Phillip Hall reviews Moya Pacey’s ‘Doggerland’

Titles from Canberra’s Recent Work Press are always distinguished by the impeccable design of their covers, which often feature bespoke works of art. And the cover of Moya Pacey’s ‘Doggerland’ is one of the finest that I have seen. It showcases a detail from an original painting by Martina Penning in rich, fauvist style. The image is of a girl standing precariously in a small tinny in the middle of a vast ocean, hand shielding eyes as she peers ahead (for companionship or land?), with a blackbird (or maybe a raven) her only solace. Her hair is tied neatly back in a ponytail, and she wears a red dress and white apron. The daring of this red contrasts strongly with the queasy olive green of the aluminium tinny and the foreboding blue, white and grey of empty space. The wild brushstrokes of the foreground capture a turbulence which dissipates into the flattened and forbidding blue beyond the horizon. We are positioned to cheer for this girl, but we are also well aware that for her, securing safe harbour and friendship will be difficult.

 

Pacey’s poetry dramatizes scenes from the childhood of this persona (herself?) living in the north of England soon after the second world war. And she finds such moments of grace and relief in memory, familial love and language amidst all the threats and difficulties of life. Pacey’s poetry is at once accessible and achingly evocative of loss, betrayal and peril. She writes nursery rhymes and songs connected with games only to invert their innocence against a background of menace: playground bullying, sexual violence and intimidation. She interrogates the values of conservative, unsafe socialisation that so many children are subjected to even while writing love poems to her parents. This is such a heartfelt, unsettling, subversive and (understatedly) inventive book.

 

‘Doggerland’ closes with a moment of beautiful, nurturing intimacy as a father tucks his infant daughter into bed one night in ‘Ice House’:

 

‘In my winter bedroom, snow flowers
bloom on the frozen pane. Tonight’s
hot water bottle wrapped in drowsy dreams.

Matthew Mark Luke and John
Bless the bed that I sleep on

Dad covers me with his khaki greatcoat
to keep me warm. Medals unpinned. Three
cold stars from India, Africa, Italy.

The Empire Medal and all the others
dropped in a drawer with rusty nails,
twisted screws, broken files.

Good night. Sleep tight.
Mind the bugs don’t bite!

 

Pacey is so successful in praising domestic love, kindness and graciousness without ever becoming cliched or overly sentimental. This is such difficult subject matter to get right, to view the ‘ordinary’ through a prism of the ‘extraordinary’, and write a poetics of love and bliss where there is no obvious complication to drive the narrative forward. Pacey excels because of her startling imagism, humour and subtle juxtapositions. So, ‘Glimpse’, reads:

 

‘Lace nets my seven-year-old face
A quick genuflect & blessing

my veil lifts
someone takes my photograph

I watch a sparrow off to the side
about to take flight

or my future
a heavy suitcase packed

with the weight of every soft,
precious thing’

But, outside the security of home, there is always danger. So, ‘Disney Princess’ reads:

‘She’s scent stoppered in a glass bottle trapped
No magic tonight
Painted, polished
A present – gift-wrapped
She’s scent stoppered in a glass bottle trapped

He’s tracksuit and trainers
Fists clenched
Waiting to put out her light
She’s scent stoppered in a glass bottle trapped
No magic tonight’

 

The clever use of repetition here, and the juxtaposition of innocence with threatened menace, is unforgettable. But, of course, this poem is not only the dramatization of vulnerability, it is also a searing interrogation of the politics of gender, a brutal reminder of just how much violence against women is committed by men. Pacey continues this examination of the violence committed by some adults against children in the poem ‘He Can Dance and/He Can Sing’. Here she responds to an horrific incident of true-life crime through the ‘Hansel and Gretel’ bedtime story.

 

‘The scent of her like my sister
soft eyes like my sister
sweet smile like my sister
Would you like some jam and bread?
She takes me by the hand
like my sister
Leads me to her door
sits me at her table
Here’s your jam and bread
Eyes hard like marbles
not like my sister
Two slabs of bread
no butter
jam dripping
like blood
I feel sick
Eat your jam and bread
Her voice cold
Smile all gone
not like my sister
She goes into the kitchen
I leave her jam and bread
creep to the window
lift the sash
Slip through the gap
She grabs my ankle
I wriggle, wriggle
kick, kick
free
dancing
singing
home for tea
Come back Come back
I did not eat your jam and bread
If I did
I would be dead’

 

Just like in the original fairy tale collected by Brothers Grimm, Pacey employs fantastical elements and an almost tragicomedy mood to veil the horror that she is reimagining. This is a strategy that Pacey effectively uses throughout ‘Doggerland’ when dealing with difficult subject matter.

 

There is a lot of Carol Ann Duffy in Pacey: in the way both poets (as forthright feminists) respond to socio-cultural mores from the north of the UK; their use of nursery rhyme and bedtime story in scrutinising the complexities of love, loss and betrayal; the role that memory plays in both praising and interrogating scenes from the past; their feel for idiom and the broken-goodness of everyday contemporary life; but, most of all, in the magnificent, grounded and heartfelt poetry that both have produced. Pacey deserves to be much more widely read and celebrated in both Australia (where she has lived for most of her adult life) and the UK (where she grew up). Her poetry is humane, rewardingly accessible, and poignantly unforgettable.