Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
By Maggie Walsh
Vagabond Press | Indigenous Australian Writing
ISBN 978-1-922181-83-1, May 2016
Light and hope seems to play like a continual refrain through Maggie Walsh’s Sunset. Though these are poems that reflect the hardship and suffering that Walsh has experienced, they are never dark; never dour. Always there is an appreciation of natural beauty, and a kind of joyousness as a response against the grief that goes with being separated from home and family, and of facing overt racism. Walsh’s identity as a Bwcolgamon woman is an important part of these poems and becomes a grounding force through them. The vernacular and rhythms of everyday language are strong: “The ants told me big rain comin’”, and the poems are sensually charged by a sense of place: the sound of kookaburras and tree frogs, the warmth of the sun, a gold and pink sky, or the feel of sand beneath the feet.
The poems that make up Sunset are not complex poems. Most of them are written in a simple style, many as ballads with regular end rhymes and repetition. The imagery is very crisp, mostly situated around the natural world. No matter how regular the rhythms, Walsh’s poems have a very light touch, at time creating a Haiku-like or imagist feel allowing the images to function in the place of meaning – becoming their denouement, untranslatable:
The petals are slowly dying
The colours are fading
One by one
The petals start to fall
Until there is nothing
Nothing at all (“Petals”)
Walsh uses the page beautifully, allowing white space to do its work, and in concrete poems where the visual impression and structure of the words is as important as the meaning they hold.
The lack of anger or defiance in these poems is striking, despite the oppression and loss they speak of. The impact is all the stronger for allowing the reader to bring his or her own anger as we see an eight year old beaten for not standing straight, crying for a missing mother, being made fun of at school for not wearing the right clothing, or sitting alone in a gaol cell.
Some of the poems explore the power of language and story to heal through reflection and revision. In “A Tapestry of Words”, Walsh explores the way stories come from a collective space, unbidden and cathartic: “I rewind in my consciousness/time and time again”. Other poems are funny, turning on a little surprise revelation at the end: the cockroach bomb, a frog blocking the path, the pleasure of the old familiar bed treated as if it were a loved person, an instant feed, or those little questions that pop up in your head while you’re waiting: “Just saying”. The poems explore a wide range of iconic aspects of Australian life, from cooking damper by the billy, jumping off a jetty, or hanging sheets to dry on a wire. The poems are full of the sights, sounds, and scents of a lost childhood that infuses the work with nostalgia that is always welcome, even when the poems are dark, exploring poker addiction, the limitations of small towns, or not having enough money for even an ice cream (the irony of giving away the last five cents: “ah not ay.”)
Sunset is a delightful book, full of immediacy, instant pleasure, tolerance and comfort even amidst the worst of human limitations – prejudice, removing children from their parents, violence and addiction, or for all that has been lost – the past, home, family. This is a book of healing, of love. Like the memories in “Jetty”, this is a book that will leave the reader “smiin’”.