The mastery of immersion and advocacy in Jordie Albiston’s poetry by Angela Costi

The mastery of immersion and advocacy in Jordie Albiston’s poetry, particularly how three of her collections resonated during ‘lockdown’  –  The Hanging of Jean Lee Black Pepper, 1998. The Cyprus Poems (Picaro Poets, 2018). element: the atomic weight & radius of love (Puncher & Wattmann Poetry, 2019.

Jordie Albiston. Photo Nicholas Walton-Healey

From March to November 2020, the Melbourne populace was restricted, curfewed and in ‘lockdown’ due to COVID19, bringing with it a slow-down, a chance to engage deeply with what nourishes. This was a time when I hunkered down with a breadth of poetry collections engaging with themes of isolation, exile and crises. I gravitated to collections of poems that built on an issue, immersing themselves in one world and all of its nuances. This is the mastery of award-winning poet and scholar, Dr Jordie Albiston. She applies outstanding rigour to research and content, as much as she does to form and metre. During the many months of solitary neighbourhood walks, mandatory masks and global crises spreading through airwaves, Albiston’s poems created reflective spaces on how history is only separated by time, and ‘love’ must be activated on a fundamental level.

Taking long walks within the parameters of my suburb included walking through the now reinvented Pentridge Prison. From 1851-1997, it was a penal stockade, a gaol with a notoriously cruel history of severe treatment towards incarcerated men and women. Along with the bludgeoning, the escapes and the extreme solitary confinement, there were the executions. A total of 11 prisoners were executed including Jean Lee a 32-year-old woman. Lee was sedated, strapped to a chair and hanged in D Division, which has now been converted to a luxury wine storage centre.

Rereading Albiston’s classic collection The Hanging of Jean Lee (Black Pepper, 1998) during my walks through narrow streets and lanes called Sentry, Warden’s Walk, Jika (Jika Jika was the maxium security division, later renamed K Division), created both an immersive world and a contemporary counterpoint to a period of ‘lockdown’ due to plague. The collection’s focus is the life and death of Jean Lee who was convicted of murder and the last woman to be executed in Australia. A chronology of events is provided, from the marriage of Lee’s parents in 1903 to Lee’s final moments at Pentridge Prison, 1951. The poems tend to adhere to this chronology with the clever use of four news-driven domains: Personal Pages, Entertainment Section, Crime Supplement and Death Notices. Comprehensive research is balanced with a re-imagination of voice and character, both plausible and riveting.

Cell Talk

These walls are angels in their
hordes …..families of vampires
angling down through my eyes
as I lie on the floor…..I think
they don’t see me…..they come

right out at me…..pecking my
prison clothes picking my bones
ensuring I’m rarely alone…..Hark
the Herald angels sing Jean Lee
is going to die …..They lick their

tacky tabloid wings…..gather
around me and toss themselves
with terrible might at the final
light I’ve found…..As my death
approaches and my birth recedes

I clutch the rosary of hours…..A
couple of them sing to me…..We
will watch over thee…..give me
communion in a medicine cup
and continue their daily rounds

The careful placement of poems reporting on the key events and those externalising Lee’s thoughts, provide a sense of advocacy. We come to know of Lee as more than a headline. Albiston ensures Lee’s voice rings through the bars with attuned attention to the impending horror of her execution.

Giving voice to those misunderstood and mistreated in history is what Albiston does so well. Before the The Hanging of Jean Lee, Albiston published a collection dedicated to recreating the experiences of the first White women, including convicts, in Botany Bay Document: A Poetic History of the Women of Botany Bay (Black Pepper, 1996). Again, her poetry is evidence-based, informed by a wide array of historical documentation.

The Cyprus Poems (Picaro Poets, 2018) is another poetry collection of Albiston’s that resonated with me deeply during the months of prohibited or limited visits to my elderly parents. Both my parents are from Cyprus and so I am steeped in their conflicting nostalgia and trauma associated with a homeland of war and division.

Albiston was commissioned by Much Ado Pty Ltd (a theatre and film company) to write a suite of poems about the 1974 invasion of Cyprus for a music-theatre piece titled Aphrodite’s Tears. The collection begins with two epigraphs, one from Euripide’s play, The Trojan Women, which was a progressive play in its time as it highlighted the horrible plight women endure in war and its aftermath. The epigraph heralds the emphasis throughout the collection on the impact of war on women and girls. Also, Albiston uses this Ancient Greek myth and play to unveil connections through certain characters and their stories. Andromache who is destined to lose her son in Euripides’ play is given voice in two poems, which can be spoken or sung.

Andromache’s Song (II)

our neighbour is a man
we share laughter / loukanika / life
oh please / do not give us up

our father is a man
he worships / he works / the land
oh please / let him dig it up

our brother is a man
he loves / he lives / he is
oh please / do not give him up

my son is almost a man
his beauty hard to believe
oh please / let him grow up

Cassandra is another renowned Ancient Greek character, Albiston ‘inhabits’. There are four poems written as ‘case notes’ by an imagined psychiatrist documenting Cassandra’s reality and prophetic thoughts, then misdiagnosing with commentary:

initial aphasia (?)/nausea/confusion re facts
goddess complex?
recommend increase meds

These case note poems work on another level; they provide disturbing insight into how the invasion of 1974 brought ongoing trauma and victimisation to many young women raped, brutalised and abused. An excerpt from one poem:

‘Cassandra’(Case Note #35)

reduction in sedative/ect administered/nil clinical
..improvement

  1. i see big horse again filled with mans & not
    wooden
  2. but hard like shield blasting bad hard fire i see
    land
  3. not call troy is called aeria / aspelia / kolinia /
    kryptos
  4. call cyprus & mans bearing keras the horns &
    every
  5. one die is still die every one in the month
    archiereus
  6. in the month aphrodisius & after again & the
    plague

Another effective devise Albiston uses is the ‘interview’ poem. There are four poems in the voice of ‘Uncle George’ and they feel like poetic transcripts of his answers to questions an interviewer may have asked. They cover Uncle George’s life as a child in Cyprus, where he was working at the time the soldiers attacked his village and his reflections on what has happened to the land since that time.

Uncle George (Interview IV)

I visited home in kyrenia.…..on the way I
was thinking all about it.…..in a moment
I conceived that it was to be seen.…..full
collapsed.…..when I saw it repaired I am
standing astonished I don’t know what

is around me.…..I am.…..surprised to see
the swimming pool.…..I am.…..saddened
to see no trees.…..I am.…..angry to be told
our home is sold to some britains without
consent.…..two nights I am not sleeping I

recall my father then.…..were he been alive
what? do I think would he say.…..one day
he spoke the next words…..if may go back
we shall not find even roof.…..18 yrs since his
talkings at me.…..nevertheless.…..it was new.

This chapbook is similar to Albiston’s earlier herstory collections by way of creatively documenting, and recreating papers, reports, studies, interviews etc. as poems. However, the situation in Cyprus is vexed as it continues to be a colonised, partitioned, shared, contested, strategically located island. It is all these things and in relatively recent years, a refuge, an asylum and a new home to many others escaping poverty, war and civil upheaval, with accompanying issues of humanitarian rights and racial discrimination. ‘The Cyprus problem / conflict / dispute’ is now a settled name for 47 years of split identity. By focusing on the impact of the 1974 war and crisis, Albiston provides resonances across both mythological and historical wars, including the many in recent years, such as the Vietnam War 1955-75, the Bosnian War 1992-95 and in recent months, the civil protests and riots in the USA.

‘On the home front’ we are reminded daily that the enemy is minute respiratory droplets. But when generously magnified resemble a planet of grey dirt with red trees that are planted like needles in a pincushion. Theories, facts, opinions about these crown-like particles are mixed and diffused as in chemistry. The science of the novel coronavirus becomes all-encompassing as we grapple to learn as much as we can in order to survive.

The atomic wonder of our material world, and in turn, our existence, is something I wouldn’t normally turn to for solace, but that’s what element: the atomic weight & radius of love (Puncher & Wattmann Poetry, 2019) provided. Albiston’s recent collection ignited my dormant synapses in so many ways: firstly, a reacquaintance with the periodic table, then, how matter at the most fundamental scale can be purified with poetic discourse, and finally, a revised understanding of relationship and love, one that is built from substance.

The way Albiston is able to harness the essence of 60 chemical elements to portray their history, identity and personality is as inspiring as the classic short story collection by Primo Levi (chemist and Holocaust survivor), The Periodic Table (Penguin Books, 1975). Levi brought to both the literary canon and to the world beyond scientists, a personable and enlightened way of engaging with 21 chemicals, which were the tit les for each of his short stories. Levi found chemistry and poetry to be inextricably linked:

That conquering matter is to understand it, and understanding matter is necessary to understanding the universe and ourselves: and that therefore Mendeleev’s Periodic Table, … was poetry, loftier and more solemn than all the other poetry we had swallowed down in liceo; and come to think of it, it even rhymed!

Similarly, in Albiston’s collection there is that inextricable bind of atomic radius and weight with metaphor, chemical reaction and creation. The perfect marriage of unlikely parts. The collection begins with hydrogen synonymous with its first stanza (or epigraph) comprised of one word: ‘H-ome’, which is ever-present like hydrogen, confirming its overwhelming presence as matter, as lover:

stars shine only because of you…..transmuting yourself into always & light…..&
Kororoit Creek becomes one with the cloud…..above Bass Strait & Cherry Lake
& the place where we combine…..you are in everything everywhere…..the sun
consumes you as you consume me…..600 million tons per moment…..day…..day
night

Each and every poem follows a precise mathematical format comprising an epigraph (or first stanza) which is written across the page (like a prose poem) and with a word count that is equal to the element’s atomic weight, while the second stanza has a word count equal to the element’s atomic radius. Every poem begins with the element’s symbol dissected with an m dash but still creating a full word such as ‘Ne-arly every…’ for the chemical and poem neon and ‘Ar-istotle said…’ for the chemical and poem argon. There is also word repetition, rhyme and half-rhyme, and ecstatic phrasing reminiscent of Walt Whitman – a considered alchemy, ensuring discovery and surprise with each chemical come poem.

The poem for the chemical niobium (Nb) is rich with the cautionary Ancient Greek myth of Niobe, from whom the chemical was named. Niobe dared to boast about her abundance of children

& there-there a mother’s heart turned Weeping Rock…..turned stone

The second stanza for niobium is poetic reportage of how niobium is used and misused, its horrific impact in Congo and then the guilt of love for this

………………………………………………………………………………………………….starry-
eyed rarefied pre-Faustian boy

As it packs a punch from line to line:

cellphones…..scanners…..rockets…..rings…..o! how we need you & how we ignore a
war…..invisible Congo…..so rich with you…..60% of the whole-wide-world hoard
& the brawl it has brought to the villagers villagers…..the quest for mud which
delivers big bucks from a guy out there called The West…..5 million dead whom
you didn’t kill…..you are not gun…..but how you are used….. & I use you too…..SMS

Albiston’s poetry brought home the amplification of the weight and radius of love during ‘lockdown’. Relationships were tested, analysed and reported within houses treated as laboratory experiments to see if they could become offices and schoolrooms, churches and mosques, pubs and performance hubs.

These three collections, dealing with mistreatment, conflict and heartache, connect with the deeper level of human condition during a time of chaos and emergency. The way Albiston is able to immerse herself with the issues and themes, and find the soul-line of characters from ‘other worlds’ brings home that these other worlds are within all of us.

 – Angela Costi

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Angela Costi is the author of five poetry collections, including Honey&Salt (Five Islands Press, 2007), Lost in Mid-Verse (Owl Publishing, 2014) and An Embroidery of Old Maps and New (Spinifex Press, 2021). Funding from the City of Melbourne enabled her to produce four video poems, which are published in Issue 29 of Rochford Street Review. Some of her poetry, essays and reviews can be found in recent issues of Hecate, Burrow, Antipodes, The Journal of Working-Class Studies, APJ, Right Now (Human Rights in Australia) and Cordite. Angela can be found at
https://www.facebook.com/AngelaCostiPoetics/

The Hanging of Jean Lee is available from https://blackpepperpublishing.com/albistonthojl.html
element: the atomic weight & radius of love is available from https://puncherandwattmann.com/ product/element/

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