Jordie Albiston, The Book of Ethel (Puncher & Wattmann Poetry 2013)
I bought my secondhand copy of this small miracle of a book in Sappho’s, lovingly inscribed by the author to a couple of evidently ungrateful friends. Well, Jordie, it’s my copy now and I’m definitely keeping it.
The Ethel of the title was the poet’s great-grandmother. Born in Cornwall in the 1870s, she emigrated to Australia as a child, married a minister, raised six children, and died in the 1940s. That broad outline of her life emerges from these poems, though the story is not told in a straightforward narrative. This isn’t a verse novel. It’s a series of 60 short poems, each capturing a moment of the life, with little if any narrative flow from one to the next. A note up the back tells us who Ethel was, and leaves us to surmise that Albiston has drawn on archival sources – letters and diaries, perhaps, and a small book mentioned in passing, Parsonage Peeps. Google confirms that the book really existed, published in the 1930s, and I’d be astonished to learn that other writings by Ethel aren’t used, sometimes verbatim.
This found material is integrated into extraordinarily lively poetry, all in Ethel’s voice and held in a tight form. I didn’t pay a lot of attention to the form to start with. I just went along for the ride with Ethel, aware that the text isn’t generally structured according to ordinary prose conventions, and is peppered with eccentric exclamation marks, italics and spaces. I don’t mean that the poems are obscure or annoyingly mannered; on the contrary, while the precise meaning of a phrase may not always be obvious, the sense of a living, complex mind in action is strong and very attractive. But perhaps inevitably somewhere along the line I paused to figure out what’s going on.
Anyhow, here’s the first poem (the word in bold here is in italics in the original – I can’t make WordPress give me non-italics in a quote):
so Life!__we meet once more__you
& I__in concert__concord
happy agreement to do
until done__my act__your stage
make__lie in it__this! my bit-
part__play__World__with me aboard
It’s a great opening that sets the reader’s mind racing in a number of directions at once. Who is speaking? What is the theatrical imagery doing? Is there an echo of ‘You’ve made your bed, now lie in it’ in line 5, and if so what does it mean? And how about that fabulous change of perspective in the last line?
But what is going on in the poem’s form? Are the line breaks arbitrary? Are those rhymes incidental? Is the punctuation just eccentric, or hip in some poetic way that’s obscure to unsavvy readers? Such questions multiply, and intensify, as you get further into the book.
(A word of warning: sensible readers of this blog might want to skip the next bit as it’s all poetry-geeky without being all that poetry-educated. It may be that the form here is quite common, not invented by Jordie Albiston as I imagine.)
It turns out that every poem in the book uses the same stanza form as the one quoted above, though the number of stanzas varies – most poems have just one, but there’s one with four and a number with two or three. Each stanza has 7 lines, of which the first and third lines rhyme, and the second and sixth – if you allow ‘rhyme’ to include such pairings as kindly/Queenie or Lizzie/tiny. More significantly, though, each line has 7 syllables, with none of the regular patterning based on emphasis that is usual in English verse. It’s what Wikipedia calls syllabic verse. There may be other rules – certainly there’s always a lot of internal rhyme, alliteration and so on. But the point is that every word in the book is held in a tight, mathematically dictated structure.
The form, the structuring principle, doesn’t give any indication of how the poem is to be spoken – yet from that opening exclamation this is verse that cries out to be heard as well as seen. So the whole book is animated by a tension between Ethel who is speaking to us and the tight restrictions of the form in which she is allowed to speak. It may be stretching it a bit, but it feels to me as an enactment of the way Ethel could flourish as a human being within the extraordinary limitations placed on her by the society of her time.
The result is just wonderful, and I am in total awe of Jordie Albiston’s ability to pull it off.
(End of nerdy bit.)
If you’re interested in reading a response to the book from someone much less ignorant than I am, I recommend the review by A J Carruthers in Rabbit No 10.