Geoff Page reviews “Bull Days” by Tina Giannoukos

Bull Days

by Tina Giannoukos

Arcadia Press


Reviewed by GEOFF PAGE

Tina Giannoukos’s first book, In a Bigger City (Five Islands Press 2005), was a highly evocative and rather unsparing portrait of Melbourne at the time. The observations were close and clear-eyed, the tone generally colloquial. There was also a considerable social range in the poems though many of the protagonists seemed to be somewhat down on their luck.

Giannoukos’s second book, Bull Days, a collection of 58 sonnets, is very different and not just because of the stricter form employed. Sonnet sequences go back to the late Middle Ages and in their contemporary form (where rhyme and consistent line length are not considered essential) they offer poets considerable flexibility as well as an impression of on-going form.

Almost all the poems in Bull Days are written in the first person and are seemingly confessional (though, of course, this may not be the case). As in most of In a Bigger City the narrator is not very fortunate in love and many of the poems lament poor treatment by lovers who have proved to be less worthy than they seemed at first. A few poems are specifically erotic; most are more generalised. Occasionally, as in “Sonnet  X” and “Sonnet XII”, the narrator seems to change. In the first we have the lines “These breasts are honey to your eyes, / nipples harden as lips close around them”. In the second we have “Her breasts are honey to my eyes, nipples / harden as lips close round them.”

In other poems the (presumably) female narrator seems to identify with a bull being slowly tormented and killed in an arena — along perhaps with mythical suggestions of the minotaur. The last ten lines of “Sonnet XX”, for instance, do much to explain the book’s title and dramatise the “lover’s complaint” theme that runs through most of the collection. “Sex is not easy, but it is natural. / I am your bull charging you and you, / a working matador, show your control, / drive the steel into my heart. / When you removed your blackwinged hat, / recall her to whom you dedicate this bull’s death. / What trophy to keep? My ears, my tail, my hooves? / No, throw the body parts to your sweetheart. / I hope she hurls flowers at you for it. / The crowd will wave their handkerchiefs.”

To some readers this extended metaphor will be poignant and effective. To others, it may seem excessive as do some of the book’s metaphors to this reviewer.  I think particularly of “the mellifluous alphabet of ache” (“Sonnet XV”) or the simile “his sensuous fringe / like blond rivers of yearning” (“Sonnet XXIII”).

Not all of the book, however, is at this level of emotional drama. Occasionally, Giannoukos returns to the colloquial which was such a feature of her first book. “Sonnet XVIII”, for instance, begins with the feisty lines: “All this politicking. It’s a sign. Yeah! / Nothing in it if you’re single. Fuck! / Thirty per cent of women live alone. Whoa! / Let’s work out a way to tax silence. Cool!” Bull Days could probably have benefitted from a little more of this kind of thing.

“Sonnet XXI” is also a welcome change from the tearful and revisits the talent for sardonic social observation which characterised In a Bigger City. At times the integration of dialogue and clever rhyming is reminiscent of Sydney poet John Tranter’s skill with the form — and it’s no coincidence, perhaps, that twelve of this poem’s lines rhyme in the way one might expect. The first four lines establish the tone: “ ‘At the café? Eat in? Or take-away?’ / Oh, that’s my lover being open-handed. / That’s fine for him. He says it’s so passé / the wine-and-dine obsession. I’m branded … “

Taken as a whole, Bull Days, has the flexibility and variety we have come to expect of the sonnet sequence over the centuries. It has more than a few entertaining moments, as the above indicates, but it also strays into the over-written at times. Some readers may complain (in an old-fashioned way) that most of the sonnets don’t rhyme and that many don’t use the pentameter consistently but these features operate mainly to enhance the book’s diversity of tone and manner — which is considerable.

It’s an interesting exercise, on finishing Bull Days, to look back over the opening lines and see what they promise. “Sonnet II” starts: “When you touch me it is the hand of God”. That sounds a bit grand. “Sonnet XLIX”, on the other hand, begins: “My lover is shitty-eyed” and goes on engagingly to point out that: “He will not sit with my friends, whom he calls amoral, / so he sits alone relishing his principles. Now he’s forlorn / and a hypocrite, enjoying surreptitiously / the wobbles of the waitress’s sallow breasts.”

It is in poems like this that Giannoukos is at her artful best: those alliterating “w” sounds (“wobbles of the waitress’s”), the hissing onomatopoeia of “surreptitiously — and so much of the narrator’s irritation and resentment packed into that single word “sallow”. 

It is also good to to see the Melbourne-based Arcadia imprint making one of its relatively rare excursions into poetry on this occasion.

GEOFF PAGE’s 1953 (UQP) was shortlisted for the 2014 Prime Minister’s Literary Award for poetry. He lives in Canberra and has published 21 poetry collections, as well as novels, memoir and biography. He edited The Best Australian Poems 2014 and 2015 (Black Inc.) Hard Horizons is forthcoming in 2017 from Pitt St Poetry