Review | 'Too Much Happens' (Liz Winfield)

Cornford Press, 2003

Liz Winfield's poetry is full of tender moments buffeted by a world in which "too much happens." It's a comfort to read these poems. Even though they're often sad, they celebrate the essence of "life in small doses" and reflect a spirituality rooted in the everyday.

These are the sorts of poems you curl up with and keep beside your bed for a long time, poems you turn to when the only thing that makes sense is poetry: I didn't know then that the black dog bites as gentle as rain ... The poet's introspection turns things over and looks at all the angles, then feeds outwards, always aware of the landscape, bucolic on occasions but more often harsh or careless. In Moonah the cars have no manners ... I think of all the p-plated ones that growl up and down my road at the back of Glenorchy, scattering empty six-packs and rum bottles ... Give the losers a choice to the drugs they can't afford.

Yet, there's an affectionate recognition here, based on the knowledge that ... none of us had enough manners ... and that ... The Lady of Lutana ... thinks she does not dream ... yet she has ... the inner stillness of a window gazer/ and the story-listener who has all the words ... and ... the world in a kernel ... even though ... the glass will crack. Sad she may be, perhaps even tragic, but the unmistakable strength of The Lady is accorded the greatest respect in this poem as we leave her imagining ... the shadowlands of their busyness. I am reminded of Northgate on pension day where you see a kind of strength meeting desperation head-on, then getting on with things; this is Ken Loach land, yet Liz Winfield is able to see through the bleakness, to locate ... the world in a kernel.

This poetry can't be left alone, you think: I'll just read one more. Not all is introspection: other poems leave no doubt that out there in the so-called "real world" ... the boys could get a bit rough/out the back sorting mail ... and that living on an island ... means loving your enemies/who save you when the bushfire comes... The way to escape those ... acres of backyard silences ... is to read books. Why I read poetry at the pub is a powerful testament to the importance of reading and writing. It defies the rule that said ... a child caught reading/was a sin ... and stands alongside the other gritty poem about the necessity for poetry: Star of David/The Doubting Thomas. On that note, Liz Winfield's poems are as far from pretentious as you could get, yet they're not crude, they don't shout at you. They are full of grace and rhythm and craft. And, by the way, Liz Winfield's fostering of the Republic Readings on Sundays was mightily generous, reflecting a literary community-mindedness that deserves nothing less than our heartiest thanks. But back to the poetry.

Sometimes my critical eye thought certain poems might be crisper or more poignant with a line left off the end or, here and there, a phrase cropped. Certain images might stand better on their own, or a mood might be enhanced by the words being less laboured. Some lines seem a little "chunky"; occasionally a phrase is repeated which lessens its impact e.g. a diet of limitations and slow limitations. But these are minor considerations, they do not get in the way of the poetry as a whole.

The melancholy that runs through this collection is like a fine mist drifting without settling; it enriches the poetic landscape, without blotting it out. The sight of minute life at one hundred feet ... is observed. But there are no false heroics here; pain is real - too real at times - and there is no magic answer for it. As we are taken on a journey through chronic pain, you clearly sense ... the edges/of our hope ... when the pain was going to tear my chest open. The poet tells us there's nothing for it but surrender.

Maybe some poems like Life Avoidance, The name of pain, Pissing blood, Bicarbonate soda waking, Another night in Casualty - poems about the domesticity of managing pain, maybe these are still a little raw as poems; but then the pain is raw. The images are certainly powerful; perhaps it's just that I see a novel in these poems or at least a short story or two, as they seem more prose-like in form and rhythm.

Poverty, the other underlying theme, also hits rock bottom as in Being poor, which details the consequences of being forced to live with little material choice. The poet's gaze is unstinting and I am reminded of Arundhati Roy's injunction: To never get used to the unspeakable violence and vulgar disparity of life around you. To seek joy in the saddest places.* In this sense Liz Winfield's poems are clearly acts of survival that transcend these sad places to contemplate the nature of existence. In the end we are as equal as ... we begin/our gravestones/early/and chisel at years/as if earth/is all.

52 Montagu Street tells us about the scene in the cover photo which expresses perfectly the mood for what lies ahead on the pages and between the lines. Congratulations to Liz Winfield for an inspiring first collection and to Cornford Press for a fine looking book.

* Arundhati Roy, The Algebra of Infinite Justice, Flamingo, 2002.