Lisa Collyer reviews Carapace by Misbah Wolf


by Misbah Wolf

ISBN 978-1-925735-41-3


Reviewed by LISA COLLYER
You can imagine tracing the spiral on the white snail shell on the front cover of Misbah Wolf’s second poetry collection, Carapace to find yourself centred in a temporary house. Wolf’s scintillating and edgy collection of prose poems form individual houses with their fully justified box-shape with an entrance and an exit. Each house is named for their characteristics experienced subjectively by the poet, an experience of phenomena that transcends walls, closets, and beds, and rather how houses shape the inhabitants. In ‘COMMON PEOPLE HOUSE’ (p.21) the female residents transform into ‘witches’ (p.21) as they ‘tuck him (‘a man almost dead drunk’) in again, us in our dark robes/ muttering over his body and bringing water to his lips’ (p.21) in an alchemical reinvention of self.

Wolf opens the door on the house, and the mysteries of poetry with the use of the egalitarian form of the prose poem, a revitalised form that is on trend for its sense of breaching genre boundaries. We, the readers are invited in, to follow the inner perimeter of house. There are entry points and exit points, but this is not a linear progression, the spiral turns in on itself, in an attempt, to find itself at home, unrealised until the final poem, ‘THIS MUST BE THE PLACE HOUSE’ (p.45). But first there is a journey into strangers’ homes like in ‘HOUNDS OF LOVE HOUSE’ (p.9) where possessions are so limited, they can be ‘bundled into four garbage/ bags’ (p.9). Unlike the objective account of a home that appears on paper to be inviting, the ‘kitchen was white marble’ (p.9) the phenomenological experience is alienating ‘a middle-aged woman/ who never wanted to talk to her’ (p.9) and ‘a/ fridge stocked with food that was not hers.’ (p.9) Perhaps the symbolism of ‘white’ is the dominant racism that the POC poet suffers. The speaker’s dreams help her make sense of her rootlessness as she is transferred symbolically into a ‘tiny white poodle incessantly scratching at her bedroom door…’ Won’t anyone let me in?

This search for home is at times a plea in ‘H IS FOR’ (p.10) and conjures Gaston Bachelard’s poetics of space in the way it takes root in the sensory and experiential relationship to setting. This longing to be let in, to find a house that feels like home, is a desire to belong where the senses reign supreme, the urge to ‘run my hands through the dad’s hair’ ‘over the dirty knives on the kitchen counter, block/ out the telly with my form’ (p.10) is perhaps a need to take up space, inhabit a setting, to be seen inside as part of the furniture and therefore safe as houses.

Wolf is unapologetic in her honesty of the most intimate goings on in-house. This is what makes the collection so authentic; it doesn’t gloss over the abject nature of ablutions and sex. In ‘MRS ROBINSON’S HOUSE’ (p.25) the speaker enters a prohibited space with a tryst with a married man, hence the allusion to the film ‘The Graduate’ and theme song. The drole tone with the familiar yet unlikely excuse ‘You were married but you had an understanding with your wife’(p.25) follows the abject ‘You slipped your finger over my bloody menstrual pad which only/ amplified the sincerity of your next move’ in homage to Kristeva, the abject and desire are intermingled into the most confessional and private moment in the hunt for transcendence. And we know this, and we’ve all been there, but Wolf gives this space in the most personal of place, the home.

The sense that faraway places inhabit our beings and form our sense of self is captured in the lusty ‘JE TE VEUX HOUSE’ (p.31) where Tibet inhabits ‘The house (that) stretched like a big turd that’s been freshly shitted from a gigantic/ brick beetle (even though it)…was 9351 Km (away.)’ (p.31) The bodies are separated, not by proximity but spirit of affiliating with another country being occupied by the lover, invaded by the raider, and discarded like the two-timer is sensuously rendered ‘In the night a ribbon-like body of water called you and I realised/…there was now a ravine between us.’ (p.31) The speaker addresses the lover with the direct ‘you’ and we the reader are invited to be privy to the affair that coils to a fever pitch only to be discarded for a new temporary abode, another shell, perhaps new shelter.

The prose poem is an outlier: its form is defiant as is Queer space, an intimacy seen as genre bending. Hence, the form has taken off with Queer expression that is flammable in ‘UNDER THE PINK HOUSE’ (p.32). The poem begins ‘It was pornographic science fiction’ with the premise of speculative fiction, ‘What if?’ laying down a dare to imagine Queer space as mainstream. The speaker’s passion is whipped into a sexual frenzy that ‘lassoed me to the bed, and your pussy adopted/ the same penetrating gaze’ disrupting the male gaze for the queer gaze and the site of cunt power. The pluralism of female genitalia embodies Luce Irigaray’s book, ‘This Sex which is not One’ in its celebration of the layers and multiplicity of that which is considered ‘one’ ‘hole’ ‘empty space’.

‘In the centremost labyrinth of your labia, I unintentionally/ scryed your future and saw echoes of tall trees in gentle winds, fingers/ turning pages of burning books with images of hungry baby birds that/ would be unlikely figures of your liberation.’

The ‘L’ word is tossed around in a search for togetherness but like the search for home, it is elusive. In ‘WILD HORSES HOUSE’ (p.12) there is a violence to the coupling ‘This awkward painful screwing that will bleed/ out.’ (p.12) and is perhaps significant of the first time, or sexual violence, or just bad sex. The futility of life is expressed through allusion to Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis’ where the speaker’s bleak life is reflected upon with ‘This/ cannot be it, surely’ demonstrating the restlessness of the speaker and the hope for so much more. The violence or just lack of real affection is amplified with the only tender touch to be that of ‘Kafka roaches’ soft antennae combing her face in the/ night.’ A sense of annihilation is vividly rendered with the very stark image of ‘cockroaches may survive up to a week without a/ head by just breathing through their skin’ (p.12) and we reflect on what seems the futility of everyday life.

The poem ‘THE CONSTRUCTION OF LIGHT HOUSE’ (p34) reads like an inventory of a rental account of a shared house: a bit battered like its residents but will do as a temporary space, but there is more than just ‘mustardy yellow cupboards’ ‘unpolished wood’ (p34) and ‘windows looking on to a sloping backyard’(p34): there are also ‘contrails’ (p34) on the floor, residue of a face planted, the imprint a person leaves behind on the house, and the marks left within the bodies of the experiential ‘this line/ cuts through time and flesh.’ (p34) This poem is an homage to the share house, to temporary house buddies who are everything in that sliver of time, but will not live on in your next transformation and the boy who will ‘never make it as a writer’; he too is a passing fling, like the ‘stray (cat) who wandered in one day and/ never left. You end up belonging to each other.’ (p.34) And like the temporary houses we call homes, they too are like a beacon of hope, where when the lights go out, love, lust and violence happen. Most of all Carapace is about the discarded shells and the resonance of those shelters that live on and on in our bodies, our only permanent homes.
LISA COLLYER is a poet and educator and the author of How to Order Eggs Sunny Side Up (2023)
Life Before Man Books, Gazebo Books. She was short-listed for The Dorothy Hewett Award
and was an Inspire writer-in-residence with The National Trust of W.A.