Magdalena Ball, High Wire Step. Macau: Flying Island Books, 2018. ISBN: 9789996557354
Warning signs, gradual annihilation, little deaths and a changing landscape: Precarious Balance in Magdalena Ball’s High Wire Step
Magdalena Ball’s High Wire Step is a collection of mass extinctions, little deaths, and incremental disappearances. Here, the poetic captures the dystopic. It’s an imagination of small-scale disasters and tragedies that build into sadness, dry anger and disgust. Here, Ball’s contempt for short-sighted human greed and ignorance is measured by her wit and compassion. It is a collection full of radical empathy, understanding a shared vulnerability with each other. It claims multispecies alignments with animals—bees, cats, wolves, pigs, chameleons—and with our environments, in the precarious conditions created through the Anthropocene.
Every poem is encompassed by loss. The dystopic here is in powerlessness. The sense that one individual can do nothing to stop the gradual accumulation of destruction and species loss at the hands of collective humanity and individual interests.
Angry at my impotence and guilt
Am aware that I can’t save anyone
Not even myself
In this beautiful, ravaged world.
From the opening poem Ball weaves timeframes, precarity, vulnerability and the indifference of contemporary life, its subtle menace. The cruelty of schoolyards moves into the present:
now it’s coffee and barking dogs
the wind turns maybe a storm is brewing
(‘to prove I’m a bastard’)
everyone has to be first in the queue
so the rest of us can be last
pretending to be
because who wants to be the victim
(‘to prove I’m a bastard’)
In transactions of waiting, money and product, everyone rushes to get in front, none willing to admit they are all subject to the same forces. Cruelty and indifference become the tool for asserting the illusion of autonomy in the situation.
The market economy and the way in which it shapes life, shapes thought, is laid bare, with humour as well as condemnation. Ball’s speaker acknowledges the insects sharing the existence in their house, the sound of them in their home, comments: ‘I left them all my money in the DIY will kit / free in the Crackerjack box’ (‘kindly note’). House listings fall away. ‘You were notified / it was urgent but / you never wrote back’ is the impulse that falls through most of the poems. Urgency ignored after all the signs were there. Violence for resources becomes couched in terms of loyalty, country and personal struggle. Bodies become ‘commodity for vested interests’ (‘Trickle Down’). Humanity is maintained only in the recognition of responsibility to other beings.
The most impactful of the poems are those that meditate on the grief of species extinctions and environmental loss. Here the lines are surrounded by gaps and absence. There’s no concealing the loss and anger that comes with them:
When the sea rises to eye level
tears become redundant
The red list of endangered species is too large to even comprehend, the gaps standing for the increased silence of organisms, filled in with violent sounds and the sound of everyday life profiteering. Filled in with words and plastics. Wholesale destruction sold by industry.
I wasn’t sure which was the real origin of grief
the personal or the ecological or if speaking the words
identifying a new epoch was a beginning or an end
Classification itself becomes risky business, as is recognition of the problem. Its large web of damage. It becomes overwhelming.
There is interiority to Ball’s poems, but this interiority outside of these imagined empty rooms is full of life and shared existence, always imperilled by external forces. Spaces are filled with families filled with convention, ‘floral chintz and animated voices / not our own / spoke of films we hadn’t seen’ (‘Claude Glass’). Light is filtered through lenses—through lanterns, ‘a convex black mirror’ (‘Claude Glass’), windows unable to be broken. Gatherings punctured by feelings of loss, a feeling of inescapability.
Their bodies didn’t know how to wait
because every day someone was crying
and it was too much.
The house next door was the same house
no one knew where they lived anymore.
The city was moving in and these pink
houses could no longer keep us safe.
Through parties and ceaseless movements, Ball captures a feeling of terror. Hunger for stability. Unrelenting sadness. People get pushed out by market forces which remind those that stay of their vulnerability within the system. Forces which cause people to lose touch. This terror becomes abstract, first in money then in cryptocurrency, always with material impact on humans and their environment: paradoxically, ‘the placebo effect is real’ (‘To what retracting’) especially when tied to language, power and its structures. Too much sadness threatens to become too overwhelming to look beyond one’s own being, an individual escape. This is a trap that always brings the speaker back to the same point, waiting even in transit.
Ball uses the science fiction mode and its tropes to critique its own escapist fantasies. In ‘Obfuscated’ a body becomes progressively pixelated without awareness until it is too late. Meanwhile in ‘Timebound’ taking on other identities and time-zones has no difference or consequence. Information passes too quickly to write down. Robot overlords are mere visitors, every human is a cyborg ‘stifling emotions with logic and calculation’. All flee their timelines if they can, leaving behind responsibility. Ball’s speaker makes a choice:
I came home, riding wave packets in reverse
not because the future is impossible
or the asymmetry of chance, just because
if the universe were different and this were true
I wouldn’t be here to observe it
As the title of the poem suggests, we are timebound, fixed to the material present. We can predict and have fantasies of time-travel and plans for the future, but we must be aware of our responsibilities to our shared lived existence. Time is urgent and present. Its effects are accumulative from the past but it’s in the present that the future forms. This thread also runs through the realist poems.
The sensation of being controlled by external forces is captured in ‘The Government’s Lottery’, which weaves humour with condemnation of how the repetition of senselessness and defensive humour creates a sense that care is passé. ‘My life created by a random plot generator / before Earth became a meme’. A lottery win is contrasted with images of threatened marsupials, a sense of ‘I’ve done my part trying to save them’ with little sense of actual ethical accountability to another species.
I had my pick
an open door but due to having saved
the world ten years previously
(‘The Government’s Lottery’)
Time, and the end of time, breaks down with a loss of materiality and through autogenerated algorithms. A deluge of information tells ‘a recursive story that told me everything / I didn’t want to know’ and thus the speaker stops listening.
There is a sense of busy-ness to the narrators in many of these poems, a sense of movement which is more paralysis and inaction then directed and in control of time as change encroaches from every angle. Underneath this desire to capture the moment and make visible the scene is an undercurrent of perpetual motion. Small cracks in the ice grow into catastrophe as the poet gazes down the precipice. True stillness and silence, when it comes, is uncanny, ‘leaving a silence so profound / it hurts the ears’ (‘precarious inscrutable’). It’s the haunting absence of birds and beetles, no sounds of frogs croaking after rain. The complacent acceptance of this absence until nothing remains. Ball’s poems rally against this impulse while capturing its frustrations.
Brianna Bullen is a Deakin University PhD candidate writing a creative thesis on memory in science fiction. Her work has been published in journals including LiNQ, Aurealis, Verandah, Voiceworks, and Buzzcuts. She won the 2017 Apollo Bay short story competition and placed second in the 2017 Newcastle Short Story competition.