Lesh Karan reviews Eurydice Speaks by Claire Gaskin
by Claire Gaskin
ISBN: 9780648848127 ]
Reviewed by LESH KARAN
I feather my empty rest with writing
I gave up relationships to right it
Orpheus didn’t have to make that choice
When I read Eurydice Speaks, what struck me the most (among many other things) was voice, and how it plays out – skilfully – on so many levels. From the outset, there’s the word ‘speaks’ in the title of only two words – two words with so much power (which I didn’t realise until deep into the collection). But, first, I want to delve into Claire Gaskin’s writing style – her voice – and how she dismantles and wields language to evoke emotion.
Not being ‘overtly funny or political’, Gaskin says she ‘had to learn to be striking in imagery’ when reading before Melbourne’s ‘loud’ and ‘male-dominated’ spoken-word scene of the late eighties. This I learn from listening to Gaskin in an interview on 3CR’s Spoken Word from two years ago, and it makes me think of how Gaskin’s reasons for writing sharp imagery also parallel the themes in her poetry: feminism and writing to be heard.
But it’s not just haiku-esque images that make Gaskin’s work distinct – it’s how she blends the images with surrealism and abstractions. At the crux of it, this how she evokes, artfully juxtaposing disparate lines to surprise and allude:
time smothers me with a pillow that smells of belief
a prodigal son and a mother you can’t return to death
I watch a man in a café check the stability of a chair
he has witnessed collapse
I turn my face up to the brain matter sky
(sonnet 16, Eurydice Speaks, 16)
Even though Gaskin’s poetry is precise and sparse, it paradoxically obscures, giving the reader – us – agency to create meaning – even to distil multiple ones – enacting Barthes’s infamous ‘the death of the author’. In doing so, I realise her poetry is, ironically, also an act of self-preservation.
While Gaskin carries her characteristic voice across much of her oeuvre – which includes a chapbook and four major works, including hot-off-the-press Ismene’s Survivable Resistance – in Eurydice Speaks, her third full-length collection, she also uses structural devices to intensify and reinforce voice.
The overarching structure of Eurydice Speaks is a series of linked sonnets (57 in total) – where the final line of one sonnet is repeated as the first line of the next, and so on – that share the same subject matter and persona. As such, the collection can be read like a verse novel – which is further encouraged by the lack of contents page and poem titles (each sonnet is simply numbered in Shakespearean fashion) – with a clear protagonist.
The protagonist, of course, is Eurydice from Ancient Greek mythology. However, Gaskin refashions her into a contemporary one by giving her a voice. ‘Eurydice in the Orpheus myth, she doesn’t really speak at all, she’s just a part in Orpheus’s life, so to think about her speaking and what her life is like living in the underworld, is like writing myself into life,’ says Gaskin in the same Spoken Word interview.
In this way, Gaskin places power in the hands of the feminine – to retell and reposition story – instead of her being silenced. Eurydice Speaks’ epigraph also suggests this:
‘Writing, in its noblest function, is the attempt to unerase, to unearth, to find the primitive picture again, ours, the one that frightens us.’
– Hélèn Cixous.
As previously mentioned, feministic and writing-as-existence themes colour Gaskin’s work. For example, in Paperweight, her second full-length collection, Gaskin writes, ‘eve as evidence that I am not responsible for rotting apples’ (from ‘fall of man’), and ‘I had to write myself back from the brink’ (from ‘gratuities’). But by melding her voice with Eurydice’s in this collection, Gaskin wears Eurydice as an avatar from which to speak up and rebel – ‘to speak from the underworld is seditious’ (sonnet 57) – and to reveal through the language of the underworld (which Gaskin’s voice befits): ‘my writing is an attempt to uncover the mirror’ (sonnet 8), because there is ‘a cloth over the mirrors / so the reflected moonlight / doesn’t attract predators’ (sonnet 6).
The collection’s cover also depicts the theme of the female voice: We see a woman holding on to a man whose face is turned away from her. She is tugging at his blouse, willing him to look at her, as if she has something urgent to impart, as if she wants to remain in the underworld. Because in the Orpheus myth, the gods tell Orpheus he can take Eurydice with him only if she follows him and he doesn’t look back until they’re both out into the world of living; but if he does look (which he does), Eurydice will be banished to the underworld for good.
So why does Eurydice want to remain in the underworld? ‘the force of the underworld opens my mouth,’ is the last and first line of sonnet 46 and 47, respectively, suggesting that the underworld is Eurydice’s inner world, where her truth lives – a truth she wants to voice with abandon:
I willed him to look back
watch his back watch him check his watch
locked in that gaze of that banishment that liberates
Eurydice speaks mostly in first person, but occasionally appears in the third – ‘Eurydice’s mother held her gaze’ (sonnet 14). Also, she rarely refers to the other characters in her story – e.g. her mother, father, brother and Orpheus – directly. These characters are mostly indicated through the use of pronouns whose nouns are not stated and/or aren’t given context:
I said she died instead of she got married
to wake to full emptiness love self-dawns
Nothing happens next. My
head is in his hollow between his
biceps and his pecs. My
The use of orphaned pronouns and various points of view across sonnets paints an expressionist landscape of anguish and trauma in familial and intimate relationships – and how these relationships interweave and have a persisting influence on each other:
we found her wedding dress in a pillow slip
give up men was her message
a card from my father’s funeral marks the page
he douses me with name calling and corrections
in my forgiveness fantasy is haunted hope
the pain of promise and pride not relationship ready
This ‘interweaving and persisting influence’ are performed structurally, too. Namely, in the absence of the sonnet’s conventional metre and rhyme, it exists through line repetition: Besides the linking aspect – of carrying over the last line of one sonnet to the first line of the next – Gaskin mirrors (repeats) lines from one sonnet to the next, but messes with them by interchanging the nouns (and occasionally the verbs) with uncanny ones. Like how uncovering the mirror reflects another (point of) view of the truth:
I stumble on steps flowing with water
we are only doing this because we love you
I dreamt my boots filled with water
leaving drags afterwards…
through polarities our life in pieces [last line]
through polarities our life in pieces [first line]
I stumble the stereotypes flow with wattle
we only do this because we lullaby you
I dreamt my bootlaces were film
leaving drags afterthoughts
In the above excerpts, we can also hear the interplay of consonance, particularly, the ‘l’ and ‘w’ sounds. So, repetition takes place at a syllabic and letter level throughout the collection, too, adding nuanced layers to what is evoked. Gaskin’s masterful enjambment and lack of punctuation also means we cannot clearly grasp when a thought/idea begins, ends or continues – the effect of this along with the repetition build a sense of an ongoing echo, of a voice from the underworld.
Speaking of an ongoing echo, the last line of the last sonnet is also (mostly) the same as the first line of the first sonnet. This creates a circular effect, which brings to mind an image of an ouroboros, which in Jungian psychology symbolises immortality – devouring oneself to bring oneself back to life – and embodies the essence of Gaskin’s (and Cixous’s) notions on writing oneself into being.
Ultimately, Gaskin serves to make voice uncontainable by giving emotion and intuition the centre stage, subverting logic and patriarchal thinking. Because to read Eurydice Speaks is to submerse yourself in the (under)world of emotion – where the mind has no place, just the soundwaves of the heart and gut, for they don’t lie. And it takes a delicate and deft hand like Gaskin’s to do just that – one that evokes your inner world, rather than tells you what to think and feel.
LESH KARAN was born in Fiji, has Indian genes and lives in Melbourne. She is a former pharmacist who writes. Read her in Australian Multilingual Writing Project, Australian Poetry Journal, Cordite Poetry Review, Portside Review and Rabbit, amongst others. Lesh is currently undertaking a Master of Creative Writing, Editing and Publishing at the University of Melbourne. leshkaran.com