Indeed, I could count the volumes of poetry I've actually read from cover to cover on one hand. It is a form that has always scared me, though I envy the passion and commitment of poets, who are still the most enthusiastic writing practitioners.
So I approached this collection from Australian poet Fiona Wright with some small amount of anxiety. Would I feel bored? Would I be able to work out what the hell was going on?
But two poems in I had relaxed. Knuckled is an engaging and thoroughly original collection of poetry that is very much about place, and Wright manages to transport the reader into those places she describes. Be it Bankstown, Ulladulla or Ho Chi Minh City, these poems deftly and economically evoke the special idiosyncracies of a place once visited that define memory and the physical and emotional reaction to the twin shocks of difference and unexpected recognition. Wright's poetic world is not obscure but visceral, instantly recognisable. The poems made me smile and sometimes hold my breath because I was instantly involved in the tiny, complete worlds she manages to create in each short poem.
Sure, there is experiment, as in the short cycle called 'Page Three Girls' in which she takes a headline or snatch of words from page three of a newspaper and creates a poem. But these too are brilliantly structured and engaging. Though we have only a hint of the full story, it is as though we are all-knowing, personally engaged in this fragment of gossip, of drama. We are keen to nod and admit to a knowledge we don't possess because Wright the poet has engaged us in a mutual confessional act, and we don't want to admit we are thoroughly out of our depth.
What made this book sing for me was its complete lack of pretension. I felt included by Wright's poems, and I recognised the locations, no matter how distant or foreign. The poet's reactions are ones I recognised, though I may not have experienced them. And the natural world is beautifully, originally, evoked. No easy thing to do, I should imagine. Anyone could recognise the garden she describes:
The ancient frangipani over-winters,
bald and bony,
its thick polyps mottled and arthritic.
Its arms beg yogic for the sky, stream wider
than the shouldering terrace.
The series of poems about Colombo had me begging for more. I am waiting for the book-length travel memoir in verse, something which Wright would be more than capable of pulling off. In these poems she drifts through Sri Lanka in a state so many of us recognise, neither tourist nor resident, and engaged in a history which in her case is distinctly personal and which the poems tantalisingly hint at and, ultimately, explain. And neither is there sanctimony or didacticism in her description of a troubled place. There is merely the experience of connection, in all its simplicity and potential for transcendence. This quality of lightness is captured when she writes:
A thin-fingered soldier
invites me to hold his rifle,
and calls me beautiful.
I read this collection in two sittings, drawn into Wright's poetic world, forgetting, even, that these were poems. Is it rude to say that? Nonetheless, I was absorbed in this writing in a way that I never imagined poetry would allow me. I invite you to challenge yourself and allow yourself to be surprised by this beautiful (at every level - the cover illustration by Vicki Lee Johnston is exquisite) and very surprising book. It might just be time to get interested in poetry.