Alison Clifton’s review of Tourniquet from StylusLit Review Issue 6.

In Vanessa Page’s Tourniquet, the reader enters a realm of shadows and light. Everywhere is heat. When the sun is the star, pun intended, as in the “sex-sweat heat” of the poem “Summer Solstice” (8), nature is all: “lorikeets / arrive like rain” and “Mango trees / wear fruit bling.” When the moon takes the stage in a one-orb show, lovers lie awake “coiling and uncoiling under the skin of python weather” as in the long, languid lines of “Time-share” (12). Like Romeo, the lover must leave first thing in the morning, just as “the night sky is decomposing.”

This penumbral poetry is dappled with hope and something akin to prayer, even as a sense of cynicism, even pessimism, rejects the trappings of the material world. In “Like a Virgin” (9), “plastic statuettes of the Virgin Mary” and “stained-glass keepsakes” are dismissed as “junk” – mere lumps of cheap material; false idols offering false hope. Instead, what is shown to be sacred is the human relationship struck up amid the “stiff new shoes and dusty satin” of a First Holy Communion. The reader is presented with a photograph of the occasion in which we see “you and me / at the back, wearing strings of rosary beads like Madonna.” The Madonna of the Church means less to the young girls than Madonna the singer, and the church is said to be filled with “the sly heat of sin.” Sin is warm, faith is cold: Page may be suggesting that the former is the more human condition.

Elsewhere, Page warns “save your judgement psalms for the unholy” (“The Instinct of Sharks” 15). Judgement is futile; acceptance is what is desperately needed. “Aylan” (21) a poem for Alan Kurdi (initially misspelled in the press as “Aylan” Kurdi), a Kurdish refugee who died in the Mediterranean Sea on the second of September 2015, is a mantra for peace and understanding. It is not a mantra in the ludicrous, popular culture meaning of the term, as in a famous person’s repeated injunctions to consume nothing but the keto diet. It is a prayer to be intoned, not chanted, to remind us of our obligations to each other. The words “the sea offers up your name…” are repeated until they become one with our rhythmic inhalation and exhalation. The Mediterranean is famously hot, but there is no warmth in the reception of the refugees, and no life left in the limbs of the little boy.

In defiance of the coldness of human hearts, there is almost relentless warmth in this collection. These lovely lines from “Terrarium” (16) hum with heat and pulse with life:

Ocean draws itself back into wildness. Beachside

parking meters hum and click out: the hard edge

of summer drawn in every shade of blue but cool,

concrete boxes menacing the sky into submission.

The heat becomes insidious, trapped in the concrete boxes of Gold Coast high rises with all the faded, materialistic appeal of the glitter strip. Even the cold burns in these poems, as in these lines from “Soldier Trees”: “Stirring south, on the edge of an island-state winter – a / flesh-burn cold meets the ANZAC dawn” (54).

Yet the burning in these poems is a form of purging and purification. We are urged to burn brightly by these poems, though they are far from didactic. We are called to rage against the dying of the light. We are asked to think and act according to the principles of justice – not cold, abstract judgement, but warm, welcoming hospitality and felicity. Above all, Page shows that we can and must affect change: “How vast, the idea that breath alone / could shift a landscape…” (“Skin” 40).

 

Jena Woodhouse’s review of Tourniquet, foam:e also at: Tourniquet Review

The word “cinematic” has been applied to Vanessa Page’s poetry, and it seems an apt descriptor of the way the reader watches the writer move through her landscapes, public and private, in light and in darkness, registering their flora and fauna, their human occupants and transients, their topographical features morphing under different effects of light. “Margaret Olley’s Flannel Flowers” is one distinctive example:

…………………………………………………. Mine is a country

of spinifex and brigalow – tin roofs reflecting the desolation of heat:

womal trees and gidyea, all following the slow brown run of the river.

Here, familiar is the tubular beauty of the banksia, the yolk-studded

fingers of coast-myall; the fleeting mimicry between the silver-backed

leaves and a gleaming catch of river perch: August sun setting a tin-foil

blaze on the Maranoa. This is not my country, but I’m looking through

its portholes, thinking of the Olley painting I cut out of a magazine

once – of the coastal flannel flowers: the way they spoke, perfectly wild

…………………………………………………………………………

Effortlessly beautiful in the same way one’s own country can be, ……

………………………………………………………………………….

bursting with strange botanicals – all of it, within and outside of myself.

In this collection, Tourniquet, there is a palpable sense of a journey through landscapes: from domestic traumascapes and internalised rupture of relationships, familial and interpersonal, to the vast, often desolate spaces of outback Queensland and the Tasmanian wilderness, where danger and the whiff of violent threat can seem both imminent and immanent, as can a sense of spaciousness, emancipation from conflicted relationships, a desire for inner peace and wholeness. Light is significant and pervasive in this collection, contrasted with darkness in various guises, natural and man-made.

Mathinna is a town of things piled up. Car wrecks on car wrecks.

Broken bits of fences, rubbish, metal things. Frontier woodpiles taller

than a man. …………………………………………………………

………………………………………………………..Quartz-crunch feet

flattening the brittle bones of gold miners. On a corner block, a house

crouches, gutted by fire: blackened limbs in twisted rigor mortis pose.

This poem, “Mathinna”, interweaves the story of a young Indigenous woman – adopted in the mid-nineteenth century by the governor of Tasmania, Sir John Franklin and his wife, Lady Jane, and abandoned by them when their vice-regal post came to an end – with the fate of a mining settlement in north-east Tasmania.

In “Time-share”, the sense of abandonment is more personal, and the poem plays skilfully on the ominous implications of darkness and light for the woman on borrowed time:

In the threadbare dark, night is collecting in makeshift cups:

The gutters of this tinderbox; the visible parts of your body.

I lie awake, synchronizing our breathing, night swimming across

a floral coverlet that has never suited you, or me.

It’s too hot for sleeping.

This suburban eucalypt tract is defined by species and sweat:

the brutal mating sounds of koalas tearing holes in the silence.

The slow pulse of ecology.

We are as obvious: a peristaltic churn – coiling and uncoiling under

the skin of python weather, immediacy the only tangible bind.

The only thing I can claim.

Outside, the night sky is decomposing – a familiar caveat:

first light over the departure gate, gut-black the colour of your going.

Zooming in on a scene that is staged with pitch-perfect tone and timing, “Christmas Day in Harlaxton” (an economically depressed suburb of Toowoomba, Queensland’s second city), winner of the Martha Richardson Poetry Prize 2016, deserves to become a classic for the vitality and veracity of its depiction of a certain type of masculinity and the menacing aura of simmering rage associated with it, which can erupt in physical or verbal violence at any moment.

*

The poems of Tourniquet are divided into three sections: I Arterial; II Tourniquet; III Occlusion. The striking cover image is of a heart entwined with what appears to be vine-stems, with native flora bursting from it, as well as a yellow-tailed black cockatoo. The first section, in which the poems quoted above appear, introduces recurrent themes of haunted and haunting landscapes; risky relationships; the brooding sense of rage barely held in check, erupting at times into domestic violence; a woman who traverses this terrain in search of light and air, room to breathe. The poem “South Solitary” (incidentally the name of an Australian film set around a remote lighthouse) begins with the words Solitude is a dark but simple art.

The poet’s attitude to the stifling hypocrisy and inertia of conventional suburban domesticity is encapsulated in the poem “Papier Mache”:

as she exhales, stripped down to a wick –

hauling the dead weight of domestic bliss like a cadaver.

Page’s evocation of “Home”, in a present overshadowed by childhood memories and more immediate reminders of a violent father, again strips the veneer of clichés from its subject to expose it as a place of peril, despite the fact that Entrenched normal flows from room to room. “Home” ends with the line Think. Don’t think. The same door waits open.

This line concludes the first section, Arterial, and acts as a segue into the second, Tourniquet, which moves from bruised and constricted suburban lives punctuated by anticipation and recollection of harm and outbursts of violence, reprised in Section II by the poem “Break-up”, to offshore locations in the Pacific and Canada, then back again, mainly to Tasmania, where, in a settlement restored to colonial facades for tourism purposes, the admission I came here to be someone else,/ paint out the damage/ imagine I am whole.(“Evandale”) implies a parallel between the veneer of the facelifted township and the speaker’s misgiving that such transformation is only skin-deep:

I skim across this canvas,

until nightfall drags along sleep:

and even then,

there’s no pigment deep enough

to paint it out –

the same small town darkness that runs

through me,

through the people living here, streets-deep.

Section III, Occlusion, revisits lives and events from colonial days, partly in Tasmania, but mostly in south-western Queensland, as the poet and other figures, male and female, appear/ disappear mirage-like in the landscape, moving through outback spaces and settlements to where she was raised in the grazing country of the Maranoa. This is our existential/ blind spot – without words but not unspoken; a shared/ endlessness, still littered with the same dingo fences. (“Fontanelle”)

The destination (in this collection), featured in the final, extended poem in three sections, “Inheritance” is Page’s now-deserted family homestead, scene of complex emotional and visceral responses.

This is not the place for absolution.……..

…………………………………………..

This is a wasteland for sepia-drenched stiffs, and crows

tossing gunfire emptiness with bullet-point eyes. I’d

rather drive through this molasses-thick heat, away from

ancestral fossils. Out here, Mandandanji feet know the earth

and I am only a stranger – a tightly clenched prodigal

alone with the pull of regret behind my rib cage.

Out of the car, I fall hard into my own body.

The heartland of Tourniquet lies in the haunted, haunting terrain of its unsettled and unsettling topographies, including the body. As unsparing and unflinching in her gaze as the outback light, Vanessa Page has a sure grasp of her subjects and the poetic forms that can best accommodate them. In bringing a female gaze and sensibility to bear on the badlands and wastelands of personal relationships and landscapes, especially the marginal terrain of small, isolated settlements, and in seeking out the redemptive possibilities of reconnecting with body and spirit in physical encounters with country, she has generated some powerful poetry.

 

Ynes Sanz’ launch speech for Tourniquet – given at Avid Reader on 23 October 2018.

It’s been a few years now since Vanessa Page won me as a prize in a poetry competition.
We’d never met previously, but she won a mentorship in the Ipswich Poetry Feast and so, during hours of mentoring spread over a few months, we went on to work together.

We met occasionally over coffee, but mostly exchanged emails and talked through some early drafts like that.

I mention our history because I want to take this opportunity to underline the invaluable role that mentors can play, not only in the overall evolution of our shared art and craft of poetry, but also in creating an empathetic dialogue between poets from different generations, styles, or writing philosophies. I also want to commend to poets here tonight the very great personal pleasure in giving back in this way, and in seeing an emerging poet that you have badgered into editing something ‘just one last time’ or encouraged to ‘put it out there’ go on to win major competitions and achieve publication.

As our creative relationship developed, I was reminded about the things that I value about the craft that underlies the kind of considered, yet forthright and passionate work that Vanessa makes, and, because of what that taught me about my own writing, I saw myself as a winner, too.

I’ve always been interested in titles: I think they’re an underestimated resource. This book, Tourniquet, with its section headings of Arterial, Tourniquet and Occlusion, gives us fair warning, if we have no preconceived ideas, of what might lie ahead.

As others have commented, this is writing that appears fearless when it comes to touching on dark undercurrents and emotions. ‘Emotional courage’ is something of a cliché when applied to poets, and sometimes it’s code for something else less complimentary.

I’m proud to say that when I was on the Poetry Festival Committee I had a reputation as a ‘hard-ass’, but, even when I’m trying, I can’t come anywhere near Vanessa’s candour, and I admire it in her writing enormously.

It needs to be stressed, though, that, like Confessional Box, this new collection is not ‘confessional poetry’. Tourniquet contains a rich variety of subject-matter handled with deep perceptiveness. These are clear-eyed observations, and slices of life fit for microscope slides. Her works are gut-wrenching at times, but there’s never any self-indulgent gut-spilling.

Here’s an example: Fontanelle

As you can hear, Vanessa’s distinctive voice can articulate an unexpected sequence of words or ideas on the page like potter’s clay flung onto the wheel and pummelled into something aesthetically pleasing. She finishes her work with skill but leaves subtle thumbprints of vulnerability, to let us see the human experience in it and engage with it.
By now, Vanessa has also taught us to expect unstinting and complex writing, at times sepia tinged, and redolent with the smells of country train carriages, and foxed paper, the bush and the old photo albums that carry her family history. These are again showcased in the final section of this collection.

I would be remiss, though, if I didn’t tell you specifically to look out for moments of lyrical beauty in her work.

After 18 years in the Brisbane writing community, I thought I’d seen or heard everything that could be written about Jacaranda trees. Far from it!

Listen to this: Toowoomba Carnival Queen

Imagine … going back to your late Uncle and Auntie’s timber shack in the bush ….
You open the door of the shed out the back that the grownups never allowed you in when you were a child … you are surrounded by a chaos of old tobacco tins, rusting Winchesters and chipped enamel basins … Suddenly, your heart starts pounding as you realise that the glint you have spotted among the cobwebs is in the pupils of a brown-snake, … and now it’s making eye-contact with you ..

Poets and friends – Welcome to Tourniquet.

 

Peter Keneally’s review of Confessional Box in Australian Book Review 2013. View via the PDF link. Kenneally In Brief

 

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

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.

 

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.

 

Martin Duwell’s review of my first chapbook ‘Feeding Paper Tigers’, Australian Poetry Review. http://www.hotsdots.com/poetry

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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