- Obligations of Voice, by Anne Elvey. Recent Work Press, $19.95.
Obligations of Voice, an interesting successor to Anne Elvey's highly successful 2014 collection, Kin, is not an easy book.
Some secular readers may be deterred by its explicit (though subtle) spirituality. Some may not care for Elvey's intensely ecopoetic vision. Others may find her complex syntax and often unusual enjambment unnecessary impediments.
Almost as if realising this, Elvey kindly provides the reader with a useful afterword which summarises the underlying themes of the book's four sections.
Each of these sections features a number of sometimes difficult but memorable poems. The title poem, "Obligations of Voice" is one such. It's essentially a concrete poem which can be read vertically and horizontally. The vertical part is an unusually fierce and comprehensive expression of whitefella guilt. It's unusual to see the implications of this issue so thoroughly thought through, especially in such a short space.
A few excerpts suggest the tone and the line of argument: "over the urge / is a drive / that is not yours" "over the day / is a breath / that is not yours" "over the garden / is a theft /that is yours". It's indicative of a moral concern that distinguishes the book overall.
Section II seems more personal, even autobiographical. One of several powerful poems here is "Birth", a graphically subjective account of childbirth, written in ultra-short lines reminiscent of William Carlos Williams.
It's a good example too of Elvey's experimental way with syntax: "... a // grey thing - /corrugated / flesh. It / stretches me // then retreats / a gasp. There's / blood and shit / and water. // I burn. A / sudden / pressure. World / stills. // Between my / thighs your / scream /slides."
A standout poem in section III is the cleverly-titled "Refugee Outtake". The refugee issue has been strongly felt by Elvey for a long time and was the basis for a memorable poem in Kin, i.e. "Cargo? ... notes for another way".
This new one is a kind of via negativa suggesting the pusillanimity of offshore refugees in Australia's policy (under successive governments). A characteristic line is: "to divide 65 million according to capacity to learn / the global fraction / of a person they need to turn away".
A comparable poem, written in prose, in the book's final section is "no more than must" which appears to be the deeply-upset response of a practising Catholic to the revelation of child abuse in her church.
Its short closing section puts the matter tellingly: "In this genealogy of shame, my soul's exposure admits silence. Is it shock or abdication?"
- Geoff Page is a Canberra poet.