Lyricism, Imagination and Vigour: Michelle Cahill’s The Herring Lass (Reviewed by Ben Hession)

Posted on July 25, 2017 by in Verity La Reviews

(Edited by Robyn Cadwallader)

It has been a long time between poetry collections for Michelle Cahill, but her latest, The Herring Lass, proves the wait has been worth it, with a range of poems that mix elements of taut, strong lyricism, imagination and intellectual vigour. The Herring Lass is Cahill’s third full length collection, appearing just after her recent book of short stories, Letter to Pessoa, though many of its poems were written and published roughly concomitant to the pieces in Pessoa.

Those familiar with Cahill’s work will recognise a definite shift in tenor from the poems in her first collection, The Accidental Cage. The sunny, even sanguine, suburban domesticity of  ‘Stepping through Glass’, from that collection, has been replaced by something more bleak and grey, like the sky in the book’s cover portrait, ‘The Fisher Girl’, who might easily be the eponymous ‘Lass’ herself. ‘The Herring Lass’ character is singularly burdened as she ‘tramps from port to port’ and ‘stands by a trough in the dark, guttering cold’. This poem, which opens the collection, sets much of its tone.

The overall trajectory of Cahill’s work is marked, in The Herring Lass, by a move away from the glistening, pure inventiveness of The Accidental Cage to a consolidation and continuation of the direction begun with her second collection, Vishvarupa. In this latest book, Cahill concentrates on precisely crafting rhythms and meters to provide a holistic, palpable sense of her subjects, be they human, animal, or landscape. Cahill has always been a lyric poet, and in The Herring Lass the tensions between the formal strictures of lyricism, and the modern world and postmodern interrogation, provide her work with a distinct vitality. In many of the poems, tension is set within dramatic monologues in a variety of voices. For instance, in ‘Interlude’ we see an NGO executive caught between the fraught personal world of past and present marriages and family, versus the cynicism and angst that develops from compassion-fatigue in a climate relentlessly hostile to refugees. The mood of haltered frustration is mirrored by almost staccato rhythms: ‘I could write more — hours spent in earshot of innocent/ men tried by narrow halls, waiting for visas’. (19) Similarly, in ‘Day of a Seal, qw1820’ both rhythm and split line structure suggest the perspective of a creature caught in a climate of disjuncture, whose kind are routinely slaughtered for money. This in turn carries overtones of its wider implications: the colonial imperatives of economic exploitation and autochthonic dissolution:

 

Tuesday afternoon, Bass Strait’s shadows

ring the slaughter sands.

A man in sandals reeks as he wheels his rage

with a pivot, swings his heft.

A half-caste. I watch him clench the haft,

before the first blow shocks.

He braces and repeats.  (22)

 

Rhythm and form carry an Imagistic direct detailing of the scene and establish a vivid realism that avoids sentimentality. The creation of character echoes something of the alternate, but complete personages, or heteronyms, employed by the author in Letter to Pessoa, where pastiche is used to educe aspects of personal identity that render it a pronounced and self-reflexive creation. In The Herring Lass, such postmodern effects are more subtly employed as the author allows her characters to be autonomously embodied, becoming emblematic of the individual’s struggles with colonialism, identity, historicity and gender. They come to ‘live’ out their alterity amidst prevailing cultures which either marginalise them or have erased them altogether. One of Cahill’s achievements in The Herring Lass is the degree to which she has been able to give these characters ‘life’.

This is particularly so in ‘Thylacine’, and its companion piece, ‘The Vanishing’, where the native species hunted to extinction become an object of plunder to be exhibited as an item of conquest, and neither science nor art can bring them back from the dead. The current of rhythm and meter ironically carries the history of the thylacine as a simultaneously indigenous threat and spectacle. The creature of the latter poem is hunted with an empty, voyeuristic gaze:

 

Have I slept for a week already?

A finger puppet in snow, a Visitorian?

The post-identity theory and cli-fi symposium

may never make amends. Before Twitter

or the allegory goes viral. (25)

 

The Tasmanian tiger’s self-awareness here makes it a focus for our empathy, thus deepening the sense of its loss. The breadth of the spectacle renders this loss an even greater, societal one, as much as anything purely ecological.

Cahill explores the potential of the lyric to create identity as a tool for deconstructing the often concealed mechanisms and history of power and displacement. In ‘The Grieving Sonnets’, the landscape becomes the narrator. The fourth sonnet sees Bindi Irwin become a signifier of celebrity, and the embodiment of a white substitute for a loss of the richer spirit of the place, condemned to what the first sonnet describes as ‘history’s hole’. With its other references to native fauna, as well as ‘harbourside galleries’ and jet skis and fibreglass boats speeding by, ‘The Grieving Sonnets’ gives us a recognisably Australian space and thus invites us all to be mourners, wherein grief becomes an act of awareness that must also be political.

Michelle Cahill

In ‘Youth, by Josephine Jayshree Conrady’, identity is explored as a take on Joseph Conrad’s fictional voyages through the eponymous character’s own gender fluidity over a world of sea borne journeys. Via Josephine, Cahill offers a kind of counterpoint to the cis-masculine narratives of the past, including Conrad’s own, simultaneously deconstructing them and opening the space for alternate narratives.

Yet the monologue is not the only strategy that proves effective in The Herring Lass. For example, in ‘Harbour’, a Heaney-esque Scottish world dominates the poem, but is finally disrupted by the displacement experienced by an African refugee and his flashback of ‘Zambia’s swamps — all the drowned past’. And in ‘After Fukushima’, lyrical poetry becomes negated in a manner that echoes Theodor Adorno’s response to the Holocaust with the concluding line: ‘No figures of speech — nothing to speak of’.

Not that all of The Herring Lass is political, and in ‘Night Roads’ we see Cahill’s command of her medium. The poem captures succinctly the night-time chaos created by a ten tonne truck veering off the road: ‘Radios freeze, phones tri-tone between GPS signals,/ power cuts, fallen trees. Each hand-written envelope/ is bundled, tied to the hope of tomorrow’s promise’. (29) But this is neatly supplanted by the morning’s ‘minor narratives’ and softening blanket of snow that covers the landscape, including the skid-marks. ‘Renovations’, meanwhile, offers a humorous insight into a post-marriage domain. And ‘Taboo’ takes aim at notions of feminine propriety versus the casual fling.

Cahill has described herself as a literary activist, but she is not a polemicist. The Herring Lass demonstrates Cahill’s strength of balance, measure and maturity as a writer. Perhaps, however, the breadth of her ability may have also been used against her, as her poetry might not be considered ‘Indian’ enough, or ‘Australian’ enough to be easily packaged and marketable. That Cahill has received numerous invitations to speak on culturally and linguistically diverse issues in Australian literature yet still found it difficult to get The Herring Lass published here could be attributed to her understandable refusal to have her writing readily contained within a CALD box. Ironically, the history of literature is replete with white, European poets writing on the exotic or the ethnic ‘other’. Maybe it has been white privilege which has enabled this and which is threatened by the tables being turned. But in this denial of availability of good work, the loss is the reader’s. With Letter to Pessoa winning the UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing as part of the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards this year, Australian publishers might yet prove to be more receptive to Cahill’s work generally. One may hope so, and that her muse is not too distant from her, so we may see another volume of poetry, sooner rather than later.

 

The Herring Lass
Michelle Cahill,
Arc Publications, 2016
78 pages

____________________________________________________________

Ben Hession is a Wollongong based writer. His poetry has been published by Eureka Street, International Chinese Language Forum, Cordite Poetry ReviewVerity La, Mascara Literary Review and Bluepepper, as well as the Live Poets anthology Can I Tell You A Secret? Ben’s poem, ‘A Song of Numbers’,  was shortlisted for the 2013 Australian Poetry Science Poetry award. Ben is also a music journalist and is involved with community broadcasting.

 

 ________________________________________________________

CATCHING UP WITH A COMMUNICATIVE UNIVERSE: Michelle Cahill’s Letter to Pessoa (Angela Serrano)

Posted on May 9, 2017 by in Verity La Reviews

Letter to Pessoa is Michelle Cahill’s debut collection of short fiction. The stories are told from a single, often first-person perspective, with many written in an epistolary format. The narrators are from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds and sexual orientations, often educated, articulate, sensual souls who think about books and theory and sex and love. They don’t have racism at the forefront of their consciousness; however, by presenting the world through the eyes of diverse narrators, these stories do nevertheless subvert the dominant, monocultural view.

In addition to advocating for greater acceptance of avant-garde work by writers of colour, Cahill has had a long and successful career as an award-winning published poet, and it shows in her prose. For instance, here is an excerpt from the title story:

‘Church bells gag. Beyond the rooftops the sky crushes me with its vivid blue. The old man at reception nods sympathetically. He guesses I have my suicidal hours. Aren’t we ever restless? Rebellious clerks for whom the streets are never desolate, littered with cigarette butts and last night’s pardon … Speechlessly, the city has its way with me.’

It is a remarkably lyrical description of the mundane act of leaving one’s hotel room and exploring the urban landscape. Observe the attribution of intent to strangers and the features of the landscape. There is a sense of self-aware self-absorption here. Everything seems to literally speak to the narrator; in this and all the other stories, the universe is communicative. German-American poet Lisel Mueller in her poem ‘Monet Refuses the Operation’ wrote ‘I do not wish to return to a universe of objects that do not know each other’. [1] Mueller’s poem has the Impressionist painter Monet refusing to treat his cataracts because blurry vision allowed him to see the way colours and objects blended and bled into each other, always interacting, never strictly isolated from each other as common perceptions of boundaries and distance would have it. In Cahill’s fiction, objects are actors. ‘Dust blinds’, ‘light burns holes’, ‘orchids stretch their strong, sweet tentacles’. Each glance and gesture is meaningful, and the narrators are confident of their ability to decode the implicit. This is not a detached and unfeeling universe; it is a universe that gets up close and personal.

The universe speaks not just through the living but through the dead. ‘Letter to Derrida’ had me imagining the handsome French-Algerian philosopher as being as intimately near to the letter-writer as a heart is to a heartbeat:

‘By sheer coincidence we passed between dusty shelves of the Archives Husserl at the École Normale Supérieure. Only to find we were star-crossed and you not quite mid-sentence, paraphrasing Heidegger … whilst citing Hegel in the service of Aristotle, so far inside the performance of translation that wherever we found ourselves that day was a place curbed and vanishing, a fact we relished though it would remain forever unresolved … You once told me there are traces of us in everything.’

It is difficult to recognise traces of ourselves in stories about revolting situations. ‘Chasing Nabokov’ is about an Economics student who tumbles into an affair with a Russian writer forty years her senior. The story appears to be about the young woman’s reckless pursuit of, and passionate devotion to, an unattractive, married, significantly older man dismissed from his previous university teaching job because of alleged paedophilia:

‘I knocked on his door and waited, feeling disconsolate and submissive. He opened the door and grabbed my hand … We hardly spoke, our mouths wet with hunger. Like a beautiful piece of prose being read with renewed inspiration, we made love in a room with worn carpets … I had forgotten the urgency of our delirious lies.’

However, not unlike the narrator in Yoko Ogawa’s masterful and similarly themed novel Hotel Iris, this Lolita figure is always reflexive, never unaware of the capriciousness of contingency and the fleeting character of even the most torrid romances. Her perspective, her opportunity to have a voice in this literary space, matters. Just as importantly, she has much to say about silly longings, and how love makes callow youths of us all.

Some of Cahill’s stories feature more politically charged situations. Even in these, the material is handled with similar grace and nuance – less shout, while still being full of substance. ‘The Sadhu’, for instance, is about a Nepalese-Australian woman and Irish man’s visit to a charismatic sadhu who has impregnated an Italian enlightenment seeker. ‘Sleep Has No Home’ is about a Muslim girl experiencing the first-hand effects of the failure of governance and diplomacy on her family and on her body. The narrator in ‘Biscuit’ is a west Nairobi-born cat who also happens to be a cancer survivor, exploring a society collapsing from within.

In these stories, and others in the collection, race and global inequality could very well take starring roles. Instead, Cahill’s psychological portraits treat the characters’ suffering as a universal injury. The reader doesn’t have to be of a particular ethnic background to ‘get it’. At the same time, there is no glib attempt to be ‘colour-blind’. ‘Ethnic’ names and settings abound in this work. It is a different way of working with the reality of racialisation and racism in English-language literature.

Michelle Cahill

This, to me, reads as a way of saying that not unlike ancient Greek myths and European fairy tales, stories by non-white writers about non-white characters can speak across cultures and generations. As a young Australian woman of colour, I daresay this is a good thing, in an Australia where people of colour are often regarded as having nothing important to say about anything that isn’t directly race and racism-related (and sometimes not even then). Literary nonfiction, poetry and fiction about racism’s harmful and enduring impact on the lives of people of colour contribute compelling reasons for readers to work towards immediate changes in behaviour and policy, not to mention enhancing the potential of literary language for describing subaltern experiences. However, limiting the range of Australian POC writing to racialised experiences, and to those alone, benefits no one. Good, anti-racist writing about living in Australia whilst non-white can, should, but doesn’t always have to be about experiences of persecution by white Australians. It doesn’t have to give the white Australian elephant in the POC living room the power of being the standard against which every little joy or worry is weighed. If we are to accept and live by a commitment to intersectional understandings of social inequality, we are also committing to a recognition that even racialised peoples know that their lives do not solely revolve around what white people can do to them. The following passage from Ghassan Hage’s (2014) review of Michael Mohammed Ahmed’s novel The Tribe expresses this thinking beautifully:

‘Anti-racists need to strike a balance between acknowledging the power of racism to negatively affect peoples’ lives and, at the same time, not giving too much power to racism in a way that boosts the racists’ exaggerated sense of self-importance… The racialised can, sometimes heroically, carve for themselves what I have called ‘resilient’ spaces. That is, spaces where people live their lives with a sense of normality without being constantly haunted by the representations produced by the dominant culture about them… [not adopting] the usual defensive position of the ‘constantly worrying about what the dominant culture is going to say about this’ posture. This is in itself a very important form of anti-racism.’ (Italics mine)

This fiction collection showcases far more than Cahill’s ability to inhabit the viewpoints of a diverse range of characters, or craft beautiful narrative paragraphs. Letter to Pessoa contains moving stories about the intersections of not just multiple layers of identity, but of thought and sense, the sublime and the profane, grand universals and intimate particulars. Without any didactic statements, Letter to Pessoa contributes to the anti-racist advocacy a compelling demonstration of an Australian woman’s ambitious, sweeping literary and intellectual vision beyond firefighting, gesturing towards more inclusive ideas of canon-worthy, standard-setting greatness. It is a remarkable first fiction collection; I hope it won’t be the last.

 

Letter to Pessoa
Michelle Cahill
Giramondo Publishing, 2016
216 pages, $24.95

References
Hage, G. (2014). ‘Writing Arab-Australian Universes’Overland Literary Journal. Viewed April 9, 2017
Mueller, L. (1996). ‘Monet Refuses the Operation’, from Second Language, Louisiana State University Press. Viewed April 9, 2017
Ogawa, Y. (2010). Hotel Iris, trans. S Snyder, Picador, New York

Notes
[1]  Mueller, L. (1996). ‘Monet Refuses the Operation’, from Second Language, Louisiana State University Press. Viewed April 9, 2017

____________________________________________________________


Angela Serrano
is a 2017 Hot Desk Fellow at the Wheeler Centre. Her work has appeared in The Lifted Brow, Overland, Archer, Peril, Pencilled In, and elsewhere. She is a millennial Filipino-Australian Melbourne writer, a hot-blooded yogi, and a soprano in training. Find her on Twitter @angelita_serra and on her website.