Denise O’Hagan

Denise O’Hagan launches ‘The Density of Compact Bone’ by Magdalena Ball

Originally Published in the Rochford Street Review, 19 April 2022.

The Density of Compact Bone by Magdalena Ball Ginninderra Press 2021.

Launch speech for a Launch that Never Was. Unfortunately the Sydney launch of The Density of Compact Bone was impacted by COVID, Rochford Street Review is able to finally publish Denise O’Hagan’s speech which would have launched the collection. 

My profound thanks to you, Magdalena Ball, for the huge honour of inviting me to launch your sixth poetry collection, The Density of Compact Bone, published in 2021 by Ginninderra Press.

I begin by acknowledging the unceded land of the Cammeraygal  people on which the launch would have taken place, and pay my respects to Elders past, present and emerging.

The Density of Compact Bone is a visionary book by a poet who is also an accomplished novelist, reviewer and interviewer, and managing editor of the wonderful Compulsive Reader. Structured in four parts, it is a layered and deeply poignant collection, permeated by the twin themes of ecological precariousness and human connectedness. It has, as you will see, the winning combination of being both extremely readable and deeply philosophical.

The book opens in the time-honoured tradition of ecopoetry as a series of odes to a languishing planet and the creatures who inhabit – or used to inhabit – it, such as the ‘pale, blind, goddess of the Yangtze’ or ‘Lonesome George, Galapagos tortoise’. These finely composed poems are heartbreaking and unflinchingly honest, yet we cannot help but be simultaneously uplifted by the atmosphere their language generates. There’s relief in articulation, as in lines such as these:

the only thing I can do is supplicate
lean towards the guilt
wear it like a red-skinned scarf
soaked in the blood of every species
we couldn’t save.

 – ‘Qi Qi, the Endling’

Resisting the tendency of much contemporary ecopoetry to openly exhort, these poems wreak their effects subtly, unwrapping not only our love for what we have lost and stand to lose, but also our shame at the costs of how we live, and instilling in the deepest part of us an intense desire for change. In characteristically disarming fashion, lines may begin gently, only to propel us forwards to devastating effect:

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.

 – ‘Wing Feathers’

The poet then widens her vision further still to explore philosophically as well as lyrically the broader human experience, in particular how we relate with each other and the world around us, both past and present. Frequently, she invokes a narrative and then proceeds to dismantle it through a blend of chiselled, precise phrases and a Dali-like sense of the surreal. Early on in the second part, the poet introduces us to a ‘domestic landscape’ and a deconstruction of the familiar which is at once both playful and deadly serious:

… built from ink and time
an accretion of skin cells
a mound of fingernail clippings

a wind blows through
destroys the symmetry
shifts the illusion.

 – ‘F.I.R.E.

Traditional concepts of time and space and measurement are stripped away and broken down and revealed as illusory, lending a distinctly existential dimension to these later poems:

There’s no such thing
as division, it’s just
this illusion, persistent, like skin.

 – ‘Linguistic Junkyard’

or

… time is a construct

you write every minute with breath.

 – ‘Eastern Whipbird’

And one poem is simply titled, bluntly, ‘Time is not’. 

The sense that the external world, or reality, is elusive if not wholly unattainable is enhanced by a strongly cinematographic quality:

I must
keep moving through the timeline
there is no other way.

 – ‘Fermat in Wonderland’

or

‘… I was dancing
twirling like a clumsy ballerina
just outside of the boundary of the frame

 – ‘Alloy, usually hardened’

Magdalena’s wry humour shines through at unexpected moments:

This is why I now wear glasses calculating the cost is costly…

 – ‘F.I.R.E.’

And in the poem entitled ‘Medusa’, she asks:

What gorgon?
That was just a bad hair day …’ 

Memory and the past are never completely lost to us but reside, if not in another dimension altogether, in the very fabric of our bodies – including, perhaps, in the ‘compact bone’ of the book’s title – though we may not always be aware of it. Nowhere is this shown to be truer than in the poems on family and ‘the inheritance of loss’:

You think you’re reaching back
for something missing, only to find it

held, in the pelvis, the shoulder girdle
whispered from parent to child long after

that motherly voice, like a caress, dispersed
flowing through the world as atoms…

 – ‘Eastern Whipbird’

As its memorable cover suggests, experiences and relationships are dissected scientifically, but never clinically, and the poet’s sense of compassion and tenderness is palpable.

One of the most moving poems in the entire collection (and my favourite, if I were pressed to choose one), is ‘How to make Lokshen Kugel’. It begins in the kitchen with memories of the poet’s grandmother, and moves seamlessly between reflections on ingredients of the noodle cake and the meaning of life and love itself:

Begin with tears. There will not be enough.
Salt is essential.

Break something. A dish perhaps if you cannot
find a heart…

… Understand that these myths are real
and must form the basis of your recipe,
mingling with apricot jam and mixed spice.
There is no measuring.

This poem is beautifully complemented by ‘Mitzvah’, the final poem in the book, also a tribute to her grandmother, with its stunning closure:

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

Suffused by the warmth of its writer, these poems take you by the hand and lead you through a liminal space where even the harshest loss and hardship is bathed in a transformative light, leaving you holding your breath and poised on the cusp of wonder. Laced with an at times Lily Brett-esque sense of humour, these are poems to which you’ll find yourself returning time and again, won over by their irrepressible buoyancy of spirit and implicit hope. As Maggie herself puts it:

I try to be sad, but all I feel
is desire …

 – ‘Rhythmic Oscillations’

In short, this is a collection that simultaneously seduces and impresses, engaging both our hearts and minds with its luminous intelligence.

So saying, I’m delighted to declare The Density of Compact Bone officially launched!

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