Title: Portrait of a Woman with Sea Urchin
Author: Abigail Ardelle Zammit
Publisher: SPM Publications December 2015
Reviewer: Nick Cooke
Such has been the rare pleasure of reading and re-reading Maltese poet Abigail Zammit’s extraordinary second collection that I am sorely tempted to abdicate my duty of critical thoroughness in order to forestall the spoiling effect that will inevitably ensue. Rather like a TV sports presenter warning viewers to look away should they not wish to see the results, I fear that if I say too much about how the book unravels, potential readers will lose something of the engrossing experience I had in embarking on the journey without having any idea where it would lead me. For those content with the executive summary, therefore, I can honestly say that this has been among the richest and most beguilingly stimulating collections I have come across in recent years, and I strongly urge you to invest a very well-spent £9.50 in order to secure it.
Addressing myself now to however many souls have opted for the long version, I will begin by suggesting that the best approach to the task of summarising this book would be by way of referring to the several levels on which it exists. On my first voyage between the beautifully designed and appositely colourful cover, based on artwork by Emmy Verschoor-van Bavel, and the helpful if perhaps all too brief closing notes, my overriding impression was of an inner innocence-to-experience tale. It was as if the poet had consciously led me from an early period rooted in a child’s-eye series of responses to the natural stimuli around her, through an intermediate stage in which different views of burgeoning eroticism mark a dramatic coming of age, to a final sequence based on the devastating bombardment of Malta during World War II, which signals an unexpectedly brutal awakening to full reality. However, on closer consideration the book also provides a form of commentary on the landscape, culture, architecture and history of Malta itself, though not exactly what you would find in an average guide book. There is, in addition, a strong feminist element, seen mainly in the central section, comprising poems on the Maltese Venus, a fertility goddess replicated in numerous statues throughout Malta, who is perceived as the potent symbol of a bounteously sexual challenge to male domination and arrogance.
The first poem, ‘Girl’, locates us in a childhood world not much beyond infancy, where tactile discovery is something new and constantly revealing:
She handles sand,
strokes sea shells, snorkels
in tiny circles inside little pools.
Today she slips her finger lightly
over a fish’s belly and discovers
its trance, its placid quietness
and slippery sides.
The simple style is deliberate, reproducing the girl’s uncorrupted and wide-eyed view of things. ‘Today’ might seem an unnecessary addition until we realise it has been placed there in order to emphasise the way she sees and feels in the moment. However, Zammit does not allow the picture to remain idyllic for too long. The appearance of a boy observing the girl ‘from a campside’ dimly implies a potential threat, and soon she suffers a slight mishap: ‘the girl walking in blue flippers/trips between boulders/one pin-sharp shell breaking the flesh’. By its end the poem has seen the initial sheen of perfection tarnished and we have been taken a half-step out of Eden:
Water flashes sky’s orange scar
and the boy launches a pebble
which will graze the glossy surface
where the limping girl salvages
one silver fish from the dead.
There is much about fishing and the sea in these early poems, giving a sense of timelessness by emblematising the millennia-old way of life followed by many Maltese workers, but also hinting at quests and adventures of other kinds. And water features again and again throughout the collection – sometimes a refreshing or comforting presence, sometimes a real and deadly danger.
This is just one example of a pattern of repetition which at first appeared the product of careless proofing. For instance, the word ‘swarm’ is used in three early poems within five pages, twice as a metaphor for love/desire. However, so meticulous is Zammit’s crafting and honing over the book as a whole that I later reviewed that assumption. After all, three ‘swarms’ in quick succession makes for nothing less than a swarm of ‘swarms’, does it not? Elsewhere her technique emerges by the end as artlessly simple and effective. Aiming to transmit the impression of bright, often electric colour conjured by the book’s cover, in line with her view of the world around her, she spreads the word ‘blue’ throughout the book, along with many occurrences of shades such as green, turquoise, purple, red and even the thrice-mentioned ochre. It comes to have a pleasantly trance-like effect on readers who feel their visual and sensuous pores being opened further with each poem.
The undercurrent of menace only vaguely intimated in ‘Girl’ is hauntingly stirred up in ‘Sand Burial’, a deserved Alan Sillitoe poetry competition winner, where a children’s game threatens to go out of control:
The bigger kids crouch around you to test
their skills from last summer. How far can you bury a girl
so that not even her curls spring from the sand,
the mouth a scream filled with water?
Voices are coming in dampened waves, a slight panic
at your fingertips. Hold tight to yourself because
this is it, this is death by drowning, the body slack,
wasted, a bulbous growth by the shoreline.
In its second part the poem alters its focus to a love scene, which I interpreted as the same girl now in early womanhood, finding out that sexual involvement brings confusion, exposure and a strong whiff of mortality, as well as rapture and fulfilment. ‘You’ is now her new lover. In a typically domestic detail, Zammit portrays the girl’s mother ‘pressing shapes to make/gingerbread men’ when she was a girl, but now it’s something less innocent she wants to consume -‘you’re the man I’ve been waiting for/your sinews at their sweetest, their most malleable’ – to whom she holds on ‘with the intensity of the dying’:
Already, the sand is shifting, voices assemble.
someone rushes to my rescue. That unbearable lightness
of being drawn out. Discovering there’s no secret bay.
The next poem, ‘October’, ends with another sudden lurch into increasingly ugly reality, and another ‘graze’, echoing the earlier allusion to a slight but significant scratching of the ‘glossy surface’:
The whiff of ether I carry
like the first burst of the pox,
the memory of a wrist
grazed on a windowsill.
The whole first section is full of these often startling spurts and shifts, like an always varied movement in what proves a compelling and mountingly dramatic symphony overall. It prepares us well for the Maltese Venus sequence, where the growing girl has either become or been in some way substituted by (depending on interpretation) an almost Amazonian figure seemingly bent on subverting male iconography and discourse:
Look: here’s my lipid storage tank.
Further down, the damp triangle
where I’ve grown too much hair.
You say cactus-tongued. I say,
a remedy for the scratches I’ve endured. (‘Headless Venus, With Shaft’)
Zammit has recently completed a Ph.D in Creative Writing from Lancaster University in which she outlined her ideas on what she hoped to achieve through her poetry. She draws upon feminist critiques of a Western tradition by which, in her words, ‘irreconcilable dichotomies are relied upon to make sense of the world and to privilege one view over another, thus: male-female, mind-body, reason-emotion, culture-nature, the second being defined in terms of a lack.’ In the face of this historical imbalance, Zammit, following a path that she credits Jo Shapcott for opening up, strives ‘towards the dissolution of such oppositions, destabilizing false boundaries so as to revel in ambiguity and multiplicity’. Though this striving is often palpable in the book, there are moments when the presentation seems quite unambiguous in its counter-attack on privileged (in this case Alpha-male) perspectives, and in my view is all the more powerful for it.
At times the challenge is even more taunting and deliberately shocking than in the ‘cactus-tongued’ stanza, as the goddess mocks men’s ultimately prissy, and certainly limited, view of sexuality:
Go on. Measure me across
hips and thighs. There’s no
part of me you’ll be comfortable
with. Even my pleasure’s too loud,
uncontainable. I turn museum walls
into a bedroom: sighs and screams,
inhuman pants, chimp laughter! (‘The Maltese Venus’)
If the male spirit thus addressed thinks he’s hard enough (pun definitely intended) to take her on, he has to accept her blatantly humiliating terms, as set out in ‘Seated Goddess, Multiplied’. The goddess has the kind of omnivorous possessive instinct he will find less flattering than terrifying: ‘Let me have no single/part of you. I want you all./You are my brief phrase.’ Coitus will be entirely dictated and controlled by her:
This dipping of yourself
is permitted if, and only if,
it lets me whet my forefinger into
a universe of blood and sap.
This is my garden, my exodus.
That Eden theme runs through the book and has already been mentioned directly, in an allusion to Masaccio’s Expulsion from the Garden, where ‘loss is a hand held over pubic hair’ (‘Wode’). Later in the Venus section the vision of life’s cyclical vicissitudes has taken on a definitely post-lapsarian knowingness, even cynicism. Even as she apparently visualises her own rape, the goddess never loses her grip on new-found reality and perspective:
You’ve been honing your brain
to lay me down where you can dig
the hardest. Soon, we’ll be rubbing bellies.
There’ll be frolicking and pain, the yelps
of newborns, then earth will call you to battle
its obdurate soul, its limetone.
And you’ll be flint man again, hard,
easily fractured. (‘Sleeping Goddess, Miniature’)
Yet again a mordant but hilarious dig at the male phallic pride, undermining whatever boost to his ego was provided by his supposed seduction of her.
At times this form of counter-rape, or at least psychological table-turning of a highly effective nature, can be shocking, at least at first reading: it’s almost as if the goddess had been constrained to brutalise herself inwardly in order to fight back against the ‘stronger sex’. But Zammit pulls the strings in masterly fashion when it comes to gradually inducting her reader into this particular chamber of horrors. We are far more ready for the X-rated ending of the Venus sequence than we would have been at its start: ‘I’ll rip my ovaries/apart, pickle them with blood-shod/verbs, raise a blasphemous keening.’
The theme of no-prisoners gender warfare is carried forward into the book’s final section, Rushing up to the Roof during an Air Raid. In ‘Internee Blues’, a weird but stunning, almost Alice-in-Wonderland effect sees the giant goddess replaced by a female element that is in its way equally subversive, albeit physically antithetical, as the poem charts the mating rituals of queen ants, who ‘return/underground, heavy with sperm from dying males’. The males are dying because that is the inevitable result of coitus with this particular tyrant queen: ‘heavy with sperm’ may reek of abuse, but it also signifies the reproductive process that is entirely owned and controlled by the female.
Also key to this scarifying picture of war-torn but heroically defiant Malta – later recognised with the George Cross for national bravery – is the re-evocation of inner violence as collateral for survival. ‘Shepherd Boy, 1941’ is a notable example: ‘And the roaring is inside you,/ripping through the bone, inside you,/the hooded echoes of bomb and blast’. The roaring is one of anger as much as an explosion. Somehow the young shepherd holds body and soul together, despite the cost: ‘When you emerge/from the furthermost hole, you are the sum/of yourself suspended beneath your skin.’ The next poem brings an interesting return to the opening theme of blemished infancy, with something of a twist to say the least. So often the victims of lethal violence are interrupted in their ordinary and often domestic business, and‘Child Witness’ presents a child witnessing a man ‘gunned down as he was picking strawberries’ who ‘lay/prostrate on our kitchen table, forehead/cracked open to expose (not grey matter)/the dirty pink of scalded chicken.’ A far cry indeed from sea shells and snorkelling.
Zammit’s writing amid this crescendo of devastation is of the highest order and her meticulously researched and polished war poetry bears comparison with the best in the field. She sometimes seems on the cusp of being swept away in the horror, just as so many of her characters are, but always keeps her own head above the emotional waterline, if only barely. The sequence’s title poem has another of those lighting switches, this time in perspective, as the viewpoint of an imminent victim of an air attack is flipped into that of her killer:
Once you’ve grown accustomed
to parachute bombs scurrying
like frenzied ants, tracer bullets
raising themselves against dust, gravity,
watch yourself from the tip of a diving
fighter jet; how your head is propelled
by the possibility of demise
or the likelihood of a two-winged Junker
smiting the house into a quarry.
What chillingly officious understatement in that ‘possibility of demise’, and how apt the Biblical ‘smiting’ is at such a moment. Malta must have felt itself the target of Old-Testament-style retribution, all because of its strategic wartime importance, being so near Italy. The poem goes on to examine the extent to which rebuilding is possible in the aftermath of such destruction. Stone can be replaced, but not lives:
Surely there is enough limestone to replenish
rubble, fractured churches, or time enough
to recapture youself at that same moment
when you are shrapnelled into the sky.
That ‘shrapnelled into the sky’ neatly expresses my own emotions as I read this. I ended the book staring into space, in blank wonderment, for several minutes. I found it hard to separate my shock at the visceral extremity of war’s impact from my admiration at Zammit’s ability to portray it.
Of the many images and phrases that will remain me with from the closing section, perhaps the standout would be one of the few that offer much in the way of hope salvaged from the wreckage. It is all the more touching for that clear-eyed rarity. After a stomach-churning depiction of the degradation and disgust of the environment in which refugees struggle to stay alive – ‘We sweat, drench sheets, endure nights foul/as growths on dampened walls in crowded shelters’ – a light in the middle rather than the end of the tunnel glimmers with sudden exuberance, even if any delight is partly obscured by guilt:
If a foetus moves inside us, it’s a shudder
of shame – that in the midst of war we scrounged
some joy, floating like dust through turgid water.
Even in a lengthy review I feel I have struggled to convey more than a fraction of what there is to be mined from this collection, with almost every poem linking in to the whole in ways that one would need a full chapter to address adequately. Zammit is to be warmly congratulated for converting the work and thinking behind her Ph.D into poetry of such consummate power, range and control. SLQ REVIEW
Portrait of a Woman with Sea Urchin is available here and other online stores including Amazon and Barnes & Noble