TEXT review

A modern-day gospel of the picaresque

review by Mags Webster


Rose Hunter
Five Islands Press, Melbourne VIC 2017
ISBN 9780734053886
Pb 62pp AUD25.95


                                                             i wanted to get home

                        but where was that, so i picked a place
and skittered in through the missing window wire. (45)


‘Poetry is an exile’s art,’ remarked American poet Charles Wright. ‘Anyone who writes it seriously writes from an exile’s point of view’ (Wright 2002: 27).

What if a poet manages to capture not only the exile’s point of view but also the insider’s? What happens if those viewpoints converge?  In Glass, her latest collection of Australian-born, Mexico-based poet, Rose Hunter accounts for both perspectives, and limns their somewhat uneasy merger. The more miles the ‘i’ of the poems clocks up on the road and the more places she records, the less the destinations seem to matter, and the more interiorised the journey actually becomes.

At the centre of these poems is a roaming exile – the source of a rich and chaotic geography. Twenty-one poems in three sections – ‘mexico city’, ‘jalisco’ and ‘brisbane’ – piece together a map of encounters, places, relationships, and selves, which are themselves refracted through various manifestations of glass: windows, marbles, mirrors, vodka bottles and, perhaps most significantly, the sliding doors of memory and chance.

From the landmarks of Mexico to the Brisbane CBD, Hunter gazettes a breathless, headlong pelt through ‘redos and never weres’ (11); Days of the Dead and lost nights; road-trips and random language lessons at restaurants; doctors’ waiting rooms and the prisms of hindsight. The effect is not unlike someone flicking through the pages of a photo album, or quickly scrolling through multiple images on a screen (Hunter is apparently also a keen photographer). With a wounded yet resilient drifter surfing its pages, this collection of poems is a modern-day gospel of the picaresque: snatches of recollection, exclamations, interruptions, colours and local vernacular; the wash of landscapes and ocean flashing past the windows of a lurching bus, a ‘city of ghosts’ (40) whose layout – ‘alley / unnamed, where i fell, alone’ (40) – is embedded literally in skin, but somehow has to be erased.

Hunter has lived overseas for many years and is now mainly resident in Puerto Vallarta. In common with previous collections, Mexico provides a vibrant setting; yet this is no Lawrentian ‘bourgeois … escape from Western civilization and its neoromantic quest for restoration’ (Mermann-Jozwiak 2009: 95). This is Mexico as full-on sensory immersion, invasion even, not an exotic yet passive backdrop. 

Imagine trying to keep up with someone who is walking very fast through a narrow, noisy, crowded market, and this is close to the experience that Hunter’s poems evoke. One is bombarded with the clamour of Spanish words (unhindered by explanation or translation) scattered liberally through a fast-paced, almost shorthand and largely unpunctuated poetic style; one is kept alert by changes of direction, italicised asides that interject as if overhead above ambient noise; the acceleration of unexpected enjambments or the sudden brake of a gaping caesura in the middle of a line. The diction itself (everything in lower case) is not showy: there are few consciously lyrical flourishes, possibly because, on the evidence of the fragmented, paratactic, bustling style adopted throughout, Hunter understands how to make drama from poetic structure. Her technique is deft. Certain poems – such as the opening one, ‘mixquic’ (11-13) – are in sections, and Hunter exploits the line-breaks, conclusions and beginnings of each sequence to full effect. Tempting though it is to reveal them, these treats are best appreciated fresh and firsthand. In lieu of a spoiler, here is a description from ‘wickam terrace’ (50-53) that demonstrates Hunter’s command of her forceful material: ‘his glance a thrown bus’ (51).

Appropriately enough for Mexico, which has a long and colourful tradition of celebrating the dead and undead, ghosts stalk roadsides and lurk in corners. Poems like ‘mixqic’ (11-13) and ‘alebrijes’ (14) for example, vividly reference the theatre and imagery of Day of the Dead celebrations. While all of the poems in Glass are in some way memorials for compañeros of the heart, road, or bottle, some of these ghosts – ‘not merely something blurry between spikes’ (40) – will indeed be the souls of the departed: ‘was there / any kind of heart beating in the way yours did’ (36). Others, however, will be the ghosts of the living, including, one senses, spectres of the speaker’s past selves, replaying moments of extremis with the wearisome repetition of a recurring dream, such as in ‘yellow’ (32-37):

                                                                         i was crying 
over some spilling i was spilling out more of the same
what i thought vast guilt i still carried. (36)

Because of Hunter’s approach to syntax and structure, it takes time to understand how to navigate the geographies of Glass. Yet this time is rewarded. In this landscape of fractured thought and image-shift there is definitely a logic of movement, whether through flashback or as told from the relative (one senses) safety of the present. Though a somewhat jittery dynamic drives these poems, the voice at the centre of them is consistent, and it is this distinctiveness and strength that binds the collection together. As Charles Wright might put it, in Glass the action does not run ‘narratively or linearly, but synaptically, from one nerve spark to another, from one imagistic spark to another’ (Wright 2002: 139). His word for this –sottonarrativa (understory) – describes the style and approach of this collection well. Sottonarrativa, Wright explains, is the storyline ‘that runs just under the surface. It’s broken, interrupted, circuitous, even invisible at times, but always there … it is always “in” or “behind” the poem’ (Wright in McClatchy 1989).

The Irish poet Eavan Boland notes ‘the expatriate is in search of a country; the exile in search of a self’ (Boland 1996: 50-51). By the final page, Hunter’s protagonist is still negotiating these gaps between exile and self, pondering:

           if                     there were a road or a path from here how
would i venture to step on it. (61)

Where is the real heartland? One senses the speaker of Glass is still in transit.


Works cited



Mags Webster is a PhD candidate at Murdoch University. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing (poetry) from City University of Hong Kong, a BA with First Class Honours in English and Creative Writing from Murdoch University, and BA (Hons) in English and Drama from the University of Kent. Her first collection The Weather of Tongues (Sunline Press) won the 2011 Anne Elder Award. Her next collection is being published by Puncher & Wattman.


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Vol 22 No 1 April 2018
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Julienne van Loon & Ross Watkins
Reviews Editors: Pablo Muslera & Amelia Walker