TEXT review

Outward-looking poetry: Michelle Cahill’s The Herring Lass

review by Geoff Page


Michelle Cahill
The Herring Lass
Arc Publications, Todmorden Lancs 2016
ISBN 9781910345764
Pb 77pp AUD17.00


It is instructive to compare Michelle Cahill’s third collection, The Herring Lass, with her rather different second one, Vishvarupa. The latter was primarily concerned with Hindu religion and mythology, written from an ‘outsider’s’, if slightly privileged, angle. Cahill (with Indian ancestry) was born in Kenya, grew up in England and moved to Sydney in her teens.

The poems in Vishvarupa were informative, sometimes playful, and generally fairly direct. In The Herring Lass, however, Cahill is more concerned with history, metaphoric energy and the symbolic function of weather. A clue may be found in her poem, ‘Heptonstall’, the place where Sylvia Plath is buried. Plath’s name is not mentioned directly but her influence in this poem, and the collection more generally, is pervasive. ‘The heavens rupture, bright above / the buttressed woods, stippled leaves initial // the sun’s secrets in rose gold (30). Later in the poem, Cahill notes: ‘The ash tree in the churchyard bleeds red berries / spilled and bruised, badly in need of cautery’ (31).

It’s interesting to compare these lines with a random excerpt from Plath herself: ‘Inside the church, the saints will be all blue, / Floating on their delicate feet over the cold pews, / Their hands stiff with holiness / The moon sees nothing of this. She is bald and wild. / And the message of the yew tree is blackness — blackness and silence.’ (‘The Moon and the Yew Tree’: Plath 1981: 172)

In both there is intense and dramatic energy but it’s hard to avoid the impression that Plath’s is the more focused and productive of a clear result. It’s worth noting too, more generally, that the intensity in Cahill’s poems tends to come from injustices associated with unrestrained capitalism and imperialism where Plath’s seems more often to stem from the conflicts in her own psyche (and, as she was keen to point out, their wider application to history and world events).

One of Cahill’s undoubted strengths, however, is her talent for empathy. Two fine examples of it can be seen in the title poem, ‘The Herring Lass’ and in ‘Bear’. The first situates Cahill’s eponymous heroine in the midst of her exploitation: ‘All day, men bustle in the courtyard, children stray. / A blacksmith smites metal, fishermen wait on a shilling, / whittle a stick along the wall, no word exchanged. // She tramps from port to port, from Crail to Pittenween. / The day unfinished, her children yet to be fed (11).

In ‘Bear’, on the other hand, Cahill speaks persuasively from the complex viewpoint of an embattled polar bear and easily overcomes the risk of anthropomorphism with lines such as: ‘The Inuit know the fabric of my flesh, my pelt. / Our rule is eat or be killed, every tracker perseveres. / We are kin, forced onshore, it became a necessary / disruption, the quotas outdone, the ice melting’ (28).

It is in poems such as these two, when the poet is clearly focussed on a particular subject’s situation, that Cahill is at her most affecting. Strangely perhaps, some of the best poems in The Herring Lass are probably its most atypical. ‘Taboo’ is a good example. It’s a blank verse sonnet which appears to detail an episode of street violence experienced by the poet (or her protagonist). The first three lines set up what some might see as a ‘politically incorrect’ situation these days i.e. giving the ethnicity of a perpetrator. ‘After dinner he was bashed by an Islander / at Circular Quay, because I looked too fresh / and he was antique white, his hair receding’ (62). The whole poem is a forceful demonstration how things don’t always work in our deservedly-praised multicultural society. In fourteen lines with almost no rhetoric, Cahill gets straight to the point (and out again). When there is a ‘poetic’ touch, as in the last couplet, it helps the poem to resonate truthfully: ‘That was my twisted shit; I guess we strayed / too close to the jetty sinking in the lapsed night’ (62).


Work cited



Geoff Page is a Canberra-based Australian poet who has published twenty-two collections of poetry as well as two novels, five verse novels and several other works including anthologies, translations and a biography of the jazz musician, Bernie McGann. His latest books are PLEVNA: A Biography in Verse (UWA Publishing 2016) and Hard Horizons (Pitt Street Poetry 2017).


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Vol 21 No 2 October 2017
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy, Enza Gandolfo & Julienne van Loon
Reviews editor: Linda Weste