Jordie Albiston, ‘the Book of Ethel’ in Lip Verse

lip verse: the book of ethel

Bronwyn Lovell, 18 September 2013


Jordie Albiston’s seventh poetry collection—the Book of Ethel—is a woman’s life journey delicately and diligently distilled into a slim volume of verse. Ethel is Albiston’s great grandmother, who immigrated to Australia from Cornwall with her family in the late 1800s at the age of fifteen.

measles     diphtheria     di-
    words I hear
thro the Night     whooping-cough     vi-
olence     cholera     Fate
I know well     then this one     em-
     new to the ear
the frightening     exciting     sound

This is one of Albiston’s documentary poetry collections, following her previous Botany Bay Document (1996) and The Hanging of Jean Lee (1998), which both examined historical experiences of women, too. In 2011, Albiston travelled to Cornwall to study archival material and to discover for herself the place and culture Ethel grew up in.

pouting or pollack     coley
or cod     whatever the catch
to-day     they trudge back slowly
to hearth & to Home     while we
lay dinner-plates     (women wait
for men with nets     women watch
for mackerel watch for men)

Ethel’s experiences are at once ordinary and extraordinary, adventurous and monotonous, unique and universal—yet always profoundly female. The narrative pulled me along and I sped through the book in one sitting, although I am sure it would be even more delightful to savour slowly, since the musicality of the words is as fascinating to the ear as the scenes the poetry depicts so vividly for the imagination.

two days out from Plymouth     third-
class passenger Edward Sage
down with Delirium     slurs
Good-bye     & dies     the seas rise

Each poem in the book is a vignette—a telling aspect of Ethel’s experience …

Bronwyn Lovell

Read this review in Lip Verse

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