Books

Review: My Feet Are Hungry

3 April 2017

Linus Tolliday

Anwyn Elise

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Released in 2014 and marking author Chris Wallace-Crabbe’s eightieth birthday, My Feet Are Hungry could have easily been underwhelming and less astute than his earlier works. But even at the release of his twenty-fourth collection of poetry, Wallace-Crabbe has managed to retain his wit and skill. His work seems fresh: intelligent and thought-provoking as always, and yet playful. This collection is an exhibition of Wallace-Crabbe’s diversity in terms of form, which – while occasionally disorienting – breathes of purpose and meaning; seldom a syllable is misplaced throughout the three main sections, plus a final poem, that comprise the book.

After Bede’ is the first poem, which sets a familiar metaphysical tone, beginning by considering that ‘Our lives are built upon unlikelihood’. This is clarified with the vivid simile that our lives are ‘Like snow that falls softly/Into a ravaging bushfire’. The softly-falling snow conjures an innocuous image that is immediately shattered by its enjambment with the violence of the next line’s bushfire. The delicate writing cradles the reader lovingly, and then finds humour through its blunt and bleak finale. The book, from the outset, knows the fragility of life, and evokes abstract questions through sensory stimulation. One poem succinctly puts it: ‘What is beyond everything?’ (‘For whom no pittosporum is opaque’) The poem characterises human perception in relation to this existential yearning as ‘a brickwall at the end of the universe’; again the book finds grounding in physical descriptions.

The second poem, ‘And the cross’, reads like a campfire song, with a basic rhyming scheme over a quatrain structure and conversational language; this is a disorienting extreme following the poetic descriptiveness of ‘After Bede’. The narrative of the poem, however, is not so simple, being a retelling of the life of Jesus. The poem tells ‘a tale you’ve all heard bits of’ as if it were a children’s nursery rhyme, rather than a sacred text, even including a pun – ‘what to make of it, God knows’. These ironies, juxtaposing style and content, are littered through the book, at one point describing an ordinary garden fence as ‘cyclone wire’ (‘For whom no pittosporum is opaque’) and later calling the extinction of the entire human race a simple ‘surprise’, people having ‘buggered-up our handy niche’ (‘Us’). The casual, general writing understates complex ideas, while tortuous description swathes the average, forgettable aspects of life. The book is telling readers to forget about the big questions of ultimate meaning in favour of dwelling fastidiously on what we take for granted in everyday life. Further, the book impressively makes the dull worth dwelling on. Also notable is that this Christian element runs through many of the poems, most notably in the penultimate ‘Dyptich’, a sombre dichotomy of belief (‘With god we can have coloured pictures’) and non-belief (‘without gods we have/an overarching blankness’); ‘Dyptich’ is the antithesis of the more jovial ‘And the cross’.

‘Rondo’ opens the second part of the book, almost totally comprised of images of nature, tinged with antipodean vernacular, speaking of ‘bluegum trunks’ and ‘cockies’. This bush imagery is interjected with ‘Motor cars’, ‘holiday houses’ and ‘sedans’, as well as indented lines calling to ‘be still’ and ‘stay calm’. These interjections hint at the destruction of nature, the poem cleverly using a page break to emphasise the word ‘colonisation’, before disarming the word by applying it to ‘toothy dandelions’. The subliminal idea of humans taking over nature still remains, and the use of indented lines transforms the poem into a conversation. The nature is told to ‘be calm’, like the comforting of a frightened child. Unfortunately, the final indented line, ‘be still, my heart’, is a cliched, laughable sentiment and comes as a surprise among the sobering prose-like poetry. This falls flat and removes the emotional power of the rest of the poem. Though rare, these stilted lines do damage the work. Another example of this in the book, ‘Fancy a boy from Victoria having these metaphysical issues’.

The third section of the book features the titular poem, which is one of the most playful of all the poems. ‘My feet are hungry’ uses alliteration, referring to the ‘beta-box of brimming sense’ at one stage, before frivolously moving to the letter ‘d’, the speaker describing that he is ‘decked out in those delicious words/like duty and deplorable’. The giddy jumps between ideas give this poem an unassuming quality, despite it being the title poem. This tacks a mocking quality to the poem, considering the expectation that as it holds the title of the book, it must bear a lot of weight. In ‘My feet are hungry’, the book once more subverts expectation, becoming the self-described ‘mannerless larrikin of life’.

All the poems in this collection achieve humour, poignancy and depth, often at the same time. Unfortunately, these do not always fit together and can become frustratingly disjointed to read. This is largely salvaged by elaborate thematic metaphysical ties that hold together the keenly insightful My Feet Are Hungry. Circumventing the familiar snare of over-contemplation, the book remains buoyant, but never shallow. It could so easily be depressing and sluggish given its existential tendencies, but as Wallace-Crabbe knows and demonstrates, ‘Silliness helps to ease the pain’.

The final poem, ‘The flowering meadow’ is lengthy and elegiac, written in unrhymed tercets. A descriptive work that pays attention to a melancholic atmosphere – ‘leafy shadows easy on my eyes’ in a place ‘where everything, even the soil, was fragrant’ – is a translation from Dante. This recalls Wallace-Crabbe’s history of translation of Italian texts, with a particular focus on Dante. Cleverly, the poem is not stringently adherent to the original Italian canto XXVIII from Purgatorio. The language is lavish, but avoids seeming archaic – there is talk of ‘exchanging innocence and nature’s playtime/for a fallen world of labour and salt tears’, which also happens to be one of several complete departures from the original text. The book uses Dante’s work as a vehicle to meditate on observing the beauty of nature. While a strange inclusion, as it lacks the metaphysical contemplations that otherwise permeate the book, it is a fitting conclusion; the reference to ‘my two great poets quietly smiling’, witnessing a ‘final tribute’, seems like Wallace-Crabbe himself saying farewell to readers. Hopefully only for now.