Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 30, 2014

The End of the World, poems by Maria Takolander, Guest review by Karenlee Thompson #BookReview

Takolander-frontcover-214x300Poetry, as regular readers of this blog know, is outside my field of expertise, so I don’t review it.  I am very grateful to my good friend Karenlee Thompson for sharing her insights about Maria Takolander’s latest collection, published by Giramondo.

Good things come, as the saying goes, in small packages.

The End of the World is a precise and economical collection of poems by Maria Takolander presented in a neat little 78 page paperback. It’s Takolander’s third poetry collection, following on from Narcissism (2005) and Ghostly Subjects (2009).

Takolander’s poems are excruciatingly daring, despite some every-day domestic subjects.

The first two poems ‘Unborn’ and ‘Post-partum’ are linked in exactly the sense that the titles suggest.  Poetry can often seem inaccessible but I was instantly seduced by the recognizable in the surreal animal-ness of these poems about motherhood.

The very first stanza (Morning Sickness) of the first poem (Unborn) is a tour de force. A newly pregnant woman dreams of a sow giving birth to a litter. ‘…their lids were serene,/as if eyes did not exist, and their ears were closed/to the sound of their own not screaming…’ The two other stanzas ‘Ultrasound’ and ‘Foetal Movement’ continue the pregnancy journey.  What modern-day mother (or father) wouldn’t relate to seeing the first grainy pictures of their baby: ‘As I watch you shadow box with sourness, radiance and din,/the sources of which you must fear like a medieval Christian,/.’ It’s all here in these two poems: the joy, the blood, the recognition, the pain and violence. Every word perfectly precise, perfectly descriptive, perfect.

The motherhood theme continues in this collection (which Takolander has dedicated to her son) and, in ‘Night Feed’, the baby is a ‘time traveller at my breast’.  Once again, the poet is tapping in to the universal experience through the deeply personal for haven’t we all wondered where babies have been, what knowledge they are coveting, what their slot is in time and their place in relation to ourselves?

As two little girls in their pyjamas navigate the aftermath of violence in ‘Domestic’, we are confronted with the interior of a broken TV which looks ‘bereft’, and the mess of a broken pot plant with its soil and roots and shards of terracotta littering the room ‘as if Triffids had escaped.’

The collection unfolds naturally, from the deeply personal (a woman’s body, a mother and a baby, a family broken) outward to the wider world of alien surrounds and different countries, wars and dead relatives, to Stalin and convicts.

The hotel room of the first poem in Section two with its beige bed cover that ‘has been ironed of dreams’ is a place ‘furnished by sanity’. Once again, so accessible, so recognizable is this room, even when painted in the language of the poet.

‘Missing in Action’ is about men lost in wars, a grandmother ‘dead soon after she got an electric stove’, others who succumbed to alcohol and, poignantly:

Three other uncles: heart attacks – possibly euphemistic.                 (Pictures of those men, modest and blank faced,                 Suggest something already buried.)

Part three begins with ‘Cesare Lombroso, Criminal Anthropologist’ and as I read the following…

                4 rapists, sparkly-eyed.                 6 prostitutes, furnished thickly with hair.                 3 thin-lipped murderers.

…I realised that I was, rather macabrely, almost singing it a-la ‘and a partridge in a pear tree’.

‘Charcot’s Patients’ brings together the historic and the contemporary with a fine dose of black humour, ending with:

Years later – with Charcot posthumously celebrated                 as the founder of Charcot’s disease –                 the Salpetriere hospital in Paris receives the body of Princess Diana, freshly deranged and photographed.  

The final poems use a kind of reverse anthropomorphism to highlight the foibles of the human animal.  Some bizarre imagery emerges from donkeys sitting at a plastic table watching the sunset, a goat dropping a fishing line from the jetty and then throwing a tantrum, and a spectator-pig watching a collection of animals playing sport.

After reviewing Takolander’s first collection of short stories and now this collection of poems, I had formed an imaginary view of her (in that way we tend to do when we’ve spoken to someone via phone numerous times over a period).  And, as is often the way, my picture was just about as far from the reality as it was possible to get.  I expected something haunted and hardened behind dark eyes.  Rather (as Google reveals) she looks soft and innocent, the girl-next-door in a Doris Day mode and most unlike a writer of such deep bleakness and violence.  That’s not to suggest that there’s not some light and laughter here between the lines but it is that kind of underbelly power that forms the lasting impression for me.

 

© Karenlee Thompson

Karen Lee ThompsonKarenlee Thompson is an author and an occasional reviewer for The Australian and was featured on Meet an Aussie Author in 2011.  Her debut novel 8 States of Catastrophe is reviewed on the ANZ LitLovers blog here.  Karen blogs at Karenlee Thompson.

Karen has also noted that the publication of this collection of poems was assisted by the Commonwealth Government through the Australia Council. And she further comments that a couple of poet friends of hers sense some irony in the fact that many of these poems have previously appeared in esteemed publications while exceptional works of unknown poets languish – without funding – in bottom drawers. A subject worth debating perhaps.

This prompted me to take a quick look at my pile of books for review, because, as a reader rather than a writer, I had never taken any notice of funding issues.  I discovered that five books on the pile were supported by the Australian Council for the Arts, and one was supported by Arts Victoria.  All of them were previously published authors but a sample of six isn’t big enough to draw any conclusions.   So  I took a look at their guidelines and noted that:

  • the council is in transition to reforms which will create a new grants structure and an increase the diversity and breadth of peers who assess the applications
  • ‘reform’ and ‘increased flexibility’ is usually politician-code for less money, but the AC has actually had an increase in funding.  (Yes, I was very surprised too).
  • there are always more applicants than the available funding can support
  • they distinguish between what they call ‘Mid-list writers’ and ‘New work’ but their criteria to choose between applicants for funding within these categories isn’t specified.  (Or if it is, I couldn’t find it).

All, this leaves me none the wiser about the fairness or otherwise of AC funding, but I think it’s a miracle that grants for anybody have survived because market-driven bean counters usually do their best to get rid them!

Thanks, Karenlee, for once again sharing your expertise in reviewing!

Cross-posted at Karenlee Thompson

Author: Maria Takolander
Title: The End of the World.
Publisher:
Giramondo Publishing Company, 2014.
ISBN 9781922146519
Source: Review copy courtesy of Giramondo.

 


Responses

  1. I recently had a semi-argument with someone about finding for writers. I’m not really familiar with the structure of the funding programs (so perhaps I should just shut up) but from time to time I notice that someone (often quite a well-known writer) has been given a grant that seems to mean they have an income for a year or so while they work on the book – not a lavish income, of course, but the wolf steps back from the door a few paces. What I would like to see instead of this is more support for the publication of midlist authors who have proved their calibre but are dropped by publishers because they don’t sell well, and for innovative prose works as well as poetry. I mean by that that the funding goes into publication, not directly to the author.

    • It’s a complex issue, I think. So many competing needs and always hamstrung by the fact that Australia is a small market trying to complete with US and UK behemoths. I think we need to support the actual writing of books so that authors can take time out from earning a living to write, and this is especially so for anyone with family responsibilities. How to allocate it is tricky: a midlist author may have a reasonable income from previous books, while a well established author may have earned next to nothing if writing innovative books that are brilliant but don’t sell well. And then there’s the debut authors who may need a leg up or their careers may never get off the ground in the first place. Juggling the author’s income needs with their potential to write a book that’s culturally valuable must be a nightmare for those that have to do the deciding.

  2. Yes, it would be interesting to know just how they do that juggling. It may be another of those areas in which you need to be an expert submission writer.
    In which case I should probably apply: at work I had a real genius for making a piddling QI project seem vitally important. They called me their spin doctor.


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