Aug 28 2019
Carla Scarano considers a poetic biography imagined by Antony Christie
A search for identity through artefacts and fragments carefully and patiently dug out from earth characterises the process of the archaeologist’s daughter. She has no name and is only identified through her father, the archaeologist. She too will become an archaeologist in the course of the narrative. The poems explore a symbolic reconnection with an ancestral past that visits different lands from Labrador to Botswana, Lofoten Islands, France and England. They trace the archaeologist’s daughter’s route, chronologically pointing out the connection between the real objects and their mysterious almost spiritual aura.
The poems are mostly voiced in the third person, as the titles highlight, describing the protagonist from the outside and, at the same time, mapping her inside life. Her sensitivity to different materials and familiarity with excavation work starts from an early age:
uncertainties excite her, the sensual creativities of Lamia and Porphyro. she opens her Keats – she will spend all day with him while her father digs in the mud for a buried boat. (‘She climbs moon eggs on Vikten strand’, in the Lofoten Islands; she is 14)
This is linked to mythology and poetry, not only in the poems in this collection, but also to the poetic side of her vocation, that is, to her work of archaeologist that follows her father’s path. As the epigraph from Orhan Pamuk’s novel The Museum of Innocence states: ‘the past is preserved within objects as souls are kept in their earthen bodies’. We can imagine her reading Keats’ ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’and joining with poet in asking:
What men or gods are these? What maidens loth? What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape? What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?
She interrogates the artefacts in her daily work to make sense of a past ‘that can never quite reconstruct/the fine detail of those distant civilizations’. The lines also link to Keats’ poem ‘Lamia’, where the woman protagonist has an unhappy destiny, and to ‘The Eve of St Agnes’, where romantic love is exalted. Nevertheless, the archaeologist’s daughter does not seem interested in love; she’d rather dedicate herself to her job- although she does fall in love eventually:
her lips graze his lips, wander his cheekbones like a camel hair brush clarifying a fragment of anonymous, mummified, five hundred years old skin in a dry crypt – … the pulses trouble her, the patterns and pauses of breath – his hollowness is full of substance, an artefact of sensation that tangles her centres of pure thought with the fine sweetness of temporary dissolution. (‘She is in love’, and 20)
Her love is connected with her work, her brushing and scraping of old bones reveal passion and temporality, desire and dissolution, evoking the sensuality of Keats’ poems.
Digging out a skull seems to be her utmost pleasure; she performs it with accuracy and care:
she is paring with infinite care a layer of small pebbles and clay from the frail fragment – she aches with the strain of movement so limited it is as tiring as a dawn swim against a strong current. her muscles are all knots. (‘She talks with brother crow’, Labrador again; she is 35)
A crow is her best companion in this research which absorbs all her being and brings her back to the origins where ‘bones speak to her’ in an intimate way. The old bones reveal to her their past and tell her their stories that can be of sufferings and sacrifice:
I was still a child; I was breathing, felt cold and heat. I laughed at my own last supper, my bird flute called softly to the wings of the sky. so long under the sand, so long. (‘She dreams the bones speak to her’, that day’s night)
Her relationship with the artefacts she uncovers works as a metaphor of her self-discovery that helps he find her identity. The objects have a voice, a ‘voice of sky’; they express
new words for the song which is their story, as the ancestors first tamed the void with names to make it theirs and fruitful.
Therefore, the living is connected with the land through the ancestors who are revived with the discovery of the artefacts. This belonging is conveyed through objects that acquire a special, mysterious power, a ‘soul’.
Her father is also transformed into a sort of artefact when he dies:
she is four days too late, distracted by the limitless possibilities of walls laid bare in the high arctic by a shift in the permafrost, the falling away of loosened gravel while the father’s hand makes its first metamorphosis toward artefact. (‘She considers the nature of parchment’, back in St John’s; she is 46)
His death prompts her plans for her own funeral rites according to ancient rituals. In her will she opts for ‘a burning first/preferably a pyre,/with plenty of gasoline and dry wood’. She wants the mourners to ‘laugh, dance,/sing … stories’, and then ‘take out a small boat/ … scatter me to the air and water’. She wishes to merge with the elements, become ‘instantly elemental’, back to the earth and to the authenticity of a primordial life. This is evoked in the ancestral essence of her story which distrusts ‘the indignities/ … of labelling and public display’.
The final poem shows the end of her life ‘into an afterlife she neither believes in/nor wants’. She enters ‘in a darkness that is absolute,/without substance’ but still keeps the intensity of her life, ‘of her own fierce loves’. From the final lines it seems that this passion and her legacy are transferred to her granddaughter who practices ‘an archaeology too new/for her’, in a future that is opening to new horizons.
The poems acutely explore the development of the life and career of the archaeologist’s daughter with fascinating concepts that link metaphorically to the roots of our past through objects and artefacts, conveying an intrinsic primordial significance.