Page Seventeen, 2010
Reviewed by Derek Motion
I often have to catch the bus out to the university, and from the stop near my house the journey takes around 15 minutes. This parcel of time is – if you get straight on to the task and don’t waste any time looking out the window or at other people on the bus – large enough to allow you to read through a small chapbook of poems, a book such as Tiggy Johnson’s First Taste. Accordingly I have used this bus trip to read First Taste through a number of times. It seems a suitable way to read the collection – you read all the way through without stopping, then you put the book in your bag and walk to the building where you work, the poems still working in your head. Later in the day, when your mind is tired, you nevertheless get back on the bus and open the book again.
There is a definite narrative arc underpinning this collection, one that encourages the ‘full read’. Johnson’s seventeen poems take you from her early memories, through romance, to family and children (particularly childbirth), and finish with musings on death. The arc is particularly easy to grasp – indeed the cover image of the poet as a young girl encourages you to read this way. But it’s not because of this arc that the book is readable and fulfilling. In lesser hands a collection spanning childhood to adulthood could easily become pedestrian. I felt real delight sharing some of the poet’s experiences via this book. It’s probably because I didn’t feel as though deep poignancy or wisdom were the key things on offer – if there are any lessons about life within this book they are not simple and satisfying, not sermonic titbits that you’ll repeat in your mind with a contented smile after reading (possibly reclining in a rocking chair). We bumble along through life just like these poems, wallowing in tastes and experiences often because the mud just feels really good. We are unsatisfied and unsure. In the titular and opening poem you find a couple who:
with decisions over
chocolate or caramel
docked dry fruit in port
before baking the proverbial
Obviously the etching of a relationship and the subsequent decision to start a family are key elements of this poem. But what stays with you – and must stay with the poet – is the food. This writing makes you want to eat things, to go home and seek out a recipe for a triple chocolate cheesecake, to celebrate things with ‘premium ice-cream / swimming in chilled muscat’. It makes sense to write a poem that foregrounds these deliciously sensory images. On the rare occasions when I am preparing a meal for myself only, I don’t go to much effort. Toast is always at hand. But when I prepare meals for my family I plan and try to achieve more. There is a shared experience on offer, a communal eating experience that can be enhanced with really good food. Johnson offers us this social aspect of her life with the opening poem. It’s a great beginning, and it’s easy to see why all of the blurb writers have chosen to mention the taste of ‘butterscotch sauce’, a taste that in the first stanza ‘pierces the heart’ of both poet and reader.
However the decision about having children seems to function as a segue here, one that leads to poetry about the poet’s own childhood. Recently I happened upon a Youtube clip of a song by Big Star, the song ‘13’ (it was a cover version by Elliot Smith that I watched first however). I found it interesting how childhood was rendered in this song. There’s nothing particularly wistful about the lyrics, in fact they are quite plain: ‘Won’t you let me walk you home from school? / Won’t you let me meet you at the pool? / Maybe Friday I can / Get tickets for the dance / And I’ll take you.’ But nevertheless the song is sad, poignant, nostalgic. A lot of this is to do with the vocal delivery – articulating the words in a way that suggests that time of being 13, those dramatic concerns that were so lovely and innocent, and allowing and encouraging the audience to compare it with now. Is it harder to do though when you are a poet, when your words must do the work on the page for you?
Now, you try to communicate your nostalgia to others who don’t care. Implicit (or is it?) in the poem ‘Coburg High’ is the fact that the ‘kids’ in question won’t be too interested in the house you used to live in. They have their own, more pressing concerns, and live in the present. Wallowing in times past is for adults. Johnson knows this, places the whole exercise (the potential pulling off the road to look at her former high school) as a ‘retreat’, even while it doesn’t stop her going through with the act via the poem. Things are listed that are very particular to her life (we assume) and at least some measure of Big Star poignancy is gained. Some of the incidents identified are overly personal, meaning I can’t quite go there with the poet (‘walking up Bell Street with Mark Garnham’ is an interesting example) but I don’t care too much, because I feel for the poet and her plight. As I am to find with the rest of this book, Johnson is very good at creating a specific mood. A few years back I considered getting off the highway to drive past the house I lived in as a 6 year old, a house in Werribee. The GPS was saying it would only add five minutes to our journey. But I didn’t do it, and furthermore, I didn’t even voice the idea to my wife and kids. After a long day on the road and still with a couple of hours to go to reach our destination, I just assumed the visit would have been deemed silly. But then as I drove I thought about that house, for a long while. I, for one, would be interested in seeing the house Tiggy grew up in. Maybe I could show my kids too – force them to be interested.
And everything about this book is preparing the reader for the kids. The poems dealing with memories of childhood are all about positioning the poet and reader as child again, forcing you to consider the world from that viewpoint. As a poet, when I undertake this sort of writing, I hope that some of the childlike insouciance can be regained, while avoiding the sentimentality. It’s hard though. In her list poem ‘I remember’ Johnson continues compiling images of childhood and place, before finally admitting: ‘I don’t remember / ever missing it’. It’s the place she once lived, but also the innocent point of view, the living in the now. Now, we miss it.
I know Tiggy – we’ve met and talked on a few occasions – and though I don’t know her closely, I think I do know her as someone you might call ‘straight-talking’ (as poet, blurb-writer, and AAMI television commercial extra Nathan Curnow does), someone who enjoys living, doing, and experiencing, and of course writing about these things without embarrassment. This comes across in her poems about ‘adult’ life too, and so there is an authenticity here, something that suggests she hasn’t lost all of that special something-or-other that makes childhood, well, special. Even as she goes on to suffer the unavoidable discomforts of pregnancy. In ‘Week sixteen’ the poet really hopes there’s something medically wrong,
so I might be treated, fixed, returned to normal
in just a fraction of the five months
I otherwise face
But of course there’s nothing wrong. It’s just another individual living inside her stomach, causing the unrest. We sometimes have a perverse desire to be told there is something wrong, because of course then it can be fixed. Troubling things that can’t be fixed are troubling. When my daughter falls over and gets a mild bruise a bandaid will take the trouble away, despite the fact that there is no medical need for the bandaid (I’ve tried explaining this to her). Some poetry simultaneously suggests the chaos that is un-orderable, fixable, while fixing this (at least a little, even if in a placebo way) with poem-ness. It gives us a measure of comfort.
Johnson devotes quite a lot of the space in this book to pregnancy, and children, and as a male reader it’s something I liked. At the time of writing this my wife is pregnant (our child due in about five weeks) and so although I am able to observe and hear about what it is like, first hand, there’s something extra that this poetry offers me. It’s a real sense of being inside the experience. Poems such as ‘It’s like…’ and ‘The Facts’ submerge you fully in the experiences of morning sickness and giving birth. There’s a matter-of-fact delivery in these poems (devoid of artificial after-the-fact sentimentality) that is both funny and real:
whispering to your husband
you were sure the baby
was going to come out of your arse
only to discover later
there is no such thing
as a woman in labour
But I liked the foci of the book, and not only because these poems enabled me to become a woman giving birth (although perhaps this is reason enough?), the poetry is organised well, leading the reader quite naturally from one thematic concern to another. The move from giving birth to a poem about a stillborn niece is moving – our own worries about the demands of parenting become petty when faced with this image of a father, a man constantly trying not to imagine what his daughter’s milestones would have been like (birthday parties, Christmases) had she lived. There is life and there is death. There is food and there is poetry.
‘Concluding’ brings all these things together. A visit to the hospital and the poem is directed straight at the patient:
I focus on the baby
who’s too young to form a single lasting image
but old enough to visit a stranger’s ward
or to pull at one of the cords affording you life.
The cupcakes presented will not be touched, but the ‘stories of our recent times’ are all that is needed at this point. I assume – based on the final short poem ‘Dear Dad’ – that ‘Concluding’ is a poem for the poet’s father. We don’t need to know exactly how his story concludes, because the idea of family is what is presented. Family lingers with us in a peculiarly unanswerable way. The links and ties and repetitions provoke us to think, to question, to write, but we rarely come up with anything definitive. The closest we can get is an acceptance of the story, the recurring motifs. Memories of childhood; anticipation and rumination on ageing. The patterns of child-rearing and habitation. You sink into these ideas in a sensory way, much in the same way as you revel in the comfort of a trusted food.
If I have any criticisms they are minor and as follows. Firstly, the poem ‘Us’ left me worried that I was excluded from some of the depth of meaning, simply because as a reader I am not one of the two people isolated by the term and focus of the word ‘us’. But then the piece does fit in with the arrangement, and there are connections between this poem and others in the book. Secondly, a couple of the later poems disrupt the book’s flow a little (there are two prose poems and two that borrow language from a context of women’s fashion). But then on reflection I also came see these pieces as ‘veers’: the prose form a stylistic deviation that suits the emotional clutter of the poems, and the tangential forays into advertising language a reflection of the way other vital themes arise in the book. So overall any concerns I had with this collection faded quickly, and I just ‘liked’.
There is a lot to like about Tiggy Johnson’s First Taste. The lineation and formal construction of individual poems promotes readability, and the personal voice the poet has created is consistently foregrounded. As I mentioned previously, the poetry stays with you. This is strong work. I recommend you obtain First Taste, and have a read.