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.