Dark deeds disturb while creative quest engages

THE END OF THE WORLDBy Maria Takolander. Giramondo Poets. $24.FIXING THE BROKEN NIGHTINGALE By Richard James Allen. Flying Island Books. $10.

Maria Takolander’s first book, Ghostly Subjects (2009), with its stylish and often brief poems, was impressive enough, but her second, The End of the World, marks a sudden leap forward in intensity and scope. The title, of course, risks grandiosity, but is ultimately justified. The review copy came with a one-page author’s note, in which Takolander emphasises how much her book is ”inspired by my fascination with history”.

The end of the world, in one sense or another, may be seen in all three of the book’s sections. The first, dealing with pregnancy, childbirth and child-raising, signifies, at the very least, the end of that easier and carefree world that normally precedes children. The second focuses mainly on the impact of Russia’s invasion of Finland at the beginning of World War II. As far as Takolander’s relatives were concerned, that, too, was the ”end of a world”.

The book’s third section ranges more widely, sometimes even into surrealism, and certainly into the grotesque. ”Many of these poems were inspired by gendered ways of thinking endemic to the historical discourses of science, psychoanalysis and religion,” Takolander says.

The poems are no dry exegesis, however. Mostly they tell horrifying stories in suitably intense and metaphoric language, reminiscent at times of Sylvia Plath’s late work. Witch, for instance, in a page and a half, tells us pretty much all we can bear to know about so-called witches in 17th-century England and their executions.

Takolander’s example appears to have been a convenient abortionist, until ”Strange Men Took her from her Warm Sack” and ”Bound her Neck and Wrists and Ankles to a Tree/Stacked with Kindling and Leaves and Forest Lumber/and, as they spoke Loudly of Heaven and Hell, the/Male Essence and the Female Bowel, they Touched/the Pile with their Flaming Torches, and she Found/that she had Never Believed More in the Crucifixion.”

Somewhat less grotesque but no less powerful are Takolander’s Finnish poems in the second section. In Mushrooms, she talks of an uncle who on a midsummer’s night ”raised the flag/of the country defended by his father, who had killed so many/men resembling his brothers and sons. My mother always said/that my grandfather resurrected his enemies with a bottle …”

It may have been more than 70 years ago, but Takolander makes it clear that the effects of such histories are still strongly felt.

The book’s early poems about pregnancy and childbirth are also distinctive, but perhaps slightly less so, given the relative universality of the experience and the existence of much good female writing on the issue. Scattered through all three overarching sections, however, are a number of individual poems, which perhaps are only just in the relevant category, but which are nevertheless highly memorable. These would include, among many others, Takolander’s three Australian poems (Convicts, White Australia and Eliza’s Shipwreck) and some highly distinctive travel poems set in Chile, Peru and Argentina.

Richard James Allen has had a varied and successful career in several fields, filmmaking and choreography among them. In Fixing the Broken Nightingale, he declares he is returning from his ”wild cross-platform adventures” to his ”original creative form – the poem itself”.

Significantly, Allen recalls that his writing began with keeping a diary which ”gradually … became less and less literal and more and more imaginative”. This new book, his 10th, is still essentially diaristic. For the most part, it is a record of his metaphysical intimations, as its section headings imply: Unanswered Questions, Occasional Truths, Flickering Enlightenment.

The religious traditions within which these insights occur is not made clear, although there are hints of Christianity and Hinduism along the way. ”New Age eclecticism” is perhaps a fair description.

Many of the points Allen makes might be more often discovered in works of theology and philosophy, and it is here that some problems with this collection begin. Much of what Allen offers us in Fixing the Broken Nightingale is in what might be called the oracular or prophetic tradition, going back to Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra, the poems of Khalil Gibran and the somewhat lesser-known verse of Stephen Crane, author of The Red Badge of Courage. From there, of course, it goes straight back to the Old Testament.

Such a provenance can be sensed in the four-line poem, Flickering Enlightenment, short enough to quote in full: ”The question is not how to die but how to live/How to link the miracle in each moment to the next//How to keep the timelessness through so much time/Never enough of course but still a great deal to manage.” These are certainly well-established philosophical and theological issues and what Allen gives us is, no doubt, a truth. The extent to which it is also a successful poem is less obvious. Some readers will see the abrupt change of tone in the final line as witty and ironic. Others may find it awkward. It is not too often we hear ”of course” in the Bible.

More plainly successful are a number of short, relatively literal poems such as Birthplace and My Mother’s House. In the latter, Allen, noticing the proliferating cobwebs in his ageing mother’s house, surmises that the spiders must be ”busy little workers, keeping house like her./ They don’t ask questions either,/hanging on to what seems like nothing.”

Quite a few of the poems, especially in the book’s second section, Unanswered Questions, are about love, sexual love in particular. Sometimes these are effectively physical and graphic, as in travel companion and Act Ten of 13 Acts of Unfulfilled Love. At other times, they risk vagueness and/or sentimentality, as in Act Thirteen of the same poem: ”in another life/you are the love of my life//and in my other life/I bid you welcome//instead of/farewell”. There is a nice sense of paradox here, but one wonders whether that is quite enough.

Those last two lines raise another small but recurrent problem, namely lineation. Quite a few of the poems, though certainly not all, somewhat self-consciously employ excessively short lines, as if that device in itself will provide poetic charge.

William Carlos Williams, who did this first – and effectively, for the most part – has a lot to answer for here.

One can see the problem, for example, in the closing lines of Waterfall: ”the/cascading/in/slow/motion/waterfall/of/love”. Plainly, the poet is imitating the descent of water, but the effect on the reader may not be as hoped.

There are, however, a number of entertaining poems, especially in the book’s first part, Natural Disasters. It is not for nothing that respected poet and critic Vivian Smith has declared Fixing the Broken Nightingale to be ”the diary of one poet’s search for authenticity” and ”an exceptionally engaging book”.

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