TEXT review

The call of the nomadic

review by Rose Lucas


Jen Crawford
Cordite, Melbourne 2016
ISBN: 9780994259684
Pb 77pp AUD20.00


Koel is Jen Crawford’s third poetry collection and it clearly demonstrates the development of a challenging but highly rewarding poetic voice. This is a poet both confident and experimental, who is pushing at the boundaries of place and movement, what is remembered and an immersive present tense, the human subject and the ‘environment’, what we know and what we don’t. In the preface, Crawford suggests: ‘I was looking for gaps to step through, for ways both forward and back’. Koel catapaults the reader through these gaps of uncertainty and possibility.

In the collection’s opening poem, ‘first call’, the image and sound of the koel bird is introduced, functioning as a kind of leitmotif across the textured slippages of the poetry’s rich imagery. This blue-black cuckoo bird with its bright red eye and long, persistent call – the onomatopoeic ‘ko-el’ – introduces several key concepts that weave throughout the poems that follow: an aesthetic of rich and compelling beauty; the parasitic cuckoo’s occupation of the nests of others, raising a parallel with the ways in which the self/artist might ‘use’ the specificity of various geographical places and ecosystems; and the sound of the call itself, a language we can only partially interpret. Using 51 words over 6 pages, this poem peels back the koel’s dense forest canopy, using the white space of the page and the clustering of discrete but connected words to focus our attention, asking the reader to follow the call from the cosmic to the particular – and out again:

koel                                                                                                        koel
soft as police


falling window
gaps pool
late moss


gate  caught leave


falling galaxy… (1-2)

Like the bird, sweeping through the rainforests of south-east Asia and down the east coast of Australia, Crawford’s imagery moves in and out of the lushness of a tropical biosphere and into drier environments. While clearly inspired by particular landscapes – the Introduction tells us New Zealand, Singapore, the Philippines, Australia – this is not a poetic which is explicitly about the specificity of place but rather of movement, a perpetual migration in and out of the here and the elsewhere, the fecund pulse of the organic world and its possibilities of metamorphosis. In the poem ‘planet of weeds’,Crawford plays with the idea of the human taxonomy of the ‘weed’ while suggesting a different kind of conceptual space, a ‘new world holding/dream dots out in pressureless trade’:

dry lichen fields the shift
between the seen unfelt and the felt unseen.
a slip-moon cut opens wood, soft
for the flood and the drought, fear,
hyphae, a line of taxis gathers
spirit at the gate, that there is
somewhere else to go, go on
… (7)

In a style reminiscent of the poet / dancer / film-maker Maya Deren, Crawford uses the image and the aesthetic of the experimental dancer Pina Bausch as the pivot for a series of poems, ‘I CAN SEE THROUGH MY EYEBALLS’ (21). Vision and senses blur, as we see and listen and feel through a sequence that cycles and repeats, forging a ‘dance’ of impression and discontinuity:

a white cliff of hearing water
is hearing a cliff-nest boiled in milk.
whiter the sea-mews boil in the jaws,
swim up through the hearing,
see through.

yonder a yolk, a yellow mew
falls from the sun to the milk
and we meet, climb the cliff’s veins
dry off in the clothespines
as pins in shadow, thin but holding
warm stones in hands. (24)

Key lines and imagery are returned to and varied – like a villanelle or the associative multi-sensorial art of Bausch or Deren: ‘pina is a blue tree, shadow,/ tall, with humorous hands’ (21) migrates into ‘pina was a blue tree, our shadow, tall, with humorous feet’ (23) and then ‘a giant set/ of blue trees, pina, what you said/ in the taxi was’ (25). Weaving in and out between observer and observed, seeing and hearing and touching, these poems unsettle as much as they intrigue, creating a web of associations, a zone between the logic of consciousness and the rhizomatic zone of dream which brings the reader to

…the crumbling edge,
then on the hard substrate soft
recently fallen. (25)

‘Saccade, saccade’ (25) the poems repeat – like the call of the koel bird, embodying the method of the entire collection. Look here, look here – what can be taken in, what can be interpreted in these jerking movements from one image to another, the frenetic movement between intense points of focus, the crumbling interstice?

The final long and extraordinary sequence, ‘soft shroud’, offers a kind of elemental experience of organic ending and beginning through a range of poems varied in their layout and style as well as content. The initial poem ‘in which’ seems to suggest a kind of Lincoln in the Bardo move into the fantastical as a way of representing the beyond-understandability of death: ‘a debtor undoes a suicide, travelling/ from graveyard excavation/ to floating ova’. As the poem ‘contents’ (31) ironically suggests, these poems move through fields of ‘earth, vacuum, air, water, fire’ as they attempt to excavate what lies beyond the ‘soft shroud’ that barely covers the corpse. Because death and loss function at the very edge of the precipice, that dense canopy of our living, speech and interpretation are almost impossible:

sarcophagus speech slides off it
thought effectively
slides off it. (35)

The nightmarish ‘council of knifebeaks’ (57), reminiscent of the ferocious colonisation of the koel, haunts this liminal space, levering open the suture between body and life, ‘slide whet edges/ for grey lips pink breast, a cut.’ However, there is also the promise of the cycle, the ‘little bubble/ a silver egg/ with a wet chin’ (62), an ‘egg of oscillation’(63) which may yet swing back, if the volcano’s fiery mantle should happen to fall ‘away from you’ (70).

Crawford’s poems will take a reader – who is willing to go – to strange and unsettling places. This is certainly poetry at the knife-edge of the experience of the nomadic human animal.



Dr Rose Lucas is a Melbourne poet. Her two collections, Even in the Dark (2013) and Unexpected Clearing (2016) were published by UWAP. She is currently completing her third collection, At the Point of Seeing. She teaches in the Graduate Research area at Victoria University.


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Vol 22 No 1 April 2018
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Julienne van Loon & Ross Watkins
Reviews Editors: Pablo Muslera & Amelia Walker