Reviewed by Magdalena Ball – Compulsive Reader
Anyone who has read Morgan Bell’s first poetry collection, Idiomatic for the People, will not be surprised by how innovative her new poetry book Pretend I Don’t Exist is. The book was written as a poetic response to the nonfiction book Wild Koalas of Port Stevens edited by Christina Gregory and uses a range of diverse linguistic techniques inspired by a deep and whimsical anthropomorphism. The immediate impact of Pretend I Don’t Exist is visual, almost instantly funny as words move about in Koala-like ways. This is augmented by the varied rhythms of the words, which slur, drip, become staccato, slide, halt, slip into silence and then into a machine-gun patter that calls to mind rap and jazz. The work calls to mind a wide range of styles from Joycean stream-of-consciousness to the sonic poetry of Jayne Cortez (I’m particularly thinking of “She Got He Got”) and includes paraphrases from William Faulkner and Cardi B as well as actual citations from wild koalas as mentioned in Wild Koalas of Port Stevens or taken from volunteers and carers who work in the Koala hospital. The result is both irreverently funny and deeply empathetic. Of course it is impossible for humans to know what a koala thinks and feels but in spite of the whimsy, the book feels true, not overtly humanizing the koalas but allowing their inner monologues to remain a little bit wild and chaotic:
Emptiness like two currants floating motionless in a cup of weak coffee their eyes ordered certitudes long divorced from reality as if a breath of that air which sees injustice done a damp steady breath out out whose every breath is a fresh cast dusty death with dice already loaded against them…
The book is structured into five sections: Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing and Adjourning, immediately setting up a sense of playfulness with the off-rhymes and linguistic puns. The poem titles are Similarly humorous and punny, playing on book or film titles, for example, “If on a Winter’s Night a Joey”, “The Long Dark Roadside of the Soul”, “We Need to Talk about Morton”, “Full Metal Scent Glands”, or “No Country for Old Bears”. The poetry utilises sonic effects like alliteration, rhyme and rhythm, with extensive repetition, unconventional punctuation and sentences that trail off. Then there are the visuals. For example, “A Tale of Two Joeys” spreads in jumping formation across two pages, the words moving in opposite directions. Words here are sometimes semantical but they are also art, sliding across the page, wiggling, bouncing, marching, and vanishing in ways that evoke the movement of the koalas, guiding the reading into a non-linguistic sense of joy, fear, loss, and discovery.
There are many stories in the book, with its own cast of real named Koala characters who open the book. They often work in groups of two or more, like like Dust and Breeze whose story of loss and discovery darts in alternate directions, or Mason, the orphaned joey who “aced the world’s audition but his credits played too soon”. Horse and Cherry are all in upper case, their names forming a story in grunted single words, punctuated by the use of bold typeface.
The rhythms throughout the book are decidedly funky, with bass beats, staccato, prose and rap sounds working together to create an innate music as in “Bear, Interrupted”’s: “Timmy got ripped from a Pouch dream” or the rap vernacular of “So Long, and Thanks for All the Leaves”:
Sammi took your gift, she wrap best, Diesel, Sammi got big, they impressed, Diesel, Sammi put the scamper on young Jeff, Diesel, Sammi be scratchin’ on young Jeff
Who you know leap like this?
Who you know feast like this?”
There’s so much richness in these twenty-five poems, words criss-crossing, melting down a page, shifting direction, causing the eyes to zig-zag up, down, sideways and across, disappear like an eye chart, stimulating the senses like a bush menu, changing font, bursting forth or fading gently. It feels throughout like animals in motion. Pretend I Don’t Exist is a delight to read – the kind of book a parent can have a lot of fun reading to a child (or vice versa) but also one that tells a serious and important story about the beauty of animal sentience, the rich interplay of the human and the natural, animate world, and perhaps most importantly, the precariousness of the latter, particularly when it comes to koalas who are increasingly vulnerability, facing a significant and rapidly increasing loss of habitat. Because Morgan Bell takes a Koala-eye view, this is done with an anthro-centric perspective that is very powerful. We play along with these creatures scurrying down casuarinas and upside down along branches and the edges of roads, or relaxing in high-canopies, and we also experience their failing vision, the loss of parents, hunger and intense thirst, and the difficult path to re-acclimatisation. It’s a terrific book, and one that will appeal to readers of all ages