Recent Work Press, 2020
Reviewed by Alison Clifton, StylusLit
Melinda Smith’s eighth collection of poetry, Man-Handled, is essential reading for anyone who has followed the depiction of women in the Australian media, political, and public spheres, or who has suffered or witnessed gendered violence in the private realm. The collection is divided into six sections: “Exposures,” “The space inside his fist,” “Listen, bitch,” “The Night Book,” “Fugal States,” and “Ventriloquies.” The power of Smith’s poetry to reveal shocking truths reaches boiling point midway through the book. Yet, even after this scalding surge, the verse still simmers with subtle force.
The title of the first section brings to mind multiple meanings of the word “Exposures,” including the notion of the seemingly private made public, “public exposure” as a crime, media-style exposés, and “exposure” as a photography term. The section begins with the beguilingly beautiful poem “Afternoon at La Pietra” (5) which gives few hints of the horrors to come. Smith delights in imagery, describing the sunlight playing on the marble in the “late gold day” with the words, “Someone has silk-stockinged the sun. / Every yellow villa wall is a spread net / of marigold” (5). The afternoon light on “the rock, the brick, the carved, the uncarved” forms a “bright, slant benediction” on both addressee and speaker (5). With this interplay between the natural and what might be termed the “manmade,” the reader is reminded that the sculptor uses the natural fault lines of the rock, the found material, to guide the chisel. In the same way, Smith uses the found words of others to guide and shape her poetry in the section “Listen, bitch” to disconcerting effect.
Formerly a standalone chapbook, “Listen, bitch” is confronting reading. Most of the content of the poems is taken from the words of public figures who have been recognised, ignominiously, under various categories of the Ernie Awards for Sexist Behaviour. The section opens with the poem “Ernie Ecob as a Bare-Bellied Joe” (33). Ecob, for whom the awards were named, was the Secretary of the Australian Workers’ Union who infamously said that “Women only want to be shearers for the sex” (33). This quotation forms the epigraph to the poem. In this poem, Ecob is reincarnated as a sheep. His words are repeated back to him ad nauseum in mixed-up order, such as “Women want for shearers / to be the only sex” and “Sex be for women. To the shearers, only want” (33). This scrambling of syntax points to the nonsensical nature of Ecob’s statement. At the conclusion, the woman who has shorn Ecob-as-sheep takes him in a “gentle headlock” and, in a “low growl,” with her lips to his ear, tells him: “‘Women, Ernie, women—women only want to be’” (33). This is a near-perfect encapsulation of feminism. Women just want to exist: to exist without being molested, accosted, or accused.
The misogynistic statements from politicians and celebrities found in Smith’s poems such as “Sweetheart,” (34), “Zero Sum” (35-36), and “Simmer Down” (37-38) are so ludicrous as to be almost amusing – if they were not so horrifyingly offensive, inciting and condoning violence. Apparently, rape victims are asking for it by wearing what some consider “revealing” clothing:
If you take out
and place it outside on the street
and the cats come and eat it
whose fault is it, the cats
or the uncovered meat? (“Sweetheart,” 34)
Smith’s line breaks highlight the offensive nature of comparing women to meat, and the absurdity of the analogy, as meat has no agency, so how could it be the meat’s fault? And yet, seemingly, in a court of law, one can “admit” to “owning short skirts / and wearing them socially” (“Simmer Down” 37). Some see the wearing of such garments as provocation for rape or sexual assault, and allegedly, “Women have a duty not to provoke men” (“Simmer Down” 37). Violence against women is supposedly sanctioned in some instances: “If it’s just a tap, / like you give your wife when she doesn’t have / dinner on the table in time, / it doesn’t count” (“Simmer Down” 37). All these quotations are from prominent Australians and were said publicly – in courts, in the media, in parliament – and recently. Smith allows the statements to speak for themselves, with minimal intervention, making assured use of juxtaposition.
Elsewhere in the collection, an imaginative poem entitled “Orion as a woman unhelped by White Ribbon” (27-29) sees Smith envisage a murder victim’s last minutes as plotted out in the stars. A man tracks his pregnant former partner to a shopping centre, hides under her car, and shoots her dead. She becomes a star in the night sky along with her unborn child:
Every October she rains,
little traumas, falling
into the spring night,
falling as meteors
We ignore them (28)
The woman’s life is no more than a brief headline to us before her death is largely forgotten. We must not ignore the signs of domestic violence. Smith foresees a world in which we will be unable to do so:
Any year now
her wound-star will go
nova—already 8th brightest
in the sky, when it is re-born, not even
the sun will blot it, we’ll see it
wherever we go,
all day, all night
This poem shows Smith at her creative and visionary best. Elsewhere in the collection, erasure is used to satirical effect on statements by Don Burke and Barnaby Joyce. These poems are wry, clever, and sophisticated. “Ventriloquies” is a collection of poems translated from Latin and Japanese. All of this shows Smith’s versatility as a poet – yes, she is angry, but this is far from her only mode or tone. There are lovely moments, glimpses of tranquillity amid the tempest.
“Fugal state” (75-76) is as subtle and evocative as an old black-and-white film by Akira Kurosawa or Mikio Naruse. The poem focuses on an elderly person who is beginning to forget. “You are always beginning again,” the speaker avers (75). When the addressee walks into the room, they forget the book they came looking for, but
with a dirty glass you lay down
another ring without realising
like a tree it doesn’t hurt a bit (75)
Here, the metaphor of the rings inside a tree by which you can tell its age is apt. The metaphor is extended. You walk into a forest, and there is a storm. Then,
you walk out, trailing possibilities
from your hands they drip, like
snapped branches (75)
You have forgotten your “name” and “mobile number” (75), with Smith’s phrasing using the indefinite article showing them to both be abstract concepts to the aged person:
… There was
a name, once, a specific and grievous
History, a mobile number, a particular sequence
Of houses, an immunity to certain indignities,
There was more and more forgetting. (75)
This hints at a not-so-rosy past, perhaps covered up. Then, you dream that you have been “reborn” as a “small ceramic deer” (76). You sit under “the scarlet // baby’s hands of the Japanese maple” (76) – a gorgeous description of “momiji” (76), the autumn leaves which are so beloved in Japan. Smith’s poem conjures a particular mood that is referred to in Japanese as natsukashi, a word often translated into English as “nostalgia,” but which is less an “ache for past” and more of a pleasant evocation of it, without the desire to return to it or reclaim it. The image of the leaves as “baby’s hands” signals the completion of the re-birth. This is a standout poem; it reveals Smith’s dexterity not only in her ability to compose single poems, but also in her DJ-like skill in arranging the collection like a musical set, complete with a crescendo.
Man-Handled is not only an important addition to contemporary feminist discourse, it is also expertly crafted poetry. Smith won the Prime Minister’s Literary Award in 2014 for an earlier collection, but Man-Handled somehow eclipses her previous work. This is compelling subject matter, and it is vital that such collections of poetry spark conversations in Australia. The outlook is not always bleak, but Smith’s verse is less a celebration of the feminine than a warning of the dangers we face as women, and the type of world we must negotiate. Man-Handled is a masterclass in contemporary poetry and translation.