Poetry Review- Kristin Hannaford
Interactive Press 2006
Autobiographical experience shapes Michelle Cahill's first collection, The Accidental Cage . Published in 2006 by Interactive Press, it was the winner of the IP Picks Best First Book award and is part of IP's Emerging Author Series.
The startling cover photograph of the author holding November lilies signals Cahill's self referencing at the outset. Riddled with guilt about 'not judging a book by its cover' - I couldn't help but worry 'What did this photograph mean?' In an interview on the publishers website, Cahill states that she wishes this first book to 'introduce something about myself, who I am & where I come from', surely, a reasonable intention in a first collection. Michelle Cahill demonstrates in The Accidental Cage just how complex that process is, indeed as mother, wife, lover, poet, doctor, and woman. She expresses a sense of fragmentation which relates to her experiences of living globally, of living outside the concept of knowing 'home'.
As I progressed through the collection I began (with some relief) to re-view the framework of autobiography as a lens for reading the poems: it seems possible Cahill is herself in 'the accidental cage'. Impossibly bound by what Helene Cixous defines as a need to respond to 'tension', where the 'ambient' discourse forces a reconsideration of experience. Cahill's writing might be viewed as 'écriture féminine': writing which is intimately concerned with exclusion, subjectivity and voicing women's experience. Her themes express containment and simultaneous resistance, ways of perceiving beyond the cage. See the collection's title poem:
Perception is both bliss and indifference. I was drawn to kinematics,
the arbitrary motion of the birds confined,
their ruffled choreography. The empty barn's largesse,
its insulated walls held nothing else organic, but
this kindred pair who shot tormented laps from beam to beam.
(The Accidental Cage p.5)
Cahill as poet impossibly caught in language's cage; she writes 'words are unreliable':
but I don't tell her comma
the words are slippery
they do not love you
(Writing Eva: a fantasy p.53)
Cahill's concern for revealing the duplicitous nature of things is manifest in several poems in the collection which explore the experience of refugees, human rights issues, the ways in which language can be used to marginalise experience and affect silence: 'Tell us in your own language what happened'('Survival( in subtitles)'p.3). Cahill exploits the metaphor of the 'cage' throughout the collection, aware that just as she writes (the marginalised perspective); she is writing against (the oppressors) language and its constant limitations.
Cahill is also a practicing doctor. Her 'other' professional life makes for some interesting imagery - 'spines sutur(e) the sea', while in the poem 'Hardly Missing Enmore' there are references to T4 counts and laryngitis, which intrude on the poet's life. I enjoyed these traces of Cahill's medical life in the poetry, much as I enjoy finding similar glimpses in Jennifer Harrison's work.
The poet works well with imagery. Lines such as 'foam's calligraphy' and 'your hand floats like a spell' indicate Cahill's attention to natural simple moments of beauty. A sequence of domestic poems, which include the pregnancy poem 'Moonchild' are refreshingly honest and heartfelt. This clarity of intent appears again in the poem 'Platinum After Shining', a poem about the death of a pet dog which triggers a meditation on happiness, death, and the experience of love:
Not quite assassin, I felt a stranger to my own life
here in this delicate crib of wattle, callistemon, ti-tree.
More than a petrel's wing drum in the platinum sky,
more than a stunned wave falling synchronous to the wind,
more than a startle when the king-parrots splash their red and green
vials through the fish-scales of eucalypt.
It's like waiting for something big to happen, a young girl
leaving memory to reinhabit these bones, this flesh.
For the runaway puppy of childhood to return.
His breath a fading smoke, his speed a lightning
bright as the fascia that binds him from nothingness to nothing.
So there are poems which 'deliver' the poet's imagery as intent, and others which I felt failed to realise their potential - this was mostly related to instances where I thought the poet could have sharpened the image, perhaps simply shifting the weaker simile into metaphor:
'A summer when lepers grew like seedlings in the garden of understanding.', or 'You hardly moved/lying like a sea slug/in sepia,/ dreaming of sky fluorescence./'.
The Accidental Cage is host to a wide variety of poetic styles and concerns, the more noticeably experimental and 'sassy' voiced poems in the book commence with 'Manhattan'. Cahill switches from reflective, meditative, lyric styled writing to deliver a pervading sense of dissatisfaction - the flipside of motherhood and marriage as constraint and entrapment: 'Behind me the total sum of existence;/a half-fed baby, yesterday's dishes,/ a nanny glued to daytime soaps./ This heat wave.'(Manhattan p23) and again:
you dress me in brown suede boots
& mini skirt
say you're bored of your husband
hand me half a pill
promise me fun without misgiving
While Michelle Cahill is a Sydney poet, her poems reflect her global personal history. They trace her experience as a map attempting to make sense of fragmentation. Poems from Nepal, India, Thailand and Laos reflect Cahill's interest in the world, the pleasure of exploring new words, translating experience for self knowledge and understanding:
Home was a place I dreamed before that summer in Bombay
when my stranger/cousin kissed me
with unforced smiles. Her gift of jelabi pleased my foreign palate
like the red salted berries from the bora tree.
(The Garden of Understanding p 10)
The Accidental Cage concludes with a tongue-in-cheek poem 'Divorcing the Poem in Andalusia'(p 62). Cahill cracks open the fissure between what is lived, what is experienced, and the finite possibilities of rendering language as perception 'It's not emotion that's poetry/ nor image merely, thoughts cross madly'. She wants to trigger response 'And you, the audience, stirred/by the slow arousal, the bulerias ,/a spate of subordinate clauses./Split-tongue. Castanet. Sweat/ Hot silk burning the roses./'
Cahill's intent to develop her craft as a poet seem clear: she's attended some well known American poetry workshops, toured with the Poets Union 'Poets On Wheels' program and is co-editor for the new online poetry journal Mascara . The Accidental Cage is a strong and interesting debut collection; readers will do well to explore its sensuous and emotive contents.