[June 2008]




Walleah Press




REVIEW: Handfeeding the Crocodile, Gina Mercer

Pardalote Press, 2007

The back cover of Gina Mercer’s third collection of poetry, Handfeeding the Crocodile, promises the reader ‘poetry moving at a high level of grace and definition’ (Peter Bishop), poetry which ‘shows Mercer at her muscular best.’ In fact, many of these poems have the muscular grace and fine-honed perceptions of haiku. The title poem is a case in point, its sense of urgency and danger created by means of short, hard-hitting lines and a central evocative conceit:

nostrils ripple open
           the milky surface
we never clear-view the rumpled teeth
but their clamp is familiar
on my sanguine dangling leg
today                 just a festering bruise
but I know my lover
handfeeds the crocodile

                                          (from ‘Handfeeding the Crocodile’)

‘Night Breathing’ is another evocative piece, this time the mood an aftermath of contented domesticity:

the blue house breathes

trees caress the roof
gossiping to the wind
the cloud-grey cat dreams
birds into its magnetic mouth
the fridge is full as a harvest moon
my lover speaks sternly
to his unconscious
the floorboards creak their mild jokes
i breaststroke through the calm air
my daughter’s nest
blooms with her warm scent

and she is still breathing

this is enough

Likewise, ‘Lizard of Loss,’ the lovely following poem, focuses on grief and loss as represented in the drawing of a dead lizard:

you draw
in a delicacy of blue
this lizard
frail as pencil dust

A number of poems explore the double face of love/sex (‘Our Frequency,’ ‘Spice,’ ‘Dugong Map,’ ‘Sprinkler Waltzing,’) or invoke sexual politics (‘Stirring the Porridge,’ ‘Clothes Lines’). Others comment confrontingly on the war-games our politicians play (‘Never the Same,’ ‘Sarajevo’s Soccer Fields’). There are shape poems (‘Bulbs,’ ‘Beach Bellies’), kid poems, and poems that rely on clever word play, such as ‘The Curve of Her Hip’:

as elegant as the curve of a ship
as it breasts the wave-swell
as elegant as the swell-wave of her breasts
as they breast the waves of street air
her curves as elegant as elegance is hip

The collection has two centres of grief, firstly the separate and tragic deaths of the persona’s parents, and then the shared suffering of a sister with cancer. The resultant series of poems shows the poet working through a process towards eventual acceptance. ‘What You Showed Me, Father’ is a poem of non-acceptance, of a childhood sense of deprivation:

What You Showed Me, Father

is your genius for escape
in choosing
death head-on
three months before
my inescapable birth
you showed me
the power of absence
and silence
and genes
you pattern
the click of my patella
the kick of my freestyling legs
the lobe of my ear
the curl of my tongue
the curving chambers of my nautilus, fatherless heart

The more literal ‘She Turned Right’ and ‘Chrysanthemums’ deal with anger at the accidental, but avoidable, death of the mother. These poems achieve powerful effects through the shock value of words, but the more subtle ‘Patchwork,’ relying on the central image of ‘your idiosyncratic blanket of love,’ is a step further along in the process of recreating memory.

As if this suffering were not enough, the very fine ‘Metastasis’ rises to an immediate pitch of grief:

but now
when this poet       my sister
is death-clasped
the spider-cancer rocks
tending her like an egg sac
rocking her tender teeming mass
this spider poems her body
bares the knoll and beauty of her skull
sculpts her cheek bones
                      as sea winds erode stone
colours the creases of her flesh
until they are                              the gills of wild mushrooms
she burgeons words
words the spider cannot contain

poems bud from the gut she once described as

a concrete bunker housing radioactivity

I welcome her free-bursting words
but cannot comment
cannot sculpt
beside the spider
           whose needlepoint toes
                       hone relentless images
                                  absolutely clutterless

And then there are the ‘Glacier’ poems, which I first came upon in Blue Giraffe (and commented positively on in a review in Five Bells, vol.13 no.1). In context here, they read even more powerfully, especially ‘Glacier II: Terminal Moraine.’ ‘A Howling Affair’ and the low-key sequence ‘Melbourne Weather Forecasts’ bring this section on grief to a wry conclusion:

and finally tomorrow’s forecast

           it’s kind of like Melbourne weather it’s unpredictable but it just keeps going on and on
           and a lot of us go on living there in spite of it being like that

Another poem I meet with renewed appreciation is ‘Let Me Grow Old’ (Blue Giraffe, No.4), which I’ve previously described as ‘a nice comment on the resilience of art, and the subjectivity of perceptions of female beauty’ (Five Bells, vol.14 no.4). It’s always good when later readings confirm your first enthusiastic impressions. Finally, the poems on Tasmania, where Mercer has made her home, deserve mention for the warmth of their loyalty and humour:

you don’t need the tinted portfolio, Tasmania
the fake turquoise rivers
the glare-green parks
the toxic sunset skies
you need to know, Tasmania,
the first roll of film I shot here
recorded the angles of your clouds
alarming in their cool beauty
subtle colours softening my tired eyes
bedding me aloft in this new space

                                             (from ‘No More Garish Postcards’)


The Houses Here

as if they dread
the next beating
from that unpredictable husband
the weather
the houses here
hold themselves
small and neat
trying for well-behaved
hoping for no more blows…

Handfeeding the Crocodile is a book to be enjoyed, to be empathised with, to be moved by. Mercer’s finest poems in this collection stand up among the best.




Margaret Bradstock is a Sydney poet, editor and critic. She has published four collections of poetry, the most recent of which are The Pomelo Tree (Ginninderra, 2001), which won the Wesley Michel Wright Prize for Poetry, and Coast (Ginninderra, 2005). She has also won Henry Lawson and Banjo Paterson awards.