Before Bone and Viscera, the third of Robbie Coburn’s publications is, like its predecessors, an unsettling read. This slim but intense volume is comprised of a ‘Prologue’ plus ten poems, and explores the dual territory—previously traversed in his chapbook Human Batteries (Picaro Press, 2012), and first full-length collection Rain Season (Picaro Press, 2013)—of the tortured rural landscape of Victoria, and the similarly tortured mental and bodily landscape of the poet.
The title of the chapbook introduces decomposition and regeneration as thematic concerns of the collection, begging the question—what is it that comes Before Bone and Viscera? The answer (given in the epigraph) is “decay”, a decay which “becomes being.” The poems begin, then, at the end, with images of physical and environmental disintegration, such as these, from ‘Prologue’:
the dry end of the trees unearth
here, in a brittle manifestation
of husk and bone
endless ruin of dirt
hand stone and the distortion inside lingers,
the backbone of consciousness
bends into the distance
vagrant colourless grasses
and the stench of compost
motion lays beyond the body
the roots are plumed, open and featherless
drying out the blood of any water.
It is unclear if Coburn speaks here of the body or the land (indeed he speaks of both), and this superimposition of the human subject onto the environment is a distinctive and striking quality of Coburn’s poetry in general, and of Before Bone and Viscera in particular. This almost metaphysical intertwining of the internal and external landscapes further deepens throughout the poem—and the collection—as the human subject merges with his environment:
the broad ground against the dead
weight of the body
widening pulses of light radiating beneath
the other veins, absolving a bromine fog
interpreting this new proximity, sundried vertebrae
rust divides on rotting skin, a carcass without teeth,
a limitless game littered with debris.
This decomposition of a body which is both tree and flesh arises alongside “the wish to have never lived” and serves to drive “the heart out into the fire. so it begins.” The concept of a new self arising from the debris of the old is then explored in the disturbing second poem, ‘Rebirth’, where the speaker imagines skinning himself before reassembling the “old body” into a new skin which fits “better and wore itself in around / my glad eyes and abraded insides.” Here, the spectre of self-harm in the form of cutting begins to emerge: it’s a theme which runs discomfortingly just under the surface of much of Coburn’s poetry, although in this collection it is presented not merely as a means towards a (potentially fatal) end, but, once again, as a kind of rebirth: “This was the beginning, the new became / normal before darkness could be heightened, / loosened into the clear shot of morning” (‘Rebirth’ 23-25).
Similarly, in ‘Death Games’, the self-harm which has been implied in previous poems is now dealt with directly:
I drive the blade into the plumed vein of my left wrist:
through the edge of a balance ache I emerge
prodding at the trail of blood,
painting with my index finger.
(‘Death Games’ 1-4)
It’s a confronting image, although not necessarily for the speaker, who observes that in the rest of his life, “I won’t feel anything as clear as this red stream”. Ultimately, however, cutting is presented as a dangerous choice: at this emotional low-point the speaker discovers that “poetry has become meaningless” and that he is “ready to commit to losing this long game”. Yet even here death and (self)destruction precede renewal. Just as the natural landscape may be wounded but still harbour potential for regeneration, so too does the body and mind: the “suicidal impulses” which “precede / the day, hidden in an unseen act, / escaping consequence”, morph as the “disturbance” of daylight’s “eye” is cast upon them, culminating in an image of the speaker:
… walking across the charred
quickly into the inferno,
cheating death and towards life.
(‘Death Games 21-24)
Fire, which has long been used as a tool for both destruction and regeneration in the Australian bush, is utilised here as a metaphor to express the phoenix-like rising of the speaker from repeated episodes of self-harm. The image of “walking… into the inferno” and emerging renewed on the other side is an affirmation of both the human and natural world’s ability to withstand and transform hardship—and is particularly pertinent when considering the horrific 2009 Black Saturday bushfires which swept through rural areas of Victoria, close to where Coburn writes and lives.
However, the chapbook is by no means solely concerned with the poet’s own internal and external landscapes, or experiences. In ‘She is Starving’, Coburn explores a different kind of bodily abuse and slow suicide:
face hollowed, balanced on weak pipe-cleaner limbs,
her skeleton breaks then aims to crumble
inside the dark’s window. the floorboards snap her shrunken
legs. I carry the decaying white bones breathing in the unfurling
winds to the tomb her lifeless hands managed to prepare as
she starved, suiciding for years.
(‘She is Starving’ 17-22)
The interior habitats of Coburn’s poems—the houses and sheds—are, like the one in this poem, often haunted places: they shelter and harbour private and familial secrets and sufferings. The lines of this, and many of the poems in the collection, are long and lyric, and the poet eschews capitalisation: his verse, rather than announcing its arrival, glides like a ghost into the reader’s mind, and lingers there: “Sleep now inside your skin of silent ghosts. / your voice will still trace my throat, your absence will starve me / like a famine of memory” (‘She is Starving’ 23-25).
As in this example (“your voice will still trace my throat”) Coburn’s poems often employ synaesthetic imagery, and his work in this regard is reminiscent of the French Symbolists. In Before Bone and Viscera, Coburn’s use of symbolism is particularly powerful in poems which deal with family and relationships. In these poems, romantic or familial separation is conveyed through images of geographical distance and obstruction: the landscape is a map of internal memory and time, not simply of place. In ‘Loneliness’:
at this distance memory exists only in my head,
miles and years from you
as I foot the clustered pathway back where
all is unchanged and everything vanishes
but the jagged crown of rock parting the heightening mist.
Here the vast, unforgiving spaces of rural Australia function as symbols for the emotional and temporal distance Coburn wishes to express. Similarly, In ‘Sororen’ (Latin for sister), we find the speaker walking in search of his long-lost half-sister, a figure who haunts several of the poems in the collection:
I woke from months of searching
at a distance that is unimportant.
my still dreaming mind walked a flat
and uninhabited stretch of road
past the hollowed gum trees lining her
However, the distances which thwart the speaker’s desire for reconciliation are closed somewhat in ‘The Invisible Sister’, a poem where he and his sister “grow aware of each other”, and bridges, rather than “burning”, are now “lengthened”—the revelation dawning that it is possible (impossible not to?) “love blood from such distance”.
This fractured family history is further explored in the poignant poem ‘Father, Daughter’, where, once again, synaesthetic imagery blurs the division between the wounded inner world and the natural landscape:
Father, listen to the years
ploughing the grass at your feet encircling
creases in your skin melded by long winds,
a gathering of drought and memory that knots
in the horizon, a kink in the land you worked.
(‘Father, Daughter’ 1-5)
In this hypnagogic poem, “the gallery” of the father’s “raw mind / shapes the sinking backyard” and “the merciless past floods through” his “interrupted veins”, which harbour the “unnamed wound” of a “nameless half-sister”. For the sister, the father is similarly abstracted, existing as “… a stranger / whose skeleton passes through memory”. As they did for Rimbaud and Baudelaire, objects in Coburn’s outer world function as recurring and deeply personal symbols to express the poet’s mental preoccupations and emotional states. A potent, almost totemic and sometimes paradoxical system of language emerges to describe internal states in relation to the body and the land: blood and sap are memory; bone, roots and trees are family; the skeleton is foundation as well as closeted experience; the skin is both potential union and separation; fire is birth and death; breath is life, and so on. These images are used so often and so reverently that they extend beyond metaphor and fall into the realm of metonymy, simultaneously deepening the hidden meanings of the poems and, in the case of ‘Father, Daughter’, lifting them into the realm of the archetypal:
the longing belongs in the foregathered illusions,
shadows I will watch sweep back into your suspended skin
the distressed close up of a father’s lips stitched into his
daughter’s hair, which the eyes have sacrificed in order
to live. we all dance for less—
it’s nothing you hadn’t foreseen.
(‘Father, Daughter’ 40-45)
Just as the poems in this short collection begin at the end—with “decay”—now the final poem of the collection, ‘The Blood is only Memory’, ends at the beginning—with “breath”. While the speaker’s “… pain / does not fade”, he finds that “this blood / is only memory” when set “against the warm pressure of breath”. In the language of symbols, breath is life, and it is both comforting and uplifting that a poetry collection so concerned with death and suffering should end on this more hopeful note. Pain is still present—of course it is—but something stronger than it exists, and just as our natural environment has the capacity to endure and regenerate after trauma, so, Coburn affirms in these poems, do we.
Robbie Coburn’s Before Bone and Viscera can be purchased from Rochford Street Press.
This review was first published in the excellent Australian journal of ecopoetry and ecopoetics, Plumwood Moutain. Please pay them a visit to read more reviews and fine poetry. My thanks to editor Anne Elvey.