New Welsh Review
The Shaking City
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Many of us find ourselves reflecting on the past with a certain fondness as we head towards uncertain times. There is an absolute quality to history, a sense of normalcy and an assurance that events we remember will remain unchanging. Frequently, in returning to the comfort of our memories, we become guilty of reviewing them through rose-tinted lenses. We remember times gone by as more welcoming and peaceful than they may have originally been, the truth of the matter eluding us in our escapism. Nevertheless, our earlier lives are often remembered in vivid, personal detail, painting a picture of familiar warmth in contrast to the harsh coldness of our confusing present times.
Cath Drake’s poetry collection, The Shaking City, captures the feeling of nostalgia for easier times in the wake of contemporary uncertainty while retaining a profoundly human approach. Memories recalled here frequently fixate on minute detail. The kind which might root itself into the minds of people who lived these moments: the worn furniture of a student house, the particularities of the house’s inhabitants, the way the branch of a tree carried the weight of the speaker in their youth, the childhood dog in the prime of its life and the various quirks of former classmates. These deeply personal moments are drawn into a stark dichotomy with the reality of our current age, juxtaposing the fondly remembered against the states they have fallen into with time. Classmates may grow apart and go their separate ways towards divergent futures of dramatically different circumstances, while the beloved family dog grows old and weary, and childhood safe havens fall into disrepair. The poem ‘House of Bricks’, for example, depicts a troubled family household, several generations of trauma contained within its walls, both echoing events which its older residents lived through in more explicit detail and portraying the more abstract anxieties of a younger child:
My dad grew up in the Depression: he knows. In our house of bricks, there was no Depression, but I dreamt of a hurricane that levelled our house.
This world is one where strange and unlikely people, places and events can express the meaning behind these poems in unique and fascinating ways. Anxieties often reveal themselves in bizarre ways: a teacher disappearing and seemingly transforming into a huge jellyfish (an expression of his apparent spinelessness), encounters with a mythical Bunyip, and a particularly memorable passage about fashioning the hide of the world into a handbag which harks back to the role of capitalist industry in the climate crisis. These grant Drake’s poetry its own distinctive identity without sacrificing its relevance to current affairs, an impressive balancing act for which the collection ought to be commended.
However, this is not to say that the collection merely wishes to wistfully remember the past as an escape from troubles faced presently. It becomes immediately apparent that its ambitions stretch beyond this, most obviously through its strikingly nuanced and thoughtful portrayals of the histories it dwells upon. Cracks begin to appear in the facade of comfortable domesticity set up by the narrator, uncovering persistent traumas in childhood homes, friendships collapsing in adolescence and gradually worsening societal conditions. While many take history for granted, Drake’s poems are commendable for refusing to shy away from addressing historical events which frequently find themselves whitewashed. As the text branches out, poems such as ‘Finding Australia’ discuss issues surrounding the brutality and legacy of colonialism, while ‘Considered Questions’ covers casual bigotry faced by a group of black artists:
When the questions are open to the audience there is fidgeting, then someone asks how Hip Hop informs their work. But none of the artists have much interest in Hip Hop. Another asks if modern African art is having a resurgence – one of the artists mentions an African artist they admire that no one else has heard of.
These are topics which warrant investigation by those less aware of such struggles. Though many of its anxieties manifest in more abstract ways within the text, this book makes a point of discussing the climate crisis and related ecological concerns. It is effectively elaborated upon in poems echoing the threats posed to the planet and our personal freedoms by excessive commercialism, while others expose the dangers of a rapidly diminishing environment. These passages lend Drake’s poems a striking sense of urgency.
Befitting its title, The Shaking City depicts its present times as existing on shaky foundations, the idealised memories we hold of the way things were and should be giving way to uncertain, chaotic futures. Speaking to the potent contemporary anxiety of finding oneself in tumultuous, nerve-racking times, the text presents its topics in accessible and relatable ways which promise to engage its readers. Its unfettered creativity and sharp, critical mind work alongside one another to deliver a poetry collection equal parts fascinating, essential, abstract and educational. The insights it provides into the major struggles of our era and the particularly intimate approach it takes in doing so create a truly worthwhile literary experience.
Oliver Heath is a reviewer-in-residence in a partnership with Aberystwyth University.