TEXT review

Shades of life

review by Niloofar Fanaiyan


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Louise Nicholas
The List of Last Remaining
Five Islands Press, Parkville 2016
ISBN 9870734051998
Pb 89pp AUD25.95


The List of Last Remaining by Louise Nicholas is a collection full of depth and diversity, a narrative of fractures in time where people and places mirror each other and become windows into the human condition. She combines the craft of poetry with memoir, drawing the reader into intimate moments. From memories of childhood to historical events and reflections on aging, Nicholas weaves a tapestry of experience and meaning-making. There is a circularity to this narrative, which Nicholas begins ‘On the day our parents went out in the boat and didn’t come back’ (9) and ends with ‘the list of last remaining’ (85), and where many of the poems in-between contain fragments of the whole.

About halfway through the book we enter the realm of a mother with dementia, the process of dying, and letting go. While the collection feels, at times, heavy with the presence of ghosts, there are points at which they are blatantly invoked: ‘Before I leave the nursing home / I call upon my father, / dead these thirty years, / to sit beside my mother, take her hand / and repeat his vows of sixty years ago’ (42). To an extent it is absence and the absent, the process and inevitability of loss, that repeatedly arise within these poems. Anticipation or knowledge of loss can give rise to longing for the past and meditating on how that loss will effect change, whether it is the passing of childhood into adulthood as in ‘Aged thirteen’ (17) or a relationship that never was as in ‘If on a winter’s night’ (73).

In ‘Family tree’ Nicholas writes of the slow decline and changing position of her mother in their family: ‘our circle / has become pear-shaped. Our mother sits at the stem, / apart from its burgeoning flesh. It’s as though / she’s returning to the tree to stake her claim beside / her sister. Her parents are on the sheltering bough above’ (39). In this poem the term ‘family tree’ becomes a complex analogy for the interplay of relationships and the circle of life. At the end of the poem ‘a pear falls; nestles / into the long grass at the foot of the tree’ (39); although it is initially considered a loss, this pear will inevitably feed the tree that bore it and create new stems and branches. The end and the beginning are one in this metaphor. The poem, like others in the collection, depicts life as a mirror where the absent are at hand and those present are already gone.

Despite the continuity of family and narrative that seems to pervade much of the collection, Nicholas’s own death is treated with a dreaded finality. In ‘Death by Wikipedia’ she writes, ‘I’m almost afraid to Google myself lest / Wikipedia, alerted to my existence, / set down my date of birth and thenceforth / stand over me, a mirror in one hand / and in the other, the sharpened steel of an en-dash / upon which to impale, (disambiguation not- / withstanding) four final debilitating digits’ (53). Again, we are presented with a picture of life as it is reflected in the mirror – in motion and complete. It is almost as though the life lived is required to leave evidence of itself.

Not long after the invocation of her father, Nicholas reflects on how the loss of her mother effects the reality of her name, a name which her mother sounded out before she was born; ‘So when she died / my name for a time / lost its grace / became shape without shadow / question without answer’ (46). To be a shape without shadow is the epitome of meaninglessness since, as she reminds us in the end, it is shadow that forces ‘light / to find an opening’ and to give ‘us all pattern’ (85). These patterns are found everywhere, in the arrivals hall in Tel Aviv, in a kitchen while brewing tea, on Southport Island watching seals, in Boston listening to a busker sing the blues, and at four in the morning whilst ‘trying to snare some words on a page’ (81).

Woven intermittently throughout this book of poems – a type of lyrical memoir – are moments where Nicholas steps back from the narrative and offers the reader a parallel path of meaning-making. Towards the end of the collection, ‘In search of something to live by’ touches on the universality of the human condition. One cannot deny another ‘as if we don’t all love, as if we don’t all think ourselves / innocent among the guilty, as if all change-room mirrors / don’t look at us and lie’ (74). She suggests that ‘we are all the woman / on the balcony in Kuala Lumpur’ (75), and therefore her search ‘for something to live by has ended yet again in this: / Wherever I go, there I am’ (75). Once more, we are presented with a reflection – we are all mirrors of each other, mirrors of being, and windows into the story of our time.

It is the allusion to a universal humanity that brings Nicholas’s poetry full circle – all human experience is a part of the whole, and, indeed, moments of her narrative are moments in all narrative. In the final poem she suggests a way of reading these shades of life, these fractures in time where we become mirrors and windows, and ultimately she chooses laughter ‘because it joins the dots, / allows us to find the sense in senseless, / connects us all to the last’ (85). Thus Nicholas prompts the reader to go back to the beginning and look for the dots that require joining, a series of ambiguity, and a list of what remains.



Niloofar Fanaiyan writes poetry and short fiction. She was the 2016 Donald Horne Research Fellow at the Centre for Creative and Cultural Research, University of Canberra, where she obtained her PhD. She received the Canberra Critics Circle Award for Poetry in 2016 for her first book of poetry, Transit.


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Vol 21 No 1 April 2017
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy, Enza Gandolfo & Julienne van Loon
Reviews Editor: Linda Weste