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            SUSAN AUSTIN

            Poetry response — to 'Sonnet for fifteen' by Esther Ottaway,
            from Intimate, low-voiced, delicate things,
            Puncher & Wattmann Press, 2021

In the past it hasn’t been popular to publish poems about kids and parenting, probably because they tended to be seen as women’s concerns and not lofty enough for fine art. But relationships with our kids are often fraught, contradictory, emotional affairs and therefore make the perfect subject matter for poetry. It’s good to see more on this topic being published, especially masterful work like Esther’s latest collection (which also covers other themes, including a suite of powerful break-up poems).

Sonnet for fifteen is a classic Shakespearean sonnet while Sonnet for stages, earlier in the book, is Petrarchan. Both profile challenges in a typical mother-daughter relationship and the realignments in roles that happen as children progress through developmental stages.

Sonnet for fifteen
Esther Ottaway
from Intimate, Low-voiced, Delicate Things, Puncher & Wattmann, 2021

For all those years you couldn’t leave me alone –
talked through the toilet door, climbed up my hips,
broke things, spilt things, cried help; now your headphones
kill conversation dead. You’ve stitched my lips.
Demanding answers for your million queries
seems finished now, and some emerging ego
has named you child-woman. The balance varies:
you earn a wage, and with it you buy Lego;
you wear lipstick, and when you make an error
at work, you cry, pale-faced with first-time fright.
Pushed off my pedestal, my role is mirror
or paramedic to your maiden flight.
It kind of hurts, but still I’ll see you through.
You don’t want me – except for when you do.

Esther is known for her exquisite sonnets. They are tight in form but the syllable counts or line breaks are not forced – they align with the meaning and the rhythm, making the poems strong and satisfying. The details of the contradictions that emerge as her daughter grows up are tender and memorable, like ‘The balance varies: / you earn a wage, and with it you buy Lego’. The last two lines are beautifully poignant: ‘It kind of hurts, but still I’ll see you through. / You don’t want me – except for when you do’.

As David Mason said when launching Esther’s book in Hobart in April: “She tells us things about life that are worth knowing, and if we already knew them, we come to know them again in a new way.”

Sonnet for fifteen has had an impact on my life – I think of it when I’m getting impatient with my own kids. I sometimes pause to take stock of the stages and the time I have with them. It inspired me to write Sonnet for lost lasts.

Sonnet for lost lasts
Susan Austin

His class lines up in pairs at the berry farm.
His free hand is held out for me to find.
I’m surprised to feel his whole hand in my palm:
he used to curl his fingers round one of mine.
Another little last, like the daytime nap?
Last time I hold his hand to cross a street,
last picture book read snuggled in my lap,
the final time I help him brush his teeth.
When will be the last we share a bath?
No camera will snap the final trolley ride,
the moment plastic cups give way to glass.
His fluffy monkey comforter will slide –
with the glee he gets from using arms to fart –
into that chest of lost lasts in my heart.

(‘Lost lasts’ is a term used by writer Susan Carland)

Susan Austin is a poet, mental health occupational therapist and eco-socialist activist. She grew up in Qld and now lives in Hobart with her husband and two children. Her first poetry collection, Undertow, was published by Walleah Press in September 2012. Susan has been a featured poet at Hadley's Seasonal Poets, the Republic Readings, a Poetry and Politics event, a Tasmanian Living Writers Week event, the 2021 and 2011 Tasmanian Poetry Festivals, the Festival of Golden Words (now the Tamar Valley Writers Festival) and the 2013 Tasmanian Writers Festival. Susan blogs at Susan Austin Poetry