Reading for a Quiet Morning
Petra White’s fourth poetry collection, Reading for a Quiet Morning, is a narrative-driven, subversive poetic experiment, told in three unequally weighted (but each significantly weighty) sections focusing on the making and unmaking of subjectivity, worlds, dwellings, and self-myth. Readers at first may find themselves asking whether the three individual sections form a coherent and complementary whole that justifies their position beside each other: at its most reductive, the first section is an epic biblical retelling that composes more than half of the collection’s pages, the second focuses on mythic, historical and human myth-making, and the third involves translations of the German lyric poet, Rilke. But it may be that, with its focus on incomplete knowledges, partial perspectives, and multiple, fragmented selves, any disparateness and disjunction in the form of the collection as a whole in its first reading is precisely the point. These gaps are also bridged by a thematic and imagistic repetition that binds the poems together. Each section focuses on myth-rewriting, the power and capacity for violence within the process, the need to question ideas of a cosmic singular truth and prophecy, what possibilities exist for autonomy and choice within seemingly set scripts, and a critique of the masculine epic.
This is at its most sustained through the first section: the character-driven epic poem ‘How the Temple Was Built’ reimagines the biblical book of Ezekiel to examine human and mythic limitation. Even the God imagined is fickle and limited in his (the Bible’s masculine God is evoked) scope, challenged and haunted by his creations which are beyond him. The poetic style employed mimics the more prose-like structure of the Book of Ezekiel in the density of the lines on the page, while still having clear, clean and reasoned line breaks. Its voice has verisimilitude with religious scripture and the ‘epic’, but the language used subverts and undermines the authority previously given to these texts. This is both a secular and feminist retelling of the Book. The original text focused on the fall of Jerusalem as a nation, God’s divine judgements against spiritual ‘corruption’ as proof of power, God’s sovereignty and ‘grace’, and the promise of spiritual restoration in returning to his principles. White revokes this necessity. In the original, the prophet Ezekiel has a wife who dies, and whom God forbids Ezekiel to mourn. This death foreshadows, and stands in for, the destruction of Ezekiel’s nation which he is also forbidden to mourn. The wife of the biblical text has no name, no agency, and not even her death is allowed to be about her. White rewrites this script to give these to the character, alongside challenging both God as an objective, sovereign power and the necessity of prophecy. The idea of the infinite fractures.
Ezekiel and God – their acceptance of war and a grandiose sense of importance – are critiqued through farce. Ezekiel is introduced with: 'Ezekiel eats dung that a man may know the infinite' (2), drowning 'himself in himself' (3) – a concept of self-involvement that extends to the male / female relationships explored in ‘Landscapes’, the second section of the collection. 'Mindfucked' (7), 'parceled up in vision' (6) elude the comprehension of his 'infant sight' (7), for a visionary Ezekiel ironically 'cannot see reality very well' (p. 8) and struggles to translate and mediate the words of damnation he hears from God, into human speech or writing. He is mocked for his undervaluation of the human world and his grandiose role (in starting a war), but is ultimately pitied for his lack of agency. The path of destruction God envisions as follows:
The best way is man against man, and a human voice to stand the truth and make it run.
This God is steeped in contradictions of his own, along with his world which is vividly rendered with images that juxtapose and turn in on themselves. In this, God is an arbitrary figure with little control and less understanding of his own creations:
A whole second he devoted himself to galaxies … It quickly went out of control. Everything started creating itself.
Yet these creations – mortal, beautiful, violent, and striking, as exemplified in long cascading descriptions of animals, cells composing beings, and townships – 'each and every stunned him with strange completion' (10). This stunning affect extends to the reader through White’s startling poetic descriptions. But this God views humans as evil and sets them up fickly for destruction through unrelentingly grotesque war. He has to turn to Esther to understand them.
Esther, given a name and desire for vengeance over her young and unmourned death, is arguably even more dynamic in presentation. Made an immortal, lonely, isolated, time-and-space travelling angel, she 'reeks of life' (22) and resists God’s attempts to dissolve her humanity into angelic 'neutral love' (22). She becomes God's equal, calling him out for his contradictory actions and dismissal of his creations. She drops the apple into Eve’s hand, choosing knowledge of reality and its extremes over placid ignorance. She is a striking creation who White renders with startling rage and love:
God has frozen her humanity exactly as it was when she lived: miffed at injustice, spoiled, nothing more than a wife. Yet she grows inside the ice of herself, grows out of self, man-woman, oppressor and oppressed, her seeing burns her up. And she becomes a star.
There is a sense of the inhuman incomprehensibility of the cosmic in Esther and God’s existences and all-encompassing experience of time, but both are simultaneously made all-too-human, God in his confusion and self-absorption (defined as the quality of the human by the text) and Esther by love and self-righteousness.
All-too-human, too, are the townspeople who view their town as 'total' (4), 'making up stories, accounting for their own existence' (4). The town is vividly imperfect, 'its superstitions rooted as fact, nourishing itself / with industries of fear and fate' (4), on the brink of impending destruction and displacement. Although constructed in quick sweeping lines, this is a terrifying, haunting vision. After the battle, 'the animals and birds come' (34), creatures living beyond and consuming those killed by human shortsightedness.
The next sequence, ‘Landscapes’ has an ironically human focus – the human as affected by and affecting place, and the determinism of roles and the myths we make – and works to bridge the preoccupations of the other sequences surrounding it. It involves seemingly still moments in nature with human actors acting within them: liminal moments on the brink of transition whether destructive or constructive (with each containing an element of the other) including death and marriage, which get contrasted against domestic scenes. This section examines unions, failed unions, and fragments composing wholes with a humanist focus and examination of time’s effect on the self: 'A self plummets in the enormity of selves' (‘Anatomy’, 46). But White also extends this beyond the self to examine human effects on the external environment, as explored in the section’s first poem, the ecopoetical ‘The Big Small Loss’:
The human stands in a forest, the forest stops growing, the birds stop singing, and the terrible pause lasts only a minute.
The section also turns back to myth, including allusions to Odysseus’s Penelope and the creatively invented female executioner of Anne Boleyn who becomes an extension of death, and with an alliterative strike ensures 'Death’s dying is done' (‘A Quiet Morning’, 44). Language here crackles with colour, violence and wordplay. Its highpoint is a three-poem centrepiece focusing on the Oedipus narrative examining the hybrid creature, the Sphinx, with her riddle of mankind’s transitions, Oedipus’s mother Jocasta who struggles over her accidental relationship with her son, which concludes with 'I make nothing happen and it happens' ('Jocasta', 52), and Oedipus himself who is rendered baby-like, blinded and out-of-time in his self-fulfilling and circular prophecy.
The book begins with a dedication: 'In memory of my mother' and White’s mother and her role in subject formation seems to gravitate over the text, the mother hinted at as the source of the mythic in White’s understanding. Even God in the first poem is likened to a mother figure, although White uses reversions to complicate the relation, to examine how creators create themselves in relation to their creations and hence the anthropomorphism of God. Humans:
... wanted his likeness, as a child is nothing without the imprint of its mother. But God had no likeness. He created himself in the likeness of humans. ...
Maternal and female figures dominate the text, moving beyond dualisms being both creative and destructive figures, compassionate and lethal, with power over life and death. There is the murderous Sphinx in the Oedipus triptych, about to die, who sees Oedipus’s fate and 'in a moment of motherly compassion / is tempted to withhold the riddle', and Oedipus’s mother-wife Jocasta who muses 'What sort of woman am I. / Not a mother, not a wife, / in between', perceived as perversely hybrid, but to whom the text is entirely sympathetic. The mother becomes an ambiguous figure, full of contradictions. This is most direct in the second longest, and most personal, poem of the collection, ‘Filial (1956–2015)’ which works as the centrepiece of the final section of the book. This poem examines 'a love that’s scarcely human' (62) between the poet, her sisters, and her dying mother who created them, raised them, loved them and occasionally failed them:
Still, the mother is something mythical, she who first fed us language, oh the eternal wellspring, that beginning. Afloat on a violent sea of love for six children, pieces of herself forever lost in each one. She tried to retrieve herself desperately.
This poem is nestled between White’s interpretation of three Rilke poems to complete the final (and shortest) section in the collection. This section could have been expanded, but is poignant in its brevity. White continues her project of translation and reinterpretation of ‘mythic’ works through a focus on the poet, who also returned to Greek myth and human-like conceptions of God. ‘The Prodigal Son’ deals with 'all of what God created and all what / created itself' and 'the limitations imposed from birth, / never grown out of' (66), rather grown into through understanding of human subjectivity’s limitations. ‘Archaic Torso of Apollo’ continues to explore White’s fascination with monuments (and ruins) of Greek myth, the unchallenged masculine gaze as a literal relic. ‘The Panther’ closes the collection, and White’s interpretation focuses on the limitation of lenses and knowledge of the world:
The sleek black bars have paced about his eye-zone so long his gaze is a throng of a thousand bars, behind them no world.
The panther’s 'ever tightening circles' behind the bars reveal its interactions within the world. While these interactions increasingly shrink in scope, they are progressively intense in action and precision. The positioning of subjectivity becomes 'a dance of ungraspable strength', fighting for its own quiet dignity in the face of indignity and cosmological confusion.
But sometimes the curtains of the eyes lift and an image Flies in and twists … finds its way into the heart and dies.
Ultimately, the collection concludes with pessimism for the hope of complete revelation; moments of possible understanding of oneself and the universe falter almost as soon as they are contemplated, always partial, filtered and contained within the subject’s perspective. Myths and religious script, alongside feminist and secular theory, are shown as one among many ways of interpreting the world, any promises of cosmic revelation always farcically, but no less tragically, limited. But there is resistance and strength within these attempts at sense-making that White subtly celebrates despite her critiques.
Petra White, Reading for a Quiet Morning. Gloria SMH Press, 2017. ISBN:978994527561