Small Acts of PrecisionBook cover

Poetry review by Simon Patton

Electricity for Beginners

Michelle Dicinoski
Clouds of Magellan, 2011
IBSN 9780980712070


The view of poetry endorsed by Brisbane-based Dicinoski in her first collection is this: to use words to connect with readers and to sustain a current of interest across networks of syllables. The ideal electric poem conveys energy. We can feel an intelligent significant force across the language grid and, when it’s done well, a kind of positive glow is created that sheds light on experience: “poetry is radiance”, as Adam Zagajewski puts it. Electricity is also part of our everyday life, and there’s no place for mysteriousness in these poems, except where ordinary reality reveals its unsuspected quirks.

There’s a moment early on in Electricity that gently suggests this connective aspect of the writing:

Trivia savants, we trade facts like marbles:
an upturned frisbee holds a litre of beer.
Napoleon and Caesar were born with teeth.
Elite archers shoot between heartbeats.

At this, we quiet,
try to imagine small acts of precision,
till the band plays “Come on Eileen”
and we form a rowdy chorus
of toora loo rye, toora loo rye ayes (“Rounds”)

I was troubled by the simile “like marbles” when I first read this poem. Facts aren’t traded like marbles because, even if you give one away, you still retain it for your personal use. They’re not like objects that can become the exclusive possession of only one person. The poem itself wastes no time in proving this point, sharing several “facts” with us, including a memorable one about heartbeats. Yet the apparent flaw in the simile leads on to a deeper insight contained in the phrase “ . . . we quiet / try to imagine small acts of precision”. Here, a group of people sharing facts come together like children concentrated on their game, and it is this hushed, communal quality, at first subdued by the effort of thought, that suddenly bursts out in a chorus of spontaneous togetherness, rowdy because impulsive and wholehearted.

Little knots of people come together here and there in Electricity, asserting undemonstratively our need for kind. The poetry is embedded in human situations, intimate, personal and, tentatively, broadly social. In “The heart of a comet is blacker than tar”, the poem commemorates an incident of comet gazing, and gradually builds to the realization: “But still, you’ll think / you liked it / remembering afterwards / not the sky / but the people watching the sky / as one”. In another poem, a freakish constellation of confetti thrown down from a car park serves as a catalyst for another leap across separateness: “The crowd below points up / as we point down and grin / at this simple wonder . . .” (“Intimate not monumental”). Wonder, the poem demonstrates, is a power that unites “poetically”, without self-consciousness or striving.

On the whole, the poems in Electricity favour an easy colloquial language that can seem plain to the point of flatness. This may strike some as being unambitious. “Prayer flags” is a good example:

You’ve strung prayer flags across
our back deck: reds and golds so rich
that the dafter butterflies
mistake them for flowers.
Beneath are my pots:
basil, thyme, rose geranium.
A house-warming aloe from Kylie
rests on a hoop-pine table.
By the doormat, pink thongs
still thick with last week’s mud.
The clothesline’s bright
with tea-towels and undies that
shimmy in the wind.
In each small thing we call ours
I see a prayer and a flag.

The references to “pots”, “pink thongs” and “undies” are almost provocative in their down-to-earthness, and the unassuming movement of the rhythm — sure but unobtrusive across the mainly one- and two-syllable words — makes it easy to dismiss this poem. Yet that would be a mistake. There is an interesting courage at work here. The word “undies” may seem impossible, but in Australian English, there is no other word we can use (“underpants” is correct but would you ever really use it?) and so Dicinoski risks it, despite the overwhelming dagginess, because it is a fact in her reality and because it is central to the meaning of the poem. The gentle pun contained in “a house-warming aloe” (for the speaker, the gift warms up the house) and the almost inaudible rhyme-echoes of “Kylie/table” and “bright/that” suggest a deliberate but inconspicuous patterning. In the poem’s conclusion, the prayer flags are (blasphemously) refigured as “tea-towels and undies”, and this is the point: that the sacredness of a shared space is indicated by all the humble/practical objects that go with it.

There are more rhetorically challenging poems in Electricity, but they are still as grounded as “Prayer flags”. When “Milk teeth” first appeared in the Australian I remember being literally forced to sit up and take notice when I read it; it remains one of the highlights of the collection and a benchmark for Dicinoski’s work. It also provides a measure of the calibre of her intuition:

Three-year-old Sophia leans into danger
like a sailor picks a fight. She swings
through mornings with a candy swagger and
stumbles home at night with her skin inked blue
from where she’s assaulted the world.
Something in this child makes you think
she might be spared fear her whole life.

This afternoon in Woolworths she’s
all liquored up on milk-tooth bravado
and rolls through the aisles on the trolley’s prow.
Sit down, you say, it isn’t safe,
but the kid just loosens her grip
and shouts:
I don’t want to be safe
I want to be la la la.

This depiction of three-year-old Sophia in unlikely (male) sailor terms certainly accounts for some of the poem’s charm. A series of seafaring references — pick a fight, swagger, stumbles home, skin inked blue ( = tattoo), liquored up, rolls, prow — all contribute to the portrayal of the little girl. The language of the poem is equally energetic, especially in the first stanza where rhythm, sound, atmosphere, meaning and surprise are mobilized in a compelling manner. The turbulence of “ . . . She swings / through mornings with a candy swagger and / stumbles home at night with her skin inked blue / from where she’s assaulted the world” is irrepressible. The whole thing, however, goes up a notch when Sophia stands up in the trolley and sings — another “rowdy chorus” — “I don’t want to be safe / I want to be la la la”. At this point, a commonplace instance of supermarket behaviour is transformed into an emblem of rebellion against a society that stays huddled together purely out of fear.

This ability to synthesize the mundane and the emblematic is a good indication of the quality of Dicinoski’s poetry at its best. Of course, she doesn’t always reach these heights, and there’s even a tendency for these two impulses to separate out. On the one hand, there are the direct statement poems, rooted in the ordinary and explicit in their meaning but thwarted by a lack of both urgency and complexity. On the other hand, there are adventurous poems that mobilize some of the inexhaustible resources of language without successfully engaging the reader. “Showing and telling” is the title of one of the poems in Electricity and it sums up the broad strands at work. On the whole, the more rewarding poems overcome this separation and create enriching combinations of the two that are never solemn, boring, flippant, academic, worthy, incoherent or full of hollow literariness.

It is true that directness does tend to get the upper hand in these poems. This may be a plus when they are read aloud to an audience, but on the page it often makes for a flatness of rhythm, a lack of verbal excitement and an absence of distinctive voice. This often happens when poems take on particularly confronting issues:

I watch the snapshots accrue on the evening news,
women and girls,
hazy figures all blunt with light.

I have no shock to offer
though shock’s the least that they deserve
for I have lived there, felt the weight.
I knew that things would fall.

I have no shock to offer but
I keep the count.
I count. I count. I count. (“Weights”)

The descent into monosyllables here does suggest a sickening heaviness and it gives the text a certain appropriate solemnity in the attempt to respond adequately to abduction and murder. The ambiguity of “I count” also suggests both the concern and the defiance of the speaker. However, there is also an oppressive inertness in the lines that fails to counter depravity with a forceful poetic response. For the moment, evil has won.

Other less successful aspects involve the handling of similes and puns. Apart from the unusual case of “we trade facts like marbles”, there are several other examples in Electricity that are not quite the small acts of precision they should be. For example, the use of “rolling like logs” in “Lickerish” is weak, while “shone like golden syrup” (“Measures”) to describe a crow butterfly’s chrysalis is inaccurate, since syrup is formless and flowing and not particularly bright unless held up to the light. As for the punning, I often felt that it cheapened the effect of the poetry, sacrificing subtlety for a momentary thrill of amusement. In the opening poem “Arterial”, which seeks delicately to equate the tremors of traffic with the tremors of love, the spell is broken by the pun “silverware, girlish, shivers in its drawers”, while in “Intimate and monumental”, the sense of awe established in the text by the description of “this simple wonder, this one fixed thing / a careless paper galaxy” is undermined by the punning final line “a monumental fling”. The heavy-handed intrusion in both cases suggests an uncertainty about tone and, more importantly, about poetic purpose.

There are numerous love poems in Electricity and, by and large, they confirm the advice Rilke once handed out in his Letters to a Young Poet: “Do not write love poems; avoid at first those forms which are too familiar and usual: they are the most difficult, for great and fully matured strength is needed to make an individual contribution where good and in part brilliant traditions exist in plenty”. Inevitably, a mawkishness (acceptable between lovers, but not between a text and its readers) creeps into some of them and, in the case of “Diviner”, the refrain “I am trying to write” sets up a frustrating split between the experience of love and the ability to write (about) it.

The main thing, however, is that — at its best — Electricity demonstrates a powerful poetic potential. Just about anyone can manipulate words according to technique, and even stir up a little voltage, but the impulse that results in an illuminating poem-insight such as “Milk-teeth” is by no means commonplace. Stand in some of these poems with attentiveness and you’re sure to be struck by their vivid, human lighting.