Beyond the culturally scripted response: Beth Spencer reviews ‘High Wire Step’ by Magdalena Ball

High Wire Step by Magdalena Ball Flying Islands Press, 2019

Magdalena Ball is an award-winning poet who grew up in New York city and now lives on a rural property outside of Newcastle. As well as poetry, she also writes novels, short stories and reviews and runs a long-running and very successful website, podcast and reviews newsletter called Compulsive Reader.

High Wire Step, her fourth book of poetry, is published by Flying Islands. Like all the Pocket Books in this series, it is a beautiful object and a delight to hold in your hand or pop in your handbag. Which is a good thing because this is a book to read and re-read and savour.

The cover image draws our gaze to slick high rise buildings whose glass surfaces reach for, reflect and capture the white fluffy clouds and blue sky. Inside there is an even more complex web of cross-references regarding the contemporary interface of the ‘human’ and the ‘natural’. For these are poems that explore not just personal grief and personal histories, but also a vast consuming grief at what capitalism has done and is doing to our planet and its inhabitants.

And Ball’s concern is for all its inhabitants — human and critter, plant and bacteria — down to every inter-connecting, intersecting level. This is very much a book about living in the Anthropocene. And in drawing together her experiences of both sides of the planet, from New York to Newcastle, there is something about the poetry that is like a big encircling hug that wants to embrace all of it — the pain and the beauty, the fragility, and the extraordinary strength — every atom.

The first poem, ‘to prove I’m a bastard’, begins in a playground. In this opening poem the violence, the addictions, the sweetness and toxicity of late capitalism are already foreshadowed:

………………wishing on cigarette butts
do people………………really………….still
cellulose acetate damp with addiction
…………………sticky with it …..almost sweet
little pastries ….words  ….like discarded birds

We then move through poems about money, inheritance, manipulations, lies, trust (and trusts); poems about relationships; about love and loss. Then a startling batch of poems about mythic figures (‘Giantess’, ’The Sapient Pig’). About half way through is a longer poem appropriately called ‘Art of the Deal’ about the looming image of Donald Trump’s tower in the narrator’s childhood, followed by ‘queen bee’ about the loss of the pollinators, and so on.

These are poems as a ‘High Wire Step’ — a precision of presence:

attachments hold me
on this high wire step
giddy, out of time

stillness is a slow slide
moving up the body
as a single sound

silence, the fourth syllable
I can’t form it
on my lips

In the poem ‘Claude Glass’ Ball presents the metaphor of the slightly convex mirror with a dark surface sometimes used by artists. According to Wikipedia: ‘Claude glasses have the effect of abstracting the subject reflected in them from its surroundings.’

We woke from the suburb like a long dream

I had been trying to break those windows
for a hundred years and still
bruises rose on my knuckles ….

we turned our backs to see.

I often feel like I am still (always) learning to read poetry — in the sense of giving in to it, letting go of control, letting it wash over me. Poetry teaches us to allow the meanings of life to accumulate and create an effect on a far deeper level than the mere cognitive. This is an act of trust, but one that is justified here, with this book and with this poet.

I’ve been at that station
the whole of my life
any moment
the doors might open.

This is a history, not in the sense of it faithfully corresponding to events and facts (an impossible mission), but in the sense of it being coherent, or true. True to a way of experiencing the world. I love the way the leaps within and between the poems create space that allows us to weave into it our own stories, and our own emotions. Or something beyond that — beyond the culturally scripted response that is emotion — to something more like a colour or a sensation, a burning.

this is not a poem, it’s domestic
like a room or a dying marriage

I run my tongue over the broken tooth
run the poem like an engine, driving it into the wreckage

something you wrote, maybe today, maybe a year ago
not to me, about words you couldn’t say and all you wanted

then I knew I was human, the air had a certain haze
a sting, a decision, the needle of truth

 – From ‘lost poem’

I want to keep quoting from these poems, and experiencing them. Like this one, from the poem ‘trickle down’:

hard to look you in the eye, but I do

Or this:

before the earth became a meme

There is a wonderfully disorienting effect in this book of familiar images made strange, flipped and woven and rattled.

The wind turns / maybe a storm is brewing.

My first reading of High Wire Step was as an ebook, and while I really longed to be able to hold it as a print book in my hand, circle around the poems, flip back and forth, get a sense of it as a matrix, there was something to be said for being forced to approach it in a relentlessly linear fashion. That digital movement forward mimicking in a way the rush of time and grief, of not being able to go back, or undo, or do it again.

As in the poem ‘Time Bound’ — with it’s play on Homeward bound, and time travel:

Of course it wasn’t all greener pastures
I expected warmth, not the cozy kind
I expected hunger, not the sort that leads
to accomplishment

Not that the maths wasn’t beautiful
or that I wasn’t secretly in love
with the algorithms

But maybe this is one of the blessings of poetry and memory and awareness: we can go back. We can alter our future somewhat by the way we read our pasts. We can add agency and potency in the writing where before there may have been only the rush of victimhood.

So how might a personal approach to re-imprinting our past apply then to the planetary Anthropocenic grief? This is a question raised for me by this intricate book with its folding and refolding of time and memory and experience and life. How can honouring our past — every bee, plant, microbe — witnessing — affect our future?

Can grief produce action or is always crippling? Can grief be a work, an empowering, a commitment? Can grief be a creative and generative state?

And what is the role of writing and reading a book like this — one that laces itself into the membrane of our very complex and urgent times? For if writing is a high wire step, then perhaps reading is too. Playing with words without a net.


High Wire Step by Magdalena Ball is published by Flying Islands Books, 2019 and is available from .

Beth Spencer’s books include Vagabondage (UWAP) and How to Conceive of a Girl (Random House). She’s won various awards including the 2018 Carmel Bird Digital Literary Award for The Age of Fibs (Spineless Wonders). She lives and writes on Darkinjung land on the Central Coast, NSW.

Magdalena Ball was recently interviewed by Beth Spencer for Climactic podcast and you can listen to her talk about and read some poems from High Wire Step here –

Or you can subscribe to Climactic Show and Climactic’s sister show ArtBreaker — which explores making art in a time of climate emergency — and to Magdalena Ball’s podcast Compulsive Reader Talks through iTunes, Apple, Spotify, or your favourite podcast app.

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