Unspoken ironies and double meanings: Mike Ladd launches In the Room with the She Wolf by Jelena Dinic

In the Room with the She Wolf by Jelena Dinic, Wakefield Press 2021 was launched by Mike Ladd at the Wheatsheaf Hotel, Adelaide on 27 October 2021

Jelena Dinic’s In the Room with the She Wolf was the winner of the 2020 Adelaide Festival Awards for Literature Unpublished Manuscript prize. Unpublished no longer. Here it is in another handsome production by Wakefield Press. Congratulations Jelena you’ve worked hard and long for this. It’s no small thing to achieve this level of poetry in a new language and a new culture.

I want to go straight to the title “In the Room with the She Wolf”. We see here, straight away, the dynamic tensions in Jelena’s writing. Room – domestic, interior, protection. She Wolf – wild, exterior, danger. But it’s not as simple as that. The she wolf in East European symbolism also represents family, the matriarch, the pack leader, the protector. For the great Serbian poet Vasko Popa, who is a definite influence on Jelena, and whose poetry is full of wolves, the she wolf is the Earth Mother, Nature abused by humans:

They catch the she-wolf in steel traps
Stretched from horizon to horizon.
They take the golden mask from her snout
And tear the secret grass
From between her haunches.

As a little girl staying at her Great Aunt’s house in the Serbian mountains, Jelena heard men calling out that the wolves were attacking the sheep outside the village. And she heard myths and fairy stories from her grandmothers. For her the she wolf is many things: “the world itself, woman as survivor, protector of family, female freedom and equality.” But in the title poem of the collection, it gets another layer of complexity still. The room is a laundry where Jelena is sorting the washing and the she wolf appears to be Time and Mortality.

What passes through my hands is an old dress.
And that’s when I feel best

the intimacy of death.
How it creeps into my head. Sets up a stage.

I am its guest and its host.
A thought quietly turns like a key.

Coming
closer

is this a girl who turned into me?
I circle like an opponent.

Her clothes are still delicate.
I want to invite her to dinner.

She will step into my shoes.
Sit on my chair.

Her body will take my shape.
I know her weak spots.

I can’t protect her from myself.

Older Jelena has devoured younger Jelena, and that process will continue inexorably.

She will hang

disembodied,
in the backyard full of sun

And one of us will laugh.
There is no going back.

This poem contains key images for Jelena: the dress as version of the self, fabric of the world, and the idea of stages, performances, games, where fairy tales and dramas are enacted in a private theatre within the domestic. And that playfully ambiguous line: “one of us will laugh” is so Jelena, so Popa. The collection is full of such double-edged play, for example this miniature poem:

Swing

When my country collapsed, I was on a swing.
My mother shouted from her window “hold on, hold on.”

Jelena was just seventeen when she arrived in Adelaide in 1993 after the collapse of Yugoslavia and the Balkans went up in smoke again. One of my favourite poems in the book is J like Y which in fourteen concise stanzas, absolutely nails the “migrate to Australia, learn English” experience:

5.
Cross Cross.
Don’t you understand past tense?
You had a house.
You had friends

The book has some great imagery, worthy of filmmaker Emir Kustarica, for example ‘The Burning of the Dining Table’.

One day hunting
she catches the dining table.
It’s been a fair chase for decades
but now the four legs had no choice.
She wants it to be an honourable kill.
In the name of a family
she pushes the beast out in the paddock,
starts the fire for a bigger feast.
The sky takes the last look.

What a potent symbol of revolt against the domestic. There are elements here of deep and surreal explorations of objects, again, in common with Popa, and other East European poets like Rosewicz and Holub. Boxes, handbags, mirrors, and not to leave out her current life in the bushfire-prone Adelaide hills, rain-water tanks:

It is set in its foreign ways.
Will I know
to shout its language
when nature reignites.

In fact, the collection doesn’t have a linear structure of starting in Serbia and ending in Australia. It constantly interweaves the two, going back and forth both physically and in memory. Jelena grew up in Aleksinac, a coal-mining town where the coal ran out, and when she goes back to visit she finds:

only the water in the well
is still alive

Also she discovers that:

Divorced
from communism

the old street has taken back
its maiden name

And when she and her family have a swim in the blue caves of the Adriatic her children shout in English, “How could you leave this place?” She doesn’t need to spell out that in an alternative history without the Balkan wars they would be splashing and shouting in Serbian with no sense of having left for anywhere else.

Unspoken ironies and double meanings are a strong feature of Jelena’s writing. When a Croatian doctor takes a blood sample from her:

We watch each other through needle eyes.
I am iron deficient and lack a plan,
but I sense we both have a fair share of bad blood.

Peter Goldsworthy is right to say this is a book of journeys from childhood to adulthood, Serbia to Australia and Serbian to English and Kate Llewellyn is right too when she talks of Jelena’s strength in triumphing through these transitions. Jelena is the she wolf herself, and as she said to me in an email:

“the she wolf is all about her pack. She wolf is fierce and protective and strong and wild and caring and free. The title carries the poem in the book and it is about a moment when I found an old dress. I felt like I met my old self. It was a strange meeting and complicated on many levels. But it was also a moment when I realized that there was no going back, but I could start again and change the ending. I think there is a she wolf in all of us.”

The book is launched. The she wolf is in the room.

 – Mike Ladd

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Mike Ladd is a poet, radio producer and essayist. He has published nine collections of poetry and prose, the most recent, Invisible Mending from Wakefield Press. He was the editor of ABC Radio National’s Poetica program, which ran for eighteen years and brought Australian and international poetry to a wide audience. Mike currently works for Radio National’s features and documentary unit. For 40 years he has collaborated with Cathy Brooks on art and poetry projects for video, street installations, text and performance.

In the Room with the She Wolf by Jelena Dinic is available from https://www.wakefieldpress.com.au/product.php?productid=1685&cat=0&page=1