the sonnet according to m

Albiston seems to be trying to both show up and break out of inherited language, form and voice. The adoption of literary masks continues in ‘mandragora’, a found sonnet that uses lines about sleep, taken from the bulk of the Western male poetic canon. The poem doesn’t really work, but it demonstrates the whimsical play that Albiston manages to make so inviting. Many of the sonnets in this book are not just formally playful but also comical or humorously unhinged:

well you gotta be good butyou gotta be bad you gottabe both glad & sad yep yougotta be human it says in thebook but look! there’s thatcreature inside! you gotta benothing you gotta be all yougotta be both great & smallo! you gotta be Oh & yougotta be Ah & you gotta beblah-bloody-blah (but justgimme the rule & gimme therod just gimme a minute withthat fool! our devilish god) (“mandatory”)

As well as giving the sonnet a woman’s voice, Albiston tries out SMS vernacular in ‘methinx (i)’:

2moro 2moro & 2morogoes slo frm day 2 daycos we dont talk costxt sez wot we got 2 say

Some of this language even creeps into another poem, ‘monastic’, where it actually operates quite effectively as a function of tone: ‘I cld be alone & yep enjoy /’. Whether these tests of voice work or not, they are emblematic of Albiston’s wrestle with the sonnet itself, traditionally a form of masculine lyric (Albiston makes numerous more references to Shakespeare and Renaissance verse in this collection) and now enjoying a feverish revival in Australia. Through her treatment of the sonnet, she instructs the form about what its possibilities can be; and perhaps she tries to correct or reinvent its traditional use.

The sonnet certainly suits the kind of brevity that Albiston explores in this book. She withdraws from the wordiness and longer lines of poems in The Fall (2003), via the economy of her previous book, Vertigo [a cantata] (2007). The abruptness of the form and her interest in shorter phrases, however, frequently create a sense of coolness in the voice of these poems, and sometimes a forced or wooden register, especially in the ancestor sequences. Albiston is wonderfully preoccupied with form, but the poems remain breezy about the ideas they raise. An instance in which she is able to make both a linguistic and conceptual impact, is a sequence of four poems that each offer a paean to the loss of decent graffiti – whether by council cleaning or unimaginative street poets, it’s unclear. The lines of the ‘mural’ sequence end with one of only five words, which reflects the poverty of language that the speaker sees in the streets:

who bothers to read the words? as I passthe gasworks again today I’m struck by the words FREE HER & then passingthe baths before brunswick street & just past
smith It is a strange & beautiful world on a wall:a missive posted during the night passed onlike a whisper a clandestine light to be passed (‘mural #2’)

Albiston’s sonnets seek to improve this poverty, by showing how much can be done with so little. According to Albiston, the poem and (according to ‘marsi’ and ’em’) writing, are the making of order. Like the image of a Buddhist mandala at the book’s end, that making is provisional; and, unlike life, it is the author’s whim. In this collection, the sonnet becomes a form kindred to the mandala as it is made, rearranged and pursued. Albiston takes the form and the letter, and begins to fold them, like (that other essential) a piece of paper into 54 shapes. Why the letter, ‘m’; and why not? It’s as good a start as any, and its restraint is more important to Albiston than a whole alphabet. As she writes in, ‘marsi (22 july 1959)’:

the satisfaction lies not inthe reaching of goals but m in the trying

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