Adam Aitken reviews Spirit Level by Marcelle Freiman

Spirit Level

by Marcelle Freiman

Puncher and Wattmann, 2021

ISBN 9781922571144

Reviewed by ADAM AITKEN

Marcelle Freiman’s collection poems Spirit Level, her third book, surely deserves Jill Jones’ endorsement as a book where ‘clarity of memory [sits] alongside a shimmer of location’, whose ‘presences and absences’ are to be savoured. As restless, dynamic, and ‘unsettled’ as her earlier two collections, White Lines and Monkey’s Wedding, (which I reviewed on its publication). This new collection is structured into two parts, the first contains many poems about memories: of childhood in South Africa, of Freiman’s student days as an anti-Apartheid activist, and of parents and Jewish relatives killed and dispersed by the Holocaust. The second part of the collection explores various subjects, with many poems with Australian locations and subjects, including a number of poems on art and photography. Together the poems provide a vivid picture of the life of a South African migrant now settled in Australia. The deeper theme is the poet’s engagement with the past, not so much as nostalgia, but about how her present sensibility is now ineluctably imbricated with these memories. The poems bring a sense of presence to memory and amplify memory’s affective power, because the affect is often tied to traumatic events.

Freiman is clearly aware of the issues around South African history and questions of identity, and she is keenly sensitive to the way the ‘other’, the non-white or the indigenous is represented in this collection. Freiman examines white privilege and she empathises with those whose suffering is and was qualitatively different to her own. The collection shines a critical light on how poetry can be written on what it means to be a white woman who grew up in South Africa during Apartheid. Freiman is aware that privilege is complex, and that oppression comes from multiple directions, for she is a woman and a Jew who has migrated twice and feels the loss of her ancestors in WW2. The poems emphasise Freiman’s constant meditation on her motivations for leaving one home to make another in the postcolonial settler country of Australia. Other poems pose spiritual questions, for example, what a Jewish idea of faith could mean in a violent secular world that has done so much to sunder that faith.

Other poems grapple with the question of the settler’s place in the (colonised) landscape of savanna and desert, and with the aesthetic challenges for both poets and visual artist. Each poem is in one way or another about the way who we are much depends on what we choose to remember or forget. Being South African in Australia Freiman does NOT elide racism and many of the poems re-frame the settler as falling far short of a land or state that promises a settled and comfortable existence. As such some of the poems of place ironise a tradition of pastoral idyll. In the poem ‘In Forster (Sand up the Coast)’, Freiman acutely feels how identity, landscape and place are profoundly estranged. The poem considers the fate of Scottish woman Eliza Fraser, who was shipwrecked on a traditional Aboriginal island off Queensland. The poem figures the settler/castaway as a prodigal who must learn to adapt to new surroundings:

And I think of Eliza Fraser
            in her fringe of leaves
on an island of sand
alien, harsh as salt
and beautiful
the pools of water filtered clean
            through the grains –
how she had no choosing,
had to find in the straps
of the leaf bracts,
            learn how to seek out
the toughness

and her feet scratched and bare
were pushing down,
            sucked into sand
            as the wind blew
            her green and leathery.

In other poems there is a strong post-romantic lens, (signalled from the start by the books’ epigraph from David Malouf:

‘The world not as it was, or as
we were, but as we find ourselves
again in its presence.’

David Malouf, ‘A la Recherche,’ An Open Book, 2018

Freiman’s poems about her childhood are seen through a lens of Wordworthian/Blakean innocence, and from there the critical context builds to a critique of settler “innocence” assumptions themselves. ‘The Dam’, a poem about her childhood holidays in South Africa, ambivalently deconstructs the figure of the innocent childlike visionary. ‘The Dam’ is a superb example of nostalgia with a sting to it, as the nostalgia becomes a critique of apartheid’s power over her as a child. The holidays are idyllic, and Freiman learns the workings of windmill pumps. But as in traditional pastoral Freiman acknowledges the other. We learn of Jacob, her family’s black worker, ‘who helped me to see which side of the scale was mine’. In this way the poem is driven by a need to speak truth to the past.

Poems about the poet’s university days in the end days of Apartheid period are fascinating and give a nuanced idea of her and her father’s strategies for rebellion. Her style is both lyrical and investigative, and her history is accessible, clear, and vividly described. Without being didactic the poems provide a rich recollection of Freiman’s South Africa and its contradictions, its beauty and ugliness. It deals with guilt too, the guilt of leaving, and the sorrow of having lost her Jewish ancestors in the Holocaust in Europe. Freiman takes the strengths of lyricism and combines it with a strong documentary base.

Freiman also address historical gaps and lacunae, silences and absences that haunt postcolonial spaces. The poem ‘Country of my birth, written 27 June 2013’ Freiman names South Africa ‘a country of misery’ and mentions the mine dumps and townships like Soweto, and asks

‘How did I love (hate a country
Where I knew so much silence?

This poem spans a period of her childhood to her student days as a student activist. With superb simplicity and a devastating pun on the word “white” she writes

I had no language
            for the lost –

we lived in white houses of indifference

She goes on to ask parenthetically ‘(Can childhood draw blame?)’. Her father was able to survive and helped black South Africans as well, by bribing officials, for he had

‘ worked the system / and kept it quiet – the whispered names / the safe houses of the 1960s / for friends in banished parties’.

Freiman recounts how white citizens were literally kept in the dark about what was happening to Black South Africans, and white opponents of Apartheid were regularly harassed and victimised by the police.

Such questions about the blindness of colonial oppression are raised again in ‘Gold Miner’s Hut, Hill End 1872’, Freiman describes herself viewing a photograph by the early Australia photographer Holtermann. Her eye is withering: ‘Soaring eucalypt frames the foreground’. Freiman is reminded of Constable or Corot, a pastoral idyll with ‘cosy hut’ and smoking chimney. Crucially the mythic fiction behind the work is revealed.

but the ground here is unstable:
something has happened –
trees are stripped of their bark,
skin exposed out of season, broken
branches mess the valley floor

In ‘Feathered’, a fine ekphrastic poem describing an Arthur Boyd painting in the Art Gallery of NSW the text unpacks the viewing process – how does the viewer look upon Boyd’s antipodean Adam and Eve and his vision of the Old Testament parable. Freiman reads the painting as a dramatization of a colonial dilemma: the setters Adam and Eve ejected from privilege/paradise and cast into a haunted and subterranean hell.

In poems like these Freiman progressively reveals the layers of meaning in the title of Spirit Level, which is absolutely appropriate for this collection, as this is poetry that intends to do the levelling, and levelling by way of unpacking certain colonial epistemologies, and “balancing” those with the thinking of the indigenous Other. The poems achieve a “just” way of representing Freiman’s past, by way of gazing back at the past through today’s ‘presences’, a gaze solidly based in empiricism and facticity.

It is thus not surprising that Freiman pays homage to the great documentary photographer August Sander in ‘The Names – Photograph by August Sander’, a standout ekphrastic poem. Sander was a member of the Social Workers Party and made photographic portraits and catalogues his subjects by way of trade, profession, and by social status. Sander catalogued his Jewish subjects under ‘Victims of Persecution’, photography that prompts Freiman’s acknowledgement of an artist who can depict suffering and survival. Like Sander Freiman presents her history on a broad humane canvas with great empathy for the suffering endured.

Another balancing is achieved in the way Freiman uses fact alongside more oblique lyrical poems. In ‘Seven Ways of Mourning’, the effect of a suite of haiku-like stanzas gathers the metaphors for the way we mourn – ‘coins in black water, a favourite plant once mutually admired; ‘a bench / by the sea’; as well as the more traditional image of elegies, the engraved gravestone.

Forgetting is like
light on sharp edged fences,
clears spaces between

These spaces lie between the two scales, literally the space between the living and those mourned, white and black, empowered and the dispossessed.

The book is also giving voice to more traumatic ‘silences’. ‘The Mother Poems’ are enduring recollections of the murder of her own Jewish relatives in Lithuania. Here Freiman slowly unveils a matriarchal narrative, revealing in the most sensitive and respectful of ways the pain her mother and grandmother endured on learning about their death. The poem can only end where all such enquiries end, at the final barrier to our memory being the silence of the dead, as in this case her mother can’t speak of such a loss, and Freiman conveys this heavy burden. With remarkable modesty she writes of her ‘limited grappling’ and narrow vision of what her mother’s experience was.

In ‘Obliquely’, Freiman recounts her recovery in hospital in Sydney after an operation to mend a fractured skull. Freiman describes her time looking out at a view. Then one day her consciousness of her perception changes. Is it the effect of the trauma or something else she asks? Freiman experiences the aftermath of a coup de tête, the clarté du jour, or enlightening, which she terms ‘the ache of the real’. Freiman starts to perceive the most ordinary surrounds of suburban hospital with new clarity. ‘Obliquely’ is a fine poem that reminds me of the French poet Apollinaire’s own recovery from a head wound he sustained in WW1, which clearly damaged his faculties though he could be accepting rather than angry that he had suffered and survived. I read ‘Obliquely’ as a thanksgiving to the work of poets who shape memory and in turn are shaped by memory. But Freiman proposes nothing “divine”, or supernatural, just that the survival of the injured mind/body can seem ‘miraculous’, as imagination and indeed our power to remember, is magical. ‘Obliquely’ demonstrates a way to move beyond the melancholia of historical tragedy and the somewhat limited recounts of colonial histories.

Describing Freiman as ‘settler migrant poet’ does not do justice to this poet. But the book profits from Freiman’s lifetime of writing and researching (post)colonial literature. Such a career has been constantly ‘unsettled and resettled’ for a poet who has migrated twice, from her birthplace in South Africa then to the UK, hence to Australia. But such unsettling opens up so many vectors. Starting from the child’s vision of “nothing or nothingness” and then the immersing oneself in this world and this sensation is at the heart of Freiman’s writing process. The poem ‘What next?’ sheds ideological baggage and begins with no ready-made subject (or theme). Like the mind cleared, it can begin with a completely unpremeditated intention. Poems take shape in this ambivalent process of asking “what was it like, what happened, what did I NOT know what I know now?”. The question of “What next?” becomes “Where to next? Like her favourite painters, the subject of the representation can only be certain once the work is complete or abandoned. But then perhaps no collection of poems is ever ‘completed’ and no work of memory is ever complete, and no trauma is ever quite ‘cured’. Freiman’s poems are like the plants and people she most admires for their toughness, a toughness that she likens to drought resistant trees and plants in the veldt, to the spirit of old mining towns (despite their role in colonialism), and to the black South Africans who looked after her as a child and whom her father helped during the Anti-Apartheid struggle. Spirit Level is thus, a book that remembers the spirit of the survivor but looks to the future with great optimism and openness.



ADAM AITKEN’s last poetry collection is Revenants (Giramondo). He received the Patrick White Award in 2021.