Reviewed by Alison Clifton, StylusLit
In Vanessa Page’s Tourniquet, the reader enters a realm of shadows and light. Everywhere is heat. When the sun is the star, pun intended, as in the “sex-sweat heat” of the poem “Summer Solstice” (8), nature is all: “lorikeets / arrive like rain” and “Mango trees / wear fruit bling.” When the moon takes the stage in a one-orb show, lovers lie awake “coiling and uncoiling under the skin of python weather” as in the long, languid lines of “Time-share” (12). Like Romeo, the lover must leave first thing in the morning, just as “the night sky is decomposing.”
This penumbral poetry is dappled with hope and something akin to prayer, even as a sense of cynicism, even pessimism, rejects the trappings of the material world. In “Like a Virgin” (9), “plastic statuettes of the Virgin Mary” and “stained-glass keepsakes” are dismissed as “junk” – mere lumps of cheap material; false idols offering false hope. Instead, what is shown to be sacred is the human relationship struck up amid the “stiff new shoes and dusty satin” of a First Holy Communion. The reader is presented with a photograph of the occasion in which we see “you and me / at the back, wearing strings of rosary beads like Madonna.” The Madonna of the Church means less to the young girls than Madonna the singer, and the church is said to be filled with “the sly heat of sin.” Sin is warm, faith is cold: Page may be suggesting that the former is the more human condition.
Elsewhere, Page warns “save your judgement psalms for the unholy” (“The Instinct of Sharks” 15). Judgement is futile; acceptance is what is desperately needed. “Aylan” (21) a poem for Alan Kurdi (initially misspelled in the press as “Aylan” Kurdi), a Kurdish refugee who died in the Mediterranean Sea on the second of September 2015, is a mantra for peace and understanding. It is not a mantra in the ludicrous, popular culture meaning of the term, as in a famous person’s repeated injunctions to consume nothing but the keto diet. It is a prayer to be intoned, not chanted, to remind us of our obligations to each other. The words “the sea offers up your name…” are repeated until they become one with our rhythmic inhalation and exhalation. The Mediterranean is famously hot, but there is no warmth in the reception of the refugees, and no life left in the limbs of the little boy.
In defiance of the coldness of human hearts, there is almost relentless warmth in this collection. These lovely lines from “Terrarium” (16) hum with heat and pulse with life:
Ocean draws itself back into wildness. Beachside
parking meters hum and click out: the hard edge
of summer drawn in every shade of blue but cool,
concrete boxes menacing the sky into submission.
The heat becomes insidious, trapped in the concrete boxes of Gold Coast high rises with all the faded, materialistic appeal of the glitter strip. Even the cold burns in these poems, as in these lines from “Soldier Trees”: “Stirring south, on the edge of an island-state winter – a / flesh-burn cold meets the ANZAC dawn” (54).
Yet the burning in these poems is a form of purging and purification. We are urged to burn brightly by these poems, though they are far from didactic. We are called to rage against the dying of the light. We are asked to think and act according to the principles of justice – not cold, abstract judgement, but warm, welcoming hospitality and felicity. Above all, Page shows that we can and must affect change: “How vast, the idea that breath alone / could shift a landscape…” (“Skin” 40).