Rosalee Kiely reviews nothing to declare by Mags Webster

Mags Webster, nothing to declare. Sydney: Puncher & Wattman, 2020. ISBN: 978-1-9258-098-7

Rosalee Kiely

Mags Webster is a poet, researcher, freelance writer and editor who lives on Whadjuk Boodjar of the Noongar nation in Western Australia. Born and raised in the UK before moving to Australia in 2003, Webster lived in Hong Kong from 2011 to 2014. Her first collection of poetry The Weather of Tongues won the 2011 Anne Elder Award, and second collection nothing to declare was published by Puncher and Wattman in 2020.

In the five parts of nothing to declare, Webster traverses the transcontinental places of her outer world, as well as interior worlds of play and imagination. Widely read, Webster plays with form and theme in several of the poems inspired by fellow poets like Carol Ann Duffy, Octavio Paz, Mahmoud Darwish and Tracy Ryan.

In the first section, in particular, Webster explores imagined worlds. For instance, in ‘Mrs Batman M.D, Msc, Psych.D’, Webster executes the playful irony employed by Duffy in The World’s Wife, in which the wives of famous men, along with female characters speak candidly of their lot. “I know you’d rather I stayed hidden” (16). Mrs Batman says, giving section one its title, and proceeding to probe her husband’s psyche along with their life together. “We—

should talk about the real problem:

your speluncaphobia. How can a bat

be scared of caves? I blame it on

your mother

(17)

This is a mercurial, shape-shifting collection, as Webster inhabits the voices of others, whilst retaining resolutely her own. In ‘Jessie from the Golden Shovel’, Webster uses a form that was devised to play homage to the poet Gwendolyn Brooks, in which the last words of each line are taken from a line or lines in a Brooks poem, in this case ‘We Real Cool’. The poem merges the character Jessie in another poem, and Webster uses clever  wordplay to fit the form: for example, ‘real’ becomes ‘surreal’, and ‘sin’ becomes ‘assasin’ (14-15).

In the poem ‘Hybrid’, Webster springboards from an Alice Oswald fragment of poetry that is cited as an epigraph to say—

I am half flower, half self; I grow a spathe

to wrap you in a perfumed hood…

(3)

The aural elements in this poem and others, the frequency of plosives, words like ‘spathe’ and ‘hood’, accentuate the kinks and angles of the flower. This calls to to mind the heterogenous natural world, a richness and imperfect natural beauty. This is not a soft, dainty poem about a flower; Oswald’s poetry often has a similar textural quality of tips and taps and spiky turns, within which there is a sense of the movements of a three dimensional world. ‘Hybrid’ continues—

You seek me like a bee;

you bumble the ferment of my smell, butt

at the pollen-stippled core, where spheres

encrusted with soft stings wait to latch

onto your limbs.

(3)

And so it is that the self becomes the bee and the other the flower, in a morphing that flips the boundaries with the natural world.

In section two, the titular ‘Nothing to declare’, Webster particularly employs blazon and contreblazon, the cataloguing of the physical attributes of the usually female subject, and its inversion. For example, in ‘cinq à sept’—

in this hotel room its flame

is on my thigh

you trace the line of glow

(28)

and

[t]oday you kissed the scars

you made   lit fire again

beneath my skin

(29)

There is a particular intimacy to this section. In ‘Nothing to declare’, Webster mingles a kind of blazon/contreblazon with the cataloguing of the world and its pleasures. “I fall / in love with countries, use men / as their proxies”—

I flowed from Italy

to Mexico, carrying my cravings

like contraband. I dived down

under, prised apart

the hemispheres with my nomadic

need. But it wasn’t enough—

waking alone on the blade

of a cold equator.

(34-35)

The poems in the third section, ‘Pauses in transit’, have a sparer and more meditative quality and several appear to have been inspired by Webster’s time in Hong Kong. For example, the title poem ‘Pauses in transit’ after the Octavio Paz’s poem ‘Between going and staying’, has a similar mood to Paz of the stasis between, or amidst movement—

On a concrete

cliff, a butterfly

alights, spreads

a tiny book

of papery wings

makes a poem

on an opaque wall

thirty-nine storeys high.

(40)

The butterfly, a natural being 39 stories up in the smog of Hong Kong, is discovered as a kind of hymnody of the natural world, an assertion that even in an ultra-human-made environment, nature persists. In answer to Paz, this poem takes on a quasi-spritual dimension, a pause of contemplation, of rest and oneness with the world. Also finding pleasure in small, quiet things is ‘Game’. The poet asks “[w]hy do I—

cook up this stew—cartilage, brain—

boiling these old bones so long?

Unforgettable smell. Meat

falling weakly from fork. You.

(51)

In the fourth section, ‘Recovered memory’, death is considered as a death of selves, of fallow time. In ‘The Before & in the After’, Webster writes, ‘[t]he year before you leave, dying wasps / crawl into shoes’ (58). In ‘Movement’s a poultice’—

Earth’s a numbing to hide in. Each night

by the side

of the road, you let silence

transfuse you, knuckle your body

down small.

(61)

And in the poem ‘Recovered memory’, there is the desire to recover ‘some kind of this-ness / lost’ (65), a pre-language, elemental time, ‘just as fish dried into legs / and Earth was tamed / by naming’ (66).

In the last section, ‘Breathing lessons’, there is an opening out, an expansion in taking a breath. In ‘Source’, water flows through the four seasons of the English countryside as the ‘I’ of the poem—

I curved, rehearsed

new lines against

the notch

and prompt of bank

gave birth

to evergreen

nursed peppered threads

of reeds, I rocked

the dark wild

of the watercress.

(69-70)

The ‘I’ flows through a year’s seasons ‘without the source of you’ (71), therefore grief is imagined as a force that ebbs and flows like the seasons. Life pushes forwards, and the seasons move into the next, despite the speaker’s desire to stay buried in the winter: ‘don’t want / the thaw to pick / my locks, but leave me / silent in the earth’ (71).

Nostos‘ is a theme, in Ancient Greek literature, of a hero returning by sea. In modern times, Webster makes her return by air with Cavafy on her mind, a reference to that poet’s famous, poignant poem ‘Ithaka’ about the meaning of a long journey home and the wisdom gained along the way. Webster settles back to earth—’Call it homing/ rather than homecoming’ (72), and after the airport doors close—

An easterly blows from the night-washed hills,

the air is warm and soft as ironed cloth. You breathe

blue flames of eucalypt, till your body unlocks

its prodigal shape, and distance is cleansed

from your bones.

(72)

Going away was a not-belonging, an accumulation of fine things and knowledge, but back home, presumably Perth (‘cooled in the Indian Ocean’), there is the desire to become part of the vast beyond, the more than human world and the ’emptiness / as full as you’ve ever seen’ (72). Beyond the edge of the human are the elemental qualities of the land, the colours of dusk, of ‘Lilac. Plum. / Russet. Silver sage’ (73), of a land that has ‘archived colour and time’ (73). This poem seeks harmony between humans and their habitat, and endows a quasi-spiritual quality to the land of home, the story of the earth that answers from the ancient rock, rather than cerebrally, from an anthropocentric perspective.

The subject matter of nothing to declare ranges broadly and boldly, through worldly and imagined places, in language that is always interesting, alive and alert to irony. As Nicholas Wong states on the blurb, Webster’s ‘poetics arises from her want to please our ears’, and it is this pleasure in sound that makes this rich collection sing.

References

‘Nostos’, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nostos (accessed 07.11.2020)

Share, Don, ‘The Golden Shovel’, Poetry magazine, online: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/articles/92023/introduction-586e948ad9af8 (accessed 09.11.2020)

Rosalee Kielyis a poet and journalist. Her first book of poetry Creature was published by Ginninderra Press in 2019.

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