Melinda Smith’s Drag down to unlock or place an emergency call

Melinda Smith, Drag down to unlock or place an emergency call (Pitt Street Poets 2014)

melinda-smithThe most striking feature of this poetry collection is its wild variation in tone.

Take the ten poems in the book’s first section, ‘Uploads’. First comes ‘Passengers are reminded‘ (this and other links are to the poems on the poet’s website, Melinda Smith’s Mull and Fiddle): the speaker, on the way to a funeral, is held up by a delayed train, and her emotional state is evoked obliquely but powerfully. This is followed by a number of direct evocations of grief and loss, though the milieu becomes more literary (one poem is an address to Janet Frame) and the verse more formal (a fine villanelle, ‘Roadside Memorials‘, a pantoum and two syllable-counting haiku). Then the subject switches to divorce, and  the the tone changes abruptly: ‘Decree Nisi’ is pure verbal display, comprising 30 anagrams of its title, and the section’s final poem, ‘bittertweet’, is a cleverly vindictive, multilayered tweet-joke. It feels as if a rug has been pulled out from under the reader. But each poem in the section works in its own right, so all is well.

In the second section, it feels as if war has broken out. There are a number of powerful poems about pregnancy, miscarriage, labour, birth, postnatal depression, motherhood. Take this, from ‘Woman’s Work’:

A new body heaves from her into the light.
Exhaustion melts her. The women pass her the child;
the singers chant again:
Praise her, she has endured the great trial and renewed the life of the world.

Or take ‘Given‘, a response to Francis Webb’s great ‘Five Days Old’. Without detracting from Webb’s wonder as the miracle of a baby is given into his hands, it reminds us of the woman’s experience that has produced and sustains the miracle. ‘Untitled’, addressed to a baby lost at 11 weeks of pregnancy, tears at the heart.

Then – wham! – there are poems that mock or belittle those huge emotions. ‘A birth’, for example, ends, ‘Serenity explodes. I need a beer.’ And  the jaunty ‘Song of the anti-depressant’ in this context reads as an enactment of the great Australian embarrassment that compulsively attacks any show of emotion with a joke.

The mood swings continue in the remaining three sections: ‘News’, ‘Sport’ and ‘Weather’, though the self-deprecatory comic comes more to the fore so that heartfelt love lyrics, serious reflections or, say, ‘Laura to Petrarch’ (in which the beloved writes back – and comes close to calling Petrarch a stalker), are undermined by generally unfunny comic pieces about infidelity, the internet, the weather, and especially an ‘eat drink and be merry’ response to climate change that left a very sour taste in this reader’s mouth.

This book won the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for poetry last year, not one of the controversial winners. I bought my copy on the strength of the award, but while I’m confident it would be a pleasure to attend a poetry reading that included Melinda Smith, I won’t be rushing out to buy the next book given a gong by that set of judges.

aww-badge-2015

This is the fifth book I’ve read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2015.

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