Bittersweet is Umami: Ashley Haywood Reviews ‘Eating My Grandmother: A Grief Cycle’ by Krissy Kneen

Eating My Grandmother: A Grief Cycle by Krissy Kneen UQP, 2015.

eating my grandmother‘She is ghosting’ becomes a more palpable image when the grieving poet begins eating her grandmother’s ashes. This is the fugue-like theme to Krissy Kneen’s first poetry collection Eating my Grandmother: A Grief Cycle, which won the 2014 Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize. Kneen is otherwise known as a novelist, short-story writer and documentary filmmaker, a writer of memoir, erotic fiction, candid and playful prose—actually, the first time I saw Kneen read her prose, she was naked, as was the audience, at a Queensland Poetry Festival (2015) event celebrating eroticism in literature.

Eating my Grandmother’s ‘cycle’ is sustained by Kneen’s continual returning to the urn for another taste of her grandmother, which preludes further clearing and stripping away of the more intangible material: mystery, forgetting, remembering, grief. ‘Once cleared the room writes itself ’, poet and academic Anne Carson tells us of her method in Economy of the Unlost. I was reminded of this when reading Kneen’s poetry. Carson adds that ‘It’s the clearing that takes time. It is the clearing that is the mystery’. Kneen’s subtext is like this room with her body in the midst of clearing and stripping away what is unknowable—to look more closely at the flesh and bones of what is knowable, what is within reach, what is more tangible—in her way making sense of her grief following the death of her grandmother.

Kneen’s imagery deals with her ‘clearing’ as she writes her way into a visceral, singular nakedness. As she proceeds, Kneen points out the mystery that surrounded her grandmother in life, but answers to who was Dragitsa Marusic (or Lotty Kneen) are not sought after here—for they are not clearly within reach, they are mystery that perhaps takes up too much room here. Kneen’s grandmother, for example, is like the fairy tales ‘she collected in her bone-rattle hands / re-told through her snag-tooth mouth’. She is ‘Lie upon lie upon missing truth. / Migrant papers, lost’; ‘She sails free / from the burning of her birth certificates’ in life and now death; simply put (in Requiem, ix):

All the burning buildings piled with
smoulder
coals of hidden history
taken to the grave.

So, what is within reach? Kneen tells us, the urn: ‘Clear, water-tight, half-priced from Bunnings’. The tangible grit of Marusic’s cremated remains, the taste and feel of them on Kneen’s tongue—‘I feel the scratch of her fingernail tracking my trachea’—and the day-to-day life that ensues. Kneen’s grief cycle begins with the following lines, which are among the most tantalising in this poetry collection (in Prelude):

I pick a grain of her, stolen from the urn
place it on my tongue.
Her body.
My blood.

She lodges in me.

Readers of Carson, who has written much on grief and Eros, might recognise Carson’s influence on Kneen’s poetry. Concerning Kneen’s style, I was especially reminded of Carson’s The Beauty of the Husband: A fictional essay in 29 tangos. And, with thinking about the nature of grief—what Eating my Grandmother inspires—I began thinking about Carson’s critical work Eros the Bittersweet. Eros, in Greek, does not so much mean love but desire for who or what is not fully within us, or who or what is not within reach. Grief, in this way, is akin to desire. But, unlike the potential to be touched by the beloved in our lives, those who elicit grief in us usually remain unreachable.

Kneen challenges this idea of grief when she reaches for a grain of grandmother and brings it into her body. Bittersweet is umami in ‘Eating my Grandmother’. Endocannibalism—consuming the flesh of family or community, be it roasted, pickled, fermented or ash—is, to the western mind, an extreme form of grieving still practised in a number of cultures today. In Fugue, iv:

I eat unspeakably,
swallowing whole as one might an oyster
the unnamed part of her.
Today’s funeral offering.

If we think of Kneen’s collection as like a fugue, which names one section among Prelude, Requiem and Cadenza, the theme is the ash-grain of her grandmother. With every grain she eats, Kneen’s grief-fugue cycle grows. The poet’s body is both ‘warm coffin’ and ‘womb’ for the grains she consumes. The concept of growth tied to the necessity of death—or discontinuity, as in a fugue for it’s musical continuance, or dislocation, as in a fugue state, in which a new identity may be forged—is a paradox that Kneen wraps her fingers around and brings into her body like the ouroboros. The poet is self-eating (Her body. / My blood.) for self-making: ‘in all the painful trudge of days ahead I grow / in grit / in earth / in death’.

Eating my Grandmother inspires much thought on the nature of grief. Kneen extends her practise of endocannibalism to consuming pica—‘the inedible things that I have eaten’. Pica is an object void of nourishment; nevertheless, it nourishes the sensing of reality, enriches a moment, with the companion of taste. This is the singularness of Kneen’s grief cycle: moving toward the moment, or a moment of self-making, of new configurations, all flesh and bone and vulnerable—‘And here I am undone. // Now is the time … // Now is the time. If Eating my Grandmother is a eulogy, it is also a self-eulogy (which is not to say momento mori).

Kneen’s premise, or prelude, is intoxicating—endocannibalism certainly takes hold of the reader’s attention. Eating my Grandmother is confessional, sensual and honest. The reader is invited into a poetic narrative. All of this is attractive for many readers. Some readers of poetry may find, at times, a word and/or line break that could be better placed for, or a non-poetic repetition diminishing, the potential of her ideas. Kneen’s ideas are complex and stimulating, and are what held me to Eating my Grandmother, but it’s hard to know how far I’ve run wild with them on my own. Nevertheless, I have run wild—rejection of the unreachable, grief akin to desire, endocannibalism as a reachable act in grief, growth in death, writing into the moment of a naked ‘undone’—what more can I ask from poetry? Eating my Grandmother: A grief cycle is a remarkable achievement for a first collection.

Eating my Grandmother: A grief cycle was launched at the Queensland Poetry Festival 2015.

 – Ashley Haywood

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Ashley Haywood is a writer with work published in Australia and performed in the streets of Paris. Recently, she received a PhD with her thesis Harlequin Blue and The Picasso Experiment. Most recently, her writing appears in Spineless Wonders’ anthology Out of Place. She also paints with pigments collected in her travels. Ashley currently lives between Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne.

Eating my Grandmother: A grief cycle is available from  http://www.uqp.uq.edu.au/Book.aspx/1353/Eating%20My%20Grandmother-%20A%20Grief%20Cycle

 

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Pursuing the Elusive Whole: Ashley Haywood Reviews ‘3 Painters: Collected Works Volume 5’ by John Watson

Three Painters: Collected Works Volume 5 by John Watson Puncher and Wattmann 2014

three_paintersAlbert Marquet, Pierre Bonnard and Max Beckmann are early modernist artists who have in common a resistance to categorisation. Belonging for a time with the Paris-based Fauves, Marquet would go on to forge his own artistic path into outlier-wilderness with an obsession for coastal waters. After a time, Bonnard took a couple of side steps from Les Nabis, and went his own way, too. As for Beckmann, his artistic associations are, more or less, for the sake of comparison and art history, verist, anti-Romantic, Neue Sachlichkeit. However, we can imagine all three of them crossing paths in Paris, perhaps via Henri Matisse, with whom they each shared a friendship.

John Watson’s collection Three Painters brings these three artists together in three parts: ‘The Invisible Albert Marquet’, ‘Bonnard’ and ‘Carnival: 40 Max Beckmann Poems’. Suites of ekphrastic poems on the subjects of Marquet and Beckmann bookend a lengthy, middle prose poetry engagement with Bonnard and his paintings.

Resonating in each part’s distinctiveness are concepts: to visit and revisit, arrival and departure, glimpses and residues, completeness and incompleteness, ‘diverse harbours’, ‘diverging impulses’—complexity. ‘Fragments, interludes, tropes, anecdotes, sketches’ become more than the sum of their parts in this poetry collection.

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Watson’s ekphrasitic engagement with Marquet’s ink sketches is introduced as a ‘loose collection of glimpses’: fictionalised biographical fragments based on ‘a detail or incident’ in the life of Marquet, a painter-traveller. From the opening long poem Sketches in Ink the reader is drawn into Watson’s pursuit of Marquet in pursuit of his always-elusive subject:

… The waves appear to be doing something
They’ve never ever quite precisely done before.

This surely must validate the endless attempts
To capture them in a few strokes …

Marquet’s flight is always to the next coastline, seaport, dockside or harbour. Seaside brothels continually promise shoreline subjects, as voiced by Marquet’s wife, Marcelle Matinet, in ‘Marcelle Enters the Picture’:


In Marseilles the brothel is near the water.
His subject is accordingly the fluidity of form
And its arrest in fitful moments of stillness,
Waves which curl and slide under one another.

We follow the rapid-sketching Marquet as he journeys—often by train—back and forth across most of Europe and North Africa. Marquet’s voice is also employed which gives breathing space to this restless pursuit, for example, again from ‘Marcelle Enters the Picture’:

… It’s late. I haven’t drawn a single line
That’s not expendable. But the window without curtains
Gives upon the harbour. Therefore, Yvonne, if you
Would stay like a mirror reflecting the snow
I’ll draw instead the seawater turning to ice.

Bodies are given the qualities of water in all its forms: they are ‘flesh-toned water’, things that ‘wake and turn entwining … like a stream’. Cephalopodan bodies—‘Within, the gaslight shines / Darkly white on white reflecting bodies / Requiring pen and ink’—also foretell what more like this is to come when we reach Beckman and his ocean.

In ‘Marquet’, and throughout, terrestrial landscapes are enveloped in aqueous metaphors, wherein they mingle (‘Hydrangea blue or hydra blue’) and become something singularly terraqueous: ‘Fields like harbours and harbours like fields’ or ‘The water / Is like a ploughed field’.

Watson’s concept of the poetic ‘glimpse’ evolves with Bonnard, but with Marquet it’s like catching a glimpse of the sea from a train window before the landscape quickly rushes in to obscure the view.

As we embark for Watson’s Bonnard, there may even be some anguish or admiration felt for this characterisation of Marquet who is so obsessed with coastal waters (and light)—who, furthermore, ‘delights in reacting’ to these subjects that epitomise the certainty of change.

Watson’s Marquet is less invisible than he is seemingly always a step-ahead, chasing change, while giving chase—‘And vanishing into the woods / Of ships tied up at anchor’—which can be a pleasure for the reader-in-pursuit.

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On arrival at the subject of Bonnard, we encounter a new narrative voice. Contrast to pursuing Marquet, the narrator is inviting and forthcoming, very much like T.S. Eliot’s Prufock: ‘Let us go then, you and I’. And so we go into the ‘middle ground’ of Bonnard’s paintings: into ‘echoes, revelation, playful asides, forgetful lapses, abrupt transitions’. These modes of thought are proffered to the reader in the form of an admirer and storyteller’s ‘journal’, ‘written over a long period of intoxication with the paintings of Bonnard’, and in the style of prose poetry (for the most part).

With the narrator, we visit and revisit symbols—Bonnard and his paintings, oranges, flowers, water, weather, harbours, momentum itself, for example. Subjects or objects or ideas are sites of poetic reiteration, sites of telling and retelling, points of continual arrival and departure, where what has come before is added on to, allowing for an almost fractal-like narrative to emerge.

As the narrator claims: ‘ I conceived the idea …[to] make repeated attempts on the same subjects’. Or, in other words, allow for things to ‘grow in the telling’. This driving concept, or philosophy that embraces complex emergence, is explicit in the narrator’s storytelling; take, for example, this extract from the prose poem ‘Winter Days’:

There were days in winter where only ideas ventured out. While everything else struggled just to maintain the sum of its parts—the assailed garden, rooms with closed doors—ideas conspired to something vastly greater … They did not go outside all day and during the morning Pierre mixed a particularly warm vermilion laced with Naples yellow and spent much of the day finding places to use it up.

Watson’s philosophising narrator makes excellent use of Bonnard anecdotes, which, in a way, led to keys for the writer to enter the ‘middle ground’ of Bonnard’s paintings. Two anecdotes: Bonnard struggled to be in ‘the presence of the subject’, preferring to paint away from his subjects, and the artist also had a ‘habit of returning to paintings after many years’. With these anecdotes, the concept of the ‘glimpse’ as a key, for example, seems to grow or evolve with Bonnard and with his desire to detach from his subjects.

Watson’s narrator attempts, then, to deal with the subject, ‘glancingly, tangentially’, to leave it ‘intact, untouched almost’, preserving what was while it, at the same time, ‘takes us further on, away’. In other words, ‘residues’ of meaning are carried from one place to another (as in metaphor) toward the ever shifting ‘borders of the inexpressible … like things always about to be!’ As the narrator discovers: ‘Such … is the achievement of Bonnard—the preservation of possibility!’ The narrator returns to Bonnard’s paintings, revelling in his new discoveries with each viewing, similar to Rainer Maria Rilke’s experience with Paul Cézanne’s paintings in ‘Letters on Cézanne’.

Yes, falling apart at absolutely every point. Yes, falling apart like the distant vista of mountain slopes dropping down as we reach the top of the commanding hill. Yes, falling apart like the expanding universe celebrating the widening gaps between things. Like leaps of affection between objects.

As for Bonnard’s fetish for incompleteness—‘ he even carried a little paint-box with him to galleries or the homes of friends where he would discreetly add touches of colour to paintings sold or given away years before’—further gives the narrator cause to celebrate symbols’ potential for growth.

This is not the end. ‘Bonnard’ is concluded with an interlude: a narrative about a growing friendship between two characters, Barnard and Brunel, and the influence each has on the other’s philosophical thinking, thinking which is in vein of the mathematical and metaphysical philosophy sustaining ‘Bonnard’. This interlude is like a summary, but more like a new layer or outgrowing—and a delightful reading experience, wherein Watson settles most into his storytelling and philosophy.

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We return to water with the Beckmann poems, ‘hovering between approach and retreat’, seeking the ‘inwardness’ the painter seeks, and maybe the ‘everything and nothing’ of a brushstroke.

Of the three ekphrastic engagements, Watson’s suite of poems with Beckmann were written the fastest over the course of, what I imagine to be, a feverish month. We are slowly taken further from watercourses and harbours, out into deeper womb-like waters, and ‘down into the realms of dreams and art’ and myth.

Beckmann’s character speaks: ‘I’m painting still lifes / Landscapes, beautiful women, visions of cities rising from the sea’. As like stage curtains, Watson parts these Debussy-like spectacles to enter behind the scene. We come to Beckmann-inspired sensations. The poem Pretty stands out to me as a poem about desiring to enter the sensation of painting:

We’re talking here about a pretty
Severe case of
We’re talking here about a pretty severe case

Of wanting to be where
Willingly compliant otherness –
I mean ocean-wave-waving nakedness –

Is like a sentient valley with uplands and fields;
We’re talking here about his wanting
To be part of, to enter, many abstract nouns

And to regard them as objects of desire,
Of his wanting
Of wanting to be where the action is.

The following quote is attributed to Beckmann: lf you wish to get hold of the invisible, you must penetrate as deeply as possible into the visible. ‘All over the midnight blue water’ there are sea-creatures and ‘dolphins bearing women, the men / Riding white swans into a squall’, women straddling birch on Walpugis Night, ‘Calypso walking on the water’, where ‘The half-naked siren must remain’. Watson’s ekphrasis attempts to plunge into momentum, happening, the interval between approach and retreat with a carnival of Beckmann symbols.

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Watson’s poetry and prose poetry is at its best and most inventive when he fully embraces narrative and his painter-subjects as characters—when his philosophy courses between his words with ease. This was my experience, for the most part, of this collection Three Painters. Additionally, ‘Bonnard’ is an experimental mode of ekphrasis and an excellent resource for interested readers. Watson’s ‘Bonnard’ is a creative meditation on the ekphrastic performance (‘out-speaking’, ‘pointing-out’), the relationship between writing and painting, and the concept that objects evolve with each ‘telling’—what ekphrasis in itself demonstrates. ‘Life is the sum of distracting contingencies’: with glimpses, glances and residues, Watson pursues this elusive ‘whole’, (more than) the sum of distracting contingencies and possibilities that a painter holds in their brushstroke.

 – Ashley Haywood

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Ashley Haywood is a writer with work published in Australia and performed in the streets of Paris. Recently, she received a PhD with her thesis Harlequin Blue and The Picasso Experiment. Most recently, her writing appears in Spineless Wonders’ anthology Out of Place. She also paints with pigments collected in her travels. Ashley currently lives between Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne.

3 Painter: Colledted Works Volume 5 is available from  http://puncherandwattmann.com/books/book/three-painters

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From Domestic Homemaker to Revolutionary Bomb-Maker: Ashley Haywood reviews ‘Suffragist’ by Katy B Plummer

Suffragist by Katy B Plummer  Interlude Gallery, 11/131-145 Glebe Point Road, Glebe NSW until 25 July 2015

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Suffragist, Katy B Plummer’s solo exhibition, is like finding a forgotten space backstage to a theatre. Curiosity comes quickly: sculptural pieces seem to spin-forth from the title video installation into the gallery space and down the stairs. Plummer’s show is a multimedia retelling of the early twentieth-century British Suffragettes.

There’s a narrative that binds the show. We enter the mind of a protagonist dealing with an inner resistance to her transformation from domestic homemaker to revolutionary bomb-maker.

Packed into each sculptural piece—robotic furniture, tapestry, ceramics—is a radical politics with some serious questions to boot: What does it mean, especially for a woman, to embody radicalism? What is the potential of violence in revolution? What is violence in revolution?

Plummer’s show has many elements of a tragicomedy, which effectively draws us in closer to the hard-core politics and questioning going on here. Comedy also stresses the tragedy of patriarchy’s rewrite concerning the Suffragettes. These fighting women became cookie-cutout characters over time, remembered as few in number, pushing pamphlets here and there, who made a fuss over women’s right to vote between their domestic ‘responsibilities’.

With mottos like ‘deeds, not words’, these women had militant agendas that went beyond gaining the vote. Prominent speakers had jujitsu-trained female body guards who fought the police. They made bombs and set fire to houses. When they were arrested they went on hunger strikes in prison. They were force-fed (possibly for fears of martyrdom and more media coverage). Approximately one thousand British Suffragettes were imprisoned before WWI.

Women died fighting for equal rights.

During the opening, Plummer pulls me aside: ‘Let me tell you about guns … .’ And, then, ‘What about violent revolution’?

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Katy B Plummer, Suffragist, 2015, title video installation. Photo curtesy of the artist

‘Suffragist’ is a five-minute, single channel video. A Chaplin-like female protagonist—or, better, in the vein of Alice Howell, Norma Nichols, Vivian Edwards or Marie Dressler, to name just a few who co-starred with Chaplin—is awakening to the potential of violent insurrection and the consequences of this in her personal life. The soundscape is necessarily uncomfortable and would be multi-hyphened in any further description.

Plummer’s protagonist carries a banner with a smear of paint in place of crest or motto. She also carries a pink club with nails, the modern equivalent to a medieval morning star. Both are props on display.

An internal battle is fought against futuristic gamer Halo-like soldiers wearing cardboard armour. The protagonist doesn’t confront them head-on, possibly in the same way that it’s difficult to internalise any new idea. She chooses to flee or outrun them, fighting them off in flight, wrestling with the dilemma: what about violent revolution? And what will this mean for me, my family, my society?

The cardboard costumes also serve to remind that the status quo is flimsy and impermanent. The hard part is coming to that radical idea which requires its own internal violence—a creative disturbance, a disruption—to excite change within before it can ripple out into the world.

So, here is one answer to the question, what is violence in revolution? Suffragist demonstrates this in itself as a collection of new and engaging art that has the potential to generate disturbance in minds and excite change—no matter how small. Well, this is art. We know new art is violent, or can send shockwaves across family, community, culture and histories.

Plummer’s protagonist has her starry awakening. The consequences of her becoming radical are brought into the three-dimensional world with Plummer’s effective deployment of ‘domestic’ crafts (or married womens’ trades, with few exceptions, prior to WWI). They either assist or hamper in her inner and Umwelten battles.

Overall, ‘Domestic Insurrection’, the title of one artwork, feels like it’s just the beginning for this emerging suffragette.

Katy B Plummer, Suffragist, 2015, installation view. Photo curtesy of the artist.

Katy B Plummer, Suffragist, 2015, installation view. Photo curtesy of the artist.

Among Plummer’s sculptural pieces are handmade cushions with hand-woven images of a variety of guns situated in womb-like layers. Zombie-grey furniture vibrates, whirls and flashes, and sounds like semi-automatic gunfire. The heads of Halo soldiers lie in pools of red doilies. Plummer’s accompanying sculptural pieces are at once natural and disturbing, things remade to be re-seen—just as the mind draws upon what we know to make violent new connections.

But this isn’t necessarily the kind of violence that Plummer wants to address, which can push revolution and change.

Suffragettes were successfully rebellious women. They militantly disturbed the status quo and forced cultural r/evolution—at least, in terms of a more inclusive democracy, British women gained the vote in 1918. This makes them successful, but not necessarily cultural heroines.

History tends to defang, as Plummer put it, successfully rebellious women. Suffragist gives back to these women something of what was taken away, or reserved only for rebellious men: a rising-hero status with artillery. Forget the fangs.

Plummer lays fertile ground for questions around radical politics. What is the potential of violence in revolution? Well, I just have more questions. Why should the oppressed be expected to fight back in a particular way, or in ways deemed acceptable by the oppressors, ways that are usually non-violent?

At the same time as my questioning flourished, I came away fantasizing that Plummer had came along with her travelling trunk and popped the lid, that theatrical props and furniture stepped out and plugged in, that homewares popped out and hooked themselves to the wall. This is sometimes the affect innovative work can have, a feeling that it’s material coming forth was magically easy. But, of course, there is much research and time and art making before me. And these resurrected furnishings are by no means benign in the world of Plummer’s protagonist, a newly emerged suffragette.

– Ashley Haywood


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Ashley Haywood is a writer with work published in Australia and performed in the streets of Paris. Recently, she received a PhD with her thesis Harlequin Blue and The Picasso Experiment. Most recently, her writing appears in Spineless Wonders’ anthology Out of Place. She also paints with pigments collected in her travels. Ashley currently lives between Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne.

Katy B Plummer can be found at katybplummer.com

For further information on gallery times visit http://www.interludegallery.com/

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