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The Shaking City

Cath Drake
ISBN-13: 
9781781725757
Publication Date: 
Tuesday, April 14, 2020
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"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

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':

 

REVIEWS

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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