Review – When the Stones Began to Sing, Stone Mother Tongue by Annamaria Weldon

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Stone Mother Tongue

by Annamaria Weldon, UWAP 2018

136pp
$22.99
ISBN: 9781742589930

                 Reviewed by Jena Woodhouse

Annamaria Weldon’s Stone Mother Tongue is an ambitious and accomplished poetry collection, encompassing a vast swathe of time and many civilisations within a geographically confined, compact topos: Malta, the poet’s ancestral place of provenance, described in the Prologue, a poem in three parts with the title ‘Incoming’, as ‘a slight blemish on the sea’s glaze/ a scabbish crust on water’s rippling skin;’ as seen when approaching from the air.

The overall trajectory of this substantial collection is chronological, with diachronic elements in the persona of the poet connecting past to present. Structurally, the poems are arranged in three parts, with a Prologue and Epilogue, but within Parts 1 and 2 there are further divisions. Part 1, titled Prehistoric Malta, consists of four subsets: Divining the Neolithic; Tenements of Giants; Devotion’s Aftermath, and Borderlands. Part 2, Phoenician Malta, has three sections: Stepping Stone Settlement; The Quartermaster’s scribe, and There is an island called Melita; whereas Part 3 is arranged in one unbroken sequence with the title Anthropocene, Antipodes. Black-and-white photographs by the poet are interspersed with the poems in the first two sections, and accompany the Prologue and Epilogue, while Notes (on some of the poems) and a Glossary precede the Acknowledgements that round off the volume.

Many of the poems that form the contents of this carefully and skilfully structured collection adopt regular stanza forms of two, three, four and five lines, and the fluent, fluid lines seem to inhabit their forms effortlessly, inviting the reader to enter with their ease of access. The subject matter of the first two sections is fascinating to anyone with an interest in ancient cultures and civilisations, and a revelation to those approaching this vast body of inquiry for the first time: encompassing as it does the physicality of a location settled since Neolithic times; as well as its cultural practices, spiritual beliefs and rituals, material culture as exemplified by architectural and other relics; agriculture, and the role of the sea in the lives of the islanders. How all this becomes food for thought and the substance of poetry involves an imaginative, intellectual and creative scope that demonstrates Weldon’s breadth and depth as a poet, for the poetry ranges over its terrain with a penetrating eye and thought-provoking insights, singing the stones and the people who shaped them back to life in ways we can relate to, even though they are no longer our own, in the Anthropocene Antipodes.

We first encounter Malta from the air:

Its bare contours are a bronzed, recumbent goddess

………………………………………………………

all primordial creases and folds, her clefts and cleaves

cupping villages and hamlets. ……………………..

………………………………………………………

shallow terra rossa tillage splits on terraced hills

where vines of swollen grapes climb rubble-walls.

*

………………………………………………….

Afloat in the bays a thousand eyes are weeping

………………………………………………….

on fishing-boat prows painted in memory of

Horus, talismans restored each season by men

with faith in old gods…………………………..

 

But the islanders do not look up at the sound of the approaching plane, for:

 

History’s survivors have heard it all before

…………………………………………………

the sound of invasion that some call arrival.

Prologue: ‘Incoming’

 

In the poems of Part 1, section one, Divining the Neolithic, the poet is seeking ‘watchwords’,  archetypal female deities and numinaries, such as ‘Mnemosyne and Clio, Inanna, Magdalene’,

 

revenant voices echoing those chthonic sounds

that first broke through winter clods, the undersong

that opens ground for seedlings, singing them

up, up into the moist lap of spring.

‘Watchwords’

 

In Parts 1 and 2, the mythic and the actual Malta converge as past and present coalesce, erasing boundaries, conflating stratigraphies, peopling the landscape with figures from antiquity such as the giant creatrix goddess Sansuna; the Great Earth Mother; the so-called Neolithic Venus; and other massively-proportioned female entities whose effigies have been unearthed at archaeological sites. But ‘uncanny’ anonymous, more humble presences are also summoned up, such as the weaver of ‘In the National Museum of Maltese Archaeology’: ‘

 

holding a loom weight. You seemed at home with fibre

 

your fingers felt its tensions, slack or taut,

sensitive to texture, strong hands threading

the weft, sinews familiar with the shuttle’s path,

 

muscle memory of when to hold and release.

……………………………… as friction sloughed

filaments of  flax, infusing the hut’s dim light

 

with motes that clogged your lungs; each year

you strained harder and harder for breath.

 

Such imaginative and intuitive glimpses into deep time are frequent in the poems of Malta, and are sustained in sequences such as The Quartermaster’s scribe: 10 fragments of an encounter in Part 2. Similarly embodied, ‘re-membered’, is a worker in a long poem prompted by the luxury trade in purple dyes extracted from murex molluscs around the shores of the Mediterranean:

 

An ancient script says of a purple dyer:

His hands stink, they have the smell of decaying

           fish. His eyes are overcome with exhaustion.

 

And in ‘Ashlar’, whose title refers to dressed stone masonry of a particular style:

 

……………………Geometry disguises violent

separation. The poetics of stone pre-date

writing: precise angles redeem its schism from earth.

 

Boys died here from a moment’s slippage, manoeuvring

the masonry. ……………………………….

 

While it is not possible to know with certainty what the extant prehistoric artifacts of any given culture represented and signified to the people of that culture, in the absence of textual records in languages we can decipher –  ‘prompting again/ the old question: is she diviner or divine?’ (referring to a small, clay statue of a sleeping woman in the poem ‘Hypogeum of Hal Saflieni, Malta’) – the examples of material culture that have come down to us from a time before recorded script articulate their own language and are richly suggestive and evocative, imbuing the poems they inspire with these qualities. There is mention of ‘the spell of poppy seeds and psychotropic chickpeas’ (in ‘Outside the Hut of Querns’ i.e., grinding stones), but when the poet questions a temple guide about blackened incantatory kiln stones: ‘Were they making terracotta or charcoal,/ burning bones, placating island gods? He replies “that is unknown.” ’ The carefully calibrated Neolithic sherds represent to the poet ‘my lineage, sequenced through fragments/ of clay pots.’ She reflects:

 

I’m reminded that once we lived by auspices

of changing seasons, proximities and distance

divined from fish, birds or clouds, read the winds

 

tracking smoke-flow from a distant crater.

Neolithic sherds almost speak a language

untranslatable as stars in daylight.

‘Neolithic Sherds’

 

Many individual lines throughout this collection are reminiscent of the succinctness and veracity of Greek aphorisms: ‘Survival is not endurance alone.’ (‘When the Stones Began to Sing’); ‘skies and landscape all context and erasure’ (‘Neolithic Sherds’), and the many graceful poetic aphorisms in the poems of The Quartermaster’s scribe. There is a fine balance – between the overarching vision that ranges over swathes of history; intense contemplations of geography, geology and geomancy; anthropology; architecture; archaeology; conjectural spiritual beliefs; agriculture; seafaring and trade; the work of artisans and labourers; rituals attending life and death; incantation, divination; daily lives of men, women and children: these aspects of civilisation – and the re-imagined detail that evokes intimacy and what it is to be human, inhabiting the moment. A sense of immediacy and vitality is conveyed by means of eloquent insights and the appeal to all the senses implicit in the sensuous and sensory details of colour, taste, touch and texture, fragrance and aroma, sound and movement, the tactile and ergonomic references to tools and utensils and vessels in the act of use. The reader is transported, and enters the world palpably and tangibly infused with life by the poet in the guise of unobtrusive diviner of almost-erased histories, oracle and guide immersed in labyrinthine time. Particularly moving against settings of megalithic limestone and mysterious female deities is an intimate scene from the poet’s family life:

 

My mother’s second skin was Mediterranean.

Sharing its secret life she swam deep

across the bay, slipping grandfather’s gaze

and met her lover on the other side.

 

This final night I listen to her breathing waves.

Crushed shells shifting past each other, hushed

in backwash as the tide withdraws… though a restless

swell still reaches, now and again

for the unattainable permanence of shore.

 

………………………………………………

My last link with this island is slipping away

and returning home will never feel the same.

‘My Mother’s Second Skin’

 

Leaving Malta for localities north and south of Perth, WA, the poems of the final section, Anthropocene, Antipodes, are for the most part shorter and less complex than those of Maltese provenance, focusing on subjects that range from portraits of older family members to community experiences (‘Life Writing Class’; ‘Torching the Dark’), and issues that are very much in the forefront of contemporary national consciousness, although this poem is gentle, softly-spoken:

 

She haunts the shore

waits for sunrise

with a water-bearer’s poise.

 

Borderless now

Kola-dyed sarong and tribal scarf

wound tight, she holds back

 

tears, won’t risk a drop

to cool the scald inside.

This silence learned

 

aboard a crowded boat, while

other mothers cradled their grief

in small bundles that made no noise at all.

‘No Noise at All’

 

Fittingly, the Epilogue, ‘Leaning Back Towards the Neolithic’, takes us full circle, for ancient Mediterranean civilisations were not only ‘an offering bowl, these rocky islands/ altars to one idol, then another, then another.’ (‘Neolithic Sherds’), but also the antecedents of many European civilisations, hence a common ancestor for those of that provenance. Apart from this, Neolithic cultures in general can be seen to have certain features in common as a stage in human evolution. The poems of Stone Mother Tongue, while tracing and defining the elements and essence of the poet’s personal and cultural identity, have implications and applications for every reader, as this process enacts a common and meaningful human quest and need. Implicit in this journey and uncovering of truths and ways of being is the desire to know who we are, where we come from, who our people were: questions that resonate with many Australians whose forebears arrived from afar.

 

For Annamaria Weldon, the rediscovery of her origins has resulted in an affirmation of personal identity and a reification of her intense and abiding love for her Maltese homeland:

 

I am born of limestone, treasure the musty odour

of damp chalk and buried water, seeping up

from deep aquifers through old flagstones

to calcareous air in shuttered rooms.

 

Ancestral island, time traveller’s sea-chest

here everything but nature is past tense.

Epilogue: ‘Leaning Back Towards the Neolithic’

 

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