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New and Selected Poems of Anna Wickham Cover

A Review of Nathanael O’Reilly’s ‘New and Selected Poems of Anna Wickham’

O’Reilly, Nathanael (ed). New and Selected Poems of Anna Wickham. Perth, Western Australia: UWA Publishing, 2017. RRP: $29.99, 350pp. ISBN: 9781742589206

Erin Thornback

New and Selected Poems of Anna Wickham (2017), edited and introduced by Nathanael O’Reilly, comprises a sequence of provocations and an invitation to confession. In ‘The Angry Woman’, a poem about a mother

with a woman’s parts,
And of love I bear for my children (26)

Wickham offers an affront:

In many things you and I apart,
But there are regions where we coincide,
Where law for one is law for both (26)

This confrontation is a resistance to the structures of marriage, motherhood and male-female relationships, as revealed in the subsequent strophe: ‘There is the sexless part of me that is my mind’ (26). This personal exposure, insistence on the combative and questing feminist intelligence constitutes much of Wickham’s poetry and resonates with contemporary pertinence:

If I must own your manhood synonym for every strength,
Then I must lie.
If sex is a criterion for power, and never strength,
What do we gain by union? (26)

With ‘fixed intent’ (‘The Individualist’ 32) Wickham seamlessly constructs accessible, firm and rousing prose often focused on these spaces of opposition and conflict: lamentation of domesticity, motherhood, sexuality, marriage and class. Born in 1883, Wickham’s work embodies a voice that is fittingly modernist in execution, mood and mode, made up of  free verse, songs, monologues, the confessional and intricate rhyme. The miscellany of modes and temperament ought to be disagreeable, yet a synthesis is achieved in the work’s ability to balance its fierce opposition to ‘Suppression’ (55), examination of ‘The Progress’ (98) and being the ‘right woman’ (‘The Boor’s Wooing’ 45).

Through this turning loose of domestic frustrations, Wickham offers a sense of new meaning and association attached to the female spectacle, but also a mass of contradictions. In ‘Affinity’, Wickham scrutinises her silence:

It is sad for Feminism, but still clear
That man, more often than woman, is a pioneer.
If I would confide a new thought,
First to a man must it be brought (10).

Such lines are imbued with multiple connotations: it reflects an early twentieth-century cultural struggle and a woman’s passionate engagement with it, but also remains poised in conversation in an effort to move to viable modes of expression, as she continues:

If my sex would let me speak,
I would be very lazy and most weak;
I should speak only, and the things I spoke
Would fill the air a while, and clear like smoke (11).

This provocation calls to change, but also the need for traction, without which it is doomed to disintegrate.

The juxtapositions of moods and contradictions between the speaker’s voice and actions are also suggestive of Wickham’s destructive, albeit liberating, force of imagination. In particular, Wickham’s poems dwell on the tensions between anxiety and ‘Fear’ (102) that are laced throughout the text, imagining an existence absolved of the female frontier, gender and sex. For instance, consider ‘The Woman and a Dilemma’ (83). From the outset, the speaker establishes that

The gentleman I married
Says I ruined his intelligence
By marrying him

but the

gentleman I did not marry
Says I ruined his intelligence
By not marrying him (83)

The speaker is caught between asserting agency, desire, and the social boundaries imposed by her time. A ‘Marriage’, she considers, is ‘An affair of the Intelligence’, however, she is only adept to make such decisions when she is sexless; ‘I will borrow a book of a eunuch’ (83). The entirety of the work is fragmentary and turns on its heel in all directions at once, ultimately an affair of intelligence concerned by herself and yet also a refusal to repression and oppression.

Wickham’s poetic impulse is invested ‘not in do, but deeper, in to be’ (17). Violence lurks beneath the surface and her memoir-style tears through the page in poems such as ‘Vendetta’ (123). Here the speaker considers how her poems can be used as a ‘weapon for the re-assault!’ to oppression (123). Wickham wields her pen as a call to arms and determines that

With this hammer,
I will smash my way through circumstance,
Break barriers in my flesh (‘Vendetta’ 123)

This autobiographical pouring out of self is realised in the hammer’s metaphorical significance, a nod to her imprisonment in an asylum by her governing husband, and the confessional serving to single out Wickham from her contemporaries, who considered poetry as ‘not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion’ (Whitworth 6). Undeniably, pain and emotion are the inescapable ingredients for creating art, ‘it is faulty, harsh, not plain–’ (‘Self Analysis’ 6) and forms the thread tying the series together.

This ‘tumult of ‘the fretted mind’ (‘Self Analysis’ 6) is considered in the concluding poem ‘Fulfilled’ (156). While more subtle than some of her other poems, ‘Fulfilled’ meditates on the repetition of the lyrical ‘I’ and chronicles the poet’s own death:

I ask no more of this earth.
I say with my last breath,
I am content with Birth,
I am friendly with Death (157).

This invites association from the reader and the speaker, life and death undeniably a ‘call to the world across great spaces’ (‘The Song of the Mother’ 1). Stylistically, the text is a labyrinth without chronological connectivity and given the brief introduction and exegesis, it is my position that Nathanael O’Reilly chose the sinuous order to reflect Wickham’s unpredictable moods and writing style. It can be seen in reflexive poems such as ‘Note on Rhyme’ (16), an urge to resist the familiar and call to familiarity;

Likeness of sound,
With just enough of difference
To make a change of sense;
So we have contrast (16)

Similarly, O’Reilly has done an incredible service in restoring Wickham’s original punctuation in the poems included within The Writings of Anna Wickham by R.D. Smith (1984). In the same vein, he offers no explanation for how and why he chose certain poems, but this lack of context only serves to speak to the power of Wickham’s poetry, independent, outside of time and without influence.

New and Selected Poems of Anna Wickham, edited and introduced by Nathanael O’Reilly, is a cathartic experiment in transcendence, female experience and evocative poems that refuse to remain silent in the face of suppression. We have in this collection, a Contemplative Quarry (1921) that speaks in volumes to the human condition, feminism and confession.


Works Cited:

Wickham, Anna. The Contemplative Quarry and the Man with a Hammer, New York: Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1921. Online. <https://archive.org/details/contemplativequa00wickiala>

Whitworth, Michael. ‘Introduction’, in Reading Modernist Poetry, Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell Publishing, 2010, p. 5. Online. <http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/9781444320756.ch1/summary>


Erin Thornback is a recent graduate of Deakin University. She has interned at Transgression Magazine, edited for The Australia Times and written reviews for Cordite Poetry Review and Plumwood Mountain Journal. In 2018 she will undertake her Honours in Children’s Literature.

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