Bold yet subtle: Vasilka Pateras reviews ‘An Embroidery of Old Maps and New’ by Angela Costi

An Embroidery of Old Maps and New by Angela Costi, Spinifex Press 2021

There is a majesty about Angela Costi’s new poetry collection, An Embroidery of Old Maps and New, in a weave of words that elevates the simple into an artful epic of beauty, dignity and a persistent quest for justice. At the heart of this collection is the question of legacy – a dedication to her mother Eleni and grandmothers who are each background and foreground, as practitioners of the Cypriot lace-making tradition Lefkarathika, to a detailed exploration of the human condition. The collection poses the question of how does a woman poet immersed in two worlds, as the Greek-Cypriot ‘migrant daughter’, divided by hemispheres lay her ideas about the world as witness, inheritor and storyteller?

In Costi’s rich and layered poems we are invited into the migrant home with its uncanny assortment of suitcases full of complex histories from shores afar. What does Costi do with these? She unpacks and repacks, embroiders and unpicks the threads in Making Lace – extends them to the world of refugees in Arrival and Refugee Aerobics, to new locations and racist encounters in ‘The Good Citizens of Melbourne ‘, to creating a simpatico with the factory workers in ‘Kinaesthetic Grace: Hispanic women wearing paper masks as they spray…’

With writing that is both lucid and precise, the reader is brought into a conflictual world of nourishment and privation. These are totems of the migrant home, but it is not just food — it is words that tell a story of another time without and from within:

Costi evokes the civil trauma of countries and the subsequent heaviness of legacy and debt carried by many children of migrants in her poem ‘Heavy’:

I can see how I carry Yiayia’s war
In the ample dunes of my belly…

I feast on their hunger to make them proud,
so does my mother, she was spared war,
was given depression to carry …she reaches for the largesse
of orchards, eats the oranges without pause,
staves off memories of dead fruit harvests,
swallows the threat of scurvy and anaemia
like melomakaroma for morning tea.

And in the poem ‘Knock Knock’, Costi draws on the nightmare and loneliness and trauma of war:

My grandmother spoke
about her time with war,
never opening the door despite
her hearth crying for company

What do we, the reader, do with Costi’s words — this history? How do we situate ourselves in the inimitable strangeness of the migrant experience and the eternal aspiration for a better life. Expressing these experiences, such as the delicate art of lace-making is replaced by the written word in ‘Making Lace’:

She peaks through gofti, through fairy windows and sees me.
Letter by letter, crossing the keyboard
Thread weave through out and in
She sees her children’s children not work in fields harvesting rotten crops.

In ‘Kostaki’s Harvest woes’, Costi takes the reader into different territory of the clash of civilisations between Aboriginal and European cultures. She cleverly traverses the bloodshed of invasion and colonisation of Australia, and the negation of Aboriginal knowledge, through imported and superimposed European land care practices:

The soil here bleeds too
The land buries itself in your nails
It wants to teach you about the first people and their culture
But we don’t listen with our pellets, blood and bone..

The prescience of this collection – is in showing how the soil offers a way to understand this country, and unlock its history. The migrant daughter astutely recognises the need to form connection with place, and country. It is here Costi’s writing is bold, yet subtle, sign-posting the way to reaching a reconciliation of difference. It is the challenge to every migrant and settler of this ancient land.

In the middle section of the collection there is a shift of gear where Costi takes us to the next-generation daughter who has to negotiate the complexity of the “new world” , venture into the world of University, encounters of violence of language in ‘The English Missionary’. There is a mood of reticence, a timidity in encounter, the uncanny in the taken for-granted, middle class world of the academy, revealing the gulf between working-class migrant girl and the structures of knowledge — of visibility and invisibility. This absence of the migrant daughter’s cultural roots reflected in the society around her is so deftly captured in the poem ‘Outskirts’:

She will not count the nineteen train stations
Like a word-count of labour for an essay on torts,
Won’t look at the perpetual fight between art and defiance
On the ocean of walls riding the train tracks,
Won’t read the history of her upbringing as a textbook
To carry from one lecture to the other on precedent.

In ‘Quadrangle of Dreams ‘– Costi extends her encounters with the structures of knowledge as an understood rites of passage into joining the middle class. There is a tension here in the skene of the words as a not fully initiated or endorsed outsider:

The wind comes to greet me
Like forced friendship
Postera crescam laude
shaking my body
expecting me to become
the university’s motto
before I am permitted within

In the last section of the collection, Costi turns her attention to travel, violence and the vicarious trauma of a frontline worker and the agony of ageing parents and covid. It is a more reflective section that includes travels in India as the acute observer who admonishes herself in ‘Travel with a Coward’s Heart’:

I thought I mastered the language of listen,
knew how inhale difference better than air

In the poem ‘Frontline’ the spectre of domestic violence and its multiple impacts often intergenerational, unpredictable is tackled. The brutality of the violence is juxtaposed with a tender promise :

I will gather her story, gently in my arms, sing to it

Costi’s poetic work is layered, and rich as it is visceral. It unearths the stories of so many migrants, refugees, assembly-line workers:

This is the woman
silenced by statistics
We must search for her
not in photo albums nor newspapers,
we must smell, touch, taste,
and when we see her
hold out our hands
as children willing to learn.

 – ‘Kinaesthetic Grace’

There are many voices across the Australian landscape still to be heard, these maps are still to be charted and — in the words of the social theorist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak — who famously asks “Can the subaltern speak?” Costi’s collection provides a certain re-joinder.

 – Vasilka Pateras

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Vasilka Pateras is a Melbourne-based poet and emerging writer whose work is published in n-SCRIBE, The Blue Nib, Mediterranean Poetry, Poetry on the Move, Eureka Street, Backstory Journal and Teesta Journal. Recently she published a chapbook called Thread with two other poets. She regularly reads as part of the Melbourne Spoken Word community and featured at Girls on Key in May 2021.

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An Embroidery of Old Maps and New is available from https://www.spinifexpress.com.au/shop/p/9781925950243

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