The Abbotsford Mysteries by Patricia Sykes. Spinifex Press. 2011
Occasionally one comes across a collection of poetry which seems to come out of left field. Such was the case with Patricia Sykes’ third major collection The Abbotsford Mysteries. After reading the first few poems I had to take a deep breath and put the collection down for a few minutes. I realised that I was embarking on something special – how come I had missed her first two books?
The Abbotsford Mysteries is not just a collection of poems, though there are some very fine poems in this book, it is a narrative, a poetic history of the girls who passed through the Abbotsford Convent as young orphans or as girls whose parents could no longer care for them. While initially the title might hint at an Enid Blyton type of adventure (The Secret Five and the Mystery of the Abbotsford Convent), it very quickly becomes clear that we are talking of ‘mysteries’ in a religious/Catholic sense. The mystery can be seen the ‘mystery of the sacraments’, the magic of water turning to wine, bread becoming flesh and so forth. There is the suggestion of the mystical, the magic something that we can observe but not fully understand unless through faith.
There is also mystery surrounding the girls who bring the poems in this collection to life: how did they end up in the convent? What happened to their parents? What happens outside of the walls? How to relate the Christian ‘mysteries’ they are taught by the nuns to the way they are treated and to the secular world outside?
Adding to this ‘mystery’ is the way the collection is structured in 5 main sections each containing ten poems, reflecting the structure of one of the most common forms of the Catholic rosary – A five decade rosary contains five groups of ten beads (a decade). This structure becomes even more significant when we realise that the names of the different ‘mysteries of the rosary’ (the topics one is supposed to mediate on as they advance through the rosary), is reflected in the title of each section – such as ” The Luminous”, “The Sorrowfuls”, “The Joyfuls” and ” The Glorious”. Given this The Abbotsford Mysteries can almost be seen as a secular mystery, linking the history and emotions of the girls who passed through the convent.
While we have religious symbolism almost dripping from the pages, it is the strength of the poems, both individually and in the way they ar grouped together, which makes this such a unique collection.
In addition to poetry Sykes has also written two libretto (or as they are described “texts for music”), and the influence of writing for music is obvious in this collection. There is an internal rhythm to many of the poems which almost seems at time to tempt the voice into reading the words out loud and perhaps slipping into song. Indeed at times I had little trouble imagining The Abbotsford Mysteries as a chamber piece – perhaps for three female voices, a chorus and an ensemble chamber orchestra. The three voices would reflect the different girls as they move through their time at the convent, while the chorus would sing the ‘Gloria’ which closes each section, as well as the sections in some poems which seem to have almost been written for a chorus:
Once again the structure of the collection drives the poems along in a rough narrative. The opening poems highlight how some of the girls find themselves in the convent:
As sudden as that. A breath taken. Then not.
Then steps. A travel. To place the orphans.
In the capital. Melbourne. New city of
‘Death’s dream kingdom’
While by the final section the girls have moved on and there is the memory of a shared past:
One by one we are dying off
Things move on. Gratitude
for what is left is not only
for what is curled up and warm
Between these two deaths, the death of the parent and the dying off of the aging orphans, there are some very fine poems.
In ‘Architecture’, for example, Sykes highlights the dichotomy between the actual convent building and the memories of the girls who have passed through it:
The nature of the place
revealing itself to us
As a troubled blueprint
We wander like the bewildered
Who have lost everything
And return to find it still here
heads nod heads shake truth
as difficult to prove as differing
It is fair to say that dichotomies (contradictions) drive many of the poems and one of the most power is how the girls combine the sacred and the secular, faith and popular culture:
our voices shiver
above the narthex
if we could dance
our blood would warm
us Lord O Lord
we’re hivey-jive girls
rock’n'roll girls (we
keep your picture next
‘Gloria (The Luminous)’
Obviously, while the girls live behind the convent walls, the world outside world cannot be kept out and once again Sykes uses this to create some startling images:
I believe I believe in Skipping Girl Vinegar my
guardian dear ever this night be at my side, to light
and guard, to guard and guide my Angel-of Neon
my skipping rope wings
Here the secular world outside of the walls has merged with the sacred. A prayer has become a poem, the neon sign, a false idol. But an idol which suggests of escape and a life after the institution.
Overall, while the individual poems stand alone as substantial achievements, taken as a whole they are collectively much greater than the sum of their parts. Patricia Sykes has combined a skillful poetic technique with a carefully structured collection which provides a stunning canvas for her to bring to life the voices of the girls who passed through the Abbotsford convert as orphans. Already an established poet and librettist, The Abbotsford Mysteries has firmly cemented Sykes reputation as a major poet. I will chasing up her earlier works (including her texts for music) and looking out for her next collection with anticipation.
Mark Roberts is a Sydney based writer and critic. He currently edits Rochford Street Review.