On Jordie Albiston’s “The Book of Ethel”

Jordie Albiston’s The Book of Ethel is a fine demonstration of the enduring possibilities of form and rhyme. It presents a series of chronological portrait-poems about the life of her maternal great grandmother, Ethel, who was born in Cornwall in 1872 and migrated to Australia as a young woman. The book reads as a long poem or short verse novel, or – as David Gilbey argues in his review – a “verse autobiography”.

The poems are made up of seven-line stanzas, with seven syllables per line, and variable internal and end rhyming. Through the poems Albiston has Ethel describe episodes from her childhood, her journey to Australia and life as a minister’s wife in Red Cliffs, Hobart and elsewhere (“first parsonage     9 by 5 / white white     corrugated tin”).

you     Collared     but not by me / alone     your heart shared     above / below     on Earth as it be / in Heaven     dear one (“you     Collared     but not by me…”)

The poems are patterned with a delicate and intricate music:

pouting or pollack     coley / or cod  whatever the catch / to-day     they trudge back slowly / to hearth & to Home (“pouting or pollack     coley…”)

SS Iberia     one / year older than me!     iron / hull     3 sail-masts     2 fun- / nels     single screw     & a speed / of 14 knots     linger not / good ship out-bound for Melbourne (“SS Iberia     one…”)

Visually,  the poems are characterised by the use of the lacuna, which Albiston describes in The Weekly Poem – a resource book for poets and teachers of poetry – as a “visual space or gap within [a] line, often used in place of punctuation”. It accentuates the poems’ delicacy, as made-things (form) and utterances (content).

The book is a subtle antidote to the more superficial aspects of our culture’s fascination with genealogy. It claims a personal heritage and celebrates a life, but through an act of imagination that dignifies its subject in a fuller sense. In a 2001 interview with Kate Middleton, Albiston stated: “there’s nothing without form […] Content and form [are] the only two elements”. The poems in The Book of Ethel are a great exposition of content and form in synthesis.

Ref.

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