Jordie Albiston, The sonnet according to ‘m’ (John Leonard Press 2009)
The M in these poems is not from Fritz Lang (‘When out of grace in Peter Lorre’s eyes’?) or the James Bond franchise (‘If gin and vermouth stirred not shaken are’?), but is, as the back cover blurb tells us in a manner ominously reminiscent of the labels in contemporary art exhibitions, ’emblematic of recurrence and precipitousness’. It’s a commonplace that poets nowadays don’t generally have a huge audience. The most recent variation I’ve heard was from David Brooks, at a Sydney Writers Festival workshop: the world is desperate for poetry but poets aren’t writing the poetry that the world wants. It’s almost as if, he said (but blame me if this is crudely expressed, I took skimpy notes), you have to choose between writing for poets or writing for the public. As a reader, I definitely identify as part of the public, and Jordie Albiston’s clever play with the sonnet form in this book tends to intimidate and alienate me rather more than it delights. Yet, there is delight here, and a little sharpening of attention brought rewards.
There are at least three Ms: ‘me’, Marsi and em. Marsi, the acknowledgements page informs us, was the poet’s maternal grandmother, whose diary, kept for a month in 1959, provides the basis for 12 of the book’s 54 sonnets. Em is Emily Skinner, Jordie’s paternal great-great-grandmother, whose memoir lies behind another four of them. I found the use of these sources fascinating. At the Sydney Writers’ Festival, Adam Aitken read a poem based on his father’s letters, so perhaps this kind of familial translation is a common practice. It’s certainly an interesting one, and here the Marsi sonnets in particular provide a kind of rootedness. They tend to observe metrical and rhyming conventions, not strictly, but more so than the ‘me’ poems, and the quiet intelligence they bring to the concerns of a 50s housewife demonstrate Albiston’s range marvellously:
well we have waited twelve months to see
what the nuns would do with the old wood
house 00 a noise at last from the sainthood:
the roof is coming off! 00 now of course we
are curious to know What Next!
and so on. Compare this to the ebullient play with form in ‘mandatory’ (all but the ’em’ poems have titles beginning with m):
well you gotta be good 00 but
you gotta be bad 00 you gotta
be both glad & sad 00 yep you
gotta be human it says in the
book but look! 00 there’s that
creature inside! 00 you gotta be
nothing you gotta be all 00 you
gotta be both great and small
Would you have picked that as the octet of a sonnet? There’s a huge variety here. There’s quite a bit that seems to be just for fun (as in ‘methinx (i)’, ‘2moro 2moro & 2moro / goes slo frm day 2 day’). Katherine Mansfield scores a sonnet. There are a number entitled ‘mural’ that celebrate and mourn the passing of verbal graffiti. Some seem to embody a very contemporary feeling of derangement. And so on.
I ended up being completely won over.