A review of Everyday Epic by Anna Kerdijk Nicholson

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Everyday Epic
By Anna Kerdijk Nicholson
Puncher & Wattmann
ISBN: 9781922186775, Paperback, 2015, $25aud

Anna Kerdijk Nicholson’s poetry is careful, almost sparse at times and laser sharp in its precision, as the work condenses into the denouement of each poem. The tighter the language gets, the more the poems demonstrate what language is capable of: “splitting/in its own way, light”. The eight sections cover a lot of ground, moving through time and space, from the domestic to the political, ekphrasis, self-reflection, and meta-poetry, modern travels to historical expeditions. The work blurs the distinctions between these things, so that the epic becomes small and private, while a domestic and private scene, say, of grief, becomes epic and universal:

I thought I saw church bells
But I heard them in your eyes
So I pour out the milk
green on the crusted brown
which you don’t drink
and lay the wood
watching the boated raisins
settle round their pips. (“Funeral Pyre”)

Though many of the poems work around the ordinary and familiar: the point of loss, a moment in the garden, a taste of salad in the kitchen, or the shock of discovering someone or something in oneself, they open outwards, pushing aside memory and creating meaning that requires no referent:

Of course, there is nothing more
To be said – as they say – now
I walk inside your ribs (“Although,”)

A number of the poems focus on photography collections, like Ruth Orkin’s portraits or Yosuke Yamahata’s Nagasaki photos. The Yamahata piece combines prose and Haiku to create a recursiveness where the exhibition becomes the lens through which we experience Yamahata’s creative process as well as the horror of what he sees with his ow lens. The whole poem is done with a very light touch, and yet this mingling of Japanese forms and English prose is intensely moving, perfectly capturing loss in what is found:

Little wooden hut,
Rice bowls melted together:
No one to cook soup (“On the Exhibition of Yosuke Yamahata’s 119 Photographs of Nagasaki”)

Other poems reference paintings: some well known such as Rembrandt’s The Polish Rider and some less well known such as the unnamed Sketch & Oil at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. These poems don’t only refer to the images in the painting, but also explore different aspects of art itself: colour, ink, texture, the relationship between subject, artist and viewer, and the context in which a work is viewed. Always we’re reminded that we’re in the realm of words and not paint, as we move in and out of the frame and its perspective:

Back here, bees throb on purple
Thumb-knuckle grasshoppers
Stitch herringbones, fall quiet
In this landscape
Idea and picture compound.
To steal one damages the other—

As in trying to get sand
back from glass (“What Landscape is Telling”)

This last line harks back to the first poem in the collection, “Preface”, which talks of how poetry “grinds down/a sum of parts/to atoms”.

The final section of the book contains a series of linked poems under the heading of “The Factitious Tragedy of Burke & Wills”.  The Burke & Wills expedition is often romanticised, but Kerdjik Nicholson’s version depicts this story is very non-romantic way that subverts the epic nature of it, complete with B&W’s overt colonialism and racism, the killing and eating of their own camels, extensive in-house fighting, scurvy, starvation, and ultimately death:

loathsomeness, vileness, horror –
is about me, it is me, it’s us.
(“the heavens call out to us each day in their gutterals”)

The nature of identity is a recurring theme here, not only in the Burke & Wills section, but throughout the book, as Kerdijk Nicholson explores what it means to be a refugee, a survivor, to lose everything, to be subsumed, to be rejected, but also to find something new in these often strange words, in these stories, and in the sounds that move, silently, past language:

No song, no, say nothing
We language our withouts (“The Gubba Effect”)

Kerdijk Nicholson’s poems are not difficult to read: they flow in straightforward rhythms, and take on familiar landscapes and territories, but the poems in Everyday Epic are much more complex then they seem at first glance. It is through the everyday moments of such universal elements as love, grief, work, that we find the epic, and in those old stories of conquest and domination, where we find our most shameful and least ‘epic’ natures. This is powerful and moving work that becomes richer and more startling with each re-reading.