The James Brown quote on the back of Ashleigh Young’s debut poetry volume immediately brings to mind many things about her poetry that make it so compelling. Speaking of the poems he says: ‘Theirs is a world that is advancing toward us at the same time as it is backing away.’ Young’s way of dealing with the aching anxiety of the world and the experiences of those sensitive among us is the striking heart of her book.
I’ve been a bit of an Ashleigh Young fan for a while and so it’s no surprise to me that her book is better than I was expecting.
With a publishing record of a decade, I think there was a certain amount of expectation floating around the ether with regard to Magnificent Moon. I think the book exceeds expectations, mine at least. The poems I’m familiar with only seem better tucked in beside unfamiliar ones and they all reverberate at a pleasant frequency together.
The tender way the poems pull apart the delicate net of family life shows honesty and care at the same time for the people that populate the early poems. The book opens with ‘Russell sprouts’ a short poem based on a childhood misunderstanding about her father. A practised hand makes the pun at the end a delight, if not wholly unexpected. From there the book seems to swell into itself. Each poem feels like a question to me. While some have answers others linger on after the book is no longer in my hand.
One of the poems ‘Interrogative villanelle’ is a list poem of questions, which cleverly captures the anxious rat wheel that is the pursuit of health and happiness. Many of the poems are also invitations to the reader to look around for small references to other poets and writers (Ezra Pound sneaks in and there are snatches of lyrics to be found too) or even other poems in the collection. Some of the best lines made me pause for a moment just to hold onto them a little longer. The end of ‘My hairdresser and my heart’ makes me want to sit in a totally white, silent room and contemplate it further.
Ashleigh Young’s main draw for me is her ability to write right up to the edge of a feeling and just stay there uncomfortably for a while. There’s depression, sadness and anxiety but also love and a wistful sort of playfulness. The poems contain clever metaphor and come from what is clearly an intelligent, experienced and somewhat austere hand. The poems balance the absurd with the mundane so there is never too much of one nor the other. I can’t decide if I want her to break out and just blast us with everything that’s held back in this book or whether it is better to have the tension sustained by keeping it under covers. The push and pull between revelation and restraint feels a bit like the bread and butter of the book. The poem in which the book title appears offers these fitting lines:
‘We have not
been sleeping well
as if we sense that all is not well with the land
despite a magnificent moon tonight.’
Overall it is a well balanced and excellent read. No doubt I’ll be dipping back into it over summer and quite likely for a long time after that.
Reviewed by Emma Barnes.
by Ashleigh Young
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN : 9780864737632