“The Density of Compact Bone” Magdalena Ball (Ginninderra Press) – book review

Magadena Ball The Density of Compact Bone book cover

“The Density of Compact Bone” is threaded through with concerns about the impact of climate change and eco poetries, highlighting fears and grief. It also explores personal events and considerations. The title poem sets out “my fingers ache/ with the weight/ of what they know/ and won’t type”. The poem was supposed to be about,

“the way I managed
one hundred things with grace
never stopped smiling and waving
like the Queen
even as you reminded me
how far I missed the mark.”

The poem shows the writer is aware of the possible deception: how the writer looks on the page may not reflect the writer in real life and how people can post the best versions of themselves on social media. Whereas the reality is messier, more complex. How, when image is prioritised, reality will find a way of pushing in, squeezing through the gaps or being given away by someone who didn’t get the memo.

The early poems are focused on climate change, e.g. “AKA”,

“You’re crying now
her paradise an empty pond
blurring your eyes
to a crisis that needs more than tears.

For her, pain is over
the gate is open
her job done.

Her name
is the Sixth Mass Extinction
glaciers, forest, buildings, man.”

While humans cry, the net mass extinction event has found an opening to sneak it. The earth itself will survive, but humans aren’t likely too and they needed to do more than wring their hands and shift blame like a hot potato. Humans can’t complain the signs weren’t there as glaciers melted and forests burnt. It does, however, imply that this is a one way track where humans have left it too late to do anything, giving a sense of hopelessness.

Turning to more personal concerns, “How to make Lokshen Kugel”, warns, “If you leave out the spice it will just be/ schmaltz and grimness.” The warning is against just baking an inherited recipe so you end up doing it for sentimental reasons and to add your own twist so it becomes yours and something to enjoy and relish. The poem continues,

“Thick noodle cake, still hot from the oven
and black coffee form a link, a connection
an umbilicus to this fragile space.

She would still be wearing her frilly apron
saying nothing while you talk and talk
and don’t stop talking even when the cake
is nothing more than crumbs of memory.”

How mothers become invisible sounding boards who nourish and nuture. The poem’s addressee so caught up in her own problems, that she doesn’t notice her mother figure hasn’t said anything. In a way the mother figure doesn’t have to say anything because the daughter talks through the problem and into a solution. Motherhood as a theme is picked up again in “If I could open a space” where the narrator walks into a forest,

“I’d break every boundary
if I could, tear
a hole in spacetime
a rift in every matrix
so you could walk freely
between worlds.
In this world
light against your hair
the softness of your need
like a halo.

I’d bite through the membrane
the caul
that holds you back
dissolve every boundary
take every burden
on my tiny back
forgive, even myself
every ragged mistake
to open this space.”

A mother wants to remove the barriers for her child, flatten the path and make it possible for her child to succeed without effort. While, at the same time, the mother acknowledges that she herself has made mistakes and promises not to burden her child with them. However, making it to easy for a child leaves them unable to appreciate problems and develop strategies to solve their own problems. No matter how ideal a parent wants to make their child’s life, the child still has to make their own way in the real world.

The collection returns to the climate change theme towards the end. In “Passerine”,

“Meanwhile in another timeframe
the future, which is now,
we are not ready
toilet paper, sanitiser, neatly stacked
in a cupboard with a big sack of rice
which hopefully won’t be dumped
moth and weevil zigzagging
while fantails move happily
through the understory, a reminder
that nothing lasts.”

Passerines are perching birds, a hint at the precarity of their existence. It could also be a metaphor for the pandemic, where humans were reminded of their own precarity. As well as lack of preparedness – the toilet rolls and large sack of rice won’t keep a virus at bay and it looks as if the rice will go off before it gets used. The wildlife, however, gets freedom of movement. Although the wildlife doesn’t get chance to recover, it just reminds humanity that nothing lasts.

The poems in “The Density of Compact Bone” explore personal issues and the climate emergency. Magdalena Ball’s deftly constructed poems work as multi-layered explorations of her themes, underline how humanity has contributed to its own woes. There is a sense of helplessness as if there is no time to mitigate the damage or take action. They overlook the imbalances of power: one person diligently taking all possible steps to limit their impact will never have the same effect as a large corporation stopping air travel, holding solely online meetings and using recyclable materials. She is very conscious of her place as a daughter, as a mother, supporting and upholding both roles and the inheritances they bring. Her concerns are about what kind of world her child will grow up in, how there needs to be a world for children to grow in.

“The Density of Compact Bone” is available from Ginninderra 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.

2 Responses to ““The Density of Compact Bone” Magdalena Ball (Ginninderra Press) – book review”

  1. James Walton Says:

    Terrific review Emma.

  2. emmalee1 Says:

    Thank you!


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