The Abbotsford Mysteries
1 Aug. 2011
Paperback / softback
A collection of extraordinary depth and focus. Powerfully conceived and executed, these poems give complex voice to the multi-stranded miseries and ecstasies of the ghosts of the old Abbotsford convent: the bewildered orphans, left always with a childhood ‘that cannot unbandage itself’, the wild girls swimming the Yarra to freedom in the shadow of the Skipping Girl; and the nuns, whose sometimes punitive practice co-exists with a creed of love that offers moments of ambiguous radiance ‘as if an archangel tapped on your soul’.
Spirited and fugitive, lively and resistant, the girls in these poems speak through a powerful blend of the lyrical and the verbatim in a bare, intense, even visionary form of ‘writing back—against and into history. Patricia Sykes merges fluently into dramatic voices so busy at grief, fear and abandonment. She knows their restless sorrows but she also celebrates their ache to live and to find freedom outside their bind of protection and guilt. These are moving, compassionate poems full of the motif of river: life, undercurrent, debris - and the deeply aspiring self.
…The work is, ultimately, an act of retrieval that is, by turn, luminous, wry, defiant and empathic. Patricia Sykes is a poet who knows not to be constricted by boundaries, who brings into play all the resources of history and reverie, remembrance and vision, in this supple interweaving of lyric intimacy, documentary, liturgy and plain-speaking.
As if we fit together like old shards
orphan, unfortunate, drunk, prostitute
in a neat history of broken glass
The Abbotsford Convent becomes more than the setting, the grey mince-meat walls, of this collection. It emerges as presence, intimate and familiar as well as constraining and forbidding. But it is childhood itself which becomes the subterranean geography and pulse. Subject to an overworld of lay and religious adults, the razor of power having such adult force, the voices in these poems create multiple pathways through memory and time as they map and navigate the many-stranded mysteries of their institutionalised lives.
The Abbotsford Mysteries incorporates a medley of voices and experiences, drawn from official histories and other archives: the memories of Patricia and her sisters, and the oral memoirs of over seventy women, interviewed by Patricia during 2003-04. All had been resident at the Good Shepherd Convent at some stage during 1927-74.
Voice is central to the work: the persona speaking the poems does so on behalf of all the voices who contributed their memoirs. Often their words are woven verbatim into the poems, giving a particular and poetic resonance to a significant aspect of Melbourne and Australia’s institutional, religious, social, and architectural history.