Review: House Red by Di Cousens (Book)

Review by Amanda Anastasi

House Red by Di Cousens
After enjoying Di Cousens’ first collection – the reflective words and stunning photography of Freedom To Be – I did not need much coercion in grabbing her latest offering House Red. The cover is impressively funky and contemporary, and the content twice the size of Di’s modest first collection.

Upon opening the book, the reader is immediately struck by the extraordinary standard of the photography. It is rather like a book-form photographic exhibition, as much as it is a poetry collection. Most of the images feature portions of wall graffiti, Occupy Melbourne camps, close-up shots of bricks and mortar, a letterbox opening, fallen leaves, Brian Ferry in concert – all vivid, striking visuals that compliment the accompanying words.

While the images in Freedom To Be were predominantly majestic shots of India – a meditative document of the author’s travels – the photos in House Red are mostly depictions of Melbourne streets. The final photograph of the Brunswick Hotel is a real ‘coming home’ photo – indeed the home to many spoken word poets, including myself. This collection contains less nature shots (although there are some), and is distinctly more urban and ‘street’ as is the poetry. Yes, I am getting to the poetry!

The book begins with a very anarchic portrayal of urban life with Driving In Bangkok and Stopping In Traffic. Cellular Life, in contrast, depicts the highly structured aspect of the modern world, and the insular existence of this technological age in which we live.

Some poems are short and whimsical like The Price Of Wine, Lost Wisdom, Advice To Politicians and Airport Queue. These little poetic snapshots, while seemingly simple and light on first viewing, grow in resonance and meaning upon re-reading.

If in that moment
One thing had changed
Everything would have changed.

This passage from Sliding Doors reminded me of a conversation I once had with Di, where we were discussing the pros and cons of having children. She said something that was a variation on these words – words that I needed to hear at that time, and have stayed with me since. Greeting them again in one of her poems is testament to the personal honest nature of her work.

The voice in this collection is one with a curious thoughtful mind, a traveller and a free spirit. Poems such as Khadarnagar and Swat explore how reminders of the old world are always with us, and how each place is a mix of the new and old. The haunting Talking To The Chinese Terracotta Warrior also expresses this idea.

The reader feels a sense of shared humanity in poems like We Are Born Into This (inspired by Charles Bukowski’s similarly named poem), Times Of Not Being Real, Hard Drugs Strong Religion and Love. There is a gentle reflection in poems like Gardens, Birds, Skies and Urban, each poem a series of haiku, which Cousens writes comfortably in. For this reader, the most memorable of these are:

my father’s old face
crumbling and withered
a bleached tree in a dry paddock

spring blossom in July
trees have lost
their calendars

However, my favourite passage is from Leaving The Door Open:

He left at sunrise,
When the snow on the mountain peaks
Shines gold in the dawn

Summer also has some evocative moments. Poems like Afternoon Tea In The Drawing Room and Bremen West Germany 1966 seem well-suited to prose. I found myself wanting to know more about the people behind these poem and their histories, feeling that they should be part of a short story or a longer work of fiction.

Poetic images like the unemployed man holding the windscreen wiper and the woman in purple in the airport queue stay with the reader long after the poems are finished. The lines remind one of song lyrics in their natural and accessible style, and if so, the stunning photography is the music. However, the poems could very well stand alone without the accompanying images. Di achieves what all poets should aim for: saying much in few words and communicating directly with her readers.

House Red was launched on April 9, 2012 and can be purchased from Di personally at various Melbourne poetry events.

Amanda Anastasi is a Melbourne page and performance poet with a Bachelor of Professional Writing and Literature from Deakin University.  She is a two-time winner of the Williamstown Literary Festival’s Seagull Poetry Prize and a recipient of the 2011 Laura Literary Award’s C.J. Dennis Poetry Award.  This year she is a judge in the Ada Cambridge Poetry Prize and is working on her first collection 2012 and other poems.

Annie Solah