The poetic alchemy of language and history Reply

By Linda Beattie

Jordie Albiston

Jordie Albiston

Jordie Albiston has written poetry since she was a child. In 1995 she was the recipient of the Dame Mary Gilmore award for her first collection of poems Nervous Arcs. Since then she has published several acclaimed collections, including the sonnet according to ‘m’, which won the 2010 NSW Premier’s Prize. On Sunday the Melbourne-based writer and academic was in conversation with Newcastle poet and critic, David Musgrave, who launched her latest work, The Book of Ethel, at the Brett Whiteley Studio, in Surry Hills.

“The idea for The Book Of Ethel struck me after my mother handed me a packet of old papers and said, ‘here you’d better look after these’,” Jordie said. The packet contained her maternal great-grandmother’s lifetime collection of letters, short stories and articles.  The papers revealed the history of Ethel’s journey from Cornwall to Australia in 1887 aged 15, and her great love for and marriage to the Reverend Harold Overend. Together they raised six children and built a church just outside Mildura in Victoria. Ethel’s history from her birth in Cornwall in 1872, to her death in Melbourne in 1949 is documented within the 61 stanzas.

“There is something intractable about history, it is already there; everything is taken from what Ethel has written and this left me free to pursue the formal and structural considerations when writing,” she said. “But the content must be engaged with and I was seduced by Ethel’s wit and sense of irreverence, considering she was married to a minister. In setting Ethel’s history in poetic narrative I found that I could bend language and history to the way I like. This is why I use gaps instead of punctuation; gaps allow each phrase to stand out in its own time to show the reader what’s important.”

However, she made it clear that the poems do not speak on behalf of Ethel, nor are they to be considered an accurate history. “I try to breathe my life into Ethel’s,” she said.

Jordie was born and raised in Melbourne. She studied flute at the Victorian College of the Arts before completing a PhD in literature.  Studying music aroused her interest in mathematics or, as she puts it, “the interface between language and mathematics. Natural laws, algorithms and mathematical sequences are already there in nature, I don’t know why poets confine themselves to random, artificial forms that have no true functionality.”

While many poets struggle with the discipline of structure, Jordie welcomes the constraints it imposes, and has invented her own form – a seven-line stanza of 49 syllables.

“I’m a big believer in rules and strictures; for every restriction a window of opportunity appears. The more difficult you make it to write … you’ll find that if the poem can still squeak through breathing, it will have a different kind of energy than one that hasn’t been subjected to any strictures.”

During the conversation with David she was diffident about reading her work aloud to the crowd in the studio. “The gaps create a different kind of energy which makes a vocal reading difficult, the poems are there to be enjoyed as a personal experience,” she said.

Several members of the audience failed to agree, enthusiastically applauding and calling for more. In response, she chose a poem based on a letter Ethel’s husband had written her towards the end of their life together, expressing their strong devotion to each other as well as their playful formality, “In all their letters and everyday speech, she always called him Mister and he called her Mother,” she said.

Mister writes   dear old Mother

just a few lines to greet you

Sweetheart-heart & Wife for over

45 years   this your

birthday morning    & praying a day

free! from the Pains you

have bravely endured   new news


Each stanza gives a complete snapshot of an event or emotion in itself. The poems are free yet compressed and Ethel’s voice is free to speak in these micro-portraits of her life and experiences, her happiness, loss, excitement and sadness living on.

Jordie spent four weeks researching at the Jamieson Library in Newmill, Cornwall, funded by the Australia Council. “Archival materials are a necessary element to any documentary work, but nothing compares to the witness of place, it is too easy to make assumptions about the way things were,” she said. She cites an example from an earlier draft she wrote before visiting Cornwall, where Ethel’s childhood was in a Romantic setting, rambling through woods with pristine streams and rivers.

“I had imagined that back then everything was free of pollution, but of course Cornwall was a copper and tin mining town and its waterways were polluted with arsenic. The reality is that everything is less polluted now.”

Later the audience wanted to know more about Jordie’s interest in mathematics; she said she was keen to explore Leonardo Fibonacci’s golden ratio which has not yet found its way into poetry but has been used in other forms of art. She ended the session on a less academic note: “Hey, I don’t want you all to think that I’m some kind of mathematical genius. In Grade Four I failed maths so badly that I refused to do it. In the end my parents reached a compromise: in lieu of attending maths lessons, I’d see the school psychiatrist instead.”


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