‘The precise punctuation of your breath’: Jordie Albiston’s oeuvre
knowledge as a body is dead without imagination
— Jordie Albiston
In the wake of the loss of Australian poet Jordie Albiston on the last day of February of this year, I have been reflecting on the profound influence her work had on my reading, writing and appreciation of poetry since I first read excerpts of her work in an undergraduate course reader. I had a nascent interest in poetry at that point, having scratched out some limp and supremely earnest lyric poems as a teenager. But my reading of poetry in high school was hardly prolific, uninspired was I by the limited literature studies poetry list, and I was too much of a square to deviate from intense study of the curriculum. But encountering Jordie’s poems at university stirred me to chase up her books The Hanging of Jean Lee (1998), and Botany Bay Document (1996). My interest was piqued in pursuing this idea of a book-length work of poems on one subject – a sustained engagement with an idea or story, where the style of the poem in part ‘performs’ the narrative actions. That Jordie’s works drew upon documents was an additional interest for me, how they transformed the artefact of dead news into something dynamic, something new. I was intrigued by what was happening within the space of these books, which extended the limits of what I assumed poetry could do or be.
I would go on, in later years of study, to be drawn to all the experimental poems a young university student is typically drawn towards, from Mallarmé’s Un Coup de Dés and the works of e. e. cummings to Dada experiments and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry. A PhD on Susan Howe’s oeuvre of innovative historical, biographical and documentary work led me back to Jordie Albiston. Now, I appreciate her work all the more not only for the innovative approach to a nonfiction poetics, nor for the attention she paid to form and style – though both of these aspects are significant contributions – but rather, for the fact that they are accessible to a much broader audience than any of the above-mentioned experimental works or writers that drew me fast into poetry’s orbit. While I am deeply fond of Howe’s work, there is a certain exclusivity it maintains around its readership. It gives little option but to engage in a kind of ‘hard thinking’ reading practice. Taking cues from Howe for my own writing, my first book Marionette (the manuscript of which was the other half of my PhD) was perhaps an act of pretentious feminist exclusivity. Sure, I kept justifying the visual play and disintegration as a necessary continuation of feminist freedom, but who would care to connect with that, beside a handful of over-eager hard-thinking readers?
A couple of years after my PhD, when I had moved into academia as a profession and set up Rabbit as a ‘journal for nonfiction poetry’, I returned to Jordie’s poetry with a new interest. Her work was an invitation to readers of all kinds – a pleasure for the ear and eye for those most interested in reading a good poem relatively quickly; a potential map for the ‘hard thinkers’ to engage with, to consider the poem’s use/transformation of documentary information, and its additions to that world of information. She was also adept at reinventing her approach from book to book, so that we do not get reams of poems foregrounding Jordie Albiston’s explicit ‘I’ moving through the world, but a series of unique inhabitations of form and idea. A chameleon-like transformation was Jordie’s signature. Yet these transformations always carried a strong sense of purpose.
This essay is part of the Sydney Review of Books series on ‘rewriting kinship’. After Jordie’s passing, I began to reflect on all that she taught me – not necessarily directly, although there was an aspect of that through conversations we had had over the years. Rather, the guidance I received from Jordie came chiefly through her poems. I came to realise that we held similar desires with respect to the shaping of a poem and what it might offer to readers; my ongoing study of her poems has intensified my own desires for poetry – what I want it to be, do, offer, become. (Her skill in appealing to readers on a variety of levels has made me want to work at achieving this through my own poetry, too. I think I am getting better at this, slowly.) For me, Jordie Albiston was the closest I have felt to having poetry kin; by this, I mean that, despite our immense differences in poetic style, form and approach, her dedicated vision gifted me a kind of anchor, so that I feel less adrift in whatever is meant by ‘Australian poetry’.
In what follows, I use some of her words on poetry, from interviews and other writings, as beacons towards a brief survey of her oeuvre. I look at Albiston’s specific craft – her ideas on constraint, freedom and form; her attending to the ‘music’ of a line; her approach to establishing the ‘event’ of the poem; and finally, how her engagement with the historical document generated a unique strand of documentary poetics. I write this essay also as a tribute to Jordie Albiston, whose winning of the Patrick White Award in 2019 – an award that celebrates writers who have not been adequately recognised for their considerable contributions to Australian writing – spurs me all the more to celebrate her unique achievements in poetry.
My poems are fairly structural, and I know I'm a bit formalistic for many people’s tastes, but I do believe in things like unity, balance, symmetry ... a poem doesn't necessarily have to look visually symmetrical to please me as a reader, but there has to be a very particular sense of organic order and cohesion: a beginning and an end, and a relationship between every part. – Jordie Albiston to Kate Middleton, 2001
Jordie Albiston noted that she would often ‘start’ a poem with an idea of shape – ‘an architectural kind of figure’ – for which she then found ‘the right content that might suit that thing’. The ‘passion’ for her as a poet was ‘in the maths’, as she told Kate Middleton: ‘for every rule there’s a window or even a whole tesseract that opens, and it’s that kind of movement that I like’. Given this admission, it is not surprising that Albiston developed an entire collection of poems using mathematical formulae as a way to structure each poem. Euclid’s Dog (Gloria SMH, 2017) is a collection of ‘100 algorithmic poems’ that develop their respective forms from one of eight mathematical concepts – Fibonacci Series, Golden Mean, Hexahedron, Lucas Number Sequence, Pentagon, Plane Angle, Pythagorean Theorem and Square Pyramid. The example below is one of the collection’s ‘Fibonacci’ poems (following the sequence 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, and so on; each number is the sum of the previous two in the sequence) where words are the counted units:
—o —silence —silence —break not
—hold your tongue —allow us this small
favour —let your fabled shroud of hush
fall down —yes shake us from our Babel
pole & tuck us into the ground —zip up lips
grant us our wish to be dumb here on earth
as every sad creature stuck in heaven above
o silence pray speak to me bring back your
shriek o break your schtum o make your boys
sing I’m scared of tomorrow & blessed be
your noise I need you louder than sorrow
I love how the poem gains momentum as each cluster of words, separated by em-dash, grows in number. Albiston meets the form’s gathering urgency with a persona whose utterances shift gears and reverse direction, from a dedication to and/or plea for silence and quiet, to an abrupt turn – a volta, marked by stanza break – towards speech, shriek, song or noise, as ways to drown out the sorrow which refuses to ‘be silent’. The poem presents an impossible wish – silence cannot speak; neither intelligence nor abstraction can resolve embodied sorrow.
Albiston understood that poetry, like a dream, can signify in multiple ways; but also, that the aesthetic drama of a poem can be a joy, despite the work we have cut out for us in the way of interpretation. She once said that, in poetry, ‘every single word has to have a relationship with every other word, and somehow you’ve got to write music into it as well, if you can’. It is remarkable that, in an 11-line, 90-word poem, there are at least eight rhyming pairs; these, however, are not end-rhymes, but they sound out repetitions across the field of the poem. Note, too, that these pairs of words – break/shake, small/fall, tuck/stuck, zip/lips, speak/shriek, break/make, boys/noise, tomorrow/sorrow – generate a certain frisson as one renders the other more frenetic, fraught, tensely charged. Part-rhymes, assonance, consonance and alliteration are also widely prevalent, and the poem closes as it opens, with an ‘o’/’ow’ sound. Yet despite all of this ‘order’ imposed by mathematical constraint, repetition and rhyming pairs – the predictions they can deliver and satisfy – nothing can resolve the unpredictable chaos of the interior world (or the world itself, for that matter). Contradiction is flint here; we strike against it, ignite a flare, are held momentarily by the highly charged activity of wavering thought.
In a more recent interview with Joan Fleming, Albiston admits that ‘for poetry – as opposed to mathematics – there may be numerous possible final solutions’. This reminds me of Rachel Blau DuPlessis’ definition of poetry as ‘saturated segmentivities in social-sensuous language’, which she unpacks below:
Poetry is that form of writing in segments (lines, mainly, sometimes sentences, but also fragments visually strewn on a page) that allows and encourages the largest possible place for excess of meanings and implications to enter any given word or phrase. Poetry is hypersaturated because of the multiplicity of filiated, but not completely speakable, impacts. Something is extra, a remainder, an escapee, a concatenation of mixage. In poetry, language does not simply produce meaning – it is jiggered to prolong meaning.
On reading the above Fibonacci poem, I can’t help but wander into timely environmental arguments, that ‘our wish to be dumb’ acknowledges the suffering we’ve caused on earth and an unwillingness to bring about (or cowardice in the face of) radical change; silence is deafening in the face of that depressing fact. Albiston’s poem allows for that wandering, for me to hitch its lines to that context and see where it takes me. Another reader will carry the poem’s urgency into other situations.
A much earlier example of Albiston’s work that leads me to similarly wander (one could look at any Albiston poem, really, and I am mostly just opening to random pages within the pile of her books at my side) can be found in ‘The Salem Papers, 1692’, a sequence in her first collection, Nervous Arcs (Spinifex, 1995). The sequence draws on the extant court transcripts of those accused of witchcraft in colonial Massachusetts, and highlights the hysteria of the times, how whole communities can be convinced to support and enact barbaric deeds against fellow humans in response to wilfully and maliciously misconstrued ‘evidence’. The first of five sections presents the ‘Examination of Martha Carrier’:
Abigail Williams w’o hurts you?
Goody Carrier of Andover
Eliz. Hubbard who hurts you?
He is speaking while they
reel and writhe. The
court room looks like a
fair. Ann Putnam cries of
a pricking pin. If I had a
pin I would stick it in. He
is speaking quickly his
soul on fire his words
are branding irons. He asks
can I but look at them
and not knock them down.
I watch his face I keep my
place and say: They will
dissemble then. […]
Albiston’s inhabiting of Martha Carrier’s perspective delivers a subtle and spare sequence of short lines and stanzas. The courtroom scene is enlivened by rhyme and shifts in rhythmic emphasis, where Carrier’s own lyrical expression – ‘Ann Putnam cries of // a pricking pin. If I had a / pin I would stick it in.’; ‘I watch his face I keep my // place’ – contrasts with the heavier accented rhythms of the judge’s words, which are characterised as ‘branding irons’ – ‘He asks / can I but look at them / and not knock them down.’
Deliberate word choices unfurl multiple meanings: ‘reel’ in this context conjures both literal body movements (swaying/staggering) and metaphorical actions (‘spinning’ stories) – paired with ‘writhe’, the metaphor gains purchase, conjures the silkworm, its spinning of thread and its transformation. Carrier’s ‘pin’ makes me think, then, of multiple grotesque images: of the evolved moth, pinioned for display; or of a voodoo doll, an effigy used in magical practices to invoke suffering in another. The courtroom as carnivalesque (‘fair’), as hall of mirrors, disables the possibility of a ‘fair’ trial, as the words of the magistrate ‘brand’ Carrier as witch and condemn her to death. The pun prompts us to think more deeply about the ‘truths’ that we espouse through language, which always needs to be interpreted by the individual. A ‘fair’ trial can be misleading; Albiston filters the scene through the eyes of Carrier herself, whose independence of mind and refusal to submit to male authority is well reflected in these lines and underscored by her statement ‘They will dissemble then’.
Again, I wander beyond the immediate bounds of the poem’s setting: reading the sequence again just now, I think of the US Capitol riots on January 6, 2021; how a violent mob of thousands was convinced by the false claims and inflammatory statements of one narcissistic, ‘reeling’ idiot to storm the Capitol as ‘patriots’ in an attempt to overturn the ‘falsified’ election results. Indeed, a gallows was erected to ‘hang Mike Pence’ after he rejected some of Trump’s claims. Albiston’s poem, then, pursues the enduring thematic questioning of truth – whose beliefs hold sway in a community and how do they exert power? The poem can link organically to any social circumstance where the debate over ‘truth’ leads to dramatic social division, violence and/or persecution.
Albiston’s poems show us that she resists the ‘habitualising’ impulse we have towards words, which Matthew Zapruder writes about in his book Why Poetry (2017):
habitualization in life is mirrored in (or perhaps even caused by) our use of language: we start forgetting the true significance of words and using them quickly, thoughtlessly, to function socially, and to stand in for certain experiences.
Zapruder quotes Viktor Shklovsky – ‘The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known’ – and follows up with the argument that poetry ‘exhibits the purest form of defamiliarization’. Albiston’s work foregrounds various ways in which words and lines can participate in the generating of a ‘poem-score’; she therefore not only honours the splendour of human language, but also heightens the fact of our ephemeral engagement with poems, which are, like music to an audience, experienced by the reader in a time and space. In other words, a poem slips across time, awaiting a reader’s specific temporal anchor. Albiston undeniably appreciated poetry’s proficiency at manifesting or intensifying the fact of language’s slippery circumstance. Her poems flaunt a deviant affinity with constraint and unity, demonstrating how they can be both architecturally sound structures and unrestrained and flexible entities that pulsate with a reader’s energy; how they can be mathematically ‘balanced’ like a music score, and yet unable to constrain the chaotic world nor interpretation.
Each poem to me is an immense event, and it can also be draining, extremely – Jordie Albiston to Kate Middleton, 2001
Albiston’s comments about her writing in interviews could be as ‘hyper-saturated’ as her poems. The above statement, for instance, might refer to the composition of a poem, whereby the poet must synthesise word, space, music, imagination and subject. This act of drawing the chaos of the world into ‘order and cohesion’ can be a process requiring significant creative and intellectual energy. Anyone familiar with Albiston’s poetry would note her attention to every detail within the space of the page – from the sounds of words as they resound along an interlinked chain of words, to the symmetry of gaps and spaces and line-breaks; from her use (or lack) of punctuation marks, to her syllabic constraints. Everything is in a deliberate order within an Albiston poem; each word signifies partly through its relation to all the other words, and is deployed for its ‘musical’ qualities as well.
Yet her statement might also refer to the act of reading a poem, whereby a reader interprets that complex synthesis of elements in space and time. A poem is not, to quote Louise Rosenblatt, ‘an object or an ideal entity’ but is ‘an occurrence, a coming-together, a compenetration, of a reader and a text’. A poem is not an artefact but a happening. Like music, it ‘exists’ predominantly through experience and not through score alone. A poem, then, is ephemeral; it cannot be held in stasis. A good poetry reader must commit to this realisation of possibilities, to the ‘playing of the poem’. Reading must necessarily slow down. We are not reading exclusively to process information, that is, for the ‘what’; we are also reading for an experience, for the ‘how’, for the joy in deciphering connections in real time. This requires energy reserves; a reader cannot be lazy – the reading of poetry ‘can be draining’. But the reader’s energy can be replenished by what their interaction with the poem can reveal.
Albiston’s dedication to an enriched experience at both stages of a poem’s ‘creation’ was discernible in virtually all of her work. Indeed, in Vertigo: a cantata (John Leonard Press, 2007), her calling upon the reader to activate the event of the poem was explicitly discernible. This book-length collection documents a relationship breakdown and is presented in the ‘form’ of a cantata – poems appear as ‘overture’ followed by alternating ‘arias’ and ‘recitatives’, a series of ‘choruses’ and a ‘finale’. Albiston was a trained musician, studying flute at Victorian College of the Arts, and Vertigo draws music and poetry into close relation within this work. Musical symbols and marks appear throughout the book, with crotchet rests on otherwise blank pages separating sections of poems. Bar lines, double-bar lines and repeat signs are included within poems, as though every poem functions simultaneously as a scored song to be sung. Asked in interview with me if she wanted readers to repeat the words enclosed within musical repeat signs, Albiston simply replied ‘Yes’. So, in the poem ‘Lamento’, for instance, we read ‘||: You threw me away too soon! :||’ twice, which conveys a strong sense of the speaker playing that line repeatedly in their mind, a cliché thrown between ex-lovers – the same line having appeared several pages earlier, uttered by the ex-lover. This ‘doubled repetition’, then, draws the ‘Lamento’ firmly into the narrative of the poetic sequence; the single poem cannot reduce nor contain the emotions within its neat structure.
These musical cues for the reader to perform the repetitions are not reserved purely for evoking the obsessive interior thoughts of the poem’s speaker. In other poems, the explicit repetitions suggest that the persona is attempting to heal heartbreak by being ‘present’ in the external world: ‘||: leaf | branch | bench | path | woman | / dog | (no man) :|| ’. Or in the recitative poem ‘Campanello’, the speaker is ringing church bells – a practice that Albiston herself once learned; this activity leads the speaker to fall into the reverie of a childhood memory:
||: Look to | Treble’s going | She’s gone :||
& I along with her | hand-stroke & back-
stroke hauling | up | down | the rope &
the sally & my black twisted eye | I drag
down the past & Release! Release! it all into
the beatific belfry | for hours & hours the
clang of my consciousness deafens the ear |
me dreading the call to Repeat! Repeat! |
the strike of my soul so hollow it sings out
for miles ||: Stand! :|| I fall into some kind
of methodical sleep | am there at the foot
of my childhood church tower its one solo
bell just sold for a record | & player | the
Maytime Fair walking home with my mum
right there at the foot of my childhood church
tower | some man up the top unaware the
mic’s on | talking in bored techno adulthood
tongues (or something a four-year-old can’t
understand) | Now I know what God sounds
like | I say | & wake up | only forty years
later | a sense of arrival | a chiming inside |
my personal wilderness at last somehow paid
for | the end perhaps of a very long fall | my
mother’s hand still wrapped around mine &
those bells ringing out & out ||: That’s all :||
We are prompted to repeat our reading of the words ‘Look to | Treble’s going | She’s gone’, ‘Stand!’ and ‘That’s all’ when we come to them, as if we are realising the speaker’s repeated reciting of instructions and affirmations to herself. But the poem’s ‘event’ may also incorporate our recognition of other instances of doubling, which further vibrates our interpretive capacity as readers. We might note that the ‘Treble’ is cast (and cast off) as a character – the speaker’s mask; her most shrill and clamorous self, perhaps. Either the repetitive movements of ringing the bells and/or the sonorous music they generate seem to provoke a trance-like state that enables the speaker to relive a moment from her childhood through memory images, which themselves double-back (‘am there at the foot / of my childhood church tower … right there at the foot of my childhood church / tower’). The bell is both a literal object and a metaphor for the speaker’s soul; the ‘bells ringing out & out’ echoes (for this reader, at least) Lady Macbeth’s ‘out, damned spot’ and the ‘wringing out’ of troubles through the joy of the bells’ sound and sensation. Indeed, in interview, the poet talked of ‘the profound satisfaction of patterning felt in both body and mind’ when ringing church bells, and ‘the seemingly endless depth of sound’ they give out.
Vertigo: a cantata is an interesting work to view in light of DuPlessis’s ideas on poetry as ‘saturated segmentivities in social-sensuous language’, as discrete, lyrical poems thread together to build a narrative. Conflict and resolution, tension and release, undulate on micro (poem) and macro (book-length sequence) levels, just as ‘music’ is deployed structurally, metaphorically, and referentially as part of the speaker’s narrative. Again, we see Albiston figuring her text through the principles of unity, balance, symmetry; the ordering of the text providing an ironic counterpoint to the speaker’s psychological distress.
In a very different way, the poems in Albiston’s seventh book, the Book of Ethel (2013), also hint at the ‘immense event’ that the poet referred to in interview. A biographical sequence of poems, the book addresses familial content – the life of the poet’s maternal great-grandmother, Ethel Overend née Trahair. Ethel was born in Cornwall in 1872, but her family emigrated to Australia, presumably when she was in her teenage years. As an adult she married one Reverend Harold Overend and they raised six children. She died in Melbourne in 1949 at the age of 77.
The poems in Ethel are small stanzas of text (at most four stanzas, but frequently just the one) punctuated by spaces, as we see in this opening poem:
so Life! We meet once more you
& I in concert concord
happy agreement to do
until done my act your stage
make lie in it this! my bit-
part play World with me aboard
a Speck! & then gigantic
With so few words, this opening to the book is riddle-like, as signifiers gain force. As readers, we are being introduced to Ethel’s persona, as if she has ‘risen’ from the dead to participate in Albiston’s reckoning of her ‘Life’ story; this ‘Life’ is an acknowledged reconstruction, a ‘concert’, which will be played on the page, the poet’s ‘stage’. This work zooms in (from Ethel as ‘Speck’ to her becoming ‘gigantic’ – the italicisation conjures for me that it is a name of a ship) to investigate the life of this ordinary woman. But Ethel is happily ‘aboard’ this biographical poem, another journey for a woman who travelled much in her life, emigrating from the UK to Australia, then travelling with her husband as he moved parishes from country Victoria to Hobart and to Melbourne. All of the poems inhabit Ethel’s first-person voice, and exclamation marks frequently appear, as in the above poem, conveying a sense that her disposition was upbeat, excitable.
the Book of Ethel also applies a numerical constraint – every stanza is seven lines of seven syllables. Perhaps Ethel’s age at her death (77), or the year of her death in ’49, led to Albiston’s attraction to ‘perfect squares’ of ‘7 x 7’ as an ordering principle. Or, as I have noted elsewhere, perhaps it was the square of Ethel’s patchwork that the poet was shown from family archives that led her to the idea of poetry ‘squares’. Whatever the reason, Albiston foregrounds how we ‘figure’ the life narratives of historical characters, sometimes arbitrarily.
Significantly, though, the predictable ‘order’ of these compact square arrangements is perforated by interlineal spaces. The poems ‘breathe’, opening onto movement and wonder. White space – within and surrounding these slender poems – exerts a pressure both internally and externally, suggesting elisions, missing details, possibilities. As deliberate spaces evoking all that we don’t or cannot know about the past, these gaps in the Book of Ethel remind me of a statement by American poet Edward Sanders in his eccentric essay on history-poesy, Investigative Poetry:
Ezra Pound said, in effect, that historians should leave well-defined gaps in the text or in the presentation equal to the circumstances concerning which they have no knowledge:
That is, their AREAS OF DARKNESS.
Yet these gaps gain new significance in the following poem:
measles diphtheria di-
arrhoea words I hear
thro the Night whooping-cough vi-
olence cholera Fate words
I know well then this one em-
i-grate new to the ear
the frightening exciting sound
em-i-grate I am told it
means ‘to go’ but will there be
kerrek & croft karn & quoit
where we ‘go’? will New Home have
field & valley? zawn? wall?
will friends be waiting for me?
em-i-grate emigrate so
In a review of the book, AJ Carruthers draws attention to the word ‘zawn’, which a glossary in the back of the book defines as a ‘chasm, cut by erosion into sea cliff’. A ‘zawn’ is a geographical phenomenon specific to Cornwall, where Ethel was born and raised. Carruthers describes the Book of Ethel as ‘poetry of zawn, of the cut’, which resists the ‘notion of voice as private property, of so singular an ownership’. This poetry of the zawn, then, allows Ethel’s subjective voice to break through Albiston’s own and vice versa, a comingling of ‘I’s. Interestingly, as we find out, Ethel was an amateur writer who published a book – Parsonage peeps: to all parsonage heroines – in the 1930s. Her interest in words, as demonstrated in the above poem, blends with Albiston’s own love of language – its sounds and sense and affects.
Another notable aspect to the above poem is the play between familiar and unfamiliar. Ethel here is contemplating the family’s impending move to Australia, and wonders if words that are familiar in her old home – words signifying distress, fun and adventure – will maintain relevance in the ‘New Home’; conversely, if unfamiliar words will lead to excitement or terror. Ethel’s emigration eventually leads, of course, to Albiston’s birth in Australia, where words such as ‘kerrek’ and ‘karn’ and ‘zawn’ are strange. Further, while ‘cholera’ and ‘diphtheria’ were common in Ethel’s time, immunisations in Albiston’s time have rendered them less terrifying. The poem, then, cuts across time; as a zawn indicates, through absence, what has eroded over time, the poem reveals traces of what has been lost to the past. Contemplating this zawn – the absence that is integral to its presence – we evoke an event akin to history-making, attempting to reconcile the trace and the loss from the perspective of the present. Albiston curiously stages, in this poem, a double-movement of both looking forward in time (through her ancestor’s eyes) and looking back (the reader’s perspective).
Given Albiston’s command of the poem as event – how words accruing on the page can gain force; how words can be carefully chosen as sonic signifiers; how juxtaposition (of words, lines, imagery, data) coaxes our active interpretation – it is unsurprising that her craft should lead her to explore historical events and persons across the span of entire books. Her documentary poetry specifically shows us how history itself can be kept in motion.
Statistics, dates, facts tend to hold very little life of their own. And the imagination is a necessary adjunct to the intellect when engaging with history, as it is only with our own breath that we can respond to the "lost" life of the past. In this sense, it is an act of the imagination that is required in order to activate the intellect into creative, that is, living understanding.– Jordie Albiston, ‘Poetry, History & the Imagination’ (1999)
Albiston’s reflection on the value of turning to historical subject matter in her poems echoes comments made by Canadian poet Dorothy Livesay, who referred to ‘documentary poetry’ as a genre that attempts to ‘create a dialectic between the objective facts and the subjective feelings of the poet’. But Albiston’s statement is sufficiently open – as is her poetry – to suggest not only the poet’s contribution to this dialectic, but also the reader’s.
In an interview with Rabbit in 2013, she noted that poetry can bring ‘Breath. A sense of life’, ‘kinetic movement’ and ‘a special kind of frisson’. She also noted, in an essay in Westerly, that poetry could ‘create a personal kind of order out of the overwhelming rush of information we are presented with’.
I am not under any illusions that poems can recreate the past – nor do I think that Albiston intended to convey this. Rather, they can offer new ways for us to more actively engage with and understand the constructed nature of history. In engaging with traces of the past – document, artefact, site – poetry can generate new approaches to a ‘living understanding’ of the past.
One of the interesting aspects of Albiston’s explicitly documentary works is how these books reflect the research she undertook in multiple ways. The Hanging of Jean Lee (1998), for instance, is split into four sections – ‘Personal Pages’, ‘Entertainment Section’, ‘Crime Supplement’ and ‘Death Notices’. A book-length sequence of poems that tracks the life and demise of ‘Jean Lee’ (born Marjorie Jean Wright), the last woman hanged in Australia, this format is informed by the tabloids that sensationalised the case, the material that documented and ‘framed’ the way Jean was represented to the public at the time. Individual poems within those sections capture a more nuanced range of ‘data collisions’ with records of the past, as multiple voices in multiple registers weigh in on the narrative – from a birth notice poem, announcing the title character’s entry into the world, to poems in her own voice as schoolgirl, teenager, adult and woman on death row; from poems cast as schoolyard chants mythologising Jean’s demise or as news headlines, to the poems as Jean’s confession or hangman’s lament – yet each has the effect of showing us how notorious or infamous historical figures become larger than life in the public imagination. The poems also foreground how we ‘re-read’ documents in light of the present, how the linguistic communication of a birth notice (‘Dark delivery in dinky-di / Dubbo’) or school report (‘Jean // is a girl of obvious promise and handled / with care she may yet make her mark in / the annals of this hopeful young nation’) evolves over time, colliding with the reader’s present, our responsiveness to irony. Albiston’s poetry underscores how archival documents do not hold knowledge in stasis – archives are reactive technologies, sensitive to time and context.
In Botany Bay Document, a collective poetic biography/history of women convicts and settlers during the first fifty years of settlement at Botany Bay and Port Jackson, Albiston’s engagement with documents (archival source material and scholarly publications, as noted in her Author’s Note) also informs the poems. They are cast ‘as bush ballad, newspaper report, missive, journal extract, inventory, lament, dialogue, dream, and so on’. There is a sense, then, that this is not just a poetic history of women’s experiences during early settlement, but a poetic history of the documents that recorded women’s histories (or, indeed, left them out). Deliberate placing of poems side by side help us readers to make connections across poems. For example, the book opens with a collectively voiced poem, ‘The Hull’, in the manner of a sea shanty, from the perspective of a group of female convicts – ‘We // are cut-purses housebreakers / strumpets and Whores we / are shoplifters Curse-makers // footpads and more […] anonymous sweepings from / the Old Country floor’. A few pages on is a found poem, ‘Inventory (or What to Bring When Setting Up a Colony)’, that draws from a list of goods imported from the ‘Old Country’:
2 Barrels of Tar 700 Grubbing-Hoes
6 Hogsheads of Vinegar 12 Ox-Bows
Augers Adzes 20 Pit-Saws Forges
Fish-Hooks Thousands of Drawers
100 Plains Measures 30 Box-Rules
60 Padlocks 5 Sets of Smiths’ Tools
1 Bible 40 Barrows 700 Bowls
700 Clasp-Knives Chaldrons of Coal
40 Camp-Kettles 700 Felling Axes
A Dozen Tin Saucepans 700 Hatches
6 Pounds of Spices 50 Hay-Forks
14 Fishing-Nets Loads of Salt-Pork
6 Harpoons 50 Puncheons of Bread
1 Loom for Canvas 200 Canvas Beds
Shoe Leather Iron Shovels 10,000
Bricks 3 Dozen Flat Iron Candlesticks
Scissors Stockings Spindles Caps
1 New Machine for the Dressing of Flax
Handkerchiefs Harnesses Hinges and
Hooks Pins Pincers 1 Prayer-Book
Ploughs Petticoats Pounds of Sewing-
Twine Canteens Combs Coils of
Whale-Line Hackles Hats Handfuls
of Nails The surplus of England’s gaols
I have elsewhere written about this poem, specifically referring to its final five words as drawing attention to the fact that these convicts were in part being transported as human chattel, exploited to undertake hard labour for the establishment of the colony. They are lumped in with the rest of the cargo.
But I return to this poem now and notice the effects of Albiston’s clever elevation of a fairly mundane list of imported items to the level of ‘art’. I am reminded again of Sanders, who said – somewhat idealistically, perhaps – that ‘lines of lyric beauty descend from the data clusters’. In shaping the inventory according to rhyme and rhythm, Albiston generates a song-like companion to ‘The Hull’. The ‘anonymous sweepings’ emerge from the gaps between items in this poem, the ‘hands’ that will be utilising these tools. I also notice that the counting of tools in the first four stanzas – of items mostly wielded by men – gives way towards the end of the poem, as the utensils more commonly associated with women’s work are listed without amounts. Perhaps this was a deliberate decision on the poet’s part, to highlight how female convicts in the colony were even less visible and more desperate than their male counterparts. Some of these ‘anonymous’ female voices are given space/voice in individual poems later in the sequence, many written in first person. (They are also counterbalanced by first person poems that are less despondent and more excited about life in the colony – albeit these are poems in the voice of women who were free settlers.)
Albiston’s documentary poems here are not intended to supplant the archival document as evidence; rather, they enliven this material, providing new access points for our engagement with the language of these documents. This ‘language’ is in some cases visual, as in the below excerpt from three-part poem ‘Three Aerial Views of Sydney Cove’:
Francis Fowkes a convict transported
for standing a greatcoat and a pair of
boots has ballooned his imagining
over the Cove and traced the place in
the shape of a dead whale’s head Bake-
house and hospital are harpoon scars
and a wood the blind-hooded eye while
the temporary tents and the only road are
rents in the spent whale’s side The
three-month-old settlement is scattered
about the yawning watery jaw and for
wretch and whore it is life itself lies
beached upon this shore While days are
mapped by the word survive the nights
are etched with salty screams and dreams
of great fish swallowing the colony live
The poem foregrounds Albiston’s eye, roaming and probing the archival map that was produced by convict Francis Fowkes in 1788. The interpretation of this map as a series of visual metaphors is, of course, the poet’s rendering – it is unlikely to have been Fowkes’ intention to depict the cove and settlement in the shape of a dead whale’s head (although a psychoanalytic reading of the map might disagree), and yet Albiston’s reading conveys what is likely to be an accurate picture of distress, limitation, and struggle beneath any hint of excitement at settling a new colony. The cove is described as being in ‘the shape of a dead whale’s head’ and other features (buildings, roads, tents) are ‘harpoon scars’ and ‘rents in the spent whale’s side’; life ‘for/wretch and whore […] lies// beached upon this shore’, suggesting those who were dragged beyond their will are suffering a less than promising fate.
Yet Albiston’s identifying of Fowkes’ basic sketch of the cove as whale-like – which you can see in the above image – is not the end-point of the poem. Rather, Albiston uses this likeness as a launching point from which to explore a more complex set of entanglements relating to how we represent and understand history, mythmaking and ‘ways of seeing’ the world. The poet’s careful choice of words and facts leave traces for us, as readers, to identify numerous other connections between disconnected threads. For example, the ‘three-month-old settlement’, and the image of ‘great fish swallowing the colony live’ gesture strongly to the biblical tale of Jonah, who refused to obey God’s wishes and preach to the Nineveh. Thrown overboard by sailors who thought he was bad luck, God took mercy on Jonah and had him swallowed by a whale so that he would not drown; Jonah spent three days and three nights in the whale’s belly until he was thrown up onto the shores of Nineveh, where he preached to the people, as instructed. In addition to this lesson on obedience, God also teaches Jonah – via another circuitous experiential tutorial – that all people are valued in the eyes of God.
Albiston suggests that Fowkes’ banishment to the colony for stealing a coat and boots – probably out of desperation and necessity – may have led to this unwitting depiction of the colony via the map’s imagery, which traces the foundations of the ‘scars’ and ‘rents’ and ‘screams’ introduced to this place. (There are undertones, of course, of suffering and trauma experienced by more than that of ‘wretch and whore’ alone, and the impact on Country and its owners is picked up more explicitly in other poems.) But the poet’s subtle interweaving of the biblical reference (and she has noted the inspiration she has gleaned from the Bible’s stories and syntax) lays bare the ideological foundation of the colony, which ‘lies’ (note the pun) on violence and inequality.
The above example suggests not only how map-making reflects the map-maker, but also that our engagement with these documents is also informed by personal context. ‘Maybe it is all we can do – as poets, as writers – ’, writes Albiston in her Westerly essay, ‘to create a personal kind of order out of the overwhelming rush of information we are presented with’. This ‘order’, as demonstrated by the above poem, is partly about recognising the context of our reading. The ‘event’ of the poem, a result of the reader’s presence, extends this recognition of context ever further.
Albiston was also good at foregrounding the beauty of archival documents themselves, as in Warlines (Hybrid Publishers, 2018), which was released to coincide with the centenary of the end of the First World War. Warlines is a collection of found poems drawing from documents – letters home from soldiers to loved ones – held in the State Library of Victoria. A note at the back of the book states that
Every attempt has been made to ensure the accuracy of the information contained in this collection. However, due to the combination of a soldier’s fluctuating circumstances – along with various gaps, misprints, illegible text and other discrepancies in the official record – some of the facts may be compromised.
This note indicates that Albiston wants this work of documentary poetry to present accurate details on each soldier – an indication, perhaps, that she is engaging in less inhabitation of voices, as in the previous works, but is instead adhering to the documents provided.
Presented in alphabetical order, each poem is a vehicle for an individual soldier; each consists of a prose poem, mostly confined to the verso page, while the recto pages are mostly white space, with small text down the bottom of the page indicating the rank of the soldier, dates of the correspondence and to whom he was writing. An acronym tells us if he was ‘Killed in Action’ (KIA), ‘Died of Wounds’ (DOW), ‘Died of Disease’ (DOD), ‘Return to Australia’ (RTA), ‘Prisoner of War’ (POW), ‘Missing in Action’ (MIA). Yet each prose poem square conceals further formal play of some kind, including the sestina, palindrome, acrostic, syllabic verse, chained verse and hymn.
The following poem, which draws on letters from soldier Frank Reginald Elder to his Melbourne family, unfolds sestina-like, where variations of the words ‘Letter’, ‘News’, ‘Sox’, ‘Well’, ‘Goodbye’ and a blacked-out word repeat the requisite seven times each, and slash marks suggest seven ‘stanzas’:
In this context, the repetitive structure of the sestina form meets the monotony of Elder’s experience of war and the elevated significance of items such as socks, letters of correspondence and news. As numerous of the poems in Warlines visibly depict the censoring of correspondence (as shown here with the blacked-out text), there is a suggestion that this concealing of form within form carries metaphors of concealment and subterfuge – indeed, without the blurb on the back of the book telling me that forms are hidden within the letter blocks, I would not have been looking out for such patterns on first reading these poems. Yet I sense that Albiston is also being led by the men’s words towards unique forms, as noted by David McCooey in a 2018 review of the book:
Albiston allows each soldier’s individuality to manifest itself. In using their words to produce works of art, she gives them a dignity that few writers (and almost no politicians) offer them. She shows their words to have real worth, both in themselves and as part of the greater project of humanity we call creativity. Most importantly, Albiston transforms these men’s words into art, while resolutely avoiding myth and mystification.
Edward Sanders wrote that ‘an Investigative Poet of any worth at all will have to become as skilled a collagist as the early Braque’. Albiston’s collage work in Warlines is not merely a skill of juxtaposition, but one that enhances, via constraint, the unique verbal expression of each soldier. Indeed, even her use of blank white space is working on the reader: the space on the right-hand side is enhanced by the presence of the block of text on the left, suggesting all that we do not know of each man’s experience – which is always more than we do. Without any further input or direction from the author, Albiston manages to create something out of nothing, or rather, draws the reader’s attention to the nature of nothing now as something long lost, creating a powerful space for contemplation. I am reminded again of Edward Sanders, his claim for documentary poetry (or ‘history-poesy’) as capable of high energy discharge. Thus, in the space of the poem, the mind of the reader prepares to receive the white space not as a blank but as a denotative field exerting pressure on the verbal content.
I have been lucky enough – thanks to the generosity of Albiston’s partner Andy Szikla – to read her last, as yet unpublished manuscript Frank (forthcoming, 2023). Frank is based on diaries forming part of ‘The Papers of Frank Hurley 1912-1962’ MS883 (Series 1 Items 2-4, and Item 6), held at the National Library of Australia. Hurley was a photographer and adventurer, well-known for accompanying Douglas Mawson and Sir Ernest Shackleton on their respective Antarctic expeditions as the official photographer. He conducted a lecture tour and exhibition of his photographs, films and talks, to much public acclaim. Frank is split into three sections, covering respectively ‘The Mawson Expedition (November 1912 – January 1913)’, ‘The Shackleton Expedition (November 1914-September 1916)’ and ‘The Picture Show Tour (December 1919-January 1920)’.
While I do not want to reveal too much about a manuscript not yet published, Frank appears to go a step further than Warlines as ‘documentary poetry’; the poet’s approach to the documentary records appears to be to distil them into text squares with a light touch. In other words, the poetic tools that are more audible in Albiston’s previous works – the rhymes and forms and syllabic structures as tools of the poet – are not so evident in this work. Reading Albiston’s Frank, I sense that the poet assumes the position of curator of Hurley’s documents.
Frank Hurley was known for his composite images. His images of war were controversial for splicing together multiple photographs. Critics claimed this practice was inaccurate, dishonest, but Hurley believed these images were more accurate to the horrors he witnessed on the front, but was unable to capture with the cumbersome equipment and dangerous circumstances all around. I noted above that Albiston was frequently led by documents to formulate structural conceits for her documentary poetry books, and in Frank we might view the idea of the composite as the ordering principle, as seen in these two excerpts below (published with permission from Jordie’s estate):
from ‘soliloquy II’
These excerpts are from the final section of the manuscript, where Albiston collides two sets of notes written by Hurley – one from the lecture tour and one from the Antarctic journals. In the above excerpts, the composite heightens the contradictions and parallels of Hurley’s worldly perceptions – his impressions that man is ‘adaptable’ and ‘help-less’ and ‘discontented’; that a sense of freedom and adventure is hampered (or indeed, crushed) by the duty and performance of the lecture tour. Indeed, how many of us have experienced similar circumstances undertaking the public duties of a writer? Like the infamous ship Endurance trapped in Antarctic ice, these prose poems collide Hurley’s private and public personae; his passion meets obligation; representation abuts reality. We witness the affects of a poet’s distillation of the documentary record; this amplification of Hurley’s diaries is beautiful to read.
I have not addressed all of Albiston’s works in this essay, and a much lengthier essay might look at the chained verse in her collection The Fall (White Crane Press, 2003), the sonnet experiments of the sonnet according to m (John Leonard Press, 2009) or the more recent Fifteeners (Puncher & Wattmann, 2021), the delightful verse work Jack & Mollie (& Her) (UQP, 2016), which follows the perspectives of two of Albiston’s beloved dogs, and element: the atomic weight & radius of love (Puncher & Wattmann, 2019), a collection of poems that draw on atomic theory. Each of these works, too, demonstrates Albiston’s devotion to making patterns with language, achieving ‘a shape’ that could continue to spark affect and radiate meaning. I encourage all readers of this essay to seek out an Albiston poem, to consider its musical, metrical and metaphorical devices; how it operates and beckons you towards creative activity – interpretation, interrogation, wonderment.
I conclude this essay, though, by circling back to her first collection, Nervous Arcs, and specifically to the poem ‘Emily Dickinson: A Modern Fascicle’. These final stanzas record her visit to Dickinson’s grave in Amherst:
civil war going unnoticed I see
the white heat of your solitary day
almost two thousand poems folded
away in hymnal subversion your
private variorum secret religion
of capitals dashes meter and
rhyme I sit by your grave now
leaning to hear the form of your
lexicon bolder than death the
precise punctuation of your breath
In the ‘Poet of the Month’ spotlight on Albiston in Australian Book Review in 2016, she mentions that Emily Dickinson had been one of the most influential poets on her own craft, specifically ‘for her economy’. She also stated elsewhere that Dickinson was her favourite poet, and remarked on how her work ‘leap[t] spectacularly beyond its epoch [to] land like a bomb in our modern minds’. I might use similar words to speak of my own feelings about Albiston’s work; though, while we cannot yet determine if her poems will maintain currency for readers in the distant future, I have attested above that my repeated return to her work continues to yield new energies, configurations, consequences. Moreover, her significant body of documentary poetry propels history (and history-making) into the creative present, rejecting the notion that it is ‘back there’ somewhere, tucked away, complete.
I am very sad that Jordie’s person is no longer with us, penning new works for us to navigate. But this poem gives me small comfort as I think about Jordie’s own ‘private variorum’ of spaces, meter and rhyme; I will always be able to lean towards her poems to hear the resolute breath of her own bold lexicon.
At a recent poetry symposium, I read aloud a new poem draft, the results of some attempts to revive a failed biographical poetry project, which I had frustratedly abandoned several years ago. I had been filled with a strange new energy for this project in the preceding months, a period of time during which I had been also developing this essay. A poet-colleague commented that, while my draft poem was very different to her style, he could see Jordie in the poem. The symposium was a busy event, and as we were pushed on into the next panel session, we did not get the chance to unravel this happy compliment, to discuss further the ways in which Jordie was ‘present’ (visible? audible?) in that poem. Yet I have continued to think on his comment since, and on the characteristics I have inherited from Jordie – not through blood, nor even through friendship, but through a shared belief in the musical and transformative properties of words and space; a shared desire to connect with readers of many kinds.
Jordie Albiston, Nervous Arcs. Spinifex Press: 1995.
—. Botany Bay Document. Black Pepper: 1996.
—. The Hanging of Jean Lee. Black Pepper: 1998.
—. ‘Poetry, History and the Imagination’, Westerly, 44.4: Summer 1999, 53–60.
—. The Fall. White Crane Press: 2003.
—. Vertigo: A Cantata. John Leonard Press: 2007.
—. the sonnet according to m. John Leonard Press: 2009.
—. The Book of Ethel. Puncher & Wattmann: 2013.
—. Jack & Mollie (& Her). UQP: 2016.
—. Euclid’s Dog: 100 Algorithmic Poems. Gloria-SMH Press: 2017.
—. Warlines. Hybrid Publishers: 2018.
—. element: the atomic weight & radius of love. Puncher & Wattmann: 2019.
—. Fifteeners. Puncher & Wattmann: 2021.
—. Frank, unpublished manuscript (n.d.).
AJ Carruthers, ‘A Review of Jordie Albiston’s The Book of Ethel and Pam Brown’s Home by Dark‘, Rabbit: A Journal for Nonfiction Poetry, 10: 2013, 122-129.
Rachel Blau DuPlessis, ‘Pleasures, Polemics, Practices, Stakes’ in Inciting Poetics: Thinking and Writing Poetry, edited by Jeanne Heuving and Tyrone Williams. University of New Mexico Press: 2019, 13–37.
Joan Fleming, ‘through worlds & worlds & worlds: Joan Fleming interviews Jordie Albiston’, Cordite: 1 November 2017.
‘Jordie Albiston is Poet of the Month’, Australian Book Review 381: May 2016.
Dorothy Livesay, ‘The Documentary Poem: A Canadian Genre,’ in Contexts of Canadian Criticism, edited by Eli Mandel. University of Chicago Press: 1971, 267–81.
David McCooey, ‘David McCooey reviews three poets at the height of their powers’, Australian Book Review 406: November 2018.
Kate Middleton, ‘Interview with Jordie Albiston’, Famous Reporter, 24. Walleah Press: 2001.
Louise M. Rosenblatt, ‘The Poem as Event’, College English, 26.2: 1964, 123–128.
Edward Sanders, Investigative Poetry. City Lights: 1976.
Jessica Wilkinson, ‘An Interview with Jordie Albiston’, Rabbit: A Journal for Nonfiction Poetry, 9: 2013, 120–36.
Jessica Wilkinson, ‘Beyond Facts and Accuracies: Long Form Poetry as Biographical Method’, Axon: Creative Explorations, 4.2: December 2014.
—. ‘Experiments in Feminist Poetic Biography’, Biography, 39.1: Winter 2016, 1-22.
Matthew Zapruder, Why Poetry?. HarperCollins Publishers: 2017.