Reviewed by Ian Lipke
Caitlin Maling is an experienced poet with several publications to her record. Fish Song is her third book of verse. Her affinity with ordinary Australians is captured by her dedication to her husband with a sly dig at him in a parlance every ordinary bloke would understand immediately: To Greg – the Mongrel. All sorts of descriptions of this dedication could be proposed, but Australians know that the highest mark of friendship, mate, is intended.
Maling places one particular poem in the most advantageous spot in her collection. This is The Drowned Man. It seems to be about an ordinary workingman’s family whose parents would love to have the money to put a deposit on a house. There is a reference to the husband and wife in bed where she is able to run his long hair through her fingers. The final line of the poem suggests that the wife falls pregnant that night. Next day, overhung from too much drinking, a substitute standing in for the husband, is involved in an incident and drowns.
There is not a great deal in the story to make a comment on, but the language offers a bit more. There is a beautiful example of a sustained metaphor in the second verse:
Dad says that he knew the weather was turning
When the draught started drawing without a head (9 – 10)
And then there is a reference to ‘hungover’. Line 10 tells us that the draught beer being drawn
had no froth on the top (no head). She follows this with
And the man who took his place splayed on Swansea Beach
Weed weaving through his hair like the song of a vine (12 – 13)
directing our attention back to the wife running her husband’s hair through her fingers in the first stanza. Note the man’s helplessness and openness conveyed by the word ‘splayed’. There is the suggestion of a sonnet in these lines, but I can’t accept that such was meant.
This poem, which I repeat was placed in a position of prominence, is part of Maling’s presentation of Western Australia, its coastline in particular. I was surprised at the lack of depth in the treatment of the poem and I wondered whether Maling is content to skip along the surface. This is an anecdote in verse form. To what extent does Maling dig down beneath the surface. We might get a better idea with other poems.
The poet knew South Beach as a child when certain areas were forbidden places after dark. We conclude that criminals haunted those areas. But now the suburb has had a “manicure”, it’s home to the well to do, where people can afford to think they’re trendsetters (her sister is androgynous now), and in its modernity there is naturally no crime. The outsider expresses a little wistfulness, and in doing so opens a little window on her family with “It must be nice, I say, to be pretty;/ Some desires you never grow out of.” There is a pleasant piece of alliteration with “No Stirling up the Swan”, a reference to the days of exploration.
The poem is another pleasant recount of a visit to a suburb and beach after a period away. It does not identify or challenge any issues that might have improved or impaired the manicured suburb. Other poets would have expressed some representative image of what Australia means to them, but Maling, like froth on the surface of a stream, sails regally by. There is no engagement with life as a social phenomenon. But Maling is not finished with us, even though it has been not more than a pleasant visit. We find her images coming back to us when the poem has been read and the viewer has moved on. Part of the explanation might be that she has called her part of Australia South Beach or something similar just as her readers do likewise with some other place, which is their own.
Maling takes her readers on to Fremantle, Summer with the hope that she will have something to say. The signs are promising. Among all the activities associated with catching up with friends and family, she says, without warning,
death (19 -21)
It’s a statement of fact which she amplifies by saying that society understands, and permits, anger at being struck with this ailment. But Maling doesn’t accept the triteness of that permission. Her family are “stuck like salt/against metal/rusting in the breeze” (31 -33), unchanging, unthinking, just existing. In earlier poems she was only lightly immersed in a fleeting experience such as a visit to old paths best known from her youth, but now she actually responds. But note her anger is not directed at what we must assume threatens her with death, but rather she is responding to the frameworks by which we deal with the experience. We know no other way and she resents that.
In the poem Argo she begins to ‘hit her straps’, to produce poetry with a bit of substance to it. She takes a philosophical view that people with ‘round faces’ have a beauty that gains them a family life but then counters this with the statement that being sharp does have value. However, her preference is for a home that is hers, just as the children she bore who now resemble, a row/of red matched kitchen appliances” (28 – 29) are hers. We’re beginning to see something that makes her poetry so popular. She takes a distinctive stance, she deals with social issues. She is not floating along untouched by her society.
In its own way Cott is even more subtle than the previous poem I reviewed. I have to admit that I love the irony in this poem:
& it’s true that this is a planet
Of well-bred, kindly people
Growing up & dying amongst each other
With perfectly bleached
White-blond bones (12 – 16)
Betelgeuse Star (1) is the poem of the thinker. She is a speculative poet that delights in raising issues, often leaving them without a solution. She questions practices within her society, and has no compunction against using irony as a weapon. She shows herself to be a fine poet, but I’m sure she could do herself a favour by moving some of her early poems to a less exposed place.
The collection was a pleasure to read, and I will be dipping into it throughout the coming year.
By Caitlin Maling