Parkville Days


review by Catharine Coleborne


Attic Dweller
Melissa Petrakis
Melbourne: Domain Media, 2002
66 pp, AU$25.00
ISBN 0 9585394 3 X


Melissa Petrakis is a Melbourne-based poet with two volumes of published poetry to her credit including Attic Dweller and The Naked Muse (2001), both published by Domain in South Yarra, Melbourne. This is my first encounter with her poetry. Attic Dweller is an attractive book, the kind I would linger over in a bookstore and enjoy before buying. Inside the front cover, the 'Attic' is explored through the themes of 'garret' (where poets sometimes dwell) 'high', 'elegant', and other metaphors of architectural style like 'wit' and 'taste'. Petrakis has used Roget's Thesaurus to evoke her own poetic space, and the resulting poetic edifice here is accomplished and neatly designed.

Petrakis is also reflecting on 'Parkville days, 1999' so we're invited to recall the elegance and physical spaces of inner-city Melbourne. Reading her work far away from the place, I am drawn back to its contours in many ways. In 'bagels & baby juice' (27) the poet shops and returns home with 'salmon focaccia / from Thresherman's'. The 'college air' evoked in 'the knowledge base' (31) is air I've also breathed, and the university is present elsewhere in this city. Places distant from Melbourne provide a little contrast: in 'at Cootamundra' (52) the poet tries out her landscape painting techniques and attempts to capture the spareness in the gum trees against sky.

But this is not poetry that lies still, simple, on the page, despite first appearances. It's the sometimes complex inner life of the poet that takes centre-stage in this work. And because identities are shaped by cities, I also recognize the emotional experiences articulated here as being part of a shared, collective city landscape, or a shared world beyond the city. Even the gums at Cootamundra say more than we thought:

a man's resolve
as the narrow
its reed-fragile
a deception.

(from 'at Cootamundra', 52)

I immediately liked the 'spareness' of this body of work. Whilst sometimes more prosaic than Petrakis perhaps intended, the poetry is well-observed and often acutely aware of the limitations of language, or one's grasp of it. One of my favourite poems is 'basil' (19). It tastes and smells of herbs, mushrooms and somehow, sex. 'I have a feeling', she writes, 'for which / I have no language'. Her inability to recall or simply to know the Greek words for herbs stands in for her inability to articulate everything - not every feeling can be described, or become a poem. This is an anxiety in Petrakis' poetry and it seems to be one common to female poets. Another poem, 'I lose my language' (21), reminds me, at least in terms of its theme, of Margaret Atwood's poetry, or Adrienne Rich's work.

It is also very brave work, because as in all the best poetry, the poet's voice is at once vulnerable and self-assured. The poem 'serious' (2), also used on the back cover of the book, takes an accusation - 'He says / I am serious / such a small, serious thing: / like coal, like / uranium / he says' - and pulls it apart, examines it, turns it in the hand like an object, to both make sense of it and to laugh at it. In the same way that reflecting upon how a word is spelt makes it seem strange, this poem says a great deal about the meaning of a word and conveys an irritation with its connotations.

Another poem here that impresses me, both in itself, and because of the function it performs in relation to the whole work, is 'American package' (54). I was curious about the story of the poem - 'A package has come / from America / three days ago / it has come / and I have not opened it' - partly because I would never be able to not open a parcel for three days, and mostly because here a whole other world outside the city suddenly intrudes, sneaks in, just as letters, postcards and parcels often do. I like finding out what's in the package: 'postcards / from places / in and around Seattle', and 'a child's statuette / from a Disney film, / bubble gum and temporary / body tattoos'. And I liked knowing that the things are sent by 'a friend I made once / on a train'.

So it's the inside and the outside worlds of the poet that matter in this poetry. Petrakis is perhaps at her best when observing others, or maintaining a careful distance from her subject matter. One of the most effective poems is 'Attending a reading' (56). It's a scene I also somehow know. It's visceral - 'her tongue/lashes to the side of him / and her tongue / slips from about / his shoulder' - and it is dark. It is about the public performance of poetry and the public performance of a relationship. There's a desire here to mark a defining moment and to capture, as one might in a photograph, an event that affected or left an impact on people.

The title poem 'Attic Dweller' (63) lifts the poetry up, somehow, and into another space, with its musical quality. Other poems are physical, and bend and twist; still others are about feeling cold or emotionally barren. Petrakis is at her best when looking outside herself, but her articulation of inner life works effectively here to scrape away the surfaces of life in the city and beyond it.

There are many good poems in this book. I can imagine them performed or read in the poetry haunts of Melbourne. Domain has produced the book in a high quality format. I look forward to more work from this poet.


Catharine Coleborne is an historian who lives and works in New Zealand. She studied poetry writing for a short time with Alan Wearne at RMIT. Her poems have been published in Antithesis, Moveable Type, Farrago and Small Poppies.

Attic Dweller is currently available at a number of independent and more mainstream bookshops in Melbourne, Victoria, and at Gleebooks in Glebe, NSW.


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Vol 7 No 2 October 2003
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Tess Brady