Spinifex Press, 2021
Reviewed by Alison Clifton, StylusLit
Angela Costi’s An Embroidery of Old Maps and New charts a process of mapping human interactions through embroidery. Costi is part of the Cypriot-Greek diaspora, and her grandmother used her embroidery skills to rise above poverty before she moved to Melbourne. There, Costi’s mother and sisters worked the machines at a sewing factory. In 2009, Costi travelled to Japan to work with the Stringraphy Ensemble, so it might not be too great a leap of the imagination to liken the stitches of Costi’s verse to sashiko, Japanese embroidery. Sashiko takes on a form distinct from European embroidery traditions in the movements required to create the stitches. Sashiko literally means “little stabs,” and, indeed, there are little stabs to the heart to be found and felt among the rich poetry in this collection.
“Looping the Waves” (11-12) sees Costi’s Yiayia (Grandma) physically confined to the Glenroy nursing home, but her mind roams back to her time aboard the Patris on her way to Australia: “‘We crossed the cruel seas / to a land I couldn’t pronounce,’” she says, and “Her flowery dialect swirls through the stagnant air, / awakens the allotted gloom” of the home (11). Costi’s grandmother has “cinematic eyes” (11) and the voice of a poet from an earlier, more romantic era. Here, Costi recalls her grandmother’s tale of suffering, the end-stopped lines highlighting the dramatic pauses afforded by each breath:
‘Hundreds of us from cursed villages.
The sea tossed us like salad in a bowl.
Swimming was a skill they gave to fishermen.
I prayed the sea sucked my breath while I slept.
Oh, but sleep was the lost treasure.’ (11)
Costi informs us that this is her cue “to play the hero, Captain Nikolaos / and take my young grandmother’s hand / telling her, she will arrive safely” (11). Costi’s grandmother recalls the horrors of constant seasickness. The final words of the poem are also the final words of the woman’s story: “Yiayia opens her eyes and sees her Captain / smiling and says, / ‘Thank you for making the sea behave’” (12). When Costi’s words intermingle with her Yiayia’s words, two perspectives coalesce to create a startlingly brilliant work of poetry. The frame of the nursing home brings pathos and bathos to the sea-shanty-like cadences of the older woman’s story, but she is rightly granted the last word. This is her story.
Costi recounts the snippets and scraps of others’ personal narratives in several of these “embroideries.” Perhaps the most compelling poem in this collection is “Frontline” (53-54) where the “line” of phone services like “Lifeline” or “Kids’ Helpline” becomes the line of first defence. Costi tells us that: “Some stories remain like bruises, / others are bullets, those told / with fear pounding the phone” (53). The woman on the other end of the line is in danger from her husband or partner, and Costi underlines the urgency of the situation by showing us her own reactions: “There is the breath you listen for as well as the word, / each one counts, the breath, the word, the breath” (53). In keeping with the poem’s title, military terms are used to describe the situation: “Allow the story to battle itself into existence” (53). Yet this is not a soldier. This is a woman, mother, wife. She is trapped in her home as if in a trench.
Costi reminds us that “The woman is all ages, she is all colours, / both rich and poor” (53). There is particularity in the universality of domestic violence – although it can happen to women of any age, colour, class, or creed, this is the story of just one woman. And yet, each woman’s story follows a similar pattern of triggers and explosions, as if her sewing machine were following a pattern torn from the pages of a women’s magazine: a pattern that maps out the house with its hidden landmines and tripwires. She can see the blow-up coming, in slow motion, but she is powerless to stop it:
‘His eyes get that way
the smell of his sick mouth
Charlie crying and crying for a feed
me unable to get up
my blouse a mess of milk and blood.’
Where is the breath? (53)
As Costi observes, “There is history / compounding their words” (53). These are the experiences of “their mothers’ mothers’” (53). Domestic violence continues to blight our society.
Costi insists on bringing us back to the sound of the woman’s breathing on the other end of the phone, but this time it is not just one woman, but all women. The shift from the singular to the plural serves to highlight the pervasive nature of domestic violence:
their words are carefully placed
and every breath
they have fought
for so long. (53)
For a woman in a situation like this, her life is always in danger. One blow too far, and the man will have killed her. Costi reminds us that holidays like Christmas and other supposedly happy occasions are the most dangerous: the man with more time in the house, more liquor in his belly, and more stress in his head. And, so, “The line is attacked / during times families are told / to expect gifts and joy” (54). At the end of this poem, Costi’s vital message is writ large, but her powerlessness to prevent further violence is clear: “We can breathe together, I say and we do. / When she is ready, she will tell me her story” (54). Costi can listen, she can witness, but she cannot stem the tide of violence that overwhelms our communities:
At the end, she will hang up.
I will gather her story, gently in my arms, sing to it
the song of honour and courage,
wrap it in a shroud and place it alongside
the rows and rows and rows — (54).
This poem offers no answers, no solutions. The words bear witness as they must, but it is up to us as a society to intervene, no matter how difficult and daunting the task may seem. We must end the violence. And yet, the em dash shows that it continues, the violence in our homes, relentless as the rage of these men. When will we listen? When will we act?
Where “Frontline” commemorates the stories of women who have suffered at the hands of men, “Kinaesthetic Grace” (29-30) celebrates women’s stories of self-expression. However, there is again a dark side. Women who work with their hands are often exploited. The poem begins: “This woman talks to me with her hands / she always has, since birth / I have failed to grasp them” (29). Instead, “I have followed the voices and text / I’ve found outside the home” (29). These are the words “bound by libraries” (29), to which we accord so much value. Instead, the speaker has
left this woman to create her own story
with soil and seeds, flour and salt,
a cloth, a needle, a pot, an oven
her fingers are an alphabet
I had no patience for. (29)
The use of the past tense here is telling. Now, she sees the value of the woman’s words. Is it too late? The poet continues: “This is the woman who knows how to hold / with her lined and stained hands / the story of all other women” (29). The woman who speaks with her hands becomes the oppressed women of the “General Motors assembly line / playing the conveyor belt like an instrument / they will never learn” (29) and “Hispanic women wearing paper masks as they spray / jeans and their lungs into shreds” (29). Costi reminds us that the fashionably-ripped jeans are not the only ones to be “distressed” – the process destroys the lungs of the factory workers. We must humble ourselves in the face of such suffering, Costi urges, and “hold out our hands / as children willing to learn” (30).
It is difficult to overstate the importance of Costi’s poetry. It is as much a part of her as her vital work in the areas of law and social justice. This collection is not easy reading. The “little stabs” of sashiko embroidery are painful to endure. How much more painful must it be to bear witness in person to the violence Costi describes? Costi’s poetry is technically and formally adroit. Not content to merely weave her words into cloth, Costi must pursue the greater artform of embroidery. Addition, embellishment: these are a necessary part of her craft. This is poetry stitched together with love born out through action. Each “little stab” that Costi makes towards the evils of the status quo, each renewed attack on domestic violence and the exploitation of women – each one represents progress.