An Acute Aesthetic Sensibility: Alex Skovron launches ‘Flute of Milk’ by Susan Fealy

Flute of Milk by Susan Fealy, UWAP 2017, was launched by Alex Skovron at Collected Works Bookshop on 16 March 2017.

Susan Fealy at the launch of Flute of Milk. Photo by Richard Mudford.

It was near enough to a decade ago that one Susan Fealy materialized on the Melbourne literary scene as if out of nowhere – or so it seems in retrospect, and so it appeared to me at the time. She had written a searching response to my then recently published novella, The Poet, and this led to an exchange of emails and our first meeting. We began to cross paths at poetry readings, and I soon discovered that Susan loved to write long but interesting emails packed with her musings and reflections on matters literary, artistic, or otherwise noteworthy. As time went on, these emails, and our conversations whenever we met up, gradually revealed to me a person who thought hard about language, art, ideas, the natural world; a serious, passionate reader who probed deeply into whatever text was before her or whatever notion was exercising her mind.

These characteristics are richly mirrored in Susan Fealy’s poetry. I believe that Flute of Milk is a very strong first collection. It has certainly been a while coming, and this has worked much to its advantage. Because Susan has been patient and unrushed, fine-tuning her work with meticulous care at every opportunity. The result is the volume we’re launching here today: an accomplished and impressive book of poems.

Where to begin? Let me venture to say, first of all, that close observation is one hallmark of this collection, and that (if I may put it this way) the author’s poetic lens is focused on discerning the molecules of experience as mediated by memory, intellect, and an acute aesthetic sensibility. Memory, in one guise or another, is a driving force in many of the poems – the fulcrum on which the innocence of seeing, and the experience of being and feeling, are balanced.

The title-poem, appearing right near the start of the book, opens with a radiant still-life description of a dairy, but soon modulates into the poet’s first-person voice, and then this:

Memory prefers to hold things still,
but the past, present and future
are a long flute of milk.  [16]

With this all-important image suddenly illuminated and transformed, the poem pauses to ‘hold still’ for a moment one such precious memory, before flowing forward and into its beautifully rendered conclusion – which I must let you discover for yourselves. From there, the book just builds in authority as we read.

Before long we encounter a cluster of poems beginning with ‘What Memory is Like’ [26] and opening onto two evocative backward glances into childhood: the prose-poem ‘Black on the Tongue’ – ‘It was hot. I was ten. My towel knotted my waist …’ [28] – and the lyrical music of ‘A Measure of Flying’, where the poet recalls: ‘The ironbark fringed the sky and scribbled our pool with leaves. / In summer we dived down, determined to rescue the blue.’ [29]

A major and much-recurring motif throughout Susan’s poetry is her abiding concern
with colour. It makes almost countless appearances – from a casually instructive ‘A Confluence of Blues’ [18], with its vivid, disarming closure; to its role as a touchstone in an extraordinary elegy addressed to the late Peter Steele, titled ‘Faith is Green’ [24]. Indeed, reading this collection, I was constantly alert to the many tone-colours that shimmer across its pages. Some poems are themselves like a pellucid watercolour wash, others glisten with the harder texture of oils. In others again, silence (or the unspoken) becomes a colouring all of its own. Let me quote in full one short, chromatic poem, ‘Intimidations’ – but watch how the poet steps through several shades of red to attain a consummation at once joyful and ambiguous:

Each dawn has been a clotted pink;
…………………………………….the clouds, almost a red, infuse
unlikely ink into the sky. Camellias
climb in crimson confusion over fencelines,

And prunus plums arrange their frozen stars
as if auditioning them for small parts
……………………………………………in a Sisley or Corot.
My iceberg had the audacity to bloom pink,
…………………………………………………and still I can sing away the spring.
………..  …………………………………………………………………………………..[22]

I think it would be fair to say that Susan’s poetic landscape is interspersed with both the colours and the shapes of the natural world. There are botanical tributes aplenty; various fruit assert their presence – in ‘Apple Days’, the apples ‘brood / large as infants’ heads / welcome as teenage breasts’ [33]; and birds are familiars that escort or accompany not a few of the poems – such as, in ‘Flight’, some ‘Doves, looking down– / like humans standing at a funeral’ [43]. Bees and sundry insects occasionally turn up as well. Listen to ‘The Striped Moth’, a poem set in the Melbourne Museum:

At 5 pm your wings will hang with shadow.
Now, they feed on light. Do you remember
tapping at the window, frantic as a tiny bell?
Or is your soul composed—a forest of shadows?

A tiger is latched in you: those eyes crouch
like stars and your pelt is stopped as a tinderbox.
A tree expands in the veins of your wings—
counts one night and half a dawn—signs off.  [58]

And as we read, we notice how objects too, natural or inanimate, artefacts of all kinds, are converted into talismans for the poet to scrutinize and then turn over in her imagination’s eye, examining them from every angle, prismatically, attentive to the intricacies and the wonders, to the ideas they represent. In ‘Sculpting into Mind’ she declares: ‘I love ephemeral things’, such as ‘fluff human dust / flotsam the quietest things / can speak’ [34] – things that might include a cloud, a stone, a bowl, or a box of words arranged in uneven rows on a page. ‘A Poem’, she explains,

is close
to a musical instrument.
It’s a place
to leave your fingers
and your lips.
A poem aches to be
a woodland flute
but is more a piano.
Some poems are conch shells,
familiar as bone
in your hands. A poem
gleams in arc-light–
sparks from atolls in the dark.  [35]

The spark for the book’s opening poem, ‘Made in Delft’ [15], can be traced to the gleam of oil on canvas. A prelude to the title-poem that follows next, it offers a vibrant ekphrastic response to The Milkmaid by Johannes Vermeer. Elsewhere, the porcelain bowls admired by the poet in ‘Southern Ice Porcelain’ strike her as ‘so perfect they must exist / in an alphabet of shape’, as they ‘wait / for the company of angels’ [68]. While on ‘The Wabi-sabi Storage Jar’, the subject of the facing poem, ‘Night kisses a mountain’ [69]. Earlier, in ‘Seeing the Pregnant Woman at Pompeii’ [41], nature’s deadly, unwitting artistry also makes an appearance – it’s a poem whose heart-rending empathy reaches back across twenty centuries.

Alex Skovron launching Susan Fealy’s Flute of Milk. Photo by Jennifer McKenzie.

The sense of a gathered, contemplative calm in many of the poems is counterpointed in others whose mood or trajectory can take us by surprise – whether in the didactic wittiness and whimsy of ‘How to Dive in Kelp Forest’ [32], or amid the situational surrealities of ‘Breast Imaging’ [48]; in the gentle but pointed humour of ‘Instructions for Weaning a Baby’ (‘Tell her its overrated’) [45], or the playful, not to say mischievous, mock-flirtation of ‘In the Formal Wear Shop’:

I’ll propose to him (I think)
let’s sail to Marrakesh,
unfurl the shirts,
cast into blue,
stain our souls
vermillion.  [20]

The poet as woman and mother takes us into different territory again. For instance, there is the intimate, arresting sonnet ‘Bringing You Home’ [44], with its rhymes so borderline they’re subliminal. And after trying to lift out two quotes from this next poem, I decided that it really needs to be heard as a whole. It’s the third frame (called ‘Nursery rime’) from the sequence ‘Frames for Better or Worse’:

You dawned like winter sunlight
pale gold on the walls. A glitter
edging my shut window. Translucent
as if you swallowed a morning star.
Your breath unsettles like dust
of gardens. Your fingers take root
in air. You are a cloud growing
flowers, a bird-house with wombsong
in your eyes. You, origami child:
now sleep refolds your baby mask.  [51]

As the focus moves in and out of larger themes embracing relationship, love and death, we come upon edgier or bittersweet moments. Quite early in the book, a monologue titled ‘In Lieu of a Statue’, sparked by a novel of Marilynne Robinson, meditates on an absent mother:

My grandmother used to say
close your eyes, remember how she was.
But the space against my lids
is flat and black as the sky.  [23]

Much later another poem, ‘In the Cemetery’, begins:

Graves tread
oblong shadows
on the silvered path—
primitive dominoes  [54]

And at the other end of the scale, as it were, the deftly poised ‘We Outgrow Love like Other Things’ employs funereal tropes to bid farewell to an ended relationship:

When I wake, the sun
scrims the tree and the sky
pours out its clear blue.
Glitter of morning.
I will bury you with champagne
and two glasses.  [52]

Technical skill, craftsmanship and a steadfast concern for language are evident throughout this versatile collection – language that can startle and delight without trying to be showy. Susan is prepared to experiment with line, layout, punctuation and form, to construct a range of vehicles for the shifting rhythms, modes and melodies that animate her poetry: we are offered couplets and quatrains, sonnets and free verse, prose-poems, epigrammatic miniatures, linked sequences – and a villanelle, ‘Metamorphosis’ [56], where she riffs on crows and jackdaws, cathedral-birds and Kafka, with a dose of Czech etymology thrown in!

Kafka is far from alone – despite (if I may digress) what all the mythmakers would have us believe about him! Anyway, a variety of familiar names make cameo appearances throughout Flute of Milk, scattered among the poems and epigraphs, or unmasked in the endnotes at the back of the book. We catch glimpses of Adamson and Albiston, Banville and Baudelaire, Chagall, Dickinson and Glück (that’s Louise not Christoph Willibald), not to mention MacLeish, Matisse and Whiteley. This poet is ever-receptive to the inspiration of other writers and artists.

To sum up, then, with a somewhat broader brush: I think that at the heart of Susan Fealy’s poetic there dwells a passionate capacity, a need, to observe, to penetrate – to weigh on the scales of language – the sights and sensations, the thoughts and feelings, that colour our days and can reaffirm or reset who we are. A keen, imaginative questioning hovers about these pages: an interrogative disposition that is often implicit rather than expressed (implicit, although phrases introduced with ‘why’, ‘what’, ‘how’ or ‘how to’ occur perhaps twenty times across the poems). Now and then, this coincides with a deceptively offhanded tone, or a rhetorical elision, where the poetic moment is magnetized by a refusal not to clip the syntax. Susan’s voice can be sprightly but composed, patient but pressing, inquisitive, earnest, affectionate. And under her original gaze, what is apprehended can risk becoming something stranger and richer.

To put it another way, there is a charged, sensuous exhilaration in her act of seeing, and a joy in the endless possibilities of language as a lens for that seeing – a glass for pinpointing and magnifying the diverse fragments that make up our world and can nourish our spirit. As she writes, a little cryptically, in ‘The Hope Stone’:

and the night seems small,
like an old boot
scuffed at the toe. As if
there could be another one.  [57]

And of course there is, there must be. Just around the edge of the poem. Just barely out of sight …

Susan is known and appreciated, by those of us who are acquainted with her, as a loyal, compassionate friend, and as a stalwart and active member of the Melbourne poetry community. She has attended innumerable Collected Works and other poetry events over the years, supporting her fellow-writers and celebrating their achievements. Well, tonight it’s her turn – and our turn to celebrate her achievement. So please raise your flutes of milk, or whatever else they contain, and let’s drink a toast to Susan, so that I can declare this remarkable vessel officially launched.

 — Alex Skovron

 ————————————————————————————————————–

Alex Skovron is the author of six collections of poetry and a prose novella. His numerous public readings include appearances in China, Serbia, India, Ireland and Macedonia. The Attic, a bilingual selection of his poetry translated into French, was published in 2013, a volume of Chinese translations is underway, and his novella
The Poet has been translated into Czech. His latest book, Towards the Equator: New
& Selected Poems
(2014), was shortlisted in the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards.
A collection of short stories,
The Man who Took to his Bed, is forthcoming from Puncher & Wattmann.

Flute of Milk is available from https://uwap.uwa.edu.au/products/flute-of-milk

Flute of Milk is available for review. Please go to the Book Notes page for details.