TEXT review

A poetics of attentiveness

review by Jessica L Wilkinson


Anne Elvey
Five Islands Press, Parkville, Victoria 2014
ISBN 9780734048974
Pb 80pp AUD25.00


The cover of Anne Elvey’s Kin features artwork by Melbourne’s Eleni Rivers that, for me, provides a tantalising visual metaphor for Elvey’s poetry. A sort of luminous seed or spore hovering in a night-like, inky swell, it resonates between the strange and the natural, or perhaps reveals the uncanny presence of the strange in the natural. The image also gestures in some part towards the ecological awareness of Elvey’s poems – her attention to nature and to the earth surrounding the poet writing, versed as that earth is in exciting us with subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) mysteries.

Elvey is the Managing Editor of online journal Plumwood Mountain, which publishes ecopoetry ‘engaging with a more-than-human context’, as noted in the journal’s mission statement. She also has a background in theology (as both researcher and teacher), and these two threads – the spiritual and the ecological – are evidently interwoven throughout Kin. Importantly, however, the poems do not push an agenda; rather, there is a sense that the author is moving through spaces – the personal, the environmental, the historical – and quietly observing encountered ‘kin’.

Kin is divided into three sections: the first, ‘Skin to Skin’ reflects things close to or felt by the self and body – lovers, parents, relatives, sensations and emotions. The first poem, ‘Sheet music’ considers the memory embedded in everyday things:

If there were sheets that night
scored with the labour of cotton-farmers
and their pickers
and certain workers spinning thread
and the giant looms,
there was also the comfort of cloth—

the several skins of the covers
and the skin of the night (11)

Elvey notes the layers that surround us, that hold close to – or constitute – our living skins, and create our histories. The poem, which draws from philosopher Michel Serres’ book The Five Senses, suggests a body always in touch with the world, revelling in a complex state of sensations and the knowledges they can trigger. Another poem, ‘A finite catalogue of self’, lists with ironic wit some elements of the corroding body: ‘the shedding of dead cells’, the paring of cartilage from bone, and the hair’s loss of colour (14). A short poem, this ‘catalogue’ seems less finite than it is ever-evolving; what constitutes the ‘self,’ or more specifically ‘the body,’ must be revised (and forgiven) continually during the course of its inevitable decay.

These are thoughtful poems that not only locate the strange in the everyday, but also find complexities in what may have seemed a simple concept; or, as Elvey notes with reference to Jean-Luc Marion, ‘the excess is the essence of the thing’ (16, italics in original). ‘Tinnitus’, for example, unfurls from the ‘thin and ringing pulse’ of ‘vibrational damage’ (15) to the lips’ visible trace of a word spoken but obscured. This theme of silence is also evident in ‘Last breath’ and ‘The honour of things’, dedicated to her father and mother respectively. Both poems gesture towards the untranslatable attributes of remembrance and the integrity of a quiet absorption of life’s details, ‘to think / the way a leaf / swallows the light’ (19). (Note the poet’s deft conversion of the scientific to the poetic!)

Philosophical wandering is part of Elvey’s poetic pathway, and in the book’s first section we find numerous deliberations on the distance between the word and the thing, or the significance of the word in relation to the self and its surrounds. But what it is, exactly, that constitutes language is not confined to the human; we may turn toward ‘a grammar taught by birds’ (16), listen for the sky’s ‘answering light’ (18), or hear the ‘magpie’s repertoire [which] spills … on[to] the blue page’ (23). Elvey offers the reader a varied score for listening and speaking to ‘this landscape of kin’ (41), which includes humans, wildlife and earthbound phenomena. This is especially showcased in the second section, ‘Kin’, where birds, trees, creeks, rivers, the sea, bridges and paths comprise a varied landscape for poetic play. A personal favourite is ‘This sound’, which ‘speaks / to the eye’ and ‘is held in the hand’ (40). The poem is a sort of riddle that brings us to ‘lightning’ and ‘thunder’, without mentioning either word; rather we ‘solve’ the poem by way of following the varied sensations that both evoke. Repetition (‘the sound …’, ‘the sound …’) throughout the poem evokes the ripples of a storm, and emphasises the multiplicity of ways in can be felt by bodies.

Elvey’s poetic thoughts on language and the communication of ideas and sensations also manifest in her experiments with form: she write in couplets, tercets and quatrains; there’s a villanelle, a prose poem, and several poems that play with margins and shape. Of the latter, ‘Romancing the creek’ requires us to read across the void of space, as if skipping from side to side across Melbourne’s Merri Creek (referred to in the poem) one afternoon:

Between the lines
a lizard slips
where the rock face
shears from the earth
and stone stands
stacked like crates
against the sky.
Moss probes
a gap with serried
tongue and risks
a phrase to bound
the mineral. (31)

Again, Elvey leaves room for the landscape to speak for itself, in a language we perhaps cannot understand. To ‘romance’ the creek – appreciate its form and find connection with its offerings – is not to romanticise it, but to attempt a meeting point, responding to sensation. The anthropomorphisation of the rock face, as seen in the closing lines (‘The light softens, / as the rock wall / pulls the creek / up to its chin’ (31) is not heavy handed, but suggests an intimacy between these non-human bodies. Similarly in the poem ‘Spirit’, where the wind is ‘neither love nor thought, but otherwise— / the making possible thing’ (49), wind, like the spirit, is more powerful than the forces of the jackhammer, steering shaft and blade. There are understated lessons here for the contemporary reader – parables, almost – that urge a less violent human imprint on the world.

This brings me to a sequence of three poems in the final section (‘Coming Home’), titled ‘Claimed by country 1, 2, 3’, which responds to Aboriginal understandings of land and belonging, and to Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr-Baumann’s concept of ‘attentiveness’ or dadirri. As Ungunmerr-Baumann notes:

It is inner, deep listening and quiet, still awareness. […] It is something like what you call ‘contemplation’. When I experience dadirri, I am made whole again. I can sit on the riverbank or walk through the trees; even if someone close to me has passed away, I can find my peace in this silent awareness. There is no need of words. A big part of dadirri is listening. (Ungunmerr-Baumann 1988: 9)

‘Claimed by country 1’ notes tourists marking place ‘with eye and voice and lens’, posing ‘for shots for Nanna’s wall’, while a nearby sign ‘recalls / a people, in two memories and one name: / Massacre Bay’ (64). Across the three poems in the sequence, the narrator retreats from the impetus to mark the landscape, as if by way of recognising the colonising forces of her ancestors, and desiring a less aggressive way of existing within this country. To be ‘attentive’ is to let the voice be ‘drowned by the torrent that presses / toward the cliff’ (65) and to ‘give a peace / that takes the breath’ (66).

This ‘silent awareness’ as a mode of being in the landscape, among earth others, is espoused in many of the poems throughout Kin. Indeed, in a book that attends to so many aspects of the (mostly Australian) environment, it is not surprising that Elvey includes poems addressing extinct or threatened species (‘Ecos echoes’, 42-43) as well as lamentations for ecological damage (‘Lamentation’, 44-45) and animal cruelty (‘Nanoq’, 46-48). ‘i / want to forget / what colonisers do’, Elvey writes (46) – perhaps the lower case ‘I’ employed throughout ‘Nanoq’ presents the diminished presence of the colonising ‘I’ (the human self as central to the earth). To ignore or forget the historical past and its shockwaves would be an impossible task to achieve. Elvey’s resolution in the face of varied devastation is in her poetics – exploratory, inquisitive, attentive: ‘I lick my thumb. I turn the air’ (23). One senses that the book reflects her own mode of being in the world, and that the world in turn is her book to be carefully considered, leaf by leaf. Elegantly political, Kin inspires attentiveness in us as readers, and suggests that such small-scale quietude – toward detail, sensations, our non-human earth others – may offer a pathway for ecological and spiritual reparation.


Works cited



Jessica L Wilkinson’s first poetic work, marionette: a biography of miss marion davies was published by Vagabond (Sydney) in 2012 and shortlisted for the 2014 Kenneth Slessor Poetry Prize in the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. Her second book, Suite for Percy Grainger: a biography was published by Vagabond in late 2014. In 2014 she won the Peter Porter Poetry Prize and a Marten Bequest Travelling Scholarship. Jessica is the founding editor of Australian quarterly print journal, Rabbit: a journal for non-fiction poetry. She has a PhD in Literature and Creative Writing through the University of Melbourne and is Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at RMIT University, Melbourne.


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Vol 19 No 1 April 2015
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Enza Gandolfo & Linda Weste
Reviews Editor: Ross Watkins