From David Lumsden, Australian Book Review,June 2009, p.59:
Marcella Polain’s latest book of poems continues her lyrical exploration of personal experience. Her earlier collections centred on immigrant life, shadowed by a violent history, in the adopted context of the Western Australian wheat belt. In the new poems, which occupy more than one third of the current volume, the emotional terrain has thickened, and the range of experience has expanded to include midlife concerns of failing health, ageing parents and death.
Polain’s work gives primacy to the image. Her effects are often built from the simplest materials: ‘Pull in the sails of wind and language. / Fill our hands and mouths with cloth.’ […] The sudden abstraction of that word ‘language’ is a deft touch, one used by Auden in his lines, ‘O dear white children casual as birds, / Playing among the ruined languages’ – that sudden abstraction getting the phrase airborne.
Polain has an ear for the euphonies of language. In the poem ‘A curled submariner’, she threads her way through imagery, waking from heavy sleep, and ‘the life before / this brisk one’, to an in utero sort of existence ‘where each heart is / the loudest thing’. Polain’s work [comprises a] fabric of meditative personal narratives, in which – through the sort of inwardness that Bly extolled – the exterior world is rendered new and strange.
From Michelle Borzi, Island, 2010:
Marcella Polain’s Therapy Like Fish: New and Selected Poems collects most of the poems (with some revisions) from Dumbstruck (1996) andEach Clear Night (2000), and adds a new full-length book, Therapy Like Fish. Polain is from Western Australia: I know quite a number of readers in the eastern states who value her poetry highly – this book was shortlisted for the ACT poetry prize – but I have an idea that her work is not that widely known. This collection confirms her quality and metier.
One of the new poems, ‘Straight’, has an epigraph from Emily Dickinson, whose ambivalence could apply to the entire collection: ‘Tell all the truth but tell it slant’. Polain’s poem goes on to reveal a restless discontent with the craft: ‘I am tired of poetry, / always reaching for metaphor / as if we diminish the truth by telling it straight’. The feeling is understandable, but how can poetry tell all the truth? A poet’s task, of course, is to invent and to shape; and invention necessarily plays into indirection. At the very least, Polain is suggesting her own refusal to hide unpleasant perceptions, or to turn away from human suffering. As the speaker says in ‘waterwheel’, from ‘schoolyear 1967’: ‘my song is sharp as twig’. Yet in Polain’s poetry, direct as it may seem, the imagination is also working ‘slant’.In this book, the political world converges with the private, and the connection is anything but ‘straight’. A sequence of sixteen poems, ‘Letters to Belgium’, is addressed to a brother and sister, and many of the reflections are about shared memories. These poems also open to visions of public violence. In the eighth poem, shared privacies are shatteringly projected outward:
wherever you are
close your eyes
see this album I will open for you:
these men play with this somali boy
stretch him over fire
how broad their smiles
how blue their berets
The stillness in the narrative reverberates with fury. The turn to the torturers in the last two lines sharply focuses the question of whether poetic language falters when faced with incomprehensible human behaviour.
In the penultimate poem of this sequence, the poet’s gaze shifts between abrupt images of human violence towards animals, and then settles to gravity:
I’ve seen rooms full of body parts:
the heads of lions
the glossy backs of fox
the severed feet of elephants
planted with umbrella
imagine these feet speaking
thumping on the earth
lands shuddering with words
go out into flanders
plant your feet in that ground
stand very still
The implicit protest (the speaking out) would be – if it were a straight-telling – ‘thumping on the earth’ as hard as the guns of Flanders once did. But the cadences of poetry and those of politics will always be in an unbearable mutual tension. Even so, this poet continues to rely on the act of conversing. ‘The world bawls / down my tunnel of a head’, she writes in ‘Do not assume my deafness to be absence’, urging a response.
‘Other country’ is a key poem about otherness, bringing together a hope against violence with a hope for a shared language:
I have been told
silk will stop bullets and
if we wind words from our mouths like thread
pass messages from lip to lip
we will learn the salt of distant throats.
These lines pivot on ‘if we’. The graceful allusions to writing emphasise an intimacy between words and the body, and equally a sense of wonder at the strangeness of language itself.
Familial connections are noticeable across all three books. ‘In memory of my father’ and ‘the day before’ from Dumbstruck trace vivid memories of a father,whose early loss seems hardly to have eased with the passing of time. Grief and reminiscence emerge again in two sequences – ‘the truth of lightning’ from Each Clear Night and ‘My father as a girl’ from Therapy Like Fish – where loss and pain are turned to a nurturing of memory.
At the heart of this book is a poet who constantly pushes the boundaries of a ‘self’. At times, this involves an unyielding toughness. In ‘I am not a wife’, a steely self repeats two lines, ‘I am not a wife / I am a glacier, drifting’, at the opening of all four stanzas, maintaining an unsettling ambivalence. A number of poems, especially among the recent, contend with the body’s response to illness, in self and others. ‘Marathon’, ‘The trouble with morphine’, and ‘To his dead mother’ explore individual fortitude in the most difficult circumstances. But, paradoxically, such poems also catch a fierce sensuality and often feelings of alienation from the body and from loved ones are presented with a supple tenacity, such as in ‘A small dark shape’ and ‘Speaking chrysanthemum’. ‘Zero point four’ offers a candid synopsis, and this is about as ‘straight’ as Polain’s poetry can be: ‘So this is what life is: nausea, vertigo, migraine, cramps / Obedience. Endurance’. Polain’s New and Selected writes the self into the shapes of poetry, ‘reaching for metaphor’ and sometimes sounding straight.