Reviewed by Alison Clifton, StylusLit
The Sky Runs Right through Us, by the award-winning poet Reneé Pettitt-Schipp, traces a journey from Christmas Island, where she taught asylum-seekers, to the Australian mainland where she cared for her dying father, then to the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, and to suburban Perth. Of course, the politically-charged poems form a major part of this collection but they are in dialogue with the poems that speak of her father’s decline so that this collection feels quite cohesive.
“The Politics of Entry” challenges a common slur directed towards boat people: that they are “coming in the back door” (23). Pettitt-Schipp wryly remarks “like survival was a party, you’re just not invited,” before drawing the reader’s attention away from the “coming in” to the horrors inherent in “the coming from” (23). Finally, she addresses asylum-seekers with the words, “all you see is light / from darkness / a door ajar” (23). By the end of the poem, punctuation has broken down and there is no full-stop, suggesting that arrival in Australia is not an ending but a continuation, like entering a door into an unknown room which seems to promise safety but which may reveal further threats. The asylum-seekers remain in political limbo, not yet Australian and no longer belonging to their dangerous homelands.
As if writing back to her earlier poem, Pettitt-Schipp reimagines the metaphor of the threshold in “Stepping through” (29), which is about dealing with her father’s imminent death. During a car journey, her father repeats to her, “I’m not one for words,” as she is acutely, but silently, aware that they “don’t have much time” (29). She responds by vocalising what he cannot: “I know you love me,” she says, and he laughs in response but, she realises, “something opens, my father / steps through” (29). Once again, there is no full-stop to denote the end of the sentence or the poem, as if to suggest future potentiality, and her father’s story remains unfinished.
“Measuring Loss” also deals with a sense that her father’s decline remains incomplete, but, this time, the poem is addressed to him. She observes that “ours in an ordinary grief,” not the stuff of literature with its “perfect endings” and “beings who reach an ease with eternity” (31). Now she administers to him in his sick bed but, the day before, they had climbed a hill to watch the sky “where for a moment / a pair of kites wore your wings” and “you stole their bodies / borrowed flight” (32). Here, the mixed metaphors blur the lines between thief, lender, borrower, and owner: another breaking-down of barriers and distorting of liminal space.
Indeed, boundaries, borderlines, frontiers, and peripheries are Pettitt-Schipp’s muses. In “Pinggiran,” the inhabitants of the Cocos Islands are perched on the edge of the lagoon, “poised / on the rush of its breath” as it inhales and exhales. She reminds us that “you arrive on its terms / remain terrestrial peripheral” (37): the redacted space suggesting the twilight time of simultaneously becoming and undoing. Similarly, in “Termangu-Mangu,” all is “shift and surge” as “day dissolves,” the “relentless horizon” is made of “edges that never / end,” and the speaker is “unmade undone” (39).
Even though a resolution is not achieved, there is promise of an end to this flux; a promise made by the poet to herself in “Song to Self,” the final poem of the collection, which concludes with the lines: “and I will / be still” (118). The tone of the collection is bleak at times, as in “Parting Glass” (25-26), which treats the attempted suicide of an inmate of Christmas Island with a kind of ethical pathos and sympathetic empathy. Yet there are complex affirmations, too, in this sequence, as in “What the Rain Said” when the personified elements manifest themselves with “thunderous applause yelling life! life!” and the speaker admits that she is “left … raw, animal / gracious with gratitude” (110). Rich with significance, this poem is made up of four stanzas, each of which begins with “what the rain said…” but the final stanza is perhaps the most resonant: “what the rain said softened / something final in me, opened to her grief” (110). Although the poem ends with the word “afraid” (110), contradicting any sense the reader may have of a happy ending, it is nevertheless a poem that speaks of courage, endurance, and resistance. “Heal the spaces called ‘between’” (118), Pettitt-Schipp implores in the last poem, “Song to Self,” and we have much reason to suspect that she truly has the power to do so.
Pettitt-Schipp’s collection is more than what it at first appears. Yes, it is an important record of Australia’s (mis)treatment of those who come here seeking survival but lacking official credentials. Yes, its subject matter foregrounds the personal in the political. But it offers so much more than these trite summations suggest. It is a powerful affirmation of the strength of the lone voice and its potential to effect change in the world – social, political, or personal. The Sky Runs Right through Usspeaks insistently of the now even as it reminds us to focus on the future to which we aspire. This is consummately-written, vital, and urgent poetry.