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Thursday, 12 July 2018

Book review: Tilt, Kate Lilley (2018)

This slim collection of poetry and prose makes for good reading. Many of the poems in it are autobiographical in nature, and some of them talk about the author’s adolescent experiences. She has written about them elsewhere. The man who she has previously named as a sexual predator was progressive author and speechwriter Bob Ellis. Lilley says that her mother, the poet Dorothy Hewett, knew about the abuse but said nothing at the time. Ellis died two years ago. Hewett died in 2002. Lilley herself teaches at the University of Sydney.

But the poems about these experiences, while they might constitute an interesting chronicle about growing up in the 1970s, fail to completely engage the reader’s imagination. All the words are there and they are in the correct order but the spark that should animate the images they want to convey fails to ignite when you read them. At Gleebooks where I bought this volume, the sales clerk I spoke with told me that their initial stock of the book had sold out, and they had had to order new copies in for me, so I know that Lilley has a readership. But I was not moved by the writing in the book, not by the poems.

There is some journalism in here as well, however. It deals with the gay screen idol Greta Garbo. To write this piece, Lilley visited the archives in the United States where Garbo’s papers have been saved for posterity, and did extensive original research. It is a valuable piece of work that many people will be curious to read because Garbo was so famous for such a long time, over decades spanning both the silent- and the early talking-picture eras.

The cover image for the book is a photograph by Brian Bird dated 1948 that is titled ‘Luna Park lighted windmill’. The title of the book refers to the mechanical locking mechanism that is built into pinball machines to halt operation if excessive violence is employed when using them. Players would bump the machines they were on in a stabbing motion using the heels of their hands as they manipulated the buttons controlling the flippers, in order to gain high scores and keep the ball in play for the maximum amount of time possible. If a machine tilts, then its flippers stop working and you lose the ball down the chute in front of you.

The title of the book and its cover image bring to mind the work of the Australian artist Martin Sharp, who spent years making screen prints and paintings that used images of Tiny Tim, a British vaudeville singer who had a distinctive falsetto voice, and Ginger Meggs, an Australian newspaper cartoon character, a street urchin with read hair. He also made images of Luna Park and was vocal in support of the entertainment destination when it went through a rocky period in the late 70s and 1980s after a fire in the Ghost Train ride led to the deaths of seven people. His artworks are collectibles of pop now, but it recently came to light that, like Ellis, he had had sex with underage girls in the 1970s.

In the title poem in the book, Lilley talks about an entertainment destination she worked at in the 70s on Oxford Street. The piece underscores the distance that might lie between anodyne myths about an idealised past and the more confronting realities that can sometimes reside beyond the borders policed by the daily newspapers.

But knowingly signalling approval for tropes that are familiar to subsections of the community is not necessarily the same thing as writing worthwhile poetry, although the two things may sometimes appear to share things in common. A poem is not an ad, although people who in past eras might have written and published poetry these days do work in the advertising industry. To be fully realised, poetry must flame up in the imagination at points, usually at the end of the piece, and convey new awareness the reader didn’t have before. In exchange for the cost of the book and the time spent reading it, a poet owes us at least insight, if not revelation or a guide to attaining some sort of transcendence. But Lilley’s poetry seems to concentrate on narrow concerns in a way that suggests they lie wholly within a space circumscribed by the outlines of her public persona, or her identity. There might have been more space set aside for the expression of the individual’s perception of things that come before the reader and the feelings they provoked.

The poetry here is sometimes predictable but rarely really edifying. Poetry has to be stimulating in a way that prose does not have to be. A poem without its own quotient of energy, without some fire, cannot honestly be said to be good.

I had many concerns about writing this review after I had read a number of the poems in the book, because Lilley chose one of my own poems to be included in Southerly, the literary magazine that her university publishes four times a year. That poem appeared in 2014. So I had qualms about writing a negative review of her book. But I had only last month written a blogpost about the incestuous Australian literary ecosystem, so I felt it incumbent on me to be completely open and honest in my dealings with this book, for the ultimate benefit of my readers.

If reviewers hold back their true opinions about work that is published and made available to the wider community, then people who live in it are deprived of valuable information that might help them to purchase work that is really worthy of their dollars and time. Pulling your punches might give a temporary fillip to a writer but ultimately doing so corrupts the entire literary ecosystem because then you are skewing it to favour people you know rather than people whose work truly deserves to be read and shared. Reviewers have the same responsibility to be truthful as the media does. Truth is morality. A biased newspaper is corrupting the political process and should be shunned. Biased reviewers should also take a long, hard look at themselves before writing their next piece for publication.

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