from the editor's desk

Review of ‘Nothing to Declare’ by Mags Webster

Webster, Mags. Nothing to Declare. Waratah: Puncher & Wattmann, 2020. RRP: $25.00, 94pp, ISBN: 9781925780987.

Amy Lin

Mags Webster’s collections—her latest Nothing to Declare and her debut Weather of Tongues (winner of the 2011 Anne Elder Award)—are empowering additions to Australian poetry, her speakers’ emotions wrought fiercely and intelligently in language. The imagery is weighted and erotically charged, creating parallels between words and flesh, language and sensuality. The result is a visceral poetics that plays with a sex/death dialectic, crossing and re-crossing boundaries between desire and fulfilment, and rendering within the verse some kind of sweet violence. Webster’s words have a cutting edge reminiscent of Sylvia Plath and a lushness that echoes Elizabeth Bishop, and contribute a deft poise that positions her firmly in contemporary Australian writing.

In Nothing to Declare, the relationship between language and the body is revealed through images of punctuation and grammar; parentheses, umlauts and apostrophes transcend the symbolic confines of the page to become embodied in breath, in mouths, and in ‘muscle and gut’ (22). It’s almost as if Webster makes sensual the driest aspects of language, sexualising grammar in a way only poets can, and imbues the world and the body with a quality of slowed, deliberate control. The body continues to be a site of language in ‘Scan’, with the seductive terminology of medicine reducing body parts to singular letters, a ‘v’, a pair of ‘c’s’, an ‘o’ (47). In this way, the speaker’s breasts, thighs and ears become sounds, or signifiers that barely signify. Medical discourses therefore exert power and control through words, just as, in ‘Recovered memory’, the ‘Earth was tamed / by naming’ (66). Although Webster acknowledges the potential for language to repress, tame and pacify, her own verse—while ordered in form—vibrates with a defiance to reclaim words of womanhood, illness and the body:

my lump                     my cunt                 my tit’ (48).

Nothing to Declare retains the heart-rending, emotive style of Weather of Tongues, but builds in a subtlety and maturity that wasn’t always there in the first collection. There are points in Weather of Tongues where imagery of suffocating or drowning risk an adolescent tone, though there is something refreshing about a voice comfortable with expressions of pain. If Weather of Tongues often evokes an atmosphere of excess and suffocation—of reaching a limit and holding there—Nothing to Declare goes beyond this threshold to breathe in nectar, light and milk, and look around from a new point of composure. From this standpoint, aches and exasperations are articulated with a fineness that crescendos, sustains, and, with the final lines, either explodes or dissipates. An example of dissipation is in ‘Only Butterflies’, where dramatic imagery of ink bleeding from broken book spines, or lines such as ‘Words are my abyss’, are balanced with stripped phrases that plainly declare hurt and disappointment (76-8). In this standout poem that responds to Mahmoud Darwish’s ‘To a Young Poet’, Webster negotiates the violence of language compared with the threat of silence, and responds to ‘echoes of ache and lack’ by building to a moment where ‘lilies start / to speak in syllables / of wings’ (77-8). When the final lines rise with ‘rapture upon rapture’, the final abstraction ‘perfect in completeness’ forms an anticlimax—almost tautological—where a less predictable image might have simulated the elation (78). On the other hand, defusing the ecstasy shows that intensity exists in the act of striving, and the last phrase recuperates the quietness of butterflies that is, according to Darwish, required to make a poem whole.

On the point of abstractions, Nothing to Declare uses abstract language to balance language of the concrete world, whereas the poems in Weather of Tongues are localised in the body, more physically felt. While imagery of skin predominates in Weather of Tongues, it often figures in sophisticated metaphors of time, fantasy, and the malleability of the human spirit: ‘the years grew a caul around us’ (27); ‘My body cracks its chrysalis of dreams’ (53); ‘We do not / wear them long, these skins, they change / with every day: each morning, some new bruise or scar’ (54). Later, Webster’s speaker says skin is for ‘all the / lives it has / lived written / into it’, and folds a skin of music around and over herself, her scars (68; 69). In this way flesh forms a canvas for language and textuality, inscribed with the fluid subjectivities that narrate our lives. Webster complicates the metaphor further, describing music as a membrane that grows around the body like a ‘bridge of sighs’, a beautiful structure one sees before imprisonment; or, after the Thomas Hood poem, a structure from which one commits suicide (69). And so art becomes a paradox that is protective and monumental, on the one hand, and a foreboding swan song, on the other.

Nothing to Declare has more poems with literary tributes and masques, with the first section—‘I know you’d rather I stayed hidden’—particularly replete with allusions to Sylvia Plath, Liz Lochhead, Emily Dickinson, Persephone, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Carol Ann Duffy. The prosaic lines of ‘Jessie from the Golden Shovel’, after Gwendolyn Brooks, adapt the golden shovel form by ending lines with slight appropriations of ‘We real cool’. ‘Real’ becomes ‘surreal’, ‘gin’ becomes ‘begin’, ‘sin’ becomes ‘assassin’, ‘left’ becomes ‘cleft’, ‘we becomes ‘awe’; and the appropriation of surreal intoxication is pertinent when we learn that the speaker isn’t sure of their lover’s aliveness (14-5). Though the prosaic lines at first seem to miss the force and economy of Webster’s verse structures, the golden shovel form skilfully layers Brooks’s famous lyric poem with Webster’s scene of an affair loaded with an awareness of imminent mortality. While Brooks’s original poem draws attention to the brevity of black lives, emphasised by the unstressed ‘we’ at each line’s end, Webster’s response dramatises this diminished consciousness in a discursive, cinematic fantasy, with its final volta revealing that the speaker’s lover is already dead.

Another dramatic piece, ‘Mrs Batman M.D, Msc, Psych.D’, is an original and humorous monologue by Batman’s psychologist wife, but there was a spareness and sense of hurried conversation, culminating in a cricket metaphor that seemed to come out of left field. The strongest masques were ‘Metabolising Heathcliff’ and ‘Inside the ghost mind’, with the former highlighting the sexual hunger of Bronte’s characters, employing imagery of food in a way that associates romance with practices of gorging and rejection. The latter lyric, on Emily Dickinson at work at night, is expertly crafted; the brief, meditative images and occasional hyphens thread Webster’s voice with classic Dickinsonian techniques. Just as Dickinson felt a funeral in her brain, Webster’s speaker feels her stitched words, and the ironic conclusion in Emily’s voice—‘I’m Nobody…Who are You?’ (11)—sums up the collection’s ability to minimise identity in favour of a somatic interaction with the world and language. The understatement resonates with Webster’s title, Nothing to Declare, and through both collections, it is in not purporting to declare—not insisting on oneself—that her speakers in fact hold significant enunciating power.

Amy Lin is a Perth-based writer, who has published poems, essays, reviews and interviews with WesterlyCorditeAustralian Book ReviewLos Angeles Review of Books, and other places. She is working towards a book based on her PhD research, which focused on the work of mid-century Australian poets—Francis Webb, Bruce Beaver, and Michael Dransfield. Amy has edited for WesterlyEnchanting VersesLimina and Axon, and has performed her poetry at Perth Writers Festival, Voicebox, and Sturmfrei Poetry Night. She mentors emerging writers through the Centre for Stories, and currently works in Labour Relations. 

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