The Herring Lass, Michelle Cahill, ARC Publications (2016), was launched by Tina Giannoukos at Collected Works Bookshop, Melbourne, on Friday 10 February 2017.
It’s a great honour to launch Michelle Cahill’s new poetry collection, The Herring Lass. Firstly, I’d like to thank Michelle for this honour. Secondly, launching this collection gives me the opportunity to speak of Michelle’s superb craftsmanship. With the publication of this collection, Michelle affirms her position as a consummate poet of extraordinary range and skill. She’s not only an acclaimed poet. She’s also an acclaimed fiction writer, essayist, and editor of the online Mascara Literary Review.
The Herring Lass burrows into history and ranges over the present. It is in some respects the apotheosis, or summit, of themes she has explored with tremendous insight in previous poetry collections. However, in The Herring Lass, her third full collection, she does so with renewed depth, skill, and complexity. The collection runs to 48 formal poems, including sonnets, which command our attention. Their tone is formal, elegant, and elegiac They can begin ekphrastically before turning inward, lending them both a public and a private quality. Throughout, Michelle’s lyric is confronting, as individual poems traffic in complex ideas. In this respect, the poems are exacting, intellectual, and unsettling. Her language is strong, uncompromising, and utterly beguiling. The collection is as much a major contribution to poetries concerned with the complex legacies of historical injustices and contemporary wrongs as it is to poetries concerned with beauty.
On her blog, Negative Capability, Michelle calls The Herring Lass “a collection themed on human and non-human animal migrations”. However, it’s the way these migrations are handled that renders The Herring Lass rich in its poetics and themes. We can take the image of the suggestively peripatetic and rather muscular figure on the cover, which is a beautiful image, a reproduction of an 1894 painting by the American painter, Homer Winslow, as a metaphor for Michelle’s circumnavigations in The Herring Lass. The collection’s title is also the title of the opening poem, “The Herring Lass”, an emblematic poem about the herring women who traipsed “from port to port”, chasing the herring, but hardly prospering. Throughout Michelle takes on various animal and human identities, awakening us to our shared destinies of suffering and loss. However, she also reminds us elliptically, elegantly, unwaveringly of imperialism’s injustices, gesturing in the final stanza of “The Herring Lass” to other migrations, other inequalities:
She stands by a trough in the dark, guttering cold.
Black hulls heel under press of lugsails, foremasts low.
They drift with shoals of migrant herring the sea returns.
Through the metaphor of the sea, Michelle repeatedly draws subtle links between geographic co-ordinates. In “Harbour”, she offers these lines of reflection:
He is not the sea’s signature, its memory of human
coal, its middle passage of linen, tobacco, gold.
When beckoned, he leaves the harbour quietly.
The traveller enters the bank to haunt the empty
creels, his seaweed hair. She hears a pipe rinsing
flagstones, Zambia’s swamps — all the drowned past.
T. S. Eliot has said that “no art is more stubbornly national than poetry” (Eliot, T.S. “The Social Function of Poetry.” On Poetry and Poets. Faber. London: 1957), but when a language with an imperialist past is also a lingua franca, we witness how a poet of Michelle’s skill can use it to great effect to critique injustice across time and space. Crossing intellectual, historical, and geographical space, as well as inner and outer geographies of self, The Herring Lass achieves that most extraordinary thing in a poetry that is as richly metaphorical and as well wrought as this, the attention to the ethical. Michelle sifts through the detritus of history and the debris of the present to interrogate injustice—animals hunted to extinction or near extinction, refugees abandoned to their fate, men or women seeking redemption. All this is in a beautifully wrought language that never overwhelms but underscores her themes. Listen to these lines from the first sonnet in “The Grieving Sonnets” sequence:
Autumn winds come biting over tribal meridians,
raking syllables of country, of forty thousand years
barred by intrusions. On the rabbit-quarried dunes
blood money is history’s hole, the lake is dredged.
Here in this gap, I flick a cigarette in the bone quiet.
If there’s memory in my veins the ants carve it over
my body, edgy for a fix, or a verse the wind runnels.
Her contemporary lyric, in which rapture and grief collide, is emblematic of a poetic consciousness alert to erasure, exclusion, and appropriation. If it is imperialism’s slave trade in “Harbour” then it is the plight of refugees in “Interlude”. In the latter poem, Michelle articulates a powerlessness in the face of the contemporary movements of people within the context of a series of escalating griefs:
Or I could mention the Rohingya Burmese father of four
…………………………..closing the door, in haste, unlocking
suitcases to scribble down the UNHCR-ID on the back
…………………………..of some food coupon, the sound of a hose
filling buckets of water for the day’s quota; his exquisite wife.
Above all, The Herring Lass is a superbly realised paean to the power of language to bring forth truth. In “The Edge of Empire”, we are confronted with the absurdity of walls: “But nothing could drive out the Barbarians”. Michelle deploys the world’s argot of pain, its vernaculars of interrogation, to meet head-on our collective traumas and complacencies. As one of her personas—or is it heteronyms?—says in Youth, by Josephine Jayshree Conrady”:
I spoke the argot of the navy: rosin, whale-oil,
cordage, hemp, windlass, hooks.
……………………………I caught the accents
of shore boat smugglers, spice traders,
I smelt the paraffin smoke of burning coal,
the bursting aromas of strange fruit, peppers,
the almond breath of slaves as we paddled
from our clipper to the shores of Mauritius.
Through her magnificent short story collection, Letter to Pessoa, Michelle’s interest in the early twentieth century Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa is now well established. Pessoa was famous for his assumptions of other identities, which he called heteronyms. As George Steiner has argued, “Pseudonym writing is not rare in literature or philosophy” (Steiner, George. “A Man of Many Parts”. Review. The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa. The Guardian. June 2, 2001), but Pessoa’s heteronyms are “something different and exceedingly strange”, inventing for each of his voices “a highly distinctive poetic idiom and technique, a complex biography …” and even “subtle interrelations and reciprocities of awareness”. In The Herring Lass, Michelle’s personas, human and animal, are so beautifully realized that they possess the affecting power of the heteronym, suppling a biography from the content of the poems themselves, if not history. In “Day of a Seal, 1820”, Michelle handles its subject matter eloquently, elegiacally, subtly sketching in the power dynamics of colonial-era seal killing. She does so in the fabulously realised voice of an animal Other, a seal:
A tall ship patrols the coast,
…………………………….the pelagic fish skirr.
I sniff the kelp and the bloodworms,
……………………………..mould into an eroded kerb
with a twist of neck, whisking as if
…………………….. ………hiding my fur is natural
…………………….. ………instinct for milk or man.
The chilling realisation of the voice of an animal Other not only in this poem but also in others is so well executed that Michelle moves us into the strange. However, her human persona poems also have their own affecting power. In Youth, by Josephine Jayshree Conrady”, of which I was just talking about before, the female speaker utters in sibylline tones: “Words scrabble. I piece them as a montage, / inlay after inlay.” Playfully heteronymic, Michelle’s articulation of injustice renders such persona poems powerful and resonant. In “Charles Dickens Weeps for his Last Childe”, a poem that quietly ironises colonial era’s notion of the antipodes as the ground of various European desires, her Dickens persona says:
Autumn with her rich unleaving of oak, elm and maple
measures my bleakness. For days the wind has refused to speak.
My youngest, Plorn, waits in the boarding house with his dog,
his armoury of rifles, revolvers, saddles and family portraits
which will decorate the saloon. But when the fiddler plays a shanty,
when the sails are unfurled, the anchor raised out of mud
that other world begins with its nautical discipline. So remote
from landfall or the idleness of London, strange things can happen.
While The Herring Lass deals in global disaffections, historical and contemporary, which at any rate embroil Australia, several poems specifically address the Australian context. The seal poem is one. Another is the whaling poem, “Twofold Bay, 1930”, where the speaker chillingly utters: “I can taste the words whiten / into thin milk of settler culture, bloodlines turnstiled.”. Yet another is the “Thylacine”. In the latter, the animal Other says, “Canine / feline / marsupial / carnivore — I confuzzled”, rendering the poem a metaphor for the puzzle of multiple cultural and linguistic identities. But the following utterance of the thylacine is suggestive of the violence that can be directed towards the Other, including the animal Other:
“ …………………………….All the deals and export licences
distempered me, a shy beast, affectionate by turns.
The palaeontologist knows economics cheated me,
a continent spread her legs to quarry the Tarkine frost.
Submerged beneath the musical tenor of her elegant, unswerving line, Michelle refocuses the lyrical as considered rather than ecstatic. Her lyric promotes an initially distancing effect, achieved through the utilisation often of the ekphrastic but turns elegiac, confronting. Her double-voiced lyric simultaneously enacts desire and grief. As she says in “How the Dusk Portions Time”:
So dusk emulsifies desire, or maybe it’s the reverse
— we are tenants of this periphrastic end. Office cubicles
half-lit, ladder the sky, turning their discretionary gaze
…………………….to what’s sketched by the carbon ink.
What ultimately makes The Herring Lass such a rewarding work is its multi-layering. The poems are a joy to read, to sound out. In the ekphrastic-like “Night Birds”, a flawlessly executed sonnet, like all the sonnets in the collection, including “The Grieving Sonnets” sequence, Michelle deploys emotion, difference, exile. Riffing on Mallarmé’s own poem about a white swan trapped in ice, she writes:
My body rivers over absent fields, where words rescue
or reduce me until I try to erase whiteness, her artefacts —
a snow-dusted angel of the lake, the symmetry of elms
undressing like brides in the night’s incomplete sentence.
This is a poet who loves language—an observation also made by Michael Sharkey reviewing her first collection, The Accidental Cage. There is no doubt that Michelle is the consummate poet, her metaphor making a structuring device through which she draws together disparate realities across time and space. Her dual attention to language, its beauties, and the archival, the legacies of imperialism, renders The Herring Lass a work of sophistication and commitment. This dual attention to language and politics makes the poems resonant and compelling. The attention to the rhythm of language and movement of thought unifies the collection at the level of form and content. A sharp intelligence, musically and linguistically, courses through the poems rendering them subtle, uncompromising, and beautiful. The concluding lines of “Windscape” remind us of the affecting power of her poems:
To be broken or to sing — which is our destiny? A bottle
jangles downhill, leaves scrape, watched by the psychic owl
as the wind’s curved reflexion pours into abstract fields.
In conclusion, The Herring Lass challenges the notion of discrete borders: historical, geographical, cultural, animal, human. It showcases Michelle’s lyric at its best. Through her poetic, the sensual music of her lines and the metaphorical richness of her poetry, she exposes all that is violent, imperialistic, and exclusionary. She conjoins ethics to poetry without didactism, remaining true to poetry’s provocations. She joins the global to the local. She is a world poet as much as a local one.
My heartfelt congratulations to Michelle on this wonderful collection. And I’m delighted to declare The Herring Lass launched.
– Tina Giannoukos
Tina Giannoukos has published two collections of poetry. Her most recent collection, Bull Days (ASP, 2016), was shortlisted in the Victorian Premiers Literary Awards 2017. She hold a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Melbourne.
The Herring Lass is available from https://www.arcpublications.co.uk/books/michelle-cahill-the-herring-lass-558