Anna Kerdijk Nicholson’s Possession

Anna Kerdijk Nicholson, Possession (5 Islands Press 2010)

I picked this up because it’s shortlisted for the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards. I’m pleased to report, however, that I read it without Barry O’Farrell in mind, not even a bit.

The subtitle, ‘Poems about the voyage of Lt James Cook in the Endeavour 1768–1771’ seems to promise a book that’s squarely in the Australian Explorer Poem Tradition (AEPT). Kenneth Slessor’s ‘Five Visions of Captain Cook‘, James McAuley’s Captain Quiros, some of R D Fitzgerald’s poems dealt with sea exploration, and used to be studied at universities, and land exploration has grabbed the attention of many of our poets, notably Francis Webb (in whom I’m currently immersed). The book’s apparatus seems to confirm this promise: the page before the table of contents quotes from the Lords of the Admiralty’s instructions to Cook to ‘proceed to the southward in order to make discovery’ of the fabled Great South Land, and the poems are followed by a seven page chronology, beginning with his birth and ending 56 years after his death, with the death of his widow Elizabeth.

It’s true the book engages with Cook’s voyage of ‘discovery’, but it does so with a postmodern, post-colonial sensibility. There is a sense of overall unity, but no grand narrative, no unifying point of view, certainly not an unambiguous sense of Cook as hero. Unlike the main works of the AEPT, it doesn’t shy away from the less than honorable episodes of the voyage, or from the devastation it brought to many people – peoples, in fact. The 31 poems fall roughly into three kinds: most of them are addressed to Cook, with headers giving place and date, referring to incidents on his voyage (‘You imagine the scent of South Sea fruit on your fingers / and the lustful smells of fresh roast pig and cocoanut.’). A second kind are set in the early 21st century, mainly in Kangaroo Valley in New South Wales, and feature the poet, sometimes but not always with her mind on James Cook. And then there are half a dozen with the page header ‘Extracted from notes on a lost manuscript’, which are generally more elusively reflective: the first of these has the look of a found poem – a dictionary definition of ‘explore’, with etymology, not as dull or as neutral as you might expect.

I’m enjoying the book so far. It’s like a music album, that you need to play a few times before you’ve absorbed it, and maybe you’ll go back to it from time to time and find something new each time. I’m still at the absorbing stage. For example, the acknowledgements page tells us that the titles of individual poems ‘make reference to the poetries of’ five poets. None of the titles rang any bells for me, and Google shed no light, so evidently they aren’t direct quotes from those poets. Maybe one day I’ll come across the references, but for now I’m happy to stay in the dark, for the titles to remain a tease. That dictionary definition poem, for example, is titled ‘Each object we name and place leads us’ – I have no idea whose poetry that makes reference to, but it sits in nice tension with the poem.

This teasing intertextuality – which is echoed in the often oblique relationships between the modern and historical poems – is hardly in line with the cafe poet-in-residence program described in today’s SMH, which aims to ‘demystify the work of poets and deliver it to a broader audience’. But it’s fun – probably even more fun for people who get the references. I look forward to hearing Anna Kerdijk Nicholson read and perhaps talk at the Sydney Writers’ Festival next month.

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