TEXT review

Sticky ink

review by Chloe Wilson


Cassandra Atherton
Grand Parade Poets, Wollongong NSW 2015
ISBN 9780987129192
Pb 86pp AUD24.95


Cassandra Atherton
Finlay Lloyd, Braidwood NSW 2015
ISBN 9780987592996
Pb 64pp AUD10.00


Throughout Exhumed and Trace, two collections comprised almost exclusively of prose poems, Cassandra Atherton explores what can occur in a poem when several disparate elements – experiences, memories, intertextual allusions, pop culture references, the imagery of dream-logic – are enmeshed. The effect of the poems is produced by this jamming of the high and low, the domestic and the glamorous, the literary and the tabloid; the pleasure of the poems, and the questions they raise, are found in the arrangement of fragments in unpredictable sequences; in the sparks that are struck when one thought finds itself colliding strangely with another.

Given this, it is unsurprising that images of glue, or stickiness, appear consistently within these poems. This glue is sometimes literal, as in the ‘hobby glue’ which adheres shards of mirror to a pair of satin shoes in ‘Fairest of Them All’ (Exhumed 38); and sometimes physical, like the ‘sticky lips’ of ‘Doll’s House’ (Exhumed 41), or the memory of ‘sticky fingers’ in ‘Pineapple’ (Exhumed 54). Often, the figurative possibilities of glue as an image are foregrounded, as in the first poem in Exhumed, ‘Bonds’ (11), where the speaker’s sweat becomes a ‘glue’ to ‘bond you to me one last time’, or in ‘Yellow’ where the speaker tells her lover:

That I was stuck on him. That we were bonded together like superglue. That there was no /
solvent that would separate us. (Trace np)

In each case, the ‘glue’ is visceral, evoking the fluids which bodies produce, and which make apparent the porousness of the boundary between bodies and the outside world; this is suggested in the ‘sticky stillness’ of a sick room, in ‘Blue Nights’ (Exhumed 51), or the child’s thighs sticking to a slippery dip in ‘Playground’ (Exhumed 43). Most often and most emphatically, however, it is related to the emergence or expression of feminine sexuality.

Indeed, though the poems function as discrete works, when they are read collectively, a narrative of sorts – based around a passionate romantic relationship – begins to emerge. Many of the poems are addressed to a ‘you’; a man who is the speaker’s lover, and with whom she shares both the thrilling and mundane experiences of romantic love – everything from excursions to a ‘Hello Kitty love hotel’ in Japan (‘Shinjuku Morning’, Exhumed 74; ‘Neon Love’, Trace np) to supermarket shopping (‘More’, Exhumed 34; ‘Or’, Trace np) and a discussion about the desire to possess a red Smeg fridge (‘Plum(b)’, Exhumed 12; Trace np). It is a relationship of considerable physical and emotional intensity, one in which the desire for the lover runs against the fear of imminent loss, as expressed in ‘Stella’:

Me with my Hurricane box watching Treme on HBO. You drinking Hurricanes at Old /
Absinthe House in the Vieux Carré. Toulouse St. La Blanchisseuse. ‘Don’t worry’, you /
told me once, ‘it’s only a paper moon.’ Both knowing it is only you who sails over the /
cardboard sea. I’m just papier-mâché. You chew me up and spit me out. Pulp. /
Palpitations. So I paste myself onto you. Moulding myself into your curves. But you’re /
not waiting for the glue to dry. We rot from the inside out. (Exhumed 13)

This passage demonstrates the way in which Atherton’s poems are constructed; a situation, narrative, or expression of feeling emerges both against and through a web of allusions. These allusions are most often literary (A Streetcar Named Desire, evidently, in the above), and range from ‘Wilkie Collins’ (Exhumed 26) to Nabokov (‘Butterfly Hunter’, Exhumed 26; ‘Lepidopterist’, Trace np), Plath and Hughes (‘St Valentine’s Day Massacre’ Exhumed 17; ‘Valentine’s Day Massacre’ Trace np) to Sei Shōnagon (‘Wilkie Collins’, Exhumed 26). However, there are also, as the above excerpt demonstrates, other types of allusions; song titles, artworks, television shows, films, even specifically Australian cultural references – Passiona (and Pasito) (‘Yellow’, Trace np), Gai and Robbie Waterhouse (‘Cox’, Exhumed 69; ‘Corner of the Sky’, Trace np) White Wings Cake Mix (‘More’, Exhumed 34; ‘Or’, Trace np), and Chux superwipes (‘Yellow’, Trace np).

The following lines occur near the beginning of ‘White Noise’ (Exhumed 24; ‘White’, Trace np):

We only ever go to Smorgy’s, the Ramada Inn or the Laundrette on Buckley Street – the /
one with the big tumble dryer for doonas. I initial your earlobe with my saliva. Nuzzling /
your carotid pulse with the tip of my nose. You tug on the ends of my hair, your pointy /
hip bones burrowing into me. Urging me to reach for my blue biro. I scrawl the first /
sentence of Rebecca on your back. You guess it’s Du Maurier by the time I get to the /
capital ‘M’ for Manderley.

Such references – the geographic specificity of Buckley Street, the tackiness of Smorgy’s, the grandeur of DuMaurier’s classic gothic mystery – might seem to clash, at first. Yet placing such references in such close proximity produces the inherent humour which exists in incongruity. It also illustrates the context of the speaker’s experiences; art, like love, does not exist in a pure, rarefied space, but is rather intertwined with the demands, routines and sights of daily life. Hence the speaker blurts the name of a John Fowles character through a mouthful of ‘cheesy toast’ and Proust is scrawled on the skin in biro.

The prose poem seems a particularly apt form in which to explore such entanglements. The blocks of text in Exhumed and Trace suggest impenetrability, and there is an insularity to the poems which echoes the exclusivity (and potential for claustrophobia) in an intimate relationship. Moreover, the absence of line and stanza breaks – the lack of pause for thought or breath – adds to the sense that these poems are working to recreate the pathways of thought which are often inscrutable. This is most emphatic in the chains of alliterative words which occasionally appear, such as ‘Solitary. Solitaire. Solipsist’ (‘Bonds’, Exhumed 11) or ‘Dedicate. Dessicate. Desecrate’ (‘Entitled’, Exhumed 58; Trace np). Throughout each collection, the next idea or image is as likely to arrive in the form of an association suggested by the sound or alternate meaning of a word, or by a further cultural reference it conjures up, as by linear storytelling, or logic.

The title of Exhumed is taken from an epigraph, in which Dante Gabriel Rossetti describes exhuming his wife’s body in order to retrieve a book of poems. ‘The matter’, Rossetti writes, ‘was of a less dreadful nature than might have seemed possible’ (Exhumed 7), with the poems recoverable, and the body intact. Exhumed is split into two sections, ‘Inter’ and ‘Disinter’, and this structure seems linked to the overarching concern in the poems; love in art, against love in what might be called ‘real life’ – the placement of one alongside, or perhaps within the other; how the writing of a poem can be an act of preservation, or resurrection, but perhaps also an act of exposure, or even betrayal. This is suggested in ‘P.R.B’ where the moment in which Rossetti exhumes his wife is imagined:

Dig me up Dante! Exhume me. Consume me. Shift the soil between us and gather me in /
your arms. Chase your journal of poems around my coffin with your fingertips as you /
hold me. Let me hear your mew of pleasure when you have it. At last. My copper hair /
fills the empty space. But the worm’s hole in your journal eats away at your heart. (Exhumed 32)

Here, the artist’s loyalty is to the work, and not the beloved; it is the damage to the journal which ‘eats away’ at him, and not any act of treachery he has committed against his lover. There is an added layer of tension, too, in that the speaker in this poem is not the artist, but the artist’s lover; this is one of many instances in Atherton’s work in which a playful engagement with other texts allows for the expression of a complex, original idea.

Finally, it is interesting to note that fourteen of the twenty-three poems contained in the smaller of these collections, Trace, also appear in Exhumed, most often in the same form, but with a title that differs to a greater or lesser degree; ‘Chlorophyll’ (Exhumed 59) for example, becomes ‘Danse Macabre’ (Trace np), and ‘Cox’ (Exhumed 69) becomes ‘Corner of the Sky’ (Trace np). It is difficult to know whether this duplication of material in collections published so closely in time is deliberate. Taking into consideration the content of the poems and their concern with the resurrection of texts, there is the possibility that this concurrent publication is a further comment on the re-appropriation and retrieval of material. This seems echoed in the line drawings which accompany the poems in Trace, where each shape is drawn twice, with one outline nearly – but not entirely – juxtaposed over the other, suggesting that, even in repetition, there is difference. Then again, it may be the result of accident, or sheer coincidence. Given the pre-occupations of the poems, it is a productive coincidence nonetheless.

In Exhumed and Trace, Cassandra Atherton presents a series of poems which, in their wit and intricate webs of allusion, may appear lighthearted on a first reading, even satirical. However, the further one is willing to engage, the more fragility, intensity, and complexity is revealed. They are works in which the speaker, moving back and forth between text and experience, continually asks an unanswerable question: ‘How do I write the space between my heart and my pen?’ (‘A Room of One’s Own’, Exhumed 28).


Chloe Wilson is the author of two poetry collections, The Mermaid Problem and Not Fox Nor Axe. She has been awarded the John Marsden Prize for Young Australian Writers, the (Melbourne) Lord Mayor’s Creative Writing Award for Poetry, the Gwen Harwood Poetry Prize, the Fish Publishing Flash Fiction Prize and the Arts Queensland Val Vallis Award. She holds a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Melbourne.


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