By the time I had finished reading/feeling/living the second poem in Clarissa Stein's second collection, I knew I was in for more powerful and provocative experiences.
I had arrived by overnight train in a cold and wet Melbourne from a warm and sunny Sydney. I consoled myself with my usual morning decaf, wrapped myself in a furry blanket, took one last forlorn look out the window, and sat down to read Stein's collection. Hoping to block out the outside world, and indulge my poor miserable self, I came across the following instead:
I only feel alive on
days of sunshine.
Drops of mist around the house
push me into depression
my eyes don't open wide enough
to see in a drop of water
(Upper Ferntree Gully)
The rest of the poem provides such delicate imagery, focusing on the intricacies of nature and the need for a perception beyond surface narrowness and pettiness, that I grinned ruefully at my self-pity. Indeed, rather than sneer at the world outside my window, I took a closer look and saw what Stein invites us to see in this and other poems: images of tranquillity and delicacy such as opening blossoms, flower petals shining on wet grass, a majestic sky of many shades of blue, white, grey.
And by the time I had completed the 'sand ballet' dance with Stein through our world of war (within the family and between political powers); cultural dislocation (within Australia and between Australia and one's other country); and the complexities of love (within the self and between the genders), I was reminded what a privilege it was to be able to complain about the weather while I sat in a comfortable home surrounded by the warming paraphernalia of family and friends.
Indeed, Stein often juxtaposes the gravity and torment of many remembered situations and experiences which will suddenly smear her present treasured reality. This is achieved by styles and images that range from biting harshness to gritty realism to softness and delicacy within one poem. The effect of these shifting emotions and visions is to make the reader, the dancing partner, aware of the vicariousness, hypocrisies and ironies in our lives and in our world, in which the only constant may be the very immediate bliss of a relationship, or a place, or a time that should be treasured.
This balcony is my world - in a gully in the hills
of the east - with its autumn trees
I am waiting for ideas which come to me
from spaces between leaves,
from faces I see in trees, this balcony,
my pen, the sky above my writing pad
when I remember winters after the fall,
my fear when turned around by police
along the border,
between hunger and enough to eat,
another dress for my child and a dialysis machine
in case one kidney left after the sale might fail.
High windows mirror the bucket of urine
in which my brother's child is drowned,
the Devil must have killed God, and the fairy-tale witch
who tried to roast children like chestnuts:
soldiers - they succeed...
(Long Ash Days)
While remarking on the 'soft yellow' of autumn on Melbourne's elm trees in 'Indian Summer', Stein meets with 'forgotten/ childhood fears' and recalls the migration process: 'the salt/ of oceans I walked across/ is tattooing my skin'. In 'Necessary Surgery', the indoor plants, and 'pure scent of rich eucalyptus oil/ over which I ponder such entries/ 'pink', 'cloud', 'love', the pain of being expected to assimilate and forget her homeland once she was in Australia is embodied through images of surgery:
that went straight into me - supposedly
to empty me of my native language - it causes me
to limp on the crutches of memories.
She'll be right. Removal of the prolapsed disc
of fatherland, a necessary surgery.
Hence, she encapsulates how many migrants and refugees yearn for the supposed tranquillity in Australia and wage ongoing internal battles with memories and fears, despairing both in the ease of recollection and the shame of not wanting to recollect:
Like a minor bird attacks the cat
I'm fiercely shushing away bad dreams.
I am not in this war
I don't hear cries of tortured
children and women.
but I am one with tortured children and women.
(I Am Not in this War)
In 'Squatting By The Roadside', she resigns herself to the fact that migration 'is a long process/ of carrying luggage around with you' and a journey where 'exhaust fumes of the past in front/ obfuscate your squatting by the roadside'.
Stein also finds many contradictions in Australia itself and uses the interior desert landscape to evoke the cultural desolation experienced by many migrants and Aboriginal people. In 'Red Soil, Myth, and Robert Dickerson's 'Street Corner'' she places euphemism alongside harsh realism:
we stopped at the comfort station
to shit surrounded by shit,
no doors, no water -
comfort a foreign word
in the main street of this town...
Her understanding of the multiplacement of many Australians in relation to gender, ethnicity, religion, class, language, is evoked in simple but pinpoint accurate portrayals such as:
In Portland a Muslim hejab married
an Australian slang
the couple is waiting in a Fish'n Chip shop...
In '12.10 am - Author's Lament', Clarissa Stein reflects on her poems, her 'ballets', their meanings to herself, her doubts over their meanings for others, and the very process of writing and publishing. She asks, 'and are you reading?'. I certainly am, as they echo within and between my personal world and the wider world: as a woman, as a child of migrants, as a woman in love, as a mother of a daughter, as an Australian in a world of spurious national labels, as someone who occasionally wastes time grumbling over the weather, as someone who occasionally needs her eyes opened, arms stretched and body invigorated by dancing 'sand ballets'.
Yes, Clarissa, I am reading, and eagerly await your next invitation to dance.