There are many voices in these poems about degradation, fight, resilience and defeat. There is defiance, and some ‘needs-must’ wry humour, but in the regular resignation – a kind of strength when that is all you can produce – it is deeply despairing. That the collection begins with Radioactive Milk, a poem which births the horrors of both its (and the whole book’s) reality and symbolism, it is not surprising there’s a dark portrayal of suffering and, at best, some kind of basic survival.
The other ‘voice’ – one that works with and against the poetic – is contained in the documents and notes and reports and diagrams and other similar that set the scene/s of orphanage, alienation, abuse, doctors/medical, government, history and so on. Stadnicka’s poetry has such a startling ability to move into the expanse beyond this – where it needs to be exploring in and around the actual – that these other reminders are anchors to what should be an extraordinary context, but is in human history a bleak norm.
There are so many threads I would like to follow and unravel here, but I have only just finished a complete read and know I will want but also have to return to begin tying these together. I don’t mean that’s a necessity to be engaged and moved by the full narrative of these memorable poems. I mean that is what I want to do, because I am so engaged. To share a few impressions: the child Stupid (as so-called, though clearly not as the observations reveal) talks of pulling teeth – having to pull out one’s own teeth – and so when this reference point appears again in a poem like Sister’s Night Shift, it resonates in its differing reveal,
are falling over the courtyard’
This is a line among others that are both stark, bleak but also beautiful-haunting, like so much in these poems,
‘…the bell ringing above my desk
is a wolf’s howl, lost in a snow storm’
One further ‘teeth’ reference is found later in the poem Homología,
‘Sister knows which lie sounds better
at regular check-ups – Eat your fruit –
but I find baby teeth buried
in each apple. One bite, and seeds fall
on my breast, swell like a season’
Although I have returned to the text to confirm and quote these, this is the kind of poetic thread that pervades in the reading because of the quality of its writing. One other to mention in this brief visit, is a line that sparkled on a first read, from the poem Leftovers, a poem where we learn why Stupid was given that name, and it is swelled with a tenderness and a spurt of imagery (you’ll see it when you read) that illustrates the power of these poems to portray its darkness and the acceptances, but also kindnesses, that make life bearable,
‘The day she turns eight, I give her a biscuit
I kept for ages under the mattress. She kisses
my hand, breaks the cookie in small pieces,
eats only half. Stupid says the smell
of fresh bread makes the yard spin green stars
and my eyes burst into crumbs’
All the voices speak their experiences and truths through Stadnicka’s poetic representation, but they also clearly speak through the poet’s personal wisdom. This is conveyed without any sense of polemic and yet is potent as reflection on something that has actually happened. And it is potent in the assured poet’s voice, as in these closing and moving three stanzas from the poem Brotherhood,
‘You bring the worst fear of all:
hope, which doesn’t say anything,
only sleeps in salt lumps
between layers of ageing bones.
It follows life at St. Joseph’s home.
My hands rise to cradle a baby
whose face bears the bruise of law.
If you find my mother, buy her
flowers, tell her violence is not
the worst that can happen.
I drift away following water drops
deep into the well’s mouth;
hope shines there below zero.
In descent, my eyes meet the stare
of the mute god of metal. Home.’
For more information about the author, and other reviews of this book, visit Maria Stadnicka’s website here.
This is a beautifully produced book by Guillemot Press here.