Emma Lee reviews ‘Messages from the Embers’ edited by Julia Kaylock and Denise O’Hagan published by Black Quill Press

‘Messages from the Embers’ edited by Julia Kaylock and Denise O’Hagan
Black Quill Press
ISBN 978-0-6480020-6-2 (print)
ISBN 978-0-6480020-7-9 (ebook)

‘Messages from the Embers’ is subtitled, ‘From Devastation to Hope Australian Bushfire Anthology’ and sales raise funds for Blaze Aid after the bushfires during the period 2019-2020. The introduction explains why poetry is a natural vehicle in response to devastating events, ‘Poetry brings us into the singular, internal world of a crisis in a way a photograph, interview or news piece cannot. There is the sensory element of poetic language and a certain intimacy of tone and voice. The most memorable poems combine clarity and originality of language, deep thinking and emotional presence in a way that can be incredibly moving. For those caught up or affected by the Australian bushfire crisis, the attempt to articulate the emotional, spiritual and social toll of a catastrophe so close to home and on such a vast scale can be challenging.’ It’s fair to say the poets within rose to the challenge. The anthology moves through a narrative arc to give the poems a framework. It starts with ‘Part 1 Prelude’ and Rose O’Kane’s ‘Black Feathers’ logs warning signs,

‘The sun a pink blister.
Dirty dishwater sea
in a sandwich of sand.

Black feathers pirouette
stall before landfall –
Black leather leaves.’

The use of domestic terms to describe the landscape, ‘dishwater’, ‘sandwich’, is a reminder that people’s homes and livelihoods were in danger as well as the wildlife. The bushfires weren’t just a distant flare but encroached on human life. The repetition of ‘all’ in the penultimate line gives a sense of stagnancy, an intake of breath before the storm. Here charred leaves are a warning. Tegan Jan Schetrumpf’s ‘Climate of Fear’ set near the Gospers Mountain fires, continues the theme,

‘Each time the warning pings again, I’m grateful
our beloved cat passed
in October; no need for carry-crate and tins
to be stacked by our door.

Eyes dry and stung, coughing residual phlegm
even here, where it’s ‘safe’,
life is overcast with a pall – my thoughts turn
to the dead and unborn.’

Among the practicalities of preparing for an evacuation that might or might not happen, the effects of fire are felt even a zone deemed safe. Diana Pearce’s ‘Dusk Flight’ asks on watching flying foxes, ‘After this summer’s cauldron/ will they be glimpsed only in dreams/ or felt in a frisson of air at dusk?’ Virginia Lowe reminds us that it wasn’t just the countryside that was affected in ‘Dicing with fire’, ‘In the city, smoke-coloured sunlight throws unexpected orange into corners of houses, flickering like flames as leaves flutter before it on the polluted air.’

Bushfires in Australia are not uncommon, as Ash Spring’s ‘This’ reminds readers but adds a proviso, ‘Yes, we get bushfires, but not like this/ Not like this.’

‘Part 2 Devastation’ turns its attention to the fires themselves. In Juleigh Howard-Hobson’s ‘Silvam incendit’, smoked ‘Engulfed the bush, paddocks, us. Wherever/ The fire went, the heavy smoke pursued’.

Mark Roberts’ sequence ‘Blue Mountains (Leura), 2019/20’ watches,

‘we smell the fire still fresh
an absence of birdsong
trees crumble in the breeze.

It is hard to read this country now
a charcoal ash poem
that stretches into the future.’

It echoes Ash Spring’s poem with the sense of fire being familiar but this time the fire was different. In Siobhan Hodge’s ‘Gnangara fires’, a horse watches kangaroos flee,

‘My black mare stands in the smoke,
has been here many times before.
Each helicopter dive turns an ear,
but she watches the trees first

as I stand at her shoulder. Her life
is marginal, introduced species
facing the oldest trauma – unwelcome
stowaway within the storm.

This time, we are lucky. Flames roll back,
subside to sand. The pines stretch new scars,
quiver scorched limbs. The horses
lower their heads. The parrots do not return.’

Uncertainty is a theme in ‘Part 3 Aftermath’. Tony Steven Williams’ ‘Post inferno’, after a consideration of whether a home is still standing and what guilt will be felt if it is but neighbours’ homes have burnt out,

‘after the fire
the scent of not knowing
what the future holds.’

A couple of poems are from children. Alexandra Wallis (age 14) was staying with grandparents and rescued from a beach by boat, ‘Aboard the Choules’

‘The beach still bore its eerie loneliness
The fire that seared it leaving many homeless’

Kelly Van Nelson’s ‘Functionally Extinct’ considers man-made contributions to the fires,

‘Shucking the mollusc
drowning in a pool of Worcester,
robbing the ocean of vital wild warriors
born to filter saltwater impurities
destined to prevent coastal erosion,
mass murdered along with the fish population,
under massive attack,
high demand aphrodisiac.
       Functionally extinct,
       no significant ecosystem role left to play –
       The world is not our
                               oyster.’

Jane Baker’s ‘Blue stain and silence’ – the stain caused by asbestos sealant – looks at what was left behind,

‘A burned-out car, a child’s trike melted into twist,
a bucket slumped to one side – these things you note
but the blue stain and silence get to you, and
you leave hurriedly, conscious of desecration –
these were the homes of your neighbours.’

There was human loss too. David L Flaxman’s ‘My Daddy, my hero’ gives voice to a child who lost her volunteer fire-fighter father and wore his helmet and fire-fighting medals to his funeral.

‘Part 4 Hope’ naturally had a few phoenix images. Kathryn Sadakierski’s ‘Holding on’ suggests human solidarity with wildlife,

‘The bibliophile hugs books to their chest,
Skies cling fast to the stars.
She sprints through the brush,
Koala bundled snugly in her arms,
Human and animal lives, intertwined,
Carried away from danger,
Towards life.’

The koala is not just rescued but brought ‘towards life’ and perhaps one where humans may recognise the fragility of eco-systems and the need to strengthen them. There’s a subtle hope in Rob McKinnon’s ‘Thirty days after the bushfire’,

‘On a scalded black tree trunk
a vivid green shoot defiantly emerges,
insurgence against the annihilation launches.’

Although it acknowledges repair might take longer, the beginnings of a recovery provide inspiration. Natalie Cooke’s ‘Dystopian palette’ turns its eye to slugs that survived the fires near Narrabri,

‘Monochrome ashscape.
A crevice oozes neon –
Mount Kaputar slugs.’

Miriam Hechtman’s ‘Rain and Song’ is also a reminder of the interconnectedness between humans and nature,

‘I sit in my car in the rain and I listen
While Joni sings Coyote for the second time
While my seedling carrots drink in the wet
Rain and song, rain and song’

‘Messages from Embers’ succeeds in conveying the loss and destruction of the fires, bringing alive the senses and emotions from initial burning to charred remains and the aftermath of calculating the losses and costs for both humans and wildlife. It is substantial but the narrative framework and dividing the poems into four sections encourage readers to stop and breathe in between poems, an interval in which to reflect. The final section offers signals of hope, that lessons can be learnt and history need not repeat itself if humans are alive to their relationship with nature and climate. There is still time to sing.