Ivy Ireland Reviews Petra White and Magdalena Ball

30 November 2017

Reading for a Quiet Morning by Petra White
GloriaSMH Press, 2017

Unmaking Atoms by Magdalena Ball
Ginninderra Press, 2017


Approaching new work from such sharp, prolific and often dazzling poets as Magdalena Ball and Petra White is arguably no job for a quiet morning. Both White’s Reading for a Quiet Morning and Ball’s Unmaking Atoms demand (and duly reward) close attention. The perusal of such multi-layered, expansive texts is more suited, perhaps, to the intensity of early evenings, the drawn-out moments of twilight. For there is strident and persistent music erupting from both of these collections; sometimes it might seem serene, but more often the tune that floods out of the text feels more like an intense, liturgical dirge.

White’s mini-epic poem, ‘How the Temple Was Built’, which comprises the first half of her collection, reveals an authoritative voice delivering what feels like a Ted Hughes-inspired sermon on a new Ezekiel myth. The lens here, however, is distinctly female, the account feminist, and the protagonist, Ezekiel, the love-tortured, wife-haunted prophet who, like the bones he sees revivified, seems eternally ‘bruised with an ache / made not by the world.’ The imagery is often stark, always sublime and sometimes completely unexpected, bombarding the reader with free-flowing, often paradoxical image associations as we explore the ‘shimmery darkness’ residing inside a far too secular God. And all the while, humanity is being examined in turn by this same God: ‘What is a human. / Absorbed in their own existence / as the bees that bristle the air.’

In this study of prophetic vision and new mythology, the process of creation is a mess:

He made, oh what order did he make it in?
Time, space, darkness, light, air, water, earth.
Kicked off by sudden expansion
of something out of nothing.
A whole second he devoted to galaxies,
gleaning himself into the rip of black holes.
Planets cascaded like ash from his sleeve.
It quickly went out of control.
Everything started creating itself.

And the creator, insecure: ‘I barely recognise / the people I made. Am I God?’

Esther, the fictitious wife of Ezekiel (not to be confused with the Esther of the Old Testament), is arguably the most fascinating character in this plethora of biblical curios. Reinvented after revealing ‘the white wings of her death’, Esther becomes an angelic or goddess-like figure. ‘Bright light … bleeds and cries into the corners of the weak woman, the love machine, / she who falters,’ as Esther is metamorphosed from mourned wife into a type of foil to God, or at least the one who ‘lingers in the dark leftovers of Paradise’, berating the questioning, self-pitying, remorseful creator: ‘You fool, the world is / sweet birdsong and gross battle.’ The tone throughout is playful yet the subject matter is anything but. And the mythology surrounding Esther is both poignant and haunting:

She shivers in her wings. She is like a human
with no human part. Human enough to feel
all the grief, the waiting. Having to be somebody
in the face of nothing.

Indeed, this entire mini-epic is haunted. Ezekiel is haunted by God, yet also by the wifely expression of Esther; God is haunted by the goddess face of Esther; and Esther is haunted by the ghost of own self – the ‘mortal immortal’.

On facing what could be yet another reimagined quasi-biblical Miltonesque epic poem, the potential reader might well balk, but any speculative reservations are soon overcome by the sheer authority and gravity of White’s voice, by the elegiac music of the driving rhythms, by the authenticity of the characterisations (and, yes, this is a poem that concerns itself strongly with characterisation) and the potency of the imagery.

Faced with the difficult task of following this leviathan, the second section of Reading for a Quiet Morning, ‘Landscapes’, and the untitled third section of the collection, feel a little less cohesive and more bowerbird-like in terms of thematic layering and context. There is, again, plenty of myth to be had here, and not a little reimagining of it. We see a pining Jocasta naming herself, ‘A thing that was happened to’; the Sphinx’ the fantastical female executioner of Anne Boleyn; and inspired versions of Rilke’s old favourites. And yet there are simple, domestic relationship concerns here and social occasions ranging from weddings to funerals. In ‘The voice of Doom’, however, the fierce and recurrent concern of this collection is unearthed: ‘Love / that is made of words, / will be made of words that can be eaten,’ and we witness the vast aching void of word-eating especially in the elegiac ‘Filial’:

I unpick the stitches 
of love from my coat and try to separate it 
from the facts.
She survived her life but she was wrong,
call that a fact that crawls like an ant
away from the poem.

In ‘Filial’, a staggering sense of loss is consumed by the intensity of the imagery, or is perhaps subsumed in the fierce and wretched voice of longing for else or other. Yet the quest to move past it all, and an appreciation for those that can, is even more palpable in ‘The Seeming’, one of the collection’s shortest yet strongest poems:

she travels through the day half-mad,
one foot in front of the other.
People are marvellous, 
those who go about their business.

This poem concludes: ‘Something makes them surge.’ That same ‘Something’ makes this entire collection surge; these poems are lit up and muse-inspired, mini Ezekiels all in the face of baffling Gods.

Magdelena Ball’s Unmaking Atoms grapples with a similar staggering sense of personal loss, mapping out the profundity of grief-altered states of being. This collection reveals a quirky (dare it be said) science-based spirituality, and enquires into what it means to be, and to continue to simply be, in the midst of trauma. The poem, ‘Beginner’s Mind’, succinctly dissects the struggle to continue:

If I weren’t here, sitting stock still
counting intake and outtake of breath
with each bony click
that says “still alive”
but not quite living
I could be on my way somewhere
this even respiration turned ragged gasp
running, like Buddha himself
into glory, like you did
lips parted in ultimate freedom
leaving me with all this
responsibility
all this breath.

The poems of Unmaking Atoms, while on the surface exploring a penchant for the endless bifurcations of astrophysics, Buddhist spirituality and contemporary psychology, more aptly grapple with what it is to be human in a world dealing with its own extinctions and loss of foreseeable futures. In this collection, grief, both horribly personal yet also global, is coupled with a sense of wonder at the endless continuation that occurs in the aftermath of devastation. Divided into seven sections, these ambitious poems tackle everything from mirror neurons to hieroglyphics, leaving space in between for meetings with both private ghosts and a haunted ecology.

There is much to love in this collection that, though lengthy, never feels overwrought. The Australian bushland settings of some poems feel familiar and almost comfortable, from forest scenes such as in ‘Mirror Neurons’, where we feel the ‘eucalyptus crunch / choir of bats, owls, wuk-wuk’, to the beloved ‘Redhead Beach’, where we can bask in well-loved landscapes:

the water hitting the shore
in patterns fully familiar
the rocky outcrops
shark tower

Other poems such as ‘Absences’ take us into dreamscapes as far away as the afterlife:

I’m not really there
but your ghost bleeds
through the rooms
trailing my lacuna with milky
vapour, like ghosts do,
all ectoplasm and wind
your body given up to longing
ten thousand miles
away across time
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