George Mouratidis reviews An Embroidery of Old Maps and New by Angela Costi
An Embroidery of Old Maps and New
by Angela Costi
Reviewed by GEORGE MOURATIDIS
In some topoi of poesy lore, it is believed that the first iteration of Homeric oral verse as a material text was woven by women on a loom – deft fingers spinning, immortalising epic tales. In the Odyssey, an abandoned Penelope sits at her loom, creating, then destroying, her tapestries, waiting for her husband Odysseus’ return to Ithaca from his decade-long voyage. Angela Costi reveals a honed, acute awareness of the traditions, epics, journeys, traumas, travails and triumphs that shaped and brought her to write the existential topography that is her latest collection of poetry, An Embroidery of Old Maps and New (Spinifex, 2021). In these pages, the poet is at once Penelope and Odysseus – speaks as weaver and voyager, sufferer and seeker. But here, when the poet takes up the thread, she does not tear; she tenderly and compassionately unwinds and uncovers those stories, people and worlds in which she recognises who, how and why she is, and in so doing, she reconnects, remakes.
Fittingly, the collection opens out at sea, a voyage (“From Bondi to Kyrenia”, “Arrival”) which is one of countless threads suturing together lives and lands, continuing a ruptured story line begun elsewhere – in Cyprus. Costi artfully employs as the collection’s central trope, Lefkarithika (Λευκαρίτικα) – the traditional linen embroidery and lace making of Cyprus (also known as Lefkara lace). Bearing the name of the Cypriot village renowned for producing it (Λεύκαρα / Lefkara) from where, as the story goes, it was taken to adorn the courts of Europe, the craft of Lefkarithika remains closely tied to place, preserving a culture. In “Making Lace” Costi makes plain the living connections, transmissions, continuities fostered by this masterful handling of the thread:
I see her as I see me, sitting on chairs before the impact of our craft,
both intent on making a story from sequence, a gift out of repetition,
her stitch is my letter, her design is my phrase,
thread weave through out and in.
Costi is at once embroiderer, storyteller and cartographer. Her thread entwines generations, voices, stories, places, homes lost and found:
she is the story on linen,
no longer woman in small village sitting under a tree for days, months,
years of thread weave through out and in, our skin
an embroidery of old maps and new
Lefkara, Larnaca, Kyrenia, Hartchia,
Riverwood, Bankstown, Lalor, Reservoir,
thread weave through out and in,
she lives in each strand
This embroidery weaves a visionary window into a hopeful yet uncertain legacy:
she peeks through gofti [κόφτη], through fairy windows, and sees me
letter by letter, crossing the keyboard
thread weave through out and in,
she sees her children’s children not work in fields harvesting rotting crops,
not work in factories making hard, rough, poisonous things,
not work in shops selling dry, fried food,
she sees a series of baby girls named after her, dressed in white,
she lives in the stroke of a foreign letter by letter, word by word,
thread, weave through out and in.
The mandalic intricacies of this thread connects a series of thematic suites of stories – episodes of psyche and affect recalled, recounted, recorded. Some are written on the body (“Refugee Aerobics”, “Land Mines”, “Heavy”, “Knock Knock”) at once vulnerable, mortal, and resilient. Others are scrawled on the walls and margins of academe (“Outskirts”, “The Quadrangle of Dreams”, “To Identify the Apostate”, “Goddess Nike”). The latter cluster bomb of poems in particular – indeed the collection more broadly – reverberates with what Maria Tumarkin refers to as the “psychic struggle” of the culturally and linguistically diverse in higher education and the arts, especially women and those from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds. Only halfway through the collection, and Costi already has the reader contemplating their own relationship to these sites and spaces upon and within which identity and its expression are renegotiated and forged, leading to new threads, new maps.
Costi never seeks to dazzle or impress the reader through linguistic, aesthetic, and typographical gymnastics. The artistry of her poetic language here is its ability to gain the readers trust almost at first glance with an unpretentious and authentic language that verges on that perennial punk maxim of say what you mean / mean what you say / put a beat to it. Costi’s unassuming versification allows the language to move with ease and breathe, and it is never difficult to locate the pulse in these lines. You will not find much abstraction, metaphor, symbolism, layers of arcane references: in this cartography these would only serve to obfuscate rather than illuminate the poet’s bare-naked home truths. Costi makes it clear why what she is sharing with you is important and needs to be said. Though her poetic language is clean, clear and simple, it is in no way simplistic. On the contrary, the embroiderer here immerses the reader in a confluence of poetic languages from the idiomatic to the lyrical, not only from poem to poem, but stanza to stanza, even line to line. This draws the reader into the rich nuance and complexity of the speaker’s consciousness, a pathway that is uncluttered and uncomplicated. The other extraordinary aspect of the poems in An Embroidery of Old Maps and New is exactly this strong sense of a unique, even idiosyncratic speaker, of voice – one connected to viscera and heart and mind/memory/vision but never bound by any one of them. Even within surrealistic moments, there is no abstraction of the human experience, of body, of woman, of migrant, of worker. Every poem in this collection has a human face.
For Costi, language and communication become sites of conflict, negotiation, resolution, and as she reminds us, vehicles of autonomy (“Looping the Waves”, “The Good Citizens of Melbourne”). To some extent this plays out through the poet’s occasional use of Greek Cypriot dialect, which reads quite organically. However, the deployment of italics and marginalia, which your humble reviewer can only assume is at the insistence of the publisher, is distracting: it inadvertently generates a sense of foreignness within the text that is uncomfortable and at odds with the intimacy of the poems. On the other hand, these and similar moments of linguistic disconnection and slippage illustrate a kind of inter-generational discord under repair. Where the ambivalent and at times antagonistic relationship between “first” and “second” generations of Cypriot Australian apodemes (and what these represent for the poet culturally and politically) is classic Costi, in this collection she appears to have reached a satori: previously unbridgeable divisions begin to blur, and the two begin to merge, at least in moments. The teller of the story here realises she cannot extricate and separate herself from the world and assumed values of previous generations because she is, in various forms, a continuation of them, but on her own terms and always with humanity and compassion. In “Ocean View”, the collection’s penultimate poem, the change brought about by shifting sands at first appears to reconcile two incarnations of life continents apart:
My age was no longer a division of stories
easily mapped with tales of strife,
since birth, my skin, an erosion
of views by Eleni and Kostaki
However, any such resolution is bittersweet: the onetime “teenager leaving home”, having now long outgrown the struggle, finally allows themselves to see the humanity of living ancestors in all its vulnerability and strength – the “grey hair” of a yiayia “slapping the wind” and her “arms strong and swift”. Hidden in the folds of this this perception, however, is the “taste of regret”. The poet recognises that weaving this tapestry has a price: to take up the thread and continue a story that will in turn be taken up is arduous, harsh and embittering work, but crucial, a question of survival. There is no possibility of return the poems in this collection seem to say, especially when the point of the journey’s departure is no longer there: you can only carry it with you, as you keep weaving into life that which you may well lose. Costi does precisely this, both recreates and reappraises a gone world through anecdote and character and place, named and unnamed, in a language so vivid and visceral, and often very moving, they read as unmistakable extension of her, and she of them.
And so, we return to Costi’s acute sensibility of legacy and inheritance. The teller of these stories is finally able to valorise and draw strength and purpose from a lineage of the migrant working class woman. Nowhere is this clearer than in “Kinaesthetic Grace”, one of the collection’s brightest and penetratingly candid and affective moments. The poet begins with an admission, as much to herself as the reader:
This woman talks to me with her hands
she always has, since birth
I have failed to grasp them.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
left this woman to create her own story
her fingers are an alphabet
I had no patience for.”
And yet she knows this woman so well, “the woman who knows how to hold / with her lined and stained hands / the story of all other women”: the women “on the General Motors assembly line”, those who “spray / jeans and their lungs into shreds”, those whose “fingers twitch when they tell / of the Thomastown factory’s sewing machine, / stitch by never-ending stitch, / bleeding before a stop for break, / the dip and throb of migraine fighting quota”, the woman “silenced by statistics”. The poet concludes by inviting the reader to join her in seeking and humbling themselves before this woman, and allow themselves to hear and be shaped by her, declaring:
We must search for her
not in photo albums or newspapers,
we must go out in the wild woods
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
and when we see her
hold out our hands
as children willing to learn.
This inheritance for the poet can be both corporealised and verbalised, expressed as much by the body as the breath, the voice. For the poet, this ultimately points to an awareness that whatever she has created, whatever it may be worth, has been built upon the shoulders – the backs – of those who’ve come before her, who’ve toiled the fields in which she now toils, who pass on the thread of the tale to be woven and spoken, and not forgotten:
Some stories remain like bruises,
others are bullets, those told
with fear pounding the phone.
There is the breath you listen for as well as the word,
each one counts, the breath, the word, the breath.
(“Frontline” p. 53)
The poet leaves us with a reminder that what has passed, been lost and gone – spaces, states, experiences – are re-remembered by the embroiderers deft hand, reconstituted and made anew, and saved:
Those spaces named house, office, tower
we can visit
after the war, the plague, the fire,
bullets rested with stained blankets, with charred stoves
with quiet reprieve,
they will proudly show us what they’ve made
out of the damp, from the debris, by the dusk,
these things we left to perish
entwine like a thick braid.
This, however, is no resolution but a juncture in the story that Costi leaves ambiguous: the reader is haunted by irony that leads them to question whether the journey across sutured topographies from old homes to new was worth the nature of the “abundance” it has brought.
These poems in An Embroidery of Old Maps and New are at once incisively candid and transcendent in the humility of their offering. They speak directly to a powerful sense of dignity – particularly that of the working class migrant, refugee, or poor woman – always hard won through constant struggle, resilience, fearlessness, indeed, in spite of ongoing conditions and efforts to the contrary. With this collection Costi offers her unique contribution to something she is ever aware is so much bigger than herself. It is precisely this sensibility of transcendence and liberating (self)recognition that makes An Embroidery of Old Maps and New a moment of thrilling apogee and culmination the poet’s oeuvre. From the nexus and intertwining of the lines of Costi’s existential enquiry in preceding collections, from Dinted Halos (2003) to Lost in Mid-Verse (2014): all threads lead here, where Costi is already moving towards another horizon.
George Mouratidis is a Research Associate in the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne. He is the author of the poetry collection Angel Frankenstein (Soul Bay Press, 2018) and translator of Noted Transparencies by poet Nikos Nomikos (Owl Press, 2016). He is also the co-founder of literary magazine Kalliope X.