An Absence of Saints

Part One: Tara Mokhtari

An Absence of Saints is a collection of lyric poems based on poet Rosanna Licari’s family history, childhood and travels. Divided into three parts, Licari’s collection firstly retells stories passed down from relatives from Europe during World War II, then touches on memories of a childhood as the daughter of migrants in Australia, and finally brings the reader into the speaker’s present travels as an adult.

The poetry is finely structured lyric free verse, historic retelling, and present tense examinations of place and reverie. Licari has strong formal control, her poetic rhythms are musical rather than metric and her eloquence contributes to the polished lyric aesthetic of the poems.

A common criticism of contemporary Australian lyric poetry is that it lacks innovation and runs the risk of being overwritten. Throughout Part 1 of Licari’s collection, sections describing the cruelty of World War II on the young Sofia (Licari’s mother) are so delicately penned that the second-hand nature of the narrative is emphasised, creating a kind of distance between the reality of Sofia’s suffering and Licari’s poetic retelling of the experience:

The cell smells

of human sweat and waste

but swallows swoop

into the courtyard

when the prisoners walk round

inside its walls once a day. (‘The last weeks of the war, Istria, 1945’)

At midday after they soak

their bread with the remnants

of their watery soup,

the others stare at the serving

of pasta she gets in addition

because of her age. (‘Fiume’)

The alliteration and assonance within this section, for instance, softens the image of a young girl imprisoned during the war. The sound quality here evokes the prisoners’ tiredness near the cessation of the war and a serene setting that contrasts from the usual images evoked by mention of a prison. Concurrently, it could be argued, it represents the girl’s relative innocence, the diminishing effect of many years on memories of wartime and also the speaker’s emotional distance from the stories of her relatives.

This emotional distance is evident throughout many of the poems, to the exclusion of the poems on her beloved father. Sometimes this distance is spoken to directly:

Today neither Mother’s story

nor Lowell’s ‘Sailing Home from Rapallo’

brings the azure

of the Gulf of Genoa to mind (‘Mediterranean Mosaic’)

On Graham Nunn’s blog ‘Another Lost Shark’, Licari describes Lowell’s Life Studies as the first collection of poetry that captured her interest. The stanza above indicates just how separate the poem’s speaker sometimes appears to feel in relation to her family history, and how that distance manifests in the process of collecting these stories.

Part 2 is largely dedicated to Licari’s own memories of her childhood in Australia, and the struggles of being a child/teenager from a migrant family in this country. There is a dissatisfaction that emanates through many of these poems. The speaker expresses dissatisfaction with her surrounds, her peers, her possessions, and most fervently the clash between her home life and her social life at school:

One day I gave her a note for Geoffrey from Marist Brothers.

She returned it with the news that before he read it,

he took it by the corner and said let the grease drip off. (‘Two photographs: notes’)

I said nothing about him saying it or her telling me.

Nothing. Mother still tells me she regrets

not putting an extra ‘s’ in my name.

As if Rosanna wasn’t different enough. (‘Second Row’)

In these two stanzas feelings of rejection and resentment mirror many stories of anxiety suffered by teenage children of migrant parents. As a second-generation Iranian-Australian the problem of growing up with two very different sets of cultural norms resonated strongly with me. I was reminded my mother sending me to school at age 10 with my favourite Persian dessert shollehzard, a saffron rice pudding, bright yellow in colour, served in a little clear container for lunch – vastly different from the ham sandwiches of my classmates. Feeling too shy to eat the delicacy in front of everyone, my shollehzard remained in its container in the lunch basket, and I forgot about it. At the end of the day my teacher picked the container, dangled it in front of the class, asking to whom the horrible thing belonged. Humiliated, I didn’t say a word and it was thrown in the bin. All children of migrant parents have these types of stories and Licari touches on the experience of being the stranger at school and in social groups, and feelings of humiliation and isolation.

Part 3 departs from retellings of the past and emphasises the significance of place in the speaker’s travels. In every way this final section was the most enjoyable read. Licari’s present tense lyricism is effortless in its presentation of her immediate surrounds, the atmosphere of the beach in different countries, of driving down a highway, of rooms and photographs, and most importantly, the subtle symbolism of everyday occurrences. She leaves behind the sometimes alienating distance involved in telling other peoples’ stories, although she retains the sombre tone of the poems on remembering her childhood and there is a sense that the speaker is being followed by the past. The visceral nature of this poetic undercurrent reveals Licari’s attachment to the subjects of the poems in Parts 1 and 2 despite the distance in the voice of those sections:

sitting on a hundred

white crosses on the roadside

I turn off the high beam

let the motorcycle pass

the black reappears

I feel a tug from the ghost hitchhiker

in the back seat

but the highway’s too strong

it pulls me forward (‘Drive’)

In this section reverie’s ghostly personification evokes the presence of the remnants of Parts 1 and 2, in the context of looking forward.

Stories about migrant experiences are extremely important. These narratives speak to migrants of many ethnic backgrounds lessening the sense that we are alone in our sometimes distressing displacement. Concurrently, these stories are a way of relating our unique experiences to mainstream Australia, for whom we are so often a source of amusement, frustration, even a thing to be feared when our cultural differences manifest themselves. It is not only post-migration experiences that should be shared, but also the experiences of our families that lead to migration, and the histories that make us unique. Licari addresses these themes and perspectives in the first and second parts of An Absence of Saints, contributing poetic micro-narratives to the deeper understanding of Italian migrants – what many suffered during WWII and the challenges of adapting to Australian culture.

Part Two: Fiona Wright

Migration is not only important to these poems, however, on a narrative level. Instead, migration forms the structural and symbolic core of An Absence of Saints. The three sections of the book are permeable and porous – family stories leak into poems about travel, and poems set in the present butt up against tales from the past. Tropes, especially those of food, bodies and story-telling, are continually brought into new surroundings and new relationships, in what can be seen as imaginative acts of migration. There are no firm categorisations of poems, no clear-cut narrative trajectory; instead, the collection is structured along resonances, memories, and moments of misunderstanding and cross-purposes. It is a bold construction, and a generous one as well, allowing the reader to make their own connections, and to find their own path through the poetry. Moreover, it is a structure that mirrors memory itself – the past is never finished or left behind, and history – both personal and familiar – will always leave its marks upon the present.

Perhaps this accounts in some way for the sense of distance and dissatisfaction within the poems. The poet inhabits a space of betweeness – between the stories of Europe and her experience in Australia, between the past, the present, and an imagined future, between memory and ‘real time.’ The continual structural eruptions of the book leave the speaker with little firm ground on which to stand, but with an receptivity to the symbolic, to heritage and to strange similarities. One of the most interesting – and informative – structural eruptions in the book, for example, is a small sequence of poems about historical explorers. ‘Bank’s Tattoo’, ‘Botany Bay I’ and ‘Hunters and Collectors’ re-imagine stories of national history, of the Endeavour’s encounter with Australia. Often drawing on quotes from Captain Cook’s journal, the poems are keenly interested with language and naming, of bodily experiences (such as tattooing, the sensations of sea travel and ‘the fragrance of coconut oil’) and of adaptation and renewal, here told through a botanical motif. ‘Hunters and Collectors’, for example, describes the collection of a banksia specimen by people who do not know how he seedpods open in fire, and includes the direct statement ‘To collect you have to/ understand regeneration.’

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