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Vertigo | a cantata |
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Poetry Review - Angela Gardner

 

Vertigo | a cantata |

Jordie Albiston; Elwood, Vic;
John Leonard Press 2007 pp51

 

Vertigo, Jordie Albiston’s recent book of poems is subtitled | a cantata | identifying it immediately as a work for voice. Its structure, beginning with an Overture and finishing with a Finale, lends weight to this work existing as the vocal score for a cantata. Between the Overture and Finale are equal parts given to fifteen arias, fifteen named recitative poems both followed by fifteen poems for a Chorus. The work therefore appears to be a conventional musical presentation though, due to its subject matter, the aftermath of the end of a marriage, sensitively replacing the duets with a chorus. This replacement also moves the work into a complexity often associated in the past with sacred texts.  Indeed, in the Chorus poems Biblical references do emerge.

The epigraph ‘who shut up the sea with doors?’ is from the Book of Job in the Old Testament that follows the abject trials of an upright man through his lamentations until the latter part of his life is finally blessed by God. And the solo voice that precedes the Chorus has also ‘sat in the pit been despised for/ our dreams” [CHORUS #4]. Yet for all its Biblical references the genuflections are to the garden, where, standing with a “tonnage of sky” behind, the poet/singer she kneels in the earth.

The poems also make use of interesting punctuation devices: |, ||, ||: and :|| that appear as an almost musical notation or guide to the singers’ breathing. As such these devices, although they add a graphic element to the text, appear entirely in keeping with the formal structure of the work and not as obscure signs to entrap unwary readers or mere decoration as sometimes such devices appear in the hands of those without the clearly elucidated purpose of Albiston.  Despite the subtitle | a cantata |, and the almost musical notation of the punctuation there is no other clue as to how the text could be performed. Instead, it reads so well on the page, as a highly structured long poem of parts, that the effect for the individual reader, is that the text becomes a cantata da camera enacted within the private performance space of the reader’s imagination.

But to the beginning, where the Overture captures the moment of love’s letting go, when vertigo in love, the fear of its heights and therefore its depths cannot yet be contemplated. The man and woman depicted could be an ‘Everyman’ couple or Adam and Eve at the moment when:

                                    | there
   is no path ahead (or none to be seen)
                                    OvERTURE

However the body of the work, the arias and named recitative poems, do not start at the beginning of a love affair but rather at the beginning of the end, where already their love has been choked by the smoke that was a mere threat in the air of the Overture. In this way Aria #1 can begin in media res, with the singer hopeless, no longer believing that love can hold her safely, knowing the ground has fallen away but unable to find a new way to see the world. The first named poem, Anacrusis, gives the poet/singer a checklist of some of the disturbing behaviours associated with the loss of love and the first mention of bell-ringing, significantly, already a positive:

Heartbeat head screwed on right way round
check  |  breathing being bellringing check
                                                      ANACRUSIS

The work employs a number of metaphors such as bushfires and being lost in a forest. One of the most effective images is from CHORUS #14 where the identification of the individual as one tree in a forest references the fate of the nymph Daphne. 

our feet are rooted
deep into dirt  |  just like the

laurel Daphne  |   our arteries
veins are branches extending

the width and breadth of our
past
                                    CHORUS #14

And in a further echo from the overture, the trauma and drama of a bushfire its heat, and the fear in love, rekindles with a suggestion of a knowing, consciousness of impending doom:

||:  sparks flew and animals fled and dark
smoke blew all around  |  I was driving

too quickly  |  I was out of control  |  I
was trying to outrun the fire the future
                                             ARIA #2

The poem’s meaning exists in its words, in the sounds they make and the images they conjure. The ending of the first line ending fled and dark, when read with a breathed pause at the end of the line can change the sense, giving a possible alternative reading. Having allowed the rhythm of the poem to flicker back and forward on those two lines I can see that a theatrical performance may fix the iteration more precisely but gives the additional dimension offered by music. It is by no means without relevance to know that Albiston trained in flute at The Victorian College of the Arts. Her mastery of the breath, and therefore voice and meaning is superbly crafted:

she lay on the
bed and felt loneliness take her  | place

its hand upon her throat enter her slowly
…                                                 ARIA #4

The book is dedicated to the bellringers of St Pius X of West Heidelberg Victoria and the repetition and rhythm of the rope-pulling successfully inflects the poetry:

& Release! Release! it all into
the beatific belfry  |  for hours & hours the
clang of my consciousness deafens the ear  |
me dreading the call to Repeat! Repeat!
                                                CAMPANELLO

Anyone who has fallen in love believes themselves held, walking on air, by faith or the power of love. The bell tower, and its music, anchors the metaphor of falling into and out of love from the physical heights of the tower itself: the breathing, rhythm, and movement of bell-ringing, the clear-toned bell like music of the words to the healing that it produces.  In some instances such as ARIA #14 the healing rhythm is actually a repetition of negatives, but this is a slow journey of transformation that we undertake with the vocalist whose first person soliloquy drives the narrative.

The massed voice of the Chorus returns to couplet form and uses a series of short lyrics to comment on the wider action in an almost ‘note against note’ counterpoint to the immediate and particular sensations of the body of the earlier sections. In these more outward looking, but nonetheless reflective poems, Albiston looks at the loss of love in a more social, less personal context, or as she puts it “in which the burden of the song is borne by the many.”

||:  you made us walk the mile  :||
and filmed with your phones the

flow of our tears and that fast and
fearsome flood  | 
                                               CHORUS #2

Chorus #2 appears to reference both the Boxing Day Tsunami and John Howard’s infamous treatment of refugees on the seas around Australia, while later poems are also fully present within Australian life and culture with allusions to the problems of runaway consumerism, and to drought:

                          | no rain ever fell in
Hell   |  green was merely a dream  |
                                             CHORUS #8

Vertigo, is of course, a disorder of the sense of balance and Albiston has used the motif of falling before, particularly in The Fall (2003) and The Hanging of Jean Lee ( 1998). Vertigo’s dramatic romanticism naturally reflects its subject matter with intense emotions taking centre stage. Albiston handles her subject deftly using both heightened language alongside the everyday to great effect. Interestingly she lets loose more often in the recitatives where their delivery within a performance would be closer to a speaking voice. Their often emotive language and names: anacrusis, amoroso, appassionato, attaco, campanello, azzuro, tenero, religioso, dolente, dolce, andante, lament, agitato, articolato, delirio have a tension with the usual nature of the recitative to advance the plot between the arias. So there is an delightful and unexpected disturbance between the themes and their delivery and between the expectation of an almost prosaic narrative direction and the romanticism of the recitative poems. At all times this heightened language is kept under tight control allowing the work to use an incredible emotional breadth of language. As an example here are the opening lines of Appassionato:

he thundered out! of a wild July |  sweet
froth flicking from his steed’s hot flesh
his hollering thrown like  |  punches to the
sky
                                                APPASSIONATO

Taken out of context like this, this passage could be seen as dangerously close to what is expected from a bodice ripping Mills and Boon novel but the glorious stressed alliteration lifts the image out of the literal mundane into a description of an adolescent’s first breathtaking encounter with desire. Within the context of the work these dramatic exclamations add richness to the word choice and texture to the whole. In provenance Albiston is not merely naming the work within a lyrical convention but situating it there as a distinct actuality, clearly aware of the style of language she is using (witness the capitalized “Hallmark of love” [ARIA #10] in conscious reference to gift card aphorisms). Even within the poem APPASSIONATO, and certainly by its end, she sees this overblown routine as “the same old act”.  Throughout, the author handles a complex polyphony of themes and language, so that ultimately the solo voice is able to bite “down hard on her new inimitable loss” [ARIA #10] and allow the book to end on a note of restful silence as “she climbs the rungs towards the/sky as if it were a stage” [FINALE].

Two of Albiston’s previous poetry books Botany Bay Document (1996) (retitled Dreaming Transportation) and The Hanging of Jean Lee, (1998) were adapted by the composer Andrée Greenwell for musical theatre and enjoyed seasons at The Sydney Opera House. Her work has from the very first, been technically stylish and John Leonard Press has once again produced a book whose quiet design aesthetic does not distract from the quality of its contents. Jordie Albbiston’s elegantly and intelligently wrought Vertigo is another important addition to a series that is proving a heavyweight in current Australian poetry publication.

 

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