Silence & its tongues by Robyn Rowland
Five Islands Press, 2006
Striving to decipher the vast desolation of silence is – as Robyn Rowland has us so emphatically experience – a 'difficult' journey, to say the least. Her latest collection of poems, Silence & its tongues, expresses this not only as a 'cold' language, but also an elusive one; varied in the boundless possibilities of voice, tone and dialect. Here Rowland provides a heart-breaking examination of all that is born dark and desperate within silence, including perspectives as a lover ('I think of your voice during love, unvowelled, guttural'), child ('how a daughter can step into the space/ her mother leaves behind her?') and mother ('My fearful clinging kept him ten months inside, leaping overgrown from the womb').
The inescapable binding of family weighs heavy, and builds to a powerful unravelment of the 'rasping desolation of the motherless'. Rowland treats these moving themes with remarkable honesty and insight; delving into what lies deeper than flesh, and keeps us in love. She approaches this momentous task with all due passion of a poet, combined with the scientific scrutiny owing from a lifetime of professional accomplishment (Dr Rowland is an Officer in the Order of Australia for her work around women's health). Rowland succeeds chiefly in articulating that, which by definition, is without words.
'Dispatch from the dome', the first poem of the collection, creates eerie lucidity with the dreamlike nature of soundlessness. We are immediately immersed in the poet's own mindscape through the rhythmic, lyrical quality of Rowland's writing; reflective of her Irish heritage, reminiscent of ballads:
coloured birds bright in flight
absent the squabble of song;
now a desert at night, its dry road
so very long across the naked plain
The initial, internal rhyme (bright/flight, night) ensures an easy transition to this place. The mood is undeniably melancholic as we are aware of just how internal we have suddenly ventured. The source of this dismal light is felt through the yearning of a lonely lover:
I have tried to press my mouth
to spaces that might be opening lips.
I think of the velvet moss of giant clams
thick along their jagged smile
that lightly touched, disappears.
Once inside the dome, silence overwhelms the senses, it lays thick and heavy in our ears. Rowland's words on the page step out like 'mute braille'; the sole guide as we navigate her lush labyrinth of various landscapes. We are swept through jungles; told about Russian archaeology; become tourists in Venice; and admire David in Galleria dell'Accademia, Florence – all in the first few poems. But we do not stop long to admire the view, coloured in nostalgia, longing, loneliness. The physical locations are not important; no one city is more attuned or fluent in the tricky language of silence, or the other difficult language, that of love.
From the somewhat otherworldly, travel-book feel of the opening poems, section two features an arrestingly intimate and dark voice. In 'Dead Mother Poems', particularly 'Adhesion', there are resonances of Plath – 'feather-light/crushed with the bone, and the sad, sad heart' – which, to Rowland's credit, work to express the depth of the mother-daughter connection. The distance and dissent of a child betrayed by the death of her mother – 'I have had to do it mother/ It got too dark and lonely here with you, living underground' – summons the ingrained sense of Plath's 'light of the mind, cold and planetary' from 'The Moon and the Yew Tree'. Strong biological bonds are strained with the need for individuality in an ever-present battle, which Rowland invokes brilliantly:
You or I? How can I tell?
Who owns this voice? Who speaks?
What did you do here to make one mind out of two
then leave me alone?
I know how you feel.
I am how you feel. You grew into me.
I am the Mandrake plant;
this unearthing, my long screaming.
This strain is materialised in both emotional and physical terms, with both tenderness and hostility. Rowland describes her own depression, and her mother, dying of cancer, jaundiced ('yellow all over'), yet revelling in what is 'keeping [her] alive'. In 'Dying notes I':
I know it's the attention, just you at the centre.
You want more of that before you die.
There is at times some conscious aggression spilling from recounts in 'The filleting (Part Two)', which gains its power in the niggling discomfort we feel being privy to such thought. This works to reiterate a complex relationship, but more so as a weight to balance the overwhelming sorrows of remaining both silent and in her mother's silence. And once the mother is dead, the psychological filleting is nearly complete. These poems serve as memoir; their long lines and many fat stanzas guide us through childhood torment and generational co-dependence. The writing is intensely personal, and this fuels its lyrical quality to which Rowland is so attuned.
Part three, 'By way of light', sees Rowland stylistically close to ballads, returning to romantic landscape pieces, and the mood is considerably brighter. In homage to her family's deep Irish connection and affirmation of present day Australia, she fuses the two in poems about identity, friendship and place. The depiction of the outback desert is genuine, instantly recognisable and benefits from the cultural blend, as Rowland uses Irish folklore to contrast and simultaneously mirror Aboriginal history. In 'Govetts Leap, Blackheath, Blue Mountains', for example:
Earth here is tanned and broken, falling into the lap of rock.
Not a country for centaurs or fairies,
the shades here are brown and live inside ochre
and the old stone-people stories.
This renewed wonderment with nature is the path out of Rowland's labyrinth of depression. Despite pages filled with long, chunky stanzas channelling the Romanticists, we easily flow through the scenery and are allowed a new way of thinking. In Beyond White, the murky theme of cancer reappears, but it is wrapped in fresh, confident optimism. Silence is no longer the 'cold and difficult language' – or at least, not entirely – and is instead replaced with its capacity for calm and possibility:
These things settle the heart,
make doubt and knowledge,
sweetness and sorrow, the same.
Soul flows infinite, without a rent.
Leaving, I remain.
Behind us is, as it is; before us, as it will be,
and on the hill, a swinging gate.
This poignant, yet resounding note of clarity is a satisfying weight to level the emotional scale of the collected poems. Silence & its tongues is a stark, confessional recount of separation and hurt, stirring the child in all of us to consider the depth of love, flesh and blood.