TEXT review

‘This is what happened’: Gayelene Carbis’ Anecdotal Evidence

review by Autumn Royal


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Gayelene Carbis
Anecdotal Evidence
Five Islands Press, Parkville VIC 2017
ISBN 9780734053602
Pb 86pp AUD25.00


Gayelene Carbis’ Anecdotal Evidence allows poetry to highlight and create contradictions within the binaristic understanding of ‘public’ and ‘personal’. To do so is essential for generating space for tender and vulnerable expressions we’re still unaccustomed to or discouraged from observing. One of the most daring features of Carbis’ poetry is her persistent emphasis on the lyrical ‘I’ in relation to memory. The ‘I’ or the persona within each poem expresses perspectives in such concentrated ways that there are no nostalgic curtains to hide behind. This is important because nostalgia – through its idealisation and longing – has the propensity to conceal and therefore silence.

For the purposes of this review I will consider Carbis’ use of the ‘I’ within the context of Dorothea Lasky’s essay ‘Poetry and The Metaphysical I’ (2015). In appreciation of Carbis’ poetics, I am actively inserting myself into this review which is a somewhat public act driven from a personal reading of Carbis’ Anecdotal Evidence. For how can I talk about the metaphysical I without investing an I myself? To continue, here is Lasky introducing her outline of the metaphysical I:

I define this I, as a wild lyric I, one that has no center and has no way to predict where it will go. An I in a poem that is a shapeshifter. A persona that uses unexpected language and imagery, that is inconsistent, frightening, funny, and beyond the idea of a singular self. (Lasky 2015)

As Carbis states in the poem ‘The Floods Come to Carnegie’: ‘I am always here. / Even when I’m not here’ (62). Carbis is both inside and outside her poetry and she is unafraid to reveal how her words can enact a rage that may be symbolically destructive. This can be demonstrated in the condensed and commanding poem ‘Fire’:

I stand like a statue
in a big empty house.

Solitary, still: I ignite.

The house burns.

These words are my ashes. (74)

This poem exposes the volatility of being subjected to the confines of conventions. It is no accident that what burns is a house: those supposed sanctuaries our entire existence is an obligation to. Consider the often mundane or painful things one has to do in order to ‘keep a roof over one’s head’, something which should be considered a euphemism rather than an idiom.

In the poem ‘Scrambled’, Carbis employs the symbol of the egg to explore the abjection of returning to uncomfortable memories within dream states. The poem reads as if it is written out of fragmented memories and begins with a machine, a ‘yellow crane, disturbingly surreal’ (16). Then the ‘dream shifts’ (16) to a school day with the company of a friend called Adena; everyone ‘squashed into / one small classroom’ and all ‘writing novels’ (16.). Such lines allow Carbis to directly align the concept of memory with that of narrative and therefore the fictitious. In following this alignment, the poem quickly moves towards the violence of remembrance as the foundations of the classroom, and the memory of it, become demolished as well as excavated by the crane. It is Adena who warns: ‘Run for your life! Get out of here’ (16) upon which all of the occupants ‘scramble, like eggs, and [their] yolk / splatters out’ (16). Carbis then exits from the sinking foundations and into the metapoetical. The poem rests on the hope that if the poet, the metaphysical I, can attach language to memory then they can find some form of restoration. The final lines read:

through shaking sand
along narrow passages:

I believe I can go back in
and get out, safe.

With this poem. (17)

These concluding lines are active and bodily, to be safe inside the body of a poem, in the reading and thinking of it while in your own body. I wonder if perhaps this poem should have been placed at the beginning of the collection because that is what poetry is when read – a form of being.

I think that the most striking feature in this collection is Carbis’ fearless use of the forward slash punctuation mark ‘/ ’, an act I very much admire. The forward slash is not just a process of separating clauses or marking indicators for breath, it’s also an action for Carbis to demonstrate that her poetry allows for movement. Carbis writes into the future through returning to the past, which we all know is often painful, difficult to articulate; full of gaps and perhaps crueller, doubts. Thus the forward slash literally and figuratively allows for a roughly cut passageway into what was and what might be.

As well as cutting into the density of memory Carbis is able to paradoxically use the slash to indicate that of being haunted or confined. Note the beginning section of the poem ‘Graven Images’ in which the inescapability of familial connection in relation to a kind of ‘life cycle’ is stirred:

My mother was born in Earl Street Windsor / and I was born in
Earl Street Windsor / and my mother went to St Mary’s in St Kilda
and I went to St Mary’s in St Kilda / and my mother idolised
the nuns / and I idealised them / and my mother played Connie
Francis / The Bells of St Mary’s / are here they are calling / the young
loves the true loves / singing with our stereo as she scrubbed
the floors on her hands and knees / humming and singing and
telling stories of how I could sing before I could speak… (20)

The lines in this poem are neither elongated nor sparse. Within these lines is a subtle and unsettling inbetweenness – which the forward slashes also suggest; meaning is in a state of suspension, just or nearly. This recalls the moment in Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida when he examines photographs of his recently deceased mother, Henriette. The photographs present a history and alternate identities of Barthes’ mother including her as a child. Barthes laments that he is only able to recognise his mother in ‘fragments’ (Barthes 2000: 65), isolating this experience as the ‘almost: love’s dreadful regime’ (66).

Within Carbis’ own ‘dreadful regime’ the importance of ‘testimony’ is critical to acknowledge. Carbis’ title gestures towards the vitality of subjectivity. A reader of this collection will recognise that Carbis is acutely aware of the unacceptable way in which many women’s narratives have been ‘held against them’ often by seemingly innocent autobiographical readings. Carbis offers an inversion of this tendency with her eponymous poem ‘Anecdotal Evidence’. The poem ends with the speaker of the poem asserting an empowerment in the act of self-representation with the lines: ‘…I keep a scrapbook as /evidence I am accumulating against them in case / they say I am crazy’ (44). There is no full stop at the end of this poem, signalling towards the perception of unreliability that often accompanies a woman’s self-expression, and as long as reactions like this continue, the work of Carbis’ poetry remains unfinished. The poetry in this collection spans between the ‘anecdotal’ and the ‘evidenced’ and, given the prejudiced readings of women’s writing, it calls for a new verdict rather than an expected one.


Works cited



Autumn Royal is a poet and researcher based in Narrm / Melbourne. Her current research examines feminist elegiac expression in women’s poetry. She is the interviews editor for Cordite Poetry Review and author of the poetry collection She Woke & Rose.


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Vol 21 No 2 October 2017
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy, Enza Gandolfo & Julienne van Loon
Reviews editor: Linda Weste