Jordie Albiston, ‘the Book of Ethel’ in Southerly

Jordie Albiston, the Book of Ethel

from the review by Mark O'Flynn in Southerly, Dec 2013

…If Hammial is perhaps anarchic, then Jordie Albiston is methodical and tightly controlled. With each book Albiston extends her craft into new areas of formal and narrative interest to her. She conceives of her books as a whole rather than as a sum of parts. The Book of Ethel, about the life of her great Grandmother, would appear to have more in common with the historical research that was evident in Botany Bay Document (1996), its use of archival material particularly, as opposed to the more distinctly individual poems found in The Fall (2003). It is also a more personal work than the broader social narrative of The Hanging of Jean Lee (1998).

Ostensibly it tells the story of the young Ethel’s emigration from Cornwall to Australia, her travels, her married life, procreation, even her fanatical barracking at the footy. As with all Albiston’s poetry music is crucial and much attention is paid to the symmetrical structures and physical design of the work. In this instance the uni formity of the stanza length (seven lines, each line with seven syllables) approaches what she describes as square stanzas. Visually this lends an ordered, patchwork quality to the layout on the page. All the poems make use of this form in a way that demonstrates a rigorous exploration of a self-imposed limitation that strives to seek out its own flexibility, the freedom of shackles. There is a strange mathematical purity in this. 

The tone is clipped and abbreviated, a private language, such as might be found in a personal journal: “(I sit   bite tongue   swallow pride)”.

Ethel later refers to her husband as “Mister”. This is partly a concern with rendering dialect (we are given a glossary of Cornish words), but perhaps more importantly with rhythm. This use of archaic words,
as well as snippets of old Cornish nursery rhyme, not only evoke a sense of homesickness but also lend a sense of psychological verisimilitude to Ethel’s voice. Ethel is an astute piece of ventriloquism.

The use of archival material recalls the found poems which gave Botany Bay Document its journalistic, documentary feel. To quote one poem in full:

SS Iberia    one
year older than me!    Iron
hull    3 sail-masts    2 fun-
nels   single screw   & a speed
of 14 knots linger not
good ship out-bound for Melbourne
Full steam   ahoy!   to New Home.

This allows a mood of vernacular reportage. Often the poems are simple observations of Ethel’s daily life; shipboard detail, travel itineraries, recipes, interspersed with aphorisms of home-spun wisdom. Little verbal portraits that on their own sometimes seem trite yet accumulate to form a larger picture – a life, in effect.

you know how refreshed we were
when we woke   with the Light!   up

Albiston eschews conventional punctuation, other than her ubiquitous use of the exclamation mark, even mid!-sentence, the melodrama of which suits both the historical frame and the diarised tone of Ethel’s voice. This voice often takes the form of an interior monologue from the child Ethel, or the young woman’s, point of view, essentially a sensibility examining a domestic view of the world. The idea of home is particularly significant, as is life on the land with its small dramas of livestock. The microcosm of the universe contained within the minutiae: “a Speck!   & then   gigantic”.

The other obvious physical feature is the lacunae, the gaps between the words which represent a kind of all-purpose punctuation. Again this is important in a musical sense for the rhythm, but also as a device to suggest the fragmented thought processes of memory. At the heart of the rhythm is the musical patterning of the rhyming structure, with the rhyming word often appearing mid-line; unusual and curiously satisfying.

The Book of Ethel is a much more personal book than Albiston’s previous work, the subject closer to home and therefore something of a labour of love in its portrait of her great grandmother. It is more intimate than the broader canvases of her other books, yet just as absorbing. Within her self-imposed constraints Albiston has found a sense of lightness and freedom that lends authenticity to Ethel’s voice, allowing her to speak for herself.

Wilkinson, J, interview with Jordie Albiston, Rabbit no. 9, Melbourne, 2013.

Mark O'Flynn, Southerly, Dec 2013

Southerley, 73.2, Lyre/Liar

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