Where humanity flows into the landscapebook cover

Poetry review by Robbie Coburn

Ephemeral Waters

Kate Middleton Giramondo 2013
ISBN 978-1-922146-48-9



To Catch the Lightbook cover

Vanessa Kirkpatrick
Fence Post Press
ISBN 978-0-9875291-4-5

Humanity and nature must always co-exist for better or for worse. In poetry, the idea of this connection is frequently explored with varying results. I have recently had the pleasure of reading Ephemeral Waters by Kate Middleton and To Catch the Light by Vanessa Kirkpatrick, two books that explore the relationship between the land and the people who inhabit it, one quite literal in studying the landscape, and the other through metaphor and other poetic observations.

I've never been to America and know nothing of its river systems. I am not aware of the histories behind the ever-flowing water, nor the impact civilization has had on it. Kate Middleton's Ephemeral Waters is a book length poem that enlightened me on this topic, tracing the Colorado River, exploring its history and current system in order to reveal the crisis that has occurred as it deteriorates.

Not quite a verse novel, Middleton presents the reader with many characters and sites as she demonstrates the effect of the river's condition on those that live beside it.

Middleton also draws on many outside sources for this, including historical documents and dialogue drawn from personal conversations between the poet and residents.

The book is divided into clear sections that provide landmark breaks as the river enters a new state, beginning in Colorado and terminating in Mexico. It is written like a journal of sorts, as the poet traces the river and its surroundings, guiding the reader through a journey full of keen and detailed observation coupled with humane emotional investment.

The presence of the river in Ephemeral Waters is fascinating, as it 'does not acknowledge you', despite its constant place in your life. No one owns it, and it dictates the life around it, where the relationship between humanity and nature is only 'rock's wonderful indifference'. Yet things man-made such as dams have a great toll on the river, as well as external factors such as pollution, and history holds great consequences.

The study of people in Ephemeral Waters is its strongest point, I feel, and causes the reader to view any natural landmark in a different light.

“Swim for minutes, hours
in year-old rain
at canyon's lip    You
are not clean”

                           (A Prologue)

The pages of verse are often accompanied by words in the margin: a place, landmark, description or date to give context to the journey as it continues, and this in turn creates fine individual poems within.

It is difficult to choose individual passages that demonstrate the true power of this book, but some really did stay with me:

“who needs a ford?    Who needs
             a territorial prison’s
labour?        Who needs

the history of lawlessness
         and drowned bodies?
Who needs a wild river?

                            (pg. 104)

Reading this work is to enter a gripping atmosphere full of captivating imagery. Middleton's empathy for the river and its people is consistent, taking on various personas as the journey continues.

Middleton's rhythm is almost flawless, each stanza timed beautifully to create a haunting and vivid music as we follow the somewhat barren environment of the river and its surroundings.

Rio                    “ the opening reel shows us horses
Grande                          easing their black and white bodies
1950                                 into the waters, muddy and green”

                                  (pg. 35)

The Australian perspective is prevalent despite the American landscape, and this balance of voice and subject is admirable. Despite her heritage, I'd wager Middleton writes as well as many American contemporary poets about their landscape.

Thoroughly enjoyable, highly insightful and original, Ephemeral Waters is an important and visionary work that deserves a wide audience.

This brings me to Vanessa Kirkpatrick charming debut book of poems, which also happens to be the debut book from new publisher Fence Post Press.

The establishing of a new Australian poetry press is always an exciting event. That said, this also comes with expectation that, as a reader, you can only hope will be met. Luckily, all expectations were quickly alleviated as I became lost in Vanessa Kirkpatrick's first offering To Catch the Light, published as a result of her winning the inaugural John Knight Memorial Poetry Prize.

Kirkpatrick is a wonderful new voice, confident and tall amidst the modern poetry landscape.  She writes a poetry of place, capturing the environment with a clear focus on love and loss, with an underlying longing and questioning. Where Middleton's book revolves primarily around the landscape, Kirkpatrick’s centres on personal relationships, tied closely with elements of fantasy, the result being a series of delightful love and nature poems.

The idea of the fairytale runs through the lines, calling upon particular tales to create vivid reimaginings, such as ‘Spinning’ which tells the familiar story of  Rumpelstiltskin:

“Three times my height is the pile of straw.                                                                            Can I spin this to gold by morning?”

These poems aren’t exactly literal retellings as such, but vehicles to portray personal experience and emotion through the use of accessible metaphor.

Either way, Kirkpatrick’s formula for writing poems is extremely effective. The title poem of To Catch the Light is also a clear standout:

“And you lie down with the evening light
that sheets the lake with silver
and offers up
the homeward flight of birds”

                                            (‘To Catch the Light’)                  

But not all the work here is lighthearted despite Kirkpatrick's poems using an effective level of reserved energy. There is urgency, sometimes ruthlessness, as the poet explore love and loss through the use of violent imagery:

“feel again and again
the surge of love
they struck me in the chest
where you lay
covered in blood and vernix.”

Kirkpatrick's surroundings serve as objects to articulate feeling. The emotion put forward feels genuine and unforced. Still, many of the poems do feel light, with imagery often used in place of hard hitting personal passages. This creates a pleasant blend of emotional response and engagement with the poet's surroundings, and leaves room for a resilient and positive response from the reader.

There are many stunning lines here, my favourites being “you say you love the light/but loving too is dangerous” (‘To Catch the Light’) and “when the green blood of plants/has turned to stone” (‘The widower’).

Handsomely printed, this is a fine first release for both poet and publisher.