TEXT review


Committed to memory

review by Cassandra Atherton

 

Tricia Dearborn
Autobiochemistry
UWA publishing, Crawley WA 2019
TNR 12 plain text: ISBN 9781760800222
TNR 12 plain text: Pb pp103 AUD22.99

Shey Marque
Keeper of the Ritual
UWA publishing, Crawley WA 2019
TNR 12 plain text: ISBN 9781760800239
TNR 12 plain text: Pb pp116 AUD22.99

 

Tricia Dearborn’s Autobiochemistry is a coruscating collection of poems exploring the searing ways memory is inscribed on the body. Her poems probe the transience of experience for its momentary indelibility, to question: ‘How is memory laid down?/How is it fixed?’ (28). In its reference to the chemical means by which photographic exposures were once captured on paper, Dearborn identifies ways the body, similarly, stores and revisits memories. Indeed, Dearborn’s dismembering and subsequent stitching back together of personal history is a powerful response to the fragmentation and connectedness of both identity and nostalgia in her poetry.

Metaphorically, Dearborn uses an appeal to the periodic table in one of the major sequences in the book, to consider what is ‘elemental’ in our body’s chemistry. By placing the elements in a box above each poem at the left margin, Dearborn conjures a block torn or separated from the periodic table and given autonomy:

47
     Ag

     Silver


I tape to the doorframe
a black and white photo

developed and printed
with silver salts.

How is memory laid down?
How is it fixed?

Weeks later, I think
you look familiar … The clock

ticks twice
before I recognise myself.

I return the ten-year-old’s
captive gaze. Remember

looking into the lens,
deciding not to smile,

not to pretend. (28)

In this beautifully compressed poem, the narrator re-imagines the recording of a memory when she was ten-years old. Here, Dearborn invokes the theory of the gaze in the narrator’s prolonged looking at the photograph and her positioning as ‘Other’ to her younger self.  It is a clever and uncanny moment, supported by the poem’s composition of largely unrhyming couplets – they are the same, but different.

Dearborn also explores the significance of the matrilineal line in her poetry. In another rendering of chemistry – this time romantic chemistry – Dearborn foregrounds a strong line of women in ‘Phlegm: a love poem’. Here, mother, girlfriend, poet Maggie Nelson and the narrator’s younger self form an important dynamic of women who are presented as having forged important and complex bonds in one another’s lives. Dearborn’s use of the abject in this poem in her evocation of the sick bed and remnants of the flu is witty. It adds endurance and strength to the expression of vulnerability and fragility in love:

I’m reading Maggie Nelson
occasionally stopping to cough up phlegm
in some indeterminate post-fever stage of the flu

[…]

I learnt this

My mother, not big on emotion or touch,
excelled at sickbed ritual

earlier tonight I was telling my girlfriend
(scavenger of sleep, getting what she can between my bouts)
how it calmed me as a child, calms me now.  (40)

Perhaps the most fascinating and indelible of all sections is ‘Virginia Woolf’s memoirs’, which poetically remembers Woolf’s life and myth in brilliant pared back lines. The final poem in this sequence is only six lines and imagines the moments before Woolf’s suicide. Dearborn writes starkly and confidently about the titular ‘autobiochemistry’ in this brilliant writer’s life and death:

At fifty-nine, you –
who had written I can’t help looking

unable to close your ears
            o the voices

stopped looking.
You walked to the river.  (59)

Autobiochemistry is fearless and poignant, deeply personal and political. Dearborn’s poems in this collection capture the ephemeral and fugacious in brief, bursts of language.

Shey Marque’s Keeper of the Ritual interrogates memory in thrillingly complex detail. Rich with words, some of the poems have been reproduced in smaller font than others to accommodate their very long lines, as in the titular poem, which begins:

In a rhythmic hand on page twenty-eight of her journal intime, third arriére
grandmére records a violin lesson and this photo lures her to me; a state of hiraeth.
Music lessons remind me of her. I could almost be her. Maybe I am her… (76)

It these extended lines, Marque both revels in, and interrogates language, masterfully exploring the border been prose and poetry. The journal and photograph are two significant ways of recording experience and Marque invests these with a sense of the uncanny as the narrator superimposes herself over the unfolding narrative in a powerful ghosting. 

In ‘Changing Skin of Drowning’, Marque interrogates memory in a fragmented and Prufrockian narrative poem:

Today the sirens are quiet. Paul doesn’t hear them coming
                        for him. veiled in salt cloud
he and a buddy collect Western Rockies from their pot, its rope
            a scribble         winds a knot of the Gordian kind
around his ankle. Undone       shouting bubbles
fists snatching water   a knife falls.  (27)

The sense of foreboding coupled with the use of gaps and spaces which split open the lines, provides a visual, figurative suggestiveness that the poem’s truncated narrative leaves open.

Where Dearborn re-imagines vignettes from Virginia Woolf’s life, Marque uses a photo of Katharine Susannah Prichard in an arresting ekphrastic poem, ‘Out Seeking Mimetomorphs’ with the epigraph, ‘Photo: Writer Katharine Susannah Prichard visits a gold mine as research for a novel Photographer and year unknown’:

The photograph is black and white. I imagine
delivered by box brownie sometime late art deco.
despite the fading, the contrast is still there.
Looking at the scene I half expect to hear a bush
ballad in the background or, from behind scribbly
gums, a gust of horse laughter and song. (96)

The narrator superimposes her reimaginings of the scene over the fading photograph to provide a doubling of women writers, forging a connection.

Marque’s ekphrastic poems are magisterial in their diversity and control of language. The poem ‘Plume’ which has the epigraph – ‘Femme qui Tire son Bas by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrect, 1894, oil on cardboard, 58 X 46 cm, Musee d’Orsay, Paris’, is a wonderful pantoum turning on the repetition of sensuous lines so that the poem, like the artwork, slides like a sigh down the page:

Flesh shimmers in the powder white
turquoise pours over the shoulder lakes
black silk slides where sighs begin
mirage in the night of Toulouse-Lautrec. (71)

Furthermore, as an extension of the ekphrastic impulse, Marque’s rich evocations of looking and what it means to be looked at, are never more poignant than in the poem ‘You Over There’ which opens with:

Just tell me what you did today
If only to keep a tiny piece of you in my day
And a bit of me in yours… (41)

and opines the absent lover who knew ‘what the back of my hair really looks like’ (41).

Marque’s Keeper of the Ritual is absorbing in its obsessive and multifarious recordings of experience and identity. The poems are strong and graceful, evoking still life and the bustling but brief nature of existence.

 

 

Cassandra Atherton is an award-winning prose poet and scholar. Her most recent books of prose poetry are Pre-Raphaelite (2018) and Leftovers (forthcoming). She was a Visiting Scholar at Harvard and a Visiting Fellow at Sophia University, Tokyo. Cassandra is a commissioning editor for Westerly magazine.

 

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TEXT
Vol 23 No 2 October 2019
http://www.textjournal.com.au
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Julienne van Loon & Ross Watkins
Reviews editors: Pablo Muslera & Amelia Walker. Assistant reviews editor: Simon Telford
textreviews@unisa.edu.au