Poetry Journal

Issues / Volume 5 Issue 1 , July 2015


Ania Walwicz: A Sense of the Prodigious

Jacinta Le Plastrier

Author Rebecca Solnit, writing on Virginia Woolf last year for The New Yorker, observed: ‘There is so much we don’t know, and to write truthfully about a life, your own or your mother’s or a celebrated figure’s, an event, a crisis, another culture is to engage repeatedly with those patches of darkness, those nights of history, those places of unknowing.’

It is a sparkling, thought-rich essay, one that honours Woolf’s capacity to assert and explore the reality of life’s and self’s mystery and multiplicities, the ungraspable and unstable; her will to celebrate darkness, while simultaneously, almost always, destabilising her right to assertion. I think … I don’t know: these qualifiers mark her meditations, notes Solnit.

Reading and re-reading the four poetry books of Australian writer Ania Walwicz, recently—including her latest, Palace of Culture (Puncher & Wattmann, 2014)—I was struck by the resemblances between Woolf and Walwicz. This is not only in regard to common (uncommon) themes shared by the two writers, and the demonstrable pleasure both impart in mining and honing a literary language that is at once idiosyncratically radical, and immediate. Both dedicate, lifelong, their writing to doing so, while inherently the work sits cradled by fault-lines that cannot be consolidated, only acknowledged and accommodated.

It is difficult, at least fruitless usually, to excerpt single or double lines from Walwicz’s poetry, and this is a fact across all the books: Writing (Rigmarole, 1982), Boat (Angus & Robertson, 1989), red roses (UQP, 1992) and the 2014 collection.

This is due to an assiduous methodology that holds sway across Walwicz’s output—despite huge sweeps in the subject matter—almost without exception: an idea is thrust forward on the first line, usually schematically, an idea is briefly phrased or assized, then it is subjected to furnace-grade interrogation. It is undone, rephrased, re-syncopated, turned on its head, its side, upside down; then other related-in-some-way words will begin to interfere with what has been going on, insert themselves. It is like a game of musical chairs (or Twister), only, rather than one by one the party shrinks, here the party of words grows, expands in numbers. The party grows unruly. Mad-hatterish? Only a little—the truth is that Walwicz’s imaginative control and circus-mistress skill is never wholly surrendered; a lucidity prevails, at times a luminosity. It is, indeed, for all appearances to the contrary, work that is utterly sane. To return to the methodology: Phrases, through repetition, then near-repetition, then deformed repetition, shift one idea to another, invert one idea to another, alter the means for which that idea is being written. A new trajectory erupts, another idea is schemed and posited, and the same furnace-roasting begins anew.

Here is an early example from Writing, the first thirteen lines of ‘rip’, which are justified hard right and left throughout the poem:

  saturday night and I just got paid going to rip it up going to live it up on a
  saturday night saturday night and I just got paid saturday night and I just got
  paid i just got paid i just got paid i just got paid i got paid I got paid I got paid i
  paid i paid i paid now i’m going to live it up going to live it up going to live it
  up i up i up i up i rip it i rip it i rip it i rip i rip i rip i live and i live and i live
  what rip is what rip what rip rip is rip is rip is one to two to three without stop
  rip is from 1 to 3 rip is 1,2,3 in a quick rip is so fast to me rip is straight away
  without a wait for it and a one two three and a one and a two and a three that’s
  what rip is rip to rip to rip through to rip to break through what i can break i can
  break i can break all the way through i can rip she couldn’t rip through paper
  she couldn’t she was so weak i can rip i just jump through i just go through i
  just run though she couldn’t do it they were holding the large paper up she
  couldn’t run through it she had to break it with her hands she had to tear it

The poem closes with the image introduced, five lines from the end, of the narrator being now ‘paper barrier footballer’:

                      […] i come through i break through to the
  other side i so quick and so quick with a 1 and a 2 and a 3, 1,2,3, 1,2,3, i rip 
  from 1,2,3 i rip from the beginning to the end i come through i get through i
  break the paper with my body i ran through my barrier and i broke it i come
  through flying colour i rip i rip i rip

I am not going to spend time ‘ripping’ this poem apart. It is a thing to marvel at, as much skipping-girl as footballer stride in its syncopation: it is strange, it brims with intelligence, aesthetic and worldly, it is disturbing, and extremely clear. One could have chosen to sample others instead, including ‘male soldier’, ‘New World’, the well-known and anthologised ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ and ‘Australia’, or ‘travelling’: so many. For despite the long time-gap between the two last volumes, there is a sense of the prodigious throughout Walwicz’s oeuvre; the attention, apparently self-generative and self-spawning, is multi-vocal; foot-sure in its slippage, it never slips. It is also colourful and, bizarrely (and this is encountered across a lot of poems), hilarious, Chaplinesque: ‘but i/ don’t drive now i can only drive cardboard car made of card board/ said to me now’ (‘taxi’, Palace of Culture), or, acidically, as in an earlier poem:

                  […] as karen watched she
  felt a strange combination of pride and guilt she’s damn
  good did you read that piece about the dachau
  concentration camp brilliant and that one about the the
  bombing mission over hamburg she had a magic touch
  everyone in the business knew it nothing could stop her
  keep free go where the worst trouble is take whatever
  screwing presents itself […]

(‘red roses’, Writing, Melbourne: Rigmarole, 1982, p. 23)

Horror, of the insidious kind, of the kind that incessantly yet unnoteworthily seeps in and rots away foundations till they seize up and give in—be they buildings, vehicles, selves, relationships, situations—is betwixt in Walwicz’s poetry with the magic (remain astonished!) of fable, the child-regent’s impetuous and unwaverable will (remarkably like an adult self’s in her work, really), the mockable yet dignified imperative of a self, ever imperilled, to yet strike out to live and love in force with the good. For Walwicz’s work, it seems to me, is highly moral; it posits ethics continually.

To write ‘truthfully’, about ‘a life, your own or your mother’s or a celebrated figure’s, an event, a crisis, another culture’—that’s how Solnit describes the subject matter of Woolf, and though it pinpoints some of the range of Walwicz’s, one also need add ‘culture’ (also in Woolf’s case) and ‘popular culture’, especially that of the fairytale, Disney cartoon, and Hollywood flick and stars, whose personages and tales are especially warped by Walwicz in her retellings. The disfiguring/redemption of fairytale is central to red roses, a book-length poem.

While giving a nod to the fictional revolutions of Gertrude Stein, James Joyce and Surrealism, Walwicz has also said previously that she links registers in her work to the ‘tradition of electronic music, John Cage, language and sound composition’, especially in regard to devices of modern minimalist music, and Cage’s, where repetition yields gradual transformations (see Australian Poetry since 1788, eds. Lehmann and Gray, UNSW Press, 2011). But she is also suggesting at heart, I think, that this is how a self/its selves grow and are shaped, whether that is of expansion or diminishing. Selves are suddenly or inexorably re-located, dislocated across her poems.

Walwicz, born in the German-speaking part of Poland, came to Australia in 1963, as a girl verging on adolescence; this at least duplicity of nationality is present in her work, its themes at times are of a European bloodline. Walwicz, alongside her writing, has also spent her life performing (as well as painting), in theatres, galleries, festivals, here and in Europe. She is a performer, and of the multiple self whose identity at any instant might be revoked, traumatised, at the least, is rupturable. This is essential to approaching the poetry: it is performative, scripted, voiced. This is from the latest book’s ‘prince’:

                      […] prince begs a bend me 
  to forgive me please forgive me but i don’t forgive any body never
  forgive me never no no no no no what i do now no no no no that’s 
  what she’ll say to me that’s what i say  to me prince asks my hand
  to give me prince buys a ring now but i step on me prince asks to
  see me but I can’t see me no no no no no no no no no […]

It is an experience to hear this poet perform her poems, as she did at La Mama for the Melbourne launch of Palace of Culture. Diminutive in stature, her aura is not. ‘Dee’, theatricalised then, is one of the stand-out poems of the collection, with its riff of the tyrannical ‘baby said no’. ‘Has her style changed?’, a peer asks. No; and it is one all her own.

I think again of Woolf, especially of her The Waves, with its multi-vocal mapping of the patternings of the mind, its workings out and penumbrations. Brave and lyrical, it is a sensibility that also ceaselessly, I think, continues to pressure Walwicz’s poetry.

→ Ania Walwicz. Palace of Culture. ISBN: 9781922186508. Sydney: Puncher & Wattmann, 2014. RRP$25