Dan Disney reviews The Book of Ethel by Jordie Albiston
The Book of Ethel
by Jordie Albiston
Reviewed by DAN DISNEY
Jordie Albiston’s new book is the formal equivalent of an exclamation mark. These first-person narrative poems call from the ether of memory/invention, and in The Book of Ethel Albiston ventriloquizes her maternal great-grandmother’s voice to recount Ethel’s quest to locate (an always-capitalized) Home. Each stanza in this meticulously compressed collection has seven lines, and each line seven syllables; Albiston’s stylized shorthand is partly a codifying device, and partly a matter of form enabling a voice to be heard, clear and strange amid the fractured syntax. These songs, or fragments/fractions of song, are a kind of paean or colonial ancestor worship which tell a particular Newly Australian migrant’s tale: The Book of Ethel explores how intimacy and family happen in an Unheimlich dwelling, to explore (the so often migratory) patterns of identity and belonging.
In previous collections, Albiston has focused on history (in her accounts of the often-brutal colony: Botany Bay Document and The Hanging of Jean Lee) and genealogy (in her award-winning the sonnet according to m, written for her grandmother). In The Book of Ethel, Albiston once more voices a matrilineal tongue, moving backward through time to prise open origins. Ethel’s voice is both fabular and everyday, epic and romantic as she moves across a version of the world where supper-bells ring (9), measles are a mortal danger (16), and – imagine it! – women get to vote (23). Leaving Cornwall and boarding a ‘good ship out-bound for Melbourne’ (18), Ethel muses –
em-i-grate I am told it
means ‘to go’ but will there be
kerrek & croft karn & quoit
where we ‘go’? will New Home have
field & valley? zawn? wall?
will friends be waiting for me?
em-i-grate emigrate so
Ethel traverses zones temporal, psychic, and linguistic, her voice burred with an outsider’s lexicon; the unrecognizable Cornish terms (helpfully explained in a glossary at the back of the book) heighten the sense that this narrator is abandoning an imaginative order. Thrice repeating the term (emigration-as-incantation?), Albiston wants her readers fully aware that –
a name may some-how make mark
which is, perhaps, epiphenomenal: like all of us, Albiston’s past is particularly inscribed (for another exploration of this, Les Murray’s interview in The Paris Review is illuminating). By including words that have neither currency nor cachet among contemporary readers, Albiston foregrounds Ethel’s life as one spent marking out new semantic boundary lines, and hyphenating ‘emigrate’ emphasises the job ahead: close readers will roll the word slowly in their minds too, to better understand how Ethel must (literally) come to terms with the great, grating reality of emigration.
Albiston borrows from tropes biblical and demotic, parochial and rushing at us (largely) unpunctuated; the book’s title suggests an Old Testament-style testimony in which Ethel journeys to a promised land (‘Australia finally!’ 21) to then marry her ordained Mister/Minister (‘Husband-Husband wedded Twice’ 25) and raise a family. But rather than some colloquial rites-of-passage, this book is a formally innovative tour-de-force; studded with verbal puns, Albiston’s language-as-material is split, spliced, broken, rendered and, persistently, urgently repurposed. The quirky style is announced from the outset –
so Life! we meet once more you
& I in concert concord
happy agreement to do
until done my act your stage
make lie in it this! my bit-
part play World with me aboard
a Speck! & then gigantic
These lines-as-snapped-ligatures writhe with implication (I am reminded of Bob Perelman’s ‘Chronic Meanings’), and the poem’s stage is traipsed breathlessly by half-thoughts left as near-resemblances (‘do until done’ suggests do you take this person to be your lawful and etc) and absent echoes (‘make’ your bed and ‘lie in it’). These snapshots of an exiled life replicate a mind scanning, fitfully and non-editorially: we are inside Ethel’s mind, watching while new Homes propagate with children –
5 still safe inside coming
soon awaited waifs imbue
such Love Wave! then say Adieu
and, as the family swells, these songs come to speak gradually of Homeliness as intimate and relational: an abstract accommodation.
These, then, are ballads to love: that affect in which even exiles can find solace. Of course there is yearning (which love isn’t sharpened by craving) and Ethel is often inside the poems alone –
I simply wait & sit wait-
ing he Mister gone off to
camp in the hills
and her solitariness is reflected in the Mallarméan <<blancs>>, which act as internal line breaks: sometimes scanning as comma-like caesurae, sometimes as semantic fractures, the spacing creates a glitching and staccato rhythm which tonally agrees with Albiston’s objective: Ethel’s homing is never hubristic, and never wholly comfortable. At many lines’ end, the enjambments take on particular significatory force –
daughter daughter daughter daught-
er son & one inside Home
A wry wit is at work here: in breaking at the seventh syllable, ‘daught-’, the new line conveys a fourth daughter and then, err (surprise), a son. The many intentionally widowed half-words (butcher-/y, vi-/olence, fun-/nels, any-/how, love-/ly) make Albiston’s lines strangely interlinear, contingent as the eye roves and returns, never quite sure what complexities lie just ahead, or indeed what might have been too-quickly parsed – much, I imagine, like Ethel, careful but not completely surefooted in her relocated life.
The ballad is familiar territory for Albiston, but these texts are as much pseudo-triolets (minus one line, and minus one syllable per line) as they are attempts at balladeering. What rhetorical gestures are at work in these ‘half-fourteener’ lines of seven syllables apiece? According to the Princetons –
When a pair of fourteeners are broken by hemistichs to form a quatrain of lines stressed 4-3-4-3 and rhyming abab, they become the familiar ‘eight-and-six’ form of ballad meter called common meter or common measure. (The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics: 504)
In his launch speech, Alex Skovron speculates delightfully on the possible significance the number seven has for this text; performing revelrous calculations to compute numerological sense into style, Skovron notices –
both Jordie’s name and the book’s title contain 14 letters each – that is, 2 x 7. But that’s just for starters. Now listen. As I’ve explained, there are 7 syllables to each 7-line stanza; 7 x 7 = 49. Ethel died in 1949, and she was 77 years old! Interesting? She was born in 1872, and Jordie was born in 1961; adding 72 to 61 gives you 133; add those three digits together (1 + 3 + 3) and you get – 7!
My own sense is that there is no explicit explanation for the form, nor none required (I suspect Skovron may agree): Albiston fulfills her rhetorical structure sixty times over, and there is a synthetic weight to the bulk of her exactly-repeated shapes. The poet has afforded enough self-devised space for a gamut of affect (fear, yearning, loneliness, courage, humility, tolerance, joy) to occupy these texts. As Ethel states, arriving in the first of her many Homes –
muster Home the rest over
time the new me century
aligned 1900 stand-
ing sentinel-straight straight white
and these songs of survival and perseverance (straight and white) are also ultimately songs of homage: Albiston’s excavation of an origin speaks of Ethel’s hard-won belonging, a lifelong pursuit undertaken in tandem with the co-progenitorial Mister.
On the blurb of Inger Christensen’s Alphabet, Michael Braun describes the Danish poet as ‘no apologist for blind, rapturous singing, but probably the most form-conscious and reflective writer of poetry in Europe today.’ Jordie Albiston’s dance with form is a sophisticated yet radical gambol: these poems move decisively, sensuous and surefooted. In an interview with The Paris Review, August Kleinzahler speaks of the difficulty for contemporary poets to locate ‘a coherent, interesting structure’ and goes on to suggest that many ‘simply avoid the problem or take refuge in some rote “avant-garde” gesture like fridge-magnet indeterminism i.e. spilling the language all over the floor and stomping on it like a three-year-old child.’ Not so Jordie Albiston: The Book of Ethel is, as with Albiston’s other recent books, an astonishing confluence of formal constraint and authentic music. This is not the first Ethel to arrive on the Australian literary landscape, but Albiston’s character seems destined to be more than peripheral; The Book of Ethel comes from a poet at the top of their game, and Albiston is more than an Antipodean Christensen. She is making weird, intelligent arias, which we need listen to, again and then again to understand, at least partly, the fragments of our recent past: our provenance and inheritance. With this book, which more than confirms her talent, one senses Albiston starting to take up her place in a future version of how we will come to recognize Australian poetry.
Kleinzahler, A. interviewed by William Corbett for the ‘The Art of Poetry’ interview series (#93, The Paris Review), www.theparisreview.org/interviews/5789/the-art-of-poetry-no-93-august-kleinzahler site accessed 31.08.2013
Greene, R. et al 2012 The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (4th edition) Princeton; Oxford: Princeton University Press.
DAN DISNEY is a poet and essayist. He teaches twentieth century poetry and poetics at Sogang University, and divides his time between Seoul, Turin, and Melbourne. He co-edited New Directions in Australian Poetry with Matthew Hall and was awarded the 2022 Kenneth Slessor Prize.