A review of The Hour of Silvered Mullet by Jean Kent

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

The Hour of Silvered Mullet
By Jean Kent
Pitt Street Poetry
ISBN: 9781922080448, Paperback, A$28.00, 2015

There is something intensely quiet about the poetry in The Hour of Silvered Mullet. It’s not that work isn’t rich with sound, motion, visual imagery and texture. The Hour of Silvered Mullet takes the reader through all the senses, including a welter of sounds, but the work has such a strong interiority: as if all sound were perceived and filtered from inside a chamber of utmost silence. Memory and absence are as prevalent in these pieces as the more immediate present tense stories that are being told. This work is so rich in flora and fauna, that the human becomes an interloper. Everywhere there is birdlife, flowers, trees, a natural canopy that plays against the observation and longing of a narrative perspective that is ghostly.

This work is Ecopoetry at its most astute—where nature is primary, and human perception becomes transfigured by the encounter. All or nearly all of the poetry is set in The Hunter Valley, NSW (Australia), and many poems revisit the same places from different perspectives, different stories, and different times of day, life, emotional contexts. This not only unites the work with its repetition of image, sound, flora and fauna, but also has a cumulative effect, with each poem referencing, reinforcing, and sometimes challenging the poems that came first. The work builds memory in the reader, which changes the way in which each poem is perceived, as we too, are transformed by these encounters.

The book is divided into four sections. The titles are directly relevant to the work that follows, with “Old Haunts” taking us into the world of spaces remembered—past pulled into present by some sensual indicator or trigger. Like Marcel Proust’s Madeleines, it’s the scent of Frangipani flower that evokes a moment in a childhood garden: “Sly frangipani breath, sweet memory snuff—/out of nowhere, how brief grace unfolds (“The Scent of Native Frangipani”).  Past becomes present as day becomes night in this involuntary, but not unwelcome memory.

Other poems in this section work in similar ways as they move past childhood tennis courts, school classes, a youthful friendship, an aunt’s once working farm, a town no longer home. The work is bucolic, but always edged with the dark beauty of death, since these places no longer exist. Death remains a constant force that underlies the heady chaos of the natural life that is present through the detail of this work. Kent uses repetition of sensual imagery, natural sceneries, tight rhythms, alliteration, and intense detail to conjure a past that is beyond reach, and explored like a ghost:

But here it is. A hijacker of the heart,
halting me. Like one lonely cloud, grown huge with the heat
of memories. I hover here—my shadow billowing over the town
and away   a dark, prickly pocketed coat
I will be forever growing into. (“Old Haunts”)

The second section, titled “Wombat Town” is full of whimsy, though no less psychologically introspective or intense because of it. It’s here that we first meet Morag, a girl who imagines that she is flying with tawny frogmouths – a bird that reappears throughout this work like a leitmotif, though there are many birds and animals that come back in different guises. Morag is an explorer, finding herself, her family lineage, and her own growing sensuality in this dream-like night flight:

and as Morag shelters them under guardian angel wings,
dreams are escaping from the houses like films
she flies through, stains of other people’s lives
settling briefly on her skin…(“Morag and the Tawny Frogmouths”)

We find Morag again in a later poem, through her grandmother, at the border between life and death. It’s here where the silver mullet first appears, glimpsed briefly as it appears above the lake. It’s a delicate transformation moving with the fluidity of the mullet itself – a metaphor for inspiration, for meaning, and perhaps also for the way poetry is created from seeing: “and out of the grasp of dusk, sly as the dull mullet/struck silver in mid-air, together they are hooked (“Morag’s Grandmother Goes Fishing”).

The final sequence in this section is gently satirical, full of the vernacular of “Wombat Town”, a small town anywhere where a broken engagement becomes the only conversation topic, feeding the self-immolation of stereotype: “and back they went to their bliss, buying Disposable Nappies,/waiting for Him to come home drunk.” (“The Broken Engagement”). Gayleen, the subject of the broken engagement, awakens into herself, a “wombat with wings”, en route to Sydney where she will be “fragile as a fly/in the swatting crowd—but high on possibility”.

The section “Interruptions to Reading Poetry” builds on the earlier transformation theme. Sometimes the turning, which Kent handles masterfully, comes out of nowhere, shifting the scene while the reader is lulled by the prettiness of the surroundings. Sometimes it’s the opposite, as with “A Luminous Tortoise near Muswellbrook”, where the toxicity of the environment, open cut mines and toxic waste, are transformed by a tortoise who is unlikely to survive its kamikaze road crossing:

As now I try to believe it’s still there, too—that chug in the mind
of muscles and unpromising shell,
that wave in the void like a poem
sticking its neck out:

this tortoise, luminous in my rear-vision lake.

As you might expect in this section, much of the poetry is meta-poetic, referencing the poetry making process in one way or another, though Kent is never heavy-handed. “Poem with Ragged Edges” is a journey of creation, but also deep-seated loss, fear, love, all bundled between the actual raggedness of the poem’s lines against the “chainsaw rips” of galahs:

and the poem I cannot finish
flaps from the page, at home in the dishwater day
with its torn feathers and strained bones,
its fallen muddles of blush and ash …

The title piece for this section plays off other work: David Malouf’s “Wild Lemons” and Charles Wright’s “A Short History of the Shadow”. This play creates a tension between the interrupted act of reading, and the necessary job of dealing with a poisoned rat at the doorstep or a ringing phone. The connection between the external referent, whose traces echo throughout the activity, the activity itself (sweeping away the rat, or answering the phone) and the creation of the new poem which the reader is reading is complex and powerful. The simultaneity itself becomes the meaning – the way we carry our ghosts, our thoughts, our desires into each moment of action:

It is in the middle of what I am carrying out of the house from my book –

wild lemons, a place in Tuscany, the body receiving
transfigured text …
Under a sky of singing blue
it is in the middle of its death
and will not
be transfigured.

The final section, “The Place of Silvered Mullet” provides us with the title of the book. This section feels a bit epic, like the wanderings of a Ulysses of suburbia, even as it moves in closer to the precision of the domestic. This is a section that has “no ephiphanies” (or many): listening to a car radio (Poetica no less), reading by a lamp, taking in the groceries, looking at the purple flowers of a jacaranda or the white stamens of Angophora, or observing a stranger walking down the street holding a bouquet of home-grown flowers. This section is particularly rich with scent: warm earth, lavender, myrtle, sweet peas, jasmine, lily of the valley, scarlet runners, frangipani, and eucalyptus: “Scent/comes out of nowhere—a wave of warmth/under out-of-sight flotillas of blossom” (“In the Hour of Silvered Mullet”).  Each scent, each bird, each moment as we move along Lake Macquarie on this single ordinary and yet epic day, seems to conjure the poems that preceded this final piece, drawing in these images to a single and powerful return, to, perhaps, a kind of Ithaca:

Before the last cloud, discreet as an usher,
can muff its torch, hope gusts us home.

This is a beautiful collection delicately presented and dense in meaning. Kent’s use of language is both subtle and masterful, her words converting the everyday into the extraordinary. The Hour of Silvered Mullet is an important work of poetry: transcendent, powerful, and delightful all at once.