We hear this phrase, time and time again, when we watch movies or read a novel. It's somehow an extra stamp of authenticity to the story telling, and makes for more compelling reading or viewing. This week, we bring you poetry written by Mona Community member Deborah Ritchie. Her three sonnets are inspired by real events, those that are significant and life changing, and the small, every day moments that come from terror in the present or in the memories of the past; we are reminded how our most traumatic experiences (and those of others) are our most fruitful fodder for writing.
Deborah tells us that, as a writer, she is interested in the damage we carry. This is obvious in her first poem, 'Rage', that is dedicated to Donna Carson, a survivor of horrific domestic violence that involved a brutal assault, part of which was being set on fire and left to die by her partner. Deborah skilfully uses detailed imagery and personification to conjure an image of vicious consumption, and contrasts this to the equally brutal process of 15 months of rehabilitation and recovery that Donna endured after her attack. Her poem's final lines leave little room for misunderstanding of the relevance of this woman's experience, whilst it occurred in 1994; the recent pandemic has inflamed Australia's domestic violence crisis (already a pandemic in itself) to the point that there is an increasing number of women who suffer silently behind their imaginary picket fences, and the consequences for them are just as dire and serious as that of Donna Carson.
Fire ate her face, chewed the flesh
down to bone one mild Good Friday evening
in a small-town yard where a man’s flanno shirt
flapped through petrol plumes like a pirate flag.
Fire stripped her bare, down
to black shoes with kitten heels
and eyeballs of electric blue,
to diminish their bandaged glare
beneath lights on tables, beds
rolling down antiseptic corridors,
in courts, behind microphones or placards.
Years on, they still flash blue against this pandemic
raging behind white fences.
Deborah's second sonnet, 'Over Wire', speaks to the more subtle and insidious instances of child abuse that are concealed by walls and silence, as a mother's buried trauma resurfaces after a gift is given to her children. The poem's pace and build up speaks to the creeping nature of this memory, and the way in which it fills the persona with dread. The strange descriptions of the rhubarb ('scarlet throats' being 'clutched') are given context by the poem's denouement, as Deborah reveals her concealment of predatory behaviour behind a simple and innocent gift of fruit.
Small eyes watched behind passionfruit vines:
strange men toiling, olive skins oiled with sweat,
foreign voices looping in a sprinkler-ticking summer field.
Workers passed her a rhubarb bouquet —
earthy hands stretching green frills over wire,
wide white grins blossoming across dark faces.
Tiny hands clutched the scarlet throats.
But in the kitchen, fear bloomed behind her mother’s eyes
because she knew danger
floated behind vines and wires,
in a misdirected step, an idle conversation,
a fast feline blindside or the slow reach of a man
passing poisonous leaves across a fence
any bright morning.
Deborah's last sonnet, 'Norfolk Island', at first conjures an idyllic landscape, but that quickly deteriorates into more violent imagery and the landscape being wretched apart and swelling, as a puckering wound would, with the disease of the past. Deborah herself notes that she is fascinated by concealment of experiences within seemingly familiar and ordinary environments. In this case, the windswept hills of Norfolk Island mask a history of abuse and torture of convicts that was deemed, even at the time, to be the harshest of that in any of the new colonies of Australia. It reminds us not to believe what we first see, that peaceful facades can often conceal the most painful of all human experiences.
White terns turn
above the swing of spray
as island pines feather the heavens,
their green fingers stroking blue air,
embroidering hillsides sliced
by roads that twist
like grey string unravelling
down to a violent green headland, swollen
with a congregation of bones
breathing beneath the dark soil —
escapees from walls of soaring stone,
fetid dumb-cells for chained insane,
flogging yards stained with starvelings’ blood.
Escapees from Pacific hell.
Have you been inspired by Deborah's writing to write something based on your own experiences, or those of others that shock you? Awe you? Leave you reeling? We would love to read your work! Submissions for the Mona blog open from the 1st to the 7th of June every month and we accept submissions via our website and email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Deborah Ritchie is the co-author of Judas Kisses, the best-selling memoir of burns survivor, Donna Carson, first published by Hardie Grant Books in 2007. Deborah also writes short fiction and poetry; her work has been published in various magazines and journals. Deborah holds an MA in Creative Writing from Macquarie University and a B.Ed. from the University of Wollongong. Deborah lives in the Southern Highlands of New South Wales. She enjoys cooking and eating the Highland’s superb seasonal produce and being part of a vibrant regional community. Follow her on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/deborahritchieauthor/
Loved reading this rural woman's work? There's more where that came from! Women all around Australia share experiences from their hearts in Mona Magazine's first and second issue.