When we are one hundred and thirty
pages old and it is still night, you place your hand
on my shoulder and still the shovel I’ve been swinging
into darkness. This is place of many walls,
many arms, endless caverns where we are
always at work turning what was into what will be.
Nekhau is my second encounter with the work of Australian poet Rico Craig. It’s his third collection. I read and wrote about his debut collection, Bone Ink, back in 2017 when I was still building my confidence as an amateur reviewer of poetry. In the meantime I have published a few of my own poems and written about a variety of poetic collections, but I still see myself as someone who lacks the language to critically analyze poetry and am quite comfortable with simply allowing myself to respond or, as I suggested when I set out to review Bone Ink, write through the experience of reading a collection.
With this new work, the focus is love, that most essential and ancient poetic theme. Craig is, as he says, asking the reader to “sit with love, to share hopes and fears.” Swimming through the collection, offering a shimmering thread of connection, are fish—real and talismanic alike. The “nekhau” of the title are small metal fish-shaped amulets created by Ancient Egyptian craftsmen to be attached to a loved one’s hair as protection against drowning. These charms are echoed explicitly and implicitly throughout:
These nekhau-poems aim to preserve and shield: they are reminders of dangers near, distant, even imagined, that bear upon our experience of love. Their existence becomes a rehearsal of loss and an expression of hope.
The lyric “I,” then, carries the capacity to speak for any of us, our loved ones, friends and families, as the poet mines the intricate and intimate dynamics of our interrelationships with one another, in a world born of flesh and dreams.
Nekhau is divided into three sections—End, Nekhau, Future—and to move from one to another there is a sense of a change of environmental awareness. The first and longest section, “End,” seems to speak to an abstracted space in which corporeal and chimerical worlds meet; a dream-like quality infuses the poems. The central section which opens with the title poem, “Nekhau”, a piece that also appears in fragments sprinkled throughout the book, holds to a more immediate domesticity and familial themes, again with an otherworldly tint, while many of the poems in the final part, “Future,” are set in locations abroad or otherwise marked by an a away-from-homeness. Across the collection, in addition to the small fish glimmering through the verses, distinct motifs link poems directly and indirectly, erupting in a visceral language that transcends experience. I could quote endlessly from this delicious collection but this, a length of the closing passage of “Black Swans” speaks volumes, distilling the power of Craig’s poetic imagination:
The river is a misshapen question and we answer, waking,
white air, the love beneath an eyelid. Our molecules crush
against pale ether; our songs float on water, fill culverts,
push against the scarp. All night we protect the rocks,
hide them in our sleeves; and when sunrise wakes us,
we lift from earth. I’m floating above the bed,
beside you, in a half-dream light shines into. My ears are filled
with sounds—lungs expanding, the river expelling life.
There are shapes hidden below our skin and each morning
I remember you as clearly as blood remembers a vein.
Love is cellular, in the sky, and you are still beside me. We will rise
and move into the day, encased in the people we are; we will drift
from this place, there will be buses to catch, clouds to be;
and for a moment it is impossible to know what has become of me,
become of you, if there is an I. It’s possible the scientists
have been truthful and we are clouds of swirling
matter, and only our pact with vision keeps us solid.
With his debut collection, Bone Ink, Craig was engaged a form of storytelling, slipping into characters, taking a frustrated attempt at prose writing and turning it into fragments of stories of suburban youth and riffing on artistic and historical themes. Now, two collections later his canvas is broader, more ethereal, but not divorced from quotidian routines or harsh contemporary realities. As he carries his reader (listener?) along a current sparked by the magic and the mundane, summoning fear and hope, one sense that the nekhau he invokes as a theme are also guiding his own passage, and growth, as a poet.
We are home you say, and I recognise nothing
of this darkness, only artefacts we have collected,
on we have rubbed across our skin,
treasures you have polished from dust.
Nekhau by Rico Craig is published by Recent Work Press.