TEXT review

A labyrinth of poetry

review by Caitlin Maling


Macintosh HD:Users:lindaweste:Desktop:2016 OCTOBER REVIEWS:IMAGES:Giannoukos Bull Days.jpg
Tina Giannoukos
Bull Days
Arcadia, Australian Scholarly Publishing
North Melbourne Vic 2016
ISBN 9781925333626
Pb 58pp AUD19.95


Tina Giannoukos’ second collection, Bull Days, is a tight, narrative-driven sonnet sequence investigating love’s possibilities and pitfalls. Through fifty-eight sonnets the speaker details recurring cycles of love affair, experienced or imagined. In the New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, it is noted how in the early modern period the sonnet sequence was ‘often thought to have a special, almost automatic, claim to overall integrity – whether topical …, meditative …, or vaguely chronological’ (Preminger & Brogan 1993, 1171). Bull Days has this sense of holism, the poems circling and recircling the same events and people with a pattern of familiar words and images. The sonnets are titled with roman numerals, such that there is slippage from poem to poem – privileging the book as a whole and emphasising the dialogic and philosophical nature of the sequence. This interconnection is addressed directly in sonnet ‘XI’ where

All loves are linked. The liturgy of this affair,
heretical, permits violation. In dialogue,
we discover the monologue. My words
slip between idioms. I am in drag. (11)

Especially in the earlier sonnets, the link between the discursive function of the form and the role of the sonnet in love poetry is continually reiterated. In ‘II’ the title of the collection appears in one such statement: ‘The tongue of love tastes tough in these bull days’ (2). What can only be reluctantly written – if it can be written at all – reappears in ‘VI’ ‘I’m not being ironic when I say / no song’s been written or poem / that can explain why I don’t miss / your touch’ (6), ‘VII’ ‘the silence that haunts the life alone / cannot be spoken’ (7) and ‘IX’ ‘I have no letters, only words on my computer’ (9) among others.

In addition to these questions of the role of speech in telling and maintaining a relationship, central images and metaphors are repeated. Key to these is that of the matador and bull, with the speaker imagined in the role of the bull. What makes this image interesting, is how Giannoukos depicts power shifting between matador and bull. In ‘XIV’ this happens in a single poem (14). We move from ‘You must sever my aorta / snap the spinal cord quick’ through the bull inciting the matador to kill to end on ‘I’m waiting. / Blood drenches my mouth’ (14). This final image could be the outcome of the matador taking the bull’s instruction to deliver the blow or his having waited too long and received a goring. The blood is both the bull’s and the matador’s; the violence, shared by them.

Repeated images are often used like this, signifying shifts of power and identity between the speaker and the lover. In ‘X’ what might have been pedestrian or common images of ‘These breasts are honey to your eyes // This is the fire you want, the tremble you seek’ are altered in subsequent poems (10). So we encounter in ‘XII’ ‘Her breasts are honey to my eyes. // This is the fire I want, the tremble I seek. / It’s too late, the time is past for / loving too loose to count as song or praise’ (12). The perspective shifts from the speaker to the lover and then it extends out beyond either of them. The repetition adds cumulative emotional heft to poems that might otherwise only vaguely resonate, as in ‘XXVII’ where the lines ‘I trace my love for you back ten thousand years / to days of honeycombed rooms and courtyards’ transport the reader back to the immediacy of honeyed breasts and lovemaking (27).

This is not to say that Bull Days is entirely mired in the more serious and mortal aspects of love. Some of the collection’s best lines convey dark humour as in ‘XXIII’ where ‘This was my crime: I was never sentimental’ (23). In a similarly snide aside, ‘XXVII’ offers a memorable ending: ‘Wine tastings are ideal / for ditching a lover and getting a new one’ (27). What could have enlivened Bull Days even further is if a similar sense of humorous experimentation had been paid to the sonnet form. We see potential for this in the standout ‘XXXIV’ where the interplay between regular iambs, heavy enjambment and broken prosody creates an arch tone:

The sea is blue today. The saltbush
grey as your love. Sea rushes to shore.
Sea rush spikes upward. The saltmarsh
spreads in all directions. Only cushion bush
keeps tight knots of space. A magpie
looks as if it squats to shit. Only humans
pick up after a dog’s poo. The canine
species is doing well in evolutionary speak.

When summer comes the gun sea of metal days
that put me in harm of love’s way breaks at your shore.
Stand and wait. There’s an empty bottle bobbing
that way. The albatrosses and the seagulls got
to it first: uncorked it and swilled all its medicine.
On your shore the sea is the coolest shade of mock heroic. (34)

The contradiction between the song-like prosody and the images, question the integrity of the form. Just because something can be made to sound beautiful, doesn’t make the thing itself beautiful.

It would have been interesting to see more of these very deliberate manipulations of formal elements. There are very few formalist sonnets but there are fewer still that truly experiment with what a fractured sonnet form might have brought to this traditional consideration of love. As it stands, Bull Days is a rigorously comprehensive, philosophical account of love. Well suited to the sonnet sequence, it uses the form in rewarding ways to hold emotion in check and to subject it to an intellectual interrogation. What perhaps is missing, are moments of rupture, of shock, something that could have extended out the form into spaces of new potential.


Works cited

Preminger P & TVF Brogan (eds) 1993 The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ return to text



Caitlin Maling is a doctoral candidate at the University of Sydney. Her work examines pastoral poetry in the USA and Australia from an ecopoetic lens. She has published one book of poetry and a second is forthcoming in early 2017.


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Vol 20 No 2 October 2016
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy & Enza Gandolfo
Reviews editor: Linda Weste