherever I fly in this land I’m thirsty.

These paintings contrast the singularity of the profit-driven mining industry against the plurality of its effects. Again, trains screaming through the Pilbara and the flight of aeroplanes are rapid movements and fleeting transitions accentuating the narrator’s desire to escape, to refine herself, to take control of becoming, belonging and being. In this debut collection, Maling’s poetry lives the conversations she’s never had.

– Stevi-Lee Alver


Stevi-Lee Alver has had her fiction, poetry, and reviews published across Australia and the United States. She enjoys collaborating with visual artists, six-word stories, wine and cooking. Her recently published chapbook, Cactus, is available from Rochford Street Press https://rochfordstreetpress.wordpress.com/rochford-street-press-titles/

Conversations I’ve Never Had is available from https://www.fremantlepress.com.au/products/conversations-i-ve-never-had

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