Michelle Dicinoski: Electricity for Beginners

Melbourne: Clouds of Magellan, 2011, 50pp.

This book, together with Anthony Lynch’s excellent Night Train, comes from an imprint that I haven’t previously been familiar with but if someone new is entering poetry publishing in Australia then I wish them nothing but success. Both of them are first books and there is a lot to like about each, especially Electricity for Beginners which is likely to attract words like “charming”, “lively”, even, heaven forbid, “sparky”. In a sense they are all accurate: it must be one of the nicest of debut volumes and includes poems about youth, love, rural upbringing, urban young-adult life (Melbourne and Brisbane). But you would want to avoid being patronising. These poems are as tough-minded and intelligent as they are sensitive and winning. And the book itself is so tightly organised that it’s a moot point how best to open up a way of describing it. I’ll start by talking briefly about two extended “set piece” poems, “The City Gauge” and the significantly titled “Intimate not Monumental”. The former is set in a wooden house in Brisbane during the recent flood. As the waters rise at night, the poet and her partner are progressively cut off and, like everybody in that situation, pile their belongings ever higher to escape the rising waters:

.  . . . .
Why does the darkness make voices more likely
to win or break our hearts?

Soon it will be dawn, soon it will be
weirdly beautiful - the water a foot from the floorboards,
high-set verandahs kissing their reflections,
six-foot fences vanquished - and soon we'll realise
          we're trapped.

But for now, it's night, and there's just
the torchlight, and the radio voices
and the raising things up, the lifting that is like belief:
the best we can do
          but never high enough.

It is such a pregnant and suggestive experience that it is almost a kind of shell situation for a poet. As a result, it’s a poem type where a lot of themes, attitudes and interests are revealled, both conscious and unconscious. In Dicinoski’s version the piles of precious objects become “telling storeys of desire”, the loss of electricity to the house is balanced by an internal lighting up as “our nerves turn electric with news from the west” and the isolated being is not a poet driven to solipsism but a couple: this, like most of the poems in Electricity for Beginners, is, at heart, a poem of “we”. And speaking of “we”, this might be the right time to bring up this book’s exellent cover design. Covers of books of poetry (like football referees) are usually in what is called a “fail only” situation: if the cover is good we don’t notice it, if it is twee or inappropriate we do notice it. The cover of Electricity for Beginners has a wonderful photograph of two little girls in wellington boots, holding hands and standing on an insulated mat. The girl on the left has her other hand on a Wimshurst machine and the static electricity passing down and between the girls is starting to make their hair stand on end. It’s a perfect image for the book although it leads me to think that I should be able to answer the question, “Which of the two girls represents the poet?”

If  “The City Gauge” responds to a situation experienced by many at different times, “Intimate not Monumental”, certainly the most striking poem in the book, responds to one of those once-in-a-lifetime pieces of magic that the universe can grant us. The poet and partner are standing on the fourth storey of a city carpark looking down at a crowd watching a band. A girl throws confetti and the body heat of the crowd is enough to suspend the confetti in space:

. . . . . 
I know some things about gravity,
I know some things about bodies and heat
but I don't know this -
the confetti doesn't fall, but floats in space
in the air just beyond us.
Lit by streetlights or some
internal spark it's a star cluster
a confetti constellation
that hangs together for long fat seconds.
The crowd below points up
as we point down and grin
at this simple wonder, this one fixed thing:
a careless paper galaxy
a monumental fling.

There are some interesting connections and oppositions here. The crowd and the couple are separate with the galactic confetti floating between. The confetti, lit up as though by electricity, defies gravity but so, symbolically, do the couple. The body heat of the crowd is different to the body heat of the couple – and so on. Most important is the title which reminds us that this is a poem about love and people rather than about moments when the cosmos reveals itself. The book’s first poem, “Arterial”, focusses on the lover/world opposition. At night, in a Brisbane wooden house, everything moves either in response to the individual’s heartbeats, the settling of the house on the stumps, the vibrations of sex in a neighbouring room or even the vibrations of the “midnight trucks / that speed west two streets away”. The poet forms a kind of single self with her partner (it makes you think of the Symposium):

Beside me you sleep
moving only your breath, your blood,
your fierce heart. Beside me you sleep
as the dark house shifts around us.

Again, outer and inner electricities are invoked, as they are in “The City Gauge” and these consistent oppositions form the fabric of both the book and the poems. “Rounds” wouldn’t make much sense, or would at best seem superficial, if it wasn’t seen in the light of the other poems of the book. Poet and partner – “trivia savants” – earnestly “talk shit like it matters”. The list of facts moves towards “elite archers shoot between heartbeats” before the band strikes up and “we form a rowdy chorus / of toora loo rye, toora loo rye ayes”. The point is, I presume, that poet and partner inhabit a world of isolated intimacy (as they do in “The City Gauge”) as well as the raucously, crudely electric social world. In “the Heart of a Comet is Blacker than Tar” it is the people gathered to watch the comet, rather than the comet itself which interest the poet. Rather than being a messenger of the gods the comet’s splendours are merely reflections.

There are poems in which Dicinoski is shorn of her partner. Most of these involve earlier, life in rural Queensland and include “Turf” in which poet, brother, father and mother steal turf for their garden from a golf course on the coast. It’s a comic narrative but begins with a comment about her genetic inheritance, “Like my olive skin and my ring finger’s kink, / I got a knack for crazy schemes from him”. But the self at the heart of most of these poems is a double self, a tribute to love. It’s hard to forget “Prayer Flags” in which the “dafter butterflies” (a very beautiful adjective) mistake the flags for flowers while both the partner’s flags and the poet’s “tea-towels and undies” on the washing line are “a prayer and a flag”. And there is also “The Live Arts”, the book’s final poem, which recalls the great 1893 flood while describing the partner’s breathing

crazy but true, it sounds
               like anew, anew, anew
as though you're exhaling code
or gospel. . . .

There is so much to admire in Electricity for Beginners. It does that urban canniness well but is never mere gesture. The poems have their own complex understanding of their creator’s inner life and the oppositions that it is sensitive to are complex and generative. And finally, as all readers and reviewers of the book will recognise, they are full of that electricity that comes from the genuine as opposed to the posed or self-regarding. In a sense the heat might come somewhat from the compression of the focus. There are no poems here that are not wired in to personal experience: no poems about world events, no poems inspired by wide reading or even second and third hand anecdotes. In many ways that’s good: we’re spared lectures about the author’s understanding of public matters, for example. The important question is where Dicinoski might go next, because at some point, most of us feel, a good poet has to leave the known for the imaginatively apprehended.