Book Review: Life and Customs, by Bernadette Hall

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Life and Customs by Bernadette Hall may be my favourite cv_life_and_customscollection of her work yet. Other reviewers have talked about ‘her own lightness of being and her linguistic felicity…’ David Eggleton, (The Listener, February 19-25, 2005, vol. 3380). In this collection those things are still present and are also balanced by a quiet humour, which appears throughout the book. This collection is exceptional in my mind for the first ever use of Second Life in a poem (or anything really!) that doesn’t come off sounding ridiculous. That may be damming with faint praise to many, but I was so astounded when it occurred that I put the book down and laughed about it.

Hall is obviously an accomplished poet. pp_bernadette_hallWe all know this. The first line that grabbed me in the collection was from The view from the lookout: ‘Where the black skirts of mamaku / tick like the clicky ‘beetles’ / we used to play with’.  Just say that out loud to yourself a few times: tick like the clicky beetles. The whole book is filled with stories and language that propel the reader through the collection. I almost read it in one entire sitting. There are political poems, feminist poems and poems where the narrative voice is unstable and confused and trying to decipher the unfamiliar world surrounding them. Millennia of silence and no rain is a fantastic tumble that ends, for lack of a better word, perfectly. If I have to criticise something it would be the use of ‘katabatic winds’ twice within six pages. It didn’t work for me. But that’s small criticism indeed. We travel from Amberley to Antarctica and those are just the As.

Not all of the poems grabbed me. There were some I skipped past others I lingered over and re-read. I like to think of poetry collections like albums. Sometimes it takes a few listens to appreciate the quieter or more complex tracks. And sometimes that simple track you skipped past 10 times becomes your favourite. So I have no doubt that this collection would bear considerable re-reading. Sul: a ballet that awaits performance is the hinge that other two sections of the book balance on. It seems both autobiography and faerie tale. It is full of little quirks and fantastic lines such as: ‘… whether there is indeed a point at which the universe itself demands some sort of justice,’ and ‘just because it happened such a long time ago, there’s no need to start making things up.’ There’s a lot to like in this collection. I’m hoping to catch Bernadette Hall reading some of these poems.

Reviewed by Emma Barnes

Life and Customs
by Bernadette Hall
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9780864739001