Review of Shrines of Upper Austria by Phoebe Power (Shortlisted Collection), published by DURA.
Updated: Jul 9, 2018
Phoebe Power (Carcanet, 2018); pbk, £9.99
Phoebe Power’s Shrines of Upper Austria beckons to the wayfarers. An amalgamation of poetry and prose, the collection is a seamless combination of imagery and narration. With its vocal fragments and lyricism, it is both political and perspicacious. Power’s Shrines of Upper Austria reads like the “humming” of a relic folk tune, remembered, re-sung, and re-written, aptly exploring the relationship between long-lost details, fresh introductions, and familiar impressions in a surreal and imaginative way.
“what young india wants” and “Rina” are powerful in their scrutiny of societal pressures and personal addictions; and yet, both poems seem to promise that the shadows, dancing in the dark behind the lens, will fade, and one’s dreams—like wide eyes—will forever be as “big and bare and blue” as hope and innocence.
Power’s collection is idyllic, a compilation of sacred relics that speaks to the holiness and divinity of the everyday ordinary by portraying ‘the moment’ as its own pilgrimage. In the “Austrian Murder Case,” for example, ‘moments’ are separated into sections. Here, the reader is forced to rely on single snapshots of a dismembered story in order to connect the dots between a unified narrative.
“see (1)” and “see (2)” are deserving of attention. These poems could be interpreted as a personification of the sea in which “She” is power and strength: “She looks on. She looks at herself.” Divers fit their masks and find her body, forced to fit things “together in their human way, to get to the bottom of the story.” These poems could also be read as a depiction of the power a young woman holds over her lover. Perhaps most powerful, is the interpretation that the “See’ is poetry itself; an iron cast—an ink shell—of a complete story. Presented in fragments, this story asks readers to dive beneath the words—as in Adrienne Rich’s “Diving Into The Wreck”—only to re-emerge with “insight into one dramatic story.”
“there was this fellow” is an unusual composition. The narrative begins “there was this fellow running about with his back out and a big hole in his lungs” and ends with “there was nobody there to help him no doctor they said,” and yet, interspersed between six, similar phrases, the narrator writes in italics:
he must have been alright if he was running about with his back out!
Here, Power clearly conjoins humour and horror in a disquieting, clever way.
One of the finishing touches in Power’s collection is “notes on climate change,” spanning three pages; the “reading,” the “blackout,” and the “subject.” Here, she returns to the imagery of water:
We could let go of the self and allow it to dissolve. With this in mind, changes that are coming are nothing more than a great wave. We wait, death grows towards us and widens its embrace. We don’t panic but are still, and it carries us away, at some time or another.
Towards the end of the collection, “Name” unpacks five moments in history, all of which belong to grandmother “Christl.” This lends itself to Power’s focus on recording memory. The poem “silver white winters that melt into springs” uses personal pronouns to give “voice” to the reader; including them in the “[living] in boots and overcoat, [eating] knödel, and [going] skiing and tobogganing.” It talks about the seasons, and life’s unpredictability. Shrines of Upper Austria encourages readers to capture moments—to hold fast to the self so that others might find strength in the personal way they too experience, recreate, and influence history.