The power of words: Henry Briffa reviews ‘Unspeakable’ by Petr Malapanis

Unspeakable by Petr Malapanis. Owl Publishing 2019. 

Malapanis has been writing for 20 years and her first solo collection does not disappoint, unless you were hoping it might be nominated for the Anne Elder award . Unfortunately, it does not have the required minimum 20-page length. But the art of a good work, is its quality, its tightness and thematic unity. This book has all that. It leaves me wanting to read more of Malapanis. The twelve poems that form this collection are all rich.

Unspeakable, invites the reader into a world that is at once personal, intimate and vulnerable. It is a testimony for the human capacity to heal from both physical and psychological pain. As the title suggests, the relationship between the act of naming, of putting into words and psychological recovery is one of the central concerns of this collection.

The writing is spare, direct, and speaks to both the heart and the head. It is personal and uncomplicated. It’s the capacity to come face-to-face with the subject matter that gives the work so much of its strength and power. The opening poem begins with the word ‘Cancer’.

Cancer is not a journey.
It is an assault
Against body, mind, spirit
An assault that fundamentally challenges
Both certainty – and self

The speaker is dancing like an ‘unwilling participant’ in ‘a dance’ she does ‘not know the steps to’ and the title of the poem is ‘After the dance’. It hits hard then moves gracefully forward:

I was granted a lifetime
Of second guessing,
A new relationship
With fear.

And a humble gratitude
For both.

It confronts the reader with the pain, before providing some release. There is a gentleness, and vulnerability that, when combined with the point-blank approach, brings so much balance, so much humanity in the midst of life-threatening experience. What she speaks of is not getting over cancer, not a conventional understanding of recovery, but an enduring fear. She expresses ‘a humble gratitude’ for this ‘new relationship’, a gratitude for ‘laughter as well as tears’, for life itself.

‘Kintsugi’, the Japanese art of repairing broken ceramics, is an apt image for recovery. And the trajectory of this poem, like the one above, moves beyond the pain, ending with the following lines:

More broken
Yet more able
To face man and machine
Designed in turn
to both hurt and heal.

This poem is so much about the body, which is described as an ‘unfamiliar flesh’; close, personal, but somehow separate, foreign. The speaker writes of a ‘struggle to touch myself’ of a corpse-like pallor to my nipple’ that ‘fascinates and ‘terrifies’. At another point in the poem the speaker describes herself as ‘Kintsugi’, as ‘restored’. The poem juxtaposes the broken and the repair.

Within the poem ‘That Girl’ the reader can see the wisdom that suffering brings; which is not over-stated, but humbly present upon the page:

Acutely aware of the transience
Of everything around her.
And wiling
Finally, to surrender
To this truth

The philosophical insights are stated with humility, put so simply, so seamlessly within the work that they almost pass unnoticed.

There is much packed into this tight little chapbook. Towards the end, after facing the cancer, the work moves towards different forms of pain, both historic and enduring including the pain of impending hair loss, migration history, the pain of present-day refugees, laying uncomfortably beside a masturbating partner, and finally a history of sexual abuse.

‘Morning Glory’ has a subject matter that would make anyone cringe, but she deals with her subject matter artfully.

Any release you might feel
Is stifled by your clenched jaw
With little joy you manage
To fill your cupped hand
With thoughts unuttered
Actions undelivered
And dreams unrealized

While focusing her lens sharply, what she then zooms back on is what this act might mean to him, to her, to both of them. Here once more, there is a closeness, a proximity and at the same time the speaker recoils, seeking more room. The ‘bed seems smaller’. And while it is not mentioned in the poem, this piece is set within the context of illness that shapes the collection.

The capacity of Malapanis to name things so clearly is what makes her so skilled, as in her aptly titled “Suck This”.

Who gave your cock-hard sureness
Domination over all that was soft
And swollen and wet?

This is a courageous personal work that provides the reader with an experience not unlike that of a therapist; a chance to bear witness to the power of words, to the human capacity to articulate what has not previously been so sharply said. The collection takes the reader into difficult territory, but replenishes because it is such a privilege to have been invited in. Despite the pain and suffering it contains, this book comes to honour the day-to-day life of a migrant’s daughter, lover, mother. It celebrates the ordinary human lives that we live.

 – Henry Briffa


Henry Briffa is a Melbourne Psychologist and Psychotherapist who also studied English Literature. His chapbook Walking Home was published by Melbourne Poets Union in 2019. In 2018 he received a special commendation in the Queensland Poetry Festival Elder Emerging Poet Mentorship Award. His poems have been published in local journals and overseas and he has read at various Melbourne venues including La Mama Poetica.

Unspeakable is available from



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