Julie Chevalier, ‘Linen Tough As History’ in Australian Poetry Journal

Framing the Scene

Kate Lilley reviews Linen Tough As History in Australian Poetry Journal Vol 3 1 2013

Julie Chevalier and her immediately likable poems are well known in Australian little magazines, especially in Sydney, the city where she has lived since leaving her native New Jersey in 1965. Linen Tough as History is her first book of poems, a very welcome addition to the now almost 50-strong poetry list of Puncher & Wattmann, founded by David Musgrave in Sydney in 2005. A collection of Chevalier’s short fiction, Permission to Lie (Spineless Wonders) came out in 2011, and a second book of poems, Darger: His Girls, a sequence based on the compelling American outsider artist, Henry Darger (whose work inspired Ashbery’s Girls on the Run), will be published by Puncher & Wattmann in the near future. Darger: His Girls won the 2012 Alec Bolton Prize for an unpublished manuscript. Chevalier’s late career as a publishing writer is in full gear.

Linen Tough as History is a lively and accessible book. The continuous wordplay is fun but can wear a bit thin and read like an over-extended exercise. Generally, though, Chevalier’s fine-tuned ear makes her poems enjoyably fluent and direct, their observational stance driven by restless interest in the world around her and its linguistic and formal mediation. Most of the poems are short, descriptive lyrics: pithy commentaries on the ‘unclaimed curiosities’ and changing occupations of the everyday. As Chevalier writes on her website: ‘A writer can’t have too much experience. I’ve worked as a baby sitter, archery instructor, page, short order cook, playground supervisor, waitress, librarian, teacher, potter, artist, jail educator, drug and alcohol worker, education consultant and administrator’. Stand-alone or grouped, sometimes character-driven (‘towradgi girl’, for instance), sometimes responding to an artwork, another poem, a place, or all these things at once, Chevalier’s poems cultivate a certain distance and modesty. Always framing a scene, the second of the book’s three untitled sections collects ekphrastic poems, often tied to works in the Art Gallery of New South Wales, alongside others that might be called anti-ekphrastic. The latter implicitly critique affective containment, giving voice and agency to those reified by representation: as seen in ‘She paints; he poses’, for instance; Diane Arbus’s ‘Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey 1967’; or the poem ‘fitting’ in which Cezanne’s wife has been pushed into the background.

There are prose poems and set forms (sonnet, pantoum), an alphabet poem and a few experiments. ‘Corner of Glebe Point Road and Broadway’ is a wonderful sonnet in ‘response’ to Gwen Harwood’s iconic ‘Suburban Sonnet’. I used this poem to open the Poetry Issue of Southerly I edited in 2009 and, rereading it in the book, I once again loved its pacey vernacular and rhythmic control:

I practise my craft, of course it matters
if dudes’ windscreens gleam or not.
Behind me at the lights rosellas chatter
then wheel and shit. They’re on the payroll, not.
And I’m not wasted. Smack’s the best stone;
The rest is fall-back; habit overpowers
common sense. A hand reaches out, Ta, luv!
Coins clink with keys inside my pocket, scour
the lining where a toke is nagging
at my mind. The trouble with this caper’s
crap weather, dirty water, and lead
feet. Must refill the bucket. I’m not afraid
of laws in Saturday’s newspaper.
Default position: selling dope or giving head.

When it all comes together, as it does here, there’s a lot to admire. So much lightness and movement is difficult to sustain across a whole volume. A more tightly edited selection would have helped with that. The effect can be facile or glib so I was glad when the poems moved into darker territory but also sensed Chevalier’s uneasiness, a less-sure command. I enjoyed Linen Tough as History and I’m looking forward to Darger: His Girls.

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