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With her Kathleen Grattan Poetry award-winning collection, The Farewell Tourist, Alison Glenny pushes the form of poetry to the edges, turning footnotes, dictionary definitions and letter fragments into their own kind of poetry. This is a book about absence, about white space and about how people grow apart even after being magnetized together.
Alison Glenny compiles in four distinct sections a heart-breaking story in poetry about absence and erasure. The poetry was found in Antarctica pulled from the snow with the snow still on it; ‘The practice of concealing part of a poem by covering it with snow’. The first section titled ‘The Magnetic Process’ is a narrative of lovers told in 29 parts, all prose poem fragments, that brings to mind the feel of Lyn Hejinian’s My Life. These 29 parts show Glenny’s wonderful ability to evoke worlds in a matter of lines; ‘Growing up in a house filled with harps and bicycles, he / pursued nature with nets, a light trap, and a killing bottle.’ This line gives us a view into who one of protagonists are – this man who seeks to pull facts from the world. The parts move back forth between he and she, tracking how both characters live separately, where they intersect and ultimately return to lives without each other. This line from the end of the sequence takes the heart from you and places it gently on your tongue;
even the ghosts would depart. The pictures would walk out
of their frames and disappear, leaving only vacancy and
a scattering of loose snow.
With that, the reader is left in the space of absence, in the spaces of obfuscation, of erasure. The next long section is comprised of footnotes to observably blank pages. Glenny uses form to showcase the margins, the narratives that are obscured pushed to the side. With these Glenny paints a ghostly outline of a larger story; an absence that casts a white shadow over everything. This might sound all a bit too portentous, but rest assured the poetry is still full of little details that spark on the page; ‘He declared his intention of taking the ponies, five dozen sled / dogs, and “a motor car for use wherever there were no mountains”.’
The final section is comprised of fragments of correspondence; communication has been broken down by time and weather and the inability to express within the restrictions of language. You feel a pang in the side or an ache in the heart that has nothing to do with the nervous system and you can’t do anything to evoke what this conjured in you; you can only sit with it in vain. These fragments gesture towards everything unspoken. Glenny leaves us with these two lines that speak to so much while showing so little, the old iceberg cliché stands here;
You are twisted into my being
[The remainder of the letter is missing]
This collection is a beautiful snowfall that leaves you cold and reaching for warmth. It is a stunning achievement and a successful experiment with language and form. I look forward to reading more work by Glenny in the future, to witness the other ways in which Glenny evokes the unspoken.
Reviewed by essa ranapiri
The Farewell Tourist
by Alison Glenny
Published by Otago University Press