Connections between themes and images: Debbie Lee reviews ‘Do you have anything less domestic?’ by Emilie Collyer

Do you have anything less domestic? by Emilie Collyer Vagabond Press, 2022.

Domesticity is a key theme and value of Emilie Collyer’s poetry. Likewise, questioning – how do I navigate this body? This world? Gender politics? Public vs private? The cartography of intimate vs domestic, feminist vs patriarchal, blended family vs barren landscape, choice vs coercion. Echoes of all these preoccupations exist in the collection.

The collection has five sections, all of them include compelling writing. For this review, I will take one poem from each section to convey my strong responses to the writing. Noting that I am a friend and fan of the author, so the review may hold cognitive limitations (‘you may be biased’ as my partner and I say to one another).

Do you have anything less domestic?

For me, the book’s most memorable poems imply connections between themes and their images. “Homemaker” opens with ‘we throw words at each other / and the blows form bruises’. The references to cutlery and furniture splay beautifully against the repetition of never, not, cannot to now and the conclusion (p20):

but I cannot edge around the fact that I
have made a home
where bruising words are thrown—
words that leave their own dark stain

Don’t write about your family, nobody cares

“This space between” is a sentimental favourite of mine. I remember the launch and Emilie’s reading of the poem, plus we had become friends in 2010 and 2011 at places like The Spinning Room and Passionate Tongues. Nonetheless, cognitive bias aside, I persist with the review and why this is my favourite of the second section!

‘My body remembers this yearning / to find comfort in another’ – the hint of tender whispers, and yet, the conundrum of labels – ‘lover mother baby I fumble with their intimacy’. Language erodes and is inadequate for the range of feeling when a not-mother loves a child.

Indeed, my response to this poem has evolved over time. I loved this when I first heard it, but its depth of meaning has grown over the decade since, when I have formed a lasting love for my own not-child with my partner. I call her ‘little one’ as a term of affection, because blended families are not always well-admired. Certainly not well-written about. But that is what Emilie has eloquently embodied in this poem ‘under the skin … behind the ribs … the space between’ a sometimes too tender trap, filled with care, kindness, love. Intimate as private vs political vs public. Elegant in its execution.

It’s important to keep up weight bearing exercise

One of the longer poems is my favourite of the third section: “Still beating”. The terror of a broken bird, against the backdrop of perhaps unwanted changes. The italics and indentations an effective technique for the unfolding tale. I am most compelled by ‘heart beat quickstep … its flutter breath … the wounds”

Astute conclusions a hallmark of Emilie’s writing, these are the strongest lines of “Still beating” for me:

It’s better the vet says
than dying out
on the street
the warm pulse
stays in my hands
for days

You have a nice smile, you should use it more

The longest poem of the collection, “What you learn (TV lessons)”  has a wonderful structure, to contrast the underlying horror of the everyday sexism and terror absorbed from television programming. It moves seamlessly from pretty concerns to death rather nonchalantly – the repetition of ‘& left for dead’ – to ‘being raped & murdered’ [wherever].

Location does not matter. The killer does not matter. Who are you? Who are they?

This poem is wretched. It wrenches my heart. It is pulled from TV scripts. Worse, it is the everyday news. Hardly noticeable. Names not required. Every woman knows these stories. Like a premonition of Roe vs Wade. The repetition is like a finger on a trigger. Poised, pretty, perfect, tense. Intense and intimate, even though it is nameless, faceless, everyday sexism, everyday patriarchy, everyday rape culture. This is the poem I would invite men to read. Witness the horror of the domestic.

I hope I won’t put anyone off by saying this is genuinely feminist work

Emilie’s feminism is self-evident in the collection, but in the concluding poems of section five, I enjoy the mythical wordplay and literary associations providing the backdrop. Intelligent and evocative, but certainly not an isolated choice for poets. So how does Emilie distinguish herself from others deploying the technique? I like to think by boldly mixing Greek and Norse references, such as Cassandra, Elektra, Gunnlod, Penelope. None of the poems feel forced or wearied – there is rage, yes, vitriol – but the moods hold. The myth endures like woman endures.

Although I enjoyed these re-workings of ancient myth to modern counterpart, my favourite of the fifth section is “Old Blood” (runner-up in the Ada Cambridge Prize 2019). Its darkness and despair epitomise much of the mythological themes. Stripped back like ‘rust spots on undies’, or as recognisable as the awkward pubescent and menopausal moments – ‘laughed at by the body gods’.

This is a lovely book. Immensely re-readable, but also so pertinent and prescient. Who can believe the dystopia of 2022? Perhaps Emilie and this domestic-driven work, confirming all its truth?

 – Debbie Lee

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Photo Michael Reynolds

Debbie Lee adores poetry and stories. She calls her middle sister B and has been drawn to B-towns such as Ballarat, Brunswick and Brisbane, Australia. Publications include Cicerone Journal, Conscilience, fourW, Page Seventeen, Paradise Anthology, Pink Panther Magazine, pressure gauge journal, sciku project and Stereo Stories.

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Do you have anything less domestic? by Emilie Collyer is available from https://vagabondpress.net/collections/new-releases/products/emilie-collyer-do-you-have-anything-less-domestic

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