Launch of Jordie Albiston's Vertigo

Volumes Bookshop - Eltham, Victoria - 2nd May, 2007

It is a very great honour to launch Jordie Albiston’s new book, Vertigo, both as an admirer of her remarkable body of work, and also through my own personal connection – she formally mentored me in a program through the Victorian Writers Centre in 2001 and has done so informally and in various ways, since then. Many of us here have benefited from the enormous generosity and interest with which Jordie approaches other people’s work.

I could say so much about this strange and wonderful book. . .

This fifth book, Vertigo, extends two of Jordie’s previous areas of preoccupation – loneliness and interior struggle, ‘the ancient assault on the soul’ and form. I count form as a preoccupation, rather than a tool, because I think it is closer to content in Jordie’s work than in many ‘formal’ poets’ writing. Forms are themselves investigated as the media of feeling, the stuff of it, rather than just a mechanism or tool for it.

In Botany Bay Document and The Hanging of Jean Lee Jordie used form to evoke the diction of another time and place. She used it to quote and draw on the resonances of ballads, newspapers, catechisms, shoppinglists, for storytelling; to write the way that meaning is made in us through these texts in our lives. In the unforgettable title poem in her last book, The Fall, she used the pantoum to create a sickening inevitability in a soul and body’s downward fall.

One gets the feeling that the rhythm and repetition of Jordie’s writing is a kind of transcribing of existent rhythms, is an echo of ‘the music of what happens,’ and that somewhere, behind her writing, It is Written.

Form is as close to content and subject matter in Vertigo as it has ever been in Jordie’s work. The subtitle ‘A Cantata’ signals immediately that the subject matter of the poems exists within a very careful structure.

This is not simply the enforcement of supportive discipline upon what is an extravagance of emotion. A clue is given in the epigraph from Jack Sacher ‘but words and music are not enemies,’ indeed they are allies, lovers even, bound up in a vertiginous folie a deux. [This epigraph was subsequently removed! But I was working from an earlier MS when I wrote this speech.]

Each aria’s and chorus’ title, as in a cantata, is its first line. Each recititiv is named by its italian tempo marking – the directive as to how a piece should be performed. Each poem is punctuated with bar lines. Like line breaks, and like the music they draw from, the sense and the phrase frequently carry over to the next bar. All poems end with double bar line – the musical symbol for the ending of a piece. The very first poem, with its reference to Bach, puts us firmly in the baroque. Bach was the greatest and most prolific writer of Cantatas, and whilst many were secular, most were religious, as Jordie’s poems are in sensibility if not subject. Like Bach, Jordie’s music is inherently, intentionally, grieving – the ‘sad rhymes, which find their own crooked way from A to faraway B.’ A and B are notes, worldly destinations and the stations the thinking and feeling soul, all at once.

In the baroque Aria, the voice returns and returns to a melodic theme, just as the grieving soul returns and returns to the kernel of its sorrow. This is signalled in many of the Aria poems by the musical symbol which denotes repetition of the preceding phrase. Each aria is numbered, with the symbol meaning number, but which is very similar to a musical sharp sign. And though each poem is perfectly in tune, where they tend is to the uncanny, hyperbolic sharp, not the commonplace flat. Most people sing flat most of the time – singing sharp requires talent or a seriously crooked ear. And these poems are crooked indeed: they come in from an acute angle, in both form and feeling. They are to speech, as singing is – heightened, both natural as birdsong, and thoroughly technical and contrived.

We see that the practice or act of thinking, of loving and of being are similar to the process of performing or writing music –thought and feeling, being a person seeks a shape, a symmetry and meaning. Thoughts and feelings arrive with their own symmetry, while the singer or writer is, as in ‘Aria 8 ‘transcribing it wildly’.

Sometimes these symmetries, the forms themselves, provided in traditional narratives of emotion or experience are the thing which renders them painful, as in the Aria # (they lived happily ever after).

If the form a measure of control, in the poems then it is the control of the hand clinging white-knuckled, is the vertiginous control with which one clinging to sanity and life clutches and holds still the symbolic meaning of her word and world. Through form in their song, the poems investigate the devastating or exhalting forms and symmetries of feeling.

The language of the poems has at times the weighty simplicity of Biblical diction, and its theatrical lo! and yea! Also, I hear the queerness and heightened consciousness of Emily Dickinson. Check the Shakespeare of Aria #7 ‘forever forever and forever,’ and in the recitativ ‘Campanello,’ ‘Look to| Treble’s going’. Note the twisted cliche of ‘look mum, no man!’. There is humour there, though it is twisted and not compulsory.

And what of the recurrent theme Love/No Love? Love and No Love are ambiguous terms, and are seen as terms in ‘Articolato; where they jump off the tongue ‘untranslated.’ Love/No Love are the pins on which all the other lyrics rotate. They are the tonic note in the scale. No Love seems to me a state of desolation, but control, a bounded state, the measure of which can be taken. Love, on the other hand, is boundless potential or boundless tyranny, which pounds rhythmic hooves on the speaker: a moment of infinity if there can be such a thing.

And in these poems there can. Each, like a piece of crafted music, is complete and completing. And much of the thought and feeling in the poems are revelatory or epiphanic- they act to complete. And yet there is another piece or poem sitting in uncomfortable proximity, with its own insisting sense. And perhaps another revelation next or next to the one that is singing in each poem. Indeed, complete as they are, the poems are variously reiterative and contradictory, just like Love/ No Love.

A Baroque cantata will always end with a chorus, sung at least partly in unison, which returns to the main musical theme of the composition. In its lyrics it will sum up the argument of the cantata. It is the community speaking – the congregation.

In Vertigo, the choruses speak of the commonness, the unity of that most individuating and dividing of experiences – desolation. The staggeringly large space for suffering within the individual, which is unmatched by any space or vocabulary in society. The we of the choruses are ‘nothings nobodies/ non-existent parts in the whole.’ They are a community, but a community of interior experience, rather than outward interaction. They are parts of society that are cast out, echoing the parts of the suffering self that are uncharted and unwritten. There is a sense that desolation itself is a multitude, is annihilation of the self into an indistinguishable host. In Chorus # 9 ‘The black within remains our chorus / and we remain its song’.

But this is not an accusation – it is in a sense a no-blame conflict – the world itself is never constructed as wicked or hostile – the ‘we’s’ ‘watery ways were nobody’s fault’. The sea is itself and the trees are always good. The turmoil is understood to be ‘the ancient assault of the soul,’ (any soul) and the identity of the attacker is unclear. But is perhaps Love and No Love at once.

Survival and recovery are their themes too. The individual speaker has won something, a survival, a song, and in the choruses, is willing to share. The ‘we’ has journeyed to hell and returned to make report.

I advise you to set aside enough time to read the poem straight through: through annihilation, turmoil, recovery and mystery, through first person singular, first person plural to a third-person finale, where the song becomes voluntary, the song regathers the self, and which will then return you to the start, ‘all the way to the very first line.’

Congratulations to Jordie Albiston, on the launch of Vertigo.