TEXT review

Registering the world


review by Tina Giannoukos


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Jeri Kroll
Workshopping the Heart: New and Selected Poems
Wakefield Press, Adelaide 2013
ISBN 9781743051283
Pb 224pp AUD24.95


In any poet’s career, the publication of a ‘New and Selected’ is a significant event. Such a publication signals to readers that a work has reached a critical juncture of achievement and anticipation. Jeri Kroll’s Workshopping the Heart: New and Selected Poems does not disappoint: it maps the poet’s preoccupations to date and points to future pathways of concern. The collection includes poems from her first book of poetry published in 1982, new poems written between 2005 and 2012, and excerpts from a verse novel. It shows Kroll to be a poet concerned with the unfolding of experience itself. There is the sensory enjoyment of the world in the early poems as much as the intensifying dilemmas of life in the later work.

Throughout Workshopping the Heart: New and Selected, Kroll infuses the world with her singular vision, and though she registers her response to the world, she does not ignore the Other. This is most powerfully expressed in her early poems of love and motherhood. In the poem, ‘Pearl’, erotic love and motherhood are twin poles of experience:              

You and I at home in a distant city
across the country
our child asleep
our bed achingly cold
bodies chafing to ignite the sheets. (71)

But what makes Kroll a subtle, if directed, poet is the way she registers the hesitation as much as the excitement of encounter. In ‘Stepdaughter’ from Monster Love (1990), Kroll writes: ‘We are waiting for home studies to begin, / both of us pupils needing to learn / how to knit together something warm’ (80). In the sensual, lies illumination. In ‘Winter Mornings’ from House Arrest (1994) she writes suggestively of renewal:

Mornings like this, as ordinary as sleep,
as predictable as a child’s cold feet,
are somehow like stories we’ve heard before
told by a voice with a gift for remaking the world
as raw and translucent as ice. (96)

In a postmodernist world of questioning narratives, Kroll produces transparent poetry of experience. She is in and of the world. She registers the contours of the world around her with a sensual delight. Yet in this world of the senses, spiritual integration of negative experience cannot be put off, even if it can be ostensibly delayed. In ‘The Night Before the Funeral’, a poem for her father from her first collection, Death as Mr Right, Kroll writes:

I must finish my hair,
collect my purse and my mother.
We’re expected at chapel.
You won’t go anywhere.
You’re a record I’ve time to play
starting sometime. (23)

Kroll’s use of language is unadorned, but this is to do justice to the naturalness of her line. Moving effortlessly between different poetic forms, Kroll never strains for a metaphor; rather her metaphors emerge out of the dynamics of the line itself, its rhythmical and expressive play. In ‘Monsoon at Kovalam Beach’, from Indian Movies (1984), Kroll writes:

Still stiff two weeks through vacation,
we stand outside this universe of mist
some god’s thrown up in the last half-hour:
a gray-blue bowl in the bay.
Rain softens as mouths after love. (48)

Kroll’s poetry registers the ordinary and not so-ordinary shocks of living as the flow of life itself. Writing of her mother’s dementia in Workshopping the Heart (2004), Kroll records the way her mother becomes one with the world:

My mother has taught me a lesson
without a sound.
Words wash over her now.
It doesn’t matter what she’s floating in.
Even the word sea means nothing
because she becomes it. (126)

In her recent poems, some of Kroll’s early sensory engagement with world gives way to a more distanced stance. In ‘Rush Hour’ she notes:

Have you missed your stop?
Can you even recall its name?
It’s hard to peer through the smudgy windows.
What can you listen for now?
Only the final gasp and squeal of brakes. (176)

Yet this tougher voice is already present in the questioning, if softer, tone of poems such as ‘Translations’ from Indian Movies (1984):

I have never seen these mountains you cannot resist,
sort through the photos,
imagine you stopped on steep paths,
the senses blown clean.
And you lose yourself there,
drifting beyond the snowline?
Are colours then only frozen light? (51)

The verse novel has become a familiar form of Australian poetry. A writer as much as a poet, Kroll’s gift for narrative and poetry come together in an extended way in Vanishing Point, a work about a nineteen-year-old girl’s relationship with her body. The extract in Workshopping the Heart: New and Selected shows Kroll’s capacity to tell a story. But it also shows her turn for the lyrical. This extended poetic narrative allows her to explore different formal territory from the earlier work:

Later I’d drift asleep until I heard
his angry snort. Swept up on the wind
from his swishing tail, I’d untie his lead.
He’d toss me on his back and we’d escape,
galloping out of our proper forms
into a truer astral shape. No longer
animal or human, male or female,
forever shifting vivid points of light. (190)

Kroll may not be interested in the linguistic games of more self-conscious poets, but her poetic project of registering experience as both sensory and ecstatic makes her a poet of life’s vicissitudes.




Tina Giannoukos is a poet, fiction writer and reviewer. Her first collection of poetry is In a Bigger City (Five Islands Press, 2005). Her poetry is anthologised in Southern Sun, Aegean Light: Poetry of Second-Generation Greek Australians (Arcadia, 2011). She has a sonnet sequence in Border-Crossings: Narrative and Demarcation in Postcolonial Literatures and Media (Winter, 2012). A recipient of a Varuna Writers Fellowship, Giannoukos has a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Melbourne and has read her poetry in Greece and China.


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Vol 18 No 2 October 2014
General editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy, Enza Gandolfo & Linda Weste
Reviews editor: Linda Weste