Review: Of its gilt edges and evident fanfare – Glass, Rose Hunter

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Of its gilt edges and evident fanfare

 

Glass

Rose Hunter

Five Islands Press, 2017

Review by Angela Gardner

Although Rose Hunter is the author of three previous poetry books and a chapbook published in the U.S.A. this is her first book to be published in her home country of Australia. Glass, published by Five Islands Press, is the result of their highly competitive annual manuscript call-out.

 

That Hunter has spent many years overseas is immediately obvious from the subject matter of many of the poems and the well-placed use of Spanish language words and phrases inside the English-language text (Hunter has lived in Canada and now in Mexico). This multilingual aspect of her poetry, in the words of Jennifer K. Dick (Of Tradition and Experiment XIII Notes on Newness & the Radical, tears in the fence 66 Summer 2017) is frequently used “to shred the unicultural, monolingual nature of a poem” and “can reveal a new awareness of each of our inherent language’s limits and limitlessness at once.” Edward Hirsch suggests that the “fusion of languages speaks to complex modern identities.”

 

The book is divided into three sections, all derived from place names: mexico city, jalisco and brisbane. In her words Glass “slides between and beyond two events: the death of a close friend of mine in an accident in Mismaloya, Mexico, and the mysterious illness that came over me the year after, which left me unable to walk well for much of that year.” But Glass is also a descriptive evocation of place: in the physical infrastructure of the city, but more-so in the soft architecture of its people and the manifestations of culture.

 

In the death of her friend, we return to the central subject of a previous well-received chapbook descansos, a book of memory, grief and elegy that is named for the wayside memorials that mark the site of an automobile accident. In these new poems, ‘sean’ accompanies her, as a continuing presence and sounding board over new territory.

 

The poems are noticeable for their use of caesura, their enjambment (even across sections of a poem on different pages), description that is vivid, use of non-English phrases, lack of capital letters and sentences that are left hanging as in the final line of ‘plaza garibaldi’ [p.21] “with the fade of things past dated stamped, partially” There is not even a full stop, the poem starts in media res and we do not leave it. This isn’t the only use of punctuation to further the feeling that we are in a constant unstable present:

 

he handed me a coat fit for a swan, i took it

then mistook it    for a sort of suffocation or strangulation

 

?            device.

[bellas artes p.19]

 

These are highly polished and controlled poems wielded with great skill and a consequent audacity that comes from getting it right. The first poem ‘mixquic’ addresses the absent ‘sean’, speaking to him conversationally with few full stops, but slowed down from a break-neck rhythm by the use of caesura to a more processional pace as if they walk together. His still vivid presence means that it does not feel like a monologue but rather he (and us the reader) are given sight through her description. There is something magical about her word choices:

 

in this carnival     river crowd steam and he says historical

(‘mixquic ii’ p. 12)

 

Descriptions are disoriented then stitched together seamlessly from places, dreams, memories and thoughts. In the poems, life is lived with only a semi-permeable barrier between conscious and unconscious modes. Yet Hunter deprecates her skill:

 

how much more beautiful to mix paint pour wax

or chip away at a block than to tap on keys

(‘mixquic ii’ p. 12)

 

Mexico appears the ideal location to find the strangely surreal and the location, both geographic and in language, imbues the collection with a dream-like logic but it is Hunter’s sure-footed lexical choices and dynamic metre that are key:

 

we will be like the children we never were.                show me

your pony gait your ice cream cone fur and jester ears

show me your sugar knuckles and sign above your head, it says

(look santa claus is not coming) remember don’t forget forget.

(‘alebrijes’ p14)

 

Although the streets of Mexico are peopled with crowds, a distinctive character enters in ‘bajÍo’ of a “sky-teller”, a modern kenning, possibly an astronomer or Native American storyteller. The poems are enigmatic, seemingly full of particulars, where meaning is subsumed by the lyric and becomes elusive. As reader I am unsure if the sky-teller is ‘sean’ or someone new yet I cannot be sure this isn’t deliberate destabilising, after all her handling of description is masterful, as in this conjuring up of a panda in a zoo:

 

wide back squash against reinforced plastic, stubby legs splayed

floppy trout shouldered and flute-like munching.

(‘bajÍo’ ii p.18)

 

Incremental repetition is also a feature of Rose Hunter’s poetry “i was crying/over some spilling i was spilling out more of the same” [‘yellow’ p.36] or “to think/ not of the pictures but the pictures of him taking pictures” [alebrijes p.14] or in the form of consonance of “riding in reaper robes” [mixquic p.12]

 

In ‘balloons’ Hunter acknowledges her desire (i wanted/       you or wanted to be you?) emphasised by the line-break but also the complex relationship we have with the dead where we carry them with us inside the self; “sean” in life a real person now functions as a guide reminiscent to me of the way Beatrice existed for Dante both as memory and with a literary existence so complete it goes beyond mere device.

 

Her poetry has something of the complicated, delicate tracery of the cover photograph, reflected and split by kaleidoscope. When I read Rose Hunter’s poetry I am immersed in the flow of her music, as if the conscious world is an intensely coloured envelope of experience: wonder mixed with something dark and unpredictable. Anyone who can say “a cantaloupe is the fruit equivalent of a lobster” has my full attention.

 

a cantaloupe

is the fruit equivalent of a lobster and not just because it is orange

if you call it a rock melon this is far less true.

Bajio ii p.18

 

There is a moment in ‘pretas’ [p.40] which functioned for me as a minor example of what “prithee

undo this button” does in King Lear, as tension and release (though less universal in its tragedy):

 

…villa not much by the sea

where we lay, how to forget what we’ve done to each other

but open the window

[‘pretas’, p40]

 

An image that carries over into the title poem ‘glass’ where the windows won’t open and turn out to be

of “looking-only glass”. Glass and mirrors are constant conscious metaphors for external points of view and

of internal states “we/ are seeing people only as our dirtier or cleaner mirrors…” [hotelito de los sueños

p.60] a poem near the end of the collection set in dreams and memories during Hunter’s return to Brisbane

for medical treatment.

 

In the final section we move from Mexico back to Brisbane, from technicolour into black and white or more

literally to grey:

 

the grey plastic rim under the grey bottle cap, until grey disgust

covered my grey concrete floor grey shards of grey orange rind

like grey confetti

[Compostela, p.49]

 

The use of Spanish language in the poems diminishes but not the power of language “of course I made you

up, partially, so /what.” [coconut, p.54].

 

In ‘bellas artes’ she says “ten years in the circus taught me that/how to do something different?” Her poetry

does feel different from other Australian poets, her use of language with its long lines and pitch-perfect

word choices and rhythms, is complex in a way that is both satisfying and puzzling. Although you may

“… become irrelevant/ to the place you’re leaving right before you leave it.” [‘central camionera’ p.41] as a

reader this demanding combination requires relationship with the text, requires return.

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