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

by

 

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’

 

Share This

Review – Ambient Light, Tourniquet by Vanessa Page

by

 

                                  Tourniquet by Vanessa Page

Walleah Press 2018, 68 pp

ISBN 9781877010866
$20.00

                               Review by Jena Woodhouse

 

The word “cinematic” has been applied to Vanessa Page’s poetry, and it seems an apt descriptor of the way the reader watches the writer move through her landscapes, public and private, in light and in darkness, registering their flora and fauna, their human occupants and transients, their topographical features morphing under different effects of light. “Margaret Olley’s Flannel Flowers” is one distinctive example:

…………………………………………………. Mine is a country

of spinifex and brigalow – tin roofs reflecting the desolation of heat:

womal trees and gidyea, all following the slow brown run of the river.

 

Here, familiar is the tubular beauty of the banksia, the yolk-studded

fingers of coast-myall; the fleeting mimicry between the silver-backed

 

leaves and a gleaming catch of river perch: August sun setting a tin-foil

blaze on the Maranoa. This is not my country, but I’m looking through

 

its portholes, thinking of the Olley painting I cut out of a magazine

once – of the coastal flannel flowers: the way they spoke, perfectly wild

 

…………………………………………………………………………

Effortlessly beautiful in the same way one’s own country can be, ……

 

………………………………………………………………………….

 

bursting with strange botanicals – all of it, within and outside of myself.

 

In this collection, Tourniquet, there is a palpable sense of a journey through landscapes: from domestic traumascapes and internalised rupture of relationships, familial and interpersonal, to the vast, often desolate spaces of outback Queensland and the Tasmanian wilderness, where danger and the whiff of violent threat can seem both imminent and immanent, as can a sense of spaciousness, emancipation from conflicted relationships, a desire for inner peace and wholeness. Light is significant and pervasive in this collection, contrasted with darkness in various guises, natural and man-made.

Mathinna is a town of things piled up. Car wrecks on car wrecks.

Broken bits of fences, rubbish, metal things. Frontier woodpiles taller

than a man. …………………………………………………………

………………………………………………………..Quartz-crunch feet

flattening the brittle bones of gold miners. On a corner block, a house

crouches, gutted by fire: blackened limbs in twisted rigor mortis pose.

 

This poem, “Mathinna”, interweaves the story of a young Indigenous woman – adopted in the mid-nineteenth century by the governor of Tasmania, Sir John Franklin and his wife, Lady Jane, and abandoned by them when their vice-regal post came to an end – with the fate of a mining settlement in north-east Tasmania.

 

In “Time-share”, the sense of abandonment is more personal, and the poem plays skilfully on the ominous implications of darkness and light for the woman on borrowed time:

 

In the threadbare dark, night is collecting in makeshift cups:

The gutters of this tinderbox; the visible parts of your body.

 

I lie awake, synchronizing our breathing, night swimming across

a floral coverlet that has never suited you, or me.

It’s too hot for sleeping.

 

This suburban eucalypt tract is defined by species and sweat:

the brutal mating sounds of koalas tearing holes in the silence.

The slow pulse of ecology.

We are as obvious: a peristaltic churn – coiling and uncoiling under

the skin of python weather, immediacy the only tangible bind.

The only thing I can claim.

 

Outside, the night sky is decomposing – a familiar caveat:

first light over the departure gate, gut-black the colour of your going.

 

Zooming in on a scene that is staged with pitch-perfect tone and timing, “Christmas Day in Harlaxton” (an economically depressed suburb of Toowoomba, Queensland’s second city), winner of the Martha Richardson Poetry Prize 2016, deserves to become a classic for the vitality and veracity of its depiction of a certain type of masculinity and the menacing aura of simmering rage associated with it, which can erupt in physical or verbal violence at any moment.

 

*

The poems of Tourniquet are divided into three sections: I Arterial; II Tourniquet; III Occlusion. The striking cover image is of a heart entwined with what appears to be vine-stems, with native flora bursting from it, as well as a yellow-tailed black cockatoo. The first section, in which the poems quoted above appear, introduces recurrent themes of haunted and haunting landscapes; risky relationships; the brooding sense of rage barely held in check, erupting at times into domestic violence; a woman who traverses this terrain in search of light and air, room to breathe. The poem “South Solitary” (incidentally the name of an Australian film set around a remote lighthouse) begins with the words Solitude is a dark but simple art.

 

The poet’s attitude to the stifling hypocrisy and inertia of conventional suburban domesticity is encapsulated in the poem “Papier Mache”:

as she exhales, stripped down to a wick –

hauling the dead weight of domestic bliss like a cadaver.

 

Page’s evocation of “Home”, in a present overshadowed by childhood memories and more immediate reminders of a violent father, again strips the veneer of clichés from its subject to expose it as a place of peril, despite the fact that Entrenched normal flows from room to room. “Home” ends with the line Think. Don’t think. The same door waits open.

 

This line concludes the first section, Arterial, and acts as a segue into the second, Tourniquet, which moves from bruised and constricted suburban lives punctuated by anticipation and recollection of harm and outbursts of violence, reprised in Section II by the poem “Break-up”, to offshore locations in the Pacific and Canada, then back again, mainly to Tasmania, where, in a settlement restored to colonial facades for tourism purposes, the admission I came here to be someone else,/ paint out the damage/ imagine I am whole.(“Evandale”) implies a parallel between the veneer of the facelifted township and the speaker’s misgiving that such transformation is only skin-deep:

 

I skim across this canvas,

until nightfall drags along sleep:

and even then,

there’s no pigment deep enough

to paint it out –

the same small town darkness that runs

through me,

through the people living here, streets-deep.

 

Section III, Occlusion, revisits lives and events from colonial days, partly in Tasmania, but mostly in south-western Queensland, as the poet and other figures, male and female, appear/ disappear mirage-like in the landscape, moving through outback spaces and settlements to where she was raised in the grazing country of the Maranoa. This is our existential/ blind spot – without words but not unspoken; a shared/ endlessness, still littered with the same dingo fences. (“Fontanelle”)

 

The destination (in this collection), featured in the final, extended poem in three sections, “Inheritance” is Page’s now-deserted family homestead, scene of complex emotional and visceral responses.

This is not the place for absolution.……..

…………………………………………..

This is a wasteland for sepia-drenched stiffs, and crows

 

tossing gunfire emptiness with bullet-point eyes. I’d

rather drive through this molasses-thick heat, away from

ancestral fossils. Out here, Mandandanji feet know the earth

 

and I am only a stranger – a tightly clenched prodigal

alone with the pull of regret behind my rib cage.

Out of the car, I fall hard into my own body.

 

The heartland of Tourniquet lies in the haunted, haunting terrain of its unsettled and unsettling topographies, including the body. As unsparing and unflinching in her gaze as the outback light, Vanessa Page has a sure grasp of her subjects and the poetic forms that can best accommodate them. In bringing a female gaze and sensibility to bear on the badlands and wastelands of personal relationships and landscapes, especially the marginal terrain of small, isolated settlements, and in seeking out the redemptive possibilities of reconnecting with body and spirit in physical encounters with country, she has generated some powerful poetry.

 

 

 

 

Share This

The Camargue in Early Spring

by

A gleaming necklet of brass cicadas circles the throat of Spring;
after the Feast of Sainte Sara they’ll start to sing.
Camargue houses with backs to the north, the buffeting force
of the brusque Mistral, catch undertones of siren notes
piped and droned through reeds of the Rhône.

Sainte Sara in her finery, in the cool penumbra of golden stone,
waits for tendrils of sun to warm the grotto
where she stands alone, smiling enigmatically in garlands,
gems, the votive charms bestowed on her by Roma
pilgrims, cleansed by rites of brine and foam.

Across the rippling estuary, flamingoes form a leggy corps
to forage the shallows patiently for the algae
that will dye them rose. Africa recedes from mind,
even when the Saharan wind ruffles their plumes like tutus,
and they seem unaware that as day declines they appear to stalk
the glistening air above the marsh like a rouged mirage.

 

Share This

Review Novenas for the Zeitgeist, Flood Damages by Eunice Andrada

by

                          

 

 “Flood Damages” by Eunice Andrada

  Giramondo Publishing Company, 2018, $24

80 pp, Print ISBN : 9781925336665

Reviewed by Jena Woodhouse

 

The Acknowledgements to this first collection of poems by Eunice Andrada begin with the following sentence:

For the single mothers, the undocumented immigrant parents, the survivors of trauma after trauma, flood after flood, and for the quiet brown girl with the stubborn accent, forever caught between cultures – this is for you.

With these words, Eunice Andrada indicates the focus and parameters and the experiential compass of Flood Damages, which was shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Prize for Poetry 2019: a striking body of poems that are by turns visceral and lyrical, and frequently both at once.

From the outset, the opening lines of the opening poem, the reader is arrested by the uncompromising nature of the subject matter and the poet’s propensity for risk-taking rawness, alleviated by language that is precise, supple, yet unequivocal enough to accommodate an intensely experienced spectrum of extreme states and situations, braced at times with incisive irony.

Morning has barely dragged its limbs through the

curtain and Angelina is sitting up on her straw mat.

She raises her milky irises past the ceiling and to

her god. Her throat, a busted faucet, the worship

dribbling from her lips. The floor is wet with hymns.

Every morning she is a vessel emptied.

(a series of half-truths about drowning)

 

The contents of Flood Damages are arranged in three sections, titled flood damages, pilgrim sweat and water births, so the pervasive element that runs through the entire collection is water in various guises, including blood and other bodily fluids. Many poems make reference to the Philippines, Eunice Andrada’s country of origin, and incorporate lines and phrases in her first language. It soon becomes apparent that separation and trauma, hardship and poverty, and in particular their impact on women and children, form part of this legacy. As does spiritual grace.

this roiling carcass of ocean

making ragdolls of our foreign

limbs.

 

In the end

our brown skin

married to seabed.

 

When I return to the storm

of my islands

with a belly full of first world,

I wrangle the language I grew up with

yet still have to rehearse.

I play with the familiar rattle of consonants

on my tongue….

I am above water, holding

onto a country that drowns

with or without me.

[(because I am a daughter) of diaspora]

 

In the middle section of the collection –  pilgrim sweat – domestic violence, generating images of ill-treatment that are brutal, confronting and bitter, gives rise to shame in women like the poet’s mother, conditioned to expect contemptuous treatment from men. Images of sexual abuse, sickness, infestation by vermin, give way to the redemptive, or quasi-redemptive, agency of prayer, for instance in novena for fidelity. There is a novena in each of the three sections: in the first, flood damages – novena for her sickness; in the third, water births – novena for my mother’s collarbones; suggesting that all these texts might also be read as spiritual exercises in poetic form, albeit searing, scarred and painful exercises that grapple with often intractable subject matter, where physicality is not separable from spirit.

Lord, here is my mother’s right

collarbone

the part of her that didn’t suffer

permanent trauma

from the time her husband

thundered his fists against her;

left her partially deaf.

 

Take this and remake me whole.

Let me be

in my own garden.

(novena for my mother’s collarbones)

 

Matrilineal consciousness is present throughout this collection, and the final poem is a portrait of the poet’s grandmother:

her language turns heads

in the carriage I wait

for someone to tell us

to go back to where we came from

 

I will only find my mouth

its own country snarled

in borders

(recognition)

 

In exposing the damage, gratuitously or grievously inflicted, on the female body and spirit by colonialist attitudes; racism; male violence and migration under duress (diaspora) to a society often intolerant or hostile towards the disenfranchised, Eunice Andrada is simultaneously expressing resistance to those agents of destruction — by acknowledging and thereby empowering women who suffer from such adversities, and creating spaces where love can be a force for healing.

 

 

 

          

Share This

Back to Authors