Review by Robyn Cadwallader
On the second page of Janet Galbraith’s first poetry collection, re-membering, there is a definition, a kind of sub-title: ‘to both remember what has been and to put together’. The ‘and’ here is vital because both activities are wound together in the collection. The poems do not simply look back and recall, but in the very act of such remembering so much is gathered up, brought back together: trauma, grief, love, healing, bodies, the lives of others, stories of those both known and unknown:
The blood red screams
are not only mine.
I am neither the end
nor the beginning
but one among many
call me in
call me out
call me to remember
and I will.
And I do.
There are evocations of raw, scarring pain and moments of quiet engagement with the body, both self and others, and with the natural world. In this way, the eight sections in the book, some dealing with a specific time or place, weave together as a testimony to re-membering.
And this re-membering is both a spiritual and a visceral, profoundly bodily process, as the first poem of the collection makes clear:
I am knitting a body
flesh flesh and spirit
a child shattered
It is ‘a becoming/sewn with shards’. (‘Patchwork’)
Given such personal material, there is always the danger of therapeutic poetry, the kind that helps the poet, but does not have enough distance from the experience to communicate to the reader. This is not the case here, because Galbraith’s careful crafting of words offers perspective at the same time as it recalls, and because she is so conscious of her place in a community of others, now and in the past, who have suffered and who offer healing.
The dispossession she describes is multiple: the wounds of the child, the adult, the people, the ‘wounds of history/countries stolen/the contradictions of who we are’ (Your Country). Perhaps the most confronting poems are the five untitled ones in the section ‘and…’ that begins ‘the child is trapped/in a box/filled with rats’. The imagery is powerful, almost too much — huge clowns, an exhausted rag doll, sharp claws, a hoe used as a weapon — but the strength of these poems is in Galbraith’s ability to hold back, to say just enough, to let the spare words speak.
The section ‘un-worded’ tells stories from a psychiatric ward: ‘Words shot me in the chest …/Screams and wails were the best I could do/and these were bigger than the oceans’ (‘Words’). Yet there are moments of wry humour and companionship, two people on a couch, watching a chef on the TV:
Brown skin holding
white toes entwined
we ogle the knife.
(‘For you who have beautiful feet’).
The moments, though, are tenuous, the poems all the more touching for their refusal to romanticise:
sitting in the gutter with a smoke
we keep each other company
But not too much
The collection is threaded through with signs of healing: from the body, from others, from story, and from nature. The body recovers, slowly and tentatively, but with a quiet strength. ‘Our Breath’ is a short, lovely poem that focuses the senses on the day: the light and wind in the trees, the call of a bird, traffic that sounds like the ocean. Finally, all of this gathers into the body itself, a gentle claiming of self and companionship:
We are alone
Breathing our breath
In and out.
The touch here is delicate and clear, allowing the few words to work so well.
A dominant theme of the poems is the possibility of restoration — not the glib celebration of pain, but the hard work of allowing wounds to fertilise what can be, ‘nourished by the decomposing debris/of what has been’ (‘Something Other’). In some of the poems dedicated to others, Galbraith’s generosity of concern seems to bring its own recovery in the larger vision of the world. And so there is concern not only for dispossessed Indigenous people, but for asylum seekers. ‘The Return (SIEV X)’ is a carefully balanced poem that is both subjective and objective at once, where the poet seems to relive and identify with that place of horror, panic and drowning of the SIEV X victims, yet to simultaneously recognise herself among the ‘us’ that turn away, because she lives in this country. But that isn’t the end of the story: Galbraith is co-ordinator, in Jaara country, of the Castlemaine Vigil in Recognition of Aboriginal Sovereignty and in Solidarity with Refugees.
One of the strongest strands in the poems is the power of ancestors’ stories to rescue and strengthen. They are
like worn accumulating roots
reaching deep under the water
into the muddy soil
so that when I fall in
give me a place to touch
beneath the silt
where all that has been
the material on which I walk.
(‘A Place to Touch’)
Again the apparent detritus, the silt, becomes a source of life. And as with other poems, nature is more than image, but intimately bound into story and relationship. The earth ‘sings me/caresses me/through the hands of a woman’ (‘Re-membering’).
In the final section, ‘writing’, words are restored enough to counter the earlier ‘un-worded’ section. Here, words seem to belong to the natural world. In ‘Yesterday’, a cicada visits the poet as she sits at her table writing a story about a cicada. As narrative and nature meet, the conjunction of words with the insect that sings so loudly and renews itself through shedding its skin, is suggestive of the power of words to recover and heal; ‘yesterday’ becomes ‘now’, and vice versa.
The cover design of this book has a simple series of images running across the centre from back to front: ten film frames of a bird in silhouette taking off over water that reflects the images, wings just touching it in the first frame on the back. Some of the images are blurry, the reflections even more so, the body and wings of the bird both strong and delicate. I’m put in mind of a still lake in the morning. It is a wonderful cover because all of these elements are gathered into this book. Memory is not static or absolute, not everything is clear, and flight demands work and muscle, but is ultimately beautiful. In the short blurb on the back, Suvendrini Perera writes of Galbraith’s ‘deceptively simple lines … saturated with meaning’. It is an apt description; on the cover, the still images, read together, from left to right, become movement, flight. And so it is with this collection where experience, thought, love and craft gather together.
Walleah Press, 2013
79 pp, $20.00