Book Review: Bad Things, by Louise Wallace

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cv_bad_thingsBad Things, the blurb tells us, is about the different things we do to survive. At the start of the collection, on a single page, two strong sentences introduce this idea: ‘I did it for myself / I did what needed to be done’.

And what has been done? Wallace explores this in her poem The animal. In this piece, an animal lies ‘stuck in the mud, sick and barely moving’. The narrator’s first instinct is to reassure the frightened animal and come to its aid. But then the animal is quickly struck by a heavy piece of wood and the narrator looks up to see her sister, ‘anger still erupting from her slight form’. It seems that while the narrator saw compassion as a solution, her sister reverted to aggression. The uncomfortable ending where the two are left speechless seems to deny the option of reconciliation.

In the poem The olives, Wallace further explores consolation as an option for survival. She starts the piece with a character musing on the scenes of a cooking show. Wallace humorously describes how ‘the chef goes to Europe, and oohs and aahs at things the locals have been doing for centuries’. But then Wallace moves to observing other scenes: the comforting ‘sound of the olives falling onto the tarp’, people who ‘voice heartbreak for those who were shot and are then criticised by yet other people’. This leads to a reflection on the heartbreak that we all carry. The main character of the piece then returns to a reality where she spends ‘the long dark hours saying the same things over and over to her daughters’. What follows are words that she whispers like a prayer, words that we have all found ourselves saying to others: ‘it will be okay / I’m here / we are together’.

One of the most heart wrenching pieces in the collection is the poem Helping my father remember. In this piece, Wallace subtly sets the scene by describing her father at the kitchen bench, ‘his hand hovering / over an orange and a paring knife, / trying to think / what he had planned’. Throughout the poem, Wallace is there keeping an eye on her father, following him through ‘tall grasses, as high / as my head’. But a world of loss does not mean a world devoid of comfort. The ending seems to refer back to The olives when Wallace beautifully tells her father, ‘We won’t be lost / if we’re together’.

So how do we survive all the bad things? Through her collection, Wallace explores a variety of situations. There is no objective right or easy solution, but consolation seems to be a key theme throughout Bad Things. Wallace’s poem Reminders for December also offers a series of words to hold tight to and repeat in times of adversity, and it is a comforting piece in its simplicity. In the poem, Wallace provides a word on each page, similar to those reassuring phrases at the end of The olives. And she tells us, ‘cut / dig / gather / heel in / lift / protect’, reminders to keep on going.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

Bad Things
by Louise Wallace
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9781776561612

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Tuesday poem: The Year of the Mountain by James Brown

for Dinah Hawken

It was the Year of the Mountain, and when Li Po realised there was no avoiding it he began to make preparations. He packed water, rice cakes and sugar cane. He visited his mother. Then, after waiting for nightfall, he set forth. At first nothing, then gradually the mountain began to rise up in astonishment until Li Po could feel its wonder beneath his feet and hands. Twice he stopped to rest and gaze at the stars. When the first shades of dawn began to ease open the sky, Li Po unfolded a black sash from about his person and bound it over his eyes. He hummed softly to himself as his hands sought out each new foothold. By now it was the Year of the Bicycle, and the following day it would be the Year of Unpopular Poetry. Li Po was already in training.

By James Brown
From The Year of the Bicycle (page 47)
Published by Victoria University Press
Used with the permission of Victoria University Press

This poem is part of the Tuesday Poem Scheme

Tuesday poem: GO EASY SWEETHEART by Bernadette Hall

Hydrangea clouds are loosed and floaty
on the black pool. She’s making a hard job

of it, the little girl with the wooden spoon,
creaming the butter and the sugar. Go easy,

sweetheart. Little bubbles exploding soft
like years later when he licks and licks and little

bomb blasts like pain that must be entered
into, like delight. Her knuckles whiten,

her elbow is rigid with blessings: lavender shortbread
and honey ice-cream and all manner of berries.

I can only understand you when you speak with an American
accent. She’s watched it all before – flower,

fruit and fall. Aha, so that’s how it’s done!
Still wondering how on earth it is to be done.

By Bernadette Hall
From Settler Dreaming (page 44)
Published by Victoria University Press
Used with the permission of Victoria University Press

This poem is part of the Tuesday Poem Scheme