Marion May Campbell reviews I Have Decided To Remain Vertical by Gayelene Carbis
I Have Decided To Remain Vertical
by Gayelene Carbis
Reviewed by MARION MAY CAMPBELL
I Have Decided To Remain Vertical is an exhilarating extension and intensification of some of the major themes of Carbis’s first collection Anecdotal Evidence: her never leaving Carnegie; a family strangely functional in the wake of brokenness, as poesis summons vivid mosaics from the fragments; the devastated heart and the paradoxical sustenance it finds by revisiting the penumbra of relations; the contradiction between word and gesture; the magnetism of the loving body while the erotic body feels cancelled in its relegation to mere companionship, and the fearless probing of domestic anguish in the wake of paternal carelessness.
Memory is performed as always transformative of the event it revisits—so true to what’s known of the mnemonic process—it’s volatile, apt to ignite the scene and act out the shadow-fire of rage or panic in the domestic or intimate space. The wonder of several key poems in this new collection is their integration of heartbreak, loss, even terror, and of comic, Alice-like defiance. Surreality is presented with hyperreal acuity. Carbis’s dream-envoy arrogates agency at her risk and peril to rescue the very poem we’re reading. This kind of mise-en-abyme or nesting, whereby the making of the very poem we’re immersed in is narratively embedded in the text is a feature here: poetry-making, often snatched from the jaws of disaster, is both agent and catalyst for the ‘I’persona’s survival, no matter into what pits life and love have thrown her. This is done with great comic brio and, often, hilarity, all the more liberating for the catastrophe she skirts.
The collection is framed by two brilliant poems, ‘Marrying Freud’ (p. 13) and the final ‘The Memory of Colour’ (p. 102) containing the title line, both of which manage, in their formal economy, to conduct the lightning of insight and offer fierce, earthy resistance to a perceptual charge that otherwise might blow things apart. The dream scenario of ‘Marrying Freud’ conveys a sense of wild exuberance, not just through its refusal to espouse the Great Man myth, but also through the matter-of-factness which domesticates Freud, turning him into a kind of housemaid. Again, it’s Dora’s revenge; ‘Dora’ being the pseudonym for the gifted young woman of Freud’s ‘Case Histories’ who dared dismiss him, he said, like a maid of all work. Freud here expects to be both sexually and domestically serviced. This savage brand of feminism is all the more hilarious through its continence in constraining form. Freud awaits in the marriage bed whose sheet he has folded back (he’s already unconsciously become the chamber maid) in anticipation, while his dream ‘wife’ in the kitchen, through the night, writes her glorious resistance—the poem we are reading, refusing to bring the anticipated coffee: ‘I’m not his fucking mother’ (p.14).
In ‘Our house’ (p. 20), the domestic sphere is a charged space, where contradictions stage their tug-of-war; where vitriolic fury and loving acceptance are veined together in an always-compromised stream. The forensic eye returns unflinching in memory, telling it without a hint of pastelised sentiment. It is thus acutely recognizable as authentic to the reader, beautiful, heartbreaking and, at times, irrecoverable from—as in ‘The Price we Pay’ (p. 25), for instance.
In ‘The Baker’s Daughter’ (p. 31)—an allusion to Shakespeare’s Ophelia’s invocation of the owl—Gayelene indicts a weakness that countless feminine avatars of Ophelia share, imploring fathers as potential saviors, recued neither by generations of Poloniuses nor Hamlets: these superbly haunting lines brought the shiver of the graveyard to my warm living room:
too mindful, we die to our truer selves, calling father!
But the fathers, all air, walk as ghosts over the grave ground (p.31)
There’s genius in the spooky effect of the caesura after ‘all air’ (and, as we know, garrulous Polonius was all air), and in the fatefully sounding final spondee ‘grave ground’. This double stress (and alliteration) brings home how hanging on the father’s word kills ‘our truer selves’: bang bang. In variously inventive ways, Carbis’s work so far in her plays, stories and now, two poetry collections, has explored both the comedy of feminine identifications and the devastation wreaked by the models of masculinity that men and boys strive to enact or refuse at their peril. How does the golden-haired little boy, hauled along the swimming pool lane on his father’s back become, freely and creatively, a man, when this same loving father subsequently seems to enact man-as-flight-from-responsibility-and-presence? (‘Love Like This’, p. 24)
If compassionate identification is not enough to save from mortality—art, whether painting or poetry—gives back life, as in the beautiful ekphrastic ‘Red Horse by the River’ (p. 64) that takes off from Anselm van Rood’s ‘St Kilda Morning’. What does save, after relationship breakdown (‘I made Tarek and Egypt into a story’, ‘St Kilda Morning’, p. 46 ), is the openness to wonder beyond the pathways of flatfooted rationality: the red horse appears in its transcendent beauty by the river: ‘But your eyes were always open to the light’ (‘St Kilda Morning’, p. 47).
And consider ‘After Sylvia’ (p. 41)
Don’t editorialise. Just say it. Read Sylvia.
Her poems. For their surgical precision.’
He adds: ‘You need to take up that scalpel.’
The lover-friend-mentor instructs, if not how to heal, then at least how to make a better poem by taking up the scalpel, to lay bare, with forensic wit, the damage he bequeaths her. And does she ever. Again, the last line is a unmitigated triumph: ‘I hold my pen—like a knife’.
Then, reading ‘Family’ (p. 53), I am breath-taken by Carbis’s metamorphic verve, up there with Ovid and Calvino—
The tree told us we were temporary guests.
wouldn’t save us. We swept our tears into
the streets, hid in the bark of our brooms
as if wood had become new skin.
Here fabulism triumphs over sadness though magical metamorphosis: the humble domestic broom, remembering its origin, offers a retreat.
With several poems it’s art itself that bonds, that connects and transfigures. With ‘Writing Companion’ (for Alicia Sometimes, p. 74), language is celebrated as a reciprocal giving of nurture, a companion being etymologically, as Gaylene’s epigraph points out, a sharer of bread—thus the synesthetic transfer of shared words, whereby sounds become taste:
… The taste of
sounds on the tongue,
the sharp tang
how the vowels curl.
This oblique and all the more haunting ekphrastic magic runs right through the ‘Red Horse by the River’ section.
What is said and what is not said, the throat-freezing unspeakable features heartbreakingly in ‘The call’ (p. 82), where the screen topic of daughter-mother conversation is about a hairdresser’s phone number, but the not-so-well-hidden content is a mother’s possibly impending death from cancer:
Her voice was full of stones
I heard the dampness in her breath.
Stones in my throat, as I
hung up the phone and watched the brilliant lights
of the train hurtling closer and closer.
The brilliant lights of the hurtling train are the onrush of death as the terrifying real.
What is not said, the ellipsis, becomes literalised, actually materialised, in ‘Annotated Memories’ (p. 84). Here, the persona seems to have set herself the punishing task of making, for the ex-lover’s birthday, an annotated collage of his previous lives and loves; how then can she find the words for her own absence? The pendant to this conundrum is magnificently realised in ‘The Day You Left’ (pp. 88-90) where the imminently massive absence, the negative shape of the departing ship (taking the now ex-lover definitively from her), diminishes, in inverse proportion, all the wonder of the world—the moon being reduced to only a mention, a speck (p.88):
And then, the absence
of the ship
I stared at the space
where the ship had been
And I thought
now I understand.
Finally made sense to me.
The layout and lineation enact the cumulative insistence of absence. Here Gayelene makes over Keats’s phrase negative capability—to mean gaping absence, one that takes on more density and potency than presence.
Losing language as mediating and instrumental, Carbis lets the strangeness of body sensation impinge; it’s no longer a question of fatality, but of body as an improvisation. The deliberately anachronistic quill in ‘Embodiment in Quill’ refers to the bodily empowerment of a Victorian woman writer. Things and beings lose their names: through entries and exits and passages—vectors become all:
A living being is making his way through the house.
I shut out dishes in the kitchen,
and keep my door open.
In the closing, brilliant sequence culminating in ‘The Memory of Colour’, we are returned to the marvellous metamorphic power of art. Beyond the visual, Carbis writes the sensation—
The walk back is about twenty steps
and sometimes that is all it takes
to remember green, to feel it
in your feet. To feel practically feline.
I hover on the first step then wade right in.
I hold the colour of the sky
in my arms, and swim.
The passage towards the water is shot through with EE, thus sending the sense of greenness coursing through the reader’s limbs and preparing an openness in the reader for the colour of the sky. Notably, this provides a space for readers to paint themselves in. Is the sky cerulean blue; is it egg-yolk yellow; or is it a thundery gunmetal? Thus armed, we slide with Carbis into the gorgeously embodying element: it’s performed in the transition from in to swim.
Finally, then, whatever our physical propensities, it’s the synaesthetic power of this whole collection that lends us such imaginative embodiment: eyes for the colour of the sky and arms to swim with.
Keats, John 1958  re. ‘negative capability’ see The Letters of John Keats, ed. H E Rollins, Vol I, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1958 , pp. 193–4.
Freud, Sigmund 1990  Case Histories 1: ‘Dora’ in The Penguin Freud Library,Vol.8, Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1990.
MARION MAY CAMPBELL is an acclaimed poet and novelist, and essayist. Marion has taught literature and writing in various universities, including Murdoch University, the University of Melbourne and, most recently, at Deakin University. She now lives in Drouin in GunaiKurnai country with her two border collie companions.