Bonny Cassidy, Chatelaine (Giramondo 2017)
Note: This blog post is not a review of Chatelaine, a book of poems by Bonny Cassidy, a well-regarded poet who leads the Creative Writing Program at RMIT. I’ve written it because of a self-imposed requirement to blog about every book I read. I don’t mean my ruminations to disparage the poetry, and certainly don’t want to discourage anyone else from reading it and enjoying it.
I once did a short course in signed English. Soon after I graduated, a visitor to my workplace showed us a hand-written note, ‘I’m deaf. May I use your photocopier.’ I greeted her confidently with the sign for hello – and was then at a complete loss as she started to chat with great animation while photocopying. I appreciated the eloquence of her signing and her facial expressiveness, and tried to look intelligent, even laughing at an anecdote about – possibly – a mouse. But my pulse raced, I broke out in a sweat, and I failed to understand anything she said, apart from hello and thank you.
My experience reading the poems in Chatelaine was something like that. The analogy isn’t quite accurate, though. If my Auslan had been up to it the deaf woman and I could have had a conversation, whereas I’m pretty sure that these poems are doing something other than invite the reader to a conversation. Here’s a for-instance:
Sink this warning to our gully where the emus ram walls of uncoupled think. Under the easy homes and dread stem, drag the noisy secret the marble halls.
This reminds me of Noam Chomsky’s famous example of a sentence that is grammatically correct but semantically nonsense, ‘Colourless green ideas sleep furiously’, except that it doesn’t cohere grammatically either.
I needed help. The author’s note that came with my complimentary copy shed some light on what the poems are not doing:
The deceptive narrative of lyric poetry, for me, is reminiscent of mythic narratives of Australian settlement and also myths of femininity. I think this meeting point has something to say about what we believe to be credible, the blur between myth and events
That’s enticing. I like the idea of poetry that does away with deceptive and oppressive narratives. Or at least I thought I did.
The back cover blurb says of the book:
Its voices stalk across time and space inhabiting the genres of riddle, fragment, confession, lyric and ekphrasis, and returning to images of metamorphosis and position.
Again, that sounds exciting, but it didn’t help me read a single poem. Even a couple of poems that the Acknowledgements identify as ekphrastic (that is, responses to other works of art) remain stubbornly enigmatic – and perhaps would have even if the artworks they refer to had been identified.
I found a review by Anne Buchanan-Stewart in Plumwood Mountain (link here). It begins:
Bonny Cassidy’s Chatelaine is visceral, layered and driven by word constructs in an innovative lexicon of erotic topoi, ready to be open to contemporary interpretative potential – previously unworked.
I found myself echoing Prufrock: ‘I have heard the academic poets singing, each to each. I do not think that they will sing to me.’ But I did try to read the whole article. It included this:
– We usually want to understand, interpret, ascribe meaning to a poem and we usually want the words to tell us something, but perhaps it could be different.
– There is another way to get to the ‘it’ of the poem – through an encounter. An encounter with the language ‘it’ self and its materiality. We can consciously put aside our search for meaning.
But if language doesn’t have meaning, I almost wept, is it still language? I went back to the book and read on, not trying to ‘understand, interpret, ascribe meaning’ but to ‘encounter’ the poems.
To cut a very long story short, I failed. I really did spend time with these poems. I had glimmerings of something, but I failed to encounter anything in them.
Not every book is meant for every reader. This one, beautifully designed by Harry Williamson for Giramondo, isn’t for me. There’s a sweet quote from ‘Ask’ by the Smiths as an epigraph, which I take as a reproach:
Nature is a language, can't you read?