Phyllis Perlstone reviews Cities by Petra White


by Petra White

ISBN  978-1-925735-30-7



Each time I have read
Cities, I have felt more of the affect of the poetical language. Yet there is a way of looking at it as a whole. Given Petra White’s themes, I can’t help alluding to Adrienne Rich’s Diving into the Wreck, also Sylvia Plath’s last book Ariel. White dives into the myths to find past definitions for past and present human roles : “Tell me what a mother is”.

The book begins with “Demeter’s Song”. Trying to define a mother within the ancient Greek myth of Hades – the god of the underworld who carries off Persephone, Demeter’s daughter to marry her. This suggests many sorts of darkness:

“Sing to me daughter
Upwards through the darkness”

White uses Persephone’s abduction to be perceived by her simply as growing away from the mother to adulthood. The grief of a human persona over a death (later in the poems) who is now a mother herself, links knowing death with the source of love. This is within the perception of a human mother. The early poems use the myth to personify similar human emotions.

In the second poem, “Demeter”, portraying someone who loves and loses, we are sent straight into the myth of Persephone, lost to Demeter in Hades. By casting the world into the ‘darkness’ of winter, when no crops grow and a depression then overcomes the world, White mirrors Demeter’s own loss. 

Whether the words evoking this depression suggest Demeter’s loss and provocation to revenge, or whether they suggest the response of grieving where she can neither act nor provide anything – as in the poem “Corn”– is not certain. Adrienne her early work, Of Woman Born, argues that the “un-mothered mother” is neither able to guide nor, in the worst  cases, avoid being destructive. Demeter’s cry implies that she hears her inaction as criticised in a troll-like outburst. White incorporates  contemporary  nuances, as in the words, “I could hear them, / She lives through her daughter! / She is depressed! A monster !”

Demeter calls out, “Oh hideous love / that a mortal knows –/what you love you must lose./ But accept it? / Impossible as breath/under water”. White’s Demeter holds an ambivalent tone here. Her usual work can’t be done, it is just “Impossible as breath/ under water.” But that recognition of being like humans in their mortality, holds up the state of human imagination – the acceptance or not of death. 

These early poems are not broken into stanzas. They beautifully sustain short lines in one whole –give  recognition to mythical personifications – of human perceptions of their feelings. But the words in “Demeter” describing birth are heavy too  – “they heaved her on to my stomach/ like an anchor”, mirroring a mortal’s bodily awareness both physically and metaphorically. This is about being stopped in her singularity, taking the mother to a standstill – unable to be part of the rushing world around her. The lines are tempered though, and made ambivalent in tone again by the words about the baby : “When I held her I diminished/and grew all at once”. 

White’s Persephone has her definition  of her mother – “My mother is not human, cannot keep / her soul in quiet perspective” – implying that a human can. But here, Persephone is complaining of this wildness – its effect on her. The affect of the lines is also of hearing a protest that resists fate – echoes of  Dylan Thomas’ “Rage against the dying of the light”, or the mocking poetry of Sylvia Plath whose persona cannot relinquish what the poems satirise. In “The Applicant” and “Lady Lazarus”; a persona mocks herself in her suicide attempts – “I do it exceptionally well”.

Persephone tries to describe how she now thinks of this as a realisation that she is growing into adulthood. What that means. She is drawing away from her mother, but there is a conundrum in going into Hades to become a ‘shade’. “I had met myself as a shade. But how/ thrillingly alive I felt.” The poem ends with a surrender to her fate. Yet, she considers her new role as an honour: “Oh my dead, I will be your queen.” The next poem “Persephone at 40” tells of her still struggling with her and her mother’s goddess immortality. She has a deceptive disdain for Eurydice who dies after all. Also, she yearns to understand love, which she believes can only come with knowing death.

“I could love her more if I knew she would die.” Here the tone is of dramatic cynicism: “if I could hold / like flesh the empty air / and pray and cry and do all that”. The evocative language of knowing death is countered by “.. but in that other world /of streets and running children, / anonymous trees and painted cottages, / rivers that slump along ungrandly.” Persephone is caught between the status of ruling over the dead – and life in all its ordinary forms. There is, also, a compassion for the dead, their “faces folded up from animal sleep”. The lines beautifully contrast and balance the imagery. To this point White has drawn attention to the theme of mothering – its effect. “My mother tells me I am wild / but I am not motherless” attributes her behaviour to learning by example.

In the second section the theme of growing away from the mother is intensified. It deals with men and what to know about them – a satirical list alluding to traditional ways of deferring to men. There is also a poem, “Motherless”, and then poems about the death of the speaker’s mother – a human one now but now addressed as if she were a human ghost: “You knock like an accidental noise, and you / staring all through me / with curious half frightened eyes. / Now I have a daughter, I see how you loved me.” Here is another allusion to love and mothers and mothering. 

In Section III, what seems at first a bifurcation of theme, signalled by the book’s title, Cities, suggests ‘reality’ supplanting myth. The theme of reality becomes part of the second poem, “Marriage”. This section begins with “To London”. No longer diving into myth it starts with a real plane journey to a city; it concerns the new life separating her from her country and her mother. The mortal daughter, a mother herself, talks of mutual support between bread-winner husband and stay-at-home wife/mother. Fear of failure of the couple, as against the tiny baby’s happy responses, “waking to beam at the stewards/as if joy is default”.

Then, in “Journal in November”, in the light of what was reflected upon about myth in Section I, we read “Mortal love in the hands of lovers”. This is a telling insight of affective language : “a raucous mortgage, a ticking foetus”. The half-rhymes and onomatopoeia signal the sounds to beware of – the harsh sound of money’s need and the warning of time’s heart-beat of life. Finally, “We turn our heads to the most fantastic gods,/and pray, like lovers, for the small and large of our lives.” This suggests mortal love as only a romance, echoing Demeter’s “Oh hideous love that a mortal knows”.

This leads to “And I tell the psychoanalyst / I live in two worlds” – a swift, pared-down way to give a new character to what is introduced as mental ill-health. It evokes and echoes Persephone’s and Demeter’s worlds apart and the sense of an isolated mother’s life. Through this poetry the emotions easily dismissed as invisible or belittled are enlarged upon with great economy.

Within “Cities”, in the present as against the agrarian world of the ancient Greek myth, we begin to see other contrasts. “The homeless man’s camp is gone / hoovered up with the efficiency it lacked. / Night flutters around me in scraps? Car after car scrapes past.” “Journal in November” in numbered stanzas, brings up in a nuanced way a pared, precise account of the urban world, apologising for the narrator’s observations – the reasons for feeling the unmanageable view of “two- worlds”. The treatment here concerns another consequence – a quite ‘dark’ account of the mental sickness felt by the “traditional’ wife/mother in managing the “two worlds”. In stanza 5, Petra White’s narrator observes a wintry and un-mothered world: “In every head a piece of maniacal war, / a new shard of melting ice, / a bear cub climbing to its mother / up a perpendicular slope / pursued by a desperate drone / treefuls of images / we try to unstitch ourselves from”.

The lyrical disillusion and sometimes optimism of the rest of the poems (until the final “Home”) are laid out first in “Autumn Leaves” which recalls, in fantastical imagery, the beginning of love and the attempt to repair it. Finally, “a leaf caressed me/shyly as a hand turning away.” The softness of sad or dystopian observations is an effective part of Petra White’s beautiful word-managing.

The final poem  “Home” turns to a different myth, Odysseus and Penelope, falling back on another patriarchal theme. This time, a woman’s power is compromised; the power of the wife is subservient to that of her wandering husband.

Here we find the question of ‘home’ – what it is. Mother, father, child? What poetry does – what Petra White does – is far-ranging. In calling upon myth and reality, or present-day tropes of fears or contentment, lyricism is uppermost; it rescues the ‘dark’ things as well as portraying the better, simply by evoking them – lassoing them while they are moving in front of her, and capturing them in words to be seen and heard and read.

PHYLLIS PERLSTONE first an artist and experimental filmmaker, turning to poetry in 1992, studied poetry at the New School for Social Research, New York. Awards include the NSW Women Writers Poetry Prize 2004; second in the National Women Writers Poetry Prize 2005. She has published in many journals and anthologies. Her books are: You Chase After Your Likeness (2002), The Edge of Everything (2007), shortlisted for the Kenneth Slessor Prize, the  Premier’s Award NSW in 2008; Thick and Thin Lines (2012), The Bruise of Knowing(2014). But Now is published this year.