The Tiny Museums
The Tiny Museums by Carolyn Abbs is a long-awaited first collection. As a colleague in the same writers’ group, I have to state that while I am somewhat biased, I am more than happy that Carolyn persevered with her poetry in a long membership with Out of the Asylum Writers Inc., Fremantle, and in Shane McCauley’s poetry class. More importantly that her hard work has been recognised and awarded a highly-commended by UWA Publishing. In my reading of the collection’s impressive eighty-one poems, I have not been disappointed.
It is often a long journey to get to this point of having a first collection; the magazines and journal subscriptions one has to belong to, the insurmountable rejections slips, entering major and lesser-known poetry competitions and then the kudos that finally your poetry is being published! Abbs has, to her credit, major publications in Writ Poetry Review, Westerly, Rabbit Poetry, Cordite Poetry Review, The Best Australian Poems 2014; a series of poems, ‘Different Hemispheres’, in Axon: Creative Explorations (2015); in the Australian Book Review, print, online, and in a podcast as part of the ‘States of Poetry Project’ (2016).
While the poetry in this collection is a reflection of growing up in the south of England, of childhood memories, of family past and present, there appears to be an overarching premise to the work as ‘a feminist text of embodiment’. It is not surprising that as an academic (she holds a PhD from Murdoch University) Abbs would be familiar with feminist theory on marriage, motherhood, pregnancy, gender issues and in particular the binaries of the mind / body, home / away, and past / present. The whole collection is intrinsically visceral, sensually rich and embodies art, photography, life and nature all as one entity. In ‘Above a Seedy Flower Shop’, the bride (et al) is an apparition while the old wares of the shop hint at weddings. The artist Rodin is mentioned further in the poem.
A spray of whitish flowers anemones roses campion forget-me-nots stuffed in a vase as if hurled by a bride and caught by a girl with cautious hands.
In relation to Abbs’s poetry as embodiment, I cite an online article titled ‘The body / Embodiment Group’ which states:
In the feminist critique of the mind-body and the dualistic counterparts: male / female, culture / nature, public / private, human / animal, there is also an ambition to counterbalance and transgress the dualistic thinking present in both scientific explorations and disciplinary boundaries. The body has become a veritable hot spot, marking itself as a boundary concept that forcefully disrupts given disciplinary identities and fields of investigation. The body is a locus where nature and culture meet and it refuses to accommodate a distinction between these two terms.
Abbs’s poetry does not set out to make itself a hot spot of feminist theory, but there is a sense of the body / mind binary being central to the way the poetry moves the reader from past to present, from home / away, to nature / culture. The visceral aspect in the work is extraordinary, the five senses, richly rewarding. And because it’s poetry, it has the ability to go beyond the literal level to deeper investigations.
In ‘Tulips in Black and White’ there are themes of death and loss. The bodies of tulips are symbolic to the body of a premature baby or a mother’s old skin.
Sadness overwhelms me in this circle of cut flowers; some face me, plead for help, but if I were to cradle one tulip-heavy head in my palm like a premature baby, would its petals (that remind me of my mother's skin when she was old) fall to the floor? Others turn away in a dried blush of shame. Just a few plump bodies flaunt sheen on velvet cloaks, yet stems stoop weary. They wait in colour-obliterated twilight. Forgotten.
Nature and culture mirror the life of the poet growing up in England. In the poem ‘Sisters’, the English weather is a constant; the rain like dank seaweed is synonymous with ill health, doctors and nurses. A six year-old sister is destined for a sanatorium.
Our shoes crunch crunch a storm has thrashed pebbles across the path.
Wrenched apart like an arm from a doll for a year. No children near.
Her room is quiet as daisies in grass.
From an ecological perspective, the poems in this collection reveal tiny museums of the family at home swathed within the natural world. They stand much like exhibits, their bodies sitting, walking or standing in the housing tenements of tree-lined streets, flower gardens, ‘swallows in the eaves’. It’s not only pictorial, but photographs by Elizabeth Roberts (Abbs’s sister) convey the body / mind of the poet returning to this four dimensional world. Entering the house ‘where her father was born’ is a giddying, terrifying experience.(32-33)
In the poem ‘Three Pictures’, the body again, is in motion. A teenage sister is leaving home – ‘a small suitcase bumping her thigh. The street narrows in the distance, / she becomes smaller, fainter, gone. / A sparrow flits past the window’. (70)
In the binary of home/ away the poet recalls a European visit in the poem ‘An Attic Window (Montmartre)’ where the view and sounds of revelry ‘puncture the night with sirens'. The poet takes a moment to think of home and school days on a swing. ‘I swung high and dropped from a starless sky’ … And juxtaposed with ‘bells that donged’, she is back again on holiday ‘amongst cobbled streets, leaves in the square, a closed boulangerie, hosed pavements in the shadow of Sacré Coeur Basilica.’ (72)
A further poem that epitomises the body juxtaposed with nature is titled ‘Alexander (late 1939)’, where heartache is described as a terrible chill cold as snow, hollow without sound. I am taking the liberty of quoting the locus of the poem.
He was her newborn son wrapped in a shawl she held so briefly pressing her lips to his downy head. They took him that awful moment relived over and over for twenty-one years the emptiness… Today he’s gone again there’s a terrible chill in the house, hollow sound, snow on the ground.
There is much more in relation to the embodiment aspect of the poetry in The Tiny Museums. Poetry as dense as this is phenomenological; a text filled with sounds, motion, multi-layered meaning, Victorian England, olfactory reminders, the nature of birds, trailing trellises of bougainvillea, and the seaside. Limited space is a constraint in any review, and I wanted to reveal many more excellent poems, but I hope that a readership might seek out this collection to discover its hidden gems, its deft poeticism of language; its truths and realities. I have only delved a little way down.
Carolyn Abbs, The Tiny Museums. Crawley, WA: UWAP, 2017. ISBN:9781742589541
The Body / Embodiment Group. GenNa. Uppsala University. http://www.genna.gender.uu.se/themes/bodyembodiment/