“Poetry was a way for me to give my grief the time and energy I felt it needed. A loss like the loss of a parent changes and reshapes you… My feelings at that point were so complex that only poetry felt right… I found I was writing a lot of poems, and these ultimately became the core of Unmaking Atoms.” – Magdalena Ball
Zalehah Turner: Can you tell me a little about the story behind Unmaking Atoms- your mother, your relationship with her, and your experience of her diagnosis and death?
Magdalena Ball: I was fairly far along with the writing of a novel when my mother got sick. She lived in the United States, and though, we spoke every week on FaceTime, I couldn’t tell how much weight she had lost. [Despite being] a lifelong hypochondriac, she underplayed her symptoms dramatically when it counted. I thought maybe she had a urinary tract infection. Her many doctors didn’t pick it up either, though she had classic cancer symptoms. Something only apparent to me in hindsight. It wasn’t until she was bleeding heavily that they decided to remove her kidney. At that point, we still had no idea that it was cancer. She was only seventeen when she had me and her marriage to my father was very short lived. So, my mother and I were very close, shifting the role of mother and daughter at times, as we grew up together, often just the two of us. Although the landscape of our lives changed pretty frequently with different partners, and much later, brothers.
I left the United States when I was about twenty to go to graduate school in England. Basically, I never went back [except for short visits]. I migrated to Australia with my husband a few years later. I probably didn’t visit the America as often as I should have, and she wouldn’t fly, so we were limited to electronic communication. The trip back to the US with three children was prohibitively expensive and difficult, though we did go back as a whole family two years before she became sick. I [also] visited several times on my own and with my eldest when he was eighteen months. Through her sickness, I went back and forth three times: the first to look after her, after her kidney operation in September /October; again, in December, after the cancer diagnosis; and one more time in January, when I didn’t quite make it in time. She died while I was en route, at Los Angeles Airport, but at least I was there for all the post-death stuff with my three maternal half-brothers. My mother never fully trusted her doctors, sometimes with good reason – they made a hash of her diagnosis. I was torn. I wanted to look after her and be with her. I had no idea, at any point, that she would die so soon, and [I needed] to be at home to take care of my three teenage children. It was a very intense time!
I kept working on my novel through the first visit. I was actually trading chapter by chapter critiques with another writer and kept to the schedule: writing on the plane, at night at my mother’s house when I couldn’t sleep, and in snatches of time. However, by the time I was home after my first visit, I found that I had lost my interest in writing prose. My feelings at that point were so complex that only poetry felt right. In the meantime, I found I was writing a lot of poems, and these ultimately became the core of Unmaking Atoms.
Zalehah: Many of the poems deal with the pain and loss of a loved one; her absence in the everyday, the future, and in the eternal. Can you elaborate?
Magdalena: I certainly wanted to explore the notion of loss – obviously in the context of the loss I was experiencing but I wanted also to go further than that. So much of what we are, and the way we perceive ourselves, falls away. Our skin cells die and are replaced every day, our hair falls out, our body changes, we lose track of people who once filled our lives – life is a progression of transformations. This is partly what I wanted to explore, in the context of loss, an exploration of identity and what remains as a constant in the face of all that loss.
Zalehah: Did the incredibly short time she was given create a situation in which you could only think about your feelings and deal with the loss afterwards and is this why writing poetry appealed to you?
Magdalena: I did a lot of writing on the many flights I took (Sydney to Richmond was about 25 hours in the air), but I also did a lot of work in the years following. The things that were drawing me during that time, and what still continues to draw me, usually involves many things are going on at once. Poetry handles that complexity very well – better, I think, than other art forms. Poetry allowed me to go a little deeper, and to also allow for enough ambiguity to invite the reader in. No one is immune from grief. Patti Smith says, ‘the privilege of being human is that we have our moment when we have to say goodbye’ – it’s part of the ‘human package’.
Zalehah: Did you find writing it a healing process, an attempt at understanding all that had happened, a journey that is still ongoing, and/ or a tribute to her memory?
Magdalena: Writing for me wasn’t so much a healing process, but a way to transform an unapproachable and therefore poisonous pain – this inchoate, black thing – into something that could be lived with. I found that as I wrote, I continually rediscovered my mother: the person she was, but also the person who I am through her. I feel her with me – not in a supernatural way, but just as a part of who I am now – her voice is always in my head. Writing kept me open to that; to letting this sense of loss become also a way to find her.
I think the key for me, has been not to shrink from the pain – not to look away. Talking about it is hard. I never wanted to whine, or to fall into the trap of misery. From the moment I returned to Australia, and even while I was away, dealing with all the stuff that has to be dealt with when someone dies, there were so many distractions. My husband and kids needed me to deal with their issues after I’d been away so much. My job needed my attention. I had food shopping to do. The house needed a vacuum. It would have been easy to let those distractions keep me from the painful act of reflecting.
Poetry was a way for me to give my grief the time and energy I felt it needed. A loss like the loss of a parent changes and reshapes you, and to pretend otherwise isn’t healthy. I’ve been exploring that grief endlessly – allowing it in and exploring the universal nature of it and finding great solace in community.
Zalehah: What poetic devices did you find best suited your subject and themes?
Magdalena: There are lots of devices that I find myself drawn to, again and again. Anthropomorphism and Personification are probably the devices that I’m most drawn to. I think the idea of moving away from a purely human perspective – I mean it’s always a human perspective – but to open myself to the notion of ‘difference’ and explore a sense that there may be other forms of intelligence and other ways of experiencing life, by allowing rocks to talk, or trees, or planets, lets me get a little closer to the heart of alienation, or love, or loss, without falling into cliché or standard tropes.
Zalehah: The title, Unmaking Atoms, is immediately provoking, and draws to mind atomic bombs, where the atom is split, yet somehow the verb unmaking suggests an ongoing process. In Unmaking Atoms, you’ve managed to create emotive, scientific jargon which is, at times, antagonistic, by the juxtaposition of contrasting or conflicting words or phrases. How did you find the balance, in Unmaking Atoms between emotion and science, not to mention, the connection (or contrast) between the two?
Magdalena: I think that there is an essential poetic underpinning to physics. I’m not the only one. The physicist Richard Feynman has likened poetry and physics: ‘The vastness of the heavens stretches my imagination — stuck on this carousel my little eye can catch one-million-year-old light. A vast pattern — of which I am a part… What is the pattern or the meaning or the why?’ This stretching of the imagination is the same impetus in the scientist, as it is in the poet.
I tend to naturally think in the space between emotion and science – it feels quite ordinary to me. It might be because I’ve worked for the last twenty-seven years in a science job as a kind of language focused/ non-scientist. So, I’ve developed a way of fitting in that environment that skirts at the edge of science. It allows me to explore similar questions and do my own form of experimentation that is language, rather than formula based. I think that the deep, careful observation of a poet is a kind of science. It’s very different from a lab experiment, but it still plays out in a similar trajectory.
Zalehah: Are you an atheist (or not religious) and, if so, is science your way of understanding, or questioning, disease, death, and the possibilities or limitations of existence afterwards?
Magdalena: My family background is Jewish. I know I have the most Catholic name possible – my great grandmother was very distraught by Magdalena. Though my mother called herself culturally Jewish, she was actually a practising Hindu for most of her life, aside from a brief stint as a Zen Buddhist. She left very strict instructions for a Tibetan ritual to be performed over her body and left New York for Virginia to live close to her guru. So, I’ve had exposure to a lot of Eastern religions and I suppose I like to think of myself as a reasonably spiritual person, though I certainly don’t believe in a deity. I suppose, science tells us we’re all made up of the same stuff – that matter cannot be created or destroyed (the Law of Conservation of Mass). For some bizarre reason, this does oddly comfort and in some very small way, excite me (just the nerd in me). That said, I don’t think it’s fair to pitch science against religion. They’re not equivalents. Science is based on evidence, and isn’t meant to provide final answers. It’s always best evidence and repeatability, and scientists expect their work to be superseded. It’s part of the process. Faith is something else entirely and I think it can coincide with science, as long as, you see it as something that doesn’t contain a burden of proof.
Zalehah: Which are your favourite poems in it and why?
Magdalena: I’m not sure I can choose favourites, but I wrote the first set – ‘The Last Report of the Day’, ‘Charitable Crumb’, and ‘Luminous Air’ as a kind of trio in tribute to three writers – Adrienne Rich, Elizabeth Bishop and Edna St Vincent Millay – who I felt were almost like historic mothers to my work. I tried to contain their style and many of their lines and even some biographical details, while trying to create something that stood alone and had my own voice. It felt to me, as if I were in conversation with these three poets across time. As if, in my motherless state, I was leaning on them for the kind of unstinting support that mothers provide. It’s outrageous hubris I know, but there was something very enjoyable about doing that.
Zalehah: In ‘Ashes for the Earth’ you write in your mother’s voice, as one who has passed. Tell me about the importance of this poem and the variation in style and tone denoting a change in voice. What insights did you gain from writing ‘Ashes for the Earth’?
Magdalena: I don’t even know how it happened that I slipped into her voice when I was writing that poem. It felt a very natural thing to do. I did it again in ‘Six Realms’ though not as emotively. There’s a bit more of a wry edge in that one. This is partly what I meant by being able to continue to find my mother through the work. Writing the poem, felt almost like an extension of the Tibetan ceremony we held for her: like I was giving her permission to go. [It was] something I had to find in myself, because I wasn’t just sad, I was also angry and guilt-ridden. Letting go of my own pain, so I could see her off by taking her voice, felt a necessary step.
Zalehah: Which poets or specific poems did you draw on, or find connections with, when writing your book?
Magdalena: I’m a pretty regular reader of poetry, and am always inspired by other poets. Probably one of my biggest, most pervasive influences is Dorothy Porter. Her book, Other Worlds is a kind of gold standard for me on bringing together grief and science; the natural world and human pain. Of course, the influence of Emily Dickinson, Edna St Vincent Millay, Adrienne Rich, Elizabeth Bishop, and Gertrude Stein are quite strong through the book, but I was inspired by a lot of modern poets too. One example is Lisa Gorton’s Hotel Hyperion. Gorton also seems to walk a very fine line between the minute domestic and the grand scale; between big science and an often maternal emotion that appealed to me immediately and that continues to provide inspiration every time I return to the book.
Zalehah: Can you tell me about the new book that you have in the pipeline?
Magdalena: I’ve just finished writing a poetic memoir. I’ve tried to situate each of the poems in a specific historical context, so it’s not so much a book about my life, but about the nature of memory and time, primarily set in New York City in 1960s/ 70s /80s where I grew up. Time is such a complex thing to explore. We’re immersed in it. It makes up every aspect of how we define our lives, in linear intervals on a continuum, and yet the reality of experience doesn’t fit that very well at all. Time isn’t only relativistic in physics – it’s also relative psychologically. I wanted to play with the notion of time using a number of situations that happened to me, without discounting the dreamlike way we experience our lives. All those distractions, perspectives, sensations: our piecemeal memory that consists of different sensory imprints, not all of which are linguistic. Some of those experiences exist outside of language and I wanted to play with these forms of memory and perception.
So, while the book is in many respects deeply personal in that it traces a trajectory that is specifically mine, it’s all real in the sense of things that I can recall having happened. I didn’t want to shy from some of the more difficult things that took place. Some of the pieces were written in prose first to get the shape of them, but at the same time, I think there’s a scientific eye that is inquisitive in a fairly objective way. The tone is somewhat more upbeat than Unmaking Atoms. That said, I’m afraid I’m always a bit apocalyptic in my writing.
Interviewee: Magdalena Ball is a novelist, poet, reviewer, interviewer, and the editor of Compulsive Reader. She has been widely published in literary journals, anthologies, and is the author of several books of poetry and fiction. Her collection of poetry, Unmaking Atoms, was published by Ginninderra Press in 2017. Magdalena Ball was shortlisted for the Queensland Poetry Festival Philip Bacon Ekphrasis Award 2017, the Bayside Poetry Awards 2015, and highly commended for the New Shoots Poetry Prize 2016. She also received commendations in the Poetry competition at the Morisset Lake Macquarie District Show.
Five poems from Unmaking Atoms
Unmaking Atoms by Magdalena Ball is available from Ginninderra Press
“the inner and outer worlds of the bereaved”: Malcolm St Hill reviews Magdalena Ball’s Unmaking Atoms
Interviewer: Zalehah Turner is a Sydney based poet, photographer, cultural journalist, and Associate Editor of Rochford Street Review (RSR). Zalehah is currently working on an intermedia poetry collection entitled, Critical condition, focused on the interstitial threshold between life and death in medical crises based on personal experience. Zalehah holds a BA in Communication with a major in writing and cultural studies from the University of Technology, Sydney where she continues to pursue pushing the boundaries of poetry and multimedia in Honours (Communication- Creative Writing).
Featured Writer issue 21: Four poems
Featured Artists issue 23