From the Judges’ Comment, shortlisted, Kenneth Slessor Prize 2010, NSW Premier’s Literary Awards:
White Camel is a deceptively simple, mysteriously suggestive collection of poems. Their subjects arise from childhood, death, grief, travel, family, and experiences in the suburbs and the desert. Their tone is set by an undercurrent of spiritual and mystical knowledge drawn from Cabbalistic, Buddhist and Christian traditions. They are bound together by a desire to find understanding within change, in a place ‘where your feet will leave / bowls of air in the sand’, where a camel makes ‘this direction into a future’, or where a reindeer and a girl step ‘breath by / breath, into a final migration’. There is a quiet poise and delicacy of touch in these poems. They seem to have time, space and silence around them. The observations and perceptions, ordinary as their subjects and surfaces may be, have been deeply processed. There is a clarity and precision in sound and image which manifests as humility. The poems let in a sense of wonder, even wisdom, and keep growing in the mind.
From Michelle Borzi, Island, 2010:
Morgan Yasbincek’s White Camel creates an intriguing interplay between the everyday world and the spiritual. A number of poems interweave references to belief systems and stories from Eastern and Western religions and mythologies, into the poet’s own observations of self, family, strangers and places. The poems are also worldly, sometimes irreverently so. Integral to this book is a delicately tuned dialogue with its own craft of poetry.
White Camel opens with four poems about the passing of a loved one, who as several later poems reveal, is the speaker’s mother: ‘the first serpent, black, coils at your head, her / body arches over you, lying there on your left side / her open mouth claims you, curled / within her territory’. This dreamlike vision, which is reinforced by an intricate rhythm, is picked up again in two more serpent poems that explore an esoteric journey of what might be the soul to ‘a kind of home / without settlement’. The fourth poem, ‘blue’, concludes with an imagining of the blue sky as a living, breathing force:
an atmosphere, she holds
the earth like a yolk
breathes clear light to
wait in the forewaters
of the sun
loved ones’ thoughts of you
bear you into this sky.
The metaphors here are spare and elegant, and the alertness to cadence focuses attention (typically Yasbincek) on a remarkably subtle holding at the end of lines, with a quickening after the turn – a movement that is made reminiscent of dance. Here, and elsewhere in this poetry, the cosmos is innately interconnected. In this book, spiritual life is part of the everyday. In ‘elephant rocks’, for instance, the language seems content to dissolve distinctions between the ‘dorsal surface’ of the stones and the feet of those hopping across them: ‘their heat transfers into our calves and time is already busy with us, / pushing breath in, sucking it back into the salt, / moving blood in circles’.
The poetry ranges widely across spiritual sources. ‘Cross’, ‘veronica’s gospel’, ‘washing of feet’, ‘prayer’ and ‘a passing’ radically allude to, but do not re-tell, Christian story. ‘Rainbow’, ‘ravens’ and ‘pilgrim’ call up Aboriginal stories. ‘Balingup’ and ‘clear light’, which refer briefly to the Buddha, convey throughout the constant flux and impermanence native to Buddhist teaching. By contrast, ‘wife’ is mischievous, and (perhaps affectionately) sardonic. Yasbincek deftly moves between both light-hearted and solemn topics. Direct reflections on mortality – such as in ‘with my sister at the funeral parlor’ and ‘children’s hospital’ – sit alongside poems such as ‘a cow and two kids’, with its vital promise of time, and ‘downrush’, with its tender sexual intimacy.
An allegory of writing is created in ‘to the next poem’. Strikingly devised and achieved, this poem is about the idiosyncratic process of making a poem, and, at the same time, about the poet observing a ‘black monkey’ devouring a ‘dead chick’: ‘don’t wish to pen you or tame you, it’s touch I / wait for, the soft, dry pinch of your claw, curious / blast of hot sniffing breath on my ear’. Such economy is characteristic of the flexibility of Yasbincek’s poetry in White Camel. The camel in ‘gimel’ is described as making her way ‘via a scripture of stars’; to my mind, so too is the poet.