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The Shaking City

Cath Drake
Publication Date: 
Tuesday, April 14, 2020
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Longlisted for The Laurel Prize 2021

"Its unfettered creativity and sharp, critical mind work alongside one another to deliver a poetry collection equal parts fascinating, essential, abstract and educational. The insights it provides into the major struggles of our era and the particularly intimate approach it takes in doing so create a truly worthwhile literary experience." - New Welsh Review

“Drake’s work is often playful, almost always highly imaginative (with more than a touch of surrealism) and technically accomplished... [a] welcome intrusions into what might be called the “Sydney/Melbourne/Canberra poetic triangle.”” – Geoff Page, The Weekend Australian


The shaking city of Australian poet Cath Drake’s debut poetry collection is a metaphor for the swiftly changing precarity of modern life within the looming climate and ecological emergency, and the unease of the narrator who is far from home. Tall tales combine with a conversational style, playful humour and a lyrical assurance.​ The poet is able to work a wide set of diverse spells upon the reader through her adept use of tone, technique, plot and form. She is a welcome new voice for contemporary poetry.

“Cath Drake wants to grasp the world whole. When she looks at the past, it’s with a big rambunctious energy that has implications for the present. These are restless and generous poems, full of the vivid reality of people’s lives. Read them as a guide to staying clear-eyed, combative and caring in unsettled times.”Philip Gross

“Cath Drake’s poems deftly explore conflict and the future of our changing, imperilled planet – in a poem about climate emergency, the narrator muses wryly ‘sometimes I hold world in one hand, my life / in the other’. This is a collection alive to dilemmas. Her writing is searching, witty and full of compassion, helping us navigate a shifting world.” Helen Mort

“This joyful, exuberant, wildly imaginative collection exhorts us all to unmoor our minds, to ‘live among the strange and shining.” Kate Potts


Watch this video of Cath reading her poem 'How I Hold The World In This Emergency':



Review by Katherine Gallager, ARTEMISpoetry

Monday, July 26, 2021

Most poets who leave Australia permanently have a reason for making the ‘big break’ but they all face the same dilemma – how to write from their new world perspective. Paradoxically the times have now so much changed that Perth, Drake’s home city, it threatened, like all places on Planet Earth, by climate-change. Nevertheless, she’s been writing for some time with the duality that comes to all hybrids. Her poem, ‘What I’m Making With the World’ begins with some panache: “I’m making a handbag out of the hide of the worlds. / I’d been hunting for something contemporary, unique”. The poem continues in similar vein. Also, Drake has been receiving accolades for her eco poetry. She is a mindfulness teacher and in her The Shaking City, we see her awareness of political issues, including the racism inherent in the treatment of our First Australians from the very beginning, viz the poem, ‘Finding Australia’. Perth is set on the Swan River and we see how it was effectively in Drake’s own Year 9 classroom that she learned the truth of Australia’s being declares ‘terra nullius,’ the great ‘Untruth’ for which the indigenous people are still trying to get a treaty:

Then our eccentric year 9 social studies teacher whispered:
‘Terra nullius? Terra nullius? Australia was not discovered;
there were already people here right across the beaches,
plains, forests and deserts, who knew every bump and echo.

The Shaking City is threaded with wit, alert observation, lyrical grace, and often-playful humour and a generosity of seeing. Nothing sits still in her shaking city. Further, she is no stranger to the Prize-ladder. Her pamphlet Sleeping with Rovers won the Mslexia/PBS Women’s Poetry Pamphlet Competition in 2013 and was a PBS Choice. She was shortlisted in the Manchester Poetry Prize, second in the 2017 Resurgence Poetry School Eco-Poetry Prize (aka Ginkgo) and highly commended in it in 2019.Thanks to Zoom, she has managed to set up a schedule for workshops incorporating Australian and British participants. The times are adjustable, and she is facilitating many meetings between poets worldwide. Cath Drake is a very welcome new voice for contemporary poetry.

Review by Geoff Page, The Weekend Australian

Monday, May 17, 2021

Cath Drake’s first collection The Shaking City could be seen as yet another book sent in from the ‘periphery’. She maintains contacts with Perth but has worked in the UK for the past 10 years or so.

As expected, Drake doesn’t fit into the Australian poetic taxonomy very exactly. Her work is often playful, almost always highly imaginative (with more than a touch of surrealism) and technically accomplished (in a quiet sort of way). Little of it has been published in Australia so far but almost a third of the book is set here (mainly in WA).

It’s always interesting to read a poem about Australian colonisation written in the place of its origin. In it, Drake returns to images provided by her primary school teacher. “We coloured in more maps, listened to stories of hardship / when tattered men perished in search of an inland sea”. Later, in Year 9, an “eccentric” social studies teacher offers her another view: “She showed us modern photos of black people on reserves / … There weren’t any pictures of break men in sailing ships. / I wondered if we’d dreamt it all and what else they had lied about.”

More central, however, to The Shaking City is Shaky School Album, a sequence of 14 poems about the fates of the poet’s school colleagues. They have a cleverness of social observation reminiscent of Peter Porter’s work in London in the early 1960s. For Drake, it is only occasionally that someone’s “achievements” at school will be an indication of where they’ll “end up”. It’s very much a sequence of ambivalences, one of the clearest being found in Mousey’s Mansion. Here the narrator remembers pitying “Mousey’s” “boring life” while failing to “recognise it as contentment / or a god-given fascination with how the world works.” Later the poet remembers struggling “to recall my passions. I wish I’d had / a fascination with beetles, meteors or Romantic poets.”

All three of these collections are welcome intrusions into what might be called the “Sydney/Melbourne/Canberra poetic triangle.”

Review by Joanna Lee, Poetry Review

Monday, April 26, 2021

In Australian poet Cath Drake’s The Shaking City, home is built on uncertain tectonic plates, destabilised by the debilitating scale of the climate crisis. As presumed truths and identities shake around the speaker, new and surprising arrangements emerge.

The collection is peppered with witty, conversational portraits from adolescence... There is a fizzing energy to these schooldays, during which ‘I crashed and burned with the wrong ones for years’, and the speaker’s initial perceptions of the people she describes turn out to be presumptuous – ‘I was convinced she’d be dead or in jail before long / but recently I saw her photo, proud and middle-aged / with her pigtailed daughter’. Drake calls for a change of perspective, and a willingness to be wrong: these two-dimensional people, immortalised in memory, are fictions.

The humour in these descriptions is laced with the hum of climate anxiety that runs throughout. In poems such as ‘When the Insects Disappeared’, the initial calm of ‘how there were / no flies to bother us’ transforms into unease as what could once be dismissed as ‘seasonal blips’ calcifies into ‘a certain silence […] an eeriness that nobody / knew what to do with’. But, though ‘people understood more, it didn’t change / anything’. In the face of this widespread apathy, the speaker in ‘How I Hold the World in This Climate Emergency’ feels the weight of responsibility, and desperately wants to bring stability to the vulnerable world.

Sometimes I hold world in one hand, my life
in the other and I get cricks in my neck
as the balance keeps swinging. I walk uneasily.

Carrying the ‘sheer weight of world’ exceeds the speaker’s individual capacities, and this responsibility is unsustainable. Drake weighs up the human impact on the world, and the capacities that we have to conceptualise: ‘I want the little things to be what matters most again’. When the planetary foundations themselves are under threat and it feels like the only thing the speaker can do is absorb this anxiety (‘my body is a crash mat for world’), she becomes – naturally – overwhelmed. ‘Sometimes I hold little: I’m limp and ill. / Days barely exist. It’s enough to make soup.’

There is a sense of displacement, too, that comes from living and travelling across continents. The speaker feels disoriented... She exists in the space between countries, ‘weightless as if I’m still / flying over the Middle East’, and there’s a strange disassociation in ‘My mind thins / after hours of confirming my identity on their house phone’. The contrast of ‘my’ identity on ‘their’ house phone speaks to the awkward additional bureaucracy that she faces. Eventually though, ‘I feel / my feet land’, and ‘the smell of BBQ and sea air / hit like sheet iron’; she is overwhelmed by the familiar, the intangible, delicate feeling of home.


Review by Sue Wallace-Shaddad, London Grip

Monday, October 19, 2020

Cath Drake’s thought-provoking collection is divided into three parts: “The Shaking City”, “The Glasshouse” and “Far From Home” – the last of which is inspired by her native Australia.

In her first poem, “Sleeping in a Shaking City”, Drake starts with quite an assertive tone ‘I’ll tell you how there is one chair then another’ and ends with a couplet including ‘there must be somewhere in this town that does not shudder’. This poem sets up a questioning of the foundations of our lives which threads through the first part of the collection. On the one hand, poems feature domestic details of houses and furniture and on the other hand, we are taken into the surreal. In her second poem “Furniture”, the furniture seems to take on a somewhat chaotic life of its own. This is all in the context of ‘a tower block of a city that is shaking’.

Drake excels at drawing lively portraits in “Shaky School Album”, a sequence of fourteen poems linking back to childhood, school days and teenage memories. Each poem is a vignette crafted around one interpretation of shaking. Interestingly the poems are almost all different lengths ranging from eleven lines to eighteen lines. This seems to reflect the slightly chaotic nature of that time of life. It is as if she riffs off the word ‘shaking’ in this sequence. At five years old, she might be waiting for ‘the shaking inside me to rattle open’ in “A Corner Block Vigil in Cowboy Hat”. In “Mousey’s Mansion” she realises the way she and her friends ‘shook/our energy all over the place’ was not a meaningful or lasting life passion. In “Born with it”, she reflects on ‘the glow’ of a fellow schoolgirl who still glows with good deeds, three children later, saying ‘she’d make us all milkshakes with a melting smile’.

“No-Shake Mohawk” is a wonderful description of a bit of a rebel – ‘it was/as if he was wearing a swear word’ – who we hear becomes a ‘crisis manager’ as an adult. And in “Middle Age Karma”, the narrator remembers a school ball:

I was shaky drunk and weepy in a mauve ball gown

The poem ends:

It seemed karmic that in our school reunion photo he was the middle-aged spunk, shining in grey hair.

Interspersed with what I will call Drake’s ‘shaking’ poems, there are poems which raise environmental concerns. “How I Hold the World in This Climate Emergency” is an example. Drake uses physical images here to reveal how she feels: ‘Sometimes I am bent over with the sheer weight of the world’. Her repetition of ‘sometimes’ at the start of each stanza drums home the way environmental concerns pervade her being:

Sometimes my body is a crash mat for world. I want to say “I’m sorry I’m sorry!” but don’t say it aloud.

“Dhanakosa, Scotland”, on the other hand, comes across as a celebration of nature. Drake describes the scene of a loch and moorland. The mist is ‘sprawled across the armchair/ of the hilltops’ and she writes of how the mist ‘made the impossible seem possible, opposites visible.’ I feel this is a seminal line in the collection: Drake often re-engineers what we might see and explores the unexpected turns inherent in life. The next poem “The Flowers of our City” also celebrates nature, in this case the flowers which bloom in odd places in the city, but touches on despair, without explaining anything more.

In the second part of the collection, Drake includes a range of prose poems. Furniture is featured again in ”Rolodex”, in the form of ‘old-style dark jarrah desks’. This poem becomes rather surreal with a possible ghost and the sight of her ‘name and number in thick marker pen and capital letters’.

I very much enjoyed “Party Invitations” which captured the angst involved in throwing a party. The sentences ‘The three desirable people huddle and when you turn around they’re gone. You wonder how this will affect your social standing.’ sum up the fragility of the narrator’s social life: what seemed possible (a successful party) has become impossible.

The sonnet “A Man my Father Played Golf with" uses striking imagery. Alliteration and assonance to describe Mr Harris who

played golf with my father in puff-ball plaids, his podge of feet stuffed in fringed golf shoes, his face a basketball caught in an exhaust pipe about to burst

“The Circle Line”, in quatrains, beautifully captures an unending journey. There is very little punctuation and each stanza has enjambment with the first line of the next stanza, keeping the flow of the poem continuous.

The third section of the collection has a number of poignant poems. “The Before” tells of a grandmother’s memories of meeting her loved one in 1925; the memories are held inside a jarrah box, how he was ‘before the shrapnel ate him away’. “The Clock in Aunt Anna’s Lounge” has a clock almost built into the structure of the house, which comes to life: ‘It knew your private ghosts by name’. It is witness to family history but also to grief in the last stanza.

Creatures play a surreal role in this section. “The Drake” (which of course alludes to the poet’s name) has a wonderful first line that draws the reader in : ‘Now that I think about it, there was always a swampy smell’ . The drake is an imaginary companion, but one who often gets in the way. There are two poems involving a bunyip – a mythical Australian creature who is said to live in swamps. The imaginative “Bunyip in the Kitchen” brings ‘shaking’ back into the picture:

a wild roar if he jerks awake which could shake the street with fright.

“Bunyip on the End of My Bed” delivers an environmental message about ‘three hundred millions of tons’ of plastic, in the guise of a the bunyip telling his own kind of bedtime story. This is typical of the slant way that Drake brings in serious messages. In “When the Insects Disappeared”, the poem charts the increasing silence and shortage of foods. The poem ends with ‘There didn’t/ seem to be anyone answering back.’

Drakes speaks of more than one world in “Rubber Dinghy with Glass-bottom Bucket, Rottnest”:

and how easy to slip between them, unmoor your mind and live among the strange and shining.

I feel this describes exactly how we can enjoy the vibrant poems in this collection.

Review by Oliver Heath, New Welsh Review

Thursday, July 2, 2020

This review was first published in the New Welsh Review, subscribe to their magazine here

Many of us find ourselves reflecting on the past with a certain fondness as we head towards uncertain times. There is an absolute quality to history, a sense of normalcy and an assurance that events we remember will remain unchanging. Frequently, in returning to the comfort of our memories, we become guilty of reviewing them through rose-tinted lenses. We remember times gone by as more welcoming and peaceful than they may have originally been, the truth of the matter eluding us in our escapism. Nevertheless, our earlier lives are often remembered in vivid, personal detail, painting a picture of familiar warmth in contrast to the harsh coldness of our confusing present times.

Cath Drake’s poetry collection, The Shaking City, captures the feeling of nostalgia for easier times in the wake of contemporary uncertainty while retaining a profoundly human approach. Memories recalled here frequently fixate on minute detail. The kind which might root itself into the minds of people who lived these moments: the worn furniture of a student house, the particularities of the house’s inhabitants, the way the branch of a tree carried the weight of the speaker in their youth, the childhood dog in the prime of its life and the various quirks of former classmates. These deeply personal moments are drawn into a stark dichotomy with the reality of our current age, juxtaposing the fondly remembered against the states they have fallen into with time. Classmates may grow apart and go their separate ways towards divergent futures of dramatically different circumstances, while the beloved family dog grows old and weary, and childhood safe havens fall into disrepair. The poem ‘House of Bricks’, for example, depicts a troubled family household, several generations of trauma contained within its walls, both echoing events which its older residents lived through in more explicit detail and portraying the more abstract anxieties of a younger child:

...My dad grew up
in the Depression: he knows. In our house of bricks,

there was no Depression, but I dreamt of a hurricane
that levelled our house...

This world is one where strange and unlikely people, places and events can express the meaning behind these poems in unique and fascinating ways. Anxieties often reveal themselves in bizarre ways: a teacher disappearing and seemingly transforming into a huge jellyfish (an expression of his apparent spinelessness), encounters with a mythical Bunyip, and a particularly memorable passage about fashioning the hide of the world into a handbag which harks back to the role of capitalist industry in the climate crisis. These grant Drake’s poetry its own distinctive identity without sacrificing its relevance to current affairs, an impressive balancing act for which the collection ought to be commended.

However, this is not to say that the collection merely wishes to wistfully remember the past as an escape from troubles faced presently. It becomes immediately apparent that its ambitions stretch beyond this, most obviously through its strikingly nuanced and thoughtful portrayals of the histories it dwells upon. Cracks begin to appear in the facade of comfortable domesticity set up by the narrator, uncovering persistent traumas in childhood homes, friendships collapsing in adolescence and gradually worsening societal conditions. While many take history for granted, Drake’s poems are commendable for refusing to shy away from addressing historical events which frequently find themselves whitewashed. As the text branches out, poems such as ‘Finding Australia’ discuss issues surrounding the brutality and legacy of colonialism, while ‘Considered Questions’ covers casual bigotry faced by a group of black artists:


When the questions are open to the audience there is fidgeting, then someone asks how Hip Hop informs their work. But none of the artists have much interest in Hip Hop. Another asks if modern African art is having a resurgence – one of the artists mentions an African artist they admire that no one else has heard of.


These are topics which warrant investigation by those less aware of such struggles. Though many of its anxieties manifest in more abstract ways within the text, this book makes a point of discussing the climate crisis and related ecological concerns. It is effectively elaborated upon in poems echoing the threats posed to the planet and our personal freedoms by excessive commercialism, while others expose the dangers of a rapidly diminishing environment. These passages lend Drake’s poems a striking sense of urgency.

Befitting its title, The Shaking City depicts its present times as existing on shaky foundations, the idealised memories we hold of the way things were and should be giving way to uncertain, chaotic futures. Speaking to the potent contemporary anxiety of finding oneself in tumultuous, nerve-racking times, the text presents its topics in accessible and relatable ways which promise to engage its readers. Its unfettered creativity and sharp, critical mind work alongside one another to deliver a poetry collection equal parts fascinating, essential, abstract and educational. The insights it provides into the major struggles of our era and the particularly intimate approach it takes in doing so create a truly worthwhile literary experience.

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