London Grip Poetry Review – Magdalena Ball

Poetry review – THE DENSITY OF COMPACT BONE : Charles Rammelkamp accompanies Magdalena Ball on a poetic exploration of the nature of time

The Density of Compact Bone 
Magdalena Ball
Ginninderra Press, 2021
ISBN: 978-1761091865
102 pp     $16.99 

Magdalena Ball’s overriding theme in The Density of Compact Bone is time. What is it? How does it work? What are its effects? Is it even real? Over and over again, contemplating the world, she runs into the conundrum of time, “time’s honey,” as she refers to it in the poem “soul clap”: sweet and sticky, trapping language and perception in its gummy swamp. Time is both an abstract concept and a monolithic force. It’s behind extinction, annihilation, memory, age. It’s also an illusion. She writes in the poem “Time is Not”:

	There are lifeforms 
	to which we are merely
	a food source
	for all our airs
	just another product.

	Change is real
	but time is not. 

“Tomorrow’s Box is Quantum” is another take on time, regarded in its smallest possible unit. “Every day is another chance to die of kindness / the infinite regression of immortality.”

“Nobody’s Ancestor” starts, “Time does not resolve. It takes flight, out of the forest, lifting.” The poem ponders succession through time, the “chain of origin, linked like leg / irons, pulling you back to the elements.” But time doesn’t provide an answer to the riddle. The poem concludes:

	There are ways to travel, backwards, forwards, up, down,
	charmed, minus red, minus blue. You can go in any line you
	want, you’ll always find your way back.

A whole section of poems is called “Chronon,” which is a discrete unit of time that is part of an hypothesis that proposes that time is not continuous. This is a view already anticipated in “Tomorrow’s Box is Quantum,” which puts a spotlight on the theme. Ball writes in the first poem of this section, “Eastern Whipbird,” “that time is a construct.” Later in the Chronon section, in “Symmetry Breaking,” she writes:

	Time is nothing more than water
	warm rain, piss
	the elemental trickle
	from a well of sulphur
	and longing.

“Life can only be understood backwards” takes on memory and time in focusing on a war veteran, suffering from PTSD, occasionally moved by rage, “who knows / everything heals after enough time.”

In one of the final poems in the collection, “Hall of Mirrors,” a memory poem about an old flame, Ball writes, “We know time isn’t a straight line. / It twists back on itself, bending limbs / thickening in the veins…”

While all of this is thought-provoking and vividly written, what are the practical implications? The very first section of the book, “The Age of Waste,” spells out the bleak consequences. In poems like “AKA” and “Qi Qi, the Endling,” Ball mourns the extinction of species, all the result of human activity. An “endling” is the last known individual of a species – “Her name is Mud / last of her kind,” is how Ball starts “AKA,” and in the catalogue of lost fish, reptiles, and lizards, in “Qi Qi, the Endling,” she lists Martha, last of the once ubiquitous passenger pigeons, “hunted from hero to zero in fifty years” – clearly a victim of human rapacity.

“Hardwire Billboard” spells out a sad verdict:

        The billboard 
        flashing in neon excess 
        buy buy buy bye
        hardwired to self-interest.

“Is Blue an Earth Tone?” further explains the situation, our planet Earth “melting / under the hot weight of humanity / bearing down.”

The poem “Wing Feathers” alludes to an individual with a colossal sense of entitlement (Donald Trump comes to my mind), but its very shape visually suggests the shameful diminishment caused by humans.

        It always comes back to the bird: brood parasite
	puffed simulation of a tougher species, the way
	he reached out an arm artificially extended
	and grabbed with privilege’s casual grace.

	Of course there’s the violence: nudge of
	hip or all out smack, easiest with small
	eggs or chicks, curved beaks, striped
	plumage, power of the pack, slogans.

	Hiding behind a noisy machine
	cutting words into barbs, into
	zero-sum, winner takes all
	consumption the point
	the rest can starve.

	Insults often reflect
	the wielder, slinger
	slavering leads to
	such truncation
	mud this

Is there any sense of redemption in all this? Magdalena Ball’s does not sound like a woe-is-me (vey ist mir) voice. Far from it. Yes, “nothing lasts,” as she concludes the poem, “Passerine,” but given the yo-yo that is time, nothing is inevitable, either. “I try to be sad, but all I feel / is desire,” she writes in “Rhythmic Oscillations,” and the whole collection ends on a triumphant note in the poem, “Mitzvah”:

        Your voice carries.
        You are setting yourself free 
        you are free

My absolute favorite poem in The Density of Compact Bone? The tribute to William Butler Yeats, at his graveside, in “Drumcliff Church.” The poem ends where the entire collection begins, philosophically – with time:

	Time collapses inward
	and now, if there even is a now
	there’s no distinction between those
	bleached, buried bones and your soft
	dissipated ashes.

This is a collection to be read and then read again.