Tag Archives: Sappho’s

Jordie Albiston’s Book of Ethel

Jordie Albiston, The Book of Ethel (Puncher & Wattmann Poetry 2013)

1boI 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
a Speck!__then__gigantic

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.

awwbadge_2013This is another title in my Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2013.

Sappho & Penguin play rough

Two literary events with the Art Student in the last week: Robert Adamson and Devin Johnson at Sappho’s on Tuesday night, and Tom Cho and others at Penguin Plays Rough on Saturday.

I’ve been to one previous poetry reading at Sappho’s, in May this year. On that occasion Rhyll McMaster and the open-mikers read from just inside the shop, to an audience spread comfortably on the verandah and courtyard in the balmy evening, enjoying warm drinks and tapas. Tuesday night was a bit different, bitterly cold (by Sydney standards) with rain pelting down. We arrived early enough to claim the sole remaining indoor table, opting for dryness and comparative comfort behind the microphone rather than huddling in the chilly and dripping plastic-roofed and -sided balcony with good sight lines. The courtyard was completely out of the question. When the Talent arrived, they were given tables in the semi-exposed area, tables that we had rejected because they were awash.

It speaks volumes for the pulling power of these poets that the space, though small, was crowded. Adamson and Johnson were an excellent double bill, lots of river water and birds from two continents. The two stand-out poems for me were Johnson’s ‘Marco Polo‘ (the link, which needs Flash, has DJ reading this poem and two others) and Adamson’s ‘The Kingfisher’s Soul‘ (this also needs Flash), which he told us he’d written in response to his wife asking why he never wrote any love poems: it is indeed an achingly personal love poem.

Adamson, Johnson and their small entourage departed – presumably to a warmer, drier, better fed place – before the open mic, along with enough others to create the impression that all who were left were the open mikers and their pals: ‘And now, ladies and gentlemen, the Dregs of the Evening’. But we soldiered on, reading one poem each. There was a long piece in terza rima that I couldn’t quite hear, a pantoum, a sharp witty observation on cockatoos, a tribute to Francis Webb, and to conclude the evening next month’s featured poet Eileen Chong gave us Mary Wollstoncraft addressing her unborn daughter, praying that one day her fingers would close around a pen. And somewhere in there I read a sonnet about snoring. To polite applause. Come to think of it, even the most excellent poems of the evening received only polite applause. Given the weather, that was about all that could be expected.

The red chair, the lamp, and the Art Student (who managed to grab the last seat)

Penguin Plays Rough had a very different feel. It was my second time there as well, but my first at the new venue. The front section of an old warehouse has been curtained off from what I assume is the living space further back. The heavy red curtains lend a suitably theatrical atmosphere to the chequered lino floor, cosily ill-assorted couches and armchairs around the walls, and wooden podium with iconic red chair and standard lamp. By the time we arrived all but one of the sears were taken, and no mercy was shown to our elder status. We found a place on the lino. (At the first break in proceedings when we stood up to stretch our legs, I was shocked to discover a pack of young people moving in to claim the space we were relinquishing – behind us, in the tiny space between the front door and the first heavy curtain, they had been standing three deep, envying us our vantage point.)

We were physically uncomfortable, but we were warm, and we were part of a cheerful crowd. Many people were drinking mulled wine. Those in the know – and they seemed to be many – had brought their own mugs. Pip Smith, who edited and published The Penguin Plays Rough Book Of Short Stories, was a brilliant MC, using words like ‘awesome’ and generally exuding a mi casa es su casa aura. With one possible exception (he said humbly), the readings were terrific. The advertised readers were Emma Dallas (a character sketch of an inner west personality), Ryan O’Neil (a piece about depression that would have been scary if it wasn’t so brilliantly playful), Sam Twyford-Moore (a tale of travel, crosscultural romance and writerly rivalry), Jess Bellamy (letters to celebrities whose dysfunction feeds the tabloids, which became retrospectively more substantial with news of Amy Winehouse’s death yesterday), and the star of the evening Tom Cho. Tom read from ‘The Attributes of God’, a story that will be in a book he describes as being about the meaning of life. I wouldn’t have minded the physical discomfort of the evening anyway, but hearing this story would have been worth even more suffering. ‘God is love’ has taken on new meaning for me. He ended with a YouTube clip of otters that, far from being gratuitously cute, was a perfect accompaniment to his story.

Penguin Plays Rough doesn’t have an open mic. They do have ‘wild cards’: anyone can sign up at the door to read, and a selection of those who sign up are interspersed between the advertised readers. On Saturday we had an essay on relationships between the genders with a focus on schoolyard handball, a piece that Pip Smith described as a theatre review written by James Joyce … and me.

Yes, I put my name in the ring again, which I wouldn’t have done if I’d realised that PPR is actually a short story event and I only had a couple of sonnets and a dog poem in my pocket, and even more definitely not if I’d known I was going to be at the end of the evening – after Tom Cho and the otters. Astonishingly, the whole audience stayed put and even seemed to enjoy what I had to offer.

These are the first two times I’ve ventured to read in public. It’s not so bad.

Added later: I forgot to mention that I met Adrian Wiggins there, the mover behind the Sydney Poetry web site. He has uploaded some wonderfully atmospheric photos to facebook. Mercifully he had to leave before Tom Cho’s and my moments in the chair, so we don’t appear, except in the background of one of the shots.

Rhyll McMaster at Sappho’s

Next door to Gleebooks, Sappho’s Book Shop stages monthly poetry readings. Last night Rhyll McMaster read from her next book – she’s writing poetry again after years engaged one way or another with the novel Feather Man.

No one was smoking in Sappho’s courtyard, but I like the way this phone photo suggests the classic smoke-filled ambience for poetry reading.

In which I go on a bit about buying two books

I happened to be in Glebe this morning, and as I had earned a little bit of money last weekend I allowed myself to yield to the allure of the bookshops.

First, the secondhand poetry shelves of Sappho’s beckoned. There were a number of tempting morsels – enough to make me think that a Sydney poetry lover had recently died or radically downsized. There was a book of Philip Martin’s, inscribed in a shaky hand  that suggested he had already embarked on the disease that was eventually to kill him; Adamson’s Waving to Hart Crane signed ‘affectionately Bob’. But the one I bought was a selection of Stevie Smith’s poems. When I worked at Currency Press, our Editor in Chief Phillip Parsons impressed me hugely by reciting the last page of Stevie Smith’s Novel on Yellow Paper, and I became a fan on the spot (of Phillip, yes, but also of Stevie Smith). I recently saw a copy of her slected poems on a friend’s bookshelf – I took it down, and behold it was inscribed on the inside cover as a birthday present to a different close friend – a birthday present from me. The birthday girl later denied all knowledge of having given the book away, so I was left with a nagging sense that one or other of my dear friends was a book thief, a liar or an ingrate. Somehow when I saw this book in Sappho’s today – same selection, different cover – it seemed that buying it would make everything all right again. So I bought it.

Oh I am a cat that likes to
Gallop about doing good.

And then next door to Gleebooks. I’d listened to Poetica’s excellent two part broadcast on France Webb recently, heard Geoff Page deliver a  lukewarm account of him on the Book Show (Maybe you need more than one poetry reviewer, Ramona! But I don’t need to say much, as commenter named Junius has given you the rounds of the kitchen on this one.) and been prompted to open up my 1969 Collected Poems. This is one of my favourite books – I mean the actual battered, slightly foxed object on my shelf, which I love because I spent quite a bit of intensive time with it in my mid 20s. I was planning on writing an MA thesis on Webb’s poetry. It didn’t happen, but I did a bit of work that left its traces in the margins of my copy (as well as in a little exercise book in which I pasted photocopies of poems by Webb that had been published but not collected). His explorer poems sent me off to read the published journals of Leichhardt, Sturt, Grey and Edward John Eyre. My book has notes on when and where poems were first published, textual variations and any annotations, and occasionally there’s a commentary from me. For example, in ‘Leichhardt in Theatre’, just before the explorer’s party is attacked by the people whose land they have invaded, the poem goes:

————————————Gilbert, the naturalist,
is planting some precious flowers that he has found,
Cradles them in his hands like diamonds

There’s a pencilled note in the margin:

This indicates he had probably not read the Journal – Gilbert was learning to plat (sic)

Presumably it was Leichhardt who misspelled ‘plait’. I imagine these notes would annoy anyone else, but they fill me with an affection for my younger self.

But back to the visit to Gleebooks. On the display table in the poetry section was the new Collected Poems, published by UWA Publishing and edited by Toby Davidson. I flipped it open and had to buy it. Not only does it include the poems I had found in my postgraduate days, plus more. It also promises to correct errors Webb had noted in the 1969 edition (his notes evidently came to light in the 1980s). Am I doomed to read with both books open – one for the poetry and the other for young Jonathan’s occasional comment?

I thought you’d like to know.