Among The Sepias
I am uncertain whether to see this book primarily as snippets from a biography yet to be written, as individual poems or as a sequence of poems with a theme and a context. There are stories written as poems; yet these vignettes are more like random snapshots shown by an interpretive curator. As a sequence, they are difficult to connect to a context of time and place. After reading them several times I went through them, trying to date images and events.
Incidents that take the reader forwards, then back, information withheld that later appears as fragments, causes the biographical thrust to falter. We learn the father had a peasant background on page 28 (there are no titles to the poems), but not until page 71 discover that he is from Eastern Europe. On page 80 we find the mother spent years in the goldfields. Limitations on the narrative energy that the poems could generate have been imposed by the writer, the daughter herself, limitations on frankness: 'Every attempt has been made to protect the privacy of others', she writes in the author's note at the end of the book. 'Few dates, place names and people's names have been used.
The oddest effect of the lack of a sense of time is the reference in this final note to the father's past, hardly relevant to the daughter's recollections of her mother mostly during the 1920s and '30s. 'All of his family and family history had been destroyed in the smoke and flames of the holocaust' but we know he married the mother in 1905 in Australia.
Among the direct statements suddenly there is a circumlocution: 'My father buys his monthly raffle ticket,/ in the big one.' What impact does this have as poetry, narrative, or as a part of their cultural context? A ticket in the Opera House Lottery? the Golden Casket? No, too early. Of course he bought a monthly ticket in Tatts. Everyone did. Why not say so? 'The prize this time must surely come to him' - if that is not a universal cultural dream of the '20s and '30s I don't know what is.
My mother was thirteen years younger than the poet's mother. By counting dates and children I estimate that the daughter is four or five years younger than I am. It was good to feel an affinity for the women in the poems; background, events, details so close to my own recollections, even the reference to children's bare feet. We always had bare feet in the garden in spite of snakes and lizards. A reproof from a woman in England forty years later, 'Ladies in England do not walk in the garden in bare feet, is still for me an image of the difference between two societies. Here the bare feet are used to show the daughter suffered from painful crooked feet in adulthood from wearing hand-me-down shoes.
The mother, we find late in the book, had been a teacher, as mine was, gave up playing the piano sometime before 1926 as mine did. The daughter and I know about dunnies, beds on the verandah in the wind in winter, bentwood furniture, billies, a wireless ariel tied to a tree, steam from damped-down linen and a hot flat iron, washing dirtied by a collapsing line or clothes prop.
'My mothers days are hard/ and long', the daughter tells us in the first poem. Well, yes! She had ten children. Do these lines qualify for poetry? This is the difficulty that continually arises. The whole format cries out 'It is poetry'. The poetry of fact? The poetry of statement? When does what has been called 'cut up prose', become poetry? The writer maintains a consistency of tone generally, sometimes disrupted by a lapse into romanticism, cliches, or banality.
A poem about children learning to ride bicycles again illustrates the problem I find with this poetry. It begins with the factual statement: 'A run of cyclone wire fencing separates/ our small front garden/ from the street'. In the next stanza the poem gathers energy: 'We come down/ the long slow roll/ from Harrison's hill', 'Pedalling hard all the way, then, on the flat, 'Hands behind head, feet up on the handlebars./ If you make it to the little slope/ that runs down to the river,/ you can cross the bridge and almost get to town'. But the final stanza ends so flatly it detracts from the impact of the poem: 'My mother keeps a pot of poultice, /healing ointments, lots of torn up sheeting/ at the ready.
The daughter in the poems begins to speak with a formal mythological tone to set a classic storytelling mode. It seems she would place a collective shield around personal pain, but immediately subverts the myth, confessing that she will deliberately withhold part of the story. Her fealty to the god of storytelling, of poetry, is compromised.
There follow the plain language descriptive poems: 'The clothesline prop slips,/ the sheets are dragged in dust,/ my mother weeps/ and rages. There is a gentle poem about childhood games, an unusual note of tenderness: 'We play the game/ of picking petals' 'But little sisters whisper,/ 'You'll wet the bed, tonight,/ if you finish up unevens'. Two poems later the language suddenly changes to an uncomfortably cliche-like romanticism, 'shady nooks' and 'perfumed runways', and later there is a reference to wattle as 'golden orbs'. The level statement narrative falls into banality in 'My mother's golden earings': 'my ears were pierced too,/ when I was just a tiny little baby.'
I'm looking for a sparkle in the language that will disregard the quotidian demands of the narrative and show itself as poetry. The visit to the dunny in the dark on page 61: 'We often go together,/ swinging a hurricane lamp/ along the path./ Our black, night-black tomcat,/ expelled at bedtime/ sits ready to accompany./ He waits outside the dunny door/ to guide us back to safety,/ steering with his true night eyes' - an awkward stop after accompany but that cat is almost a Minaloushe with 'his true night eyes'. About the mother who 'is not exactly fond of cats': 'We bring home strays./ Her fury could bend the branches/ of gum trees in the paddock.' A haunting, evocative image - the child gathers everlastings for her mother, 'hang[s] them from the smoky kitchen rafters'/ and in the entrance hall above the door' - is let down by a sudden change in tone; the poem ends '(They're mostly gone now./ Fertilizers did them in.)'.
There are too many passive constructions ('surgery for hernia/ is therefore long delayed'). The poems lose energy as a result. Passives have a distancing and slowing effect as though told from a long way off with little direct feeling. Cliches, flat endings, and obtrusive changes of tone obstruct the flow of language, rhythm and images that contribute to the tension that poetry generates - necessary to evoke a complex feeling and intellectual response. The power of the poetry leaches away, and the reader is more or less forced to relate more to its content than to its form.
Holmgren gives us insights into a lifestyle, a period when every family had a connection with someone in the bush, and the bush extended to the fringes of the capital cities; when there were so few of us and ordinary common experiences were largely shared, and at this distance recognisable, touching a sense of community. And she shows their sense of cultural difference when the primary school chiacking between Micks and Prots becomes a joint chiacking of the Jewish children, or when the parents share a language - Yiddish - the children don't know, and maintain traditional religious customs.
Incidents show a poverty of goods but not of spirit. I wonder how much a contemporary young reader would attach empathy, or a sense of suffering, to the events that were for that time normal, ordinary. These people were part of the society of the time that I knew and experienced, and still are. Their difference lay in their Jewishness, not a particularly notable difference then. Our sense of difference and the quality of our empathy poses for each of us the dilemma of Multiculturalism. Do you allow any priority to find a place in the varied society you live in, or actively nurture difference?
I think of the renneted milk hung up in cheese-cloth that we ate with sugar. Of the father and mother from Eastern Europe and the Middle East respectively, Holmgren writes: 'Their food cultures therefore/ differ slightly from Australian norms.' Her father has his milk curd. 'He eats it slowly,/ sprinkled with black pepper.'

Connie Barber