A Hunger. Petra White. John Leonard Press.
Reviewed by Michael Byrne
Petra White was born in Adelaide in 1975. She now lives in Melbourne. Her books of poetry are: The Incoming Tide (2007), The Simplified World (2010), A Hunger (2014), Reading for a Quiet Morning (2017) and Cities (2021). With The Simplified World, she shared the 2010 Grace Leven prize. She also holds a Master’s degree in Public Policy and Management. She has also worked in this field. She has written about this work in her poem ‘The Sound of Work’ which features in A Hunger. In the sixth extrapolation of ‘The Sound of Work’, White refers to a certain type of worker that she works with:
There are those who have been here thirty years, always
at the same level, their jobs changing only with the government,
technology and so on, always working smilingly or whingeingly.
Some say they have no ambition; I say
they are the survivors, eclipsing redundancies,
performance management, boredom,
thirty years of train rides out to the suburbs,
their semi-god children outgrowing them,
plastered all over their pods like purpose.
White has an awareness of what is going on around her. In addition to her affection for the workers, White also has affection for something else in A Hunger. She is depressed and is somewhat soothed by the flowers of a plant (‘Magnolia Tree’):
I have moved my bed
to see it where it blooms,
on every twig the white flowers open.
White cleverly says something about her with this gesture, the faith she puts in the flowers. White is also clever in other ways (‘The Ecstasy’):
He is square in his suit again, the same man
in the same package, striding into the present,
meaning whatever a man can mean, a billion
years of male shoulders, male hair, male eyes,
shaking all that off, being only himself,
secure in the tight shell of his otherness,
glinting outwards and inwards,
his hand smooth as a long hill, his kindness
pocketed everywhere, let loose like singing coins,
his love, such as I know it, there in every breath,
light as a word on his lips, heavy as his body
on mine, love, about the size and shape of a man,
an embrace like the potter’s hands around
the spinning clay, spinning and spinning.
White deftly combines her affection for her lover with unconditional love for men in general. The poem also has technical nous. While ‘The Ecstasy’ is a serious poem, ‘Feral Cow’ utilises humour:
She tap-dances on the edge of the road,
entirely her own beast.
White’s usage of the word ‘beast’ is funny and nifty. ‘The Joyousness of Men’ is not humorous but captures White in a good mood:
When we run together I am natively
content as a dog running beside its person.
Gladly I step out into the fresh wind
with my endless legs and swinging arms,
my dog-like pant. He running beside me
is a ball of light in his yellow jacket.
The river runs backward beside us, crinkling
and brown in the dimming air. And on the other side
somebody has a fire going. Our house
is far behind us, we are running
into the night. He sprints in great joy, he splashes
around in his soul like a duck. He waves me forward
as I slip behind. His joy, he throws to me willingly.
Love is running as if nothing can stop it,
to a grave at the end of its own possible time.
It runs and runs and says let’s run again.
In the lines seven, eight and nine White displays a touch of the imagist (a necessity if a poet wants to create a sense of atmosphere). In ‘A Boy’, White also uses imagery:
There was something he had to remember,
cycling to the shops for his mother in the morning sun.
Milk, bread, what else? The main road licked his tyres,
a bus tossed itself past like a morning paper.
His future stretched out lazy as a cat, the day at school,
that vague distant afternoon tea adulthood must be.
His brothers and sisters at home were fighting, waiting for him
to calm them with shouts of his own, his mother
was watering the garden, haloed as a spider plant in her own
mysterious silence. The scene went on forever,
nobody changed, nobody grew up.
He squinted in the sun as it bellied up into his eyes,
he felt free, and thought only vaguely
of the milk, the bread, and not at all of the car that would come,
and the driver who’d say, all she saw was light.
The similes in lines four as well as five have a deliberate feel about them and aptly evoke a certain domesticity. White also has the imagination to conceptualise.
White gives each poem the treatment it deserves. White can be funny or serious. In some poems she has a sense of fun. There is an innocence about some of her poems, also. Her love poems give pleasure for the reader, who lives through her vicariously. Her depressive poems are poignant. Sometimes she breaks out of her comfort zone and conceptualises well. She has a unique voice and has originality. She is also a quite accomplished poet, and a pleasure to read.