Attention, activism, and freedom to move: on women blooming, late and soon

A review by Melinda Smith

K A Nelson, Inlandia (Recent Work Press 2018)
Anita Patel, A Common Garment (Recent Work Press 2019)
Moya Pacey, Black Tulips (Recent Work Press 2017)
Sandra Renew, Acting Like a Girl (Recent Work Press 2019)

All titles available from Recent Work Press.


Something is happening in poetry in Canberra.

Recently I had occasion to list out every poet living in or near the ACT who is practising their craft seriously and regularly – either on the page or on the stage – and I came up with more than 80 names [1]. Here’s the interesting thing, though: there were more than twice as many women as men. (There were also four non-binary poets). Clearly the women poets in and around Canberra are currently the backbone of the art form.

This phenomenon is perhaps not confined to the ACT. In 2019 all five poetry books shortlisted for the Prime Minister’s Literary Award were by women. Women poets have definitely begun to be heard in this country. Of course other factors such as Indigeneity, cultural and linguistic background, disability, LGBTIQ identification and socio-economic status all continue to restrict which women poets are heard, and how loudly. But there has been some small progress since the days when poems by women accounted for 17% of the average poetry anthology. [2]

As we read the four women poets who are the subject of this review, it will be interesting to consider whether this slight step towards the centre has had any effect on poetic style, or concerns. It is now more than 45 years since Hélène Cixous coined the term ‘l’ecriture feminine’ in contrast to the writing of ‘the phallogocentric Symbolic Order’ and argued that because the subject ‘woman’ is decentred, this subject as a writer is freer to move and create. Cixous claimed for ‘feminine writing’ the power of disruption and deconstruction, a less repressed relationship to the subconscious, more emphasis on the non-representational, and greater freedom to play. [3]

Thirty years ago, and closer to home, in the introduction to Poetry and Gender: statements and essays in Australian women’s poetry and poetics, Brenda Walker noted the distinguishing features of Australian women’s poetry as described by an array of critics: an ‘oblique’ or ‘slanted’ quality; ‘a sense of exclusion’, the use of ‘fragmentation’, ‘conscious mimicry and subversive humour’, ‘inventive subversion’, and poetry ‘marked by an emphasis on the personal … satire, parody, irony … or perceptible anxiety’. Australian women poets such as Fay Zwicky, Rosemary Dobson and Gwen Harwood were characterised as ‘appropriating and transforming’, rather than passively returning, various aspects of cultural authority. [4]

Susan Hampton, in her piece ‘Soundtracks’ in the same book, interwove her own observations with quotations from other writers to elaborate on what might or might not constitute ‘women’s writing’:

Either what many women are writing about, or the formal techniques we use, are beyond the range of hearing of the ‘straight’ writing world. [5] … We all know we are working with hand-me-down used and abused words for the most part …. No, for women, it’s the echo of silence in language. [6] … There is a whole region of human experience which the male deliberately ignores because he fails to think it: this experience woman lives. [7] … [I]f we speak to each other as men have spoken for centuries, as they have taught us to speak, we will fail each other. Again … words will pass through our bodies, above our heads, disappear, make us disappear. [8]

It will be interesting to consider as we read these four books, how they are grappling with or transcending these difficulties. How do they navigate ‘the echo of silence in language’; how do they manage with ‘hand-me-down, used and abused words’ ?  Are they still confined to obliquity, subversion, and fragmentation? How, now, are they using their ‘greater freedom’ to ‘move and create’?

Back to Canberra in 2020, and to Nelson, Patel, Pacey and Renew. While the four books taken up here were all published in the last three years, each of the poets has been active in literary circles for much longer. One of the circles which connects all four women is the online women’s poetry journal Not Very Quiet, which was born (also three years ago) from a desire to publish more work ‘beyond the range of hearing’ of some other literary venues. Pacey and Renew are its founders and managing editors, and Patel and Nelson have each guest-edited a particular edition [9]. The journal is named for part of Gloria Steinem’s speech to the Women’s March held the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration, [10] and was recently awarded a Canberra Critics Circle Award for its ‘influential work in exposing Canberra women’s poetry to view’.

Another crucial factor connecting the four poets is their age: all of them are mature women – some of them are grandmothers. What does it mean to publish a first full-length collection of poems in your sixth decade of life? Or your seventh? Are you allowed to call yourself a ‘late bloomer’, or are you too late even for that?

The phenomenon of the late bloomer in art has sometimes been explained in terms of differing creative approaches: the kind of creativity that proceeds through trial and error necessarily takes a longer time to come to fruition than that of the enfant terrible who knows from the beginning exactly what he is going to contribute. [11] However, women artists who make their appearance later in life often have more complicated stories. The primary reason for the ‘delay’ in many cases has nothing whatever to do with creative style, and everything to do with the fact that our society and family structures (still!) compel women to put themselves last, until all the people they care for have either died or left home. In writing about women artists we can’t ignore those mundanities – who buys and cooks the food, who bandages the cuts and wipes the noses, who mops the floors – which so often eat the time and energy required for art.

In addition, two of these poets face challenges which intersect with their femaleness and their age – Patel as a poet of colour and Renew as an LGBTIQ poet. Further, all four write from outside the metropole, from a perspective which foregrounds regional Australia – or other landscapes altogether (South and Southeast Asia; the North of England).

In these four books, then, we hear four versions of the older, wiser female voice, speaking from what is mostly perceived as the literary margins. This is a kind of voice which is often dismissed; interrupted; talked over. And yet in these four books the poetic achievement is considerable: these works are serious, considered, and engaged in deep attention to words and the world. Let’s now consider each book in turn.

K A Nelson, Inlandia

In KA Nelson’s Inlandia, the poems range over both the inland of the Australian continent and the ‘inland’ of self and memory. The title also gestures to Sibelius’ Finlandia, whose ‘sweep and mood’, according to the poet [12], speaks to ‘the beauty, diversity and sheer size’ of the Australian interior.

Nelson’s poetic voice is conversational and wry. It catches the lilt of the other voices around it but maintains its own perspective: curious, observant, and loving in a wise and unsentimental way. Some of the most affecting poems in this collection are the poems in the ‘Where I’m from …’ section, illuminating (and wrestling with) the poet’s childhood in the Mudgee area. The diction is spare, unadorned – reflecting the hardscrabble milieu she is attempting to bring to life. In ‘Behind the counter’ the poet relives hours spent working in her father’s barber shop:

watched my father
hone a blade on leather,
make small talk with a farmer
brush hairy residue
off thick, red necks

I made a vow: I would never
work behind a counter,
cut anybody’s hair except my own.

Nelson also unflinchingly reveals the violence at the heart of rural family life, many of her poems seeming to cower in the shadow of this same father who would ‘THUMP the table’ at ‘one word out of place, one tired complaint’ from his children at breakfast (‘Sometimes there was a poem’). This latent violence is later actualised in the quietly devastating ‘First dog’:

I learnt to crawl,
dragging my nappy
in puppy’s piss.

Dad called me Stinker,
the dog, Puddles.

He ran over Puddles
in the cream Prefect.

Crushed us all.

Nelson later turns her poetic intelligence to enlarging the perspective, attempting to understand the father even while bearing witness to his excesses. In ‘my father’s dressing gown’, the poet slips the gown on ‘[d]ays after his burial’. ‘The smell of his sweat // and aftershave’ recalls ‘the sweet and sour way we lived’. Near the end of the collection the poet lays him to rest in the excellent ‘Say Istanbul’:

Say Istanbul and I don’t think of going to Gallipoli
but how my father, when alive, had to sit in a certain
chair facing the back door, how he was often angry
but at peace now …

Another significant proportion of Inlandia comprises poems about Nelson’s decades working in Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory (on Waramungu country (Tennant Creek), Central Arrernte Country (Alice Springs), and two Warlpiri communities on opposite sides of the Central Desert at Lajamanu (on Gurindji country) and Lander River (Willowra)); these poems fill the opening section, ‘Come to where I’ve been …’.

Nelson knows what is at stake in writing, as a white settler, about these places and people which have had so much taken from them by colonisation. She is hyper-conscious of the risks, and explicit about her own role in the colonial project (‘A snippet of history’) while interrogating her own journey towards deeper understanding in poems like ‘Culture shock’ (‘Warlpiri maps …make nonsense of my compass’) and ‘Induction (intercultural field)’, which riffs on Craig Storti’s instructional manual The Art of Crossing Cultures: ‘It’s best to meet half way’.

The poems in which Indigenous characters appear are poems of witness, aiming at reckoning and justice, and also celebration (as in ‘Women’s business’ and ‘This is a woman’, a poem ‘to a woman who calls me daughter, who took me to Dinner Camp / told me a story, taught me a song, showed me a dance’).

Nelson quotes Indigenous voices but at no point does she attempt to inhabit one, very aware that this would represent yet another silencing in a long history of silencings. It is not for me, a white reviewer, to say how these poems will sound and feel to an Indigenous reader, but I can say that the writing does come from a place of deep respect and many years of friendship and work side-by side with the communities depicted, particularly the Lander River Warlpiri people.

Nelson is critical of the mechanisms of power that entrench and re-inforce Indigenous dispossession (‘Broken promise drive’). In ‘Two worlds’, she paints ‘bureaucrats … bound for Arnhem land’ as ’briefcasebrains brimming with balanda bus-iness’. ‘Machinery of the 98%’ is an interesting, uneven poem – an account of the Northern Territory intervention from the point of view of the bureaucrats – but perhaps the seminal poem on this topic remains Ali Cobby Eckermann’s ‘Intervention Payback’.

More resonant is Nelson’s Judith Wright Poetry Prize-winning ‘Chorus of Crows’, in which the motif of the crow is woven skilfully and subtly through encounters with Indigenous culture and politics, both in the desert and in the city.

When the Land Council mob
said no to a drink in the back bar
(the publican would only lace
their beer with Worcestershire Sauce …)
she bought a carton.
They sat in the yard yarning and laughing
at the crows as they burnt their beaks
scavenging for scraps
on the barbecue
hot plate.

In the closing section of the book ‘… where I am’, Nelson leaves the Northern Territory for other places – her adopted home of Canberra, and further afield (Greece, New York, multiple imagined versions of Paris). These poems are, for the most part, though, not about outward journeys so much as inward ones: the seeking of insight, wisdom, self-knowledge, and some kind of resignation to the myriad ways we betray and care for one another, and to the bruises and scars of love. Nelson’s poetic attitude is sardonic but broadly optimistic here: her keen dissections of the indignities of work (‘a career in sustainment’) and ‘our inarticulate and ordinary loneliness’ (‘Ruby lipstick’) do not prevent moments of humour, joy and celebration of survival:

She might sip ice and ouzo in the afternoon,
use an emory board to shape her nails,
recall the man who tried to bury her,
and how she excavated what remained,
before she orders dinner.

It will be the sweetest calamari …

(‘A friend travels to Greece, alone’)

Finally, it is worth noting the formal diversity of this collection. There are many poems in measured couplets and tercets, which Nelson controls well. There are also flirtations with concrete poetry (‘A career in sustainment’; ‘Culture shock’), the numbered sequence (‘Early lessons’; ‘Seven meditations on life in five lines and a new millennium’), longer lines shading into prose poetry (‘Something like a prayer’,‘The long view’, ‘Machinery of the 98%’), dynamic use of indents (‘Subtropical postcard’), an excellent found poem using text from the Financial Review (‘An innovator takes charge’) and even traditional metre and rhyme (‘This is a woman’; ‘Dead end narrative (triptych)’) .

One of Nelson’s most interesting forms is deployed in ‘Memento mori’, a poem which acts as a capstone, bringing together the key themes of the collection. This spare and beautiful elegy is structured in unrhymed quatrains, each ending with a pair of rhymed words separated by a slash. The poem’s narrator replaces the decaying wool woven through the rim of a Pitjantjatjara grass basket, and simultaneously grieves and celebrates the friend from whom she inherited it:

I thread the eye with loud pink raffia.
Red beans, already hotwired, await a lifeline.
I begin the slow work of attachment
recall her last soft morphine drift …

tjanpi basket/wooden casket

Anita Patel, A Common Garment

Two of Anita Patel’s touchstones in her debut collection are mythology and sensory detail, with both often calling up the Malay landscapes and tastes of her early years:

Remember the hard smooth flame
of rubber seeds –
between our small palms

(‘Child’s play’)

or the Hindu and earlier Indian traditions of her family’s roots. In fact Patel relishes ‘talking back’ to mythological and religious tradition, whether it is offering a female-centred view of Sita’s journey in the Ramayana (‘Sita’) or questioning the way the pre-Aryan mother goddess Kali has been modified in the post-Aryan Hindu pantheon (‘That’s their story …’). In other poems such as ‘Pontianak,’ and ‘Vighneshvara’, she mingles family, myth, legend, and faith to re-illuminate crucial moments in her past.

These are not her only referents, however; Canberra is here too, in the bilingual poem ‘Makan Angin (Eating the air)’, the sensory experience intensified through contrast with the remembered smells and tastes of the tropics:

I eat the air of
my cold city,
frost flavoured
mouthfuls of
high country blueness

No hint of coconut,
or jasmine …

no hot sand or green rice fields
in this place …
But I am joyful
walking by a glass lake …

Poppies, mushrooms under oak trees, Lake George after rain, and Camille Pissarro all make appearances in these poems, sharing space with rambutans, mangoes, brinjal pachiri, the monkey deity Hanuman, and aunties with ‘kohl eyes … dupattas flying’.

One of Patel’s key preoccupations in A Common Garment is finding a poetic language supple and capacious enough to hold all of these things up to the light at the same time. One is reminded of Ania Walwicz’s words:

As both a woman and a migrant I have been given no sense of belonging in the world, no set place. I have to state my identity. I have to reconstruct the world …. I make my own experience coherent. I join me to the world. [13]

Patel succeeds at joining herself to the world remarkably well. Sometimes she confronts the origins of this drive head-on; her poems about being a brown-skinned child in 70s Australia (‘Don’t be afraid (Jangan merasa takut)’, ‘Peribahasa’, ‘Aunties’) celebrate the richness of a life lived across cultures while also exploring the conflicts and painful moments:

Don’t be afraid of this new sky –
the vast blue blast of it over our heads,
Jangan merasa takut

Don’t be afraid of girls named
Cheryl and Belinda flicking their blonde hair
and looking disdainfully at the contents of your lunch box.
One day their children will be trying to make
chilly sambal and roti canai on Masterchef.
Don’t be afraid of new syllables,
scented with strawberry lip gloss
and vowels flattened like burst balloons, …

Here she is concerned with both sensory and symbolic insight, and how one informs the other. This comes through equally strongly in her poems about adult life in Australia, such as ‘Cooking rice’, ‘Wearing red for Hanuman’ and ‘Apples and chillies’.

Patel is also fascinated with the texture of language itself. She appreciates that gaps and silences are often as important as the words which surround them, and deploys the ellipsis throughout, often multiple times per poem, at the end of a poem to mark a kind of trailing-off, and even in seven of her titles. She also devotes several poems to individual words: ‘Dia’, ‘Geragok’, ‘Tsunami’, ‘wajah / muka’ (two different Malay words for face with different origins and connotations), and ‘Makan Angin’. Sometimes the potential of words as tools of political and cultural erasure becomes overt, as in ‘Soul’ (‘you have not earned the right to use this word’ ), and ‘Onkaparinga’:

Today I discover that Onkaparinga
derives from the Kaurna word
Ngankiparinga (The Women’s River)
I wish that I had known this – …

because wool still prickles my tropical skin
but I am a woman who loves rivers …

Like Nelson, Patel also comes face to face with the desert and its custodians. Her writing expresses her differing relationship to colonial history as she rejects the ‘tea … stone cold … pale as their skin’ of the stolid settler women of Alice Springs, and follows an Arrernte artist ‘out into her country’.

Patel has said that ‘[t]he exquisite and the prosaic are all part of the poetic experience’ and quotes Carl Sandburg with approval: ‘Poetry is the achievement of the synthesis of hyacinths and biscuits.’ This quality in her poetic sensibility is evident particularly in her poems for family such as ‘Fried bread and mango juice’, ’your voice’, and ‘Surat udara (aerogramme)’, where vivid sensory detail elevates family memories to moments of transcendence:

I see my mother’s slim fingers
slitting the aerogramme
slowly, meticulously – taking care not to tear
the delicate blue of a faraway sky,
fearful of losing a single inky syllable …

(Surat Udara with a map of Malaya on the stamp)
I see her in our tiny English kitchen
with the October sky falling like a leaden blanket
over the damp garden …
I see her
holding the pale paper tenderly,
breathing in words from home …

Moya Pacey, Black Tulips

Black Tulips is actually Moya Pacey’s second full length collection, preceded by 2009’s The Wardrobe. [14] Hers is also a migrant voice, this time from Yorkshire (she was born in Middlesbrough before moving to Australia in 1978). The landscapes and social hierarchies of England’s North are still significant in her poems, clarified now by the distance of hemispheres and years.

Peter Bishop, Creative Director at Varuna, has said of Pacey’s earlier work: ‘stillness can come alive with blossom, memory, playfulness, birdsong, companionship, mystery’. This quality persists in Black Tulips: the poems are contemplative and rich, while standing at times at a slight angle to the subject matter. They are the result of close observation, deep empathy, and shimmering imaginative work.

One of Pacey’s key themes is the family, particularly old wounds and secrets, as in ‘My whole family sits on top of the sideboard’:

My sister’s body twists and her green
eyes search for another family she’d rather
sit with. The baby is a baby and believes
dad when he says how lucky we are …

Psychological insight abounds in the family poems. In ‘Reading Shakespeare in the dark’, ‘Today is being kept at a distance’ – as a girl, possibly the poet’s younger self, reads A Midsummer Night’s Dream before reluctantly getting dressed to go to a funeral. Long-silent and deeply-buried family matters surface the moving ‘I packed my mother away like winter’, and in ‘Follower’:

[t]he boy hid in the paperbarks beneath
a star-filled sky and heard five men’s

Pacey is acutely aware too of the fragility and fleeting nature of family connections, realised beautifully in the haibun ‘Glazier’ about a summer afternoon with her father replacing a pane of glass, and about his death. ‘False identity’ considers the accidents which solidify into fate, addressing a stillborn sister:

Alive you might have my name,
and I would be somebody else.

Pacey also pays close attention to class, social hierarchy and work. In The Wardrobe she took up these themes in poems such as ‘Take off your jacket’ and ‘Cocktail cabinet’. The latter featured a monkey puzzle tree (araucaria araucana) as a signifier of class – as the kind of thing some gardens have while others do not. This tree, with its connotations, returns in Black Tulips in a poem of the same name, ‘grown in gardens owned by couples called Nigel and Pamela’ to which ‘a man comes once a week by bicycle … tips his cap and does the necessary’ – the labour which makes middle class lives comfortable and pleasant. The miner in ‘Larkman’, too, is penned in by his work, stifled like his pet the lark:

all the larkman knows is a metal cage
lowering into the pit. Coal dust trapped
in his throat and the shaft smothering
warm …

Poverty, or at least life with straitened means, is a fact in these poems. In ‘Building fire’ the poet recalls her mother chopping up for firewood:

… the upright piano
we played chopsticks on, piece
by shiny wooden piece –

The physical realities of hard graft abound, too, as in the peat-cutting poem ‘Rahroon Westmeath’.

Ageing is another theme which interests Pacey and which she treats with great sensitivity and skill. She explored it in The Wardrobe in poems like ‘The great loneliness’, juxtaposing images of bloom, decay and rebirth. In this collection a standout – also using floral metaphors – is ‘Aphasia’ where the black tulips of the title appear:

black tulips – their bullet heads bending
low, low to the paved terrace;
giving up their weight of petals

symbolising the losses and surrenders of age. These losses and surrenders multiply in ‘MRI’, ‘Palimpsest’ and ‘Imposter’. She also writes movingly of her dwindling time with her own mother, ‘her skin worn too thin’ in ‘I’d drive across three moors’:

I needed the day to keep;
for the saxe blue sky and the purple heather
to stay strung out light
not alter to the heavy dark.
But somewhere off the world changed.

She is similarly deft and insightful on the subject of death and last moments: in ‘Between Sitges and Barcelona’ the lingering death of a stranger maimed by a train recalls another time, waiting for a loved one’s last breath: ‘as each one stretched // further and further between us in the little room’.

Pacey also relishes the chance to engage with history and biography. Her imagination inhabits those small unrecorded moments adjacent to the public record, very empathetically and specifically, whether imagining the last hours of a young soldier from Newfoundland on the WWI battlefield, or the thoughts of artist Margaret Olley’s cleaning lady: ‘The blender’s full of paint soup. I always bring my own sandwich’.

In reading Pacey, it is important to acknowledge the importance of social justice activism in both her poetry and her life. [15] Pacey’s activism enters her poetry via her feeling for history, as she spotlights forgotten or marginalised narratives, mostly centred on refugees or disadvantaged women. While the impulse to bear witness is laudable, poems in which the nameless downtrodden appear can verge on the problematic at times. Pacey does her best to acknowledge these difficulties head on, as in the title and refrain of ‘I’ll never come back’. More successful is her poem for Chiune Sugihara, who issued Japanese visas to Jewish families in 40s Lithuania, enabling them to escape, and also ‘Linguicide’ in which the soldiers of an unspecified invasion ‘throw the books on the stove’, and a local language is suppressed and then lost:

until the tide washes them away. One old woman
has the word for … when skin tingles (after
… cold weather). When she dies it is gone.

While Patel talks back to Hindu mythology, and Nelson talks back to her overbearing father and to white ignorance, Pacey talks back to Catholicism. She sizes up to the world-view, the language, the iconography and its physical manifestations in poems such as ‘Red shoes’, ’Proofs of existence’, and ’Crucifix’:

… the heavy-doored
church where one day we’ll push
full weight against its bulk of wood.

In ‘Gate’:

Sister Mary Hilda swings steel keys
locks us in each morning and out again at four …

my mam stays outside the anvilled gate,
stands in the nunless world and waits

while I am layered and keyed with rosaries …

Some poems are fonder than others: ‘At the Holy Well’ is a love letter to the faith of her Irish aunts, while ‘Does the nun know?’ is simultaneously beautiful and hilarious as it contemplates whether the sister, diligently making: ‘her lace scallops, delicate/ as a sea creature’s empty shell/ stranded on a frothy tide’, understands the kinds of things that go on on ‘another woman’s bed-pillow’.

The weight of a Catholic upbringing may hold a clue to the importance of playfulness in Pacey’s work and the vividness of her imaginative leaps. Consider the fantasy Parisian interlude conjured up in ‘Red shoes’. The shoes in question have ‘a sole like a park full of cherry blossom and a tongue made for kissing’. They ‘walk [the narrator] out of [her] seventeen-years / down a boulevard where [she is] unknown / but intéressante’ and has ‘a new name’, into an imagined life in the~ 8th arrondissement. But this play has a serious intent: the poet is exploring a future which is unavailable, precisely because of figures like the priest who ‘frowns and asks: ‘What saint / is called Scarlet for God’s sake?’

Similarly ‘Knitting for insomniacs’ is a delicious feminist revenge fantasy concealing serious points about militarism, and about female agency in a patriarchy:

They knit soft bombs.
Cover a tank with pink wool,

Fat pom-poms conceal

the dark hull.

Pacey is in touch with the subconscious, and embraces mystery and resonance in her choices of image. As she signposts in her opening epigraph of Edward Thomas, her poetic ear is tuned to what comes ‘out of the wood of thoughts that grow by night’. This is evident in pieces like ‘At La Forge’, where the poem ends with an overgrown holiday house garden hacked back to reveal a stone grotto and ‘a nest empty of birds / exposed like a secret’. The dream-visions recur in the beautiful ‘Leavetaking’ (‘You rose from your green armchair’), in ‘she’d rather break than bend’ (‘She’s sand and fire caught on the end of the rod … She’s fish. Orange. Precise.’) and in ‘Silver fugue’ where fresh silver salmon on tiers of ice morph into coins and again into an ‘angel choir’ of school children, tinsel in their hair. There is also the hypnotic ‘red linoleum’ where the poet repeats ‘I am always going back to that place’, a scruffy bathroom in a seven year old’s remembered summer, ‘to stand on red linoleum’. Perhaps the most, unforgettable of these is in ‘After looking though Carver’s “window”’, where crimson rosella song is ‘a sapphire throated bowl of sound’.

Sandra Renew, Acting Like a Girl

Acting Like a Girl is Renew’s first full-length collection, although she brought out five shorter publications between 2013 and 2018 [16]. If activism is important to Pacey, it is central to Renew. It would not be overstating it to say that for her, poetry is activism. As she states in the introduction to her earlier collection Who Sleeps at Night:

I write poetry to express contemporary issues and questions of our times about war, language, environment, climate and the planet’s health, translation, dislocation, migration, terrorism, border crossings, dissent, gender, protest.

In Acting Like a Girl, as the title implies, gender is the central concern, particularly the performative aspects of gender and sexuality. It grows out of many years of reading and thinking on feminism, gender and queer studies, and draws on the work of Judith Butler in particular – in fact the book started life as a PhD thesis. Renew is the only LGBTIQ poet among the four, and for this poetic project she has deliberately centred her queer identity: ‘I write as a lesbian. Read me as a lesbian’ (‘to lesbian (verb)(ii)’). Some of the poems allude directly to the book’s academic origins: each stanza of ‘… as many as it takes’ is a small hymn to a different gender theorist (Cixous, Derrida, Irigaray, Kristeva, Wittig). ‘Situation’ imagines a multilayered epistolary and philosophical exchange with Cixous, and explores her (and Renew’s) fascination with the gender-fluidity of the character Tancredi in Rossini’s Jerusalem Delivered.

This is not primarily a work of theory however: things get deliciously (and dangerously) messy and personal in these poems as Renew explores the high stakes of standing out. While the poetic narrator is distinct from Renew herself, lived experience clearly informs many of the strongest pieces. The opening poem ‘Her own personal catastrophe’ frames the decision not to conform to expected gender roles (and simultaneously the release of the poems themselves) as a moment of daring and transcendence, skating close to self destruction, but ending in transformation.

She urges her horse, with one leap,
into the burning pile of logs.

In the central poem ‘it’s all in the walk (1960s)’, Renew shows how once we view the performance of gender as a choice, the whole social game becomes a Russian-doll-nest of acts within acts:

she swings an axe like a boy, sinks a star picket in four mallet strokes …
she walks like a boy, acting like a boy
at graduation she’s in drag, heels, frock and handbag, (for her mother)
she meets a boy, acting like a girl, acting like a boy

These lines are echoed later in ‘CAMP – Campaign Against Moral Persecution Brisbane’, but with more devastating real-world consequences:

… She dresses as a woman dressing as a dyke,
coming out. One day she will grow up and, going out, she will dress
as a woman being a woman going out.

Who has an ASIO file with photographs?

Who will go to work tomorrow dressed as a woman
going to work? Who will get fired?

Clothing, costume, disguise and display are obviously central to this book, as is telegraphed by the opening line of ‘The Sea Horse Ball’: ‘We keep our breasts in a boudoir drawer’. The ‘she’ of ‘She can only be this woman because she’s not this woman’ ‘shimmers in a cocktail dress of stupendous blue … whatever she is’. Controlling what you wear is literally controlling the narrative, as in the pivotal moment in ‘Gay’ when the protagonist, beset by:

the dress, in her size, smoky blue
shirtwaist nylon   materialised one day
hanging on a wire hanger behind her bedroom door

… a challenge, a dare …
a deal breaker

realises ‘the dress could stay  and she could go’.

Controlling the narrative does not mean everyone will accept the story you tell, however. In ‘summer queer’, Renew delivers shimmering images of desire and display:

summer queer,
dazzled by sun on water,
glittering silica sand
what game are we playing?

But these are underscored by the snarlings of the gender-and-sexuality-boundary police: ‘what are ya…fucking dyke’. This challenge, ‘What are ya? Ya a man or a woman?’ recurs in ‘Measuring Denier’ (although this time a strike-back is possible: ‘she pivoted, knees bent, and cracked him from his ear to the point of his jaw’). ‘Whatever she is’ is another significant refrain, recurring memorably in ‘Whatever she is, she wants to be Wesley Hall’, pointing to the internalisation of the taunt, but also to curiosity and celebration:

she’s not black, she’s not from Barbados, she’s not tall,
she knows nothing about cricket.

she wants his grace in the air,
as the ball leaves his hand
she wants to use her body like that, muscled-strong, heroic …
whatever she is, she wants to be him.

Renew does not shy away from depicting the worst of small-town straight life. The poem ‘Getting through Sunday’ feels like it could just as easily have taken place in K A Nelson’s Mudgee childhood: the tension around the dinner table, like life in occupied territory, the children dressed in their best, cowed under the adults’ ‘Gypsy Moth conversation flight path’, wary of sudden attack. In ‘Girls who are taken by flannies’, the girls of the title find themselves left outside Bachelors’ and Spinsters’ balls ‘in the cold  smoking   with a warm beer / waiting for the drive home’. There is an edge of danger to their choice – they ‘learn to give as good as they are given  use the cold stare / fists ready’. However there are compensations: the confidence that comes with being able to change a tyre; and some ‘freedom from the drag of frock    family manners / and demands to change for dinner’.

Slightly more freedom is possible after leaving home for Teacher’s College, as explored in ‘Transformer’:

bodice darts, ruches


party dress transmogrifies into Blundstones, waistcoats, Sobranie Russians,
an unlikely transformation unless

unless you had been watching her.

This transformation does not bring unmitigated peace, however, in ‘Sometimes still …’

sometimes she still finds herself
in company where she’s a dyke in a tea-cup,
stirring salt into the brew of heterosexuality,
with nothing to offer for the offence
of her existence

In ‘postal survey – not binding, not compulsory’ a couple who have put up a rainbow sign on their front lawn know that they may suffer for it:

… double-lock doors and windows,
buy a chain for the garden gate,
listen in the evenings for the meaning of noise

Then there are the times where the non-conforming woman is unavoidably and uncomfortably on display, such as behind the bar at the Green Dragon Lounge in ‘St Kilda, 1972’, where: ‘This body defeats her, even in the skirt and blouse … She’s come up short, not only in the float’.

The patrons are discomfited, even antagonised by her appearance:

real dog, not pretty, obvious she’s not a hooker

Darlin’ same again but quicker
Not missing out because of you, ya wet-week slow
Girlie, they’re blokes  they wanta see your tits.

Renew’s fine ear for dialogue helps realise the world of these poems, including their sublimated threat, and recalls her earlier use of phrases like ‘buggered’ and ‘she’s no better than she should be’ in 2015’s Projected on the wall.

As Renew knows, and shows, she who does not conform must, as a matter of self-preservation, become hyper-attuned to the rural Australian bloke-iarchy. This anxiety is captured in ‘Paying attention’:

She’s paying attention
like the magpie … on duty,
spring nest protection.

… like a girl
in uniform trousers
barbered hair
new military  new gender.

and the ending of the haibun ‘Harley’ bristles with it:

standing beside the Harley at the stop light
earth trembles
air moves like muscle

It is no surprise then that a significant number of Renew’s more experimental poems engage in back-chat, arguing with and transforming some of the bloke-iarchy’s literary and cultural touchstones. ‘Nancy revisited’ imagines an alternate ending to the anonymous shearing poem ‘The Banks of the Condamine’, in which the woman gets the kiss but maintains her autonomy. The wonderful ’Homing’ is an erasure of Dorothea Mackellar’s ‘My Country’:

The love
in your veins
is otherwise

for me.

Adam Lindsay Gordon’s ’The Sick Stockrider’ also gets a going-over (‘He went to the beach at Brighton and shot himself’) as does A B Paterson’s ‘Clancy of the Overflow’ (‘A Peripatetic Affair’). Renew also talks back to trans-phobic quotations on brass plaques in Kings Cross, growing a new poem from each one by embedding one word per line (‘Kings Cross at home’ and ‘Here it’s difficult to tell the difference’). She also writes back to the Macquarie Dictionary (‘to lesbian’ (i) and (ii) and ‘Dyke’). The dictionary is a tricky place for Renew (as it is for anyone interested in language and power): it both constricts and releases, pinning concepts down while also enabling the awakening girl in ‘there’s a small farm’ to discover the word ‘lesbian’ ‘in a heavy Oxford dictionary’ and be led to the idea of: ‘a lesbian, gay city, streets of queer … a closet burst wide open’.

Tropical Queensland is an important, visceral presence in the book, serving to amp up the tension like the air before a thunderstorm. Mangoes rot; mosquitoes are flattened, cane toads are kicked against walls and squashed under ute tyres (‘all those potential princes, under the wheels’). In ‘high point of the season’, the heat and isolation of a couple stranded in ‘a disintegrating wooden cottage’ precipitate a mutual shaving of heads:

we didn’t do it for the politics or religion.
… we just went troppo
… the water suddenly cool on

our bare skulls.

Renew also takes the time to find small luminous moments, in poems like ‘her beauty in androgyny …’, ‘glass-bottomed boat’, and ‘Gecko’, a moving poem about a mother’s death and the unbridgeable distance between her and the narrator:

she knows that light is frivolous, dark is serious
words are both light and dark
it seems only the gecko speaks to her directly.

In addition, Renew’s sardonic humour, evident in earlier work such as Projected on the wall, serves as a unifying thread: ‘I always think of my Sandman Holden Ute as a dyke vehicle’ (‘Scorpio to Venus: Love song 1977’). Acting Like A Girl is definitely activist in intent but it is also curious, analytical and open to surprise. Renew explores her themes in a sophisticated way, using a wide variety of narrative and dramatic strategies and poetic structures.

Thinking about these four poets, then, can we say they are engaged in techniques and strategies associated with ‘l’ecriture feminine/ feminine writing’, or ‘Australian women’s poetry’? I think the answer is ‘Yes, but not exclusively, and in a slightly different way’. There is certainly a playful element to all four books, and some quite striking images and moments that bear the hallmarks of the unconscious. These are not the primary literary modes employed by Nelson, Patel, Pacey and Renew in their poems, however. In all four books there are poems with ‘an emphasis on the personal’, but none of these poets confines herself to that register, and all of them have a great deal to say on more public issues. There is definitely ‘subversive humour’ – from Nelson’s Stinker and Puddles, to Patel’s blonde-hair-flicking Cheryl and Belinda, to Pacey’s ‘Does the nun know?’ to Renew’s ‘dyke vehicle’. Patel’s use of the ellipse, Nelson’s use of the slash and the disrupted diction of ‘Culture shock’, and some of Renew’s prose poetry pieces and erasures point to ‘fragmentation’. There is plenty of ‘conscious mimicry’ (‘what are ya?’ ‘What saint / is called Scarlet for God’s sake?’). There is also work that ‘appropriates and transforms’, in Patel’s poems for Sita and Kali, in Nelson’s knowingly-titled numbered sequences and use of found text, in Pacey’s Catholic poems and in Renew’s erasures, re-writings and talkings-back. However in no sense do these features define an aesthetic for any of the poets; all of these tactics are chosen as means to particular poetic ends, and many poems in all four collections make no use of them at all.

All four poets do come at some of their subjects obliquely, it is true, but at the same time all four of them are arguing head on. Their arguments are with constraints and expectations, large and small – white Australian settler culture, (from within (Nelson) and without (Patel), the bloke-iarchy, in general (Renew) and in particular (Nelson), along with religion, mythology, racism, class, and gendered behavioural norms (all four).

It is fair to say that these four writers are still using the strategies and techniques of literary resistance and dissent used a generation ago and more by women poets writing in English. What has changed, I think, is that these poetic postures are more widely understood, are more readily accepted by readers of all genders, are perceived as part of women’s literary legacy, and are used out of choice, rather than desperation. And in many poems the choice has been not to use them at all.

Part of the change may stem from the fact that these four poets are writing at a time and in a place where, as we’ve seen, many more of their co-practitioners are women. In addition, and most crucially, it is arguable that if they contemplate a specific reader of any kind, that reader is also a woman. This has, I think, a real impact on style, on confidence, on the types of themes the poet decides to explore. Poet and reader are ‘speaking to each other’ without any concern for whether men are listening, and with no regard for probable male opinions or reactions. This decline in anxiety means that Cixous’ ‘greater freedom’ to move and create is less aspirational theory and more concrete reality. No longer is the woman artist’s only option to betray ‘the oppressive mechanisms of culture in order to express herself through the break’ [17] – she can refer to and build on the work that has been done on the other side.

Melinda Smith is a Canberra poet, editor, teacher, arts advocate and event curator. She’s the author of eight books of poetry, most recently Man-handled (Recent Work Press 2020). She won the 2014 Prime Minister’s Literary Award for poetry, and is a former poetry editor of The Canberra Times. She had given up writing reviews, but has strapped on the crItical apparatus one more time for this piece.


[1] I was building on the excellent work done by Professor Jen Webb for the 2017–2018 Australian Book Review ‘States of Poetry – ACT’ series, and by Geoff Page (over many years as the curator of the region’s longest-standing poetry reading series, and co-editor of The House Is Not Quiet and the World is not Calm, an anthology of Canberra poets (Flying Islands Press).

[2] Figure quoted by Susan Hampton in ‘Soundtracks’, Brooks, D & Walker, B (eds), Poetry and Gender: statements and essays in Australian women’s poetry and poetics (University of Queensland Press, St. Lucia, Qld, 1989: p. 12)

[3] Cixous, H, The Laugh of the Medusa (University of Chicago Press, 1976).

[4] Brooks & Walker, ‘Introduction’, pp 5–9.

[5] Susan Hampton, ‘Soundtracks’, Brooks & Walker, p. 12.

[6] Hampton, loc cit, pp 15–6.

[7] Hampton, loc cit, p. 16.

8] Hampton, loc cit, p. 19.

[9] Patel co-edited Issue 2 (‘Another World’) and K A Nelson co-edited Issue 4 (‘Performing Gender’).

[10] ‘We are here and around the world for a deep democracy that says we will not be quiet, we will not be controlled, we will work for a world in which all countries are connected. God may be in the details, but the goddess is in connections. We are at one with each other, we are looking at each other, not up. No more asking daddy.’ (See full transcript in Elle online, 21 January 2017)

[11] Gladwell, Malcolm, ‘Why do we equate genius with precocity?’ New Yorker Magazine, 20 October 2008.

[12] KA Nelson, Inlandia (Recent Work Press 2018), Acknowledgements, p. 91.

[13] Ania Walwicz, in an interview in Mattoid no. 13, Wendy Morgan and Sneja Gunew (eds), Deakin University, Geelong, Vic, quoted in the introduction to Hampton, S & Llewellyn, K, The Penguin Book of Australian Women Poets (Penguin, Ringwood, Vic., 1986: pp 1–2).

[14] Pacey, M, The Wardrobe ( Ginninderra Press, Port Adelaide, SA, 2009).

[15] See for example the Poet-a-thon for Canberra Refugee Support website, resulting in the publication One Last Border: poetry for refugees, Hazel Hall, Moya Pacey and Sandra Renew (eds) (Ginninderra Press, Port Adelaide, SA, 2015).

[16] Inventing Siberia: 15 poems from a journey on the Trans-Siberian Railway 2013; photographs, Tikka Wilson (Burmac Publishing, Dickson, ACT, 2013); Projected On the Wall … (GP Pocket Poets Series, Ginninderra Press, Port Adelaide, SA, 2015); This Is Why (Masala Tikka, Canberra, ACT, 2015); Who Sleeps at Night?: poetry of conflict (Ginninderra Press, Port Adelaide, SA,  2017); and The Orlando Files: poems of dissent and social commentary for performance (Ginninderra Press, Port Adelaide, SA, 2018).

[17] Boetti, Anne-Marie Sauzea, ‘Negative capability as practice in women’s art’, Studio International, Jan/Feb Vol. 191 no. 979, 1976: p. 25, quoted in the introduction to Hampton, S & Llewellyn, K, The Penguin Book of Australian Women Poets (Penguin, Ringwood, Vic., 1986: p. 17).