The Open
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The Open

Lucy Van, Merlinda Bobis

Says Van about her collection: ‘The old hill near where I grew up was outwardly ruined: its pines were dead, its vines gone to seed and its sheds, which once held some purpose, sunk and rusted. With my immature logic I considered this place open and powerful, even though the land was enclosed by a wire fence and fallow from overcultivation and neglect. Like other places in the world, the traces of colonial settlement here held dull, sour feelings. The entire place seemed displaced from itself; maybe nothing could belong there.

Writing these poems has something to do with being in lands like this. As a child that hill gave me my first feeling of personal privacy, even though it was open, even though it was fenced for someone else, and perhaps because the fence was there. The poems here express indignation at the eventual consequences of privacy. Yet, equally, privacy fascinates me. Equally, fences fascinate me - their lines, their tensions, their bending. I am not the first to say that poetry is a form of enclosure, but I want to say it here again, anyway. I love how permeable this form of enclosure can be. In the same way, I loved how the fence around that private hill would bend as I moved through it.’

Says Bobis about the book: ‘The ocean passes beneath these poems and one inevitably gets wet. It’s ‘a liquidation of territory’, whether in Vietnam or in Australia, or between what’s touched and what’s yet to be touched. Site of frisson. Contention. Then insight. These prose poems start as a moment flowing in interior monologue into multiple spaces and times. Then sneakily, and bravely too, they open estranging doors, so poetry starts reading like short story becoming extemporaneous discourse, erudite and interrogative, hopscotching from Foucault to Kristeva to Malouf to Plath. Van’s quicksilver to-ing and fro-ing creates an insight-coaxing discombobulation.‘

Review

I was immediately intrigued by Merlinda Bobis’s introduction to The Open in which she describes Lucy Van’s poetry as having ‘all doors open’. This is true – not just in the frequent imagery surrounding doors in this collection – but that poetry allows Van to walk through history, while still living with the effects of colonisation. It is an invitation to the reader to walk with her.

The Open comprises four sections: Hotel Grand Saigon, The Esplanade, Australian Open I and Australian Open II. The first three sections are long poems broken into parts, with the final section comprising mostly unconnected poems. In ‘Hotel Grand Saigon’, Van goes back to Vietnam to visit her extended family and learn more about her father. At one point, Van is stuck in a gift shop, unable to speak much of either French or Vietnamese, further estranged from her own history.

‘Possession is a grammatical category. Contraction is a poetic category. Poetry is a possessive contraction’ is a line that I was thinking about for a long time after I read it; Van uses poetry to explore not just how Vietnam and Australia have been and still are possessed by colonisers, but also to try to unfurl her father’s migration story.

At times gritty and grungy, ‘The Esplanade’ and ‘Australian Open I’ explore Australian identity, and friendships and relationships, with the serve and return of tennis as a metaphor for the ways that we relate to each other, even as we often ignore bigger issues, encapsulated in Van’s image of Manus detainees on another television screen nearby when she watches the tennis.

This collection is for a confident poetry reader – especially one interested in decolonisation. With long and theoretical prose poems referencing Foucault and Kristeva, as well as poets such as Bishop and Plath, some readers may feel overwhelmed. However, Van’s absolute strength is infusing small images with the emotions of decolonisation.


Clare Millar is from Readings Online.

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