Greg Westenberg Reviews Jordie Albiston

1 November 2010

The sonnet according to ‘m’ by Jordie Albiston
John Leonard Press, 2009

To read Jordie Albiston’s The sonnet according to ‘m’ is to play the part of the village agnostic watching the reliquary in the local saint’s procession. “In this form,” William Carlos Williams said of the sonnet, “perfection is basic.” As with the skilfully worked metal of the reliquary, the sonnet is perhaps a little white these days from infrequent dusting, yet it stands on a high shelf among the household gods of the Western Canon. The procession’s extravagances, however, can’t help but make the viewer uncomfortable, the dancing and clapping throng a touch too animated to display real faith. Albiston’s formal choices, although her collection’s strength, may produce a similar discomfort in their reader.

The sonnet, although arguably more written than read (Astrophel and Stella anyone? The House of Life? Michelangelo’s to Cavalieri?), in its balance and beauty, in the perfection that is fundamental, provides a focal point for Albiston’s writing. It defines the collection in a way that less regular building blocks might not. It is, for instance, evident that in writing a sonnet sequence poets submit to a scale which, if not based on the clearly defined and standard units of measurement that sciences demand, is as close to that ideal as the arts will allow. A sonnet is more easily compared to another sonnet than is a villanelle to free verse. Therefore readers will be able, and will feel free, to bring down judgement on the work – and this is positive for poetry, even if with the sonnet the competition is daunting: Petrarch, Shakespeare, Geoffrey Hill, Peter Porter, among others.

Albiston’s choice is strong also in its engagement with poetic tradition. It is possible that she writes within a hermeneutic of rupture rather than continuity, setting herself against the past in an ironic turning of old forms. The neat understanding of her form that she often shows, however, the variations that she produces, mean that The sonnet according to ‘m’ stands comfortably alongside its predecessors as comrade without the need for slapstick to relieve tension.

These variations are the third strength of Albiston’s collection, a strength inherent in the sonnet sequence (after the perfection that is basic has been achieved). Well manipulated, they give the literary equivalent of an Armin van Buuren trance track. Over the steady bass of the sonnet’s regularities and its fourteen lines, the poet builds her variations, of rhyme, of metre, in the placing of the volta. Albiston has brought out these qualities in her final sonnet, ‘mandala’:

the tibetan monk makes the world out of sand
(it takes him seven slow days)
the tibetan monk sculpts the world out of butter
(to balance our unbalanced ways)

She has imitated the form’s repeating stanzas within each stanza’s first and third lines, a pattern continued throughout. The sparse rhymes, every second line, keep from the excessive. The final couplet is particularly excellent, its first half identical to the poem’s opening line, its second a parenthesis that is never closed off: “the tibetan monk makes the world out of sand / (he sweeps it away with his hand”. The unfinished construction puts a syntactic mirror to the idea of the mandala itself, a circle without end. Albiston’s work is spot on. These elements are the reliquary in the procession. Fine, eye-catching.

There are catching melodies, too. In ‘em iii’ Albiston writes:

emily skinner heard out her husband & packed
their belongings in boxes        stories were pouring
in storms from the diggings & william implored
her to ‘follow our fortune’       (he had contracted
the fever & thus they left in hopes to extract

The hard gutturals build from “skinner” to “boxes”, lull, and build again with “contracted” and “exact”; the key shifts from the or of “stories”, “pouring”, “storms”, through the sibilant of “storms” and “digging” to the f of “follow our fortune”; a pleasure to the ear.

When reading the collection in whole, however, this sense of formal satisfaction fades. Despite some quality crafting, on too many pages there is a difficulty felt. There appears a lack of rigour in approaching the sonnet: the sonnet on Albiston’s own terms, rather than as traditionally defined. There is nothing intrinsically objectionable in varying the sonnet, nothing wrong with the metrical freedom of, for instance, ‘mural #3’:

there was a saying
in words on high-rise flats       & yes those words
they got to me: I LOVE??? they said
& each & every morning these words are what I say

The meter, though its irregularity sins against the traditional sonnet, strengthens the stanza, building from the colloquial minimalism of the first line to the strung out cadence of the final. This is no lack of rigour. It is creative play with the form. And in ‘marsi (1 july 1959)’:

coinciding with the finish of the financial
year     alan seems to be having a quieter
period in the office        hence substantial
time to discuss tête à tête his end-of-year

The rhymes that are not rhymes, but near enough, slant-rhymes, half-rhymes, are not a fault because it is on those terms that the poem presents itself, imperfect and, slightly, dissonant as the life that is the poem’s subject. It is when she shies from her own rules, and not in any loose application or variation on traditional elements, that Albiston’s lack of rigour is apparent. So ‘marsi (2 july)’ has:

the reading circle met at mrs white’s today
it was the usual agreeable gathering    tho
audrey d’s ‘presentation’ about jean cocteau
was hardly up to standard      at kew library

following dinner          a most interesting visit:
upon requesting books about early victoria
kew in particular I was filled with euphoria
when the secretary no less! of the historic

The nearly-there rhymes of “today” and ‘library”, of “tho” and “cocteau”, are simply the building blocks of the poem, not a problem. In the second stanza “victoria” and “euphoria” are similarly unobjectionable; “visit” and “historic”, however, are not. They break the pattern set in the first stanza, reinforced in the second stanza’s internal couplet. It’s a trashing of the poem’s own history without any apparent justification. There is no change in sense within the poem, there is no sharp-pointed aphorism excusing the poet’s choice. Albiston’s nerve has failed. And it is here that the village agnostic feels an uncomfortable sense of culture gone awry, even if unsure of that tradition’s validity.

The erratic punctuation is another instance of a less than rigorous approach. A lack of capitals, full stops, commas, is commonplace, and doesn’t demand or, unless it is making a new statement, deserve mention. The exclamation marks, similarly, have a purpose with this scheme, acting as would facial or tonal cues in conversation. Colons, however, are apparently allowed when, as in the first line of the second stanza from ‘marsi (2 july)’ quoted above, the use seems no more than conventional. In a piece otherwise unpunctuated, this indicates something N.B.ed. Or should. Here, like the off-key “visit” and “historic”, it is mildly embarrassing for the poetics in play. Again, the apostrophe of the genitive. Why? Or why the grave and circumflex on “tête à tête” in ‘marsi (1 july)’? No reason shows itself. Because of the discord with its own rules, there is an uncomfortable sense of anxiety.

She really does know, Albiston seems earnestly to assure her reader, the proper place for punctuation, that it is adventure rather than ignorance behind her syntactic choices. Which was never in doubt. Throughout The sonnet according to ‘m’ Albiston shows technical ability, a sense of the sequence’s architecture beyond the individual poems, and narrative imagination. (‘mural #3’ could not have been written without that last). It is clear that she is a writer very much at home with her tools. Readers must feel the practice in Albiston’s art, making it all the more disappointing that, like the overplayed saint’s procession that aimed too much at the tourists, she hadn’t an undivided attention on the sonnet. “In this form, perfection is basic.”

Greg Westenberg is a Sydney-based writer.

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