Published by Vagabond in 2012, Fiona Hile’s The Family Idiot announced a disarming new poetic intelligence. In its 16 pages the chapbook presents a series of deft inquiries into the problems that have continued to concern Hile: the nature of the knots that tie abstract thought to the mess of human instinct; what happens to poetic diction when it squares off against a disenchanted natural world; the aesthetic potentials of alternative culture (especially punk and rock); how language captures human sexuality, by turns delighting and tormenting it. The book’s range and comedic inventiveness grant its exercises in poetic thinking a unique aspect that set its author apart from British and American experimentalists. It includes a number of major Hile poems, including ‘Hello darling’, ‘Entrances North’, and the wonderful ‘Mondrian Green’, which was commended in Overland’s Judith Wright Poetry Prize.
Hunter published Novelties in 2013. Winning the NSW Premier’s Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry, the book confirmed Hile as one of the great wits of Australian poetry. By ‘wit’ I don’t mean to say that Hile’s work is light (it is closer to the opposite), or merely that her lines display virtuosic skill and verbal ingenuity. I mean something closer to what Samuel Johnson had in mind when, in a famous passage on the metaphysical poets, he referred to how ‘heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together’ in their works. For Johnson, such conceit resulted in strained writing, but with her rapid deployment of wildly incongruous grabs of language, Hile achieves something quite different and decidedly contemporary (even as she maintains the obsession with love, sheer enjoyment in erudition, and commitment to philosophical speculation that Johnson thought was characteristic of the metaphysicals). Trading in subcultural slang, scientific nomenclature, argots of inner suburban Australia, and phrases and images lifted from psychoanalysis, European literature, and contemporary continental philosophy, Hile’s wit does not bring together heterogeneous ideas as much as relish in heterogeneity as such. Indeed she discovers it everywhere, and in our divided relation to language more than anywhere. Hers is a highly mercurial, often loping, abruptly enjambed line that has a knack for finding surprising pathways forward, as in this, the eighth stanza from ‘The Owl of Lascaux’, one of the standout new poems from Novelties (and which won the Judith Wright):
family vernacular, tickling tepid swans fleeing from the still
night swarms of eels wreathing indecipherable symbols,
tenderizing the opened stomachs of cows gleaming
undercover sea bass flopping onto concrete mosaics of slo-
mo turtles. Erupting. Blue plastic tubs.
Of the letter, the cubicles were filled with a misty stench.
Mouths closing over libraries
of flesh like molluscs finding a rock.
The extremity of this might tempt some to call it surrealist, but Hile is not all that interested in tapping into any delirious wellspring beyond or below human rationality. Rather, the poem supports Maurice Blanchot’s definition of writing as ‘the insane game, the indeterminacy that lies between reason and unreason’. Even at its most intemperate Hile’s poetry has a scholarly quality, and a fascination not with madness as the negation but as something rather more like the truth of rationality. Part of what excites me in this poetry is the picture of the human that has emerged from it. Like the eels wreathing symbols in the above extract, it is a creature caught between worlds that are both incommensurable and inseparable: thought and desire; abstraction and instinct; the mind and the biological system on which it supervenes.
Other poems are a bit less intense, but no less dazzling for that. In ‘Plagiarism Dreams’ – first published in Australian Book Review, and set to appear again in Hile’s second collection due out this year – we find the speaker in conversation at a party. Departing from a string of references to drinks, music, and flirtation, the piece works in a Hegel quote before it starts to spiral outward, only to end up musing on sex and language:
We met at the end of the party
when all the lights were fouled
with drink and even the self-titled
Ouzo Animal was yawning in protest
at the Bacchanalian revel in which
no member is not drunken. I sipped
soda water from a cracked glass,
refrained from removing my jumper
while a twelve-year old Bob Dylan
with a voice like Hank Williams
stood silently in the corner stirring
vinyl motes with his fingertips,
a younger more cherubic version of you,
Prince Valiant or some other slender
sword-bearer infiltrating the childhood
of your celebrated prettiness preparing you
for a lifetime of repetition and inaction
till your appearance in the space between
the bar and our oversexed pinball machine
conjured foxes, chickens and all the abjured
mythologies of early twenty-first century
mating games, obliterating the desire
for friendship that skulks behind the false
advertising of every sexual advance.
It’s only men who think that they and women
can’t be true, a self-serving dialect delivered
by an absent emperor, your king in waiting,
so charred, so easily bruised. Poor Scorpio
clichés of speech overcome in me
and reinstituted as a kind of structure.
With this ability to bring drollness to bear on intellectually serious writing, Hile is extending the Forbesian tradition – but her unrestrained multifariousness has seen her enter a territory all her own. Other new poems like ‘Bizarre Triangle Fetish’ – with its deflated wry tone – and ‘A Portable Crush’ – with its clunky parade of Latinate terms giving way to dream-images of water and horses – are extending it further. Hile continues in these works to find ways of rendering abstraction intimate, and intimacy abstract.
The Family Idiot (Vagabond Press, Sydney, 2012)
Novelties (Hunter Publishing, Melbourne, 2013)
Review of Novelties by A J Carruthers in Cordite Poetry Review
Review of Novelties by Mathew Abbott in Jacket2
Review of Novelties in The Australian by Ali Jane Smith
Review of Novelties by Justin Clemens
Recordings of five poems at Lyrikline
Kenneth Slessor Poetry Prize judges report
‘The Satisfaction of Speech’, ‘Bauxite’ and ‘Courtly Love’ in Cordite Poetry Review
‘Maximum Security’ in Overland
Notes on Contemporary Australian Poetry in Jacket2