The Abbotsford Mysteries is Patricia Sykes’ third poetry collection. A surprising title, perhaps, for a book about the girls who were cared for at the Abbotsford Convent in Melbourne, home for orphans, migrants, and the ‘wayward’, between 1927 and the early 1970s. But it is, indeed, a book of mysteries.
Organised around the divine mysteries of the Catholic rosary, the eleven poems in each of five sections echo the eleven beads of the rosary and its prayers, symbol and reality for the structure of the convent day. With each bead and poem we hear more than prayers — we hear the fleeting voices of women, once girls there, who speak in brief moments of memory and revelation. The collection is at once thematic and varied, historical and immediate, structured and resistant.
Sykes, once a resident of the orphanage herself, arranged reunions at the convent where she spoke to over seventy women who once lived there. Place has a power over memory, but the memories seem elusive: in ‘Architecture’ the women ‘wander like the bewildered’ to find the years they ‘buried’ behind the walls,
still present in the faces
which are not our faces
who trail us like the ghosts
of unfinished things.
They tell their stories against a sense of distance; truth is ‘as difficult to prove as differing histories’. Time and space, voice and recollection, weave together to give us glimpses, evocations, touches of people and their life behind the doors.
On first reading, I felt that the poems were so allusive and elusive that there was not enough concrete detail for me to engage with the place and the girls, now women, who speak in the poems. But the concrete is definitely there — the laundry where the ‘wayward’ girls worked, the river that runs nearby, the blood of menstruation, the baths taken wearing cotton robes, the cloak room, even the neon light of the Skipping Girl vinegar factory nearby — but each one shimmers and blurs with attachments, accretions, mystery.
In many poems, the physical is complicated by the religious and spiritual that pervaded every aspect of the girls’ daily routine. ‘Bloodline’ juxtaposes Christian imagery with the physical experiences of the pubescent girls in three simple questions. Are the ‘Holy Mothers’ all virgins? That is ‘a red line / that must not be crossed’. In the blood of their own menstruation, can the girls identify with the blood of Christ?
How can it be wicked
to hold that women and girls
are true sufferers of blood?
It is not physicality alone, but the female body and it insistent presence that is spurned and isolated to spirituality:
some of us know, have felt,
the agony of bringing forth
from the warm taboo that bore
the holy infant what are we to
name it if not womb?
These lines are masterful, not simply drawing together images of Christ and Mary with lived female experience but arguing back, demanding recognition.
Sykes’ poems offer this over and again: glimpses, hints of a girl or a ritual, questions and confusions, set against the blindingly moving line that does not summarise or answer, but offers, as it were, a window for understanding, where contradictions sit uneasily together to reveal more to us. In ‘Glass story’, the girls, separated from families, are gathered into an impossible story ‘As if we fit together like old shards … in a neat history of broken glass’; the nuns choose the paradox of the ‘erotic distance of God’ (‘Conceived’); the convent, essential and life-saving shelter for many, is also ‘the sanctioned care / that feeds the door with young’ (‘Aspect’); and ‘in the humid confessional / everything is epic’ where the priest’s questions about sin raise unimagined horrors such as sex with an animal (‘Mortal, venial’). The images are visceral, layered, illuminating.
In some moments, the girls are not so much remembered, but become clearly heard and seen; they are vividly present to us. In ‘Visitation of sweetness’ the girls develop crushes on the retreat priests and
rush into the cloakroom
and jabber among the coats
then go out and be saintly again.
In an achingly poignant Gloria, one of the five final poems in the rosary divisions of the collection, the sensual breaks through, weaves in and out of the words of liturgy. The voices (and girls) ‘shiver’ in church, long to dance, for then
our blood would warm
us Lord O Lord
we’re hivey-jive girls
rock’n’roll girls (we
keep your picture next
to Elvis) Kyrie eleison
Those last two words (meaning ‘O Lord, have mercy’) suggest a confession of sorts, submitting to the spiritual framework, but also a call to God for understanding, for finally, it is Elvis who takes the primary place and Christ who is next to him. In ‘Iambic pentameter’, the metre of poetry (‘I hide my poems like hoarded love’) is insistent: ‘We are children of rhythm as well as of God’. Such poems, for me, are vital, showing the resistant energy and life of female desire.
More generally, the voices remember the past. They emerge from the shadows, speak a line or two, the seed of a story, then disappear again; they are, by turns, angry, sad, broken, grateful, humorous, playful and wise. In each is the potential for recovering the ghosts of so many faces and in places, it seems that the voice, usually formatted in italics, almost demands it:
that thing who married my father
put me in the orphanage
for a virginity test
we can tell she is innocent
by the way shame strips her
naked by the guilt
she calls love-wishing
all I ever wanted
was someone to love me
the walls such bad lovers holding
her for years in their cold stone crush (‘Deadly endings’)
The unfinished, the remembered, the haunted, the differing — these are the qualities of the collection, though there were times when I wanted the mist of allusion to clear more often. The poems ask for time and careful reading, for ‘sitting with’ and listening. The life of the girls and the women they became deserve such accomplished recognition.
The Abbottsford Mysteries
October 2011, Spinifex Press