Tag Archives: Magdalena Ball

Magdalena Ball’s Bobish

Magdalena Ball, Bobish (Puncher & Wattmann 2023)

If you are poetry-shy or poetry-curious, Bobish maybe just the book you’re looking for. ‘Bobish’ is a version of the Yiddish word for grandmother – Bobish is a life story in verse of Magdalena Ball’s great-grandmother. It’s made up of short, self-contained poems that form a straightforward narrative thread.

The heroine, whose name became Rebecca Lieberman, left Russia in 1907, leaving her parents, her family and the world she knew. with many other Ashkenazi Jews from from the Pale of Settlement she ended up in New York City, where she worked for a time in the garment industry – including being home sick from the Triangle Shirtwaist factory on the day in 1911 when 140 workers – mostly young women – were killed in a fire. The book follows her life through a violent marriage, the two world wars, motherhood, old age, and the legacy she has left her descendants.

Everyone should have a great-granddaughter who will honour their life in this way: seeking the facts and filling the gaps with humility, empathy and grace.

I can’t think of a better way to tell you about this book than to show you a single poem. Here’s ‘Potatoes’ from pages 75–76. It’s in ‘Fish Smoker’, the third of the book’s six sections, in which Rebecca meets a fish smoker who ‘smelled of home / whispering the mother-tongue in her ear’, and marries him. ‘Potatoes’ conveys the corrosive effects of poverty and terrible working conditions. It doesn’t aim for high drama, and there’s none of the playfulness that shines in other poems, but perhaps it will give you an idea of how the verse form can evoke a scene, suggest emotion, invite the reader’s heart into the story.

Some days it was only barley broth. Some days 
a few bits of squashed herring
brought home from the bottom
of the barrel, his legs purple
from standing in ice water all day.

She arrived at the apartment before him, her hands 
shaking as she cut up what food she could find, 
cabbage mostly, purchased cheap from
the vegetable peddler, fit only for stewing.

If there was bread, it was so hard 
she needed a hammer to break it.

Dizzy, hair spilling from her combs 
she would tuck it behind the ears 
ignoring the migraine that began in the morning 
at the sewing machine, all day at the machine 
with no breaks, fingers throbbing.

It was not the life she'd dreamt of, curled 
under a thin blanket during the Russian winter.
The streets here were not paved with gold, after all.

Tomorrow there might be windows that opened 
hot running water, a proper flushing toilet, 
potatoes. These were her new dreams.

She tried, without success, to sweep away 
the grime that encrusted the floor 
to wash the smells of rotting cabbage 
and smoked fish from her clothing.

The scent followed her to work, where her 
sewing machine kept going until the bell rang 
and she never drank water because the door 
to the toilet was broken and the toilet was so dirty 
she feared becoming ill by using it.

She bent over, her young back hunched as she
leaned into the machine trying to forget the pain 
that followed her like a faithful dog 
the rest of her life, and she got used to it.

She never told him about the way her body 
continuously hurt, carried her pain silently 
into the shared space 
no one wanted to call home.

The last poem in the book, ‘What Remains’, begins with a question and answer:

How far back can you go?
You can never go back.

This answer is obviously true if we’re talking about time, and in reference to the migrant experience, as in this poem, it’s heartbreakingly true. I was going to say that in this book Magdalena Ball has done a mammoth job of going back in imagination to Rebecca’s life. Then I realised that ‘What Remains’ has a different way of seeing what has happened in the book. It hasn’t so much gone back in time as captured what remains. Here are its final lines, the final lines of the book:

Magic is a gift not held 
solely in fading photographs.

It lingers, like your voice 
humming a Yiddish song 
winding through the double 
helix of your children, filling the air 

I’m grateful to the author for my copy of Bobish.

Kit Kelen’s Bung Mazes

Kit Kelen, Rompitaj Labirintoj / Bung Mazes (Australian Esperanto Association 2022)

It was my great pleasure to launch the English part of this bilingual book today. The Esperanto part was launched by Jonathan Cooper from the Australian Esperanto Associaton, in an afternoon that also featured Kit Kelen’s’s exhibition of palimpsest works on paper with the same title, plus music, at the Shop gallery in Glebe, all MCd by Richard James Allen. There was music, and a conversation between Kit and Magdalena Ball. Here’s a version of my launch speech.

Rompitaj Labirintoj / Bung Mazes is not the first bilingual poetry book Kit Kelen has been involved in, not even the first bilingual book of his own poetry. But it marks his debut as translator of his own work, both from English into Esperanto and in the other direction as well.

Mostly, unless you’re appropriately bilingual, you can ignore the language that’s not your own when you read a bilingual book. This one isn’t like that. The Esperanto isn’t an added extra. To read the book thoughtfully is to engage with Esperanto, maybe learn a word or two, discover some of its history, and glean some understanding of its underlying philosophy.

It’s easy to see why Esperanto is a good fit for Kit’s poetry. Esperanto, as I understand it, is all about opening channels of communication where none might otherwise have existed. Kit’s work shows a deep commitment to being open to other cultures, other languages, and to other minds. for example, when he asked me to give this talk, he didn’t say, ‘I hope you like the book,’ but ‘I’m interested to hear what you think of it.’

The English versions of many of poems in this book predate Kit’s interest in Esperanto. They cover a wide range of subjects, from the plight of refugees and the climate emergency, to simple celebrations of the natural world and poems about poetry itself. But there’s no great discontinuity between them and the poems dealing explicitly with Esperanto.

One example of these older poems is ‘here’s the story to save the world’, which includes these lines:

what is it keeps us alive?
keep talking
I want to know how the story ends
keep talking
I’ll listen

You can draw a straight line from that to ‘Hitching my wagon to a green star’, a statement of allegiance to Esperanto, which has the lines, ‘we come here for a conversation / while we wait for states to wither away’.

There are poems about learning the language. ‘thank you poem for Trevor Steele’ is explicit:

these lines here are just to say –

thanks for the grammar
I know it must be very annoying –

all the stupid mistakes I make

but how can there be so many accusatives?

Or there’s this from ‘being a humble beginner’:

often I slip
sometimes I slip off the tongue together

This is the poem that most makes me wish I could read Esperanto. What’s the Esperanto equivalent of the mistake ‘slip off the tongue together’? ‘tute glitas de mia lango’ doesn’t tell me anything. It makes me wonder how many references there are that Esperantists get but just sail past me.

Beyond this interest in learning the language, the book engages with its underlying philosophy.  ‘being a humble beginner’ again:

but I’m here for the conversation
I believe that is an art
like leaving the world better than found –
another impossible thing

L L Zamenhof, the language’s creator, is quoted in one of the book’s two epigraphs:

Rompu, rompu la murojn inter la popoloj!

Translation hardly seems necessary, but Google translates it as:

Break, break the walls between the peoples!

‘Bialystok dreaming’ tells how Zamenhof first thought of inventing a neutral second language in Russia in the late 19th century. ‘Suprasegmentals’ makes fun of Chomsky’s declaration that Esperanto is not a language. ‘samideanoj!’ spells out the vision with characteristic Kelenian paradox. It begins:

today we are building a dead language
syllable by syllable, from scratch

it is a tiny country
all between
and never was at all

Esperanto, to paraphrase, has no currency except the people who speak it. Incidentally, this poem stands out for two reasons: the title, meaning ‘like-minded people’ isn’t translated, and the first one-word line  – ‘kamaradoj’ – doesn’t appear in the English. The book is aware of its dual readership.

The poems about Esperanto don’t pull back from its utopian aspirations. In fact they endorse them, but there’s a feeling of astonishment, perhaps even with an edge of amusement, at the vastness of those aspirations. The poems are completely serious, but not self-important.

The two poems that for me are the guts of the book, are ‘shelter’ and ‘bung mazes’. The book has been described as ‘an abstract treatment of the situation of asylum seekers’. The poems celebrating our common humanity, and Esperanto as a way to sharing it, the poems about openness to the natural world and the value of conversation, create a version of the world in which the current treatment of asylum seekers is a cruel absurdity. In ‘shelter’ and ‘bung mazes’, the point is made explicitly.

The title poem ‘Bung Mazes’, begins with a line from the public debate about asylum seekers, ‘everyone knows there is no queue’, and goes on in fifteen short poems to create a kind of maze of its own. I found it the most difficult poem in the book. Sentences don’t finish, images rub up against each other, it’s hard – even maybe impossible – to grasp how some lines hang together. For example:

where you see desert’s edge
a labyrinth in canvas shook

lent to, how it blows off
who’s after you? can it be imagined?

their weapons and the names they call
crime of a clock, dreamt that too

There’s the image of a refugee camp, and a general anxiety is evoked, but it’s hard to pin down a clear meaning. If there is a meaning there, it’s just beyond my grasp (whose weapons? what clock committed what crime? who dreamt what?)

Generally if a poem grabs me, but I don’t understand why, I’ll sit with it, and let it brew in my mind. Sometimes a meaning becomes apparent in the brewing process. In this case, it’s not a meaning, but the effect created by the poem’s elusiveness. In effect the poem, made up largely of unparsable moments like this, gives me a faint inkling of the emotional impact of being lost in the dangerous maze of asylum seeking.

 ‘Shelter’ includes lines that cry out to be quoted:

now they are changing all the world’s weather
island here, river there, tents blow away
tanks shift borders out of the way

big bird flies where it will, drops its droppings

fire now flood now famine war
we were forced to flee

then where to shelter?
in the cave in my head?
but you’ll never get in
there’s never been a queue

there’s a maze
of rules and rights
of yours, not mine
and my turn
never comes

and later:

for the sixty million wandering
this world is a maze gone bung

Sixty million is the UNHCR’s 2015 estimate of the number of people displaced worldwide by wars, conflict, and persecution.

So this is a book about intensely serious subjects.

My mind goes to something Kit wrote almost 10 years ago. Speaking of the problematic nature of writing in the pastoral mode as a settler Australian, he said: ‘The challenge is to have fun while you problematise (otherwise please don’t write a poem).’

This book is fun. Even at its most serious, it avoids ponderousness. It delights in paradox, puns and syntactical playfulness. It always treats the English language – I can’t speak of the Esperanto – as an endlessly enjoyable and challenging playground (‘bung mazes’ is an example; it rejects the obvious English for Rompitaj Labirintoj, that is to say, Broken Labyrinths, in favour of something much less respectful). The poems are full of music, as I hope the bits I’ve read demonstrate.

In this context, fun can be many things. Take the short poem ‘parable’ for example. I loved it at first reading because I felt it brought a much needed lightness of touch to the climate emergency, a step back from the details of rising temperatures, collapsing ice sheets, greenwashing by corporations and governments, and so on. I read it as a kind of wistful fantasy. Then, while I was preparing for this talk, I read it to a friend who’s a climate activist, and it made us both cry – I think because it manages to strike a note of forgiveness along with terrible grief. Here it is. I don’t expect it to make you or me cry today, but just listen to it:


we came from the ice
and out of the trees
and wanted the whole world warmer

we lit fires
and at timber
we were the axe
we were the flame

as if winter were our own forever

we only wanted the whole world warmer

o fearful the dark
but we brought the firelight

the others we’ve eaten by now

we burnt till all of the forest was gone

we came to the clock
that’s where we are now

hard to hear anything
everyone’s in charge
we all follow orders

it’s hard to see how this will pan out
but I predict, in time to come
at the Court of All Spirits
our defence will simply be

we came from the dark
we came from the ice
we wanted the whole world warmer

[It didn’t make me cry when I read it out, and I don’t think anyone else shed a tear either.]


It’s my honour and privilege to commend this book to you. Buy a copy, and, as the poem ‘keep this book’ says with only a hint of over-selling:

walk with it
sleep with it
read it out loud
quote it at will

I declare Rompitaj Labirintoj / Bung Mazes, the English half, launched.

And here’s a pic of me talking, with Kit’s art in the background and Kit wearing a hat in the corner

Photo by Penny Ryan

Magdalena Ball’s Density of Compact Bone

Magdalena Ball, The Density of Compact Bone (Ginninderra Press 2021)

Magdalena Ball was raised in New York city and now lives on Awabakal land in New South Wales. She runs the formidable review website Compulsive Reader and, if the poems in this book can be relied on, she rolls in the dirt when no one’s looking. She brings tremendous erudition to bear on intensely personal, bodily experience. She finds resilience in Jewish family history, and looks unflinchingly at the climate emergency. Her poems cast their net wide in the cosmos and bring tiny, meaningful things to light. There are riddles that, as far as I can tell, have no answers; there are love songs, laments, cries of pain, excursions into quantum physics and meditations on the nature of time. That is to say, this book is quite a ride.

It’s in four sections, each with a dominant mode or theme. The first, ‘The Age of Waste’, addresses the climate emergency, with poems about endlings (animals that are the last of their species) and ‘the Sixth Mass Extinction’. It’s waste as in ‘laying waste’, devastation. The prose poem, ‘Earth Scars’, for example, includes this:

Is it easier if it's random? If there was nothing we could have
done? I could be there, first in the queue, taking the hit for our

The second section, ‘The Stronger the Entanglement the More Warped Space Is’, lives up to the complexity of that heading, with poems that don’t disappoint expectations roused by titles like ‘Time Is Not’, ‘Tomorrow’s Box Is Quantum’ and ‘Fermat in Wonderland’. That last one begins ‘I have no time / for rabbit holes’, which is delightfully ironic given the number of potential rabbit holes to be found in this section: I went googling (actually duck-duck-going) Cooper pairs and phase transition, for example, and struggled to remember what I’ve gleaned about Schrödinger’s box, wormholes and the properties of quarks.

The third section’s title, ‘Chronon’, seems to promise more of the same: according to Wikipedia, a chronon is ‘a proposed quantum of time, that is, a discrete and indivisible “unit” of time as part of a hypothesis that proposes that time is not continuous’. Happily (or not, depending on how much you enjoy being tantalised by advanced physics and philosophy), though this section deals with time and memory, it does so in a much more accessible, personal and emotionally engaging manner. The intimidatingly titled ‘Noumena Phenomena’ for example, addresses someone, possibly a close relative, who is living with dementia:

You smile
at everyone every day
the Buddha you never were
dispensing joy in coconut confetti
as we move in closer
circling round the gravity
of the hearth you continue
to keep
in your head.

The fourth section – ‘The River will Wash Us All Down’ – continues the personal note, with some wonderful poems dealing with love and complex relationships, and also returns to the global concerns of the first section. The context thickens and darkens with the cataclysmic bushfires of the 2019–2020 summer and the Covid pandemic.

Many of these poems grapple with the notion of time. ‘Time Is Not’, for example, has the lines, ‘Change is real / but time is not.’ ‘How to Make Lokshen Kugel says: ‘Understand that authenticity is a myth / like time, like love, like trauma. / Understand that these myths are real / and must form the basis of your recipe’. ‘Eastern Whipbird’, the first poem in the ‘Chronon’ section, is probably richer when read in the context of those other poems, but read in isolation it’s still very rich:

(Page 51)

The title might lead you to expect a description of a bird. If so, prepare to be disappointed. The whipbird is there, but never mentioned explicitly. The first three lines announce the subject:

Loss can be registered in language
in birdsong, in scent
buckwheat, barley, schmaltz.

It’s as if the first line responds to the question, ‘How do we register loss?’ It’s fairly abstract. ‘Birdsong’ in the second line suggests that the actual prompt for the poem may not have been the abstract question but a surge of emotion triggered by a birdcall (the whipbird of the title, perhaps). It could just as easily have been a ‘scent’ that did the triggering. Then the third line (line breaks are important here) narrows the focus. Birdsong and scent could remind anyone of anything, but these three things are connected with cooking, in particular, in the case of ‘schmaltz’, with Ashkenazi Jewish cuisine.

Nothing is lost, not even the moment
shattered into light pulses, entangled

in the mother tongue, in the morning
leaves a taste on the lips, sharp

breaks through like the crack of a whip 
reminds you that time is a construct

These three couplets seem at first to contradict the first trio, denying that loss is real. But they don’t so much contradict the opening statement as reframe it. Rather than register the loss, we become aware of the persistence of that which is lost. People who have migrated and been obliged to take on a new language often report that hearing their mother tongue spoken brings back the emotions of their childhood: the lost moments are entangled in the language, become as present as a taste on the lips. Notice the subtle way that first cooking is evoked and then the word ‘mother’ turns up. we are being prepared for something. Coming back to the immediate prompt, something, we’re not told what, is made present by the call of a whipbird. This leads to the assertion that ‘time is a construct’. The poem has the task of clarifying that assertion.

you write every minute with breath.

This carries a particular kind of weight as the poem’s only stand-alone line. It justifies that weight as a six-word explanation of the idea that time is a construct. We don’t just experience time passively, but our breath, metaphor for human spirit, creates it like a poem.

You think you're reaching back
for something missing, only to find it

held, in the pelvis, the shoulder girdle  

These lines return to the opening paradox: we register loss in a number of ways, but nothing is lost. A personal pronoun appears for the first time: not ‘I’ or ‘We’ but ‘You’. The reader is being challenged to test the poem against his (in my case) own experience. It’s true that when it comes to memory of something lost, I think I’m reaching back. It’s also true that when I remember, say, how my mother put her face up to be kissed by one of us kids, something registers (that word again) in my body. I wouldn’t say it’s in the pelvis or the shoulder girdle, but it could have been. I get the point.

whispered from parent to child long after

that motherly voice, like a caress, dispersed
flowing through the world as atoms,
electrons, a charge carrier. 

Now the kind of loss we’re talking about is in clear focus. The thing that ‘you’ (definitely the poet now) find somewhere in your body is a mother’s whisper. Here Magdalena Ball’s scientific bent comes beautifully into play. It’s not that the actual mother or her actual voice still exist on some spiritual, other-worldly plane. She and the air that carried her voice have been dispersed into their constituent atoms – and again a paradox: the notion that we are immersed in a flow of atoms and electrons that may once have been part of our loved ones’ body and breath carries a charge, a charge that we invent. (I think of the Sweet Honey in the Rock song, ‘Breaths‘: ‘Those who have died … are in the rustling trees … in the groaning woods … in the crying grass … in the moaning rocks.’)

_________________________It's okay to let
her go, begin anytime. She's here.

I was completely unprepared for the emotional punch of this. There’s so much intellectual complexity and then this simple, profound statement. It may be eccentric of me, but I think of the moment in the movie Truly Madly Deeply when the Juliet Stephenson character finally lets the ghost of her husband go. Begin anytime – we don’t have to be passive around time, wait for time the great healer to help us overcome our grief. In some important sense time is our creation. And there’s another paradox, or a restatement of the same one: in the act of letting go, we understand that memory exists in our bodies. ‘She’s here.’

I am grateful to the author and Ginninderra Press for my complimentary copy..

Jennifer Maiden’s Appalachian Fall

Jennifer Maiden, Appalachian Fall: Poems about Poverty in Power (Quemar Press 2017)

appalachian.pngQuemar Press published the ebook of Jennifer Maiden’s  Metronome the day after the 2017 US presidential election. In its last poem, Maiden’s fictional alter egos George Jeffreys and Clare Collins watch the election results on TV, and chat to Donald Trump on the phone. One insistent strand of Appalachian Fall is a continuation of the Trump theme.

Jimmy Carter chats with his re-awakened distant cousin Sara Carter Bayes at Trump’s inauguration. Jane Austen comments on his rivalry with Kim Jong-Un. Eleanor Roosevelt and Hillary Clinton chat about him.  Trump himself appears with George Jeffreys, with his mother, Mary Anne Macleod, and solo.

Maiden’s lively, questioning intelligence worries away at the double mystery of Trump: who is he and what happened to make him President? The book’s subtitle, ‘Poems of Poverty in Power’, gestures towards her answer to the second question: Jimmy Carter, reflecting on Sara’s music, articulates it:

thought: we knew ourselves when we heard it:
the low gut scream of hunger,
for some food, some pride, for any sort of
civilising action, answered passion, and if all
these people were Trump voters, maybe that in fact
was why he couldn’t despise their desperation.

Maiden addresses the first question –’who is he?’– with something approaching compassion, or at least an attempt to understand the human being, which is a kind of poetic heroism. Just as, years ago, she made poetry from her observations of George W Bush’s nose and Kevin Rudd’s pursed lips, in ‘Wind-rock’ she makes us see Donald Trump’s characteristic walk, and so the man himself, with fresh eyes:

 brace and blend into a finish. Trump’s erratic pace
wind-rocked staggers stubborn with its hunching
at growth and gust in air and no escape.

There’s a lot more than Trump here, but I won’t attempt a proper review. I’ve spent far too long on this blog post already, partly because I keep rereading the poetry – I love the sound of Jennifer Maiden’s voice, even when, occasionally, I don’t get what she’s saying or think she’s way off the mark. And partly because, well, see the next paragraph. For an excellent review, I recommend Magdalena Ball’s at Compulsive Reader.

So this is what took me too much time. There’s an extraordinary wealth of reference in Maiden’s poetry: to the Australian poetry scene past and present, poetry in general, politics in Australia, the US, the UK and Catalonia, art, music, the publishing industry, TV shows, movies, famous and little-known political and cultural figures. I thought it would be interesting to put together a visual representation of the intricate web of associations and connections created in this book, and produced the slide show below, which is still not exhaustive).

Enjoy. And then read the book. Quite a lot of it is up on Quemar’s website as a PDF.

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Though I read Appalachian Fall last year I’m counting it as my first book  for the 2018 Australian Women Writers Challenge.