Susan Fealy

Flute of Milk

ISBN 978-1-74258-939-8

Crawley: UWA Publishing, 2017

RRP $22.99

First of all, a disclosure of personal interest in Susan Fealy’s poetry. Some time past (years), I was surprised to receive from her a copy of the elegant Everyman edition of Villanelles, an anthology edited by Annie Finch and Marie-Elizabeth Mali. There, among the 180-odd examples of the form, by poets including Maxine Kumin, Anne Waldman, Elizabeth Bishop, W.H. Auden, Ursula Le Guin, Paul Muldoon and Hayden Carruth and Carol Rumens, is Susan’s Fealy’s ‘Metamorphosis’. I was mightily impressed with her poem and the company she was keeping. I was all the more pleased to be able to recommend the anthology to a surgeon friend and former student earlier this year, when he told me that a colleague had asked him to explain what villanelles were all about. Happily, my friend located a copy of the Finch and Mali collection online, and I was able to tell him to check out Susan’s poem among the other exemplars.

All that by way of opening the field. I ran into Susan at Kris Hemensley’s Melbourne bookshop on the day she was to launch Flute of Milk, an event I was unable to attend on account of a prior commitment, but I was keen to get a copy of the book, to see what other topics and formal arrangements she had assembled from the many single poems she has published in two and half dozen magazines and anthologies. Now I can say it’s a revelation in several respects. The UWA publication deserves praise for its sophisticated design and layout: the jacket, fonts and capitals are such as to gladden fellow UWAP poet (and independent master typographer and publisher) Alan Loney, and fellow finicky book-designer and publisher Robert Adamson, who provides the commendatory blurb for Flute of Milk. Adamson calls the poems ‘delicate, tough, sensual, spiked with ideas and lines that create the deep music of real poetry’. Yes, all that.

There’s delicacy and toughness at once in poems like ‘In Lieu of a Statue’, about Fealy’s long-vanished mother, and ‘What Memory is Like’, where memory is ‘sometimes as acidic / as an ant’s nest undone by rain. // And sometimes as welcome / as the neighbour’s dog’. Elsewhere, she notes a body ‘slowed to sculpture on the bed’ (‘Almost Palimpsest’), and describes the cast of a pregnant Pompeian woman’s body as one among other ‘artefacts’ on a shelf (‘On Seeing the Pregnant Woman at Pompeii’). A more introspective poem, ‘Writing with the left hand’, remarks that if one hand goes, ‘I will use the ink from my dead hand’ to write. That’s toughness. What’s evident in these examples, as elsewhere, is the precision of vocabulary to present the image as fact.

I like the range of Fealy’s references. I suppose other readers and (reviewers) will highlight the ekphrastic inspiration of many poems, as if she is restlessly trying to cover the field. But I think the preponderant ‘conversations’ with other art forms in her writing go beyond any suggestion of exercises in the manner—and they go beyond description of the objects and processes of each object or art-form she considers, to suggest an interest in the causes of artistic inspiration across all the modes of art that strike her eye and mind. On the face of it, her poetry is provoked by surprise confrontations with arresting verbal accounts of events and phenomena, and with artistic work in other modes than poetry. Visual art, plastic arts, film, flower-arrangement, ceramics: ‘The Vase Imposes’ combines flower-arrangement and ceramic at once. ‘The Wabi-sabi Storage Jar’ is a ‘a crime of green’, result of flame’s collision with clay: a brilliant apt description of the rough clay jar’s inception. There are many ‘collisions’ of eye and object (‘Made in Deft’, ‘Sculpting Into Mind’, ‘Southern Ice Porcelain’; ‘The Wabi-sabi Storage Jar’), ear and sound-source (for example, the Baudelaire poem ‘La Voix’); other, tactile sense and mind (‘Everest’, ‘Apple Days’, ‘Mycophobia’). There’s a world of movement in the poem ‘Everest’, with its evocation of the vertiginous experience of climbing and falling, and a cognate sense of achievement and threat in the poem ‘How to Dive in Kelp Forest’.

The latter poem draws on an account of diving in California (a case of the pleasure of another’s text?), and I read it as a variety of ekphrastic poem in the sense that it responds to a verbal and written text much as her other clearly ekphrastic poems respond to non-literary ‘texts’. This is more than fanciful proposal. I take Fealy’s collection as a notebook of impressions and reflections on her readings of the entire world as text: readings that sometimes obliquely or directly suggest synaesthesia (in ‘Mycophobia’, ‘The Price of Honey’, ‘Flight’, ‘For Cornflowers to Sing’).

The cornflower poem characteristically engages with colour contrasts:

For cornflowers to sing

they must be fallen.

Blue slalom.

White grave of the table.

It’s good to encounter poetry that doesn’t tell everything. Fealy’s is restrained and leaves much for a reader to do. It plays to minds as active and curious as her own, so the combinations and juxtapositions of image contain small narratives that are left to the reader to construe. Explanation of how to read a poem, especially explanation in a poem itself, would render the experience of reading dull. Just as the painters and artists go about their craft—and especially figurative painters with whose work she converses in ways that also involve self-interrogation—conveying the ‘essence’ of a portrayed object or experience is not the objective, and it would be presumptuous to come up with a proposition about whatever ‘essence’ might be. Rather, the concern is to accommodate in the work the viewers’ variable sense of the object that triggers the poem—including the style of its representation: shape, colour, surface, texture, taste, sound, along with whatever instrumental function it might serve (food container, sustenance, aide-memoir and so on). In this sense, steel milkchurns, in the book’s title poem, are of course functional, but they are also perceived as ‘sentries in flat hats’—an image, I’m sure, that others as well as I might have been delighted to claim as an original.

I am mightily impressed by Fealy’s almost surreptitious surprises of this sort. In her poem ‘Made in Delft’, ‘White walls melken the daylight’: were white walls ever so milkily conveyed to mind as well as eye, as a result of the use of the Dutch word ‘melken’? ‘Milky’ wouldn’t suggest the texture and tone so unusually. In the poem ‘In the formal Wear Shop’, the make figure’s ‘tie has fallen / from a paintbox’. In ‘Faith is Green’, Fealy niftily proposes the ‘grey of the sky / resistant as God’s overcoat / its flannel collar turned up’. Just how God dresses has rarely been so absurdly and sharply conveyed. I’ve never given the question much thought, but the poem compels me to think of all the ways contemporary poets and artists have conveyed the idea of God in twentieth-century garb. Since I’m in the realm of conjecture, I’d guess that Larkin would have liked to grab the expression for his own, and that Plath would have welcomed the arrival of such an image, around the period of her poem ‘Swarm’ (‘the same old magenta / Fields shrunk to a penny / Spun in to a river’). A photographic image of the grey sky will not do for Fealy, just as a photograph of a swarm of bees will not do for Plath. They’re both magisterial poets in their uncanny verbal image-making.

This image-making propensity—a gift, if the word means anything—is particularly true of the plethora of light and shade references. ‘A Confluence of Blues’, a Matisse-provoked sort of catalogue poem that also works in a reference to the American abstract painter Arthur Dove, concludes with ‘The more away an object, / The more it is drenched in blue’.

I think Fealy must be on the constant qui vive for surprises of the senses, which in turn provoke surprising verbal formulation that suggest the intensity of such visionary experience—and there is no other word but visionary that will fit the case. Everyday formulations abound, of course. The poem ‘Black on the Tongue’ offers a rather commonplace recapitulation of childhood memory of blackberrying; the poem ‘Intimidations’ rehearses the pink, crimson, plum colours of Sisley and Corot works that lent impetus to the train of thoughts the poem displays. But the image of the wingless queen bee, her body ‘pulsating with eggs’ (in ‘The Price of Honey’), and the idea that ‘apples brood / large as infants’ heads / welcome as teenage breasts’ casts the objects of vision in other light. Fealy’s ‘Instructions of Weaning a Baby’, advice to a relative, take on a surreal air in the opening line, ‘Tell her it’s overrated’, and in some (though not all, such is the influence, I think, of sentimentality intruding on a striking idea) of the ensuing instructions: ‘Tell her, in the morning the sea is milk’ and ‘Tell her to drink an armful of roses’.

Fealy is not usually given to such concession to considerations of feeling, her own or anyone else’s, and I think this is an excellent way to position oneself in relation to subject matter. In order for intimate versions of concern for others’ feelings to have force as poetry, I think sentimentality should be fairly brutally driven to absurd conclusions. Far better to stand aloof and pare down emotion to what one thinks others might make of repudiating indulgence. An outstanding example of Fealy’s rejection of sentimentality is the Emily Dickinson-sparked poem ‘We Outgrow Love Like Other Things’. Like several other poems in the collection, this poem works through variations on a verbal formula: ‘I will bury you with champagne / and two glasses’ / … ‘I will bury you / with a piece of cloth. / Your erstwhile clothes. / I can’t remember the smell of you.’ and ‘I will bury you with a piece of granite, / like the shards I collected as a child’. The incremental distancing of emotion is matched by the incremental hardening of references to burial-gifts.

There is much more to say about the appeal of Fealy’s poetry as typified by this collection, but I will return, in a fashion, to where I began, with my impression of Fealy as a poet of virtuosity in received form. For anyone familiar with the scarce poems that employ apparent form (repetition, variation, more or less regular stanzaic appearance), the book will provide surprises as a result of the preponderance of free verse forms of varying lengths. I’m struck by the number of poems that extend over two pages or more (‘Breast Imaging’, ‘Frames for Better or Worse’, the Tacita Dean inspired ‘Film’), and also by the terse poems dwelling on mythologies and natural objects in a museum or elsewhere: ‘A Mermaid’s Story’, ‘Discovered in 1977: Petrogale persephone’, and ‘The Danger of Lilies’ with its superb cautionary lines ‘smug inverted parachutes, / they devour sky / distil each scrap of liminal / disrupt the other of cats’. That lilies are toxic to cats has never been so memorably expressed in an Australian poem.

Fealy’s poem ‘Two Voices’ (subtitled ‘after “La Voix” by Charles Baudelaire’) captures much of what I see in all her poems: the idea of what Roy Campbell called, in his translation of the same poem, ‘the giant scenery of this life with my own self at strife’, a self ‘ecstatic victim of my second sight’. Like Baudelaire, Fealy sees ‘strange worlds’ in the familiar. Her language and structures spring constant surprises on readers, deranging the familiar and inviting them to take stock of preconceptions —to see and welcome the surprising nature of existence apprehended by the senses and expressed in ways that urge reconsideration of language itself.

Michael Sharkey lives in country Victoria. His latest publication is The Poetic Eye: Occasional Writings 1982-2012, edited by Gordon Collier. Leiden & Boston: Brill/Rodopi, 2017. 

Photo credit of Winifred Belmont.