The word shifter

Why did Yeats write
Fish, flesh, or fowl commend all summer
Whatever is begotten, born and dies.
and not ‘Fish, flesh, and fowl’? I imagine because ‘or’ is better rhythmically. Aileen Kelly has this kind of ear:
stubborn, meticulous, inventive.
In the freshening pond pobblebonks yell    
for the brief
comfort of procreation, the myth of    

Strength and poignancy are hurried into that little preposition: ‘for’ in exuberance, and out of need. Her poem ‘Notes from the planet’s edge’ might have given Kelly’s magnificent second book an alternative title: it is testimony to its brave humanism that City and Stranger is a truer name.

Not that ‘City’ is ever-present. In the cover picture and matching sequence ‘After Drysdale’, the city is an absence, or an emblem of displacement. Against the desert is the human figure, ‘lump of enduring female’. Somewhere in that lump, a distorting memory is held, as ‘sad shoes’ or ‘gigantic handbag’. The city is lost, but the stranger is the very embodiment of the human. You don’t need a city to be alone, only dislocation and some kind of memory.

A city will do it. The title poem wryly celebrates a random occupation by the unknown, ‘a short-rent flat’ in the kind of city across the world that Kelly’s ancestors once left. This poem maps a psychic space before the poetry comes. In that preliminary idleness, ‘you’re never truly alone’. Alone comes later:

                        you’re reading
with a postcard from the familiar to book-      mark where you think you can return.

You can return, but you bring with you what you have left behind. It won’t leave you alone, and it won’t quite leave you ‘Partnered, settled, childed’. You are always in two places and absent from two places, inhabited by conflict, strange to yourself.

‘The whirlpool’ takes this preoccupation up directly (‘an arrow labelled You / Are Not Here.’) ‘First lesson’ involves a collision of different life forms in one space, when a curious child tries to ingest experience:

the ice … worked / its way down longer … a strange / relish of roosting starlings ... /... all their dropping-germs / frozen alive woke in my belly ...’. Primal instincts collide, the lodestone can work backwards. You switch on the TV and ‘the city is burning’ but you don’t know which city. ‘For us / it was bombs’.

Distinctions collapse like buildings. The city may be a metaphor for the sane mind: ‘my city humming with wax-making and stinging’ (‘Aftershock’), or interiorized in the rogue body (‘Cross country’):
in my body, heart-city of graffiti:


Pun-scutted, chrome-eyed, the city’s    rodent peeps
from its burrow reamed in the heart’s    right chamber …
In that delightful poem of self-reclamation, the ‘skin-naked self’ is restored in a suburban garden. But there are many in this collection where the self seems barely to have a skin. In ‘Notes from the planet’s edge’, the planet is ‘still testing its options / between life and vacuum’. By one option,

The last tadpoles
sun-pinched in mud.
By another,
The last tadpoles
drift down and rot.
Between these painful possibilities human beings ‘insect over the surface with oars and rods.’
over the planet’s knobbly rind
the frogs are dwindling
but their mud our mud
is starred with the invisible sift of space.

Lines of separation disappear in the planet’s ‘knobbly rind’, and human feeling flows across a vanished boundary with a shock (‘their mud our mud’) which is more than empathy and marks a dispossession of wherever it had been before.

The shift of pronoun is characteristic of Kelly, as is the discipline with which it is used. In ‘Documentary’, there is another such shift, another underwater death. Here the human is segregated in the grey world of obsessive memory, as the speaker’s father watches old film.

Each night (I suppose
now there’s only me to dream
his silent history)
his friends walked the undersea
terrain from which no bubbles rise.
They carry their dead his dead each
other in disintegrated arms.
‘[N]ow there’s only me’ has all the sorrowful ambiguity of keeping someone company who is no longer there. That bleakness recurs.
But the poems speak to each other. ‘Simple’ is an exquisite history of the down-sizing of God.
Fetching the paper I thought I heard you    sigh
or laugh in the mintbush by my gate
and who was it flipped the petals, hiding   under a single
petal, little god? But when I turned a wet   leaf
there was only a websoft texture,
an intimate scent
that troubled my fingers till someone    ground the coffee.
Facing that is the minimalist ‘Fog’. This appears a negative influence, a blank. Then it starts to talk.
Understand me
if you must.

I would rather you
put out blind hands into
my swathed
handfuls of darkness
until you begin to touch.

This fog both is and is not God (and not the little god that flipped the petals). The two poems form a paradigm of ways to be and not be in two places at once: in time and on the page, in formal possibilities fulfilled and excluded.

This is a poetry of great exposure. Pronouns are volatile, the centre of self migrates. There are several dynamic by-products of the shifting pronoun: ‘Scarecrow’, ‘Next field’ ( ‘I am straw. Fear climbs me ...’), ‘The right stuff’ ( ‘You slit my skin briskly ... / I am ready for your guest’ ), ‘Three wild angels’. But the metaphors are sustained: both terms develop with inspired impartiality. So it is with the cat’s neat poem ‘Found’, ‘Cop-out’, ‘Sister’, ‘Pippins’, that scary city poem ‘To a son’ and ‘Curtains’, where the volatile pronoun is the punning subject, as a mouse-sized ‘i’ tries (‘put a pox on yr willy’) to provoke a lion-sized ‘You’.

Much of this book is hugely funny. The wit is invigorating even as it scares you. As was said at the launch of the book, Aileen Kelly’s work is terrifying. But it is also fortifying. While ‘self’ is stripped and peregrine, there is a spirit of facing up to one’s own history. ‘Open house’ zig-zags between the pits of class or clan disloyalty and paranoia, and ends by acknowledging the philosopher’s descent to earth as serious, while those of the poet are absurd.

Perhaps the shatter
of significant bones in your long
fall to hard ground set you that shape. My                                                                 falls
are short, absurd. Tangling bruised on       public land,
knocked from breath and composure ...
I am barrowed away by practical neigh-    bours
and abandoned on my own doorstep.

I am just going outside, I may be some     time.
When my freezedried foot has learnt to     kick some shit
out of this stubborn constipated world
maybe I’ll come back sober.

All do fall down, but only the falls one takes oneself are funny. At ground level, this indestructible difference between the self and others is fortifying. You can also trust the syntax.
Perhaps ‘A new and accvrat mappe’ best shows the kind of synthesis Kelly can make of potentially estranging difference. The speaker tries to be her own interpreter, translating sound into vibration:

My jump vibrates the floor to warn
you silent boy ...
I wake the floor, rattle the cups
to tell you there are dragons in your path.
The silent boy, from his beneficent, brilliant world, gives her dragons back:
You show me patiently finger-spell and                pencil …
And now with inks and oils how
sunlight strikes a fire
off green lizard skin.
A bottle of red to anyone who can find me a better poet writing in Australia. 

Penelope Buckley is a writer and former lecturer at the University of Melbourne.



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