||The Elegant Bare Bones
by Doris Cowan
APPROPRIATELY, this book`s dedication is to a friend "who can find her way through the` labyrinth of the mind" Anne Szumigalski charts a path through the labyrinth as she outlines the birth, the nurturing, and the mature action of the poetic consciousness, as she herself has lived it.
The Word, the Voice, the Text is an autobiography (of a poet who is approaching her 70th year), but it is not a conventional one. It is a poet`s notebook - the elegant bare bones of autobiography - made up of memories, insights, meditations, and finished poems. Almost all the factual biographical material is from her childhood; of later years only the artist`s private struggles with her art are recorded, not the external events of her life. In its structure the whole book imitates a poem.
Each entry is a line: some direct and conversational in their language, others intense, minimal, and oblique.
In Szumigalski`s description, the poet`s life is a fight with Poetry. For her the fight began early: she was a hot-tempered little girl who composed poetry before she learned to read, and recited it to herself and anyone else who would listen. When she was five she was given a pair of glasses, and immediately developed a passionate love for the details of the world, now visible to her for the first time - she refused to take the glasses off, even in bed. The fourth of seven siblings, she was left behind by the older children in their daring play, and displaced by the little ones from her mother`s side, and so became a solitary who cultivated secret, marvellous, grotesque dreams, both waking and sleeping. (Even now, as an adult poet, she has fantasies of being invisible, having learned, of course, to turn invisibility to her artistic advantage. For the poet who
can see and not be seen can observe far more than an ordinary participant in life.)
Szumigalski`s grandmother seems to have been an important presence in her life, though not a benign one. "She was a rather disapproving person; ... She disapproved of naughtiness, noise, disrespect, dirty hands, and bad table manners. Most of all she disapproved of idleness." To the child Anne, though, idleness was a great pleasure (the adult poet observes that "idleness is the foundation of the poet`s work") and, fortunately for her, her mother was too busy to be strict and was in any case inclined to be indulgent. She "enjoyed our fantastic made-up games ... never prevented our wanderings around the countryside," and "was happy watching her children doing just what they thought of at the moment" Thus were the two poles of discipline and fantasy embodied for the young writer.
In poems and meditations, Szumigalski attempts to define the essential energy of the poetic impulse ("great passion under great restraint"). She speaks of the way that memories of childhood and adolescence can form the elements of something new in the writer`s later life, the writer`s imagination structuring reality in order to crystallize and keep it, investing it with mnemonic rhythms or talismanic references. For example, the image of a childrens Whitsunday procession and picnic, remembered from the year she was 14, comes back to her as a rhythm of couplets marching two by two, and a visual image of a white that turns black-and-white when the little boys open their black umbrellas. The same memory brings back her grandmother`s stern advice that, for an aspiring writer, "freedom means a lot of hard walking before a little feasting" - meaning that she must learn what her elders can teach her before she tries her own strength. "Of course, I did not agree with her in the least," says Szurnigalski. For her, the writer`s duty is to resist the spell of convention, "to start, even at the age of sixty, at the age of ninety, new phases and new forms" Not to walk singing in an orderly parade, but "to yell and push, to splash in the mud. To throw buns"
In keeping with her creed, Szumigalski has with this book taken the risk of letting her material struggle to find new forms for its expression. Poetry and prose overlap. Prose memoir gives way to dream and fantasy, and that in turn gives way to surreal poems in prose or verse (one of them titled "Novella"), or something like "The City of Words," which she calls "A Speculation" Both prose text and poems are difficult at times. The effect is at first bewildering, and some readers may find the book impenetrable, but I think readers and writers of poetry will find it rewarding. As Anne Szumigalski says, in defence of her scrapbook method of autobiography:
If you must make a story of what you have been doing for the last seventy years or so you will have to give undue emphasis to some unimportant things, you will have to leave out some significant occasions, you will in fact have to twist the whole thing into fiction. This may lead to some interesting reading, but you will have lost yourself, your particular self, in the narrative. It will be the history of a stranger.