Reviewed by Beatriz Copello
Reading Alchemy by Fiona Perry is a literary adventure, where the reader enters different worlds, worlds coloured by the creative spirit of the writer. Perry’s poetry describes life at its best and its worst. Fantasy and myths, illustrated with voluptuous imagery, takes the reader into a magical journey of events, feelings and dreams. Perry’s eloquence and creativity are evident in this exuberant collection.
Some of the poems in this collection require more than one reading as they are like a Roschach Inkblot Test, or perhaps like a mirror where the reader projects their own subconscious beliefs and leanings.
Women’s issues make an appearance in this kaleidoscope of words like in this extract from “The Jesus Woman”
The first day she was arrested
for having a backstreet abortion.
The second day she was beaten by villagers
for accusing a pillar of the community of rape.
The third day she was charged with being a woman
and given twenty-five years bin a Magdalene laundry.
The fourth day she was sent to an asylum
for admitting she wasn’t cut out to be a mother.
The fifth day lasted for four years
while she worked as a comfort woman
constantly within the grasp of soldiers.
The sixth day she told her abusive father,
‘I am the light of the world.
I am the one who brings into being.’
Many poems have nostalgic tinges, adorned with very rich imagery and poignant words; others have very vivid descriptions, like the following from “Panthera”.
Laughably they said
you are a cat but
caged in plain sight
your crow-coloured pelt
tells five-year-old me that you
are shadow incarnate.
pace, posture and rehearse
the hoisting of
carcasses into trees,
refuting the futility
of your instincts
Perry ponders, reflects and narrates, on many aspects of life sometimes on family issues others on love affairs or on doomed relationships. The poet has the ability to bring emotions to her poems without being melodramatic, the following poem is a good example of this mentioned skill:
Without trying, she interfered with
the elaborate apparatus of my childish
convictions. She was a steady archer
taking aim in a forest, a hot
poultice scalding a wound.
She was not a Bride of Christ.
White bees never swarmed in her
new-born mouth as good omen ot
bad omen or no omen, depending
on your beliefs (or lack of them).
Her hair was spread over sateen
in her resting place. But sins
are driven into the soul like nails
into wood. They leave an indelible mark.
The tiny red insects crawling over
gravestones that they were bloodsuckers.
When I squashed them, the dead thanked me.
They sighed as if their itchy backs had been
scratched. I like to think her first confession
was effortless, that in as act of self-
veneration, she recounted her good deeds,
shocking the monsignor. She played
inside the half-built houses on our state,
that girl like us. I cannot remember her name
or the names of her heart-shattered family
but I recall it being said in women’s voices
soft as cashmere,
She was buried in her Communion dress.
The poet’s knowledge of different cultures is evident in some of her poems, we encounter clever and precise lines coloured by history. Symbolism also plays an important role in the work of Perry; she utilises innovative metaphors and other literary devices which add sophistication to her poetry. A fascinating poem is “Heroes”:
In the Americas they call us ape men
so I will not go there, instead take the Queen’s
shilling to stagger fog-blinded into war / to divine
enemy presence with a smoothbore musket /
supress a blazing rebellion incarnated as secret
signals encoded in lotus flowers / gouge out the
honeycombed chambers of a labyrinth fortress.
Still there remains, tight-fitting and impractical as a
military coat, my half imagining of redemption /
Gate Pã / men leaping from rifle pits as if catapulted
From the core of the earth / clatter of tomahawk
on to cutlass and bayonet / skulls cloven and
shoulders hatchet-bitten / in a blink / out of smoke /
chivalry / the Maori victors harmed not the wounded nor
interfered with the bodies of the dead / handed weapons
back to their injured owners / held cups to incredulous lips /
Are we all not Rangatira
proud to meet each other in the fray?
My hovel-sheltered family are a warning against sentiment /
they travel with me / bound to the 68th / no grievances
such as: these meagre rations insult us or
our newborns die of strange diseases
only gratitude as wide as a battlefield horizon /
we have escaped the immolation of famine
so I continue to carry out my oppressor’s bugled bidding /
morality is a luxury for the privileged
survivors cannot afford to be heroes.
Death, illness, sadness and nostalgia percolates in some of the poems in the collection. Perry also brings to the reader the postpartum experience, like an open wound the poet bleeds words of pain and transports us to that crucial moment when a woman gives birth, in “Postpartum” she writes:
You are naked as shucked oyster
so, my breasts are slashed and raining pearls
for you, my suckling child. The universe
has too many doors. A terrifying flower
unfurled overnight to tell me if they took
you away or carted you off to die
like pink tender veal, I would be prepared
to stand on my own mother’s shoulders
to push you back up to the surface, to stop
you from drowning – and she would want that
because she too must have discovered this feral
wisdom in the bloodied wake of birth. Everything
is unfastening around me, voluptuously, in ways
I cannot understand yet. For now, I must be patient
Occupy this hinterland and allow the stars to realign.
Whether the poems in this collection are about domestic life, an imaginary life, fantasy or reality they have been penned with elegance and precision. Even poems composed with short lines shine beauty and grace, like “Distillation”:
Now I have the puddle
wax of a thousand
blessed candles to burnt
in a kitchen shrine
your last upright
embrace cushioning me.
Comforts to conjure
no more sinewy
morphine cries or
of constant sorrow.
of the thing,
crystalline like the
scent of jasmine
tea buds unfurling,
in a cup.
Reading Alchemy will excite your imagination. You will travel in a magic carpet to the past and present, the vivid images in the poem will become a painting in your mind. I advise: read each poem a few times and you will, with each reading discover layers of beauty and humanity.
About the Reviewer: Dr Beatriz Copello is a former member of NSW Writers Centre Management Committee, she writes poetry, reviews, fiction and plays. The author’s poetry books are: Women Souls and Shadows, Meditations At the Edge of a Dream, Flowering Roots, Under the Gums Long Shade, and Lo Irrevocable del Halcon (In Spanish). Beatriz’s poetry has been published in literary journals such as Southerly and Australian Women’s Book Review and in many feminist publications. She has read her poetry at events organised by the Sydney Writers Festival, the NSW Writers Centre, the Multicultural Arts Alliance, Refugee Week Committee, Humboldt University (USA), Ubud (Bali) Writers Festival.