Coupling intellect and passion: Dominique Hecq reviews ‘First Blood’ by Natalie D-Napoleon

First Blood by Natalie D-Napoleon, Ginninderra Press, 2019

Blood, Earth, Sun, Dust

Natalie D-Napoleon is a writer, singer-songwriter and educator from Fremantle with an MA in Creative Writing currently working on her PhD. She came to prominence on the poetry scene when she won the 2018 Bruce Dawe Poetry Prize with ‘First Blood: A Sestina’. Also titled First Blood, her debut collection explores various histories—her own, her forebears’, and the wider histories of identity and place. D-Napoleon grew up on a farm on the outskirts of Perth worked by her Croatian-immigrant parents. Her childhood is embedded in that landscape, that culture, and the realisation that the world is much larger. The poems vividly render a girlhood and coming of age coloured by the experience of dislocation.

In this poetry collection comprising both crafted and found poems, D-Napoleon conveys that perception and self-awareness dictate what and how we become. She also interrogates instances of the annihilation of self by violent disruption. In this collection, gender and self are sharply drawn: the whole gendered self is enclosed by family and other intersecting symbolic worlds. This duality of self and other, is actually what defines the speaker of these poems. The heart of the book is the prize-winning sestina where the duality of self and other is played out on the scene of female sexuality, its inescapable blood-letting, cycles and tides:

But her body was not hers, a stitch
of animal, a pinch of dirt, a girl
is made of words plus liquid minus time
and what she does not have; blood,
defines her. Like an orchid
about to bloom she unfurls (34)

Here, as elsewhere in the book, where we encounter erasure poems, prose poems and even a cento, form espouses theme.

Location and dislocation, both personal/historical and political/ historical are central to these poems. There is a strong sense of loss, but grief is tempered by personal reclamation and by indignation at the losses inflicted on others. The poetry sweeps its subjects along in a flow of striking images and strong feelings, these buoyed by an intelligent sense of poetic structure and modulated by an often-ironic gaze.

Most striking is how Natalie D-Napoleon organises her poems by oppositions and creates a third way of apprehending the world. Sometimes her protagonists are grouped contrastively—black-white (‘Black Swan’), inside-outside, male-female, mother-daughter (‘Questions’, ‘Short Skirts’, ‘Your Mother Says it Was the Books’), coloniser-colonised (‘Definitions’, ‘Zemlja’) art-nature (‘You Say Poetry is Dead’). Sometimes words are arranged in meaningful constellations—the variations rung on plants cultivated or wild, seedlings and roots and tendrils entwined in a person’s life history (‘First Blood’, ‘The Peppermint Tree’, ‘A Kind of Breaking’) or the broader History (‘Carrots’, ‘How to Make Sand’).

Yet always the eye refocuses on the I of the narrative persona. Poems such as ‘Stories and Sand’, ‘The Mouth is a Door’ and indeed, ‘Black Swan’ links a girl’s life story with that of a national inheritance, thus producing a unique herstory. And so, the poet circles issues of race and gender and definitions of sexuality. She deconstructs and reconstructs her rural Western Australian childhood. She paints her girlhood with sun, rust, blood, dust. Like fine grade sandpaper, the surface of her canvas is slightly abrasive. This enhances pigment adhesion. The result is sensuous and sensual.

To illustrate my point, I want to quote from ‘Black Swan’, a poem which stages an encounter between the human and animal worlds. Witness how opposites merge. How bird and woman become one:

… Fists full
of sand pour into the lake
but there is no ceremony,
only the low din and vibration
of con-struction/de-struction.
I remain the good wife;
I whistle to my cygnets,
I flap my wings three times,
honk and hiss at the
golden demon –

In this poem polarities are intertwined and the tension between the two forces of ‘con-struction/de-struction’, harmony and disharmony, balance and imbalance, which the creative experience embodies, is recognised and given expression in the poetic articulation. This is enhanced by the intermingling of Australian English, Latin and Noongar language at key points in the piece.

Extracting or abstracting possible oppositions from a book of poems would result in imposing structure where there is fluidity and flow. It would deplete the poems from their life. Their fire and breath. This is what the speaker ardently conveys in an argument with some unnamed listener in ‘You Say Poetry is Dead’ (59-60):

The body itself is a poem, a building, a machine
look around: touch, move, breathe,
can you not see? (60)

Natalie D-Napoleon’s poetic voice is determined to identify itself as a woman. It is intent on coupling intellect and passion. Here, imaginative detours are grounded. They are grounded in the body’s natural processes and rhythms, in the land and its weather, in culture and history, and in work.
First Blood illuminates, enthrals and moves. It deserves to be savoured.

Dominique Hecq

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Dominique Hecq grew up in the French-speaking part of Belgium. She now lives in Melbourne. She has written across genres and disciplines, including literature, critical theory, pedagogy and psychoanalysis. Her creative works include a novel, three collections of stories and eight books of poetry. After Cage (2019) is her latest publication. Among other awards, Hecq is a recipient of the 2018 International Best Poets Prize.

First Blood  is available from https://www.ginninderrapress.com.au/store.php?product/page/2006/Natalie+D-Napoleon+%2F+First+Blood
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