Reviewed by Alison Clifton, StylusLit
The vistas of Rosalee Kiely’s poems in Creature are not landscape paintings. A landscape is usually devoid of animal life – apart from the occasional grazing ungulate if painted in the pastoral mode – and is, by necessity, still: a moment suspended in time. By contrast, Kiely’s poems are teeming with fauna, including that seemingly most perverse of species, homo sapiens. These are lively, life-documenting poems, often darkly comic but sometimes darkly sombre.
The seemingly perverse nature of humankind is evident in the aptly-chosen epigraph, which in part reads, “‘some coldness in us all… makes us no more or less than animals who meet on the road’ – Richard Ford, Great Falls.” “Who” is a pronoun usually reserved for humans, so the mixing of creature and person occurs even at the grammatical level in Ford’s assertion. Here, the animal is treated as fundamental, and we are said to be “no more or less” than a beast, contradicting the Judeo-Christian tradition that sees human beings as the stewards of the universe, able to master our baser instincts. Yet, according to Ford, there is only “some” coldness in us, which suggests that there is more warmth.
Indeed, Kiely’s prose poem “Sisters” (43) explores the comingling of love and rivalry, hatred and camaraderie, that are the high-pressure system of familial relationships formed by the interplay of warm and cold air currents. In this poem, the concept of flight puns on itself to mean both fleeing the home and spreading the wings. Kiely writes: “I expected things to return, birds to the nest, and if the same things were giddy, the ground underfoot had worked on us.” As the sisters travel overseas together, the “ground underfoot” changes, but the complex sibling dynamics remain. Of her sister, the speaker says, “she had patience and no patience.” The oxymoron captures the perverse and paradoxical nature of sisterly relationships – there is union as well as division. The speaker describes poems as “a water music, clean as ice, plain as water (but less dangerous).” Thus, it is as if the elements were vying in a tempest when the sisters fight: water and air pitted against each other.
Their “worst argument” takes place at a beach – a place of air and water – when Kiely observes, “she hit me so I hit her” and the sisters say to each other “all the things… that were true and are true though I’ve forgotten what they are.” Distance in both time and space leads to a forgetting, an accord. Therefore, at the end of the poem, there is an uneasy truce between the sisters: “sisters do move around the world, just to get away. My dark mirror, my piece and my part.” The human propensity for reclamation has won out and the speaker claims her sister as her own.
The metaphor of the mirror reappears in “Huntsman” (12): another excellent poem. This character study uses vivid imagery to initially suggest a sinister doubling. It begins:
hunter in a glance dislocates himself: hair weft to flesh
flesh the sleeve caught
on a nail
the nail the shock
in a mirror of one’s face
This appears to describe the shock of recognition of both the animal and the human in oneself. A masterfully conceived metaphor follows: “the abject disfigurement of man // recoils from his strangeness / the pocket of night turned inside out” (12). When the hunter returns home, he again “dislocates himself” in an encounter with the Other. This time, the Other is more familiar: his intimate partner. The figure of the mirror returns, but he seems more at home with his image mirrored in his partner’s eyes than in his own. The poem concludes: “skin, hair, bones lie down, bent to the other one / the faces a mirror, the breath warming chinks on the pillow.” The unusual word choice of “chinks” suggests a comforting dawn light emerging through the curtains to be dispersed on the pillows, as if the couple were bathed in the promise of new life and renewal.
Another stand-out poem is “If Love Is a Line on the Ocean” (23-24) – a rhythmic delight, its cadences mimicking the ebb and flow of the tide and the waves. The opening few lines rhyme before the poem slips gently into blank verse with the occasional internal rhyme:
summer has already gone
trees keen to orange outside
sleepwalking the long road away
from a wonderful time of my life
for if love is a line on the ocean
there is my floating red heart
there is the match between safety and flame
the tip to my apple green dart
The vibrant, vital images pile up, as warm and satisfying as the sight of the autumn leaves that “keen to orange outside.” The poem is bittersweet, though, even as it glories in gorgeous imagery. The speaker reveals that, “I’ve pretty much left that behind me / to eat cast-away rations of nice.” “Nice” is banal. It is neither a feast nor a famine, and the fact that it is “cast-away” implies that these are discarded scraps of food. There is little nourishment to be had. The poet then observes that “nice is a fish in the headlights” – a welcome disruption from the expected “fish out of water” or “deer in the headlights.” This creature will meet an unfortunate end in this poem – as “kippers for breakfast.”
Fish, birds, bones, water, veins, and weaving: such images recur in Creature, lending a lilting refrain to the verse. Therefore, the collection is satisfyingly cohesive. Yet, it is also impressively diverse. Kiely explores varied meanings of the word “creature,” including connotations of “creature comforts,” “creature of habit,” and “curious creatures” as well as the word’s original meaning “something created.” Poems are of course the epitome of creation, things made with a purpose rather than evolving or being set ticking by a blind watchmaker. “Father” (25) deals with paternal creation and the aftermath of divorce and custodial disagreements. It is both a triumph of fatherly love and a tragedy of familial discord. Elsewhere in the collection, “Moon Verses” (35) is formally sophisticated and aesthetically pleasing on the page with its call-and-response structure created through caesura. The “tissue moon” makes another appearance in “Greyhound” (59): an unassuming poem in the collection that quietly captures the essence of realising what it means to grow up and never be able to truly return home. The poem concludes: “now I know / home has fled until I make my own.”
Creature is ultimately about the human creature: it is warm, cold, funny, saddening but above all observant. Kiely has a keen eye for imagery, especially extended metaphor. Her debut collection is a bold statement that Australian poetry is not merely surviving the publishing perils and the grants that are shrinking like outback waterholes: it is alive, animated, a creature of means. It is a joy.