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Celebrating the Eternal Feminine

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I am that Woman by Vanessa Shields       Black Moss Press    Ca $17

I rarely review poetry, partly because I’m time poor and because temperamentally I am probably best suited to reviewing fiction. Nevertheless, some poets are very close to my heart. I dip into Eliot, Plath, Whitman, Keats, Ashbery, Bishop, even the odd line of Ginsberg, again and again. It’s the conciseness of poetry I love, the world freeze-framed, reality eye-blinked..

So when Canadian blogger and Books Now! subscriber Vanessa Shields asked me to review her first book of poetry, I am That Woman, I was delighted. It’s published this month and I’m happy to devote one of my last Books Now! posts before a four week hiatus, to her work.

IATW is a celebration of femaleness in all its rawness, sweat, blood, love and confusions. There are 60 poems in the collection. Some deal humorously with the difficulties of the post-partum body, as in How to Sneeze After You’ve Given Birth Twice; others with the challenges of parenting, coping with fretful kids, trying to write when the kids are vying for your attention. Some are souvenirs of childhood, the nascent blooming of adolescent’s female sexual power, others explore the power of friendship between women.

Shields is tough. In Using Cancer to Get Out of a Speeding Ticket a woman tells the police officer she was speeding in order to get home and take her cancer medication, when in reality she wants to see her favourite TV show. The twist is that the cancer is real – only the protagonist is in remission. This tension builds great irony, as well as raising a wry smile.

At her best, Shields tackles the great subjects, sex and death, with passion and compassion. In The Final Visitation, the poet visits a dying relative and gazes at his chest, now “Grey and black hair./Dappling the surface/Like seaweed on rippled skin sea”. Later, in Casket, she talks about the dead man,“ I have to hold him differently now/Not just in my arms/On my shoulders/In my blood.” This is vivid imagery which lingers.

Shields’ love poems are earth-woman rich, and she understands both sex and love in equal measure. One of my favourite poems is Where is the Love? Here, a woman and her partner try to rediscover their pre-kids attraction for each other in a world full of bottles and nappies. “Where is the love in this poem?/… In the passing glance he gives me as I wash the dishes/… in the way he tells me I’m beautiful even when I haven’t brushed my/hair and I can’t remember the last time I took a shower.” It’s these small details of recognisable everyday life that build this collection into a memorable portrait of a mother, wife, lover, friend and eternal woman. This is a debut full of promise and I look forward to seeing what Vanessa does next.

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All men are islands: Michelle de Kretser revisited

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Questions of Travel, by Michelle de Kretser

Published by: Allen & Unwin, $39.99

It’s no secret that I am a huge Michelle de Kretser fan, and would love to see Questions of Travel win the Miles Franklin Award this year. De Kretser is the bridesmaid of literary fiction, and though she’s won many prizes, has been passed over for major awards like the Man Booker and what used to be known as the Orange.  What I love about her work is the scope of her literary landscapes. She tracks down concepts, themes and ideas like a hungry hunter; satirical one moment, reflective the next, her prose is witty and elegant, her characterisations delve deep. And she respects her readers, offering them intelligent observations that make them think and question long-held values and assertions.

Questions of Travel was extensively reviewed when it appeared last year. The lives of its central characters, Ravi, who seeks asylum in Australia, and Laura, a compulsive nomad, are set out in dual, episodic narratives, each covering a similar timeline.  Laura travels the world, first just another Australian backpacker seeking new experiences, and then with increased emotional disconnectedness; Ravi longs to see the world and escape from the instability of war-torn Sri Lanka. Their life paths cross briefly when IT specialist Ravi and editor Laura work at the same travel publishing company in Sydney, then just as quickly spring apart. And though both experience the death of loved ones, longing and loneliness, this is not a conventional love story. So what is Questions of Travel about?

What strikes me on reading the reviews is that the novel resonates in many ways. For some it is a musing on the differences between the Third World and Australia; some approach it as an exploration on the nature of travel itself: does travel broaden the mind and our connectedness to others or simply reinforce cultural stereotypes? Others believe the work dissects changing patterns of society from the 1960s to 2004.

It is all of those things, of course, and more. The book’s two, seemingly contradictory, epigraphs offer a clue. The first is taken from a 1956 poem by Elizabeth Bishop: “But surely it would have been a pity/not to have seen the trees along the road/really exaggerated in their beauty.”  The second, from EM Forster’s Howard’s End: “Under cosmopolitanism, if it comes, we shall receive no help from the earth. Trees and meadows and mountains will only be a spectacle.”

De Kretser seems to favour an anti-pastoral, anti-Romantic view – arguing that the spectacular wonders of the world can be appreciated from a distance but offer little consolation in the ebb and flux of contemporary life. The expanse of the novel and its motley collection of characters, uncovers  violence, terrorism and murder, the plight of refugees, the  shallowness of modern sexual relationships, the snide humour of office politics. In London, Laura falls in love with Theo, a quintessential Romantic, the gay, self-destructive  son of German refugees who surrounds himself with kitsch objets trouvés and faux antiques, as a barricade against the passing years. In Sri Lanka and Australia, Ravi meets fellow-countrymen whose ambition and drive harness the Internet for commercial success.

It is within the world wide web that history and geography finally meet: arguably the most spectacular technological development of the 20th century, the Internet facilitates extraordinary freedom for virtual travel across time and space – yet its pathways are littered with abandoned websites, forgotten blogs and the flotsam and jetsam of dotcom failed start-ups. Questions of Travel suggests that our individual flight paths are equally littered with the debris of the human heart.

Read it: for intelligent, multi-layered narrative and superbly crafted prose.