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THE END OF THE WORLD by Maria Takolander: Review

Good things come, as the saying goes, in small packages.

Takolander-frontcover-214x300

The End of the World is a precise and economical collection of poems by Maria Takolander presented in a neat little 78 page paperback. It’s Takolander’s third poetry collection, following on from Narcissism (2005) and Ghostly Subjects (2009).

Takolander’s poems are excruciatingly daring, despite some every-day domestic subjects.

The first two poems ‘Unborn’ and ‘Post-partum’ are linked in exactly the sense that the titles suggest.  Poetry can often seem inaccessible but I was instantly seduced by the recognizable in the surreal animal-ness of these poems about motherhood.

The very first stanza (Morning Sickness) of the first poem (Unborn) is a tour de force. A newly pregnant woman dreams of a sow giving birth to a litter. ‘…their lids were serene,/as if eyes did not exist, and their ears were closed/to the sound of their own not screaming…’ The two other stanzas ‘Ultrasound’ and ‘Foetal Movement’ continue the pregnancy journey.  What modern-day mother (or father) wouldn’t relate to seeing the first grainy pictures of their baby: ‘As I watch you shadow box with sourness, radiance and din,/the sources of which you must fear like a medieval Christian,/.’ It’s all here in these two poems: the joy, the blood, the recognition, the pain and violence. Every word perfectly precise, perfectly descriptive, perfect.

The motherhood theme continues in this collection (which Takolander has dedicated to her son) and, in ‘Night Feed’, the baby is a ‘time traveller at my breast’.  Once again, the poet is tapping in to the universal experience through the deeply personal for haven’t we all wondered where babies have been, what knowledge they are coveting, what their slot is in time and their place in relation to ourselves?

As two little girls in their pyjamas navigate the aftermath of violence in ‘Domestic’, we are confronted with the interior of a broken TV which looks ‘bereft’, and the mess of a broken pot plant with its soil and roots and shards of terracotta littering the room ‘as if Triffids had escaped.’

The collection unfolds naturally, from the deeply personal (a woman’s body, a mother and a baby, a family broken) outward to the wider world of alien surrounds and different countries, wars and dead relatives, to Stalin and convicts.

The hotel room of the first poem in Section two with its beige bed cover that ‘has been ironed of dreams’ is a place ‘furnished by sanity’. Once again, so accessible, so recognizable is this room, even when painted in the language of the poet.

‘Missing in Action’ is about men lost in wars, a grandmother ‘dead soon after she got an electric stove’, others who succumbed to alcohol and, poignantly:

Three other uncles: heart attacks – possibly euphemistic.
                (Pictures of those men, modest and blank faced,
                Suggest something already buried.)

Part three begins with ‘Cesare Lombroso, Criminal Anthropologist’ and as I read the following…

                4 rapists, sparkly-eyed.
                6 prostitutes, furnished thickly with hair.
                3 thin-lipped murderers.

…I realised that I was, rather macabrely, almost singing it a-la ‘and a partridge in a pear tree’.

‘Charcot’s Patients’ brings together the historic and the contemporary with a fine dose of black humour, ending with:

Years later – with Charcot posthumously celebrated
                as the founder of Charcot’s disease –
                the Salpetriere hospital in Paris receives
the body of Princess Diana, freshly deranged and photographed.  

The final poems use a kind of reverse anthropomorphism to highlight the foibles of the human animal.  Some bizarre imagery emerges from donkeys sitting at a plastic table watching the sunset, a goat dropping a fishing line from the jetty and then throwing a tantrum, and a spectator-pig watching a collection of animals playing sport.

After reviewing Takolander’s first collection of short stories and now this collection of poems, I had formed an imaginary view of her (in that way we tend to do when we’ve spoken to someone via phone numerous times over a period).  And, as is often the way, my picture was just about as far from the reality as it was possible to get.  I expected something haunted and hardened behind dark eyes.  Rather (as Google reveals) she looks soft and innocent, the girl-next-door in a Doris Day mode and most unlike a writer of such deep bleakness and violence.  That’s not to suggest that there’s not some light and laughter here between the lines but it is that kind of underbelly power that forms the lasting impression for me.

Thanks to Lisa Hill at ANZ LitLovers (cross-posted) for the opportunity to review this beautiful collection of poems, the publication of which was assisted by the Commonwealth Government through the Australia Council. (A couple of poet friends of mine sense some irony in the fact that many of these poems have previously appeared in esteemed publications while exceptional works of unknown poets languish – without funding – in bottom drawers. A subject worth debating perhaps.)

BOOK DETAIL:
Takolander, Maria. The End of the World. Giramondo Publishing Company, Artarmon, NSW, 2014.
ISBN 978-1-922146-51-9

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THE DOUBLE by Maria Takolander: Book Review

Despite completing my first read-through of The Double a few weeks back, it has taken me considerable time to bring my thoughts together and I suspect I’ve subconsciously put off tackling this review because of the sheer complexity and cleverness of the themes.

the double

Melbourne born Maria Takolander is a senior lecturer in literary studies and creative writing so it comes as no surprise that she uses allusion to great effect. The stories in this collection carry titles from earlier narratives such as ‘The Obscene Bird of Night’ (a novel by the Chilean writer Jose Donoso), ‘Paradise Lost’ (John Milton’s epic blank verse poem), ‘The War of the Worlds’ (H.G. Wells’ popular sci-fi novel) and those titles provide the link to Takolander’s themes.

I don’t mean to suggest that you can’t enjoy these perfectly crafted stories if you don’t have an intimate knowledge of the earlier literary figures.  In fact, Takolander’s tales carry a momentum and thoughtful contemplation on their own merit.  To do justice to them in a critical review though…well, that’s something else again.  Nevertheless, here I am giving it my best shot.

The doppelgänger motif of the title story comes from Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s 1846 novella ‘The Double’ and the schizophrenia and portentousness of Dostoyevsky’s tale is portrayed brilliantly here from the opening mystery of a woman waking confused and dishevelled, on wet grass with her lower half submerged in water to the puddle she returns to seeing “a stranger there in the mirrored surface, her pale face muddied, her body bound in white sheeting.” (78)

The morning after witnessing his parents’ drunken violence, the narrator in ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’ heads off to a “nine o’clock tutorial on William Carlos Williams”, (12) the modernist poet who penned the poem commonly referred to as ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’.  Takolander seems to be saying something about the search for meaning in life (and perhaps the meaninglessness of it) through the analysis of poetry:

I found the question sheet and sat at my desk.  ‘In poems such as “The Red Wheelbarrow”’, I read, ‘William Carlos Williams strips the world bare of meaning. Discuss.’  I looked out of the window above my desk and into the backyard.  The sky was cloudless, and the air was still. (27-28)

Takolander’s imagery and simile unfurl with seductive ease:

“The midnight sun was glowering on the horizon, and mosquitoes bumped against her bedroom window like tiny ghosts.” (64) [The Double]

“The room would become black, and the silence in the receiver would thicken until I felt I was connected to some dark place underground.” (133) [The Interpretation of Dreams]

“There is firmer land somewhere.  Land where cattle stamp the soil with cloven hooves.  Where horse hair is torn against barbed fences.  Where colossal windmills slice the air. But that is not here.” (30) Tatiana has skin that may be beautiful behind her veil or may be “pocked like the creek mud” (32) and Svetlana has “the hems of her black pants hectic around her ankles.” (41)[Three Sisters]

Where Part One of this collection consists of eight distinct short stories, Part Two meanders along a different path.  Takolander won the 2010 ABR short story competition with ‘A Roankin Philosophy of Poetry’ a kind of absurdist look at academia (I think) and she extends the theme here with ‘Roankin and the Judge of the Poetry Competition’, ‘Roankin and the Research Assistant’ and ‘Roankin and the Librarian’. I’m not sure that I fully appreciated this second Part (at least not to the extent of part one) but Takolander does give her humour full rein:

The garden shed abutted a homely chicken coop, and I had been living there comfortably, beneath a picturesque series of power lines, ever since. (203)

—————-

Roankin’s last words outlining the Roankins’ philosophy of poetry sung on the page like a plague of locusts granted only twenty-four hours to copulate before they die. (203-204)

The intriguing cover design by WH Chong perfectly mirrors [pun intended] the book’s contents and, as it sits beside my keyboard now, it seems to be daring me to hunt down a copy of Dostoyevsky’s ‘The Double’ and then revisit Takolander’s take on the theme.

BOOK DETAIL
Takolander, Maria. The Double, The Text Publishing Company, Melbourne, 2013.
ISBN: 9781922079763

This review is cross posted at ANZ LitLovers.

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