Spineless Wonders, 2020
Reviewed by Alison Clifton, StylusLit
Siarad is a volume of poetry and prose by Caroline Reid, a playwright and repeat finalist in the Australian Poetry Slam. The word “siarad” is Welsh for “to talk; to speak,” and this collection is partly about the idea of the voice as an authentic expression of self. However, as the reader might expect given Reid’s background, Siarad is primarily concerned with the performative nature of speech: speaking as oration, story-weaving, lying, the telling of deeper truths, myth and fable, and siren song. Reid’s poems and short stories are allegorical in their impact: seemingly mundane events are elevated to the symbolic and the sacred.
The opening poem, “To touch and taste a comet” (1-5), strikes me as a re-imagining of T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” with the modern woman as the protagonist. Prosaic, banal images and imaginings threaten to stifle the speaker. As the poem begins, she is “dripping / perimenopausal sweat into my first black coffee of the day” (1) – recalling Eliot’s middle-aged Prufrock, who worries about his thinning hair and believes that he has “measured out [his] life with coffee spoons.” However, while the painfully self-aware Prufrock repeatedly wonders, “Do I dare?” and seemingly has no sense of direction or purpose, the speaker of Reid’s poem observes herself writing, “Be who you want to become / but first know what you want to become” and, with wry amusement, says, “I hate it when I channel Gandhi at the crack of dawn” (1). Thus, unlike Prufrock, she is both “trying to become ambitious” (1) and aware of the comic absurdity of existence. She has just awoken from a dream about a former lover, Atticus, “who left twenty-four years ago” and is “still prowling [her] mind like a starving shark” (1).
When she reads an article in a science magazine about comets, she notes that “the world is a kind of nothing place” (2). For the speaker as for Prufrock, the commonplace is humdrum, but the comet holds an allure – the words “to touch and taste a comet” and the “bewildering / elegant” font in which they are written make her “feel something I have / no language for / that may be out of my reach forever” (2). Instead of the alluring mermaids of Prufrock’s imagining who eventually cause us to “drown,” Reid’s speaker falls under the spell of the words “to touch and taste a comet” (2). It is not the comet itself – which she seems to believe would be just as much a “nothing place” as Earth – but the verbal idea of the comet which is so tantalising.
The speaker says that “I am striving to become brave and write good poetry” (2) – the courageous Spartan woman pitted against the Athenian Atticus with his literary pretentions. When he left her “back in ‘94” (3), he gave her a garlic press. The speaker recalls that Atticus held the garlic press “higher than a trophy and said / This garlic press is a metaphor” (3). At the time, she felt too “scared / sad / bored / stupid” to ask what the garlic press was a metaphor for (3). In a masterful mash-up of metaphor and simile, the poet elaborates on her self-doubt:
See, I imagined my intelligence as tooth-sized back then
in the sober days with the surface as fragile as fresh fallen dandruff.
Here, the imagery is of the mundane become loathsome and repulsive. However, the speaker then subtly suggests that the garlic press really is a metaphor: her metaphor, not the odious Atticus’s metaphor, the man who made her feel small. She tells us that “the garlic press has lasted” and the personified garlic press “remains what she is / without striving to become something / else” (4). Now, the Gandhi-channelling maxim, the seemingly utilitarian garlic press, and the otherworldly appeal of the comet cohere. A garlic press does not strive to be a metaphor – “to become something / else” – it just is a metaphor. In this way, it symbolises the life that the speaker wishes to lead. The poem ends with a declaration that the speaker, like the garlic press, wants “to be useful” (4), but, at the same time, “I want to touch and taste the comet” (5). In this way, the comet is not the speaker’s siren in the way that Prufrock’s mermaids are dangerous seductresses. Instead, it is what propels the writer – poet, author, playwright – to try to write the seemingly unwritable, or what Reid characterises as “something I have / no language for” (2).
This first poem is a rallying cry for the collection. These poems and stories are written in a conversational style, ostensibly friendly and non-threatening. Yet, they take readers out of our comfort zones to chase and “taste” the comets of language and explore the outer limits of the speakable. If this collection has a unifying motif, it is articulated in “Poem to my younger self” (141-45): “the secrets you discover in the slippery strange of words / when the bodyguards of language dissolve” (143).
There are many highlights of this collection. Most pieces focus on the act of speaking or conveying, from the short story “Ollie’s blood roses” (69-76), about a young woman’s difficulties articulating the pain of lost friendship and thwarted love to her mother, to the poem “the kid” (37), in which a girl “dreams of being space-bound / in some delicate steel monster / serenading starts / shredding ice hearts into milk” (37). Singing, a form of communication that combines words with something other, is the way “the kid” pours out her molten soul and shatters the frozen souls of those around her. “Sister” (39-43) is an unsettling poem about the mixed emotions that characterise the bond between sisters – this is no rhymed, saccharine, greeting-card-verse paean to a sibling. In this poem, “Love” – a “difficult mistress” – is characterised as both vulnerable and powerful in an extraordinary image: “her wound howls like a defeated mountain” (41). Here is that “slippery strange of words” that Reid identifies: a peculiar combination of images that somehow works.
While Reid’s striking similes and surprising metaphors are a true joy, her observations about the human condition are also brilliant – in turns poignant and pointed. In the micro-fiction “Cultural submissions” (58-59), a character deconstructs Australian cultural “ceremonies” such as “eating pies with tomato sauce” and “drawing a pint of bitter from the wrong side of the bar,” concluding that “The messages, the stories, like mouth organs or kangaroos, you just submit as often as you wish” (59). There are varied “messages” and “stories” in Reid’s collection, but most are inflected with the idea of the everyday as profound.
To find novelty in the commonplace, seek the exceptional in the banal, and write thought-provoking observations without resorting to cliché – these are remarkable skills. Reid delivers. While her gift for imagery is a major strength, it is her empathy for humankind that makes her a truly intriguing writer. The speakers, narrators, and characters of these poems and stories appear so very real, so very flawed, so very wonderful. Readers will want to return to this collection as to a well-worn anecdote, or as if reuniting with a lifelong friend who lives faraway. Siarad signifies life, love, loss, and, ultimately, hope. “You will find your end in the place of grace where poetry is heard” (162), writes Reid in “Lost” (147-63), and the reader is inclined to believe her.