Dani Netherclift reviews Know Your Country by Kerri Shying
Know Your Country
by Kerri Shying
Reviewed by DANNI NETHERCLIFT
Mark Berryman’s original artwork on the cover of Kerri Shying’s Know Your Country is a study in aqueous blues and greens, reminiscent of underwater scenes, long neglected sites of lostness and loss, the kind of world inhabited by forgotten shipwrecks. This shadowy opacity seems a fitting introduction to the poems contained within, a nod to the idea of landscapes you think you know but which, diving beneath the surface find you are unfamiliar with after all. This impression limns the sense that a closer reading of your surroundings is required, so sit back and pay attention if you want to in some sense know your (?) country.
The collection as a whole presents a densely knit weft of landscape, character, voice, detail and sub-text where the poems fully inhabit all of the senses, so as to immerse the reader not only in visual poetic images, but also the smells, sounds and tactility of each scene and place. In this way, I was reminded of the literary localities created by T.S. Eliot in The Wasteland, with its layers of varying interiors, exteriors, sounds, (his)stories and laments.
The almost complete absence of punctuation throughout works to enact a joining of narratives. The fragmented words pieced together eloquently mosaic a whole, a window onto the possibilities immanent in the substances of life in this particular country: earth and seawater, the sticky silver of snail trails and suspicious powders, of human traces, dirt, blood, shit and fragility, of circumstance in every overlooked flavour and hue. This is an inspired vision of country on a micro scale. In these poems, the gaps between the words and phrasing are apertures into spaces of entry, gesturing towards what you think you know and what perhaps you don’t know anything at all about.
The first poem, ‘talented regardless’ ominously foreshadows the dark potential inherent in this locus of page and space, with on the one hand ‘laughter and applause’ while on the other, there is
the sound of burrs being taken
off of knives and the thump of hessian onto truck beds
This possible proximity to or for violence is woven through the body of the text of these fifty-five poems, unsettling notions of certainty or firm ground upon which to stand.
The country of Shying’s vision holds itself open, for instance, to the hypocrisy of those who would stake claims to knowing better. Poems like ‘in my skin’ talk back and up to the noise of ubiquitous ‘saloon bars’ with resolute retort,
oh how colossal
that courses through the veins of every total prick
that questions who we are
because the call to ‘know your country’ also enacts a rallying cry to stare racism in the face without looking away,
to tear up the post in post-colonialism, and the notion of assimilation and its insult, as being
the kind of turd who smacks you in the mouth
get up you’re bleeding on the carpet
Correspondingly, the use of Aboriginal language and translation in some of the poems, like ‘galmalngidyalu nhal gaghaanggilinya’ (this song delights me) encapsulates generous notions of inclusion that have most often not been reciprocated. The juxtaposition of these magnanimities of spirit jar tellingly against the past and present policymaking of race but Shying’s work illuminates the power of poetics to transcend, and describes their innate qualities of protection. The claim that
words are lands and faces special
is followed by an appreciation of the true nature of land beneath the surface, where
a million tonnes of ballast sang out a song from beneath me
a million tonne extracted from the soil of everywhere
which describes also the connection between this ballast – an important motif in both literal and figurative senses – of earth and rock and its corresponding connections to relationships with family, with grandmothers –
I hold tight to all her stories given
to me moving mouth to
ear mouth to ear mouth
and as in ‘Cootamundra institute of education’, elucidations of both distance and closeness, past and present, and bonds that remain, come what may –
I wonder if in that other city
my sister’s hair is safe
from magpie swoops
These ties of memory and reverence for family and belonging bear relation to Natalie Harkins work in Dirty Words, with its white space, gaps, and recognition/space-holding of untold stories, lost time, separated families, elided pasts.
In the titular poem, ‘know your country’, the opening line, that
deep roots fend off heat
reads as a realisation of the strength and resilience contained within the nexus of family/cultural ties and history. To know your country for the speaker is to write into a hope for future days
I am planting for the green tomorrow
that is pragmatically rooted in both what has already been borne, survived and surpassed, and what shared knowledge remains to be drawn upon.
The shapes and hues and hefts of sky, water and soil, of morning, and the stifling forbearance of the hottest summer nights together form a vivid panorama in which the inhabitants reveal themselves in all their shabby, precious smallness; the minutiae of land/urban scapes but also the domestic intimacy of life-scapes.
An exhortation to smallness is repeated throughout, the text, in the forms of creatures, snails/cicadas, but also in gestures towards modes of existing in the world, where you must
grow small grow
small in thrall
don’t go large be small
if you wish to live peaceably, and to appreciate the community in which you live for what it is. It is only in being small that one can truly get to know your country, that one might penetrate what has been overlooked within the cracks and crevices and white spaces behind the doors and closed curtains of interior lives. Smallness grants entry to all kinds of environments, from the water to the ballast grounds, to the wet house or the dealer’s kitchen, their bathroom, to the ghastly knife collection of an erstwhile world traveller, though one must also remember, tongue-in-cheek, that
snails play to the cheap seats
they need the cash
The poetics of these revealed scenes and vignettes expose unsettling connections between the innocent pleasure of hot chips and imminent peril in ‘crime lords’, or visits from clients buying drugs juxtaposed against the domestic niceties of packets of biscuits and flavoured coffee sachets, in ‘crime lords #2’, or relations between seemingly benign ocean shallows and the trauma that it might deliver along with its usual offerings, the nightmare jetsam
a mesh of small holes and slits
emerging as a black lacy wrack extending
from the lower back
of a dead child who washes up, is held in the arms of the speaker, in ‘blue bubble’. Always, there is the sense that if one should scratch the surface veneer of this country, that there is
that tiny bit of drama
of knife-steel exposed
but if the poems seem to evoke moods that are often sinister, with their intimations of menace seeding a tension that never quite lifts, they are at other times quelled with tenderness, a sweet give of solace to the edges of days, and even perhaps of history, a consolation gathered in accumulated images of sea/water. In ‘the inbox’
the water laps the sky
while in ‘hey you’, the speaker of the poem ‘backstrokes’
the lifting sea
The presence of a newborn baby in ‘unlock’ illuminates another kind of ballast, granting the immensely moving certainty above all that
I was a mother nobody
could remove that
These images of calm steadfastness culminate in the panacea of the final poem, ‘rise’, where
the blue sky is a crutch
in all its blankness, its possibility, and hopefulness.
DANI NETHERCLIFT lives and works on Taungurung country, surrounded by mountains. She is the winner of the 2020 AAWP / Slow Canoe Creative nonfiction prize and has upcoming work in Rabbit 33, Stilts, and Meniscus.