Costi, Angela. An Embroidery of Old Maps and New. North Geelong: Spinifex Press, 2021. RRP: $24.95, 96pp, ISBN: 9781925950243.
‘…to convince myself of my own validity / is the greatest battle’ (40).
In this incredibly nuanced work, Angela Costi explores personal validity in a cultural context. The way in which she does this is so complex as to almost be impossible to discuss. Easy catchphrases and simple explanations slip out of grasp when I go to describe this book. So first I will pick the lowest hanging fruit, what I view as a meta-theme of this work, language.
In the second poem of the collection, ‘Arrival’, refugees are armed with words that ‘feel hot on your tongue […] words / as soldiers standing at check points / “allegation” / “evidence”’ (2). This poem elucidates both the charge and power of certain words in particular contexts. Yet, in this same poem, the limits of words are also acknowledged, as ‘you cannot open the hearts of words / written as law’ pointing out how law, simply a form of frozen word, can be completely uncompassionate.
In the poem ‘Kostaki’s Signature’, a relative tells the poem narrator of how ‘he practiced words […] / to make his name valued on paper’ for ‘a second life / on visa, passport, license, home loan’ (22). Here the act of writing is explicitly tied to one’s value and legitimacy. This is not just a psychological sense of value, but a practical necessity for building a life in a new country. Value means survival in this context.
Throughout the whole collection there is a sense of being ill at ease, highlighted by such instances as the story in ‘Knock Knock’, where the narrator’s ‘grandmother spoke / about her time with war’ telling ‘how the sound of welcome / becomes the sound of fear’ as she is too afraid (with good reason) to open the door at a knock (8).
Similarly, in ‘Land Mines’ there is also a sense of imminent disaster. The poem discusses the subject’s medical trauma, but also switches to bring faces to those in war torn countries who ‘cook with their elbow, write with their teeth’ as a result of incidents with land mines (4). This physicality with which Costi expresses the everyday lives of these ‘growing people / without arms, legs’ makes their plight uber-real. While everyone knows these things are happening in the world, Costi makes the political personal (4).
In short, she makes you care more and reverses the inoculation of indifference delivered by living in a privileged Western society. In the reality of the older generation featured in the poems, war was always a constant threat and so they delivered an ‘onslaught of prayers / before wars, between wars, and after’ (6). This trauma skips down the family tree, with the narrator admitting ‘I can see how I carry Yiayia’s war / in the ample dunes of my belly’ (6).
There is an interesting theme of sacrifice of the elders for the benefit of the future generations which is expressed through food or lack thereof. The narrator says ‘my inheritance grew by mouthfuls / I feast on their hunger to make them proud’, speaking of her older family members, who had known such things as ‘the threat of scurvy and anaemia’ (6).
This is a quiet book with loud themes, which makes it all the more powerful. There are meditations on our right to be here in ‘Kostaki’s Harvest Woes’, where the introduced vegetables don’t want to grow in this soil that ‘wants to teach you about the first people and their culture’ (10). It is as if again, we are invalid, unable to thrive and must have someone ‘give you permission to stay’, which to say this poem is doing double work, not only taking on the topic of the Indigenous custody of the land, but also simultaneously describing the experience of the refugee but reversing it to apply to a colonising force (10). This validity issue is one that just keeps coming up in this book, as if a refugee might feel like a kind of ghost who could fade away if they don’t keep reminding themselves of their basic right to exist.
Costi goes even further to highlight the inequalities in the treatment of women of colour in the poem ‘Kinaesthetic Grace’, where she mentions ‘Hispanic women wearing paper masks as they spray / jeans and their lungs into shreds’ on a factory production line (29). Costi contends ‘This is the woman / silenced by statistics […] and when we see her / hold out our hands / as children willing to learn’ (30).
Here Costi poses a clear problem, and then suggests a possible solution, or part of one at least, our ability to empathetically listen and learn. Yet, despite this problem and solution dynamic, I never feel shamed or preached to as Costi’s reader. It’s more like an education where Costi is taking the reader by the hand and gently whispering the facts into her ear.
Her words tug on your heart but without any sense of sentimentality. Perhaps the quiet, matter-of-fact mode of storytelling is exactly why, in many instances, the power of Costi’s words caused tears to well in my eyes. This is one of Costi’s greatest strengths, she hammers home a point without you seeing hammer or nail. She is never heavy-handed, but rather delivers words with a lightness of touch, making the reader more receptive to her message.
In a poem titled ‘The Good Citizens of Melbourne’, the narrator’s mother is a young girl with her sister and cousin on a tram, speaking in Cypriot-Greek, when the tram driver demands that they ‘speak English’ otherwise they can ‘get off at the next stop’ (20). The effect of such a comment is articulated with great skill by Costi:
The language hovers above their heads
like a thought cloud of orexee,
sending them down into a well
where there are no windows to see
the plum trees, the magpies, the milkbars.
Each day they caught that tram
they renewed their vow
of silence. (20)
This description where the girls can no longer see all the good things, are plunged into a well of invalidity, of no permission given, speaks volumes with very subtle language used. The fact that they are silenced, echoes the coloured ‘woman / silenced by statistics’ in ‘Kinaesthetic Grace’ (29). Stripped of the right to talk, these women are shadows of their true selves.
Costi’s work is indeed a tapestry that weaves together complex issues while finding ways to highlight a shared humanity. If you want to be awed by poetic artistry, you should read this book. Costi is a master of her craft and uses it to deftly and quietly address societal issues that need attention.
Gemma White is a poet living in Melbourne, Australia. Her first collection of poetry, Furniture is Disappearing, was published in 2014 by Interactive Publications. She shares her knowledge of poetry at www.gemmawhite.com.au, where she offers a free 5-day email poetry course. Gemma is currently working on a follow-up manuscript.