review by Mags Webster
A Frances Johnson
In her latest, and strikingly titled book of poems, award-winning poet A Frances Johnson presents ‘anti-pastoral, anti-war poems’, and produces a body of work which ‘puns on the idea of a song lyric, translation, surrender and also torture’ (Melbourne Prize for Literature 2018).
Rarely has a collection’s title seemed so apt. This book, a finalist in the 2018 Melbourne Prize for Literature, is a grenade wrapped in velvet, lobbed towards the reader with perfect pitch. Rendition, as a term used in the spying world, carries connotations of anonymous airstrips, undocumented flights, black-hooded figures bundled into and wrenched from the bellies of aircraft; final reckonings. Yet rendition also means performance, translation, and expression, hence the instruments of war and Aeolian idyll: Kalashnikov and harp. With Johnson as its accomplished composer and conductor, this poetic duet performs a score of discord and harmony, expressing humankind’s paradoxical capacity for cruelty and deep tenderness, played out in theatres of war, society, family and belief. Johnson wields her poetic material as weapon and as propitiation: in each poem can be detected the redemptive glissando of the harp, and the bitter retort of the machine gun.
The book is separated into thirds. Part I, ‘Soar’, begins in the battlefield, with some poems negotiating the politics of razor wire in ‘Fuse’ (14) and ‘Free Quote’ (21) and others exploring the physics and theory of military drone construction. The drones owe their design (and some their name) to creatures that often symbolise harmony with nature in Romantic art forms: dragonflies, bees, and hummingbirds. Johnson skewers this dissonance, this collision of natural and manmade, of the pastoral and the apocalyptic, exposing the insidious fascination of weaponised bio-mimicry: ‘It began with structural analysis / of a dragonfly wing’ (11). Here, ‘in the insectless heat of high summer’ (11), ‘the bird’ understands flight and air in terms of
In this perverted guise, a ‘hummingbird’ wreaks destruction on marketplaces and fields, children and families; civilians such as Momina Bibi, killed in front of her two grandchildren while out gathering okra. Those the drones do not kill, they nonetheless damage irrevocably. Witness the war photographer who tries to avoid ‘dining out / on his award-winning photograph’ (15) and yet ‘next night … books a restaurant, a good one’ (15).
And what of poetry in these killing fields? What place has the lyric – ‘less reliable in open space, but more flexible than fixed-wing models’ (18) – asks Johnson in ‘Unmanned aerial vehicle versus poem’ (18). She notes in ‘Hummingbird’ (12) that:
The ancient Middle Eastern ghazal, comprising hypnotic rhythms of repeated sounds owing to its mono-rhyme structure, is usually a love poem. This, however, is the 21st century version: bastardised, a missive of death, capable only of one line ending.
‘Soar’ ends with another looming apocalypse: this time environmental. Instead of eulogising the excess of nature, contemporary Romanticism means eyeing ‘implanted hills / meadows of plastic, / rhymed ocean spills’ (30). In ‘Ultima Thule: Swimming lessons’ (27), situated as the prophecy – Anthropocene rather than Biblical – of inundation is fulfilled, and all low-lying land submerged, the speaker laments ‘No-one thought on how to build a boat. / What to do when the water came’ (28). Noah had some form of warning too; but at least Noah knew what to do. Sexism ‘High-altitude archaeologist’ (33); patronising and shallow understandings of First Nation people ‘Australian Awe’ (35), and a bleak yet banal eventual decimation of the human race ‘Call Centre’ (38) round off this powerful first section.
Part II, ‘Sore’, moves into more intimate territory, beginning with a sequence of five ‘anti-elegies’ written for a deceased father. These poems are lit with humour that almost conceals the pain: in ‘Anti-elegy 2: You are here’ (44) a life re-plotted (literally) to a cemetery map reference: ‘44 E 19. Row Seven’ (44). In ‘Anti-Elegy 3: First Xmas’ (45), the poem’s speaker invokes Marley’s Ghost: ‘If you must do the clanking chain / and sheet…’ (45), while ‘Anti-Elegy 4: Spade’ (46) begins:
Yet positioning this sequence as anti-elegy, anti-sentiment throws into stark relief the pain and the denial that comes with grieving: ‘Anti-Elegy 4: Spade’ ends with the speaker hearing the father’s posthumous voice:
Kalashnikov and harp are fully audible in poems like ‘The Gearing’ (51), an exquisitely heartbreaking biography of, one surmises, the father of the earlier poems. And they are also present in eight extraordinary poems that conclude ‘Sore’: poems that address the untimely illness and death of a beloved sister-in-law; the impotence, actual or perceived, of being unable to do anything other than help select wigs; the unpreparedness of bereavement, even when expected; the inadequacy of substitution:
Part III, ‘Saw’, is the shortest: nine poems, examining the ‘wrenched vocabularies’ (74) of the histories and culture belonging to and awkwardly shared between settlers, refugees, colonialists, and religious ideologies. Each poem deserves more examination than space allows, however, a brief look at ‘Pilgrims’ illustrates the juxtaposition of harp music gunfire. We see ‘the rouged glass mouth / of a window rose’ luring pilgrims to the Vatican. A violent change of gear: ‘Jesus, the smell of cheap hotels!’ and the speciousness of ‘a beringed hand high above… / pockets full of secreted condoms’ (82).
Johnson conjures images – the moon emitting a ‘bruised, satin light’ from ‘Icarus at the all-night supply’ (36), oil spills making ‘wounded rainbows’ from ‘Tow’ (13) – with a sure touch in form, whether prose poem, or stanzaic. These poems are indeed ‘explosions in small rooms’ (12), bringing to mind some lines from Rumi – a poet with whose work Johnson is clearly very familiar – in which the Sufi suggests the best way of learning is through the wound:
Poets have always known that the best meta-lens through which to contemplate, interrogate, and expose all the contradictions of the human condition is a poetic one. As Johnson shows, poetry can refract any topic from wartime atrocities, death and disease to a cultural and collective dis-ease. And poetry can magnify grace. Tilt the lens and the poem is a Kalashnikov. Tilt it again, the poem’s a harp.
Mags Webster is completing a PhD at Murdoch University. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing (City University of Hong Kong), a BA in English and Creative Writing (Murdoch University), and BA (Hons) in English and Drama (University of Kent). Her first poetry collection The Weather of Tongues (Sunline Press) won Australia’s Anne Elder Award. Her next collection, Nothing to Declare, is published by Puncher & Wattman.
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Vol 23 No 2 October 2019
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Julienne van Loon & Ross Watkins
Reviews editors: Pablo Muslera & Amelia Walker. Assistant reviews editor: Simon Telford