HappenStance, 2011    £4.00Sphinx eight striper

Reviewed by Emma Lee, Richard Meier and James Roderick Burns

Emma Lee:

Tiger was inspired during a residency at Hobart, Tasmania which afforded the opportunity to learn more about the extinct Tasmanian tiger, formerly the world’s largest marsupial carnivore. There’s a brief, 62-second, burst of the creature on film in ‘Loop’:

And what we’ve got is what was shot:
short clips, fragments caught and stitched
together in a loop of black and white.

Nine lives? Not quite. It’s down. It’s out.
It’s on its feet and born again. Like a repetition
compulsion, like . . . like reincarnated light.

I like the repetition and internal rhymes, the hesitancy in the last line suggesting a sense of awe at seeing an extinct creature simply being itself on film (although I’m less sure about the “nine lives”, as the Tasmanian tiger wasn’t really a cat).

Elsewhere, in ‘Thylacinus Cynocephalus’, there’s a brief history of the Tasmanian tiger through its various names,

Didelphis cynoceplala (1806),Thylacinus cynocephala (1824).

Excursion into sub-order Dasyuromorphia:
Dasyurus cynocephalus
from dasyrus meaning “shaggy tail”.
Lagunta, corinna, laoonana, ka-nunnah

I’ve got you on the tip of my tongue.
You’ve got me under your skin.
Dog-faced. Dasyrus. Dog-faced Opossum.
Lagunta, corrina, laoonana, ka-nunnah.

Corinna could mean Brave. Corinna could be Fearless.
Wurrawanna Corinna, Great Ghost Tiger.
Lagunta, corinna, laoonana, ka-nunnah,
lowenin, cabbarrone-nenner, marnalargenna,
clinner, warternooner, lartner cannenner.

Listing words together for the delight in their sounds also reminds us of what we’ve lost, making the poem more than just a list. The irony of the love of something now extinct is explored in ‘Barcode’ where tiger emblems appear on CD sleeves, beer bottles and even a car number plate:

Now you see them. Now they’re gone.
Did this Tiger’s go-faster stripes
aid recognition in the loping pack?

Eucalypts, eucalypts—at speed,
late sun flickers through those these:
at the tarmac edge, off-cuts of fur, strange weeds.

Billboards, stores along the newly-metalled road:
ironic ads, that hide’s barcode.’

The only voice missing is that of the Tasmanian tiger itself.  This is a personal view but I would like to have learnt more about the creature’s habitat, prey and way of life. I felt I learned about the poet’s reaction to the subject—and Tiger is enjoyable—but I missed the subject’s voice.


Richard Meier:

Within the box, it growls, it twists,
scowls through its repertoire of tricks,
ignores the camera—or gurns up close, turns
again, to flop, to gnaw that paw-trapped bone.

The opening of 'Loop', the first poem in Cliff Forshaw's sequence of poems on the extinct Tasmanian Tiger (a carnivorous marsupial hunted to extinction by the middle of the 1930s), shows off Forshaw's formal and aural skill as a poet, with its musicality, its deft line-breaks and sense of poise. Even the pun on lupus in the title (the Tasmanian Tiger is also known as the Tasmanian Wolf) is lightly handled. There's nothing showy in these poems, simply a highly gifted writer doing what he does well.

I'm not much of a fan of sequences (somehow I always have suspicions about how deeply felt some of the poems are, and whether the poet wanted to make a few good poems into something of a body of work) and if I had one criticism of the pamphlet it would be that I felt the intensity of the opening poems dissipates somewhat as the sequence progresses.

I found, for example, the level of detail in the early poem 'Quirk', which describes the body (pickled in a jar, in a museum) of a very young Tiger presumably found in the pouch of its hunted mother, deeply suggestive of how moved the observer was:

Closer, where that curiously upturned snout
sniffs at its bung of dead trapped air,
a few surprisingly wiry bristles sprout

I didn't, however, quite sense the same degree of passion in, say, the later list poem 'Thylacinus Cynocephalus', or the final poem, the rather jaunty/triste ballad, 'Shot':

That pair of burning eyes,
that famous wolfish grin;
another extinct Tasmanian,
that damned smooth Errol Flynn.

Still, these are elegant and moving poems by a poet whose work I look forward to reading more of.

James Roderick Burns:

Pamphlets are curious things.  On occasion they punch well above their weight, each poem in the collection building on the achievement of the last up to a knockout finale. Other times they seem slight, with few high points and a thin feel that fails to add up to much at all. Very rarely they look like a bantam, but clobber like a heavyweight.

Tiger consists of eleven poems—eight sonnets, three free verse—over fourteen pages of text, and even with zoological apparatus and notes enjoys a chickeny (if stylish) appearance. When the reading begins, however, that impression disappears immediately. This is a powerful piece of work.

In regard to a stuffed specimen of the Tasmanian tiger, we look

Closer, where that curiously upturned snout
sniffs at its bung of dead trapped air.


Or sense the ghostly rattle of Old Hairy’s “endless prey”, “his last:”

.................the one
that’s slipped its skeleton through a crack in stone,
a white shadow in the rock that’s worn him down
to skin and bone.

Or mourn with the poet, obsessively circling this seductive, extinct beast as our single remaining image of it circles through a museum ‘Loop’:

Within the box, it growls, it twists,
scowls through its repertoire of tricks,
ignores the camera – or gurns up close, turns
again, to flop, to gnaw that paw-trapped bone.

These are moments of limpid achievement, the sonnets particularly compacting massive bundles of idea and feeling into tiny diamond-sharp places.  Why the resonance of this one, uncommon loss?  How can we appreciate its small charm against a background of rapid urban apathy, of bright empty culture?  Why, above all, does the tiger come to serve as a memento mori— “what you’ve got’s gone Dutch with death”—to a world unable to appreciate the loss it represents?  The poet brings to bear considerable skill to set these questions spinning in every line.  It is a magnificent achievement in a minuscule space, working to underscore the pathos of an impoverished culture obsessed with surface sparkle:

when I see, quicksilvered against what’s aborted, jarred,
my reflection caught upon that quirk,
light from that screen turning us all to silent stars.