Writing & News

New Reviews of Ekho by Roslyn Orlando

Here is one by Will Yeoman, published on the Writing WA website:

and another by Sam Ryan at Australian Book Review:

What time is it?

Two very different collections about identity

by Sam Ryan •

June 2024, no. 465

Identity is a hard thing to define. What makes us who we are? We have social identities, shaped by our affinities and proximities to social groups, cultural identities informed by values, languages, rituals, traditions, and a whole multitude of different phenomena that combine to make us who we are.

In Roslyn Orlando’s literary début, Ekhō, identity is linked to voice and agency; I am who I am because of what I say and my ability to say it. In Audrey Molloy’s second collection of poetry, The Blue Cocktail, identity is linked to place; I am who I am because of the places I inhabit. Both books have more complex theses and focuses than can be summed up in a few snappy opening paragraphs. For example, Orlando condemns technology as a simple echo of knowledge, and Molloy raises questions of belonging. Identity links these two works and provides a key to understanding their intricacies.

The Blue Cocktail traces portions of Molloy’s life, beginning in Ireland, then Australia. It grants readers an intimate insight into her life and the cultures and landscapes that have helped form her identity. Molloy’s first collection, The Important Things (2021), won the Anne Elder Award and was shortlisted for the Seamus Heaney First Collection Poetry Prize – after reading The Blue Cocktail, I can see why.

Ekhō is a very different work. This book-length, three-part narrative poem takes the Grecian myth of Echo and Narcissus and intertwines and transforms it with that other famously voiceless and ventriloquised figure, Amazon Alexa (via the Echo Smart Speaker). I can’t imagine a better way to retell and reinterpret the myth. Ekhō began life as a video and sound installation, accompanied by Orlando’s poetry, which must have served as an early draft of these poems. While the multidisciplinary nature of Orlando’s work has led to some neglect of the poetic quality, and might be seen as a weakness, it is at the same time one of the book’s most interesting aspects.

The first section of Ekhō begins with a retelling of the original myth, then goes into the inner thoughts of the now-voiceless nymph who, in this retelling, which seems to be an amalgamation of different versions of the myth, has become a mountain. The work leaps between poems with fairly standard stanzas and is then invaded by the formats of other disciplines. ‘iii’ consists of ‘Corrections’, which read as a publisher’s errata, inserting the nymph’s clarifications, such as ‘I had a crush on Hera, / there I said it.’ The final poem in this first section begins ‘Redacted minutes from Council 20.36 million’. Membership of the council is made up of rivers and mountains from Greek myth: Helicon, Parnassus, Ptoion, and Parnitha. These minutes are not necessarily poetic – ‘So what / if I have?’ reads one comment from Helicon in that forced enjambment – but the form gives a nod to Orlando’s suspicion of technology. Meeting minutes are a technology of thought, an arrangement of statements recorded for posterity, which are themselves nothing but relatively voiceless echoes.

The books’ second section introduces us to Alexa, with a prologue consisting of Amazon’s stock performance from 1997 to 2022. I am not sure why this has been included – it doesn’t read as poetry and seems only to let readers know that this is Amazon Alexa™, while skirting copyright concerns. The poems variously include Alexa’s inner thoughts and the questions she fields, ‘Alexa, / what / time / is / it?’. As with Echo, Alexa is a tragic figure with little agency of her own, cursed to repeat information gleaned from the internet at the whim of her inquisitive owner. Orlando has cleverly replaced Narcisus with the internet.

The third and final section of Ekhō is a play in one act in which Echo and Alexa are at a party attended by ‘abstract silhouettes of various cultural and political figures’. Our protagonists are cursed to recount and re-enact the occasion. Their repetitions turn into a tragic love story, resisting the moral of the original myth while also endorsing it: it ends in ‘and / and / yes / and’. They can only ask questions and repeat the other’s. Their lack of voice leaves their identity neutered.

Where Orlando takes myth and technology and combines them to create a work that is more complex in its construction than in voice, Molloy’s voice is so strong that by the time you finish the collection you may feel as though you know the poet intimately.

Place and culture permeate Molloy’s collection. Pubs – those very Irish institutions – feature heavily in the early parts of the book, and the early parts of the poet’s life. In ‘The Entrance Fee’, we are treated to a bit of Irish wisdom: ‘all you really needed / was the loose change for a Guinness Extra stout’, since a larger glass reveals your progress and may lead the barman to ‘swipe your nearly empty glass’. The ‘amber bottle’ of the Guinness Extra hides your progress and allows you to sit for an afternoon, perhaps until a kindly stranger buys you another. However, she ‘found, with halter-neck and fitted jeans, / I didn’t even need the entrance fee’. Her identity as female excuses her from the need to use this trick.

In ‘Whiteout’, mist is ‘dry ice at a concert, where the artists are ravens / and a black cockatoo’. In ‘Learning to Swim’, ‘Cornflower air fills art-deco arches. / Beyond – the harbour, dotted with goose- / wing boats I no longer sail.’ Surrounded by booze at a pub in Ireland, Molloy learned how to get a free drink, and in Australia surrounded by birds and water (two tropes in Australian poetry), she becomes at ease in her new home – she no longer needs to sail. Has her identity transformed? I am not sure, but it is subject to compounding experiences in her former and current homes.

I am taken with the ease of Molloy’s voice. Not once did I have to reread a line or stop to try and find the poems’ melodies. Throughout the collection, complexity stalks her command of rhythm. ‘A Legacy to Seven Men I’ve Loved’ consists of seven tight couplets, each dedicated to a historical fling. She writes, ‘to the third, a cloud confected from the contents / of a beachball, which is to say, nothing at all’. Even the seemingly desperate reach for alliteration in ‘confected’ is skilful; like wisps of sugar blowing up to a glass dome turned into fairy floss, the poet’s third love was sweet and fleeting.

These poets’ artistic practice differs greatly. Both succeed in their own way: Ekhō questions the nature of voice while also retelling myth; The Blue Cocktail skilfully links identity to place.

It would be remiss of me not to add a note on footnotes. More and more I see stanzas degraded with a superscripted number at the end of a line in the style of academia. More and more I see pages of notes at the end of collections of poetry that seem either unnecessary or simply lazy. Notes are fine in a collection if they provide context or clarification. If a line can’t contain the information the poet seeks to convey, the poet should rewrite it or rethink it. Orlando frequently inserts a footnote to explain a reference. For example, in ‘xiii’, Orlando footnotes ‘Sometimes I dream / of electric sheep’ and then, in the notes section, explains that this references the Phillip K. Dick novel that asks ‘the enduring questions of machines’ capacity for empathy and morality. This assumes that Dick’s metaphor is simply not clear enough and must be explained. There are many other examples of this in the book, which would be just as good were there no notes at all.

Molloy eschews footnotes and opts for a notes section which explains some of the Irish words which readers may not know. Although I would rather not have them at all, they do enhance the work.

Are poets so worried about accusations of plagiarism that they feel the need to footnote each literary reference as if writing a scholarly essay? Or are they admirably attempting to open up the form to a wider readership?

Sam Ryan is a PhD candidate at the University of Tasmania. His research is focused on poetry in Overland and Quadrant published between 1975 and 1985. He is particularly interested in the ways in which editorial practice can influence ideological readings in poetry in the genre of the literary journal.