A perfect distortion
I had the good fortune to first get to know Marietta over a couple of years in the early 2000s when we were both members of a poetry-workshopping group. It was a convivial, energetic and sometimes argumentative group with a number of strong women, older than myself – experienced poets not shy to speak their minds with humour, wit and alacrity. I was starting out as poet and I learnt so much from their energetic disagreements, their life and poetic wisdom, and their trenchant critique of my work.
These women carved out artistic careers for themselves in an era which didn’t make it easy for women, and I admired their tenacity and verve in imagining unconventional creative futures for themselves, often alongside other professions. Two of that group – Connie Barber and Christina MacCallum – have now died and still they live through their work and their words.
Marietta was one of that feisty group of women, and she and they first introduced me to the rich diversity of the Melbourne poetry scene. Through Marietta’s heritage and bilingual work I was also connected more immediately to the European poetic tradition – with all its beauty and suffering.
It was in this workshopping group that I first learn of Marietta’s background as a Holocaust survivor and the gruelling way in which she and her sister had survived those dark days. Her previous book, island of wakefulness, is dedicated to the de Kamp family – who risked their lives to save hers.
A perfect distortion is Marietta’s third book and second poetry collection. It is a book of creative collaboration and many different kinds of partnerships are celebrated between its covers. Marietta pairs her poems with Dutch translations by Joris Lenstra, who also translated her previous book. She also couples her poems with photographs she has taken, alongside the artworks of others.
Marietta writes in A perfect distortion of human and non human worlds. Many of the poems are set in two sites of poetic and photographic inspiration for her – Darebin Parklands and Yarra Bend Park. She also writes of illness and outsmarting pain, of art and art-making and behind both of these, of perception itself.
Many non-Dutch speakers will skip over the translations but it’s rewarding to actually read some of these poems, comparing them to the English originals. I had many thrills of word recognition, even though I don’t understand the language, possible because both have a common linguistic ancestor and there are words similar to the English, particularly once spoken aloud.
Marietta brings her photographer’s eye to poetry and her poetic eye to photography and they have been companion occupations for her for many years. Common to both are shadows – both metaphoric and literal and there are many in this book. This doesn’t make it a dark read but one with depth, and as counterpoint to life and light, or as Ian McBride says of Marietta’s previous book; a ‘deeply bewitching calm surface over dark water’.
Part of this darkness, she tells us in her biographical notes, is that the cancer she described memorably in island of wakefulness has metastasised to her spine. She is a courageous writer, who uses the challenging prima materia of different types of survival: breast cancer, the Holocaust, and displacement, as poetic starting points. Through poetry, ‘she has been able to transform these experiences to make peace with them’.
In emotional tenor, A perfect distortion is perhaps more resolved than island of wakefulness, as if the process of transforming dark material has proceeded apace and brought Marietta a greater measure of equanimity. In a poem that describes a bone scan’s inconclusive result, she describes that balance to which seekers of self-knowledge aspire:
a state of unknowing not a willful turning away the yes no hovering like the needle on a fine set of scales – forever seeking equilibrium
Or even more lyrically, she describes this sought-after condition as the ‘Breathless moment between summer and autumn’ (7).
Many of the poems in A perfect distortion describe the act of looking / perceiving and reference the plasticity of perception. ‘I wish I could see it / from two places at once’ (13), she says in 'Seasons, Darebin Parklands'. In a poem of appreciation for a gift of a painting by Danial Kagan ('Waterlily'), Marietta articulates the centrality of seeing to her. ‘[A]s long as you have eyes / to see’ (55) she seems to say, this can be used to transport you through even horrendous life experience. In another poem she talks of ‘Stripping away the comfort of interpretation’, relinquishing the control we sometimes think we need to generate the capacity for deep seeing (11).
These reflections on perception are also evident in Marietta’s photographs. Most of them, including the gorgeous cover image, are blurred – not to obscure the real I think, but rather to reveal this malleable dimension of it. She creates atmosphere, mood and flow with these images – whether this is of river, light or, taking the patterns one step further, emotion. They are impressionistic meditations that mirror and amplify her words. Many of the photos do what it is so difficult to do with words – describe the nascent and the metamorphic; life pared back to energetic essence.
One group of poems focuses on Marietta's illness, with some of the work portraying encounters with pain. In one poem, pain is pithily described as her ‘sour chaperone’ and referred to in the title of another, as 'Painbird' (43).
One of the most moving and accomplished poems in the collection is 'Knowledge'. This is a devastating poem to read, as it must have been to experience and write. Victims of racism, or any other hatred, often internalise the attitudes on which the discrimination was based, and the treatment meted out to them. In a cruel additional twist they need to rid themselves of this internalised negativity, a process that takes many years and perhaps is never complete. Marietta’s poem describes part of this process and underscores the ongoing horrendous legacy of suffering bequeathed through living through the Holocaust.
The loss of my hair exposed the nose of the rabbi face of an uncle who failed to return skull’s smooth symmetry
Other family members including her Mother are also honoured in A perfect distortion. Marietta dedicates poems to and acknowledges many important others – the late Leo Shan, MPU confederate and workshop companion, friends, colleagues, muses and fellow artists.
Poems in A perfect distortion are not complex or abstracted far from the concrete – they have other strengths. Most are written in free-form, with one Pantoum – 'Their own perfection' – a poem redolent with poignant finitude. A handful of Haiku lend extra compression and trademark Elliott-Keleerkoper wit. Consider:
Autumn afternoon A gust of wind takes my Haiku
A perfect distortion is a clever title for this work and is emblematic of Marietta’s aesthetic. It acknowledges the serendipitous nature of artistic process alongside the fact that psychological balance is hard-won through the acceptance of paradox, the straddling of opposites. This is an anti-heroic stance where one needs to be willing to accept the light as well as the dark – the perfect as well as the distorted. This theme is referenced in other poems and implicit is the knowing that in a life as well as a poem or a photo, the shadows define the light, quintessentially.
Marietta’s voice rings out confidently and true in A perfect distortion, work milled from a lifetime of words. It is a book of wisdom, poems of simple eloquence.