Mary Cresswell reviews Unmaking Atoms by Magdalena Ball.

Unmaking Atoms. Magdalena Ball. Port Adelaide: Ginninderra Press, 2017. ISBN: 978-1-76041-282-1.


Mary Cresswell


Making atoms is a cosmic affair, loud and fiery (in the right atmosphere), electric charges approaching and combining before they settle down into their unique patterns. Unmaking atoms is a sad and lonely affair, watching energy disappearing bit by bit with no sense of order.

Broken artefacts and bottles

scattered beads


as broken promises

repeating fractals

material culture

can’t bring back my face

though you keep looking         

(‘Artefacts’, 16)

Magdalena Ball gives us a fractured world, a world filled with shards of our former selves and a sense of disintegration (just barely recognisable as coming from our consciousness):

How will I

with all my limitations

deep in samsara

crawling on broken knees

find you?


Is the connection between us

me in this life

you in another

so tenuous

untethered by those bonds

we once thought permanent?

(‘Past Life’, 23)

These poems are a bleak recognition of grief and loss,

A perfect reminder

I didn’t need

of failed bargains

and broken promises.   

(Irrational Heart’, 49)

For the first two sections (of the seven in the book), there is almost no colour, no sense imagery – mainly mathematical images, often of fractals repeating themselves over and over in an endless rendition of the poet’s grief and the unwillingness of that grief and loss to change shape:

inside fires burn

the bed might be inviting

but I force

myself further

into the great chaos  

(‘Rough Ride’, 41)

Halfway through the collection, colours begin to appear: dawn colours for the first time ­ ‘pink, blue, grey lights reflecting in/ winter emptiness’ (‘Walking into Eternity’, 62), the red of Mars (66), or ‘ … early spring/ just before dusk/ light fading to soft green’ (68).

The poet – suddenly, it seems – notices the world of the senses:

You’ll tell me I’m Garlic, the good girl

heady with the pleasure of service 

(‘Shallots and Garlic’, 70)

and, on the next page,

the sweet acid tang

of absence and

wanting more. 

(‘Silence; the coffee cup, the table’, 71)

But this seems almost against the poet’s will, this return to the living. ‘Most of Everything Is Nothing’ (74) begins with

I wrote a list in blood

taking my time eking out the fantasy

 but ends with

nothing has changed not even me

a conduit of buzzing atoms


moving my kinetic heat

­ as I grasp an unwieldy red crayon


with the stubby fingers of a child

and begin to bleed.

The section ‘Robin’s Eye’ uses images from all the senses and – while still talking about grief and loss – does so in terms that reflect on the living world. Granted, the poet says, ‘Colour is a private sensation / anyway, like fear’, but in spite of herself she begins to come back

into this new space, charged by


every day, it’s like a new start

into an old wound.    (‘Old Wounds’, 99)

Throughout the collection, the poet shifts between speaking in an everyday vocabulary and in a mathematics / physics register. This is elegantly handled in a way that keeps both in play. Vivid descriptions of a concrete world still keep the mathematics alive above it, rather like a descant, because we don’t go far without some reference to the patterns and forces that shape this same world.

Various poems are tributes to other poets, either in that they are redactions of or they are built on quotes from Emily Dickinson, Frida Kahlo, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Elizabeth Bishop and Adrienne Rich. These are placed effectively – in particular, the first three poems of the book acknowledge three earlier poets before launching, appropriately, into ‘Artefacts’.

I found this collection a bit difficult to get into – but it was worth the effort, making the vividly signposted journey from abstraction back into a three-dimensional world.


Mary Cresswell is from Los Angeles and lives on New Zealand’s Kapiti Coast. She is a retired science editor and volunteers at a nature reserve and at a women’s centre. Her new book, Field Notes (a satirical miscellany) is due from Makaro Press, Wellington, in mid-2017.

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