Volk, Valerie. Marking Time: A Chronicle of Cancer. Immortalise, 2020. RRP: $25.00, 102pp, ISBN: 9780648895701.
Ottaway, Esther. Intimate, low-voiced, delicate things. Waratah: Puncher & Wattman, 2021. RRP: $25.00, 82pp, ISBN: 9781922571014.
Andrada, Eunice. TAKE CARE. Penrith: Giramondo Publishing, 2021. RRP: $24.00, 72pp, ISBN: 9781925818796.
Miriam Wei Wei Lo
Cancer. Divorce. Rape culture. What poetry could there be in such difficult things? Many fine poems, some extraordinary, if the recently published collections of Valerie Volk, Esther Ottaway and Eunice Andrada are anything to go by.
Marking Time is Adelaide-based Volk’s tenth book and sixth poetry collection. This straightforward book delivers what its title promises. It is poetry as a way of marking time—a chronicle of Volk’s journey with her husband through his experience of lymphoma. This is unabashedly autobiographical poetry that speaks from the point of view of the spouse-carer. The poems are terse and matter-of-fact. This terseness is reflected in the form of the poems, which are almost entirely in short-line free verse, with one brief excursion into the sonnet form (‘Chemo Sonnet’). The imagery of this poetry hits with pared-back force. We move from:
Clear blue sky.
Just one small cloud
on the horizon
(in ‘Beforehand’, 5)
Tsunami sweeping in.
(in ‘In the Cancer Clinic’, 7)
Across the collection, there is absence like a knife thrust, disease like a striking snake, drugs like a poison, uncertainty like drifting at sea, and a lot of battle imagery. There are times when the poetry falls into telling instead of showing and times when the imagery feels a little clichéd. However, the overall narrative force of the book is sufficient to carry the reader forward. Volk takes us with her into the language and experience of chemotherapy and hospital treatment:
Festooned in PICC lines, drips,
hooked to machines that whirr and buzz,
bags of blood and saline
with their incessant drip,
while nurses, gloved and masked,
keep constant watch. (‘Cytotoxic’ 67)
If part of the point of poetry is for the writer to process experiences and for the reader to develop empathy, Marking Time makes this point with humour, whimsy and visual interest (each poem is paired with a photograph). This is a worthwhile book for anyone facing the challenges of aging (including sickness) or for anyone curious about the emotional journey of cancer treatment.
In spite of, or perhaps in defiance of its title, reading Intimate, Low-Voiced, Delicate Things is like dancing through a kaleidoscopic explosion. It is intimate, yes, in the way Ottaway writes about personal experience:
Our bed is a refugee raft on a black heart of water.
The surge of your body shuts out the mute moon
and its questions, your shadow is sedative.
I take you in, on an ocean deep as need. (‘Ocean nocturne’ 48)
It is also laugh-out-loud funny:
I take within mine purview mine Demense,
Mine Fielde, mine Lamb and Bulloc, mine unpaid Mortgage,
Mine Offspringe, fair as swete Sumer’s cuccu, tho she playeth
loudely the J-poppe, and speketh most excessively
of Minecrafte. (‘On This, My Forty-Fifth Yeare’ 86)
Volk takes on old age and cancer. Ottaway tackles the pain of divorce, a pain sharpened by a commitment to the ideal of Christian marriage. Volk acknowledges faith briefly and quietly. Ottaway wrestles with faith out loud:
God said love her as yourself, and those
reminders of our hopeful early marriage
seem to smash me whole some nights, Christi—
those talks on loving the cherished vessel
upending the china cabinet of my heart. (‘Letters at Forty’ 50)
The terrain that Ottaway covers includes an ongoing engagement with embodied female experience through the terms set by childbirth and the maternal bond. Readers of her well-loved first collection Blood Universe will be familiar with this. Ottaway has a gift for naming confronting experiences and emotions: like how we can hurt our children—‘First Blood’ (26) is literally about dropping the baby—even if we do not mean to. Her unflinching examination of difficult experience means she is able to arrive at the kind of insight into the complexity of human experience that is the gift of good poetry; ‘Triptych’ documents how daughters push their mothers away: ‘And I see she has to love and hate me, our bodies / driven to fight suffocation’ (37).
Apart from her extraordinary mobility with imagery, Ottaway’s work is kaleidoscopic in the way she plays with form and genre: there are long lines, short lines and broken lines; there are stanzas that expand like balloons and stanzas that are clipped into neat couplets; there are haiku, sonnets, prose poems and list poems; there are love poems, elegies and one nocturne; there are even versions (parodies?) of the Serenity Prayer, Donne and Rilke. This is a book that will reward any reader who loves poetry for its own sake or who is interested in embodied maternal experience.
Andrada’s approach to form in Take Care, her second collection, is next-level in intention and discipline. There is an attentiveness to stanza length and to the possibilities of working with space on the page that shows itself in the extraordinary shape poem at the start of her ‘Comfort Sequence’. Andrada carves the shape of a statue, in white space, out of text from a news article that details the removal of a statue dedicated to World War Two Filipino ‘comfort women’. This is especially poignant in the context of recent BLM-generated debate over statue removal in the West and asks the question, from a different angle, about who gets public memorials. Who matters? Whose stories get heard? Whose stories are erased? Who fights back?
This is the poetry of wild lament: of the rage and grief that comes from the profound violation of sexual assault. If Ottoway is unflinching in her gaze upon the difficulties of motherhood and divorce, Andrada is unflinching in her gaze upon rape culture. She moves from the personal: ‘The counsellor calls / for our regular phone sessions, asks me to choose / what I want to talk about’ (in ‘Sexual Assault Report Questionnaire: Describe your hair’ 4) to the public, dedicating Section ii of the book to Jennifer Laude, Fabel Pineda, Liliosa Hilao and Mhelody Bruno as well as ‘all those whose suffering was not named and remembered’ (21). Andrada does not tell the specific stories of these women, all of whom were brutally raped and murdered; instead, she addresses the broader socio-economic factors that lead to rape culture, including the primary intent of European colonisation, the general lack of regard for those who work in ‘caring’ professions, the legal immunity against rape for American military personnel in the Philippines and the attitude of Rodrigo Duterte, the former President. If Andrada gets a little extreme in her poetic rage:
A rapist teaches me how to drive.
A rapist decides what I do with my body
after rape. A rapist on trial doesn’t believe
he’s a rapist. (29)
consider what she is reacting against:
I was angry.
that she was raped.
But She was so beautiful.
I should have been
the first. (30)
After the catharsis of Andrada’s ‘Vengeance Sequence’ (which includes anti-rape devices with KILL buttons), what is astonishing is the tenderness and tentative hope of the final section of Take Care, where the act of baptism signifies the possibility of new life:
When the body displaces
water, it is entombed by viridian, then pulled back, ahistorical,
engulfed by the singing crowd. I ask for my girlhood
to be entombed in a hymn and not a trial. For a colour
to displace memory. (‘At the Jordan River, by choice’ 60)
This is not, however, baptism as a form of amnesia. The hope of these poems comes from a growing certainty that, one day, there will be justice. This is a book for those who know how to honour suffering, or those who need to know how.
One of the gifts of poetry is its capacity to teach us how to suffer. For the poet, the act of writing itself is a way of wrestling with suffering: of naming it in all its concrete detail, of sounding out all the emotion it evokes, of testing out the different frameworks that give it meaning. For the reader, the act of reading is a way to enter, vicariously, into different forms of suffering. In each of these collections, Volk, Ottaway, and Andrada lead us, with poetic power, into different dimensions of pain. It is this very engagement with pain that grants credibility to the various postures of acceptance, resistance and hope that emerge from each collection.
Miriam Wei Wei Lo writes poetry to explore what is true, beautiful, and good. This can involve probing the gap between what is and what should be. She teaches creative writing at Sheridan Institute. Find her on Instagram @miriamweiweilo.