Ivy Ireland Reviews Petra White and Magdalena Ball

30 November 2017

In a similar manner to White, Ball’s poems don’t merely seek solace from the process of writing out sorrow. Instead, these poems allow a place for awe in the exploration of the deep space of grief, traipsing that in-between place that the enquirer-after-grief must occupy, or what Ball, in ‘The Happiness Project’ would name, ‘The sting of life / against absence.’

While there is a strong melodic dirge drifting through this collection, there is also an amount of silence, or pause, as though the poet were in a limbo, ‘waiting to be chastised / by your hovering ghost.’ In fact the collection often reads like an extended meditation practice, where the sitter is mapping out a chronology of the ruptured time that occurs inside bereavement, as the titular poem suggests:

I’ve kept track of these
farewells
a book by the bedside
scribbling invisible letters
while I unblank my face

This sense of mapping-out is explored more fully in one of the collection’s most haunting poems, ‘Fractals of Fractals’, which claims:

I wrote this book 
myself
at the atomic scale 
of pain 
(…)
a long distance gift
that looks just like 
itself

all those pieces
of missing time.

It would be a mistake to think of Unmaking Atoms as simply a charting of the grieving process, however. These poems, while deeply enmeshed with ideas of death dying and loss, are also deep explorations of transformation; of what it means to be alive and constantly in transit, and growing within that process. As such, these poems are often also ecopoems, concerned with larger changes to landscape and ecology:

In the silence of our blackout
mocked by howling wind
and trees swaying
too much for comfort
you gurgled, saturated in the 
living room,
extreme is
the new normal.

All the time enquiring within the frontiers of science, as in ‘Stargazy’:

Oh luminous sphere of plasma
tell me now
let’s not mess about
I could get a crick
craning towards the sky
while I wait for an answer.

In the end, we’re all like you
burning up our fuel
collapsing after what feels like
ten thousand years
give or take
in the relative forever.

Or grappling with the inner realms of what it is to be a poet and a mother, in ‘Irrational Heart’:

I might share this knowing with my daughter
when she’s in need of a god
and no male
with a pocket full of tools
will do

And sometimes attempting, it might be argued, to delve into those liminal spaces that, in ‘Probability Waves’, are described as, ‘places / even a poet can’t go.’

In the process of dissecting loss on a personal or global scale, White and Ball turn their backs on a salve, the comfortable gods of an easy answer. Neither of these startling collections seem content with an easy quest towards readily quantifiable religious balms or self-help aphorisms. Instead, in ‘How the Temple Was Built’, White is concerned with constructing beginnings through mythology, turning what is ancient and sacrosanct into something irreverently new:

The whole of creation squats on him
like a poem he can’t get right.
People think his job is done. Ha!
He remembers the hour he spent
carving out his first being.
Eyeless, or all-eyed, all sexes,
it would almost see as much as God.
except that God saw around above below it.
Closed like a sapphire, glinting on all sides
making only music for speech …
Poor thing! It couldn’t do anything but be.
He decided to make instead
something that would live, and die, and do.

And Ball, in ‘Life Dreaming’, sits at the frontier, using the language of science to pave a way towards what we might have forgotten somewhere along the way, and taking us:

back to hyper-conscious singularity every step tentative
each door open any word a state of becoming
a continuity from death to birth, peace to suffering
forever in a state of flux between being and impermanence
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