The marrow of individual experience and disrupted heritage: Malcolm St Hill reviews ‘sing out when you want me’ by Kerri Shying

Sing out when you want me by Kerri Shying. Flying Islands Books 2017

Kerri Shying is an Australian poet of Chinese and Wiradjuri heritage whose first collection, sing out when you want me, is one of the bilingual editions in the Pocket Poets Series by Flying Island Books. While physically small (it can literally fit in your pocket), the collection runs to 101 pages with 30 poems and matching Chinese translations by Karen Kun. These poems reflect the lived experience and as Shying said in an interview with Writing NSW, “it completely came out of my experience as a mixed-race woman and an insider/outsider in all kinds of ways.” The collection plays this out in city, rural and suburban settings and speaks powerfully of both private and public hurts.

‘reprise/al’, the second poem in the collection, introduces the

hot voice
of the past

a potent force underpinning the work:

it has taken thirty years or more
for all the scrapes
the bruises….the tears
and rents in trust
to show

The past is often manifested in pain or sorrow, yet the speaker’s strength and the power in the telling shine through.

In ‘the Sisyphus of the scrapheap’ the speaker is pushing both a metaphoric and physical cart:

the sisyphus of the scrapheap I push
my little barrow….push….push….wheel

the daily squeal uphill…….all one level
once you get up the four punishing steps

at the front door this has potential
all thesisypheans think

pushing…….pushing on the handles
those blisters

Sisyphus, in Greek mythology, was punished by the gods and made to push a boulder to the top of a hill, which, just before reaching the peak would roll back down, repeating the process in perpetuity. The poem traces a physical struggle, the daily challenge of getting to the front door, and then shifts to indicate emotional vicissitudes: “today….full of empty promises”. The notion of the scrapheap, a term embedded in the speaker’s consciousness, is a reminder of marginalised status in its many guises.

The poem returns to where it had started: “I push my little barrow / push  push  wheel”. The repetition of “push”, emphasising effort, persistence and the inherent difficulty of the speaker’s task. There is a stunning rhythm in these first and last lines. Engine-like, faster at the end (the spaces between the words are shorter here), the tempo change signalling a rallying of spirit despite the odds.

The collection speaks, as Alison Whittaker has said of Indigenous poetry, “at the common wound of colonisation”. This wound is starkly drawn in ‘the possum people’. Possum skin cloaks were used by Aboriginal people of Australia’s south-east for both practical and ceremonial purposes. They represent a significant connection to lineage in contemporary culture: “always there / that warm spot  underneath / the stories”. The poem references the poisoning of Aboriginal people by European colonists:

the sculptors of the nation
using us a clay
dark brown skins
admixed with flour

flour and poison

The contrast between warmth and brutality is starkly drawn later in the poem: “a possum birth/ a flour life”.

‘titrate’ (a process of measuring the concentration of a chemical) provides a lens on the historical practices of assimilation, specifically the systematic removal by the State of children from their families during the Twentieth Century. It wasn’t until the 1997 Bringing Them Home report of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission that these practices were officially investigated and documented. As the opening of the poem states, “some kinds of vaccination / go unnoticed”. A debilitating legacy of intergenerational trauma remains, “stolen generation piles on generation” and more than twenty years on the effects of these practises still reverberate. The ending of the poem reflects that blinkered narratives and mainstream amnesia prevail: “history cleans the bones / they all come out / white as snow”.

There are hopeful and joyous moments in the collection too. ‘street swag’ describes an interaction between neighbours as they assess unwanted goods placed on the kerbside for collection by the local council. They “talk the talk / of gleaners by the road pile” as they discuss a doll house: “good kennel / for your little dog   he says”. It’s too big for the speaker to carry on her scooter and in a gesture of fellowship (as well as logistics) they decide to leave it. With “Christmas coming up / someone will grab it clean it up / glee on a stick”. As the speaker rides home:

the small dog one paw at the
controls one on my arm

faces to the sun
kindly smiling yes
to the street the other
lovers of the life
here in my town
swag

This image, recalling the back cover photograph of the poet holding her dog, is priceless.

‘long game’ starts with a wedding, a version of belonging defined by the strictures and expectations of marriage. Flashing forward to a vegetable garden, the speaker makes “space /  to plant the next row / of chard” and reflects on her journey from what appears to have been a naïve beginning:

what grows what heals
the trick of keeping going when you cannot
matches to
the other trick…..the trick

never looking
down

The garden is a salve, a symbol of metamorphosis and a stay against capsizing. There is a sense of arrival in this poem, of self-knowledge and a true belonging, albeit hard won.

The music and the rhythm in the collection are especially striking. The placement of words and line breaks, sometimes with subtle indents or extra spacing, focuses the attention and invites engagement at a fundamental level. Concluding lines, especially those of a single word, as in ‘street swag’ and ‘long game’ are perfectly tuned. The last line in ‘addict’ is ‘go’. It’s the reinforcement of a taunt by the speaker (to an addict partner) to “go cranky /  all you like”. It’s also a command to the partner to depart and a hint of self-talk, an exhalation, a letting go. Such endings ring out, the final notes of careful orchestration, lingering long after the poems conclude.

Shying drills into the marrow of individual experience and disrupted heritage, leaving the reader with a deep and humbling imprint. Flying Island presents a package with impeccable aesthetics, from the cover art of Mark Berryman, the printed page with mirrored translations and an appealing portability. While there is a measure of triumph here, it’s impermanent and wrought with great effort. There may be a place “inside the eye of any storm”, yet “there is no time  there is no eye   there / is a day   just the warm and not”.

Notes

  • Shying, Kerri. Interview by Sherry Landow. Writing NSW, 6 Jun. 2018, https://writingnsw.org.au/kerri-shying/
  • Whittaker, Alison. ‘Poetry Editorial.’ Rabbit a journal of nonfiction poetry, no. 21, 2017, p.6

 – Malcolm St Hill

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Malcolm St Hill lives in Newcastle and is a poet, reviewer and independent researcher. His reviews have appeared in Rochford Street Review, Porridge (UK) and Overland.

Sing out when you want me can be ordered from https://flyingisland.org/

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Cactus by Stevi-Lee Alver

Based in the Northern Rivers region of NSW, Stevi-Lee Alver has had her fiction, poetry, and reviews published across Australia and the United States. In 2014, while studying at the University of Massachusetts, she received the Class of 1940 Creative Writing Award for poetry. She was one of the winners of the 2014 Questions Writing Prize for her short-story ‘Phoenix’. She received the 2015 Southern Cross University award for Excellence in The Arts and has published a number of reviews and articles in Rochford Street Review

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A Small But Explosive Book: Moya Costello Launches Cactus by Stevi-Lee Alver

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