An Absence of Saints

But these poems that are more traditionally ‘historical’ are broken up by others – interspersed with a poem describing photographs of the poet’s father, and immediately followed by a description of the poet’s adaptation to her Australian school. Both of these are structured as small series of vignettes – again, a kind of disconnected narrative. Furthermore, a later poem, describing the father’s habitual fishing trips bears the title ‘Botany Bay II.’ Clear relationships between the ostensibly very different poems are firmly established, and so national myth becomes every bit as important as family myth. Both are also subject to the same forces and the same vagaries, and have the same implications on the people who inherit them. Furthermore, exploration and migration are brought into a more direct alignment and comparison, and so offer a very different perspective on these two forces in Australian history, imagination and memory.

Another startling portrayal of memory and migration in An Absence of Saints occurs in the poem ‘A Glimpse of Water’. The poem describes Uncle Adamo – who the reader has last seen fighting Communists on a hill – in a nursing home in Australia, still haunted by his past, and still afraid of ‘the shadows of low-flying planes.’ It is a powerful, spare poem, a poem about dementia, and the pathological confusion of past and present, memory and myth that it entails. Adamo, for instance, fails to recognise his sister-in-law in the present. Instead, he speaks to his nurses about the land of his youth, reshaped into different countries throughout recent history, and they respond:

poor old thing

they thought it was the dementia talking.’

The irony of the nurses’ response is, perhaps, all the more startling because of the fragmentary aesthetic at work in the collection as a whole. The ruptures, resonances and disjunctions that structure this book are always echoed in the acts of memory, remembering and telling stories at the heart of so many of the poems. What so many of the poems do in miniature, An Absence of Saints echoes as a macrocosm, amplifying the effect of the individual pieces.

There is a strong emphasis on language in all of Licari’s poems, on its difficulties and disruptions, and on story-telling and song. As well as the musicality of Licari’s poems, many poeces include the enjambments over marks of punctuation, or between nouns and the unusual verbs attributed to them – there is a kind of estrangement, or even distance, within the language itself that keeps it constantly open to scrutiny and change. But Licari also focuses many of the poems around ritual, and especially around food.

The poem ‘Lineage’, for example, describes the women of the family, drinking coffee and cooking together. Importantly, it opens with song (‘a dull song floats/ over the table.’), which is a ritualisation of their very language, but there are also references to telling stories, to ‘rules by the spoonful’, and reading teacups. The present continuous tense dominates the poem (‘the dough they knead,’ ‘my women sit and watch’ etc.) bringing a sense of repetition and persistence to all of the women’s actions; and verbs of pressing, soaking and sinking build a stifling sense of closedness built into the room where they sit. Interestingly, the poet-speaker, ends the poem with an escape, removing her headscarf and waiting ‘for the next train out.’

This here speaks of the poet’s discomfort, or estrangement, directly dramatising her exclusion from the lost world of her migrant family, and her feelings of oppression and restriction by the past. The speaker escapes the closed world of her family’s women, and yet this enacted escape is complicated by the poem’s very title. ‘Lineage’ is, of course, a direct tracing of ancestry, of belonging, and of the past that has lead to the present self. It implies an inescapable connection to the past – and the past is something that continues to erupt within the poem. It seems also to be a direct indication of Licari’s project within this collection. The speaker in this poem sits somewhere both inside and outside the stories that the women are sharing and repeating – as does any poet sculpting poems from passed-down memories and myth.

The wartime sequence that opens An Absence of Saints is, of course, where this work with memory, myth and lineage is most overt. These poems are almost a series of imaginative biographies, mostly focussed on the capturing of small objects and details. All are deeply sensual and concerned with the body – many open with sounds (‘the sound of twigs breaking along the path…alerts him that there’s something wrong,’ from ‘Uncle Pepi the mechanic’) or sensations (‘a shard of sunlight burns into Adamo’s back’ from ‘Skirmish’); others close on eruptions of body or of bodily experience (‘fingers burned from slitting shells with her nails/ Outside, the first snow fell;’ from ‘My grandmother’s orchard’; ‘One of the young soldiers/ throws up.’ from ‘Skirmish’) Licari has great skill in capturing the visceral, in placing real bodies in the stories her poems interpret. And these moments of intense sensuality butt up against small details of landscape or season, of objects such as bullet shells, ornaments, envelopes and, of course, food. Licari’s rapid registration of detail may be a kind of attempt to capture time, to catalogue the moment in its entirety and to reclaim memory into the present, but it also builds a vivid and individuated world for the reader to experience, and makes a claim for spareness – emotion is not laid out bare in these poems, but left for the reader to infer. Perhaps this may lend a sense of emotional distance to Licari’s narration, but it makes for a haunting and elegant poetry.

And it is in smallness and spareness that Licari’s poetry really excels. Many of the poems in An Absence of Saints draw their power from their understatement, especially in their final lines. Take these, from the travel poems and love poems in the final section of the book:

‘he rolls

in the

soft whitewash’ (from Sea Lover)

‘the rain drops between us’ (Sunshine beach)

‘the strange letters tattooed on the inside of your arm’ (‘Lines written after lunch’)

This kind of ending is typical in these poems – declarative, simple, brittle and unclosed, refusing to sweep the narrative into any kind of wholeness, and providing just that space for resonance that the collection replies upon. Licari’s insistence is always on the concrete and the small, which slowly accrue into the bigger issues and stories of her poems. It is a poetry of subtlety and unencumbrance, that resists excessive ornamentation and offers instead a refreshing voice in contemporary lyric poetry. viagra Exelon

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