Review – Ambient Light, Tourniquet by Vanessa Page

by

 

                                  Tourniquet by Vanessa Page

Walleah Press 2018, 68 pp

ISBN 9781877010866
$20.00

                               Review by Jena Woodhouse

 

The word “cinematic” has been applied to Vanessa Page’s poetry, and it seems an apt descriptor of the way the reader watches the writer move through her landscapes, public and private, in light and in darkness, registering their flora and fauna, their human occupants and transients, their topographical features morphing under different effects of light. “Margaret Olley’s Flannel Flowers” is one distinctive example:

…………………………………………………. Mine is a country

of spinifex and brigalow – tin roofs reflecting the desolation of heat:

womal trees and gidyea, all following the slow brown run of the river.

 

Here, familiar is the tubular beauty of the banksia, the yolk-studded

fingers of coast-myall; the fleeting mimicry between the silver-backed

 

leaves and a gleaming catch of river perch: August sun setting a tin-foil

blaze on the Maranoa. This is not my country, but I’m looking through

 

its portholes, thinking of the Olley painting I cut out of a magazine

once – of the coastal flannel flowers: the way they spoke, perfectly wild

 

…………………………………………………………………………

Effortlessly beautiful in the same way one’s own country can be, ……

 

………………………………………………………………………….

 

bursting with strange botanicals – all of it, within and outside of myself.

 

In this collection, Tourniquet, there is a palpable sense of a journey through landscapes: from domestic traumascapes and internalised rupture of relationships, familial and interpersonal, to the vast, often desolate spaces of outback Queensland and the Tasmanian wilderness, where danger and the whiff of violent threat can seem both imminent and immanent, as can a sense of spaciousness, emancipation from conflicted relationships, a desire for inner peace and wholeness. Light is significant and pervasive in this collection, contrasted with darkness in various guises, natural and man-made.

Mathinna is a town of things piled up. Car wrecks on car wrecks.

Broken bits of fences, rubbish, metal things. Frontier woodpiles taller

than a man. …………………………………………………………

………………………………………………………..Quartz-crunch feet

flattening the brittle bones of gold miners. On a corner block, a house

crouches, gutted by fire: blackened limbs in twisted rigor mortis pose.

 

This poem, “Mathinna”, interweaves the story of a young Indigenous woman – adopted in the mid-nineteenth century by the governor of Tasmania, Sir John Franklin and his wife, Lady Jane, and abandoned by them when their vice-regal post came to an end – with the fate of a mining settlement in north-east Tasmania.

 

In “Time-share”, the sense of abandonment is more personal, and the poem plays skilfully on the ominous implications of darkness and light for the woman on borrowed time:

 

In the threadbare dark, night is collecting in makeshift cups:

The gutters of this tinderbox; the visible parts of your body.

 

I lie awake, synchronizing our breathing, night swimming across

a floral coverlet that has never suited you, or me.

It’s too hot for sleeping.

 

This suburban eucalypt tract is defined by species and sweat:

the brutal mating sounds of koalas tearing holes in the silence.

The slow pulse of ecology.

We are as obvious: a peristaltic churn – coiling and uncoiling under

the skin of python weather, immediacy the only tangible bind.

The only thing I can claim.

 

Outside, the night sky is decomposing – a familiar caveat:

first light over the departure gate, gut-black the colour of your going.

 

Zooming in on a scene that is staged with pitch-perfect tone and timing, “Christmas Day in Harlaxton” (an economically depressed suburb of Toowoomba, Queensland’s second city), winner of the Martha Richardson Poetry Prize 2016, deserves to become a classic for the vitality and veracity of its depiction of a certain type of masculinity and the menacing aura of simmering rage associated with it, which can erupt in physical or verbal violence at any moment.

 

*

The poems of Tourniquet are divided into three sections: I Arterial; II Tourniquet; III Occlusion. The striking cover image is of a heart entwined with what appears to be vine-stems, with native flora bursting from it, as well as a yellow-tailed black cockatoo. The first section, in which the poems quoted above appear, introduces recurrent themes of haunted and haunting landscapes; risky relationships; the brooding sense of rage barely held in check, erupting at times into domestic violence; a woman who traverses this terrain in search of light and air, room to breathe. The poem “South Solitary” (incidentally the name of an Australian film set around a remote lighthouse) begins with the words Solitude is a dark but simple art.

 

The poet’s attitude to the stifling hypocrisy and inertia of conventional suburban domesticity is encapsulated in the poem “Papier Mache”:

as she exhales, stripped down to a wick –

hauling the dead weight of domestic bliss like a cadaver.

 

Page’s evocation of “Home”, in a present overshadowed by childhood memories and more immediate reminders of a violent father, again strips the veneer of clichés from its subject to expose it as a place of peril, despite the fact that Entrenched normal flows from room to room. “Home” ends with the line Think. Don’t think. The same door waits open.

 

This line concludes the first section, Arterial, and acts as a segue into the second, Tourniquet, which moves from bruised and constricted suburban lives punctuated by anticipation and recollection of harm and outbursts of violence, reprised in Section II by the poem “Break-up”, to offshore locations in the Pacific and Canada, then back again, mainly to Tasmania, where, in a settlement restored to colonial facades for tourism purposes, the admission I came here to be someone else,/ paint out the damage/ imagine I am whole.(“Evandale”) implies a parallel between the veneer of the facelifted township and the speaker’s misgiving that such transformation is only skin-deep:

 

I skim across this canvas,

until nightfall drags along sleep:

and even then,

there’s no pigment deep enough

to paint it out –

the same small town darkness that runs

through me,

through the people living here, streets-deep.

 

Section III, Occlusion, revisits lives and events from colonial days, partly in Tasmania, but mostly in south-western Queensland, as the poet and other figures, male and female, appear/ disappear mirage-like in the landscape, moving through outback spaces and settlements to where she was raised in the grazing country of the Maranoa. This is our existential/ blind spot – without words but not unspoken; a shared/ endlessness, still littered with the same dingo fences. (“Fontanelle”)

 

The destination (in this collection), featured in the final, extended poem in three sections, “Inheritance” is Page’s now-deserted family homestead, scene of complex emotional and visceral responses.

This is not the place for absolution.……..

…………………………………………..

This is a wasteland for sepia-drenched stiffs, and crows

 

tossing gunfire emptiness with bullet-point eyes. I’d

rather drive through this molasses-thick heat, away from

ancestral fossils. Out here, Mandandanji feet know the earth

 

and I am only a stranger – a tightly clenched prodigal

alone with the pull of regret behind my rib cage.

Out of the car, I fall hard into my own body.

 

The heartland of Tourniquet lies in the haunted, haunting terrain of its unsettled and unsettling topographies, including the body. As unsparing and unflinching in her gaze as the outback light, Vanessa Page has a sure grasp of her subjects and the poetic forms that can best accommodate them. In bringing a female gaze and sensibility to bear on the badlands and wastelands of personal relationships and landscapes, especially the marginal terrain of small, isolated settlements, and in seeking out the redemptive possibilities of reconnecting with body and spirit in physical encounters with country, she has generated some powerful poetry.

 

 

 

 

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