“An Embroidery of Old Maps and New” Angela Costi (Spinifex Press) – book review

Angela Costi An Embroidery of Old Maps and New book cover

Angela Costi explores migration and memory through the poems in “An Embroidery of Old Maps and New”. Her roots are in Cyprus and she grew up in Australia, mixing her Greek-Cypriot traditions with a new world. The early poems start with leaving. In “Arrival”,

“There are words you must hold like blankets in snow
‘human rights’
You repeat them as a third language,
they feel hot on your tongue,
they make you remember a child with broken teeth,
remember a woman with a torn womb,
the man eating the dirt.
Here, you can say them
again and again
to many strangers
who will take your story
like a startled baby.
In fits and starts, you come to know words
as soldiers standing at check points

The words like warm blankets, “human rights” and “discrimination” should have been keys to open border locks and offer safe passage. Instead the locks resist and become gatekeepers. How do you produce evidence when you only have what you could carry? What can you do to guide or speed bureacratic processes that will creak along at their own speed when you need shelter and food and trying to speak in a rapidly-learnt language that is still unfamiliar?

The legacy of what was left behind, doesn’t stay behind. After stories of her grandmother’s fear of never opening the door, the poem “Knock Knock” includes,

“here I stand,
one side of the locked door,
noticing how my heart
is racing to open the latch
while my head is pounding
leave me alone,”

“Here I stand” roots the speaker by the locked door. Even though she’s not lived her grandmother’s stories, she still shares that experience of the fear of the knock. She’s caught between the need to open and welcome whoever’s outside while knowing that the outsider could bring danger. It’s not a reaction that can be shaken off.

The collection’s title comes from “Making Lace”. The goft is a Cypriot dialect word that refers to the holes in the lace likened to “little windows for fairies”,

“she is the story on linen,
no longer woman in small village sitting under a tree for days, months,
years of thread weave through out and in, our skin
an embroidery of old maps and new,
Lefkara, Larnaca, Kyrenia, Hartchia,
Riverwood, Bankstown, Lalor, Reservoir,
thread weave through out and in,
she lives in each strange of cotton perle, the white, brown and ecru,
she makes houses, rivers, wells, trees, caves
for secret lovers, lost children, dying soldiers,
she peeks throug goft, through fairy windows, and sees me,
letter by letter, crossing the keyboard
thread weave through out and in,
she sees her children’s children not work in fields harvesting rotten crops.”

It’s bittersweet: the loss of one’s mother country while acknowledging that leaving was the right decision because her descendants will be able to thrive in this new country. The embroidered linen with its edging of bobbin lace continues an old tradition to meet new words and allows stories to continue. Traditionally women’s work and overlooked, embroidery and lace make perfect vehicles to document histories and messages if you care to look for them.

One tradition that should have been left behind is detailed in “To Identify the Apostate”,

“I cultivate worry with my left,
always the apologetic spill,
the readjustment of tools
to accommodate the right.

In earlier years, I complied,
held the pen with the hand
of redemption,
became a stumbling food on the page
which made me run back to my left,
cursed with ill-omen, and yet
became the fluid-dancer of arabesque
with cursive pirouettes.

I remember waddling
with my left hand strapped to my back
by Mama, enthused with the Orthodox parable”

The “problem” of being left-handed. It is still within living memory that left-handers were forced to use their right hands because of superstition.

The final poems bring the collection to the current day. In “2020”

“This is the year of cross-stitch steps,
no large leap for mankind teaches
anything known or new, small is

the bounty of the meek, each step
an abundance of life and death,
each stitch is a step from backdoor

to fence, the stitch from clothesline to
carport, the step to fishbone fern,”

Our world was reduced to our immediate localities. Although a billionaire spent 11 minutes in space, he didn’t make it to the moon. The rest of us learnt to adjust and appreciate the value of smaller achievements.

“An Embroidery of Old Maps and New” explores the liminal space between inherited culture, language and traditions and life in a new country where those inheritances are woven into the fabric of a new traditions and cultures. Angela Costi’s poems are a quiet celebration of small, but important steps taken, while not shying away from the reasons that prompted this new life. Readers get to see both the intricacy and delicacy of the top stitches as well as the thumb pricks and calloused hands that made them.

“An Embroidery of Old Maps and New is available from Spinifex Press

Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection. It is also available as an eBook.

Emma Lee The Significance of a Dress cover image
The Significance of a Dress book cover

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