terra bravura by Meredith Wattison Puncher & Wattmann, 2015
For the poet, the task of genealogy is not a new one; see Beowulf; even Exodus.
Meredith Wattison’s terra bravura, however, is a personal-historical genealogy that covers and recovers the intersecting scapes forging modern Australia, from cultural and individual inheritance and exile to colonialism, filial duty, and motherhood. Each trope takes part in, as it takes apart, the construction of the self—that recognition of the unknowable kindred amid the clashing horrors and passions of the past…The bravura is in the telling.
Narrative for Wattison (in this, her sixth book) is cadenced and abstract, gifts that allow her a large realm of cerebral play, echoic within an open architectural music. Consider these lines from the first poem, naming and laying spined the scion’s calling:
I have come for the helium esoterica of the desert,
the flying, tearing silk cyan,
the karmic Kaddish,
the straw-yellow grasses,
their dada, goat-mouthed grazers,
loose ferruginous shift
rough sutured with failed fences…(11).
The poet-narrator is looking for the grave of her father’s grandmother, she who died “by plumbism, saturnism, miner’s consumption” (11)—while we readers, extending this metaphor, likewise go wayward; become contagion; spelunk. “She is the split stone to step from / to Europe” (12), with name-symbol Europe reached not only through lineal lore but by syllabic map, from “eudemonia” and by way of “euphonic” in lines preceding. Heredity and memory operate linguistically so, as we follow alongside an acquisitioned imagery:
All the English exotica
of superseding bulrushes
and swans with crowns
in 1960s children’s book
soft propaganda (15-16).
(Note there the echo between “exotica” and “esoterica” from opening.) Learnt ancestry, like learning to read, is coded (“Her brutalised son, / his brutalised son” (12)) and, as family stories go, only partially told; they remain problematically labyrinthine. Think here of Anne Bradstreet, another who engendered a newly foreign psychic scape:
Silent alone, where none or saw, or heard,
In pathless paths I lead my wandering feet,
My humble eyes to lofty skies I reared
To sing some song, my mazed Muse thought meet
(from “Contemplations,” quoted in Wilson).
Like Bradstreet, Wattison is singularly searching, in pursuit as much as pursued by narrative.
A black swan
followed me here,
stars sobbing from its beak,
it is tied by a thread
to my ankle,
a dark, octopus-pot moon
is tied to the anguished other (17).
The image will play leitmotif and foil. Trace of fox, swan, orange, peach, egg, moon, and hues of red whorl through, lacing as from behind these texturing tapestries in rhizomatic warp. These allow the poet her points of pursuit, while woof—providing chase—comes often by way of family photo albums:
The mother, daughter,
cousin, aunt gene pool,
nebulous in black and white,
in summer’s sleeveless cotton,
it’s all shifts, buttons and gathers,
1950s muliebrity (32).
Muliebrity: that feminine quality indicative of womanhood, rather than girlhood. Consider from Hesiod’s Catalogue of Women this translated fragment of papyrus:
Or such as the daughter of god-like Erysichthon
[ ] son of Triopas
Mestra with fair tresses, who shone like the Charites.
Him the tribes of mortal men called Aithon,
named after the strong burning famine.
……………….bur]ning famine all men [ ]
……………….for mortals [ ]
……………….knowing frequent plans in her heart [ ]
……………………………………….…buy (?) [ ]
…………………………………………..of women [ (Rutherford, 104).
And consider this editor’s footnote:
The mother is omitted in the ehoie that begins the Aspis (= fr. 195), where we have the patronymic “son of Electryon”, and also in fr. 58.7. Both mother and father are, however, specified in fr. 26.5ff (footnote 22).
Gender always factors in ehoie-poetry. It signifies in Wattison’s genealogy: how names are omitted, relationships highlighted; the latter become a kinship lattice, in this instance among women. The notion of the fragment is also brought to the fore, where names and direct orders of lineage go unremembered, perhaps now unknowable.
In his analysis of Hesiod, Rutherford admits the haziness of time and retelling when dealing with ancient and partial texts: “These lines probably describe Sisyphus acquiring Mestra for his son, though, depending on how we reconstruct the papyrus, it is possible that this is a previous wedding” (Rutherford, 105). A change in word, an omission, can alter the meaning. In terra bravura, ellipses and elapses between century-long decades are compensated for through their relations, even “when cramping against the trompe l’oeil of women” (33).
I could not help but follow
the empyreal group.
In its bacchanalian centre
a Pan with Titian ringlets,
mandrels half-naked, burnished women,
a naked gravy-skinned, bread-crust,
wet, toffee silk nimbused girl
not much younger than myself,
squatting in the squall
of a dying wave’s evanescence (89).
Again, the loss/the loosening from the fixed/the literal allows the poet-narrator renegotiation with those hierarchal narratives so inherent to patriarchy. There is pause there. As Nikolas Rose writes in “Identity, Genealogy, History”—
To the apparent linearity, unidirectionality and irreversibility of time, we can counterpose the multiplicity of places, planes and practices. And in each of these spaces, repertoires of conduct are activated that are not bounded by the enclosure formed by the human skin or carried in a stable form in the interior of an individual: they are rather webs of tension across a space that accord human beings capacities and powers to the extent that they catch them up in hybrid assemblages of knowledges, instruments, vocabularies, systems of judgement and technical artefacts (Rose, 324).
It is perhaps because of Wattison’s highly visual vocabulary— specifically, one steeped in visual arts—that she is able to turn these absences into wholly formed considerations of absence. Take for example a scene wherein the narrator’s niece photographs her mother’s eye:
It is non-monumental.
It is as intimate
as a home birth
during a meal
in the landscape
without a camera (116).
Here, the image takes reference against the icon—takes refuge in the image of unhospitalized matrilineality—just as the linear is delivered from held stanza upon open waves of line. The unphotographed remains equivalent to that photographed, and that which is now photographed plays non-iconic recourse to the iconographic. This is quite relevant in genealogies where women have so often been left out, unnamed, or masked within the patronymic: “pastiched / homogenized, / seminal” (97). To flip this, Wattison does not merely resort to the finding or inventing of names, instead considering the written history itself as that “cursive sea in an inkwell”—at times unnavigable, unfathomable—a “quilled extravagance / as riveting as what is erased” (103). This is a poet-narrator who sees the potentially shifting paradigms of naming, image-making; icons, iconoclasts, scions…
In their study of age and aging in the late works of Virginia Woolf, Rishi Goyal and Rita Charon identify the competing models of narrative in The Years and The Waves as “a cyclical epistemology of history” and “a linear, eschatological movement” (Goyal and Charon, 70). [It is significant that during revisions of terra bravura Wattison was rereading Woolf in the course of writing two essays.] The authors posit how:
Like The Years […] The Waves explores the possibilities of change and continuity in history through individual lives. Both novels flirt with formal structures based on historical reflexivity: The Waves (which is divided into sections based on the natural rhythms of the sun moving though the sky and the waves striking a beach) and The Years (structured as a series of chapters with year headings) are modeled on two opposing historical assumptions (ibid.).
Wattison’s genealogy refuses to confer this modernist duality; aware of the binary thought of such logic, the poems of terra bravura counter formal paradigms just as they refuse form, chronology, even titling. But as for Woolf’s “change and continuity in history through individual lives,” this terra bravura embraces. Like the returning image of the black swan, Wattison has found a creature of (European) imagination, made real by the expanding circles of colonial encounter: the surprise of Cygnus atratus to the unaccustomed eye; once of monotypic genus, Chenopis, now assimilated as much into the Linnaean as we readers into its environ—language-corpus.
The tongue’s root,
the trunk’s febrile acquisition
are heavy-fleshed concentrics (86).
At the last, this book is threnodic homage; some utterance found at the center of what constitutes this made self. Wattison is returned by way of the last two poems (one prose, one epistolary) to the literality of her father’s recession into dementia.
My father will not use the visor to check the glare. He holds his hand up like a Biblical gesture, an exaggeration, a mime, the coming of a plague. I tilt the visor for him. It ceases to be Biblical (127).
Per Tina Darragh’s linguistic investigation into personal phonemic inheritance, we might think of that most intimate of orreries, one’s individually acquisitioned vocabulary—
about cliche as sound
sound as the shared element
of geography and the subconscious (Darragh, 15)
—the cohort that is origin; its parentage:
As a group they have the mien of horses.
The sun harsh, bleaching.
The photographer one-eyed, pedantic.
This side of the stone wall,
white quartz crested
like Hokusai’s great wave,
is the exclusion zone
of father’s English and glare (46).
To meet with level gaze the departure of this horizon at the point of its arrival…I told you, bravura is this telling.
– Edric Mesmer
Darragh, Tina. Striking Resemblance: Work, 1980-1986. Providence: Burning Deck, 1989.
Goyal, Rishi and Rita Charon. “In Waves of Time, Space, and Self: The Dwelling-Place of Age in Virginia Woolf’s The Waves.” Storying Later Life: Issues, Investigations, and Interventions in Narrative Gerontology. Eds. Gary Kenyon, Ernst Bohlmeijer, and William L. Randall. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Rose, Nikolas. “Identity, Genealogy, History.” Identity: a reader. Eds. Paul du Gay, Jessica Evans, and Peter Redman. London: SAGE, 2000. Reprint, 2005.
Rutherford, Ian. “Mestra at Athens: Hesiod fr. 43 and the poetics of panhellenism.”The Hesiod Catalogue of Women: Constructions and Reconstructions. Ed. Richard Hunter. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
Wattison, Meredith. terra bravura. Glebe: Puncher & Wattmann, 2015.
Wilson, Rob. “‘Enrapted Senses’: Anne Bradstreet’s ‘Contemplations.’” American Sublime: The Genealogy of a Poetic Genre. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991.
Edric Mesmer is collator of the little (international) magazine, Yellow Field; currently, he serves as cataloger to the Poetry Collection of the University at Buffalo. Of monodies & homophony (2015), a collection of his poems, is available through Small Press Distrubution http://www.spdbooks.org/Producte/9780991072422/of-monodies-and-homophony.aspx
terra bravura is available from https://puncherandwattmann.com/books/book/terra-bravura