Texture and Complexity: Carmel Macdonald Grahame launches ‘Suburban Whistlestop’

The Watsonia Poets Anthology, Suburban Whistlestop, a Melbourne Poets Union publication edited by Jennifer Chrystie, Judy Keighran and Ann Sadedin, was launched by Carmel Macdonald Grahame at the Watsonia Library, Watsonia, Melbourne on 11th December 2018.

Some words are not easily used by poets. For example, writers have had to argue for a long time on behalf of the word Domestic. Domestic references and themes like family life, a focus on children, households, household labour, gardens, food, a daily walk…have been belittled in the past and seen as unworthy of poetry, even somehow inherently unpoetic. There is a general understanding about the grand tradition, that great public themes like war, the glories of history, or great abstractions like Love and Death have had the upper hand, so to speak.

And it occurs to me that the word Suburban comes with similar entailments, has been burdened with some background idea suggesting a place of oblivion, or at the very least complacency and dullness. The painter Howard Arkley was making this point in the 1970s, 80s and 90s with work that turned away from landscapes, and instead demonstrated what rich material the suburban context offers an artist, much richer material than a glib word like lifestyle might suggest. The suburbs have texture and complexity, are filled with detail that represents lives as they are lived, are the site of great good fortune and loss, like any other human context. Of course they do. And given that we are so suburban a nation, it seems important that our artists attend to it, rather than seeing it as unpoetic.

Well here they do attend to it. This collection addresses the tensions circulating around that word. It fills a space between art and the ordinary lives we live in suburban settings. It shows how various these are: I think of the difference between Dorothy Poulopoulous’s Melbourne Moments, Christina Spry’s September, and John Jenkins’ Early Winter…Watsonia, Doncaster, Kangaroo Ground…wherever they are, poets taking notice, finely observing…

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In this collection you find poetry that attends to ‘the inner life’, for example; whether painful or joyful: After an intimate, fully realised family moment, Wendy Fleming’s’Before the Baby Came’, ends:

Don’t ask what happens next
Just know that this scene
Stays within me

Pointing to the involuntary and precious nature of memory. And having something significant to say about childhood.

Kay Arthur’s ‘The Arrival’ and ‘A-Ward’ convey tenderness and vulnerability, using a collection of details like hairbrushes, roses, tea being poured, the weight of the pot, shortbreads in a tin, mugs…the poem takes the combined meaning of all these to speak of the kind of experience for which descriptions like Mental health are blunt objects in the extreme.

Gay Miller’s ‘To Contribute, Pain, My Middle’ capture inner dialogues with a self negotiating with adversity, something we all do.

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Far from complacency there is a potent sense of history here. Paul Dunnell’s ‘Dry Waves addresses Australian colonisation and honours the indigenous people who were forced to submit to it—

I have been thinking this is Gurindji country
Long before we came…

Jennifer Chrystie’s ‘The Pewter Plate’ concentrates on that emblem of Dirk Hartog Island, where William de Vlamingh nailed a plate to a post in 1697. A quite different sensibility was at work there in response to this country. Part of the point being that the two poems resonate because of each other’s presence in the collection. This added resonance, created by links between dissimilar poems, is often at work, producing the something more that comes of collaborative projects.

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There is also a potent sense of the future here. Vigilance about the environment runs through the collection, even underpinning poems that may at first appear to be personal. So the suburban context opens out, picks up on universal concerns: ‘…we race on, burning dreams and time away…’

The lines come from John Jenkins’ poem ‘Slick’, a kind of fugue on a theme of oil, picking the reader up and carrying up towards the poem’s sense of an impending future.

In an entirely different voice, with its edge of mysticism, Fee Sievers’ ‘Rainmaker’ renders the losses that come in the wake of drought, grieves on our behalf.

Margaret Hopkins’ theme is Nature. In Divided Reality she is explicit:

Owning and using the earth
Without respect…
Refusing to acknowledge
Global warming while polar ice melts…

Just to quote a couple of lines, in which the nexus between Nature and politics is at work.

Nature and respect for it, and our relationship with it, is the theme underlying a poem like Marietta Elliott’s spider, in the voice of a woman in the shower…

I don’t mind you, small creature
Battling inhuman odds…

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In all this I want to acknowledge the attentive editing. When a poem (also by Jennifer Chrystie) entitled ‘Mosquito’ — humourous and witty — is followed by one like ‘spider’ — gentle and finely observed — we have a sense of the poems being stitched into each other, either thematically or by means of form — of which there is plenty of variety, these are poets who know what they are doing — giving the collection a satisfying continuity and coherence.

In the end I don’t read this as a collective voice, although some readers may want to on behalf of the Watsonia-ness of the contributors, a part of the point. But rather I want to read it as a collection of voices. There is a choral effect to the whole. This is because of the diversity in the poetry itself—whether formal or discursive, whether the language a poet uses has a colloquial register or reaches for poetic tones…And so on.

In this choral effect there is a sense of those tones rising.

Ann Sadedin, in ‘Wild Wisdom’ invokes revisionary thinking about ‘The Hidden Life of Trees’ a text she cites. The poem ends—

I am here, belonging
To the vastness of things.

Her poems strike me as taking a particular interest in things being not what they seem, being MORE than they seem, and that being a lesson of nature.

Other poems reach overtly for the sublime, that aesthetic that is about our diminishment in the face of forces, especially natural forces, which are more than we can apprehend. This is the kind of energy at work in a poem like Paul Willason’s ‘The Great Shark’.

…the terror of its alien perfection
Bound in blood
To swim the oceans framed
within the mind’s vast sweep

John Prytherch engages with the sublime directly in a poem like ‘Psalm of the Winds’, insofar as the poem deals with wonder and human smallness, using the biblical poetic form to frame it and despite everything inflecting it with hope.

There are more. And there is more to every poem in Suburban Whistlestop and to the work of every poet represented than I have been able to say really…there is just more, more to it all. And the whole, this chorus, speaks of The More resonating through a word like Suburban.

Congratulations to the Watsonia Poets. I commend the collection to everyone who reads poetry.

 – Carmel Macdonald Grahame

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Carmel Macdonald Grahame lives in Victoria. Her short fiction, poetry, critical essays and reviews appear in literary journals and anthologies. A novel, Personal Effects, was published with University of Western Australia Publishing in 2014. She has been a winner of the Melbourne Poets Union Prize and co-winner of the Patricia Hackett Prize in her home state, Western Australia, where she has been a teacher of literature and writing.

Suburban Whistlestop is available from https://www.melbournepoetsunion.com/