TEXT review

What gives us chase

review by Rose Lucas


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Chloe Wilson
Not Fox Nor Axe
Hunter Publishers, Santa Lucia, QLD 2015
ISBN 9780994352804
Pb 95pp AUD19.95


Not Fox Nor Axe is Melbourne poet Chloe Wilson’s eagerly awaited second book of poetry after The Mermaid Problem (2010). Wilson is a young poet gaining momentum, having won the Gwen Harwood Poetry Prize, the John Marsden Australia Prize for Young Writers, the Lord Mayor’s Creative Writing Poetry Award, the Val Vallis Award for an Unpublished Poem and a highly commended in the Mary Gilmore Award. This most recent collection confirms such promise, bringing us a range of expertly crafted and provocative poems to jolt a reader out of their comfort zone.

The voice in this collection is strong and often sharp; in general, these are poems which seek out a difficult or disturbing edge. This aesthetic of unsettlement is produced in a number of ways: through the excavation of topics or scenes which are hidden in some way; through the precise use of an often ironic voice; through the building of evocative imagery; as well as through experiments with form and punctuation.

A poet is always looking for the material or scene on which to concentrate their reflective gaze and thus through which to discover insights about themselves, human behavior, mortality, or indeed about the business of creating art itself. Wilson ranges widely to find such material, drawing on the visual arts of painting and photography, characters and stories from the past, details from writers such as Shakespeare and Chekhov, the vistas of travel and even personal reflection. As a result, the collection is full of vivid vignettes, strongly drawn experiences and colorful characters, from Tchaikovsky to Trotsky, the French guillotine to the plague doctor, from travel in Central America to images of the mass death of blackbirds –  all of which are refracted through the ability of the poet to peer underneath or behind what is immediately apparent.

In the fine tradition of ekphrastic poetry, Wilson uses the replicating mirror of studying another artist’s contemplations of the world as a mechanism to discover her own insights. As well as using the rich texture of Caravaggio in a couple of poems, the long sequence ‘Double Exposure’ focuses on the photography of Diane Arbus and that artist’s interest in twinning images, the bizarre and the out-of-kilter. ‘A thing is not seen because it is visible, but visible because it is seen’ (16), Wilson writes, foregrounding the crucial and creative activity of ‘looking’ itself. Any art, even the art of the poem, is not merely looking for the entirely novel subject; rather, it works to create the new and intensified manner of looking at something – anything which literally catches the eye. Like the poet, the photographer is attempting to catch at the ephemeral, to hold the slipperiness of time and experience up to scrutiny:

            A ghost
in a sheet, with no-one to terrify
but me. I drop them all into the stop bath –
there – you’re fixed. They are the proof
that something was there and no longer is. (20)

This technique of responding to other art forms is also reflected in the technique of re-inhabiting fairytale narratives and mythic tropes in poems such as ‘Grandmother Says’, ‘Rapunzel’s Hair’ and ‘Persephone Goes to Night School’. In a manner reminiscent of recent feminist poets and which also echoes the endless deferral of deconstructive practice, Wilson re-envisages existing narratives, unpicking their ideological assumptions through changes and disruption. Thus, for instance, an energised and determined Persephone, reminiscent of the character Louise in the film Thelma and Louise, is ‘dressed in sunglasses / and a headscarf [and] puts her foot / to floor’ (75), but with an eye on ‘the knife, the flare’ (77) while waiting for Hades’ return: ‘this time, she’ll be prepared’ (77).

In ‘Observable Phenomena’ the poet makes use of the imagery of the nineteenth century séance and a jarring use of the colon to evoke the tension between what we can see and what we can’t, what we might long for and what we might fabricate: ‘that fraction: / of the original: which manages: to escape’ (6). Poetry is itself concerned with phenomena which is observable – but often in order to get beyond it, to evoke various forms of the unseeable. Similarly, in ‘The Specifics of Shipwrecks’, Wilson gives us both surface and depth: the ‘Liners [which] glide daily / above centuries of evidence / that the ocean doesn’t want us / crawling over her skin, / or burrowing underneath, and in’ (3). As the poem gathers the ‘trinkets’ of loss, it speculates about why we collect such evidence of loss and what it is we might ‘hope to learn’ from them.

This idea of what is left over, or the extant things which it is possible to see, is developed in the title poem, ‘Not Fox Nor Axe’, where the speaker offers an often chaotic assemblage of observation and experience which she describes as ‘this rough assembly / of memento mori’ (37). Situated in time and place in Central America, the poem evokes a graphic and visual history of Aztecs, Cortes, the Inquisition, and sacrifice, as well as the roving perspective of the observer. The relentless, prose-like lines which pile up the imagery – talismans? trinkets?  – lead to the collection’s key point of view:

            And us –
my darling, what of us? Perhaps not fox nor axe,
but something gives us chase – (40)

Somewhat like TS Eliot’s fragments, ‘shored against my ruin’ (cf Eliot 1922), the poem, and perhaps poetry itself, accumulates this ‘rough assembly’ both as markers of finitude and as almost Orphic-like efforts to hold back the advancing tide of mortality. The address is to a beloved – an anchor point which one might hope provides some ballast in an inventorised mélange of experience. However, the intimacy here lies in the shared realisation of being pursued by time and limit. What can be observed and gathered by the sustaining business of poetry may comfort and keep us afloat for a time – and even give us some insight into the inevitability of loss and death, that which ‘gives us chase’.


Works cited



Dr Rose Lucas works in the Graduate Research Centre at Victoria University where she also supervises in the areas of literature and creative writing. Her collection of poetry Even in the Dark (UWAP 2013) won the Mary Gilmore Prize in 2014. Her most recent collection is Unexpected Clearing (UWAP 2016).


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Vol 20 No 1 April 2016
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy & Enza Gandolfo
Reviews Editor: Linda Weste