Of Llamas and Piranhas by VALERIE VOLK

Though the poems in this book take the reader on a South American journey from Chile to the Galapagos, it is not just another travel book. It’s a personal invitation in the form of a poem a day to join the writer in strange and exotic places. The spectacular beauty of cascading water at the Iguassu Falls, a weather beaten face in a Peruvian marketplace, the roasted guinea pig on the Last Supper table in Cusco Cathedral’s altar picture  – these were among the triggers for the daily poem. Of Llamas and Piranhas is an individual record of moments that became memories.


Read more cover comments below...open and collapse each review by clicking on the title.

COVER COMMENT: Antonia Hildebrand (Editor: Polestar Writers’ Journal).

Valerie Volk has an eye for the fine detail. The quirky insight is something her poet’s eye latches on to and the result is poetry that is dazzling in its attention to the complexities of human nature and of nature itself. Volk delves into these complexities and uses them to craft fine poetry that lingers long after the book is closed.

COVER COMMENT: Rob Walker (Poet and critic).

Valerie Volk’s collection of poetic postcards from Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Peru, Ecuador and The Galapagos is a literary record of her tour of South America. It’s also more.

Toy town houses crammed together which seem products of a child’s paintbox also bear messages of dissent against Pinochet. Of llamas and piranhas alludes to an arc of history from the Mayan and Mapuche, through the conquistadors to the Girl from Ipanema and slum tourism of the favellas. Volk observes dancers who came to sculptured rest/poised in each other’s arms, camera-snapping tourists in the bird park more like the hungry vultures /than the voracious birds and Christ the Redeemer who needs a cleansing from the hazards/of the modern world. 

In her observations and reflections of animals – including humans – Valerie doesn’t judge: So, after all,/we are a part of one vast world/where interlocking parts/create a jigsaw whole.

These poems will spark an interest whether you’ve visited this beguiling continent or not!

COVER COMMENT: Mark Worthing (South Australian author and editor).

In Of Llamas and Piranhas Volk walks us through the jungles of the Amazon, the ruins of Machu Picchu, the crowded streets of Buenos Aires and the churches of Santiago with the alacrity, concision and passion that can only be experienced through the eyes of the poet.

Robin Hillard   Polestar Writers' Journal   #33  July 2017


The title poem of Valerie Volk’s collection, Of Llamas and Piranhas, captures the complexity of her travels in South America.

  She has an eye for the scenes that will bring her stories to life. The brightly coloured townhouses on the steep hills of Valparaiso are like ‘products of a child’s paintbrush’ and ‘the sight of / tangled wires for stolen power,’ shows ‘grinding cycles of a poverty’ of the favelas in Brazil.

  She looks below the surface of the popular tourist sights to uncover a complexity which deepens our knowledge of the fascinating continent.In ‘Plaza de Armas’ in Chile, she is not satisfied with the ‘tales of the Incan empire’ she wants to know about the Mapuche, the people ‘whose land this was / before sun-worshipping Incas.’ And on Machu Picchu she writes about ‘ancient Incan workers busy with / potatoes, melons, avoadoes,’ then describes a different crop, tourists of many different nationalities ‘so different, so diverse / on these same terraces.’

  In a contrast of savagery and gentleness she takes us from the grasslands of the Andes where the llamas have ‘foolish fond soft muzzles’ and ‘gentle gaze’ to the Amazon waterways where piranha’s ‘jagged teeth are razor sharp / in predatory mouths.’ But in these poems nothing is quite as simple as it looks. ‘Llamas spit / And who knows? Possibly / piranhas love their young.’ She finds a similar juxtaposition in turmoil and peace at the Iguassu Falls where ‘plumes / of water spurt with force towards / a waiting sky’ and to seals which are ‘lazily at play / unfazed by spume and spray.’

 In the jungle when the tourists note ‘the anaconda, coiled and deadly,’ trees with poisoned spines and enormous spiders they know ‘we’re right to treat / this expedition cautiously.’ But they also see their guide replace ‘every creature just where / it was found, anxious to preserve / the jungle life as it is meant to be.’

 As we read these poems we realise that while we might travel through a different country as tourists we must also travel through time and our own lives.The poet shows us this when she describes the tango as ‘the dance of love’ and reminds us that love, like the dance, requires ‘learning /how to be together.’

 At the end of her journey through this strange and wonderful continent she finds familiar patterns and reflects that ‘what we have been given / has been a time of richness / which like life itself … /demands our gratitude.’



Claire Bell  (Literati  -  South Australian author and editor).

 Of Llamas and Piranhas

A poetic journey through South America   Valerie Volk  Ginninderra Press, 2017

Thirty eight poems, each with a black and white photograph, tell the story of Volk’s travels from Australia to Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Peru and Ecuador, and home again. Each day she records impressions from that day’s sights and experiences, vividly, personally, sometimes humorously, often challenging her own culture’s values and accoutrements.

Travel to South America from Australia crosses the date line, that ‘contrivance of the calendar’ (En Route – Flexitime), which Volk uses to bracket the story, to reflect on our relationship with time and our experience of day, night, memory and future.

 From the first days in Chile, she is uncomfortably aware of the ‘modern buses crammed with tourists/as rapacious as any who have plundered/in former centuries’ (Plaza de Armas). This theme recurs, both of the plundering colonials of South American history and the impact of tourists on traditional lifestyles today. Visiting the Plaza de Armas and the Pre-Columbian Arts Museum in Chile, the favelas and a bird park in Brazil, Machu Picchu in Peru, Volk notes the generations of history as one empire is overcome by another, and reflects a sense of loss as she admires what remains of the earlier cultures.

Volk frequently uses contrast to shape the content of her poems: contrasts between past and present, tradition and modernity, threat and nurture, the tourist and the local inhabitant, one animal species and another, indulgence and simplicity. In many of these, she comes off the worst in her reflection, asking herself: ‘we who walk among them,/do we have the right to drive away,/return to luxury hotels,/download our photos/for display to friends back home,/while shaking heads in wonder/that anyone can live like this?’ (In the Favelas)

There are tantalising word pictures: ‘the reed beds, floating/in a glassy mirrored sea/with all reflections gilded/like a fabled Incan temple,/seemed insubstantial/in the glorious dawn’ (Moving On), and: ‘its slow plume/of black smoke hangs beside us/as we round the river’s curves’ (On the Train). In turns majestic, ominous, beautiful, wistful, the scenes Volk paints are like cameo insets from a grand, rich canvas.

Amidst the scenery and the sensory are a couple of rare, intimate pieces that acknowledge an earlier love: ‘Yet still that pang,/when I look up to watch/the two macaws fly off together’(On the River). It is this mix of tourist vista and personal memoir, with humour, philosophical reflection and humility that make Volk’s collection so much more than a travelogue.

  In the poem ‘Homeward Bound’, one of the two Transit poems at the end of the book, Volk reflects on the journey she has made, and rightly describes the experiences revealed in the preceding poems as a ‘kaleidoscope’. Whether she was plundering or simply observing, she was ‘gathering…memories of gold.’ Indeed, this collection, Volk’s sixth poetry book, is an opportunity for those of us who have never visited South America to participate in the gold of her memories.

          Available from Ginninderra Press www.ginninderrapress.com.au and other online bookstores,   RRP $22.50

Claire Belberg

Julia Archer  (Literati  -  South Australian author and editor).


Of Llamas and Piranhas

 From the elegant portraits of the front cover to the elegiac final verse, Valerie Volk’s Of Llamas and Piranhas beautifully evokes a continent and her unique responses to it.

Here is proof that there need be no dull, generic interface with a new world, even if one is numbered among the massed coach passengers dutifully taking in the sights. Beyond the patter of the tour conductor, Volk’s eye takes in the finer detail, the overlooked object, and ponders its past and its significance. Her photographs extend our entry into the experience.

 Nevertheless, she keenly absorbs what local guides have to teach her, turns their words over in her mind, and in her verses distils the information in sometimes wry observations.

It can’t be easy to make an original observation on the statue of Christ the Redeemer, but she achieves it. And how many of us, having braved the sneers of friends and reputed criminality of the locals, would confess, ‘we have been, to our eternal shame, “slum tourists”’? Far easier to shrug it off back in the air conditioning of our ‘luxury hotel’ and move on, unmoved.

The best of intentions is not always enough when navigating through an unfamiliar culture, on this occasion, or others.

Moving from the cities to a natural world almost more spectacular than anywhere on earth does not bring trite observations from Volk but thoughtful responses. Not positioned over an experience, but under it, teachable. Except, the memorable encounter with piranhas! But, even then, ‘possibly piranhas love their young?’

Her photograph of Machu Picchu is as unusual as the thoughts she has of this place, expressed in liquid, flowing lines and memorable images. We travel, breathless, on the Andean Explorer, and feel we’ve made this ten hour train trip in two pages of a poem.

Time is indeed, the essence of the two travel poems at the beginning and conclusion of the book. There is much to ponder and agree with as we read, reflecting on leaping across time zones,


            “…for what we have been given

               has been a time of richness

               which like life itself,

               (this also borrowed time)

               demands our gratitude,

               our willingness to move ahead,

               in faith,

              accepting golden sunsets

              and the dying of the day.”

 Julia Archer


Ian Keast  Studio , No.145, 2019 pp.70-71 review.

This is a striking book, from the grandeur of the cover photograph, through its poems and photographs which trace the author’s South American journey.

 Valerie Volk is a frequent contributor to Studio. She is an Adelaide-based writer, writing across several genres, including verse novel, short story, historical fiction, as well as poetry.This type of book – another critic has described it, “as a collection of poetic postcards from South America” – follows a similar publication, Indochina Days (2015), which captured her travels in Vietnam and Cambodia.

 The publisher’s blurb describes the book, “as a personal invitation in thr form of a poem a day to join the writer in strange and exotic places”, in Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Peru, Ecuador and The Galapagos. Her observations of life in all its variety – human and natural – are acute and sensually detailed. Take, for example, “The streets of Valparaiso”


            Clinging to steep hills,

             precariously, I feel,

            these toy town houses …

             so colorful.

             these brilliant dots and splashes …


or, from “Cementerio de la Recoleta”

             Winds sigh through trees.

            Whispering ghosts in family tombs

            recall the days that they have known.

            In bronze, in stone, in marble,

            adorned with columns, friezes …

 The book’s richness is that it offers far more – visually, as well as in the poet’s reactions and insights. A feature of these, “poetic postcards”, is that well chosen photos accompany each poem. There is a dialogue established between poem and photograph, word and image, each enhancing the other. Their mutual interaction adds to the reader’s understanding and response. Any poem-photo could show this, but one I found most fascinating was “Floralis Generica”. So beautiful, this flower, is the opening line. The poem describes “this flower” as man-made and symbolic and the good reason for this …

             True concept of a modern age

             stainless steel and aluminium

            in six huge petals

 twenty metres high …

 Relying on the sun as the source of life and light, it was designed as a symbol of hope in hard times. The poem concludes

             So Buenos Aires takes new heart

             from this symbolic flower,

            and every postcard features

            floralis generica,

 clearly captured in the accompanying photograph.

 Throughout the collection are the poet’s reactions and insights to what she is experiencing. She is conscious that she is observing through “Western eyes.” In the favelas”, for example,

             “Slum tourism”

             sneered a moralising friend …

             How do these people of Rocinha

            see us, the dilettante tourists,

           stepping carefully in broken alleys? …

            And we who walk among them,

           do we have the right to drive away,

            return to luxury hotels,

           download our photos,

           for display to friends back home,

            while shaking heads in wonder,

            that anyone can live like that?

 Or, in the colour of “The streets of Valparaiso”, the house walls have been used to

           … give different messages.

            Long used to register dissent

             against the Pinochet regie,

           now vibrant with street art …

 Here is the juxtposition which undergirds and gives strength to the book – it captures so vividly the beauty, the grandeur, the curious, diversity, history and culture of these countries. We are left with this dilemma, held in tension, as (an affluent) part of this

             …new invasion.

           Modern buses crammed with tourists

 as rapacious

 as any who have plundered

 in former centuries                             (“Plaza de Armas”)

 And at the conclusion of her travels, “Endings”. For the poet, and those who have accepted the invitation to read “a poem a day” – humility, …

          For what we have been given

         has been a time of richness

         which, like life itself, …

          demands our gratitude …













Of Llamas and Piranhas - Excerpts

from En route – flexitime

But ah ... We find that time has shifted.
By sleight of hand magicians might well envy
we have returned into the previous day;
it’s ours to live again.


from Takes two ...

Like love, it can be beautiful.
Like love, one starts this new adventure
graceless, awkward, learning
how to be together, to move
in harmony, to lead, to follow
as the music tells us.
Like love, it needs us to become a pair
or, as that old song says,
Takes two to tango, two to tango,
do the dance of love


from The comfort of the familiar

This is a place of hidden dangers:
flesh-eating ants wait victims,
the anaconda writhes its coils,
darting head of a young boa
scents the air towards us.
We move among these perils fearfully ...


from Walking with tortoises: Galápagos

These giant creatures,
remnants of another world,
ponderous, slow,
leather necks extending,
or hunkered down inside
the monstrous armour of their shells,
remind us what a passing moment
is our life.