Homing, the one-word title of Shevaun Cooley’s debut poetry collection, immediately invites a variety of interpretation. Homing, as in zeroing in on and returning to a point of origin; homing, as in finding a suitable place to live; or homing, as in feathering one’s nest to turn a house into a home. What each of these meanings shares with Cooley’s rewarding collection is an affinity with the idea of place and the subsequent concept of belonging.
Cooley is a Western Australian poet and essayist. Homing’s long opening poem, “Without catching a thing I was not far from the truth,” takes the reader on a Western Australian road trip over an Easter break. The mix of local place names and traditional day names from the Christian calendar used as subtitles evokes an uneasy and somewhat surreal atmosphere. Add in various ominous animal portents and what appears to be a strained romantic relationship and you have an unsettling, yet fascinating poem that sets the tone for what is to follow:
They say Easter is a moveable
feast. Does that mean it can
be carried like us at speed,
the fields rushing by on
both sides, emptied
At last at Lucky Bay, we swim, though dusk
is coming on. On the shore, in the decayed seaweed,
a young kangaroo gnaws on something. We close
in on it. It’s not afraid of us. That’s a dead fish, I say.
It is stiff in the roo’s paws, hardened to petrifaction.
Though an Australian poet, Cooley has also lived for a significant time in North Wales. In the book’s notes, she writes that each of Homing’s poems, whether set in Australia, Wales or elsewhere, takes its title from a line of verse by Welsh poet R.S. Thomas. Where Homing broadens the idea of place and belonging (and longing) is in this straddling of two hemispheres. The literary mixing of place echoes Cooley’s uncertain homing process; where is home when so much of one’s experience is geographically bi-located?
Cooley’s use of intertextuality is not limited to Thomas. The collection makes reference through epigraphs, borrowed lines and snippets of translation to sources as broad as Raymond Carver, Ted Hughes, Baudelaire, Jacques Derrida and Paul Muldoon.
Joining these famous writers are animals – innately expert at homing – which populate much of the collection. Kangaroos, weasels, eels and crayfish are just a selection of the creatures the reader encounters throughout Homing’s pages. Often they serve to signpost strangeness or the unnatural, such as the carnivorous kangaroo in the opening poem or the beached false killer whales in ‘Soundings’. Some of the book’s most successful pieces are those that take animals as their main focus. Other times, as in popular poetic tradition, Homing’s animals serve as a metaphor for our own trials and tribulations, as in, “Not like me whose migrations are endless”:
The albatross is a ship.
It might flounder into the sea
for want of wind. The albatross knows
lack is the heaviest thing of all.
To shipwreck an albatross,
make it land on water, then take
the wind out
Of its sails.
While the themes of belonging and longing for the certainty of home(s) dominate much of Cooley’s impressive first collection, she also highlights the importance of the journeys we take to and from our places of origin. Homing’s poems contain a rich depth and an elegance of language that will serve them well on repeat visits, something many readers will gladly embark upon.
Benjamin Dodds is a Sydney-based poet who was born in the NSW Riverina. His debut collection, Regulator, was published by Puncher & Wattmann Poetry in 2014. His poetry and reviews have appeared in Best Australian Poems, Stars Like Sand: Australian Speculative Poetry, Meanjin, Southerly, Cordite and on ABC Radio National’s Poetica program. Dodds co-developed and co-judged the inaugural Quantum Words Science Poetry Competition associated with Writing NSW’s 2018 Quantum Words Festival.