Book review: How To Order Eggs Sunny Side Up, Lisa Collyer

A debut collection of poetry that breaks down taboos about the state of women’s bodies and the state of the planet.
Eggs. Image is a woman in a sleeveless green dress and a book cover of a doughnut shaped object.

In How To Order Eggs Sunny Side Up, Lisa Collyer comments on class, plant-life ecologies and procreant journeys. Beachcombing her way from rice paddies to Perth’s Crystal Palace to the Bibbulmun Track, the seamstress becomes an arborist and a luscious contemporary poet.

Collyer explores episodes in fertility as her breasts become feasts for others to squeeze and touch. A single press determines the viability of her eggs, fecundity to expiry. The panic button of the unexpected event suggests possibilities that remain in certain countries even after the overthrow of Roe versus Wade.

Yet the window Collyer chooses through autobiographical deliberations soon shatters, revealing a gaping grief of surrender to time – to the idea of viability. While the seamstress picks and unpicks the bodice of her dreams, Collyer crosses the generations. Handing the story to her grandmother, surgeons stitch her belly back from bits, and she is left with the burden of burying grief: 

I want to drown
in a cyanide mouthwash
around gold crowns
but I wear black.

For some things, there are no words, yet Collyer shapes the unspeakable into a glissando, from fever pitch to acquiescence: ‘Bury me shallow / plant natives, please.’ Then, on the cover of How To Order Eggs, she places no words at all. Instead, like her poems, shapes appear – textures and colours in the form of a docked tail. The oil on linen is a creation of Phil Day, publisher of Gazebo’s poetry imprint, Life Before Man Books. Hints and metaphor invite the reader to go looking for hidden answers in Collyer’s collection, deeper meanings that may have been given the chop, ending abruptly in a slew of coloured cells that still have the capacity to bleed. 

In a hand-signed inscription, the poet describes the collection she has sent me as ‘a spiky book’. I’d call it more rounded, plump tissue, the inner linings of a heart or a cervix, the blood of a womb pulsating, each page answering this collection’s inciting question of how much time is left. And what world is this we bear our children to anyway? 

The collection is wrapped like pork inside a lettuce leaf of metaphors, a san choy bow where the talk is all “open air”, but the book itself is “closed”. The journey into this poetic confluence of sexual destiny and defiance conforms to no norms or expectations set down by cultures, countries, mothers or even yearning. It is the story of the contemporary woman navigating her sense of when to conceive, intentionally or not, yet stories of her mother, her sister, her grandmother are also seamlessly stitched in. When to acquiesce? Boobs squish like fertility options, beacons that indicate abundance or fertility poverty and ‘Carnal Rites’ hint at the kill of intimacy and other reproductive disillusions: ‘in bed, lovers bleat/it’s what I want’.

Towards the end, Collyer asks, ‘When did I loosen my grip on decisions?’ Decisions carry on despite us, becoming our tale of the feminine, the carrier of eggs, of life, of everything forward-moving in the human experience, wanting to couple and uncouple in equal measure. Her mentor, Lucy Dougan, advises that art should go to difficult places and poems should be ‘dipping pools’. This, Collyer has done, seduced by brilliant inebriants that ‘synchronise with ghosts in tandem laps on suburban streets’ while studying ‘the mechanics of treading water’. In ‘Shatterproof’, she asks, 

What if I were glass?
my bones fired sand
fragility blown

There are no page numbers, no guides or explanations in this work. Instead, the reader is invited to turn each page, allowing the pieces to speak for themselves, stumbling upon the next event, as in life, circling the props of a wedding gown, a Hills Hoist, perhaps a child or a marriage that probably didn’t eventuate – and likely never will. Or maybe it is the unstitching of her sister’s marriage. Her mother’s marriage. Either way the stories are as circular as they are powerful. They unite at a cellular level. 

Read: Performance review: 35mm, Flight Path Theatre

The work is a testament to the benefit of developing emerging writers through not just residencies but also writing programs. This first book attracted many well-deserved opportunities for development and workshopping, which pays off in a debut that is bound to become an Australian classic. As in life, mysteries abound, but the answers are always there – ‘You’ll find it in seeds,’ Collyer says, given that seeds, like verdurous poets, are ‘plant kept envelopes of dormant hope’.

How To Order Eggs Sunny Side Up, Lisa Collyer
Publisher: Gazebo Book’s poetry imprint Life Before Man
ISBN: 9780645633764
Pages: 168 pp
Publication Date: September 2023
RRP: $26.95

Elizabeth Walton is a freelance writer and musician. Her words and music have appeared in The Weekend Australian, Oz Arts and ABC Radio and internationally.