The Lives Of Coat Hangers by Sudesh Mishra

(OUP, 2016)

Reviewed by Barbara Bailey

Sudesh Mishra is a contemporary Fijian-Australian poet and academic, currently Head of the School of Language, Arts and Media at University of the South Pacific, with four previously published books of poetry.

The Lives Of Coat Hangers is an unusual collection of poems. These new-collection poems seem initially to be simple, but quickly reveal a rich imagination and wit that touches on myth and metaphor. Mishra’s concern in this work is with the status and nature of poetry and he injects these poems with philosophical truths shown through everyday objects.

In “The Capacious Muse”, Mishra states that he will not rule anything out as a subject for a poem. The poem begins with ‘The muse of poetry will not proscribe’ and goes on to list all the things poetry is about – anachronisms, illogicalities, apostrophes, unusual juxtapositions, matter-of-fact statements and metaphor:

Allow unicorn and buzz-fly to be buddies in the same stanza.
Befriend anachronisms: Abishag and David joined by Viagra.

The poem “This Life” reads:

Let the gift not to write
Be the greatest of gifts;

Stand, poet, on the verge of grasping
What you shall never grasp –

This life, evening light,
Falling leaves in their fury.

It is a poem that accentuates the limitations of poetry. Meanwhile, Mishra’s “Butterfly” poem condenses the movement and noise of the butterfly, and implies that words cannot describe it. As an exercise in onomatopoeia, the result is amusing, and shows that no more words are necessary to describe a butterfly.

Floatsy fluttery
Floatsy fluttery
Fluttery floatsy

“The Lives of Coat Hangers” revels in Mishra’s anthropomorphic imagination. Coat hangers, he writes, are

Unable to shake off the chill in their shoulders,
                    They long to be held in the arms of a coat.

Then there is his poem about a Scarecrow: ‘An armpit of lice and a shouldered crow.’ Another notable poem is called “An Armchair”. The subject is humble and, as Mishra says, ‘It’s what it is – an armchair / Sitting up.’

I learned to sew on my grandmother’s treadle machine. Folded down, it became a desk for homework. So Mishra’s “The Brass Singer” evokes, for me, many childhood memories.

Do you recall, sad ghost,
how her bare right foot kneaded
the brass treadle
of a superannuated sewing machine?

It reminds me, too, of Thomas Travisano’s “An Essay on Elizabeth Bishop and Her Art”. In Geography 1V, Travisano wrote of the poet, ‘The sewing machine was piled high with old National Geographics always, as far as I remembered it […] occasionally they were lifted off and deposited some other place while she made herself a dress. She did beautiful sewing…’

I particularly enjoyed Mishra’s collection as a celebration of the ordinary. Light-hearted and serious by turns, his humorous “gust-proof door” poem evokes the poet’s island family life.

Father was a fix it man. He fixed the hinge on our gust-proof door
when it flapped an injured wing.

My brother spun his spinning top atop a palm spread out for alms.

Out in the yard a wind picked up and mother’s pegs rose in mutiny.

Hailed as ‘a major poetic voice in the South Pacific’, Sudesh Mishra infuses his work with an imaginative, fantastical, metaphorical and non-literal life. Such richness of imagery and wit makes The Lives of Coat Hangers a special treasury.