Unmaking Atoms by Magdalena Ball (Ginninderra Press 2017).
Magdalena Ball’s Unmaking Atoms, her second full-length collection, is a prodigious and often heart-wrenching array of poems, speaking to themes of loss and grief. In the ninety-two, generally short pieces, Ball projects an astounding breadth of knowledge, particularly in science, and mines this in unique and skillful ways.
The death of a parent is the predominant subject of this collection. Ball examines this primarily from the perspective of a bereaved daughter. In ‘Irrational Heart’, one of the longer poems in the collection, the daughter negotiates the ‘untempered rawness’ of loss, the silence and permanence of her suffering:
when the wash is done, lights off
kids in bed
leather gloves come out
silently punch the wall, which never yields.
She walks her ‘dreams alone’, hoping to find the parent in the liminality of sleep. She sorts her mother’s belongings, a mundane but necessary act of bereavement, and contemplates staying up all night, baking cookies to ‘negotiate the hurt.’
Symbols of loss haunt these poems. In ‘Inside Your Darkest Everything’, which references Frida Kahlo, the deceased is ‘the dull scent of memory/ that lingers on the drapes’, and ‘a neat row of shoes/ that won’t be worn again’. ‘Yellow Jacquard’, apologizes to the parent for disliking the inherited jacquard sofa, a striking object, which mocks the child, with its ‘stupidly/ happy flowers’ sign-posting loss.
There is a sense, at times, of the parental eye watching over the child. In ‘Cold Mirror’, ‘…you’re everywhere/ a peek-a-boo phantom dropping by/ to check my progress’. In other poems, the mother is the persona and we witness death from the deceased’s point of view. In ‘Ashes for the Earth’, the mother tells the reader that,
I still taste the salt on my tongue
still hear the soft call
of my children
their fingers looking for me
in black and white lacunae
‘In Situ’, describes friends and family gathering around the bereaved and portrays grief as so intensely personal that others cannot possibly understand the suffering. Those around the daughter comment that her mother looked peaceful, while she thinks otherwise, that ‘a grimace is not a smile’. According to them, death ‘was the natural order of things’, and when they left, they smiled, ‘empty containers in hand’. This poem encapsulates the feelings of emptiness and isolation in the face of well-intentioned others, with their awkwardness and insensitivity. It is a poem of contradictions. There was ‘much to do, but nothing more to be done’. There was ‘hunger and too much food’. There was barrenness and comfort. These are the inner and outer worlds of the bereaved, the disconnect emphasising the estrangement of the daughter from those around her.
Ball likens the isolation of grief to that of Planet Nine (in the poem of the same name), the predicted but unobserved outer planet of the solar system. This is one of many references to astronomy in the collection. There is some consolation, however, in an earlier planetary poem, ‘Maven on Mars’, about a spacecraft exploring the atmosphere of the Red Planet. Maven, in the vastness of space is ‘…never alone/ no matter how dark/ or cold’.
Life in the fog of loss is not without hope and Ball suggests that, in time, some healing will occur. ‘Relief comes in bursts of sunlight’, says the persona in ‘Dark Matter Wants to be Alone’ and in the final stanza of ‘Hieroglyphics’, ‘finding a tincture of who you were/ each detail of your absence, bringing back/ the line and curve that makes us whole.’ In the end though, the sting of loss lingers as in ‘Qualia’, where ‘years haven’t covered/ everything in rosy patina’, and that grief is ‘…still ugly/ fresh enough to be raw’.
Ball leans heavily on physics as well as astronomy and other sciences for metaphoric effect. At times, this demands work from the reader. While it’s necessary to ascertain the meanings of some of the scientific terms, the reward is to witness the acuity of their use. The moment of death is a slide into the ‘atomic mess’. It is an arresting, almost visceral image, from the poem ‘Atomic Mess’, but it also represents the point of release from suffering. Apart from its conspicuous inclusion in the collection’s title, this is the first of many references to atoms. The persona describes herself in ‘Most of Everything is Nothing’, as ‘a conduit of buzzing atoms/ moving by kinetic heat’. There is a striking paradox between the self as a sentient being and as a collection of atoms, molecules, cells or other fundamental building blocks of life. We are both ends of the spectrum and everything in between.
Ball assays grief with sensitivity and skill in this deep exploration of the emotional impact of death. The poems are poignant but never sentimental and the prevalent references to science provide a unique counterpoint, keeping the collection fresh and alive. Technical knowledge is married beautifully with the healing power of poetry and Ball carries ‘…all this/ responsibility/ all this breath’, with equanimity and poise.
-Malcolm St Hill
Malcolm St Hill lives in Newcastle and is a poet and independent researcher focused on the literary memory of the Great War, particularly that of Australian soldier-poets. His recent poems have appeared in the 2016 and 2015 ‘Grieve’ anthologies. He was the winner of the Morisset Show ‘Lake Macquarie Moments’ Poetry Competition in 2016.