Reviews / November 2012 (Issue 19)

The Consumer's Art: Kate North's Bistro and Claire Lee's Ritual

by Viki Holmes

Image Image

Kate North, Bistro, Cinnamon Press, 2012. 64 pgs.
Claire Lee, Ritual, Claire Lee, 2012. 88 pgs.

"So, it's safe to view the wreckage."

– "Eight," Kate North, Bistro

Four years on from her polyphonic novel-in-verse Eva Shell (Cinnamon Press, 2008), Kate North presents the reader with an altogether new experience in Bistro. A compact and pithy collection, Bistro explores relationships and their unravellings with a deft wit that allows the navigation of complicated, messy humanity in all its domestic glories. The eight-year-old self of North's opening poem surveys the wreckage of a family argument through a haze of Mr Sheen and the rattle of cutlery. Despite the damage done, a kind of battered optimism suffuses the piece, as she begins the "salvage operation" of putting things back together by turning to the battered but still lavish pages of a family book for comfort.

North uses food and language as a backdrop for the exploration of a series of encounters both funny and sad: lovers and families meet over restaurant tables, for picnics, in the titular "Bistro"—their mouths moving to kiss, to cough, to breathe, to consume. Eating, like the all too human relationships North documents with such flair, is rarely clean and tidy, but leaves debris. In one poem, a lover eats a sandwich, spilling egg mayo down her chin, and in a particularly compelling image from the longer poem, "Painting for the Nodes," a mother is so affected by her son's illness that she wants to gnaw the cancer from his neck:

our Mother told me
in confidence
that she wanted
to place her hand on your neck
claw inside
pull out the decay
place it in her mouth
and swallow.

Lurking in the background of the daily routines that allow us to hold our lives together in the face of loss, there is a sense of decay. In "When You Ended It …," the changing nature of the mouth and limbs become superb and disturbing metaphors for the dying of a relationship: an ex-lover holds out her disinfected hands, and we share the realisation that there will be no going back as the speaker observes her lover's "mouth decomposed into a compost smile."

But while North's shorter pieces provide beautifully compact insights and unexpected images, it is in her longer reflections on what is said, and what cannot be said, that she really shines. "Sleep Disorder" deals with the insecurities and anxieties of a new relationship, as the speaker lies awake beside her lover, paralysed by her sense of difference, the failure of words, the impossibility of knowing. She lies awake, rehearsing imagined conversations, reinventing herself, not wanting to move or to quench her thirst for fear of waking her lover and losing the moment. There is fear, but also love, and while North's poetry is not shy of facing up to despair, there is still much to be celebrated here. These poems, like the stained polish of the chair in "On being European," provide the reader with "a happy lament."

I particularly enjoyed the juxtaposition of love and food brought about in "High Tea," where two lovers picnic on an ancient rock altar, reflecting on its history with an eye which inevitably brings them back to one another: "This could be/where the druids came/with mistletoe, so I kiss you."

And here is where the love/food interplay finds its perfect marriage: for mistletoe not only represents love and the joining of lover's mouths in a kiss, but also the ancient rite, where, cut from the tree with a sickle, the harvesting of mistletoe presages the sacrifice of a bull to aid fertility.

Hong Kong-based artist and poet Claire Lee presents the reader with a rather different sort of a dish in her bilingual Ritual, a limited edition collection in Chinese and English that provides a companion-piece to her multi-media exhibition Sacrifice (2012). While North's revelations and realisations take place amid teapots and tablecloths, Lee's poetry reflects a shattered art exploring ritual killing as a reflection of the artist's search for spiritual redemption in a world of conflicts. While North's speakers inhabit the physical and embrace the magic found in the mundane, the "mystic young women" and "petrified enchantresses" of Lee's work move through death and rottenness, "preparing a monstrous feast." Where North's speakers wear "language like a dress" ("Lying with Croeso I"), the characters of Lee's Sacrifice re-enact silence as communion: "Love has nothing to say and can't stop moving" ("A Pen").

Lee's background as a visual artist permeates her work, and her talent lies in her ability to conjure strange and enduring images, flickering and ferocious. Like the industrious little creatures that feed on the corpses of their bigger brethren, meaning scurries in and out of Lee's writing, sometimes blurring just outside the corner of the eye. The reader is left with a sense of meaning that doesn't necessarily need to be defined. As she writes in "Existence":

When searching is the reason
Who actually cares about the answer?
Science takes advantage of the Universe
But can't solve the unknown mystery of you

Despite her profession of not caring, Lee's work returns over and over to the necessity of the writer's search for meaning, looking for it in images formed from dream and from nightmare. She is fascinated with life cycles, with decay and mutability, until finally, in the "Explorer," she "begin(s) to sink gradually into the soil." Understanding comes, eventually, without words, as the writer becomes compost: food for the relentless termites, insects and caterpillars "like cashew nuts" that populate her work. As these creeping things burrow, gnaw and chew their way through the poems, Lee's voice at last approaches a kind of satisfaction. The characters in her work consume and are consumed, but this is not limited to the human players. Lee's poems are alive with desire and with need: in "Jazz" even "Water feels thirsty."

Where Lee's shadowy women are desperate for clarity, resorting to feeding and being fed upon to find meaning in an increasingly dark and dingy dream world, North's verse delights in the idea of consumption simply as another form of pleasure. In the gloriously gleeful "Advice on Heavy Petting in Coastal Areas," North advises:

Get a close friend
to lick at you, like a platter
of delicate veal, served cold
and fresh in the afternoon's air.

Pie, chips and a gravy-smeared face have never been so sexy. And even when possessiveness digs in, there is still absolute delight. Not for North the idea of sacrifice as a torturous quest for meaning. Rather, her characters see consumption as both an art and a joy:

The only woman,
What does she see?
A girl who can't stop
Because she tastes so good.

What North and Lee have in common—beyond their appearance three years ago in Haven's anthology of women's poetry Not A Muse (Haven, 2009), co-edited by this reviewer—is their exploration of, and relish in, the act and art of consumption: their recognition that love and art can become all-consuming. Whether endings brings about disgust at decay, or revelation of a higher knowledge, both writers address the shifts and cycles of life that continue whether we wish them to or not: we are changed by love, by life and, as Lee writes in "Ink Like Fire," "Things should be simple and they can never be simple again." This, it seems to me, is the kind of "happy lament" that North would recognise, too.

Website © Cha: An Asian Literary Journal 2007-2018
ISSN 1999-5032
All poems, stories and other contributions copyright to their respective authors unless otherwise noted.