It can be difficult for a poet to exercise in public. What’s fun and, indeed, challenging for the poet is not necessarily an enjoyable ride for a reader or listener. The feat of Jordie Albiston’s The sonnet according to ‘m’ is that it invites us not just to observe but also to enjoy a writer setting an ongoing test for themselves and their form (in this case, the particular form of the sonnet); and that, on the whole, it succeeds.
A poet and editor recently told me that so much contemporary Australian poetry works by accretion; that is, you need a series of a poet’s work in order to get their voice and purpose. This was meant as an observation and, if anything else, praise for the possibilities of the writing; but you do have to wonder where the stand-alone (not necessarily long) poem is hiding. At present it seems to remain, unchallenged, in the hands of Kenneth Slessor, Gwen Harwood, Vincent Buckley and John Forbes. My suspicion is that it most often appears for prize entries rather than collections, and that some of us remain suspicious of the grand (misunderstood as grandiose) poetic attempt.
Important exceptions come to mind, of course: Judith Beveridge’s polished lyric windows; Robert Adamson’s winged sermons; the wry scenes of Andy Quan, among others. In The sonnet according to ‘m’, Albiston does not go in for highly finished views, visions or vignettes; what she does do, however, is to make the most of each poem’s moment, and then move on to the next without asking us to draw comparative lines or conclusions between them. To my mind, she is – and again this word seems the most apt – enjoying the containment of a single poem and yet experimenting with language until the single lyric voice is destabilised. Albiston’s poetry has frequently followed what we might call themes, in all their grandness or drama. This is most obvious in her poems that have been adapted for music-theatre with composer André Greenwell: Botany Bay Document (adapted and produced by Greenwell in 2003 as Dreaming Transportation) and The Hanging of Jean Lee (published in 1998, adapted to libretto by Albiston and first produced in 2009). Thematic unity is also a major component of her earlier sequences and long poems that explored the voices of Emily Dickinson and Frida Kahlo in Nervous Arcs (1995). In The sonnet according to ‘m’, Albiston turns from the unity and wholeness of a theme, to the more disparate and vague nature of a conceit. The book’s title clearly states its conceit: the poet’s essential materials of form and letter. Albiston’s poems repeatedly depart from that minimalist point.
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Part of the collection features a sequence in the voice, as we are told, of her grandmother Margaret ‘Marsi’ Tweddell and specifically her month-long journal. Another part interprets the published journal of her great-great grandmother, Emily ’em’ Skinner. More generally, the journal form can be seen as the model for Albiston’s response to her conceit: it favours ‘miscellany’ – one of the poems’ titles – and disconnected threads. For example, there is a run of (certainly three, possibly five) sonnets that treat the concept of ‘nothing’ or ‘nought’ in differing literary voices: from ‘ths life’s 2 short 4 a hero / (methinx it all means 0)’, and ‘to combat th’ front of this ill I stand / for nought o! edgar I nothing am’, to ‘am. just. not. talking. / at the end of the day cos I! / have but nothing to say’. Other poems are connected by much less, such as recurring references to mathematics and embryo/egg/twins. Many of the sonnets, including ‘machine’ and ‘masticate’, exist alone within the collection and seem – unless I have missed some further links – to stand for nothing more than their own triumph over form and letter.
But Albiston does have something to say, and she opens the book by indicating as much: ‘the woman in photo “A” / is not me’ (‘me’). Continuing the concerns of her earlier writing, she extends the question of a female poetics: what women’s voices say and how they can be written, ‘securing a space in / this bustling language’, as she puts it in ‘Emily Dickinson: A Modern Fascicle’ in Nervous Arcs. She is one of the only contemporary poets in Australia who is still grappling with this concern since the work of Jennifer Strauss and others who shaped a local, postmodern feminist poetics. Evidently, Albiston considers that concern to be an ongoing, unanswered (and perhaps unanswerable) one. She uses poetic voice as a mask or costume that allows her to inhabit other women’s awkwardness with language. As in earlier poems, in The sonnet according to ‘m’ she features women communing, either through dialogue, parallel monologue or self-address. While ‘Marsi’ is voiced in the first person, her poems contain banal snippets of conversation and of her own ‘jotting’ of other’s words:
kally told me yesterday some of her ideasabout ‘writing’: paper by bed jot anythingdown organise! simplify! be clear!!!she then lectured at length about polishing
the gem but does it ‘convey’ does it ‘say’what I mean (this is where I am now)
Tied to Albiston’s gendered poetics is her need to draw from history, to write or re-write representations of women – those who had the tools to express themselves (Dickinson, Kahlo) and those who did not, such as Jean Lee, the female settlers of early Sydney and, now, her ancestors. In Nervous Arcs and Botany Bay Document, Albiston’s female voices have power and sometimes dominion, even if it is only through command of language and expression. Her approach to female voices in The sonnet according to ‘m’ is less simplistic, more illusive and polyphonic. ‘Marsi’ and ’em’ are nervous and sometimes (deliberately or naturally) vacuous. Albiston allows neither of them to claim the collection; sometimes their voices almost meet, but more often they are adrift from one another and from themselves. Rather than rhetorical, her approach to the task of speaking and speaking for other women is formal and structural. In this way she reminds me less of e e cummings and more of the female heirs to the modernist vers libre epigram, like Lyn Hejinian.