Fortune Turned To Stone
Portrait of tragedy stemming from inability to rise above circumstances
By Aaron Lee
Holiday Coast Medusa
Unfamiliar with the work of Rebecca Edwards, I welcomed the opportunity to read this collection of poems by the Australian poet and visual artist. I can safely say that the tongue-in-cheek title of the book did not prepare me for the experience.
Holiday Coast Medusa, Rebecca’s third book, reads as a single long poem comprising 34 parts of varying length. Interspersed with the pieces are black and white prints of papercuts by Rebecca, which reveal a technical and imaginative- almost hallucinatory- skill that more than matches her poetic gift.
The book begins with a provocative introduction about the Medusa of Greek myth - the mortal girl described in Bullfinch’s Mythology as being “once a beautiful maiden whose hair was her chief glory”, but as she dared to vie in beauty with Minerva, the goddess deprived her of her charms and changed her beautiful ringlets into hissing serpents. She became a cruel monster of so frightful an aspect that no living thing could behold her without being turned into stone. Bullfinch omits to mention that Poseidon, king of the oceans, seduced the girl in one of Athena's temples, and it was this crime for which Medusa was turned into a gorgon.
The poems trace Medusa's story arc in the life of the protagonist Steph, who is described on the back cover of the book as “pregnant and fleeing along the Queensland coast in search of a relationship she can trust”. This somewhat oversimplifies Steph’s ordeal.
Gradually transformed from “girl” to “gorgon” by the loss of innocence, she is tormented and vulnerable but somehow not hapless (even though her epic journey has an inevitable air of doom about it). For a start, her visit to the doctor, from whom she begs a quick and easy abortion, brings her no relief but only censure:
Rueful and defiant, Steph gathers her meagre worldly possessions and endeavours to find some answers elsewhere, intending to “make some decisions on the way”. But as time passes her self-assured demeanor crumbles, as she finds herself turned into a “suicidal blonde” with a “taste for chaos”- attracted to bright lights, loud music, too many drinks and anonymous men who fumble her under her party dress while she searches for answers in all the wrong places. Her roadtrip is a collection of experiences that flicker between grim reality and short-lived fantasy - a shadowland of nightmares which she cannot escape. It asks the question of which is more difficult: to go on enduring the unremitting rasp of seedy reality, or to wake from a delightful dream only to discover oneself in the torment of hell. Steph’s unbroken cycle of self-destruction, recounted powerfully, leaves a metallic tang of desperation in the mouth of the reader till the traumatic end.
Some respite is found in the poet’s deft use of different voices in the book- in addition to Steph there is Mr. P. (which character one quickly realises is a mythic conflation of Poseidon, who impregnates Medusa, and Perseus, who eventually hunts her to her death), a soldier’s wife with no name, and (very appropriately given the device) a Narrator and a Chorus. The result is a profusion of voices and perspectives that populate the nightmarish landscape of Steph’s underworld. To the poet’s credit, the effect is ultimately successful - gritty and dramatic but never theatrical. The Narrator in particular, has an unsympathetic, even vaguely sinister presence - she appears to be somehow complicit in Steph’s adversity, but her unvarnished voice anchors the poems in the real world, and keeps them from blossoming into the mind-trip that people sometimes use to escape dire circumstances. The themes of sex and violence are explored in anatomical detail - in Steph’s world, violent relationships are the norm, even for one-night stands. She succumbs to her slow destruction with a curious self-awareness and a growing, predatory strength:
Steph quickly becomes conscious of the sexual power she can exercise over the “brittle men” she encounters - Medusa-like, she can stop them in their tracks and consume them with her “vagina dentate”. Before long, she is able to proclaim the paradox of her new identity-
In the midst of all that is going on, the reader is able to discern an undercurrent of desperate questioning: can we find a way out of situations that are too terrible to bear? Though Steph never gives up looking for an answer, she does not find it. We know that she cannot escape her ultimate destruction, which is delayed but not avoided by her taking temporary refuge with Thene - a friend who probably represents the poet’s artistic self. Thene shelters Steph as best she can, for Mr. P is by now looking to kill his one-time lover. In the end, like the implacable Perseus he finds his prey. In the myth, the hero uses a reflective shield given him by Minerva to avoid looking directly at Medusa while he cuts her head off. Here, Steph has been looking inside herself but the act of reflection does not save her.
Her abrupt end is not described but only hinted at, and she is left as nothing more than “bones on the beach that whistle and sing.” Indeed, at this point her self-awareness is all that distinguishes her from the homeless stranger she saw lying outside a train station, “the grey sky poised over him like the edge of a spade.”
Greek tragedy is all about that one tragic character flaw. Steph’s tragedy stems from her inability to rise above her circumstances no matter how hard she tries, but just as poignantly, no salvation can be found in either friendship or Art.
After reading this book I was intrigued to discover that Rebecca Edwards has been through a series of traumas and written about them in her previous work. Having been diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder, depression, she also suffered severe internal injury in childbirth, as well as marital breakdown. Certainly this cycle of poems provides a penetrating insight into the experiences of women and the scars they bear. There are some prosy passages in the collection, but on the whole it is well told and arresting. Descriptive lines like “doves, scrabble across the skylight/ your little boat shapes” or “my hand is white as amnesia/veins scribble like worms” ravish you with their beauty and leave you in no doubt as to Rebecca’s poetic gift. Ultimately, this traumatic book stands not so much as an elegy to Medusa or Steph but a testament to the vulnerability and courage of women like them.QLRS Vol. 3 No. 4 Jul 2004