Poems of embodiment: Kerri Shying launches ‘in the same breath’ by Alan Jefferies

Photograph by Dylan Jones

Kerri Shying was due to launch in the same breath by Alan Jefferies Flying Islands Press at the Poets Picnic at Markwell on 19 December 2021, due to COVID she was unable to attend and her launch speech was read by Gillian Swain. 

I was delighted when Alan Jefferies asked me to launch his new Flying Island Pocketbook, in the same breath, because I’ve read his last one, and heard him read in person. I like him, like his style.

Alan is what Judy Johnson would call ‘a meaning poet’ – someone who writes for understanding and clarity rather than stylistic effect. Alan’s work is simply worded; but never light. Adjectives are sparing, metaphors few. Emotions are, as they should be, of the air.

He creates poems of embodiment, rather than scenery – although the imagery is there – place and fauna all tugging at the guy ropes, detailed vignettes without sentimentality – with love and disappointment in equal measure. We find ourselves inside the human in these poems, and for me this is just the ticket.

The visceral quality of his poetry invites it to be worn like skin. The brevity of introduction – you are looking for a rope to hang yourself, escaping a bomb site, listening to the voices on the beach path – each entry point exact in the immediate emotional pitch without adornment.

if we exist at all, it’s in the threads

Grief is something our culture does badly and it is a subject done very well in this book. From the plainest personal grief of the widower to suffering in wars a sky away, this collection is deeply grooved with loss. It is approached face-first, like a bungee-jumper, without artifice or consolation

how was our parting
my love
was it sudden,
yes I know
my love
i know it was sudden

……how should I continue

– wind phone

and obliquely sneaked up on in china, in “hui hin” where foreigners pour their stories out to a stranger on a bench, in an orgy of unreciprocated male grief and grievance. 

The book is divided into five sections, each a spyglass; on belonging, love, the bleakest moments of a life, and random stories.

Love is lost. The object of love has gone. Grief is expected

In “Wind Phone ” the poems leak memories like rusty buckets.

‘you keep going back to her shadow,
to find her clothes unworn

stack them into piles
by shape, by colour
what does it mean – 

his capacity to hold on to the magic of her life distorts the continuity of home.

i found a hair scrunched up
at the foot of the bed
while changing the sheets
i could tell it was yours
long straight and shiny black

i wrapped it
round and round
my ring finger
and wondered
how it could be
that all her beauty
had become this single
strand of hair

and i wore it like that
for days until
it too,
dissolved in my tears

These poems are the ground zero of the book, and rightly fold into and around each other. They draw up elements from other sections, but this flattened man, like the Buddha’s of Bamiyan is searching among threads of experience for solace and meaning, finding nothing but rubble.

if only we could call them in
like they call in air strikes
carpet bombing hillsides with blank verse’

Breaking stones 

or in ‘Gaza’

A man bent double in the ruin
of a collapsed building
pulling single torn dust-covered pages

Out from the rubble…
….a precious chapter
torn mercilessly from the book of life’

the mind grieves, while the body, knowing better, seeks ease and the future. Memory bulges through time in poems of recollection, of regret, of joyful and savage introspection. This is movement. Other places emerge, as the locus of grief shifts to encompass others, and then the world.

It is at his wife’s graveside that he finds both succour and an unexpected companion, with beautifully placed lantern-words

‘refugee’…………………………….. ‘beautiful stranger’

introducing the further themes. The expectation one might have that this poetry could leave you feeling grim is filled instead with empathy, and open-ness.

It is generous, not bitter, posing questions that make you laugh like

Why not rise in love – why fall?
we fall through the cracks
we fall under a bus
we fall in with the wrong crowd
we fall from grace

and there we are – we again – the us-land!

I am relieved. Asserting the primacy of connection, despite a comprehensive tour of the emptiness it leaves behind when destroyed sits playfully (gratefully) in the penultimate poem. A gentle Buddhist string pulls a thread through this book. It is not a narrative of quest and restitution, but a slow view of life’s river as it passes, and one’s reflection in the surface. I enjoyed and admired this raw yet delicate book.

 – Kerri Shying


Kerri Shying is a poet of Wiradjuri and Chinese family, publishing across many journals and anthologies. She is the author of a bilingual pocketbook of poems sing out when you want me (2017), Elevensies (2018) and Knitting Mangrove Roots (2019). Kerri held the Varuna Dr Eric Dark Flagship Fellowship for 2019 for her current collection Know Your Country (Puncher and Wattman 2020). Kerri has been convenor of Write Up, a free arts/writing group for people living with disability, for 5 years. She lives with disability in Newcastle, NSW with her famous dog Max Spangly. Kerri is nominated for  https://theaspireawards.com.au 2020, an activity of the Human Rights Commission, for disability activism in the arts.

in the same breath is available from the Flying Island Poetry Community website