Emma Lew, Crow College: New and Selected Poems (Giramondo 2019)
This book’s cover image, from a painting by Maryanne Coutts, hints at a dark, elusive narrative. A woman whose face is turned away from us engages in an activity that is far from clear and possibly dangerous. It could be a moment from a dream. Many of Emma Lew’s poems have a similar sense of being spoken from the midst of a dark, elusive narrative. The ‘I’ is invariably hard to pin down: you may (as I, naively, did) start out thinking the poems feature Lew speaking in her own voice but you soon realise you’re wrong. In fact, most of the time it’s hard to have any sense of Emma Lew’s engagement except as a crafter of highly-charged enigmas. In his review of this book, Martin Duwell writes that he once surmised that Lew’s characteristic poem
was based on something like putting the characters of one novel into a quite different novel (usually Central European or Russian) – say like transferring the characters of Great Expectations into Pasternak’s Dr Zhivago – isolating a scene and then writing it as a fragmented monologue or third person narration removing all clues as to what either of the original novels might have been.Australian Poetry Review at this link
He has discarded that hypothesis, but it does a nice job of evoking both the drama and the disorientation one experiences reading many of the poems in this book.
Evidently the Giramondo team felt that readers might need a little help with that disorientation, because whereas most books of poetry have minimal guidance in how to read them, this one includes an introduction by poet Bella Li. I generally avoid introductions, but I read this one hoping it would help me blog coherently. I also read a number of reviews, including the excellent one by Martin Duwell quoted above and one by Ross Gibson – author of the brilliant books Seven Versions of an Australian Badland and 26 Views of the Starburst World [links to my blog posts] – in Sydney Review of Books [here’s a link].
Everything I read about the poetry is interesting (though Ross Gibson’s prose at times went off into academic incomprehensibility). What I realised is not that I didn’t understand what was happening in the poems, but that I didn’t get how to enjoy them.
My copy of the book is an ARC (advanced reading copy) which comes with a request not to quote from it, but I can’t bear to end without giving my readers at least a small taste. This is the start of the relatively straightforward ‘Kanipshins’, whose title the internet says is a Yiddish word meaning fits or temper tantrums (for some reason WordPress is being difficult with line breaks; please overlook the weird line spacing here):
In consideration for my mother the yacht got free of its moorings. 'Just bring him home: I'll decide who's handsome.' We tried to quarrel quietly in the bathroom. She had kept certain phrases for this moment but ended up expressing desperation through the elaborateness of her hairdo, and drama, the way she salted her food.
See what I mean? There’s a slantwise portrait of a mother daughter relationship there: the daughter brings a boyfriend/suitor home for the mother to evaluate; the young people find a little privacy in the bathroom; the mother communicates in non-verbal ways. But what is the broader picture presumably alluded to in the first two lines? should we care what the young people are quarrelling about? Is it the mother who is desperate, and why? These are questions that have no answers. The poem continues (I think) with the mother hectoring the daughter to marry the young man, but just as you think you’re following the story, it goes somewhere quite unexpected and enigmatic:
The drug companies did the serenading, but how the girdle must have hurt!
And there are a couple more twists before the end, including the wonderfull but elusive line ‘holding lilies, almost apoplectic’. Could be a narrative – a dramatic monologue or the abstract of a short film or play – but without establishing shots or guideposts. So it offers some of the pleasures of story while refusing others. It’s not my cup of tea, but I can see that it’s very good.
Crow College is the thirty-eighth and last book I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge. My copy is an ARC from Giramondo Publishing.