Poetry Shelf review: Joan Fleming’s Song of Less

Song of Less, Joan Fleming, Cordite Books, 2022

What does it mean to continue? Grandmother says that now is the time to ask ourselves what we are, other than ourselves. A piece. This is a moment mad for understanding. The body is a fence but it is also a wave and a thread in a fabric.

from ‘Yana’

Joan Fleming’s Song of Less is unsettling. It is extraordinary, essential, unlike anything I have read before. It is a poetry collection to feel and not to explain. Wrap yourself in the cave of its making and you will be ripped apart, go into mourning, weep for the planet.

We are not supposed to sing her songs but sometimes I catch them in
the air and put them in my mouth.

from ‘Yana’

Follow the voices. Follow the song. Follow a tiny cluster of characters, that may be a “ritual cluster”, a small nomadic family of cousins adrift, steered by the grandmother across a devastated land to the next camp or cave or hollow river. It may be physical, a way of being, an altered state. The names of the cousins are fable-like: Cousin Groundpigeon, Cousin Twig, Cousin Frogmouth, Cousin Butcher. The story may be apocalyptic-fable, post-contemporary poetry, writing that cuts deep into the tragedy of humanity. The landscape is blistered, people are blistered, language is strange and eccentric, curdled and re-formed.

Nothing is as it used to be. Language fails and falters in the grip of catastrophe. The syntax twists and splits, new words emerge as old words are jammed together. Unexpected. Unsettling. Fragile. Searching in the ruins, the debris.

Their fruitless scrape along the valley’s throat
is companied by doppel-devil fear:
in seeping through the will-dies’ paper skin,
we bring the peril of the mirror near.

from ‘Don’t-berries’

You grapple to understand Radius as you read; the event or circumstances that changed everything, the neither full light nor full dark. Or Gone; the mysterious disappearances. And then you fall upon solidarity and salvage, and above all, the grandmother’s wisdom.

This is a collection of song where you or we or I – whoever is speaking – is song, is story, and this matters. Yet song becomes less, story becomes less, and you or we or I – whoever is speaking – is under threat. Ah, the ability to make, even to hold new songs, is also under threat.

Grandmother says Story is a high and nourishing thing for which to be
scrounging. Story completes us. But what is completion? Permission to
draw a circle around something?

from ‘Yana’

There is a backwards-forwards momentum as though we must look forwards to where/what/how/why we have come from. There is a thin line between Love and Monster; what horrors ferment in the blistered surfaces of skin and earth? There is the disconcerting mind-altering don’t-berries. There is desire that is taboo, that is rape, that is the end of the road.

Ah, how to write poetry in the face and wounds and brutal edges of global loss, climate change, ignorant thinking, untethered greed? Joan has produced a collection of poetry that is the most haunting, body-aching, stomach-churning, self-turning wound. It is extraordinary. It is transformative. It is hallucinogenic. You read with your whole body and it hurts. And yet, and still imperatively yet, I want to do everything in my power to help. To tend this corrugated and corrupted planet on the edge of an abyss. To make choices that help rather than hinder. To speak even if not invited to.

This is what poetry can do. Here I go, tongue-tied, holding this precious book out to you.

Joan Fleming is the author of the books Song of Less (Cordite Books, 2022), Failed Love Poems (THWUP, 2015) and The Same as Yes (THWUP, 2011), and the pamphlets Some People’s Favourites (Desperate Literature, 2019) and Two Dreams in Which Things are Taken (DUETS, 2010). She holds a Masters in Creative Writing from Victoria University’s IIML, a Masters in English from Otago University, and a PhD in ethnopoetics from Monash University. In 2021 her manuscript Dirt was shortlisted for the Helen Anne Bell poetry bequest. Her honours include the Biggs Poetry Prize, a Creative New Zealand writing fellowship, the Verge Prize for Poetry, and the Harri Jones Memorial Prize from the Hunter Writers’ Centre. 

Cordite Books page

Joan Fleming website

1 thought on “Poetry Shelf review: Joan Fleming’s Song of Less

  1. Pingback: Poetry Shelf: On reviewing poetry, blogging and answering emails | NZ Poetry Shelf

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s