Unsettling voices with texture and cheekiness: Linda Adair reviews the first Slow Loris chapbook series

pinky swear by Claire Albrecht, Bibliophilic by Trisha Pender, Burning Between by Kait Fenwick, Elevensies by Kerri Shying. Published by Slow Loris, Newcastle 2018

The Slow Loris project is grounded in the land and the community which has spawned them, and declaratively so: ‘The Slow Loris series is produced and printed on Awabakal and Worimi land. We pay deep respect to elders past, present and future’. The recent second series of Slow Loris books prompts one to look back and acknowledge the achievement of the first series of Slow Loris poetry chapbooks.

David Musgrave of Puncher and Wattmann supported Chris Brown who wanted to produce local poets’ work and the fledgling imprint chapbook was born. Three of the four chapbooks published in September 2018 were first collections by local writers. The joke, of course, is that a slow loris is a small, nocturnal animal native to South and Southeast Asia, which is apparently poorly understood, mostly due to their slow movements and night-time activity. Sounds a bit like the proverbial poet and their midnight musings perhaps? Despite their disarmingly cute appearance, these mammals have a bite which packs a punch. The same could be said for poetry in the inaugural series.

I encountered the four books in a sidebar event of the 2019 Newcastle Writers Festival at Watts Gallery and it proved to be an unexpected highlight of the poetry program. Here were fresh, unsettling voices with texture and cheekiness, where mundane life was rendered adventurously, sometimes as if to shock a response, despite the pretty packaging of creamy textured artboard covers, emboss printed, and replete with (sometimes) colourfully stitched spines! The format was designed by one of the poets, Claire Albrecht a PhD candidate at the University of Newcastle who also runs the monthly Cuplet Poetry Night in Newcastle. Produced on an old-school printing press, as artefacts these slim volumes reference the hands-on industry that was the lifeblood of the once-steel-town, which is now self-consciously reimagining itself due in part to the university’s cultural programs and writing course.

pinky swear is Albrecht’s first book and it is by turns cheeky, incisive and self-deprecating in tone. The poet mulls over existential crises in a fragmented anxiety, manifested by the consumption of potato chips, cigarettes, chocolate and booze to present a disarming immediacy. Favouring haiku-inspired stanzas she considers the push and pull of what we consume and where we need to be, of what we dream of and what we give our attention to as in ‘On reading a book about mania while at a Japanese spa house in the blue mountains’:

this doesn’t fit right
I’m feeling very zen right now
I’ll sweat my salt

the premenstrual moon
backlights the ridge
into a sleeping face

the white of the gums
like that drive to Canberra
a catalyst

a quiet so embalming
so far from the rapids
of your mind, quite a contrast

cold chiascuro not so
black and white
lord, I’m very relaxed.

But this zen feeling does not last for long for Albrecht. A longer poem ‘annexiety’ peripatetically explores the personal and political, wallowing in the social media memes and the modern mores of pornography and playfully engagement with the fact that absolute power is absolutely corrupting:

anxiety is the millennial conditions, says a clickbait article I
think I read somewhere; as for my own tangles, well,
there are some parties you just shouldn’t go to.
I’m one gnarled shoot of a gnarly nervous system,

jacked up on caffeine-free cokes and celery and
clenching my teeth at that cunt of a waiter, who probably
had a panic attack five minutes ago. This basically
makes us sisters. ‘you aren’t lazy, you’re just terrified’

is the latest feel-good production of the meme machine, but
I can tel you right now, I’m definitely both – don’t pretend
They’re mutually exclusive. I can drop a potato chip
down the sleeve of my knitted jumper while I fear for

all our futures, eye off the vacuum for a month feeling petrified
of filling one. but what’s a bit of dust floating around? …

Trisha Pender is an academic employed at the University of Newcastle and while Bibliophilic is her first chapbook of poetry, she has previously published two academic works, Early Modern Women’s Writing and the Rhetoric of Modesty (2012) and I’m Buffy and You’re History: Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Contemporary Feminism (2016). Bibliophilic toys with conventions and tropes.

Bibliophilic is erudite, funny and ready to take the micky with some of the holy cows of the English cannon such as Spencer’s Faerie Queen which becomes a non-dramatic monologue in ‘McEpic’:

Describe myself in one word
and it’d have to be gormless.
I’m not one of those guys
who go to the gym six times a week.
So picture this: a stripling
on a small and weedy beast.
You know the drill.
Borrowed gear, bloody armour, bad haircut.
I wasn’t the most impressive sight to put it mildly.
I could almost hear the coconuts.
But wear this shit for more than a week
And you start to take on the mantle.
Know what I mean?
So they give me a girl, an ass, and a riddle.
Which one of these is more useless – you tell me.

Kait Fenwick is another PhD candidate at the University of Newcastle and their first book Burning Between is an elegant and evocative insight into of a life which resists the dominant binary opposition of identity.

The first poem in the book, ‘I have consciously put off watching Nanette’, discusses a signpost of popular, marginal culture and takes the reader into that vulnerable subjectivity immediately:

.

Call it ignoring the hype

Call it rejecting my mother’s glowing recommendation.

Call it knowing

Knowing it would touch you in ways you did not want to be touched.

Call it knowing it would speak to

those recesses in your brain that you push down
and fold over and over and over again until
they become such far removed nothingness
that you could not possibly unearth them.

Call it having your heart caressed while being
Simultaneously kicked in the guts.

Call it unlearning.

The voice of the poem calls the reader in, inviting them to take a point of view seldom before shared. This calling voice is defiant, integrated yet unsettlingly disruptive in the imagery it suggests of the spaces and folds between the synapses and dendrites, of the cortex of a human brain that has learned to question itself and its sense of self whilst having none of this aphasia of being.

‘Pub Grab’ quietly critiques the power relationships of day to day working life in hospitality and the insidious objectification of bodies of whatever identity. ‘I can’t be near you’ problematises the nexus of human intimacy and technology. Desire here is mediated and translated via, and experienced in, the social web and questions the distance of subjects deploying FB or other messages in the midst of lived affairs.

‘Ambivalence Can Ruin Your Life’ considers the semiotics of being, of identity and the need for recognition and assurance which everyone craves in the personal life. It does it in robust imagery:

Tattooing a Holzer truism
on your inner thigh
doesn’t make it valid.

Sure,
you’ll stain the flesh but ink only seals
into the second epidermal layer

How do I etch it on my heart?
Mapped bodies drape
like protest banner
over this city

We’ve all got
something to say
but are seemingly
searching for someone
who speaks the
same tongue.

‘Archetypal’ conversationally problematises sexual and erotic difference, versus the dominant scopophilia of the (phallocentric) porn industry. ending with the cracking lines:

mise en scene after mise en scene
curated for a gaze that isn’t mine.

‘Burning Between’ is the title poem more than half-way through the book but it pulls us through to empathise with:

 … your transsexual heart.

cradle mine.

Those recesses have not learnt
the power of between
the searing heights
of grey matter
the breadth of
never, ever
promise me
baby
you +
I 4ever

The distillation of passion, intellect and the shaping of identity via language are recurring themes but best captured in the imagery of ‘Oil Slick’;

I still play with oil and water in the sink when I wash our dishes
I relish knowing the two entities will never meet
& even when they’re siphoned out into the vast ocean
the oil sits on the surface
& suffocates the water below

As a collection, Burning Between is at times a challenging but always rewarding. It intimately articulates the difference between the binary opposites of notions of gender identities, siting the gap or fold or interplay  between presence and absence in subjectivity in real time and lived experience.  For this reviewer,  it happily contrasted a post-graduate colloquia, some 35 years ago, in the English Department of Sydney University  where feminist philosopher Dr Elizabeth Grosz outlined  Jacques Derrida’s notion of différance, building on Jacques Lacan’s rereading of Freud, and the Roland Barthes’ essay S/Z, to the attendees  suggesting fresh tools of potential critique of the-then-conservative English canon. It is pleasing to know that voices of différance are embedded inside the academy now.

Kerri Shying is the fourth poet in the inaugural Slow Loris series but unlike the above mentioned poets, she has had published a previous volumes of her poems, sing out when you want me, (Flying Islands/ASM/Cerberus Press) in 2018. Another significant difference is that she is not a member of the university community of postgraduates and academics.

Shying has developed, in consultation with Emeritus Professor Christopher Kelen, a form she calls Elevensies. A proud woman of Chinese and Wiradjuri family, Shying has self-consciously arrived at a fresh form which suits her concerns: explorations of day to day life, love, passion and loss, which is made lively by the wavering positionality this form affords the adventurous reader.

One feels there are always multiple entry points to these poems with 5 line stanzas hovering above and below the title which forms a fulcrum around which the reader may enter the poem.

you died……….you were the first
cucamelon……on the vine
my always…….memory
of everything
going right

once a year ….a fulfilled promise

unfailing……..hot pick spikes
arise…………….inside the
dinosaur strap leaves
bromeliads.green libraries
of the world

Each poem’s title is sutured into the middle of the poem (which subtly references the stitching by coloured threads of these slim, but rich, volumes) and each poem could be read top to bottom or in reverse and above all the first poem is almost a contents page sans numerals; a kind of thematic consistency is thus embedded at every level of this wonderful book. 

The first Slow Loris series was a powerful statement of exploration and identity, and a suitably appealing debut for an imprint drawing on Newcastle’s lively poetry scene.

 – Linda Adair.

 —————————————————–

Linda Adair is a writer and critic based in the Blue Mountains who is working on her first collection. She is an editor of Rochford Street Review and Rochford Press.

Slow Loris chapbooks are available from https://puncherandwattmann.com/ books/slow%20loris/

 

Rochford Street Review is free to browse and read at your pleasure. As an independent journal, which doesn’t receive funding from any government agency or institution, we rely on the generosity of our readers to be able to pay our writers and to meet our ongoing costs.

If you are in a position to do so please consider “paying’ the suggested sale price of Aust$10 for Issue 27. You will contributing to the future of Rochford Street Review and ensuring that our writers get at least a small contribution for their work.

.

…………………………………………………….Girls on Key advertisement