Torn papyrus and weathered stone: Mark Roberts reviews ‘N thing is Set in St ne’ by Cecilia White

N THING IS SET IN ST NE by Cecilia White Picaro Press 2012.

The title of this chapbook suggests a weathered stone tablet, or perhaps a headstone. The permanence of the words chiselled into the hard stone having slowly been dissolved away by rain and wind and moss so that now only fragments of the original message can be read. For now the original meaning can still be pieced together, but soon the action of time, on both the stone and the meaning of the carved words, will make understanding the ever more fragmented text more and more problematic. Thus the saying that ‘nothing is set in stone’ is an attack on permanency, similar to Marx’s statement “all that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned”. Even the permanence of words carved into stone can be fleeting.

Reading the first poem in Cecila White’s N thing is Set in St ne, ‘Flight out of Egypt’, I was reminded of Henry James’ famous ‘House of Fiction’ quote in his Preface to The Portrait of a Lady:

The house of fiction has in short not one window, but a million

But while James’ house has a million windows, White’s poetry monument is a house built “from the outside”. We have the image of the pyramids, windowless and with secret chambers full of stale air. So rather than the windows of fictions we have the introspection of the poem, internalising:

her tongues convene in dust
splitting air in the pyramids
of your lungs.
and pursue your self
down chambers of dislocation.

Cornered in these chambers we have memory that “cuts like glass” (broken windows?), “a swoon of nightvowels” and  the

grinding desert between lunar apostrophe
and reverie’s question mark.”

Until, at the end of the poem there is the escape, the ‘flight’:

as you swallow light
and tear like papyrus

The ‘darkness’ that opens the poem and the dust and stale air that lingers in the chambers disappear in these last lines. Nothing is set in stone, the papyrus is torn, words are lost – or left behind.

This archaeology continues through the 16 pages and 19 or so poems in the collection. But White’s archaeology is a complex one, embracing the historical, the poetical as well as the personal. In ‘ex libris’, for example, we read of the “archaeology of knowledge” and confront a swirling catalogue. In the end, however, “it is all interpretation theory”.

Or in a seemingly simple poem like “reflection is a studio”  we find image piled on image, so a simple reflection in a mirror becomes a complex portrait. The notion of breath on the mirror, obscuring the image, the “small fogs of vowels”, recalls references in other poems of breathing, the stale interior air of the pyramids in ‘Flight out of Egypt’ or:

                         ….the drawing
Of breath, erasure of exclamation

There is much to enjoy in this richly complex little collection. The individual poems can be demanding but reward a careful reading (& rereading). But the real success of  N thing is Set in St ne is the strength of the collection as a whole. It is a many layered collection, fluid with images which flow both within and between poems and meanings which appear then fade into something else. It is an archaeology where new discoveries are constantly being made and old discoveries are being redefined. Torn papyrus and weathered stone.

– Mark Roberts


Mark Roberts is a Sydney based writer and critic. He currently edits Rochford Street Review.

N thing is Set in St ne  is available directly from Picaro Press.

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1 Comment

  1. I’ve tried, but cannot find Cecilia’s book on Picaro’s website, which doesn’t seem to have been updated since last year. Tell me I’m wrong, a dunce, whatever! But tell me how to access . . . please.

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