Julie Chevalier, ‘Linen Tough as History’ in the Australian
Australian poets giving voice to others
Bonnie Cassidy reviews Linen Tough as History Jun 2, 2012
Voice also plays a key role in Julie Chevalier's first collection of poems, Linen Tough as History. For Chevalier, voices are found material, salvaged from peripheral experience and locales including Sydney's Kings Cross and the south coast of NSW. In her poem float, speech fills the space that might otherwise be occupied by images or landscapes:
that one's doing it hard, he says not me!
thirty-two well-off years
my father's eighty-two in queensland
fabulous clayton's circus, ya
ya know the woman lived at circular quay
twenty years saw
her yesterday i had twenty bad years she
pulled me through ten
Chevalier's book even gives voice to inanimate things, including a stapler, a mirror and artworks featured in its central series of ekphrasis poems. While playful, the wit of her poetry is dulled by aimless, compulsive punning and obvious description, yet there are glimpses of a different poet in this collection.
In the sequence Women of Antiquity 2002, which interprets an Anselm Kiefer sculpture, Chevalier finds a more complex approach to lyric subjectivity – representing the sculptures as symbolic and material surfaces: “Bronze conceals the place where my breasts should be / my waist, / my hips. / Molten knowledge drips to my / cold hem. / My life: glass – / celibate – iron and ash.”
The final section of Linen Tough as History sees the poet further developing this openness of meaning. In particular, a short sequence titled Towradgi girl stands out for its reliance on suggestion. Vaguely linked, like an album of photographs, this sequence conveys scenes and confessions from the life of a girl stuck somewhere between the mundane south coast of NSW and dreams of Hollywood:
she no longer waits for the tide to turn
but questions herself about new oceans
glimpses new waves on a silver screen
it is 5:16 a.m. in hollywood when she picks
at her formica dinner greedy girl intrigued
by great sets but disturbed by images
Following a target – perhaps observed or experienced, perhaps imaginary – Towradgi girl exploits Chevalier's evident interest in locality, but its narrative is atmospheric rather than linear or lyric. It establishes the detached tone and surreal turns of imagery that she explores in other poems such as barn dance at westport island (“a see-though ceiling of bare branches /white houses clapped in the blue light”) and the lushly keen collage of words in summer grows old (“oil fouls summer black blooded soil / summer-bleached sheet cottonmouth mother”).
It's a pity that so much of the book lacks this sense of effect. Its restless visitations of pantoum, prose poetry, ekphrasis, found poetry and whimsy are spirited but want for purpose — the hard bit in a poem that weights it to the page.
Read the full review in The Australian (access requires subscription)