Calanthe Press, 2021
Reviewed by Alison Clifton, StylusLit
Vanessa Page’s fifth collection of poetry, Botanical Skin, is as resonant as a bell ringing out at dusk – a liminal time. Indeed, several of Page’s poems are set at dusk, and she is often concerned with the blurring of boundaries, the breakdown of barriers, and the breaching of borders. Split into two alliterative sections, “Body” and “Bloom,” Botanical Skin is concerned with another “b” word: blue. In her forward, Page quotes Yves Klein: “Blue has no dimensions, it is beyond dimensions.” Page observes that poetry also transcends dimensionality. Certainly, this is true of Botanical Skin. Although it is divided into two sections, poems call to each other across the divide, with words often recurring throughout, including forms of “bloom,” “love,” and “deep.”
According to Page, the section “Body” is primarily concerned with “domesticity, love, humanity” and “the bright and simple joy of place, landscape and small profound moments.” In contrast, “Bloom” responds to Nuri Mass’s 1967 illustrated edition of Australian Wildflower Magic. This second suite of poems explores “iconic Australian species through a feminist lens, drawing out domestic and universal themes.” Botanical Skin makes for timely reading, even in its universality of design.
The title of the opening poem, “Kintsugi” (4), refers to the Japanese practice of mending broken ceramics using gold to hold together the pieces. This process is thought to render the object even more beautiful, which Page acknowledges by referring to when “the micro-fissure bloomed” – “bloomed” being a delightful verb to describe the forming of a fault line. She observes that she “couldn’t tell you the precise moment… when the psychology of breaking / began a comfortable kind of wild” (4). The use of the verb “began” is what makes these lines lucid and vital: breaking is not seen as the end, but the beginning. This poem signals Page’s concern with achieving clarity and precision through the judicious selection of verbs, which is evident throughout the collection. Ending with the lines, “this thing between us // is simple,” the poem rests on its final word. Indeed, Page’s entire collection rests on this word: she uses “simple” language to describe complex concepts: as if her poetry were a complicated dance comprised of simple individual movements.
“Epicentre” (5) is one of the poems that takes place at a liminal time, sunset, when light is suffused, and neither night nor day prevails. The dusk is described as “pixelating / above your bare shoulders / tangerine-silk and slow” (5). When these lines are spoken aloud, the interplay of the “s” and “l” sounds serve to slow down the speech through the labour of the tongue, mirroring the meaning of the lines. The poem continues:
Here we are, fumbling at loving
at the giving and receiving
learning how to inhabit
the grown-up names
that belong to us,
accepting blind spots in
the ideas we came to believe. (5)
Here, the profusion of words ending in “ing” makes the process of learning seem both immediate and ongoing. Page creates a lilting litany of mixed metaphors to describe the breakdown in communication between lovers, who use various analogies to convey their feelings to one another. However, it is all in vain:
The hook of loneliness
persists inside the fortunate
lives we have built, and yet,
in this carefully curated place,
we’re watching each other
form an ellipsis,
trail off into the margins. (5)
The short lines break up the complex thought process described in the long sentence. The use of enjambment makes the sinuous statement wind its way down the stanza. Finally, the speaker expresses her frustration at the failed communication between the lovers:
How maddening that even here,
with perfect orchestration,
our own monologues are still
the only thing we hear. (5)
Infuriating, solipsism stops a person’s ears to their partner’s words, closing off the possibility of communication.
Other poems further explore the concept of the liminal or posit sliding-doors moments. For example, “Edge of winter” (6-7), as its title suggests, concerns the time when the coldest season begins, but a little warmth still lingers. This forms an analogy for a relationship that has grown stale and sterile, its initial passion largely spent. Set in Quebec City, the poem hints at the speaker’s homesickness for a warmer climate and her longing for the now cooled heat of passion: “None of this is easy to understand, / this transition to fugue-state, the desperate need / for scorch and sweat – pressure, collecting at the seams” (6). The poem finishes with fear that the speaker must accept stasis: “In this hard desolation, we exist together, alone: // in the creep of resignation or maybe, conditioning: / in the possibility of feeling nothing at all” (7). She fears the repressive, numbing force of depression, rather than the more productive mood that is the Blues – a movement seeking to make something beautiful out of emotional suffering. Blue is the colour of this collection.
The words “blue,” “August-blue,” and “plum-blue” punctuate the poems “Florescence” (8) and “Suppose” (9), evoking hues that shimmer with opalescence. Blue light illuminates liminal times, such as dusk and dawn, its shorter wavelength obscuring vision for the myopic. And yet the blue of these poems is the bright, clear August sky blue of possibility and the dark “plum-blue” that puns on plumbed depths, as variations on the word “deep” also recur in Page’s verse. Then, in “Box kite” (16), dusk and the colour blue coalesce in the image of “the navy hospital folds of evening” that are said to be “tucking our loose ends into place, / cutting free our lengthening strings” (16). Such impressive imagery is Page’s strength.
Startling, novel, and vivid images float to the surface of Page’s poetry at opportune moments, suggesting perpetual renewal through the “blooming” of thoughts. In “Waitakere” (12), the speaker and her lover venture on a road trip through the New Zealand hill country, encountering “a glossy thickness of ferns and kauri” (12). There is a divide between the pair, but “Still, our juxtaposition seems just right, / we are each of us, a separation” (12). The word “breath” recurs in this poem, suggesting both respiration and inspiration. Another series of remarkable images concludes the poem:
Later, we walk to the water, before a squall
has a chance to build, watch the black sand
hold and release the seas’ glittering hands.
This is not a dark place,
but the shadows we cast belong to the night. (12)
Such unexpected yet apt imagery evokes the intimacy between the lovers that is so enigmatic to others.
The second section of this collection, “Bloom,” is more direct than “Body.” Its primary concerns include the feminist implications of botany and domesticity. In “Silky Oak – Grevillea robusta” (30-31), the “trophy” wife, often reduced to dismembered body “parts” rather than seen as an ontic person, is described in the opening lines: “Trophy parts. / The dismembered…” (30). The style of the verse has changed markedly. The enjambed sentences of “Body” are replaced with grammatical fragments mimicking the fragmentation of self that being the object of the male gaze threatens to entail. Nevertheless, Page reminds us that the word “robusta” in her name means “resilience:”
her resilience, a force
across drought seasons
to loam and basalt
decades before legislators
slowed axes… (31)
The woman will survive. She is not presumptuous, said to be “growing quietly” (31) – thriving despite the danger of being chopped down and shipped overseas to be carved into a violin or cello. Even this fate would be a form of survival through metamorphosis into something equally capable of creating immense beauty, but through sound rather than sight.
Page introduces other women-as-flora, including the plucky and confident “Sturt’s Desert Pea – Swainsonia formosus”:
It took a showgirl confidence
for you to flourish,
in this deadpan brittle… (34)
The personified plant’s “chest” is “a punch / of purple-black jewels,” while her back is “scarlet… arched / in blood brilliance.” This “scarlet woman” is brazenly seductive and seemingly promiscuous. The speaker states:
I want to ask you
About the poses you hold,
About your tolerance for the smell of men,
For unforgiving desert rooms… (34)
The unobtrusive repetition in these lines creates a conversational tone. Like the silky oak, the woman symbolised by the Sturt’s desert pea is often reduced to mere body parts, but Page sees her anew through the lens of kintsugi: a (re)union of the broken pieces. The poet contemplates digging for her roots, which are “the parts of you that / might still understand love” (34). Again, this poem is comprised of fragments and devoid of punctuation until the full stop that marks its end.
There are many reasons why Page’s poetry is significant. A virtuoso display of versatility of style, this short collection shows a master of the craft at work. Like the subject of Page’s poem “Dryandra – Banksia prolata” (35), this verse is “iridescent; rare” and “breathtaking” as it offers “resistance” (35) to patriarchal discourse. Botanical Skinis a fervent statement of “I am” – one which defies Cartesian distinctions between body and mind. At once defiantly corporeal and inherently intellectual, Page’s collection is soul-sustaining. This is vibrant, vital contemporary poetry at its best.