A river rears up


Jen Crawford’s Koel opens with a call, a call not of the insistent summoning variety but a calling forth of variety itself. This first poem in the collection, “Abandoned House Music”, is full of the vibrancy that makes up the ecology of a space both domesticated and untamed, not that that is the binary that Crawford is even dealing with. But there it is, encapsulating the life and liveliness, the living of things resounding throughout a messy, mossy, utterly unfettered sphere of experience that is at once familiar and troubling. Troubling in its echoes of our recognition:

: your standing is a gate
: & yours          outlines a slipper

decline (4)

In her introduction to the collection, Divya Victor locates the defining spirits of “Mother. Moss. Migrant.” in Koel. We might add to the mix, “Moist.” For the poems will not, cannot, teem with the vitality that they do without the varying degrees of wetness that at different points pour into them. And these are not in the vein of a Miltonic “watery bier” either, for Crawford’s poems celebrate rather than grieve – she may worry, be upset, even moan a little, but Koel is anything but mournful:

for the first time in six hundred years
the moats were full and the roads moats
spitting up flakes into the foam we waded
to tuneful chainsaws dinging
away through the jungle then clung, we did (13)

Even when a sense of foreboding creeps in, pointing to possible discomfort, there continues to be an eager expectancy that is reassuring by being so much at ease.

Crawford does not go searching. All that she needs in order to make up a fulfilling poetic life are before her. This even to the extent that her personal migratory narrative, articulated at the outset of the collection, can be set aside. For what matters more to these poems are their ability to lose themselves to the present:

          when riverbed bares
its posture and then softens, there go into the memory of water,
into the likely inclination of future water. (17)

It is easy to write of roots and journeys, but it takes a supreme sense of the self to be able to speak to the implications of the here and now, to think of the fleeting momentariness of experience, from the quotidian to the histrionic, as profoundly suitable topics for poetry.

In Koel, Jen Crawford shows that it is possible to write about the the earth and nature – even to write ecologically – without arming herself with the typical arsenal of activism. Her earth is not necessarily sentient, certainly not cast in the usual laid waste by human excess manner. The earth is yielding and in its yielding reminds us who actually calls the shots. The tautly structured juxtaposition of nature and human ingenuity – the organic and the engineered – in “reshelvery” (20) could easily have subverted any human attempt to overextend the fine balance that is our habitation. The things that humans take overly seriously – “private beliefs and public morality, / his bottomline” (20) – are exposed as petty fumblings in the greasy till. We live, the poem warns us, at the pleasure of the earth, where “the fly pupates in the billions of dollars / cars are seen floating in a carpark”. (20)

The brilliance of the early poems in the collection gives us a taste of the main order of business in Koel. The bulk of the book is taken up with the long sequence, “soft shroud” (31-70), superficially a personal reflection on what it means to depend on, to be depended upon, and what the stakes are for mutuality. Yet these thematic low-hanging fruits mask a poetic ambition that plays out with full rhetorical control and pace. In its attempts to traverse the intricacies of how our relationships form us, how we arrive at “i.m.” and depart from ourselves, “soft shroud” reminds us of the spirit of Tomas Tranströmer’s masterpiece, “Baltics”. But where Tranströmer approaches personal history as something from which he can detach himself, Crawford’s poet is continually folded into a private memory that replays itself:

   an I pouring sand for a funnel of itself
sews the proposed revision of
how it would have that it had been
how it would have that it had been (48)

The running trope of debt transcends its own devastating consequences by assuming a deep sense of impersonality that in turn tempers the poet’s emotional investments.

This redirects attention: from what we owe to who we owe it to to make meaning of our experiences:

which way
does the mantle fall?

it falls
away from you (70)

Ultimately, Jen Crawford’s Koel wants us to decide what we do with the egg inside our mouth: are we eating it, or are we incubating it?

It’s our call.

Choose your own adventure.



Jen Crawford. Koel. Melbourne: Cordite, 2016.

Lim Lee Ching

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