TEXT review

White Lines

review by Kevin Brophy



Marcelle Freiman
White Lines (Vertical)
Hybrid Publishers, Vic. 2010
ISBN: 9781876462970
Pb 85pp AUD25


White Lines (Vertical) is Marcelle Freiman’s second book of poetry, arriving fifteen years after her first critically acclaimed collection. This is its own enigmatic statement, for it might mean a return to poetry or it might be an assurance that poetry was being written all along, while a successful academic career and the raising of a family took her time and energies. Marcelle Freiman’s family was from Lithuania and Latvia, she was raised in South Africa during the height of the Apartheid regime and settled in Australia in 1981. Her poetry has a global reach, and it draws on influences and voices from deep connections with Europe, with colonized nations, and with the history of the twentieth century.

The first poem stands outside the collection as a kind of gate, and in fact its title is ‘Gate’. This poem announces a number of preoccupations and poetic strategies that will work their way through the collection. ‘Gate’ announces that this writer’s commitment is to a direct, plain-spoken poetry, which holds details (the otherwise passing and forgotten experiences of a lived life) as metaphors we might look into in order to find what it is we value about being alive. ‘Gate’ is about (in one sense) that practice of looking out for our feet when we walk across uneven surfaces out there in the world, but it is also about the way paying attention to the world can bring us up against ourselves, ‘face to the glass’ in a moment ‘that stops your tracks’. There is an imagist commitment here, but also the angle of a psychologist who understands that once we do stop in front of ourselves, the self breaks ‘in two, in three’ until what we knows is only what we have lost. This fragmentation is an aspect of her own experience of living across three continents and the impacts of historical upheavals of the Holocaust and Apartheid. The fragmentation returns explicitly in the poem ‘Masha’ (a diminutive of Marcelle) later in the collection. The commitment to imagist values is reiterated in the collection’s final poem, where Freiman intensifies William Carlos Williams’ famous counsel introducing a red wheelbarrow, by stating in her poem, ‘everything depends upon/the slash diagonal, the crossing—/branching where two parts join’. ‘Gate’ is a beautiful poem, and a sad poem too; it is a warning to watch for the unevenness, the exposed roots, the stones that might trip us up in the book we are about to read. At least that’s the idea I took from this gate — though gates make me think of gardens about to be entered as well. Are we going in or are we going out?  Further into the book, in her return to South Africa, there is a low gate to her childhood home, now within a gated suburb, with a waving gardener and watchdogs with ‘their melting eyes turned vicious’. A near-final poem in the last pages returns to the theme of this opening by taking us on another walk where we ‘tread on brittle insects/with our difficult boots’ and yet, as in ‘Gate’, we are reminded that if we are able to notice it, there comes a ‘curving seam/from who knows where — … bright through bladed grass’. Philosophers call it qualia. Thomas Nagel famously called it ‘what it is like to be a bat’, and poets reach after it in many ways, all of them never quite the final word.

Marcelle Freiman has worked for some years with the poetry group in Sydney called DiVerse, who write poems in response to art works in Australian galleries. There are a number of poems responding to art, including the stunning painting of slashed diagonals by Tony Tuckson on the front cover and a beautiful response to Grace Cossington Smith, with ‘trees humming green’. Lyonel Feininger is the first painter whose work is taken up by this ekphrastic impulse. He was a cubist drawn to painting churches and skies with low horizons, a founder of Bauhaus and a victim of the Nazis in the 1930s. The poem is peppered with ‘s’ sounds, and the gas of the Holocaust hangs over it.

The book promises to be weighted by this history, and indeed with the second poem subtitled ‘Russia 1992’ it would seem that history will be a powerful presence. In fact, though, Freiman’s poetry is consistently intimate, personal, driven by sensual and private memories. Stiffening this approach, and saving it from becoming indulgent or sentimental, is the presence of these histories of violence. This Russian poem is a personal history of impressions of European grandparents in a free verse that allows natural phrase boundaries to dictate line lengths. The liveliness of the poetry partly lies in Freiman’s feel for producing a variety of phrasing and length of phrases as her sentences build.

Two small early poems are worth the price of the book. One is the poem ‘Drawing’, which takes up again the theme of ‘Gate’ but with a more threatening take on the ‘raw play/of objects’ insatiable for life. It is a fast, passionate poem. The other is ‘Furnace’, which continues with the idea of rawness, offering us a raw poetry that condenses the horror of Dickens’ Hard Times and Hitler’s assembly-line murder. From here there are two more poems trying to respond to the facts of massacres, leading into ‘Masha’, a poem that plays with possible female identities, memories of childhood and the impact of the news that her grandmother’s extended family had been massacred along with all Jews in the township of Simna in 1941, among them nearly 150 children. 

The following sections of the book explore the deep connections Freiman feels with her South African childhood and youth, ‘when guilt and white privilege could turn you crazy’. Her evocation of a certain moment in her teenage years is too perfect to leave without quoting:

just tobacco bits
right on your tongue,
this was how to be strong,
wipe them out,
take a man’s drag,
show them.
            (from ‘Smokes’)

Again, it is her understanding of detail, and of the way words chime against each other (tongue, strong; man’s drag), along with her willingness to be brief that keep her poetry alive for the reader. Her South African mind and South African identity survive her settlement in Australia:

the year our Sydney garden
was shaded by an old oak tree
I rubbed my back against her crusty bark
like an antelope itching with dust
                        (from ‘Oak’)

Mostly the poems are concerned with women and women’s identities, but there is a small section devoted to her father who ran a factory producing protein foods for the poor in South Africa. Even here it is the wide old woman, Mercy, who cares for him when he is in his nineties in Johannesberg that the reader remembers.

White Lines (Vertical) is a joyously difficult book, it is a pleasurably uncomfortable book. Its poetry aims at all times at accuracy of statement while allowing wholeheartedly for the complexity that makes any single focus insufficient for human meaning. I hope that after this book there will be a flurry of books from Marcelle Freiman, catching us up on the fifteen years we missed from her. 



Kevin Brophy is a poet and novelist. He is author of eleven books and coordinates the creative writing program in the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne.


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Vol 14 No 2 October 2010
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Jen Webb