Rhyll McMaster, Late Night Shopping (Brandl & Schlesinger 2012)
—, Washing the Money (Angus & Robertson 1986)
At Sappho’s recently, Kate Lilley said she had always enjoyed the work of the poet whose book she was launching but had never previously had to speak to that enjoyment, a very different and challenging thing. I sympathise. I enjoyed Late Night Shopping – a lot – but don’t know that I’m up to giving an account of my enjoyment. As often happens to me when I contemplate writing about poetry – any poetry from ‘My Love Is Like a Red Red Rose’ to, I dunno, Christopher Brennan’s translations of Mallarmé – I feel a bit lost for words. If you want a proper review of Late Night Shopping, I recommend Lyndon Walker in the Rochford Street Review. But here’s my two bobs’ worth.
‘The Shell’, the first poem in the book, confronts us with the fresh corpse of a woman who has died in hospital:
After that rasping sound when the woman died
she was bleached pale on the surface like a sponge.
The poem foreshadows the main subject of the collection: not so much death as the relationship between physical reality and the reality of the mind; ‘The mind [is] embodied and embrained’; ‘A sheep’s skull is a sculpted housing / fine and hard for a sheep’s brain, / built to retain its idea of itself’; or this, from ‘The Image of the Box’:
All philosophy's a game, It's a clever fox That stops us thinking of the universe as void condensed, a roaring silent trinket of energy rampant
It’s not nihilism or morbidity, but a kind of cool, radical wondering. On the one hand there’s the physical universe, including us, and on the other there’s what we make of it all. Rejecting illusion, perhaps, but still enchanted. The lines from ‘Nomenclature’, ‘Call the unknowable / what you will / from your dug-in position / on the side of a hill,’ could be read as advocating intellectual despair, but that hill, coming at the end of a poem full of abstractions, feels to me like a promise.
A number of poems are responses to images – a photograph, nine paintings by Sidney Nolan, five drawings by Terry Milligan. It seems to me that the surreal Nolan sequence, ‘Evolutionary History of Edward Kelly in Primary Colours’ needs to be read beside the paintings it refers to. As a public service, then, here are the Nolan paintings that I could identify from the notes on the poems, with the name of the poems that refer to each of them (I’ve struggled with the formatting here. I hope it looks the same in your browser as it does in mine):
The day I finished reading Late Night Shopping for the first time, I found a copy of Rhyll McMaster’s Washing the Money, published 26 years earlier, in a secondhand bookshelf (the aforementioned Sappho’s, as it happens). Self-described as ‘Poems with Photographs’, this is full of verbal snapshots of the poet’s early life and her life as a young mother. These poems give us the remembered world of a 1950s childhood in precise detail – a ‘narrow crack at finger-running height’ in a brick wall, a newspaper delivered ‘with a stuffed thud’, ‘grandma’s hair like silkworm thread’. There are actual photos, and some of the poems are responses to them; other poems refer to photos not included.
This book spoke to me in a very personal way: Rhyll McMaster and I were both born in Queensland in 1947, so when she uses words like ‘port’ and ‘togs’ I’m there. The family car, the beach excursions, the mosquito nets are all home territory for me. My father didn’t wash and iron the family’s money at weekends, but the description of the notes strikes a chord. (Incidentally, the poem ‘Washing the Money’, which documents a weird family ritual to comic effect, becomes a rich and deep reflection on family connections when read, as it was by me, with the recent book’s elegiac ‘His Ordered World’ fresh in the mind.)
My biggest pleasure from this book, though, was a piece of uncanny serendipity. Among the photographs is a 1939 studio portrait of the poet’s mother, Jean Isobel. Here it is, and next to it is a studio portrait of my own mother, Esme Isabel, taken a few years earlier. It’s not the first time I’ve felt that a writer knew something very private about me, but I don’t know that any other book has ever come this close:
Dear Jonathan, Thank you so much for your dual reviews. I think you have correctly identified what I’m interested in: “the relationship between physical reality and the reality of the mind”. You have gone to so much trouble to match the Nolan paintings, and your other insightful comments really did bring tears of gratitude to my eyes as I read your thoughtful response. This is the sort of review that writers wait for: one that has struck a personal chord in the reader. Thank you again. Rhyll
And the photographs of those two tender young women, side by side, looking into their lives … heartbreaking.
Thanks for commenting, Rhyll. I’m glad you like the post. ‘Tender’ is just the right word for them, tender and so beautiful.