Review: ‘A body full of organs’ – Soap, Charlotte Guest

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‘A body full of organs’

 

Soap

Charlotte Guest

Recent Work Press, Canberra 2017

Review by Angela Gardner

I was intrigued by the title, thinking immediately of the Francis Ponge book of the same name (Le Savon, 1967). Ponge is known as the ‘poet of things’ believing that “a mind in search of ideas should first stock up on appearances”. Holding the book and thinking about Ponge and his attention to objects I admired the precise shade of pink chosen for the front cover and the perfectly placed title. Recent Works Press really are to be commended for making the physical aspect of the book’s design concordant with the themes and content of the collection. After reading and rereading Charlotte Guest’s Soap I concluded it was the thorough examination of a subject that both Ponge and Guest have in common. In the case of Ponge these are everyday objects whereas in the case of Guest they are as often mental objects encountered through everyday situations.

 

There is a self-conscious performativity to our lives, of which Guest is well aware. Early adulthood is a time of sexual awakening and of attention, some of it unwanted. But nevertheless there are choices available. In the first song-like poem, ‘Harvest’, about women’s cultivation of cassava, the dangers of incorrect (deliberate or otherwise) preparation act as a warning. It is as if in invitation of reading on we are being offered choice or hazard.

 

Guest’s subjects: the political charge of girl’s bodies, the possibilities of youth, and the wider project of all types of love is thoughtfully handled in a variety of modes. In ‘Egg Tempera’ [p.3] she establishes the continuity of the ‘period eye’, that is the male gaze, from Renaissance paintings into a contemporary bedroom. Some poems like ‘Hush, Memory’ [p.4] that opens “The lodgings at the end of girlhood/ are not as advertised”, read like cautionary tales, while the prose poem ‘Picnic at the Rock’ [p.7] return to the dreamlike state of Joan Lindsay’s novel, but are concatenated with her own childhood experience. Throughout the collection poems are presented in a variety of forms and include some prose poems and one untitled concrete poem.

 

The gender-politics of ‘Networking Drinks’, that well-known and awkward social situation attached to a working life, renders the conversation understandably and unavoidably clunky. A young woman appears to be being ‘hit on’ by either an old unreconstructed male or a self-satisfied youth. No description of the speaker is provided but the conversation is no meeting of minds. Unrecognised privilege, with its unwillingness to listen and therefore learn, is at the heart of the poem. While the male dismisses ‘race and gender’ while taking ‘a swig from his Old-Fashioned’ (a deft touch), the female responding makes no headway in her academic dialectic on intersectionality. Suddenly this level of incoherence and incomprehension between the speaker’s in their miscommunication is marvellously translated into the age-old problem it really is, in a surreal and dreamlike history lesson:

 

I open my mouth and

push bubbles out.

We are talking

underwater, sacks

over our heads, like

dipped witches.

(Networking Drinks, p2)

 

 

The fact that it is difficult for a woman to walk alone at night without attention is the subject of ‘Hey Sweetheart, Hey Love’. The tone is ‘fact-of life’. That there can be no doubt that half of the population has experienced this does not need to be said; if the reader is a woman she has. The poem is too subtle to address directly how this danger can be acceptable to the whole of the population, enumerating only strategies to deal with it:

 

I –

a look up walker, a lock up

walker, a parcel of soft

runnels – am gunning my way

home.

(‘Hey Sweetheart, Hey Love’ p9)

 

 

However, from both ‘Bivouac’ and ‘Goodfella’s’ it is obvious that thoughtful and meaningful interactions between men and women are what are sought; and it is only shallow interactions that demean both parties that depress. Instead in speaking intimately to a lover the poem Bivouac suggests they:

 

… act out

attentiveness to language, small acts

of understanding, setting all else aside

to erect a shelter under each other’s

smells, each other’s sounds.

(‘Bivouac’ p10)

 

But gender politics are not the collection’s only concern because the move into adulthood encompasses many facets. There is a lovely ambiguity in the opening stanza of ‘Things that have weight Must exist’ [p.27]:

 

Falling into a wide and glassy lake

she catches sight of her body

before smashing through its limits.

 

It would remain a simple word picture yet her piercing of the reflection of the sky expands so that this breakthrough now shifts the position of objects in the sky. With the hills and valleys below forming a cup, and we can, with her, believe this world is all that exists at this moment. This poem comes after ‘Summer Doors’ that contemplates the change that comes upon us on lengthy holidays. The door being an invitation to move through and explore what is on the other side. The sequence that the poems in the collection appear is also deeply thought-through.

 

The poem ‘From Everything to Air’ [p18] makes a list of people subsuming their identity into their work-day roles, with lengthy descriptive worries and inattentiveness to actual reality, that ends with the deft simplicity of “The children toss their hoops” that cuts through in content and in metre, emphasising without belabouring her point.

 

The poignant and aphoristic final poem in the collection ‘Notes on the Disappearance of a Friend’ p37 has some beautiful moments not least its opening “In time, it becomes bearable:/this is the most unbearable part.” The open layout of the poem, with all its white-space quiet is the perfect way to bring out the best of the poem. Again, congratulations to Recent Works Press for giving the poem room to breathe.

 

The epigraph that Charlotte Guest chooses to preface her collection, Soap, comes from Fay Zwicky, the acclaimed Western Australian poet: “Is anyone ever ready for exactly who they are?” It is particularly apposite a question for it is difficult to remember when reading such mature and thought-through poems that this is first collection from a poet herself is still a young adult. In Soap she connects us to a reality of her cohort of young women approaching adulthood through her own ‘examined life’. I am with Lucy Dougan in believing that Charlotte Guest is “one to watch” and hope this is just the start of a career in poetry.

 

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