David Gilbey Reviews Jordie Albiston and Liam Ferney

18 November 2013

Athletic, speculative, sceptical: the effect of the extra spaces between words is to both intensify and attenuate attention, so that each word and phrase counts significantly. Albiston uses musical phrasing and positioning on the page, dispensing with the connectors and modifiers of usual English. In Albiston’s verse the phrase is the unit of semantic meaning, held within (but often playing with) the lineation. Throughout Ethel Albiston uses ‘&’ for ‘and’ to interrupt and draw attention to the word/mark, giving it a more substantial significance than its usual conjunctive role. So, for example: ‘up-& down-stairs’, ‘& dies’, ‘& all / for 1&6’. This supple, stylistic inventiveness is one way the poetry draws us close to and keeps us at a distance from Ethel’s narrative and the ‘feel’ of the poetry. As well, Albiston uses the exclamation mark pervasively to invest the words and phrases with an intensity that slows down the lines and adds to both the sense of a child (and then an adult) voicing the words. It interrupts a smooth (passive? relaxed?) reading to create tonal contrasts, excitement, scrutiny – the ‘small’ verse form is enlarged in scope and impact.

Ethel’s narrative unfolds in brief, brilliant images and phrases. As a child her sense of the mine (bal) near Tregeseal Nancharrow in Cornwall is suffused with crystallised foreboding:

I see bal maidens   racking
bucking   cobbing   sorting the
Deads up at grass   men hacking
rock   chucking black pastie-crusts
to the dark   (we Live   then we
Die   I follow the stream   see
it green   make a wish   dream fish)

The derricks are like the Erinyes hammering out (‘bucking’ and ‘cobbing’ have palpable violence) the fate of the men. ‘Deads’ casts an ambiguous, ominous pall and ‘hacking’ and ‘chucking’ continue the violent verbs to suggest a condemned, hellish existence. In the previous stanza the ‘stream’ is already condemned by Ethel’s father: ‘arsnicky sluice / the fish all drowned’ so the possibility of some dream-fulfilment (where the internal rhyme of ‘wish … fish’ makes it seem concrete and even possible) is unlikely. In the next poem, or stanza, the many ydhyn (birds) are contrasted with the miners’ lives and activities:

‘beneath muck- / heap   no bird   but Men   down there’.

Ethel emigrates to Melbourne and finds work as a seamstress, her sewing a metaphor for her life:

Trace it!   Cut it!   to fit   then
puzzle the pieces   sew this
to    that   oblong   oval   trap-
ezoid   square   Place it!   here   there

She is wooed by Harold Overend, a Methodist minister and marries him, Albiston’s verse reminiscent of the earlier English craftsman/wordsmith George Herbert:

you   Collared   but not by me
alone   your heart shared   above
below   on Earth as it be
in Heaven   dear one   don’t choose!
Mister   Reverend   concur
you are two   revered   beloved
Husband-Husband   wedded   Twice

The verse explores and expresses her life as a mother and wife through vignettes of childbirth and childrearing in different parishes, including Mildura, Balwyn, Hobart. Each septet is filled with jewelled miniatures, suggestive of her broader connections with society, politics, culture. The four doll poems illuminate the roles of women in early 20th century Australia, the last one wry:

… it was dressed as a boy!
a green-velvet suit!   I wept
again   I did not think they
made them men   I liked it   not

Pervading the narrative is a sense of the affection between wife and husband:

‘… my Eve / you say   & I say   my All


everyone wanting to see
their Minister   my   Mister…
please stop   & knock   Home   alone

A major part of the élan of Ethel is the domestic scene – borrowing a hen from a neighbour to get chickens hatched and losing both the chicks (to rats and a dog) and daughter (presumably courted by the young owner of the hen).

As well, there’s a developing sense of a capable woman carving out a modest space for herself as a writer, first of Parsonage Peeps and then, during WW2, after accompanying her husband on, and contributing to, a speaking tour, her impressions of Canberra:

‘because I scribbled   & sent
on spec to the Spectator 
& they put! It in…’

It’s clear that Ethel’s clever, ironic consciousness understands her worth in public life, even though she’s inclined to demur: ‘you can tell I am unused / to talking…’ as she goes on to compare herself to the stylish ‘Hudson / super-six’, rather than the smaller, economical car.

Her husband is often away and she feels his absence and her enforced isolation, although the fragments of his letters are often touching (and affectionately ambiguous?):

come Home   Do   & save this man
with your constant hand from his
speeding to certain ruin

His death, framed almost comically by an anecdote about a badly-constructed parsonage bed collapsing (‘caught in a Slack Wire Affair’) presages the end of the narrative:

‘… now I have the most love- 
ly cradle   Good Nights many 
but alas you   Gone   to Sleep’.

Ethel ends metaphysically, with a sense of her own mortality:

what’s a door?   but a way straight 
thro   & I am going   too’.

This is much more than a book about a life, though it is splendidly and illuminatingly an exemplary life. The satisfying tightness of Albiston’s stanza structure is a versatile and constantly surprising skeleton for the many delights of the flesh of her poetry. Jordie Albiston has created in the Book of Ethel a narrative and voice which compellingly capture, in elegant, touching, virtuoso poems, the sense of a woman’s life, lived in early 20th century Australia – a soaring trajectory in Australian poetry.

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About David Gilbey

David Gilbey is Adjunct Senior Lecturer in English at Charles Sturt University in Wagga Wagga, President of Booranga Writers’ Centre and Hon Secretary of ASAL. His most recent collection of poems is Death and the Motorway (IP, 2008).

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