In Proportion

Raped by Ghostsbook cover

Poetry review by Jena Woodhouse

The End of the World

Maria Takolander
Giramondo 2014
ISBN: 978-1-922146-51-9
78pp AUD$24.00

After reading Maria Takolander's poems for several consecutive nights, I dreamt of dark forests, dense with silence and snow, infiltrated by traces of implacable ancestries, legible only to the initiated.

Versions of this primordial landscape, attenuated to dream state or looming insistently in the consciousness, form a psychogeographical subtext to poems in the first two sections of "The End of the World": an otherness grappled with but also owned, internalised - encountered and confronted and demystified, yet never entirely purged of the dark realities that lurk in its depths, for in these poems the past is very much alive, and it is a sombre place.

The collection opens, however, with poems of pregnancy and birth; post-natal images, sensations and states. Here, too, even amidst the visceral immediacy that attends such experience, the trajectory of history extends far back and far forward, the newborn infant being defined as "the time traveller at my breast". History is perceived and imagined in concrete, organic terms

Planetary and darkling, you are
like the first-born human waking

to the light of a fire on his skin.
                        (Night Feed)

The poet's newborn son is perceived as a creature simultaneously immediate and atavistic, an object of wonder on a trajectory that harks back to the primeval and the mysterious:

They return you, wailing of the modern configuration
of a world that will not recede before your primitive stare,
alive with an intelligence of I know not what.
Men wage war to make something this real

but it was life, pure and gluttonous, that committed
this glorious violence upon you and me.
                        (Post-partum 2)

In the Author's Note to "The End of the World", Takolander describes childbearing as "an experience of estrangement as much as wonder, which powerfully evoked for me the primordial past of the human species."

The advent of this new life prefigures a series of reflections on several generations of the poet's Finnish family, as a foreground to the poems that deal with domestic and familial themes - for instance the starkly disquieting "Domestic" and "Crime Scene Investigation", which contains the line "psychology is impure as memory" - and as a prelude to the poems to do with "The Old World", where memory can be akin to an affliction, a malaise, as in "The Old World"; "Winter War"; the atavistic hauntings of "No Man's Land", an allusion to the carnage of two world wars, where

At the end, alone, each of us felt raped by ghosts.

but where, too,

Poppies woud grow in the blasted space between us;
        yes, they would grow.
                        (No Man's Land)

"Raped by ghosts" is an image that reverberates through many of the poems of this collection, including "Stalin Confesses", in which the abused child becomes father to the man and a constant presence at his side, as the opening lines indicate:

At my side I have concealed a child
whose body was twice trodden by horses
hauling carriages through our boggy village,
                        (Stalin Confesses)

Personal histories intersect and interface with larger narratives, often to the detriment of the former, although in Stalin's case to the detriment of both. The grim roll call of "Missing in Action" is a case in point. This poem, delivered as if to the monotonous beat of a drum commemorating the fallen, extends this theme into the truncated lives of previous generations of the poet's family, exiled by Stalinist persecution from their Karelian homeland in Eastern Finland.

My great grandfather: lost to Stalin's purges
        in a Karelian backwater of forests and sepulchral snow.
        (The past is a deep but silent world.)

My grandfather: his heart stopped on the swampy farm in Mellila,
        where he dragged up life from the earth after the war.
        (Hung over, he would beat the horses, their flanks shivering.)

My grandmother: dead soon after she got an electric stove,
        her legs, from labour, covered in weeping sores.
        (I heard her voice once, time-travelling through the telephone.)
                        (Missing in Action)

Echoes of this stark personal history are heard in poems ostensibly set in the present, such as "Anaesthetic":

        my great uncle, whose leg was shot off
among the mottled birch

        where Soviet tanks ploughed the snow;
my youngest uncle,

        who stole from his old mother to slake
his darkling thirst;

        and my eldest cousin, who sunk into himself
to escape the inherited world

The phenomenon of inherited trauma and loss is a driving force of these poems, and perhaps accounts for the lines:

The man limps across the snow,
        his only illness memory.
                        (Winter War)

Atavisic hauntings continue to perturb the present, as in the lines:

Within the undead body of our sleeping child
his brain is desperate as a Punch-and-Judy puppeteer.

There are fighting words: 'Mine! Mine!'
I write them down. But if I were a muse, rather than a scribe,

I would tender dreams that shimmer
like birch leaves and glow like moonstones,

not these darkling hallucinations of a brain
already wiling away the night on its pitiful past.
                        (The Interpretation of Dreams")

There are also poems where a seemingly prosaic subject becomes a metonym for the unspeakable, a vehicle for history's horrors. "Chimney" is one such poem, in which it gradually dawns on the reader what the nature of the daily "cumbersome work" is. But

When the men and women have come and gone,
       like loaves of bread,

even the monstrous chimney seeks moments of respite and tranquillity:

Before dawn, with the embers quiet,
       the chimney opens itself to the stars' alien light.

Several texts: "Convicts", the ironically titled "White Australia", and "Eliza's Shipwreck", recreate scenes from Australian history since 1788. These are followed by a series that reprises the collection's title - "The End of the World" - by alluding to geographical limits, in this case "somewhere in Patagonia", in spaces "vacant as dreams": "Dogs in Space"; "The End of the World"; "Punta Arenas, Chile"; "Cusco"; "Buenos Aires". The more expansive structure of the first three of these texts anticipates the forms of some of the longer poems and prose poems of the third and final section, which, like the first two, is untitled. Here, the poet's forensic mind and eye delve into some of the strange ideas that shaped past perceptions of "reality", referencing "a medieval and misogynistic tract", the "Malleus Maleficarum", also known as "The Hammer of Witches"; Max Nordau's "Degeneration" (1892); and Cesare Lombroso's "After Criminal Man" (1876) and "The Female Offender" (1893). Samples of the pathological are displayed in texts such as the four-part "Cesare Lombroso, Criminal Anthropologist" that opens the final part of the collection, and the satirical "Degeneration".

There follow some trenchant and ironic studies of bleaker aspects of the human (and inhuman) condition, including "Charcot's Patients"; "Golden Sigi: An Advertisement" (ostensibly for Freud); the grisly "Show Business", and the chilling "Witch". The collection concludes with four pieces in a succinct style reminiscent of fable: "Loneliness"; "Violence"; "The Ashes"; "The Gamble".

Throughout the collection, the poet displays a technical deftness and range of poetic form perfectly judged for the purpose of each text. Stanza forms range from the spare distich of "Anaesthetic" and "Chimney", through the tristich favoured in "Missing in Action", the quatrains of "White Australia", "Charcot's Patients", and the intricate, imbricated stanza forms employed in many shorter and longer poems ("Utopia"; "The End of the World") to more expansive, less obviously structured forms which are nonetheless unerringly suited to their purpose ("Dogs in Space", "Show Business", "Witch"). Sequences of poems sometimes deploy several stanza forms ("Post-partum"; "Cesare Lombroso, Criminal Anthropologist"). The arresting choice of language, the precision that has guided those choices, will be apparent from the foregoing quotes, as is the clarity she brings to bear on complex subject matter, without compromising the complexity or gravity of her ideas. On the contrary, her skill sets those ideas on a razor's edge. Takolander's structuring of individual poems and the collection as a whole and in its parts strikes me as both subtle and immaculate.

In Takolander's words, "The past is fascinating to me because its strange stories clearly reveal how far we live from reality at any given time. The stories we tell now are no less strange, although they might be more familiar.... we have constructed rich, fanciful and sometimes pathological cultural worlds for ourselves in which we find meaning but also entrapment. The poems in this collection attempt to see through those myths - particularly those that have emerged around childbearing and childhood, national identity, and scientific and other "knowledges" - and to see reality as baldly and as boldly as I can."

From an attentive reading of the poems, it is clear that Takolander has achieved her objective. This provocative and thought-provoking collection has coherence and integrity, and crackles with stark wit and keen, occasionally wistful intelligence:

       Is this what I wanted in those leaden times,
when with every mouthful

       I offered myself to the execution
of a putrid earth-bound history,

       and is it what I am given now
only because I am godless and sober

       (except when it comes to you)
and so careless as to be happy?


Jena Woodhouse's biography —>