The Sly Night Creatures of Desire by Debi Hamilton (Hybrid Publishers 2016) was launched by John Jenkins at The Italian Cucina in Carlton, Victoria on 27 November 2016
Hybrid Publishers have done Debi proud, I think… with this well-produced and attractive collection. I particularly like the spacious layout, which gives ample ‘breathing space’ around each poem, adding to one’s reading pleasure.
I was delighted and surprised when Debi asked me to launch this book… Surprised, because I have only met Debi once, before today. This was very recently, at a Melbourne Poets’ Union event.
And I’m Delighted, because I was immediately absorbed and impressed by the poems I heard Debi read that day. Later, I was introduced to Debi by her partner and our MC of today, David Francis.
Debi started writing poetry around 2010. And she has already achieved quite a deal. Her first book, being alone, appeared in 2013. Now, in 2016, 3 years later, we have The Sly Night Creatures of Desire…
Debi has also won a swag of prizes, including joint winner of the 2014 Newcastle Poetry Prize; and winner of the 2015 MPU award. At least 8 poems in this new book have fared well in comps.
Debi’s poems generally gravitate towards the so-called ‘confessional’ mode …
Her work is emotionally intense, often deeply personal. Some poems convey quite private details, about her own life and relationships. And many of these deeply felt, ‘heart-sleeved’ poems are meant to be, and certainly are, both touching and moving.
But that, I’d like to emphasize, is just the start, just one aspect of this book.
The Sly Night Creatures of Desire contains a generous offering of 58 poems. Yet fewer than a dozen continue for more than one page.
It’s all about brevity, succinctness, compression – saying as much as you can in a relatively few words.
In the poem, ‘What Big Plans You Have’ she mentions “A moment in a silver frame…” These moments, however, always escape their boundaries, providing greater illumination.
It’s not just a matter of ‘short and sweet’, or ‘less is more’, because the poet’s art of inference, implication, resonance and suggestion can amplify these brief poems way beyond their formal containers.
Often, there are subtle, multiple implications; it’s a matter of reading between the lines, so what remains unsaid or not fore-grounded contributes equally to the poem’s impact.
The book is divided into three sections.
Part I, A Thrill of Cold Stars; consists of 17 prose poems.
In the very first of these, ‘String Bag’ we see the short story writer’s ability to very quickly establish characters, to set up a scene. Inextricably wedded to this, is the poet’s gift of inference, of resonance, of suggestion; of amplifying a pervasive mood, or tone.
In ‘String Bag’, children wander down by beach dunes, and meet a possibly sinister stranger. Is he a wolf in hiding? The writing is ambiguous, a series of hints and clues, a poetic journey.
Note also the terrific character-study in Part III, titled Small Waiter, Dropped Glove. This time, Debi is in Venice (we only know this because Tintoretto is mentioned, called ‘Il Furioso’ by his fellow Venetians, because of his muscular energy, his huge and flamboyant canvases). In contrast, wonder at the controlled subtlety of Debi’s poetic miniature, a pearl of empathy and understatement, in which a small, frail waiter with a wounded eye scurries dutifully to recover a dropped glove and return it to a woman in an opulent pearl necklace.
To her great credit, throughout this book, Debi is never pedantic, nor prescriptive, which encourages the reader to fully engage with her narrative. As her intriguing scenarios emerge into full and imaginative presence within the poem, thus we become equally absorbed, active participants.
Communication – both intellectual and emotional – is important here: a bridge, between writer and reader.
Next, ‘Little Red’ makes reference to a well-known fairy story, or folk tale; namely, Little Red Riding Hood, in which the wolf again appears, this time much more explicitly, perhaps as a teasingly shadowy trope for shared desire.
‘Little Red’ establishes its naturalistic context and setting, an ordinary park where “… an unexpected dog brings it back – slick wet gums ivory teeth on a hot day, or particular kind of pelt-loose loping.” The poem then unpacks the interior life of her character, and mediates between inner and outer.
A wolf and a flower-gathering child return in the poem ‘Red Skirt’.
Here, Riding Hood sets of for the chemists, to get her mum some medicine. She is followed by a wolf, who soon morphs into a doctor. Throughout several poems in which they reappear, these wolf-men can be many things: mysterious, helpful, threatening, passive, disarming, alluring, exciting…
Much later, in ‘Red Riding Hood Grows Old’, as time domesticates the inner and outer wolf, the narrator seems quite nonchalant, and comfortable about curling up with her lupine other half… now perhaps feminised, re-integrated, triumphantly reclaimed.
Several other semi-ekphastic (here, literary-referencing) poems refer to Germanic folk tales, ones with very ancient roots, including the well-known Hansel and Gretel, which harks back to a time of Medieval hardship, when infanticide was common practice. Debi’s poem, ‘H and G’ conflates this tale with failed fathers, and with a certain Nazi demagogue of the Fatherland – a poetic purpose not for the un-adept.
All such folk tales are common cultural property. They belong to everyone; they can be told, re-told, elaborated and embroidered forever. In this book, Debi certainly makes them her own!
Take The Little Match Girl, another familiar story. Flagged by Debi’s title, ‘How the Market Works’, her modern retelling of this story becomes a sly critique of consumer capitalism. She creates interesting frissons, too, by lobbing modern words like ‘synaptic’ and ‘circuit’ against traditional ones like ‘match’, ‘stove’ and ‘roast goose’.
‘At The Window’ is a personal favourite, in which a mysterious lover dances naked on the grass outside a man’s open window, in a sort of reverse lubricious Romeo and Juliet scene. But, Romeo, alas, “Snaps shut the little door on his chest.” With just a touch of Freud, as well as fear, “He remembers his mother, unexpectedly. His small luminous, long-ago self.” He abandons the casement, as a voice “… calls him from the other room…”
In ‘Midnight’, the narrator steals a motorbike, picks up a new lover and goes roaring off into, “The newest black night you’ve ever experienced, just the two of you and the wordless roaring road.” This hints at… adventures to come.
The poet’s dreams, allegories, imagery… are imbued with strong emotion, yet there are many closely observed descriptive touches, woven in economically, to provide verisimilitude. For example, in ‘Down the Coast’, there’s this unobtrusive but telling detail: “… little wildflowers underneath the long protective march of fences.” So, description is metaphor, and metaphor description.
There are terrific glints of humour, too: “The house is so still I can hear the frozen peas coming to, breathing.” (‘The Blackout’.)
And some wonderfully penetrating ‘straight-talking”: “This is all we have / in the end, a heartbeat / in the small hours.” (‘After Surgery’).
Other poems are dream-like, subtle, oblique: “Perhaps it is a mine shaft that she falls into that night, where a man is aflame at the seam he has found in the dark.”
Debi works as a psychologist. Well, consider the acuity of this observation: “Dining out alone, the exactness of it, / how you make the table an unfenced field. / Privacy you don’t get at home alone, / where you expand into every corner.” (From: ‘Exactly’.)
The book’s Part II is titled The Grateful Wounds – a record of surviving breast cancer; starting with ‘BreastScreen Letter’ …
Then a genuine poetic tour de force follows, titled ‘Infiltrating Ductal Carcinoma’.
If you have ever wondered what being diagnosed with ‘infiltrating ductal carcinoma’ would be like, well this is what it is like! This poem precisely registers the shock, the confusion; a disorientation of everything once familiar: a disruptive plunge into uncertainty, a future of walking on eggshells.
Invasive breast cancer is sadly very common, originating in the milk ducts and spreading to surrounding tissue. Its treatment includes chemo, radiation, hormone injections, surgery …
The cluster of poems that follow this initial shock are like shrapnel flying from the centre of a shell-burst. Boom!
Disorientation, and potential loss of self, is then reprised in a similarly anxious register, in ‘Vacuuming with Breast Cancer’: “I’ve fallen down a rabbit hole / and here is all my furniture, / slightly out of proportion…”
In ‘A Room in Sunshine’, however, there is an interesting blurring of subjectivities, now hinting at a sort of healing empathy.
Then, solidarity with other survivors, support from certain women who really understand.
But it’s never easy: “…they are up close. / They are trying to hold you. / You can feel their hearts / through the glass but you have to / keep still or you will be bruised.” (‘Ten Meditations’.)
Gentle humour helps: “Tiredness becomes / your second name, the micro / nap your new stalker. / Every cell of you wearing / its little bed socks, waiting.”
In a truly lovely poem dated 19 January, the simple consolation of a lullabying sea dip is evoked: its “closed eyes” and “long underwater song”.
Finally, Part II asks: “Is it enough (my emphasis) that you have survived… that you are sometimes happy?”
No, it is clearly not enough, not after such a chronology of traumas.
So, with some relief we reach Part III, also eponymous of the book’s title: The Sly Night Creatures of Desire.
So far, throughout, there’s been a sort of buried subtext – about a first broken marriage; alienation from family life.
This final section seems all about a hard-won re-birth, perhaps pre-figured by the Red Riding Hood story: a celebration of new love, love now inseparable from happiness, romance and desire… and very welcome new adventures, both at home and overseas.
In ‘Red Riding Hood Grows Old’ (Debi has certainly given Red Riding a hiding!) she now has “No need of the woodcutter” – relying instead on hindsight, maturity, and (dare we say it?) wisdom.
And… a happy announcement: ‘Love is Around the Corner’.
And… it is!
Of course, life is never an unalloyed fairy tale… But there’s welcome joy and renewal in the conclusion of The Sly Night Creatures of Desire: renewal, for those brave enough, open enough, wise enough, to recognise, grasp and accept it, should new happiness come along.
A love story unfolds at the end of this book. One, happily, ‘to be continued’…
I particularly like Debi Hamilton’s bravery in these pages, her honesty, in not flinching from examining, understanding, and making use of difficult personal emotions – as if, paradoxically, her vulnerability makes her strong.
Even more so, her ability to fashion and convert all of this, and much more, into a luminous and engaging volume, one that reaches out ever further, both to us personally and into the spaces of our literary culture…
So….. Buy your copy today, Enjoy!
The Sly Night Creatures of Desire is duly ‘launched’!
– John Jenkins
John Jenkins writes poetry, and on music, travel and the arts. He has authored, co-written or edited twenty-four books. In a previous lifetime he was a journalist and part-time academic.
The Sly Night Creatures of Desire is available from https://www.hybridpublishers.com.au/product-category/poetry/.
You can also purchase a copy directly from Debi Hamilton. Just email: firstname.lastname@example.org