Review: Tilt by Kate Lilley

Tilt, the third collection of poetry by poet and academic Kate Lilley, is divided into three sections. The first and titular seems biographical, beginning with the wonderfully evocative title poem. In it a young woman recalls working at the diner Fonzies in the 1970s where the girls dress as Dolly Parton. Like many early jobs, it’s a mix of fun – the first flush of independence and the excitement of Brooke Shields coming to visit – and boredom. But there’s also danger for a young woman, the junior manager who sexually harasses them and the rape and murder of women in the streets outside. And there’s nostalgia too, as the good times corrupt and the rose-tinted goggles come off:

The art students were the first to go,

taking their joie and their LSD.

I was reprimanded for reading

and stayed to long on my break upstairs and Patches

watching the drag show and drinking Bacardi.

It is tough poetry, the language hard and polished, full of objects and proper nouns. The collection only gets tougher. Subsequent poems tackle discovering queer desire, and the poet’s relationship with her family, particularly her mother, the poet Dorothy Hewett. “I’ll never get over (not) having you as a mother,” Lilley writes achingly in Memorandum. Lilley has described elsewhere her mother offering her and her sister up to her male artist friends as a kind of formative experience. The poetic rendering, in Party Favour, is minimal and harrowing:

Lattice of pain

blood splatter

this is what I’ve been raised for

In the next section, Harm’s Way, things get trickier, their subjects more diverse and obscure. The titular poem draws from the bureaucratic language of Australia’s refugee policies; Topeka that of psychiatry; Trove about a bizarre case of a judge who sexually exploited young men in Arkansas. I couldn’t begin to fathom what Civil Wrong is about, but let the legalese wash over you and you might begin to hear its poetry:

Eggshell skull, trespass to chattels

reprobation, reversal of approval

the fact of the earth and everything

of a permanent nature over or under it

including structures and minerals.

Eggshell skull is the legal doctrine about a victim’s vulnerabilities; “earth and everything” suggests the right the state has to minerals beneath the ground, but the poem itself foregrounds the sounds and rhythms of the words, using their meanings to gesture towards and evoke rather than explain.

The final section, Realia, doubles down on this interest in the physical properties of language and objects. Poems like Wax Composition 1926, Outer Wear, School Set and Valet de Chambre are essentially catalogues, descriptions of artworks, clothes, dressers that you might find on a museum wall. They are banal, even if there is sensuality in the materials: “pink silk binding”, “mother-of-pearl buttons”, “white wool coat matching hat (moth damage)”.

Lilley foregrounds these poems in a short essay titled Garbo At Wit’s End, in which she considers what the archives of the actress can tell us about her life, particularly after her retirement to New York in the 1950s. Like all celebrities, Garbo was forced to balance her public projections with her inner world, with the added complication that she was queer and deeply private. A Lot Description for an auction of personal items puts it almost pornographically bluntly:

…. approximately twenty black and white unpublished snapshots of a topless Garbo with their negatives taken when [Garbo and her lover Mercedes de Acosta] had a tryst in Silverlake, Nevada, a number of negatives showing a nude de Acosta that Garbo took, pressed flowers and a lock of Garbo’s light brown hair in an envelope …

Garbo would likely have seen this fossicking as an invasion of privacy. To her lover she wrote:

I close up like a clam to all people who always find everything out. Take what is offered for the moment and that is yours.

In this light the poems take on a different shape. They reveal and hide among their detail. I latch onto any aberration, like the wooden figure of a boy “missing his flower” in School Set, hungry for what it might reveal about its owner. Queer folk have often been careful not to leave themselves behind in the archives; what’s left is often a trail of bread crumbs. These poems are coded, resisting and twisting away from prying eyes. Sapphic Stanzas celebrates the power of this hiding in plain sight, of plausible deniability:

A few photos in the altogether prove

nothing. Disinhibited, sure, and Nordic.

Just Tomboy types relaxing, taking the air:

kind of genius.

Some of these poems are about Garbo herself, but they widen to other queer figures. The gorgeous Weather Channel begins with a stanza from Tennyson’s In Memoriam, dedicated to the poet’s beloved friend. It gets weirder, seemingly becoming a video call between two people on opposite sides of the Atlantic, the speaker watching the TV weather “the missing channels streaked with snow/queer cloud constellations/and mixed precipitation”; the weather “unseasonably warm/massed birds at sunset wheeling in unison”, like auguries of climate change. Other highlights are Association Copy with its “blazing eyes of violets” and “comb-marbled leaves”; and Commonplace:

printouts sheaved and stooked

swifts and jackdaws

sending messages in light-time

The final poem, Coda, returns us to the present, in Sydney. The poet, perhaps walking down the street after lecturing, runs into an ex student. “She tells a story about sexual assault,” Lilley writes, “I tell one too”. They move on, back to their own thoughts and observations after finding a moment of awful common ground. These poems are all about the hidden things, the weight words and people carry around with them. They are playful and bitchy, austere and tricky, hard but with soft centres. While at first they resist prying eyes, spend some time with them and they might begin to reveal.

Gay rating: 5/5 for queer themes and some queer sex.

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