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Review: The Herring Lass, by Michelle Cahill

In a 2011 interview with the Goethe Institut Australia, Michelle Cahill spoke of how her work explores an 'imaginary habitation in many places'. The Herring Lass is the latest phase of this exploration, demonstrating Cahill's ability to move and connect repeatedly across massive distances.

The sea, oceans, and bodies of water all serve as the connective tissue of this collection, tracing the edges of the world and all the stops Cahill makes along her way. But expansive as this movement makes the book, the individual poems themselves are acutely observed, the images sharply drawn, the character studies intense and specific, so that each poem has at its centre a stillness, a feeling of a breath held so as not to disturb the moment.

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Cahill's ear for of language is a delight and provides a counterpoint to the contemplative, often dark tone of her poems. Here is a poet who is at ease referencing everything from Classical Greek dramatic conventions to text and internet speak, so that each poem feels like a treasure hunt. She revels in words, in sound and reference.

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This is work that demands re-reading, that requires the reader to taste the words, to feel them rolling off the tongue, to hear them ringing in the air.

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This is a collection of great depth, both intellectual and emotional. Cahill's voice never falters as she sweeps the reader along from location to location, bringing each alive for the duration of the poem. Through it all, Cahill's voice is erudite but also curious - there is a sense of deep thought given to the smallest details, and an understanding and appreciation of their importance. Although she covers great physical distance, the poems are emotionally involved and keenly felt, showing the multitudes that one individual can contain. The itinerant Herring Lass haunts the whole book in this way, her small, sharp knife probing moment after moment before she must move on.