By Anne Elvey.
Five Islands Press. pp 81. $25
Kin is Anne Elvey’s first full collection, following on from three chapbooks, and its maturity shows. Though, as with any first collection, its manner and content can vary somewhat, Elvey’s book is consistently doing things only poetry can do. In her case, this involves significant environmental and religious dimensions but there is no unwelcome preaching.
The book has three sections which, loosely speaking, are personal, ecological and spiritual by turn. Elvey’s poetry can be difficult in places but it always ensures it has enough music to bring its readers back for a second look.
We may not, for instance, know precisely what she’s referring to in the opening of her poem, “Passenger”, but Elvey’s extreme lyricism keep us reading. The poet, it seems, is being driven home; we’re not told by whom and we don’t need to be. “The sheen on things under blue / and the cool acreage of canary / light has not a hint of crimson / till you drive me home / with the idea of sky over the bay.”
Some readers may ask what exactly is “the idea of sky” but at the same instant they will be recovering from the striking image which preceded it, that “cool acreage of canary / light”. As in quite a few of Elvey’s poems there is an unobtrusive shift from the natural to the spiritual. The poem ends with: “Grace / throws itself itself into my lap / and licks my face. When it lands / on me, what can I do but laugh / at once wary and delighted.”
If Elvey has a systematic theology it doesn’t show. She is one of those poets who, like Kevin Hart, understands that the explicit and the orthodox are the enemy of any poetry there may be in metaphysics. Elvey is the mistress of the telling phrase (which, at times, may be more arresting than the lines that surround it or precede it). Take, for instance, the ending to The honour of things dedicated to the poet’s mother who, apparently, prefers “to think / the way a leaf / swallows the light.”
Quite often, Elvey’s poems are assembled from short sentences which at first may not seem to fit neatly together. At the poem’s end, however, the reader is aware of something greater than the sum of its small parts. Take, for example, her poem A shared path at the edge of Chelsea which is brief enough quote in full. “Three cyclists pass. A grey heron / feeds. The stilts’ legs are drawn by a child. //I reach the pony club. One paddock / is a wetland. I have no tears. My pulse / is a function of my pace. Slowly the sun / warms the ground. I do not see it dry.” For some readers, these details will be irritatingly unrelated but they also reflect the way we very often see things i.e. disconnected — until a lapse of time, or perhaps an emotion, connects them for us.
The poems cited so far are typical of Kin more generally. Luckily, as with many first books, the collection also contains a number of “one-off” poems that don’t readily “fit”. One of these is the parable, To drag the saints back from heaven, a tale which would do credit to some of the great 20th century poets from central Europe.
Even more striking, however, is Cargo? ... notes for another way. Here, Elvey demonstrates the truth of P.B. Shelley’s surmise that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of mankind”. Instead of our current widely shared but mean-spirited attitude to asylum seekers, Elvey posits a more humane alternative where the eccentricities or limitations of our complex culture are turned into virtues. As if in a vision, the poet sees a fishing boat full of refugees escorted by “an armada of small craft” arriving “near Geraldton, where / a church van and and an elderly citizens bus — / eight members of the CWA on hand / with tea and fruit and scones — / greet the new arrivals, the local pool / provides shower facilities and an Aboriginal GP // and a white nurse, both Jack, offer medical / assistance, inoculations, and jelly beans for the kids ...”
There are many additional — and equally beguiling — compassionate details. It may not be as sleekly metaphorical as Elvey’s other work but it is an excellent example of a genuinely political poem, a genre which is now too often absent from our poetic culture — or badly mishandled. It should be recommended reading for successive ministers for immigration.