At first glance, Terra Ignota is not a pamphlet to put you in a cheery frame of mind. After the first poem alone, ‘Viewpoint’, we can feel like too much sympathy is being drawn from us, for Robert who is dying of leukaemia, as his neighbour did, Robert’s son who is wheelchair-bound, and even the contrasting first half of the poem, which reads more like a nature poem, is clouded by ‘mist/from Chernobyl’. Contrast in Terra Ignota is the protagonist, the chiaroscuro hurricane becoming a heroine, but when the contrast seeps through the content, and it does so like a blot of ink, it antagonises. Before ‘Viewpoint’ changes, though, Rosalind Hudis hints at the exploration to come:
Beneath me, the earth’s
a map, its roots
spores, seeds, twigs,
small bones, stored
Does this dwell on what we have buried or hidden: spores, children or pets, our emotions? Or is it more about what there is around us, in the roots of the earth we walk on, to chance upon, or dig out, such as seeds? If the earth is a map, exploration is continual; every step is a journey and what we find will be tragic or wonderful in equal spoonfuls. Like the man who becomes saved, in religious terms, for whom the new life is first lived on old earth and therefore destined to prove as much of a struggle than the unsatisfactory past he has just shrugged off, each new day can be just like that for us all.
In ‘Rupture’, contrast is the biggest negative. The poem starts off in a house, using everyday objects, such as a kettle and a hairbrush, to illustrate someone’s state of mind; whether that state is dementia or grief isn’t entirely made plain. The first three lines of the poem are strong and subtly alluring (‘There are days she stares/at the kettle, but can’t retrieve/its connection to water.’) but in order to work they need to be the ignition for the poem, not the spark. The end of the poem, without a hint of retracing its steps with new boots, takes us to a past war-time where there were bloodied women, one carrying a baby with no head.
In the title poem, about her late father, Hudis links the physical unknown land of terra ignota (or incognita) to the metaphorical: ‘a fractured/mayday from terra ignota.’ In the case of Hudis the unexplored is made up of emotions and digressions.
Misery continues in ‘Ultrasound’, her pessimism, or possibly just hindsight, turning a positive experience into a worrying one: ‘my pendulum is pulling/towards glitch’. But when the pressure is on, it isn’t misery the narrator is washed up in, but captivation:
But what I want to confess to
is enchantment – how held I am,
a hostage in my own womb,
watching the signs for child
leap like flood-lit salmon –
‘Disclosure’ continues on from ‘Ultrasound’ in that it tells the next part of the story. The word disclosure has negative connotations and the act of disclosing is generally accompanied with bad news (in this case that the baby has Down’s Syndrome). Is Hudis having a dig at the consultant with this title? Judging by the poem as a whole, it seems so. Two stanzas focus on a leaflet she is handed on ‘plastic surgery/for the child who was a Down’s,’. This could easily become a depressing poem but with Rosalind Hudis it becomes an exploration. There are times when her questioning becomes sarcastic, and even then she is still aware there are possibilities beyond her vision. Again we stumble across terra ignota, like a lost hunter stumbles upon an abandoned boat, as the list of defects of a Down’s becomes ‘a geography/of some pacific island, its primordial/haze fragile and studied/only from the air.’
We only get a glimpse of Hudis and her daughter, further on from ‘Disclosure’, together, in the last poem ‘Topography’. Hudis might not be the first poet to turn thoughts and feelings into a kind of map, and she won’t be the last, but her take is accomplished. By the time she and her daughter interact over a map, we have learned that, like a tourist who follows a map and still gets lost, we can know exactly who we are, and where we are, but we all still occasionally have to retrace our steps when we come to the odd dead-end.
Bishop was right – it’s how you colour it
and on this webbing of routes across earth
that’s skin deep wherever you go
my daughter paints in the chiaroscuro
episodes of a self she will be.