Anders Villani reviews Stone Mother Tongue by Annamaria Weldon

Annamaria Weldon, Stone Mother Tongue. Crawley, WA: UWAP, 2018. ISBN: 9781742589930

 

Anders Villani

 

‘The poetics of stone predate / writing: precise angles redeem its schism from the earth.’ These lines, from the poem ‘Ashlar’, could be read as summative of Annamaria Weldon’s monumental new collection, which explores how human beings, like the landscapes and civilisations that shape them, comprise strata of history and prehistory in ever-shifting relations. More than that, the collection asks how a poetic engagement with place can restore connections, like flint sparking in the darkness, to what has been lost.

Stone Mother Tongue begins with a literal return to homeland, or a land that was once home. Sighting her ‘birthplace’, Malta, from the air, the speaker remarks in ‘Incoming’ that ‘you’d miss it / unless I told you look, there!’ What follows is that exhortation to look, for reader and speaker alike. It is a looking, moreover, across vast temporal expanses: the collection’s three parts – also included are a prologue, an epilogue, a glossary of terms, and contextual notes – ambitiously explore Malta’s abundant Neolithic and Phoenician ruins from the vantage of the present day. We witness these excavations, and the narratives – human and divine – to which they allude, through the eyes of a speaker yearning for a renewed connection to her ancestors, and to her ancestral former selves. This lyric-narrative purpose, its ‘poetics of stone’, is exemplified in the title poem, which addresses one of the country’s more famous stone-age carvings of a goddess of worship  (deities of this period, the author explains later, appear to have been almost exclusively female):

Neolithic Venus, have you waited millennia

for me to be your voice … ?

As much an anthropological or archeological study as a work of art, Stone Mother Tongue harnesses a rich lexicon borrowing from multiple disciplines, roots, and ages: ‘brecciated’; ‘coracle’; ‘chined’; ‘chthonic’; ‘murex’; ‘Marram grass’. The result is sonically and rhythmically exquisite, if at times forbidding. Where Weldon counterbalances this experimentation with diction, however, is in the elegance and tensile control of her syntax. Here is the beginning of ‘Paper, Ink, Inkstone, Brushes’:

There’s a forest like an inkstone

hunkered as memory

shouldering cobalt skies

 

streaked with white brush-strokes

sloping to headlands of lamp-black

at rest on a parchment sea.

Throughout the collection, the limited use of caesura and a preference for the long, run-on sentence lends to these poems an almost wave-like urgency of movement. One feels, given also the repeated references to liminal zones, thresholds waiting to be crossed – ‘I remember that my strength is in the slow making / of a threshold’ (‘A Convergence’) – a drifting in music across these thresholds: of time, of space, of memory, of what is to be made of those memories in the present.

One of the virtues of the first two parts of the collection is how they alternately highlight and suppress the personal narrative. Wary of cultivating a relationship of overt, perhaps undesirably obvious symbolism between objects and viewer, Weldon offers in these sections enough autobiographical context to justify the speaker’s project, and to clarify the nature and urgency of that project for the reader, but no more. Instead, it is through poems invoking the ancestors – what they did and what they felt and what they thought and believed – that we appreciate the immensity here of summoning, needing to summon, the past. From ‘Incantation to the Monument Builders’:

You who split earth open with fire, chined

the wounds with water, listened to Her voices:

limestone cutters, miners, sawyers, masons, quarriers …

 

we are grateful

for your talents, celebrate their holdfast nature,

cherish our island testament to adamantine glory.

The work done in Parts One and Two is complicated somewhat by Part Three: ‘Anthropocene, Antipodes’. As its title suggests, this section moves us from ancient Malta to present-day Australia, and this transition can jar. One reason for the jarring effect concerns the collection’s length: some ninety-five pages (including photographs and interludes) have elapsed before we reach Australian shores. While the strength of that work is formidable, the likeness of certain poems to others in terms of subject matter may have warranted some judicious omissions. At the same time, the relative brevity of ‘Anthropocene, Antipodes’ means that while an attempt is made to integrate the speaker’s foregoing experiences into life at home, to round out the narrative, this attempt feels less than fleshed out. But perhaps this is the point: to live not yoked to one’s points of origin, but inflected by them, and to hear in these inflections an affirming music. In ‘Exultation’, the speaker witnesses birds swooping for prey: ‘Then suddenly grace came as quiet flight … ’

Stone Mother Tongue is a testament to poetry’s capacity to marry rigorous scholarly inquiry with inquiries, no less rigorous, into the deepest recesses of personhood.

 

Anders Villani is the author of Aril Wire (Five Islands Press, 2018). He earned his MFA from the University of Michigan’s Helen Zell Writers’ Program, where he was the recipient of the Delbanco Prize for poetry. Also a two-time winner of the John Marsden Prize for Young Australian Writers, he is currently a PhD candidate at Monash University. He lives in Melbourne.

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