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What Long Miles by Kona Macphee – review


The agile, far-reaching poems of Kona Mcphee are absorbed with the limits of human and natural endurance

There is a line in Kona Macphee's poem "George Pirie's hands" in which the under-used word "scry" appears. This is fitting, because Macphee writes poems that scry – that uncover the hidden and nod to the future. Her focus is far-reaching (although she is capable, also, of closing in with almost myopic intensity on a colony of ants). Her scattered reach and lack of self-centredness are unusual and attractive. She writes about fire, flood, drought, refugees. She has not one but many poetic voices, an agility – no imaginative leap is too great to attempt.

Macphee grew up in Australia, where she sets "Dry country" (brumbies – Australia's wild horses – are the clue). This fine, tightly controlled poem has nothing laboured about it (note the absence of the word drought throughout, even though it is, in part, the poem's subject). It is the central image that gives the piece its power: the girl holds out her hands exactly as you might when expecting – or hoping for – water, until "far" becomes a stand-in for rain.

Endurance is a dominant theme. "The Wheelman" is an especially impressive poem about an injured soldier coping with other people's reactions to his injuries: "the forced good cheer and jingoed words from the committee,/ the almost-pleading sympathy from friends, the hasty intervening/ each time his worn smile flagged at too much ill-cloaked pity".

"My life as a B movie", although in a different register, is also about settling with a difficult lot: a witty exploration of what it means to star in your own life. "Pageant" describes a girl smiling through a talent contest she does not win. And the unexpectedly fresh, rhyming "Rentboy" is also about bittersweet endurance – purchased company versus the longing to be alone: "He watches while you're dreaming,/ your features not your own:/ you hire his full attention; his sleep is his alone."

"Prodigal" has its own version of stoicism and describes its subject (like the girl in "Dry country") holding out his hands – best evidence of his continuing existence: "Would you ask yourself what's real?, look down/ and stare at the empty, dirty palms/ of the hands upturned in a mocking question,/ the feet that bore you nowhere, here?" The "nowhere" and "here" sum up the prodigal's plight in a nicely judged, appropriately awkward collision.

Inevitably, with such variety, there is unevenness in quality. I was intrigued but puzzled by the title "The F word" about a life wasted in gardening. And while I liked the poem's precise evocation of a gardener who, like a policeman, keeps law and order, I was curious to know who she was addressing. An ageing parent wasting too much time in the flowerbeds? Macphee is unconvinced by the endeavour: "so let that little acre sap your hours,/ your juices with its petty seasons/ until, exhausted, you'll concede/ I'm going to have to let the garden go".

What is the "grudge" she speaks of at the start? Is the garden real as well as metaphorical? There are moments when one wishes poets would stoop to satisfy the reader's curiosity.

More fruitful is the lovely "Wild raspberries", listing diverse imperfections but as a metaphorical offering harvested from the "wild ground of my distance": "Bring me the blight-marked berries and the stunted,/ the insect-festered and the underripe,/ bring me the wild fruit, wind-spread and untended,/ in hands that cup both crop and battered hope".

Unripeness is all. And here they are again – the hands.

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