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
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 : http://www.rhyllmcmaster.com/ ) 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
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.
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.