XIII Poems is Jordie Albiston’s eighth collection of poetry and the first in the Rabbit Poets Series of non-fiction poetry. There is no particular theme to the collection, but the poems are marked by clear and generous sight that leads to an intriguing sense of alienation and compassion, grief and hope.
Bodies are ever-present in all their specificity and complexity, the source and form of visceral and emotional life, of interactions with the wider world, but reliant on words, syntax and form to communicate. The value of words weaves its way through Albiston’s poems, metaphors and vessels of a way forward, offering communication, the traces of history, showing misunderstanding, naïveté, grief, figuring forth a body, a land, and love.
In this focus on language and body, Albiston’s poems take us further into the ecopoetic discussion of the place of language. Does language, as part of culture, divides us from nature? Or, does the essentially metaphoric nature of language mean that it is embodied and embedded in the natural world? As with most debates of this kind, there is a way forward when the binary is fractured in some way, allowing for a third way. In the introduction to his book, The Language of Nature, the Nature of Language, Scott Knickerbocker writes of “‘sensuous poesis’, the process of rematerializing language specifically as a response to nonhuman nature”, of “operating from the assumption that humans (and their tools, including language) are both distinct and inseparable from the rest of nature”. Albiston’s collection takes us into the grist of this conversation, working most powerfully within the tension of the unresolved.
“The Sea’s Pleasure” (22) plays throughout with the struggle to at once make sense of a new experience through words and to allow the body and heart to feel: that is, making sense in both of its meanings, where body and words search for a way of being within the confusion of something new, “the world going / up with me going down, this wordless calm”. Perhaps, then, the need for words is the danger, and must give way to the senses. But still, the poet looks to build “a boat that is better and stronger and more / than a thing which just floats”, a crafting, a poiesis that will not simply describe and thereby create a distance but will “ferry me to the New Shore”.
It is a search for all that words might do, might open up. At the creation of the world (“A Brief History of Love”, 20), the universe moved, but all was awkward: the “sun clunked”, “earth lurched” and stars barely began, until “the word love was spoken”. Only then was the world “finally right” and “things fell into place”. The spoken word echoes the Genesis account of God commanding each element of creation to come into being, yet here, there is no superior agent who speaks, separate from creation. It is as if, rather, the unifying and ordering power of love speaks itself, neither within nor external to the natural world.
And yet, words can be confusing, misleading, measures of the ugliness of propaganda, as well as expressions of a hopeful heart. So “Gallipoli” sets itself on the page in simple couplets of a soldier’s letters home. The first part, “The Landing”, unsettles with its mix of underlining, italics, capitals, ampersands, brackets, punctuation marks and enjambment. All of this embodies the excitement the soldier feels and simultaneously reflects the discomfort we feel at his naivete, because we know what lies ahead: “An / Adventure LARGER than Life”, “by cripes, I’m at the sharp end of its now!” (13-14). By the second part, “Lone Pine”, the words have resolved into consistent couplets that carry the unresolved experience of sober routine and horrific reality. A strange rhythm is established by the repeated refrain “I am writing…”, words and actions that have become the only way the soldier can moor himself to life (14-16). But words, like his hope, are not enough:
I am writing this as my heart stops a slugger & my feet keep running for
three more steps. We are not to record time or date or place but
it is August 7th 1915. These are my words I am high in the
sky. … (16)
And death, in the third part, “Aftermath”, alternates between two voices of the soldier in different font styles. The first voice, in couplets in standard font, express ecstatic liberation from the horror: “as I burst into eternity…”, “as I soared…”, “as I flapped...”, “ as I bloomed…”, and the second, in italics, the final, consoling messages to those at home: “cry too for the turk / he too was your son”, “yes / a bone is a bone is a bone” (16). As this part progresses, the soldier’s tone changes. His initial relief at death shifts into grief for his mates, himself and all that is lost; he no longer flies, but hangs above Lone Pine and wonders “what I had become / and who in hell I one day might have been” (17). Simultaneously, his advice to the grieving in the alternate couplets becomes philosophical, apparently accepting, but quietly cynical:
when war returns / as war must return / gather together your most perfect men
give them a gun and two hundred rounds / give them a tot of rum (17)
And his words, all those saving words that the soldier wrote? They are like his heartbeat:
when you receive this missive / read once / fold / put away / don’t look to heaven / we
are the lads whose letters stop / Gallipoli / august 7 (16)
There is no more now, but “bits of us” that “mingle / beneath the grass with bits of a thousand or so other chaps” (17).
In this final section the two voices, mirrored in the use of syntax, line break and font, disorient the reader from accessible narrative, create texture and dimension on the page; they retell and simultaneously shift away from the known narrative, drawing a single man’s story into a complex study of war and the soldier’s experience. Albiston’s technique of utilising and reorienting a familiar cultural trope is both challenging and compassionate.
The poem in the collection that makes most complex use of this tension between culture and nature is “Lamentations”, an extended cry of grief and commiseration at the Black Saturday bushfires in Kinglake in 2009. The title and form reference the Old Testament book of Lamentations, grieving over King Nebukadnezzar’s destruction of Jerusalem. The biblical book is in five parts, each one twenty-two lines and formed as an acrostic, to be read both horizontally, along the line, and vertically, via the first letter of each line; in this case, each line is the successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. A popular artform in ancient writing, it is seen less often now, and perhaps most often in children’s or humorous poetry, where the acrostic would spell a word or words.
Albiston’s poem makes use of the ancient poem to allow culture and horror, language and disorder, to sit in uneasy tension; although many may not know the poem in full, many of its phrases have become culturally familiar expressions of grief. Albiston follows the form of the biblical poems, even down to the intriguing switching of the letters p and q, the equivalent of the Hebrew letters in the original, though she writes four, not five parts. The orderliness and structure of the acrostic suggests a way that language and culture can provide the means to reflect on such horror.
Similarly, the poem echoes, and sometimes quotes, the language and imagery of the King James translation: “Remember her green, o! you that pass by: behold, see if there be any pain like unto her pain: recall your own sorrow, and magnify it: make of your own sorrow multiples of many: and multiply the many again” (36). On an emotional level, the archaic language and unusual syntax offers comfort in calling on a deep and long-lived cultural form of grief, providing ritual, paradoxically consoling in its distance from everyday expression. How does one deal with such enormity of grief, but to hear from those and share with those who have likewise suffered? Images echo the original: Kinglake is a “weeping widow”, “black is in her hair, and in her skirts”; “all her gates are desolate: her hilltops / sigh, her soil is afflicted” (35). The land as a woman is an ambivalent and exploited image, used by the Hebrews to speak of their dwelling place as God’s consort, one whom God loves and protects, but whom God can equally punish as a possession. In western culture, the land as woman is the language of the coloniser.
This literary and cultural heritage places the poem right in the centre of the nature / culture tension, which is right where the ecopoetic response to such devastating fires must dwell, and so Albiston allows the poem itself to carry the tension of that discussion. In part II, at a time before the fires, people come in cars, with children and baskets and turn, just before the shops, the bakery and the pub, to the natural beauty of “the palace of the queen of Kinglake”, “the tabernacle / of trees, the cathedral of green” (36-37). This is settled country, human habitation, perhaps colonisation, and there is a certain naïveté to the solace of such coolness: “Victoria sizzles: you clap your hands saying Kinglake is the place to be” (37). Yet if such critique is to be found, the depth of consolation and commiseration with those who suffered is never overwhelmed. In part III, each letter of the acrostic is extended to three-line stanzas, initial sounds and sometimes repeated words creating a soundscape of the horror:
O! we are its music: we are its terrible song.
On the wing of the fire, we sing out our terrible sorrow.
On the tongue of the fire, in the throat of the fire, we sing. (39)
In part IV, human and non-human are irrevocably tangled: snippets from part II, of the joy and delight visitors felt in their picnics, are caught into descriptions of Kinglake, now the crone scratching in the dust. In so doing, they are transformed to markers of devastation:
look how she crawls like a crone in the dust
before the shops of kinglake (41)
Here, the evocations of Kinglake as woman are heart-wrenching, full of pathos and despair, and yet, in using the image of the town as woman, humans are implicated alongside her; there is no grief like unto hers. And the careless delight of visitors turns to accuse them:
for our eyes have yet failed / in our watching we have watched for what could not save
you stop to snap shots (41)
There is no direct blame for the fire itself, but a sorrowful, perhaps even angry reflection on the human failure to really see and understand the natural world beyond their own heedless pleasure in it. And now, the need to mark that “today is the day of the time between moments” (42).
There is much more that repays close reading in this slim volume of poems, especially on the question of the relationship between words and body, culture and nature. That “A Brief History of Love”, “Lamentations” and “Gallipoli” have their own musical expression takes the conversation even further. And yet, in their own voice, there is wisdom and felicity in Albiston’s words.
Jordie Albiston, XIII Poems. Rabbit Poetry Series, No 1. Melbourne: Rabbit Poetry Journal, 2013. ISBN 9780987448347
 “Lamentations” is the textual basis for Barry McKimm’s Lamentation, Symphony in Five Movements for Brass Band & Male Choir, 2011. McKimm also commissioned “Gallipoli” for his composition of the same name to commemorate, in 2013, the centenary of the landing at Anzac Cove. “A Brief History of Love” was used in Rachel Merton’s work And the World was Finally Right, a work for orchestra and choir, 2013.