A review of Know Your Country by Kerri Shying

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Know Your Country
By Kerri Shying
Puncher and Wattmann
ISBN: 9781925780765, 70 pages, 1st November 2020

Kerri Shying is the funniest, sharpest writer I know. Their poetry is sometimes acerbic, sometimes hysterically funny, and always spot on, getting right to the beating heart of  matter in the most unique, refreshing way.  Know Your Country features poems just a bit longer than Shying’s trademark “Elevensies” that featured in the 2018 book of the same name and the 2019 book Knitting Mangrove Roots. What hasn’t changed is the way Shying uses space and structure to create meaning in the work.  Space does the work of punctuation in these poems, but also force the reader to slow down, encouraging breath and reflection to weave its way in and out of the work:

my fault    my loss     a million cracks that lead to country towns 
and saloon bars (“in my skin”)

As the title suggests, these are poems of reckoning.  Shying pulls no punches. These are lines you want to memorise in order to use them again:

assimilation
is the kind of turd who smacks you in the mouth 
then says
get up     you’re bleeding on the carpet (“in my skin”)

Shying’s voice is so strong throughout the work, managing a perfect line between complexity and earthy accessibility. Shying never puts on airs, using words with absolute precision. The work has many themes and encompasses several, often competing realities. The most prevalent one pivots around the notion of identity. One’s country is not just the place you live or come from, but also its history, and what it has come to represent. It is not just nationhood, but the earth beneath your feet, the flora, and fauna, the space of the heart.  To know Country is also to understand the spiritual connection and obligations to the landscape and to one’s ancestors:

fat tuber dull and heavy arsed    I’m plenty
I am planting for the green tomorrow

deep roots manured surpassing 
tree (“know your country”)

The work has an expansive quality, encompassing everyday betrayals, pain, joy, and a growing awareness of the connectedness of us all. This comes through a prism where the small and the domestic become points of transcendence, whether a tiny snail, a Currawong, a simple meal, or memory-laden knick-knack in the kitchen:

every day I
hold out
pod memories       peas
into enamel dishes (“the fairy bread of daytime”)

These items don’t so much conjure as transform through mindful reverence:

don’t go large    be small    be just the one thing 
go ahead and do     the one thing    now (“fractions”)

Though Know Your Country is pithy and dark at times, it is also desperately funny, as in “air freight”, a meditation on packing air pillows: 

I have a box of air now in my shed    it is the
air of All Nations it is sequestered    it leaks through
my dreams  it is the leading edge of the cloud that brings
the stormtroopers of the New World Order  I rub my eyes
I cannot breathe and still it comes
the air

Or an exploration of fame that conflates social media, memes, drug addiction, and the animal kingdom:

a lot of upkeep on the shells
global warming   yes

it is a snail issue
thank you very much    snail-ist bitch

fame is not a trait of birds 
maybe the cassowary (“famous birds and snails”)

Though the work is often exquisitely beautiful, between the beauty and the humour, there is Duḥkha, suffering that comes with pain, abuse, and oppression in the form of malevolence from the past—the crime lord, the stalker, the abandoner. This character is both a particular person, and a force that takes the form of colonialism, illness, and toxic masculinity:

you have to blood them
there is that tiny bit of drama

the half-centimetre 
of knife-steel exposed

yes
like you are going to run me through (“collector”)

This edge of violence glistens below the surface of everyday objects and Shying doesn’t sugar coat it. Their metaphors are precise enough to invoke the shivers, comparing PTSD to the pain of childbirth, the distance in time and space thinning like a cervix: 

it can’t be you      this fear surrounding every move each 
eye blink   rethought   no fingers reach from

cold graves    hot fires alone at night 
night just me (“PTSD”)

In spite of the pain and loss, there is love in many different permeations, woven like a safety net throughout the work, lifting, supporting, healing.  Survival itself is a celebration, as are the snails and plants in the garden, a moment in the sunlight on the back porch after rain, or the intense joy of motherhood: 

when you were born my son    I
sneaked in to kiss    again    I was a mother    nobody 

could remove that     you glowed    it seemed to me
the key (“unlock”) 

Know Your Country is also a key, a directive, a way out from the morass we find ourselves in.  Country is a word that means so many things, from the earth itself with its green rhizomes, to a people/tribe, language, and the way in which we are all connected, from the “crutch/of the blue sky” to all that is small “in thrall”. Know Your Country is a superb collection.

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