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
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


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



Writing Elevated to the Label of Literature: Lyndon Walker reviews Late Night Shopping by Rhyll McMaster

Late Night Shopping by Rhyll McMaster. Brandl & Schlesinger. Poetry 2012.

I come to this book with all the worst qualifications of a reviewer – full of prejudices towards the book, both negative and positive – most of which I would like to put on the table up front.

At first glance  I am in love with the past, of the good days of poetry resurgence in this country. This book is the size and shape of the little UQP books that truly established their place in my heart with numerous volumes of contemporary poetry from modern Australian poets, often young, always original, always worth reading. It is a promise I want the book to keep.

Robert Gray and Michael Dransfield were two of the first authors I bought in the UQP series from the seventies and I loved their work and the books still inhabit a proud place on my bookshelf of favourite poetry. But those ghosts haunt the current publication.  Robert Gray is co-editor of the recent Titanic Anthology of poetry (Australian Poetry Since 1788) along with Geoffrey Lehman, who is scheduled to launch Late Night Shopping, along with a reading by Robert Gray, on the evening of Tuesday 10th April at Sappho’s Cafe and Wine Bar, 51 Glebe Point Road, Glebe, (Sydney) NSW 2037. 7.00pm (I break with a strong Melbournian tradition to here provide clear and accurate information to enable your attendance at the launch). Michael Dransfield is one of a number of excellent poets omitted from the recent massive volume. Another volume from the UQP onslaught was Brineshrimp from a young Rhyll McMaster in 1972, the same year I left Townsville for the big city of Sydney, and I still remember the astringent taste of that poetry; something new to say and a new way of saying it (and they were my criteria for excellence in poetry those days).

Exactly forty years later those criteria have broadened but the hunger remains the same. I am going to claim that this book is mostly about death. Death envisioned, foreseen, experienced as an involved and close participant and as a sometimes detached and ruminant philosopher. In this quest McMaster is up against some formidable forebears   in the likes of Eliot, Roethke, Dylan Thomas, Marianne Moore, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Ted Hughes and Christopher James, but when I read her poetry these are not the practitioners of the craft that quickly come to mind. More immediate to me is the brilliant and original Canadian poet Anne Carson.  Both poets have minds as quick and incisive as a scalpel but at times as light and elusive as dancing leaves on an autumn breeze. Both have the capacity to move quickly from the lyric exactitude of original description to the esoteric realms of the determined, urbane and educated philosopher.

The book begins with a single poem where we join the poet as a voyeur at the laying out (if not the autopsy) of the body of a woman soon after her death:

Her platelets desiccated and curled like dropped contact lenses.

This much that was invisible I knew like a fairy tale


But where was her mere self…..


When we tried to slip in her dentures they didn’t fit.


On edge, we laughed.

There was no disrespect – she wasn’t there.

The formality of death is due to emptiness.


When molecules cease their high humming

Dark space appears.

It radiates in waves and disperses in continuous air.


So, this episode of CSI as poetry, begins the book’s exploration of the space between being and not being, explored in variant ways in the following three sections. The first of these: Philosophy in A Ghosting Universe, explores memories of a dead and dying father and the ramifications for the mortality of the poet herself and for her relationships and loving attachments seen within this context. They are ramifications dealt with with subtlety, insight and intelligence.

She begins this section with a “Photograph”, presumably of the author as a young girl taken by the dead / dying father and follows with other poems that move through “His Ordered World” where:

Death invades the space

Of a serious human error, where terror lives,


And moves through the absolute particulars of that father’s world in that desperate attempt that humans make, to make sense of the existential journey, from being to nothingness, balancing sharply drawn particulars with abstract philosophical summary.

Halfway through this section there is a break, just a blank page, no titling, but the subject of the poems now oft times includes a lover, the games that lovers sometimes play and the futility of love in the face of death, which is a recent visitor in the mind of the poet.

The breeze blowing through the house

Strangely circulates.

It means to turn things inside out.

‘Flight on the Wind’


I like ‘Red Socks’ and no – no bits – it’s just a little poem – go on, buy the book and read it. ‘Well Met by Moonlight‘ is a “Sliding Doors” poem looking at what might have been if the lovers had met earlier. ‘Love Poem No.9’. invokes a pop song from a time when both I and the poet were young. ‘Darwin Fulminates on Hybridism’ again describes a world informed by the poets scholarly knowledge or reading, as does ‘Re-arrangement in the Emporium‘. We are given here (and on the poet’s website : )  little biographical linkage to this knowledge beyond she has been a nurse and a farmer.

‘Arrogant Animals‘ dances on the edge of the promise that postmodernism offered but mostly failed to deliver –not here – here it succeeds because it is warmed by humanism or at least loving and playful observation.

‘Amazing Grace’ is a tiny poem:

There’s no dispute

Our brains are a maze

Of raw electrical connections

In a base of critical soup.


The question remains

Why don’t we

More often

Get electrocuted?


Well, for those of us with a working knowledge of neurochemistry, the definite answer, through faith or science, is the little insulating miracle of the myelin sheath. What’s disturbing is the world of chaos unleashed when this little biological insulator is attacked or eroded (as in Alzheimer’s or Dementia). This theme is carried on in the title poem of the section: ‘Philosophy in a Ghosting Universe’:

Not clever enough

That flash of intuition

An electrical storm in a teacup.


There is a marvellous poem on the toestubbing mysteries of gender: ‘Boys Own Annual‘, which my students would do well to read:

Boys know girls are the enemy

Because girls keep calling in the debt.

Girls block the light that’s shining

Straight down on Boys Own Mighty Heaven

That glazed place where time’s ephemeral, yet set.

The section ends with ‘Comfort Station’, which makes a clever essentialism of the further mysteries of life and death and nature and the vehicle of our journey through them:

In the comfort of my body, glistening

In this shelter, my exemplary shed artefact

I disintegrate intact.

The final two sections of the book are poetic reflections on visual art, both painting and photography. The first; ‘Evolutionary History of Edward Kelly in Primary Colours is a commissioned piece (by the Nolan Gallery) which has previously been published as a limited edition with colour reproductions of the paintings.

Again my positive prejudices are brought into play. Whenever I travel to Canberra (about once a year) I make a point of going to the National Gallery and viewing the Nolan Kelly paintings there on display. They are somehow quintessentially Australian and the powerful images in their rough and ready presentation, the primary colours, the violence depicted, the conflicts portrayed, the corruption of power : all hold my gaze and intellectual engagement throughout the process. For a poet to do justice to all this is no mean task. The successful and sparse evocation of these paintings is so complete in McMaster’s hands that they stand up strongly in their own light. Something which if read well to a blind person (who had experienced a world of colour before darkness) would give them the momentary gift of sight.

The stiff constable holds a white

Note for his rescue.

Chrome yellow death.


Round his retraced head,

Red poppies, yellow daisies

Blue-white babies breath.

‘Mesozoic Territory – Policeman in Wombat Hole, 1946’

Nolan may well be our Van Gogh but there is no soft romanticism here, in the paintings or the poems. Both are stark indictments of harsh behaviour in a harsh and unforgiving land, committed in the defiant face of cliché.

Five Acts of Faith are small, deep poems that explore the attempted capture through the medium of photography, by Terry Milligan, in his portraits of subjects involved in very different ways of pursuit or contemplation of the spiritual.

Liberation Theology


This a sanctuary

Let no evil seep

Under these doors

No river of blood

Run like the shallows

Across the glassy floor

Save me from myself

Save me from mankind.

These are spare and complete poems reflecting the intent and attempt of walking various pathways to spirituality and, I think, invoking Ray Carver’s book and poem Many Paths to the Waterfall. I am not sure they entirely work . They do invoke the paths nominated but they are so small in scope which attempts to encompass such large ideas and concepts that they all seem so esoteric as to be simply impressionistic sketches towards the whole. The exception of course is the poem called ‘Zen‘, which, since it entered our cultural lexicon in the sixties, is now almost a joke or a reference to the work of Earn Malley. Perhaps you need the photographic images as a guide but a fairly concerted effort via Google failed to materialise the specific images. They exist but do they add to what we already know or how we know it? I think the earlier section Philosophy in a Ghosting Universe succeeds far more in existential contemplation within the context of life, as we here in Australia, know it, but then it is also balancing science and humanism as opposed to particular structured forms and practices.

The title poem of the book; ‘Late Night Shopping’ begins the final grouping of eleven poems that complete the book. It’s clever in its attempt to personify words of emotional or behavioural description as competitive or accidental late night shoppers in a supermarket: Malice, Obsession, Hate, Revenge, Doubt, Panic, Anxiety and  Fear all appear and play their part in this mildly amusing toying scenario. I must admit I would have like to have been with Rhyll on the little trip that gave her the idea for this poem and the poems existence does give the reader this opportunity. The final poems revisit the books central concerns and keen observations in different locations: Glebe, Broome, Traffic in George Street. In ‘In the Inner West’ the imageric word film is almost too rich to be believable. In a few short lines we have:

.…pedestrian crossing with speed hump


Recently installed by Muslim council workers

Late of Lebanon

They speak Arabic and it sounds like chocolate


In the enclave of Chippendale

Where Indonesian Australian

Babies named Chloe


Sleep beneath the rain laden ominous….

But it is a challenge. Do we recognise our own community and what it has become? Here is globalisation made manifest in our suburban lives. Here is a vision of hell for the shock-jocks and xenophobic cringers fearing change. Here we have found ourselves living in the future with Rhyll McMaster as our tour guide. It is almost enough to make me quit singing for the first night in three years to fly up to Sydney to simply hear her read this poem aloud.

All in all it is a brave book. It occupies territory often reserved for the male in our little post colonial literary colony. But it is written by that most dangerous thing in the Australian literary world: A smart woman. This book does not suffer fools gladly but it is kind enough to actually take prisoners. It performs that task of writing elevated to the label of literature: it helps us recognise ourselves in the place and circumstance in which we live. It also thinks in answer to those questions we have all wondered. It risks the answer in heightened, well crafted, visionary language. Thank you for it Rhyll McMaster. Bless you and all who sail with you.


Lyndon Walker Is a Psychologist, Psychotherapist, Educator, Writer and Poet living in Melbourne. He has five published books of poetry and was awarded the Pablo Neruda Prize for poetry in 1996. He is currently working on two novels.