(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 The sunny, even sanguine, suburban domesticity of ‘Stepping through Glass’, from that collection, has been replaced by something more bleak and grey, like the sky in the book’s cover portrait, ‘The Fisher Girl’, who might easily be the eponymous ‘Lass’ herself.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.
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
Arc Publications, 2016
Ben Hession is a Wollongong based writer. His poetry has been published by Eureka Street, International Chinese Language Forum, Cordite Poetry Review, Verity 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.