Poetry review: 31/01/20
THE SAINT OF MILK AND FLAMES
by Kate Garrett
Our reviewer finds raw strength pulsing through this collection.
There is something assured about Kate Garrett’s poetry – the fierce paddling pen of the poet, almost invisible beneath the surface. If Garrett was writing about flowers and sunsets, her poems would be well crafted distractions – lovely and transient. But there is nothing fleeting about the raw strength of emotion that pulses through this collection.
‘Back then a north wind cut
through clouds of tar that wouldn’t stick
on lungs too young to be anything other
Garrett makes me feel proud to be human – a creature pitted against the odds and brave enough to love despite the fragility of life.
The opening poem – ‘The house you inhabit in dreams is always you’ – establishes Garret as a poet who delights in challenging the boundaries of genre. The nerd in me wants to debate whether it’s a prose poem, poetic prose or not actually a poem at all: it begins mid-sentence; the line breaks are those of conventional prose but commas and dashes break the lengthy phrases into rhythmic, captivating beats - rich in repetition, alliteration and half rhymes.
husband, my mother, my childhood best friend, my ex-lover’s ex-lover,’
I admire a writer who can take on the yawn-inducing retelling of a dream and make it intriguing. The first person narrator is honest and generous – letting us into a world we don’t know yet and, in the detail, giving us glimpses of who she is and what she might feel.
‘In the sage green armchair
under a portrait of Lady Godiva, I take off my boots, stretch, pull an
obsidian disc from my mouth. I throw it to the heat of the hearth where it
feels most at home. The spark of stone on stone reminds me of love,’
‘Pisces rising’ – set across eight stanzas of similar length – is more conventional in structure and form. The narrative, however, refuses to conform and leaps backwards and forwards through time, drawing the reader into the story of her daughter’s fraught arrival into the world.
‘Five days ago, on the eve of you, I looked forward
to this night –’
And then, in stanza two, the chai latte’s cinnamon froth triggers a flashback to the motorway services outside Wolverhampton. By the fourth stanza, I’m utterly invested in this unborn/born baby’s future and feel anxious and uneasy when I read,
‘December, when we had no reason to believe you wouldn’t be ok,’
The experience is like flicking through a family album where the photos are out of order – hope, heartbreak, death, birth: memories as jumbled and as vital as the stories of my own family. The final stanza is beautifully written but lacking the certainty I crave – driving me to search the collection for confirmation that the baby in her ‘kelp-nest of wires’ went on to be OK.
I am a sucker for poems with long titles and this collection does them with style. ‘My mother sits in judgement of a nymph, a saint and me,’ is a bolshy, critical poem – almost unafraid – like a teenager finding her voice and learning that to fit in isn’t the same as conforming.
'She sits on her plinth insisting we
are nothing but bitches, liars; she can’t own her mistakes –
they’re stones in her gut. She resents how we wear ours like art,
striding in style:’
The saint of milk and flames is an intelligent and surprising collection strung expertly together with patterns of language and thought – returning to the sea, to myth and to fairytales – yet grounded in the ordinary as the backdrop to imperfect, messy lives. At its very best, the myth and the mess exist side by side,
‘Such unfortunate women, you among
them, raised to keep Hestia’s hearth –
but some are born lucky, with Hecate’s
heart: spotting evil like a smudge on a lens,
from the corner of your eye, sideways
I have carried this collection around with me for weeks, reading it once for the sound and again for the meaning and finally just to revel in the pleasure of really good poetry.
Review: Sarah Hehir.
Kate Garrett – The saint of milk and flames
Rhythm and Bone Press
$14 (currently on offer)