TEXT review

A shrine to the fragment

review by Chloe Wilson


Pulse: Prose Poems
Shane Strange and Monica Carroll (eds)
The Prose Poetry Project
Recent Work Press, Canberra ACT 2016
ISBN 9780994456519
Pb no page numbers AUD9.95


One of the prose poems in Pulse, the second anthology to be produced by the Prose Poetry Project (after Seam, 2015), begins with Carolus Linnaeus’s definition of taxonomy: ‘the identification / of characteristics that sort instances into / groups’. This definition seems an apt description of Pulse itself; the anthology presents an extensive range of ‘instances’ of prose poetry, and proceeds to classify them into groups, where poems are linked by characteristics that are thematic, rather than formal.

The Prose Poetry Project, based at the University of Canberra, consists of a group of writers working, sometimes collaboratively, in what the editors of this anthology describe as an ‘undecidable’ form. This quality of unresolvable indecision, of occupying ‘a space somewhere in between’ poetry and prose, is put forward as the essential quality of the prose poem. This space, however, is expansive, and a strength of Pulse is its demonstration of the elasticity of the form it explores. One style of prose poem it features is the compact narrative:

Once when we travelled you wore a key
about your neck. People would stop and
ask you what it opened — your heart, your
home, the centre of the earth — but you
insisted it was just a key that opened nothing
extraordinary. Only to the Japanese waiter
in the crypt at St Martin in the Fields did
you allow any concession. When he asked
if he might use it, you answered, perhaps.

This is one of the more straightforward works in Pulse. It contains character, setting, a type of closure. And yet, the work is also deft in its deployment of the compression, and the tendency towards ellipsis, that one might associate with certain types of poetry; the conclusion is satisfying, even resonant, though the reader is no closer to understanding the key’s significance or purpose.

Other poems – a visceral imagining of why a raven is like a writing desk, a vivid evocation of a woman with ‘borrowed arms and legs’ walking on a tightrope which ‘dissolves / into a flight of rainforest kingfishers’ – are less concerned with narrative, and more with striking imagery, and the way the prose poem allows for thought to lead to thought by sound and association, rather than the linear progression of ideas. There are also works which reflect explicitly on the form of prose poetry:

The cup said, ‘I no longer need to be held.’
Only the dog was home to hear it. In this
poem the dog whispered to the glare from
windows on far away houses. In another
poem someone denies that cups have
language. If you heave open that heavy door
(by the brass handle) you can break the hum
of the room. The short story described the
handle as less than brass and unattainable.

The mentioned ‘poem’ and ‘short story’ dispute the scene being presented, and yet those works – which have presumably ‘decided’ that they belong to one of the forms the prose poem navigates between, and express their own certainties accordingly – do not exist. The prose poem, with characteristic uncertainty, thus denies and asserts itself at once.

Pulse’s definition of prose poetry is deliberately broad. The anthology includes poems with narrative, descriptive, lyric and metatextual modes, as well as cryptic fragments and satire. It even includes the occasional piece which exploits the inescapable blockiness of the prose poem; one poem which at first appears to merely repeat the question ‘if you can’t trust the future, who can you trust?’ proves to be structurally complex, allowing the question to reflect and echo across lines, and the poem’s rectangular shape to become labyrinthine.

The arrangement of Pulse is curious. The book is without page numbers, and all poems are without titles. The poems do not have the author’s name attached; to discover the author of any individual poem, a reader is obliged to consult the list at the back of the anthology. There are two curated sequences of prose poems, one arranged by each editor, and these long sequences are then grouped into discrete cells of differing numbers of poems, collected by theme; the anthology’s editors state in the preface that they hope the result of this arrangement is to have a ‘“pulse” of meaning beating through the book’.

The themes of poems in each group are often surprisingly concrete. In the book’s first sequence, there are poems about jazz and blues music, then later, poems which present images of butterflies, and poems which explore a latent threat of violence, particularly in pastoral life; a poem in which a pet pig is shot sits alongside another in which a speaker asserts their refusal to eat bacon.

Other connections are less tangible; in the second sequence, for example, a group of poems is joined by richly colourful images which suggest eventual decay or destruction. There is, in one, a pigment ‘often used by painters as the neutralis- / ing layer beneath pink skin, a knowledge / of earth climbing into fleshy tones,’ and similar imagery later occurs in domestic scenes: one in which we see ‘the salad dregs / by the cold chop fat’ and another in which ‘the beans are burnished / gold, and the asparagus glows red.’

While it is certainly enjoyable to consider the poems in the order they have been presented, and to locate connections between them, I did wonder how necessary it was to split the poems into so many discrete groups. There seem to be themes and motifs (time and nostalgia, ruptured intimacies, and images of the sea among them) which suffuse the entire collection, and the current sequencing does tend to direct a reader’s attention, perhaps distracting from other ways in which the poems correspond to one another.

On the whole, however, this is a dynamic collection with a strong sense of purpose. ‘I’m making a shrine to the fragment,’ one prose poem begins; a fitting sentiment for Pulse, which demonstrates convincingly that the prose poem’s ‘undecidable’ nature is the source of its vitality.



Chloe Wilson is the author of two poetry collections, The Mermaid Problem and Not Fox Nor Axe, which was shortlisted for the 2016 Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry and the Judith Wright Calanthe Award. She received equal first prize in the 2016 Josephine Ulrick Poetry Prize, and has been awarded the John Marsden Prize for Young Australian Writers, the (Melbourne) Lord Mayor´s Creative Writing Award for Poetry, the Gwen Harwood Poetry Prize, the Fish Publishing Flash Fiction Prize and the Arts Queensland Val Vallis Award. She holds a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Melbourne.


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Vol 20 No 2 October 2016
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy & Enza Gandolfo
Reviews editor: Linda Weste