I ’ve quoted Nietzsche before: “Of all that is written, I love only what a person has written with [their] blood.” Writers, artists and poets, we bleed our words. We can’t not.
Nearly two years ago I fell into online discussion with Thuy On about the pitfalls of courtship in our age. On my side, it was with a kind of awed disbelief. This cosmopolitan, witty, beautiful poet, and me, inexperienced, naïve, and only recently delving into the unrelenting world of dating. She based in Melbourne, I in Sydney, both of us thoroughly disillusioned.
It is with painful self-consciousness that I write this. Sorry, Thuy. You’re elegant, cultured, and blade-sharp. I’m a nothing semi-writer, and my self-deprecating nature condemns me to feeling fraudulent and still a little star-struck. You don’t know I’m posting this after reading Turbulence the second-time through, consuming it during stolen iso-lunches.
In the months we spoke, Thuy would at times share with me a snippet she was toying with for “the collection”. How sacred it felt – the words still embryonic. The way I imagined it, she cast those words like spells, fresh from tangled sheets, flaying them from the skin of unworthy suitors.
Courtship has forever consisted of rituals and rules, written and unwritten. Coded conduct. We’re far from the careful principles of seduction in Austen’s genteel age. Today, we’re ‘Tinder-burnt, Bumble-fumble and Ok-stupid’ (as per the title of one of my On favourites). Too much choice. Everyone sub-or-self-consciously searching for the bigger, better deal. The constant delirium of access and notification. A false-painted picture of a persona who does not match reality. The pain of rejection as we, human beings, are ignored commodities, because it’s faster to swipe swipe swipe.
On, sharp-witted as any heroine in those genteel novels, might long for the more intense burn, and not the flash-in-the-pan. While much of modern courtship is all surface, she plumbs the depths, searching for something more profound – more feeling. This bubbles in the sardonic disappointment palpable in ‘Rom coms ruin it for everyone’, ‘Swipe left’, and the aforementioned ‘Tinder-burnt…’ (who a glorious, baritone-voiced friend recited aloud in a Zoom birthday meet up, thank you, my darling William).
In the past, I shyly claimed I did not “like” poetry. This is because to claim an enjoyment of the form requires courage. You risk being perceived a wanker sophist. Thuy On’s poetry doesn’t care for your labels. Her lines etch unapologetically into your skin, like scores from a lover’s nails. She seduces and plays with words. She has no fucks to give. Turbulence is a whirlwind of loss, lust and longing. It is desire un/requited. It is life in sensual, sinuous detail, without garish poesy.
I could almost blush, reading:
I want you to draw me
capture me in chiaroscuro
you prone me rearing above‘Art’
I want to unzip your mouth
green light your eyes
to go go go‘Tattoo’
Each word in the place it should be. On twists language to her will. When she wants to seduce, she wraps words like honey and velvet. If scorned, if disappointed, she wields venom and fang:
I want to rose prick fingers
on this blush-coloured
rictus grin of a day
without a key.‘February 14’
She writes fast, she once told me. Words are On’s playthings, objects to manipulate with light, deft skill. There is no pretence to her poetry, rather a casual, accessible grace.
Even before the wasteland of the COVID-19 epidemic, the publishing industry was struggling. It was frankly heartbreaking that Thuy On’s first collection nearly missed publication when UWA was on the cusp of being rolled down after almost 85 years. Then the epidemic prevented formal launch and promotion in usual avenues – a shitty blow. Yet Turbulence is a resilient book, as ferocious as its creator.
Buy Turbulence (I did) https://uwap.uwa.edu.au/products/turbulence