The below review (via the PDF link) appeared in the Australian Book Review in May 2013. Another strong review for Confessional Box by Peter Kenneally.

Kenneally In Brief

Here is Brett Dionysius’ launch speech for Confessional Box – given at Riverbend Books.

Vanessa Page: ‘Confessional Box’ Walleah Press

Vanessa Page is a poet who has foregone 20 years of writing juvenilia to spring from the forehead of the Queensland poetry scene, as a fully-fledged post-Athena poet.

The two rich manuscripts that make up Confessional Box were both runner-up in the Arts Queensland Thomas Shapcott Prize in 2011 and 2012.  In April 2012, her first micro-collection, Feeding Paper Tigers was published by Graham Nunn’s Another Lost Shark Press as part of its Brisbane New Voices series, a prime example of the absolute fecundity of the contemporary Queensland poetry scene. A healthy poetry scene is a particle accelerator for smashing atoms of words together and discovering new dimensions of meaning.

The publication of Confessional Box was a direct result of this energised scene. A guest of last year’s Queensland Poetry Festival, Vanessa read to an appreciative crowd, one which contained publisher Ralph Wessman, who after hearing Vanessa’s work on stage asked to see a manuscript. This is how poetry publication should be. Not based on who you know, how many Facebook friends you have, or parochial poetry politics, but based on how your words connect people to the great lyric moments of existence.

In the first section of Confessional Box, “home fires” ‘certainly the ‘fire’ of the self is burning down. We see what was once the narrator’s bright flame of desire and self-assuredness waver, as the fuel of human connectedness is consumed and relationships start to flicker out and die. Vanessa situates her sensual poetry within the liminal spaces of the Australian suburbs, under ragged awnings and from the magic windows of public trains. The domestic and household imagery in these poems is at once engagingly familiar and enticingly rich and strange like a scene from a David Lynch film. Robert Adamson says that Page’s ‘images are chipped with such clean lines from reality; they seem slightly surreal.’ He is right.

The narrator enters poems like Cartography, A Domestic Metaphor, Fossils, Territory and the book’s title poem Confessional Box expecting some kind of road map that reassures her that there is strength in the familiar, in the domestic, in the ordinary, in relationships. But no, here is a kind of lyrical subtopia, where the harshness of the urban environment mocks her emotional entropy. In these poems, ‘driveway mouths spit mortar like broken teeth’, ‘a naked bulb burn[s] through kitchen louvre slits as something boils dry on the stove, ‘the bowser moans into the tank like something primal’ and ‘the broken awning outside his bedroom has become a form of water torture’. Suburbia and its domestic paraphernalia deteriorate, mirroring her loss of self, which careens through this section from a low state of entropy to a high state of emotional decay.

Then, in the second section, “bush fires”, the embers of the self, burnt down to charcoal in ‘home fires’ are fanned alive and stirred into flame again as she seeks refuge from suburbia and its dark emotional connections. It is the raw and anonymous Australian landscape, which offers her psychological shelter in its ‘big sky country’.

The narrator finds refuge in obscurity to repair herself, like a tomcat stalking under the house steps after a fight to meticulously lick its wounds clean. It is driving through small country towns, along remote highways and exploring new country sensibilities where she ‘grasp[s] at the sense in endings’ and grows a ‘new space to love’. Here, the pastoral is constructed as a place to heal the ‘self’, as suggested in Between Barcaldine and us, when she says, ‘I’m ghosting in a town of worker’s pubs/finding refuge in random characteristics’.

The final section of Confessional Box is entitled “embers”, and immediately the fires of hope and the self’s resurrection have been reignited in the narrator’s world. The earlier effects of subtopia no longer cause her to feel out of control, as the new spark of love casts its steadying hand over the domestic scene as suggested in Five fifty-three am – ‘Your car slides along the Amberley road in confessional box/calm and twenty thoughts all fall away from you like dried earth/All the world breathes in and out/It’s this simple.’

Like a cicada that’s been buried for years beneath the ground, she emerges anew and glowing in this last section; the rich country landscape has done its work in healing the soul; the dried earth falls away like a cocoon; the new lovers have broken each other open and the narrator wears a new version of skin. Their wings dry in the morning sun.

In the poems of this section she engages with a rejuvenated natural world, one that once was indifferent in ‘home fires’, but now is seen through the lens of new love as a kind of mutual spectator as promoted in The back step – ‘I come home and you’re peeling a mandarin on my back step/working the rind with sandpaper hands/as mangoes blush along the fence like tree bling’.

Ultimately, this is a book about endings and beginnings, about loss and return, about despair and hope, about a transition of the self from fragility to solidity. Even the trust of subtopia, the urban nemesis that hounded her in ‘home fires’ is rekindled and won, transformed from its interruptive past into a familiar and comforting space as witnessed in the poem, Limestone Park.

all around, endings and beginnings are being marked

out in tail light parentheses and keyless exits

 

as darkness falls, thick and familiar

over a thousand tin-lidded anthologies

 

As Bob Adamson states, Vanessa has indeed created a world both intimate and universal; a mean feat for a first collection of sensual and beautiful poetry. Vanessa’s book is a fine addition to the contemporary Australian lyric and it is my great pleasure to announce Confessional Box duly launched.

 

Confessional Box and Feeding Paper Tigers have both received reviews, including in the Weekend Australian, Australian Book Review and Cordite. I’ll be adding those reviews here soon.

Here is Siobhan Hodge’s review of Confessional Box in Cordite:

Australian poet Vanessa Page’s latest collection, Confessional Box, is equal parts personal and critical, examining emotional relationships with a terse, engaging style. As the title suggests, there is a strongly self-aware element to Confessional Box. The poems are relatively open, encompassing a range of points of view and personas, but these are not wholly simple reflections of human relationships. Rather, Page presents a series of evolving sections, embellishing on memories and balancing broader criticisms against more personally orientated notions of access and invitation.

In an interview discussing the collection, Vanessa Page alludes to personal experiences and observations as sources of inspiration, implementing memories into different settings in order to create adaptable, relatable fictions. In this sense, the collection is highly effective. As the title indicates, there is an overarching focus on ‘unpacking’ memories and perceptions, but unlike a conventional confessional box, Page’s collection is not exclusive or exclusionary. However, it is certainly not a passive receptacle, nor are Page’s speakers demure confidantes. Page relishes familial settings and romantic encounters between her speakers, but connections are often fraught with what has been left unsaid, metaphorically and literally distanced by a range of imageries.

In ‘Wife’, a poem strongly reminiscent of Gwen Harwood’s ‘In the Park’, Page’s speaker shies from a perceived threat of depersonalisation:

You see her down the street with the kids
wedge heels and plastic bag hands

three caricatures fleshed out
in a sudden domestic sketch

your heart snaps like a snare drum
as you hesitate; a mid-thrum cicada

tail lights warning you back.

Tension between natural features and human constructions is played out across the woman’s body. Page’s speaker observes the ‘otherness’ that is the ‘wife’ and her many categories of non-human features, while also lapsing into accusing tones and confrontational second person pronouns. The speaker’s pause and reference to ‘a sudden domestic sketch’ highlights time as another form of distance, suggesting anxiety about this as a potential future state, and the passive warning that the viewed female figure offers via her ‘tail lights’. Criticism in this poem is not levelled at the depersonalised wife, but rather at her lack of voice and human qualities, and also questions the speaker’s activity in response.

In ‘Arrival of the patriarch’, Page engages with the role of an older male figure in a young family, with a tone that is equally critical and compassionate. The male persona is a ponderous anachronism, distanced from the familial setting despite his professed ‘arrival’. Page’s speaker is sympathetic, but matter-of-fact in the following extract:

… he’s an anomaly here
navigating urban mechanics
the colour TV and plastic wall phone
a life that sprouted up
and took the past by surprise

…

dies by increment
when the littlest one is afraid
bundles of grandchildren
wrapped in terry towelling love…

The patriarch ‘keeps his feet flat and still / planted on the earth’, signalling metaphorical stagnation, but also linking him firmly to the earth and originary notions of growth. Page finishes the poem with an intriguing reference to saddles, seen in other poems in the collection, and here used to refer to a romanticised physicality, orientated around a masculine-typed perception of control:

in the saddle
there will come acceptance

under Maranoa sky
a thousand more sunburnt days.

The image cements her almost affectionate critique of this isolated figure, locating the patriarch in a romantic, stockman’s role and simultaneously away from the immediate lives of other human figures.

In ‘Saddle dreaming’ Page depicts another male persona’s distance from his family home and wife, subsumed into her maternal role, and adopts a third-person point of view, permitting even sympathetic treatment of both personas. The husband’s affection is divorced from the dehumanising reality of his wife’s lifestyle:

Out here, he might find the shape of her face
in a night basin speckled with stars

just by purchasing shares in the thought of her
a lifetime south in Gunggeri territory

Wife

She’s a vignette back there, with five children
topped and tailed in two small rooms
shadow-formed; getting on by instinct

Page collapses wife and children into one line, furthering this loss of agency by referring to the wife as a passive object, ‘sleep pulls through her like an accordion’. The distance between main figures is presented as an ironically tender lack of understanding, rather than intentional violence, although the potential for this is highlighted:

saddle dreaming drenched in sun violence
and the miles of emptiness drawn out between.

Throughout the collection, human relationships prevail in spite of such distances, but are certainly not spared from criticism.

Page demonstrates keen interest in poetic treatments of distance and travel, as they impact on human relationships. ‘Postcard’, for example, transcribes the speaker’s beloved into the body of her poem in lithe phrases. The geography of the body here to be cherished, while the female figure examined in ‘Territory’ is ‘a pastiche of someone else’, cobbled together from impersonal descriptions. In the final section of the collection, Page embraces even more geographic images and links these with returns, home-orientated poems, and dedications, creating a more optimistic conclusion. Her final poem, ‘Postscript’, beautifully summarises the journeys undertaken, particularly in the final stanza:

Streetlight floods the recesses
leaving words floating in skulls
stillborn on tongues. We are two
bodies; together, alone.

Confessional Box immediately appears to deal exclusively with personal memories and emotions, but quickly reveals much broader themes, complete with technical links throughout the collection, and a sensitive focus on human experiences throughout.

A review of my first chapbook ‘Feeding Paper Tigers’ appeared courtesy of Martin Duwell’s Australian Poetry Review.

http://www.hotsdots.com/poetry

Here’s a taste from the review:

The same, rather shaky distinction between a poet who explores and exploits conventional structures and one who seems, from the outset, to be doing things in his or her own way is re-enacted in miniature with the two poets of  Brisbane New Voices III. Vanessa Page’s poems tend to focus on emotional states: the first, “Five fifty-three am” is about happiness, and its structure – a set of rhapsodic metaphors (“It’s the morning rubbing the last of a dream from its eyes / as day-broken birds open their throats to the light”) – mimics the way the state lends itself to imaginative celebration rather than, say, sceptical analysis. A more common state in these poems is loss and separation from the loved-one. This seems a state more easily connected to exploration and one really fine poem, “Chrysalid”, does this within the metaphor established in the title:

This day is made for breaking. I lie awake inside the shell of sleep. Outside my window, agapanthus heads invite deconstruction There are only incidental details left. I inhabit shadows like silk-sheen resting my fingertips on your detritus . . . . .

 

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