Fluid and shifts: Gail Hennessy launches ‘Knitting Mangrove Roots’ by Kerri Shying

Gail Hennessy launched Knitting Mangrove Roots by Kerri Shying at the  Markwell Poet’s Picnic on 22 December 2019.

Kerri Shying reading at the launch of Knitting Mangrove Roots.

I’m delighted to be launching Kerri Shying’s ‘Knitting Mangrove Roots’ as I’ve long admired her work. I’d like to begin with a quote from the Irish poet Michael Longely who described poetry as “A complex complicated response to the total experience of living” which I think is as good as any description of Kerri Shying’s poetry.

This is Shying’s third book of poetry to be published in three years with her fourth Know Your Country to be released next year. A proud woman with Chinese and Wiradjuri background, her family roots are integral to her work.

Knitting Mangrove Roots, with its explorations of love and loss on both a personal and universal level, brims with the energy of her earlier works. The threat endured by women and the ecological threat to the planet are intertwined with the fight for autonomy from the debilitation of illness and form a framework for the unfolding of the narrative. Sustenance comes from many sources including her connection to the sensory world and her relationships with her animal friends.

The writing is marked by irony, dark humour, social commentary and by its unique syntax and form.

As in her chapbook Elevensies Shying has used 11 lines for each poem with the middle line acting as a pivot and the title of each poem. It can be read in the Contents page as a poem in itself and a unique way of adding unity.

Knitting Mangrove Roots is a fitting title for the work. The mangrove with its tangled roots that grow above ground forms a dense thicket. Its root system maintains water quality and clarity, filtering pollutants and trapping sediments originating from the land. The three sections of the work – The roots, The ground and The tide – recall the life cycle of the mangrove tree and its connective and protective importance to the environment.

It is a vital part of our ecological system in the same way the voice of the poet is a positive strength in the world: as nurturer and protector.

Shying invites us into her life as the former wife of a drug dealer, familiar with guns and violence, and what it is like to live between the worlds of respectability and the underworld of the criminal. At the same time, she blurs the line between the transactions of the criminal and the corporate exploiter.

Menace stalks the narrative where events and characters are lightly sketched and called to mind in a few deft lines. These rub up against media characters, from serial killer of women, Ted Bundy, Nancy Reagan with her slogan on drug prevention ‘just say no’, to AC/DC frontman Bon Scott who she dreams of tattooing on her arse.

The infatuation with a gangster husband ‘whose paying his barrister in paintings’ is set against the cops who bash the boys in a demo involving University students. The narrator’s mother sees her daughter arrested on SBS late night news, and her dreams of drug dealers and serial killers is punctuated by the statement:

I was a minute away from shooting my husband.

Knitting Mangrove Roots is also a record of the author’s triumph over and sometime faltering relationship with physical pain.

The opening poem sets the scene:

I am this foundobjectnot alone
in bed….climbing frame
of catswarm scentedsleeper cave
of dogswho taken from their mothers
make do the best they can
……………………today I change my pain patch
Netflix pours Ted Bundy like honey…..on the toast
of women’s bodies……………..kitten
ransacks the dressing tableand I long
for order and all this
to juststay still

That fulcrum, sixth line

today I change my pain patch

points to the way pain in its different forms will pervade the memoir. But all is fluid and the shifts in the narrative echo the rise and fall of the tides that wash through the steadfast mangrove roots.

The poet is protector at the same time as her animals offer protection. The mangrove roots help protect the land in the way each species depends on its interaction with another. Throughout the collection, the personal is mixed with the political and the social issue of global warming is noted in concrete examples, as in this graphic imagery:

that’s what you get for a summer that goes for
three quarters of the year but isn’t global warming
outside the dawn light catchesa loquat flowering
for the third timeit’s June..twenty six degrees to
ten in twelve hours..and I’m getting used to this

There are also the subtle links which give a sense of continuity to the text, honey from the bees, a flower, the harp seal that burns my heart, the motif of verbena, a herb of purification appears three times and its purifying ability breathes through the text. The link between patient and doctor/professor is beautifully suggested in just four lines with the determination to let the positive outweigh the negative:

exhausted..by surveillancethe mast cells
known by name…..seeing the professor
more often than my mumwe chart
the good..we note the rest

Often a poem will take your breath away, jolt you with a sense of the natural world. To engage with Kerri Shying‘s poetry is a rewarding challenge. There is much to savour in this book and to read it is a rich reward. For example, this jewel of a poem:

I much prefer this….nights at home
no stumbling….on the wardsthe rain
tangoon the warm tin roof…..cats
alert to someonetoo forlornafter
midnight they make themselves
a buttress pressed against the flanks
aligning their soft breathing….lung to lung
this large bed….alivewith concentration
I am soothedto fallat first light off
against the odds..and waking find
the pain has softened into fur

What I admire most about this book is its engagement with the subject of pain and loss without bitterness or anger and without one iota of sentimentality combined with its muscularity. I would like to end with another line from Shying:

where all the winning lines are born
and flowers die.girl brains mean nothing

Kerry Shying’s writing is full of ‘winning lines’ and demonstrates that girls brains certainly mean a great deal.

 – Gail Hennessy

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Gail Hennessy has been published in newspapers, literary supplements, journals and anthologies. Her poetry has won local and national prizes. In 2009 her collection, Witnessing, brought many of these published poems together with new poetry. Her second collection Written on Water was published in 2017 by Flying Island Books, followed by The M Word, Girls on Key, 2019.

Knitting Mangrove Roots is available from https://flyingisland.org/purchase/