Autobiochemistry by Tricia Dearborn, UWAP 2019, was launched by Ann Vickery on 9 October 2019 at Readings Carlton in Melbourne.
It gives me a lot of pleasure to launch Autobiochemistry. This is an ambitious collection that is attentive to forms of beauty and knowledge at the level of the molecular but also having an eye to their broader structure. It’s a volume that very much explores how we navigate our own materiality. As its title suggests, this is also a hybrid collection that joins together poetry, life writing and science in new patterns. As with the chemistry of its title, Autobiochemistry investigates properties, reactions and potential compounds yet is perhaps less concerned with solutions or solids. Part of the chemistry of its writing is an expansiveness or accommodation to morph – poetry, like life, transforms when certain ideas, words, and bodies are brought together.
Its title section springboards from science, specifically the periodic table. I wasn’t aware until recently that 2019 is the International Year of the Periodic Table, which makes it doubly fitting that Tricia’s collection has arrived to celebrate and rethink how its elements inform everyday life. As the opening poem, ‘Hydrogen’ suggests, ‘Most of earth’s hydrogen is not free … but tethered to oxygen, in water / the human body’s solvent’. Homeostasis means ‘we brim, we drip’. In ‘Carbon’, the element ‘cycles constantly // between the living / and non-living’, reminding us how we continuously circulate in the world as both living and non-living:
When my body stops, its carbon
will be freed as carbon dioxide
by fire or decay
and a tree may breathe me.
Many elements in the periodic table coexist with others and Tricia reads these as allegories of how her own life is inevitably linked with others (from ‘Sodium’):
I grew up in a house of liars
a houseful of people
pretending to be separate
but humans are never
found free in nature
it’s how we’re designed – connection
as vital as oxygen
Reading through this section, there were resonances or overlaps with my own childhood (we’re probably from a similar generation), from the different coloured fluoride tablets taken as a child (in ‘Fluorine’) to the Holly Hobbie designs of girlhood. Tricia notes in ‘Iron’ that she recorded her first period in a Holly Hobbie diary. For Tricia, the flame of phosphorus symbolises the possibility of escape from the schoolroom; the chlorine of a backyard pool is associated with an escape from drowning. She reminds us that even with technological advances, our understanding of the chemistry of the world is partial; what makes either it or us tick is sometimes beyond quantitative measure. ‘Caesium’ reflects upon the advances of the caesium clock that is ‘[a]ccurate to within a second / in 1.4 million years’. Yet, like Virginia Woolf before her, Tricia considers how time is stretched and undone by particular moments, a moment such as ‘A woman kisses you. / You make the leap’. And just like Woolf’s Clarissa Dalloway, one may not always understand truths, particularly emotional ones. As she writes with vivid imagery in ‘Lead’,
I was blind to my feelings for my friend.
One drunken night recognition bloomed.
Add a drop of lead nitrate to potassium iodide:
a canary bursts forth from a clear sky.
Tricia reworks the relation between auto- and biography in a subsequent section, ‘Virginia Woolf’s Memoirs’. These are poems that tell of Woolf’s connection to others: to her patriarchal father, to the spectral mother or ‘angel in the house,’ to her sister Nessa or Vanessa Bell (antithesis yet also ‘co-conspirator’ and ‘best-beloved’), Leonard Woolf, Vita Sackville-West and Ethel Smyth. Even though I have taught Mrs Dalloway and A Room of One’s Own for many years, I was unfamiliar with Ethel, who Tricia characterises as a complete character, ‘an elderly Sapphist’, ‘lusty, loquacious // persistent, deaf, / demanding’. Her poem made me want to seek Ethel out and discover more. Another poem reflects on Woolf’s interactions with Freud, whom she published with Hogarth Press. Woolf’s understanding of herself and her life, of working through the trauma of childhood abuse, was partly undertaken through metaphors such as caves and tunnelling. Tricia parallels it with Freud’s theorisation, but notes how Freud’s first understanding of hysteria as being based in sexual abuse was replaced by his theory of the Oedipus complex and ‘a child’s own fantasy’. Such rejection of truth-telling creates a further layer of trauma. Reflecting that ‘That night his gift to you // was a narcissus,’ Tricia concludes with a portent: ‘You gazed / into the swirling waters.’ All of these significant figures in Woolf’s life join to become a kind of overwhelming chorus of voices in the section’s final poem. In minimal steps, it traces Woolf’s decision, in her late fifties, to walk to the river to find an ending.
A further section, ‘Elephant Poems’, returns us to the autobiographical and mulls over the memories that we carry with us into the present (playing, in part, on that old adage that elephants can remember). The elephant in the room is the secret of abuse. Tricia explores the resulting split self or sense of fragmentation (like a jigsaw puzzle), the sense of doubling with the familiar and strange in uncanny combination, or of being rendered an object that is purely mechanical (effectively worked through the image of a running doll). Tricia writes of an entire family stuck in amber and of the process of hauling oneself bodily ‘from the viscid exudate / of my father’s lies’. Even the phrase ‘viscid exudate’ captures the sticky heaviness of amber that pulls one down into ongoing stasis. These poems are brave in their witnessing and give a sense of the partly comprehended, the merging of the dreamlike and the real, as well as the work that is required over the length of a life to counter the ‘shared legacy / of shame, silence, isolation’. These poems convey the ripples of trauma and the effort required for resilience and movement forward.
The collection’s condensed lyricism, its focus on an embodied ordinariness, and sense of intimacy reminded me in some ways of the work of Lesbia Harford. Added to this was a shared sense of linguistic spirituality or poetic vocation (the prologue poem, ‘A chalk outline of the soul,’ concludes ‘quietly I married the word’). Tricia’s final section on perimenopause or the change also reminded me of Harford’s ‘Periodicity’ (see www.poemhunter.com/poem/periodicity/), in which she declares: ‘Women, I say, / Are beautiful in change.’ Both writers, while spanning a century, broach a topic that is still rather taboo, transforming negativity or silence into a sense of wonder and possibility.
Like both Woolf and Harford, Tricia tracks our relational identity or, in chemistry’s terminology, the ‘covalent bonds’ that configure forces of attraction or repulsion. As with Woolf and Harford’s work, her poetry articulates queer desire, love and care, mapping connection that radically transforms a sense of self in the world. This is articulated in poems like ‘At last’:
that I outlasted
my inability to feel loved
I worked to let go of the reasons
until unexpectedly love
came flooding in
throwing the world open
Autobiochemistry is a volume that counters the dark and the harrowing with the light and metamorphosis. Its understanding of perimenopause as advancing towards a new state of frankness and revelation might be thought of as channelling a broader mission, ‘should you choose to accept it // to take no shit / for the rest of your life’.
So join me in congratulating Tricia, and I would urge everyone to enter Autobiochemistry’s lab of delight, deftness, and luminous tunnelling.
– Ann Vickery
Ann Vickery is Head of Writing and Literature at Deakin University. She is the author of Devious Intimacy (Hunter Publishers, 2015), The Complete Pocketbook of Swoon (Vagabond Press, 2014), Stressing the Modern: Cultural Politics in Australian Women’s Poetry (Salt, 2007) and Leaving Lines of Gender: A Feminist Genealogy of Language Writing (Wesleyan University Press, 2000). She also co-edited Poetry and the Trace (Puncher & Wattmann, 2013).
Autobiochemistry is available from https://uwap.uwa.edu.au /products/autobiochemistry
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