Andy Jackson Reviews Ivy Alvarez and Janet Galbraith

By | 7 September 2014

This ambivalent and productive attitude towards resolution is also one of the key strengths of Janet Galbraith’s first collection of poetry, re-membering, another striking book from Walleah Press. The hyphen is crucial, and not only in the title – these poems are about connection, integration, drawing things together through acts of language. They are poems of process, where the reader observes (and participates in) movements towards healing, both familial and political, but always personal.

In this way, re-membering often reminds me of elements of Adrienne Rich’s poetry, where the public political world is always erupting into the quotidian, revealing the interpenetration of these spheres. Galbraith is a tireless advocate for the rights and wellbeing of asylum seekers, including the Writing Through Fences project, so it is no surprise to see political concerns throughout this book, and an awareness of how language can make, unmake and remake. The poems touch on family violence, mental illness, hospitalisation, inherited trauma, belonging to land and country, as well as asylum seeker policies. But they are infused with a thoughtfulness and empathy, rather than didacticism.

The language here is reflective and poised, yet with an irresistible sense of immediacy and intimacy. Galbraith writes from places deep inside the body, places of hurt and desire. There is much at stake. But it is in a kind of post-confessional mode; she is not determined to reveal everything, but is forging a workable path forwards, recalibrating inheritance. The poems are generous and explicit, while always maintaining a productive gap between what the poet knows and what the reader might infer:

It is not that I forgive
your needy presence
the tortures
you placed upon my body
fed into my soul.

You who could have been
as the yellow box tree
outside my window
nourished by the decomposing debris
of what has been. (‘Something Other’)

The addressee of this poem is never named, which makes reading the poem feel painfully intimate, almost voyeuristic, while paradoxically also giving it a sense of mobility that allows the reader to enter into it entirely – Galbraith’s ‘you’ is also my ‘you’. This is true of the collection overall, but occasionally we come upon poems which are very particular, such as ‘A shared knowing’ and ‘Listen to the children’, which quote from the poet’s mother and sister. Here, the vernacular is immediately familiar and moving (‘Mum can you do something nice for yourself today?’ and ‘I am lookin afta Janet’). The quotes are repeated, almost to the point of deconstruction, which amplifies the impact of what is left unsaid.

Galbraith’s meditations on personal history are interwoven with images of the non-human world, so that each speaks to the other, revealing connections and separations. In ‘The Pond’, the poet stands ‘in mud up to [her] thighs’, finds an old nail and feels ‘the pulse of stories’. The mud and the nail are actual and physical, while also pointing outwards to emotional and political realities. In her evocation of the human within nature, Galbraith at times edges towards romanticism, but her matter-of-fact delivery, which is also arrestingly clear and musical, ensures that the reader is placed within an encounter with the real. Birds appear often, never quite motif or symbol, but invariably in their actual presence. They offer not a way to escape from the world but a way of being able to live here:

And the magpies, the song and quarrelling of the magpies,
gurgling their song deep in their throat til it comes out open
and melodious. The day is here they call, the day is here. They
aren’t calling to me. I see the world go on without me ...
… like that poppy popping 
up in the weedy lawn – bright red, suddenly there. Not 
blooming for me, but I noticed,
regarded its life, regarded its song. (‘A love poem’)

Galbraith does not hesitate to use words like love and soul, as well as shit and cunt. In a sense, re-membering is an anti-poetic collection, and all the more poetic for it. Its primary focus is life rather than language; therefore, while its attention to language is profound, the poems are always viscerally felt. The poems often operate in the mode of mantra or prayer, journal entry or mini-essay. The poem ‘My body’ consists mostly of the refrain ‘my body my solace/my body my memory/my body’, a repetition that demands sensitivity and a slowing down on the part of the reader. It is a powerful poem of resonance and sound, resting uncomfortably on the page.

While there is overall a focus on the bodily and personal resonance of words, re-membering also includes some poems that show an alertness to the physicality of the page. ‘Disappearing Darling’ begins indented, then jolts to the left margin and the right, to drift slowly down and left – river-like, precipitous and sensual as the body it conjures. ‘Kookaburra’ throws the syllables of the bird in an arc across the page. ‘My friend’ is less surprising in its shape, with its curve echoing the pregnancy it describes, but effective and affecting nonetheless.

The very satisfying modesty and minimalism of these poems is only occasionally undercut by the inclusion of footnotes, which at times imply an overly enthusiastic determination to ensure the reader understands Galbraith’s intention; but this is a minor qualm, more of design than substance. re-membering is a book of poetry that understands ‘that to bring back the dead/is a slow and gentle thing’ (‘that one’). The dead, both departed people and unspoken experience, are brought into the light of language. This is poetry not as therapy but as an essential part of re-knitting the fabric of life. This re-knitting is by necessity incomplete and paradoxical, and (as with Alvarez’s writing) the reader is implicated and involved while the potential response is outside the book, in silence. Perhaps this poetics can best be summed up by quoting the final section of Galbraith’s poem, ‘Mother Love’, where parentheses allow the reader to experience both speech and silence: these ‘borrowed words/that soothe the fear/of speaking//what must (not) be said.’

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