A book called Our Lady of the Fence Post (UWA Publishing, $22.99 pb, 105 pp, 9781742589121) by a poet called J.H. Crone is an irresistible proposition, simply as a notion. Luckily for readers, neither is at all fanciful. This verse narrative explores the events around the appearance in 2003 of a likeness of the Virgin Mary on a fence post at Coogee, near the site of a memorial for five local rugby players killed in the Bali bombings. Crowds of fervent worshippers flocked to the scene.
The elements of the real story are fantastical enough without any poetic embellishment: faith, anti-faith, nationalism, sensationalism, online abuse, grief whirled through the media at the time, all largely forgotten now. This heady mix, fading into the fog of vague recall, is a perfect ground for the narrative and allusive skills J.H. Crone has in abundance.
Female characters bear names with a Marian tinge: Mae the television reporter; Mari the bakery owner; a Muslim woman, Maryam; even an expert on religion called Maire: but this seems only fitting. J.H. Crone has come lately to poetry after a career as a documentary maker and editor, and though she has a documentarist’s skills with history, she also spins religion though everything, in the bakery, say: ‘Mari offers a slab of soft, air-filled / bread to Jesus, but she can’t eat. Perhaps / a caramelised cardamom brulee / tart? Jesus swallows a flake. Her dolour / pours out into the throng.’
There is conflict everywhere, between genders and faiths, and strange exaltations, as Mae falls/rises into a Catholic netherworld, and everything comes to an inevitable Cronullan climax – or rather, a set of blessed anti-climaxes. Ranging wide, with compassion and compression, Our Lady of the Fence Post might just be the first verse novel that is actually a novel.