This whole time I’d been reading it wrong,
seeing only broken things.
In Orthopaedics, # is read as ‘fracture’ –
#NoF is ‘fractured neck of femur’,
#collarbone is ‘fractured collarbone’.
When I was young, my mother dabbed
dalanghita oil onto her hands to soothe
a fissure in my chest – a finger swept
the muscle between my ribs. The window
trembled with fractures of lightning
as frayed shadows swallowed the room.
I focused on her touch and everything
eased into the fluster of leaves.
But I woke to the clatter of her luggage
to find her gone.
Perhaps that is how every waking hour begins.
Now I rub Vicks on my breastbone, hoping
the storm beneath will cease. I tread a dislocated
world, and each spot I step onto cleaves.
Romalyn Ante was born in Lipa, Batangas in the Philippines in 1989 and came to live in the UK at the age of 16. She has followed her mother’s profession as an NHS nurse, and she also works as a psychotherapist. Her prizewinning first collection, Antiemetic for Homesickness, was published in 2020 and is dedicated to her mother.
Although Ante takes pleasure in the textures of language and uses Tagalog words and phrases to striking effect in many poems, #family suggests how a symbol might do some of the work of a word and even do it more simply, coolly, fluidly. The first stanza explains how the hash symbol is interpreted in orthopaedics, and gives examples. The terms “fracture” and “break” are used interchangeably in clinical practice, although there are degrees of severity, as explained here. If no displacement occurs, the fracture is less severe. As we glance back at the title from the “fractured neck of femur” and the “fractured collarbone” it seems we’re being asked to see “family” as fractured or broken. But the stanza contains a warning-to-self against “seeing only broken things”.
Now a vivid childhood memory rises to the surface. The special oil used by the mother to treat her daughter’s wound is from the dalanghita, “a small fruit-bearing tree largely cultivated in Batangas”. The effect of the massage on the child and on the storm outside the window with its “fractures of lightning” is calming: “everything / eased into the fluster of leaves.” It’s as if the essence of the fruit had somehow shared this maternal soothing and healing with the tumult outside.
Reassurance is shattered in the final stanza, with “the clatter” of the mother’s luggage and the inconsolable discovery of her absence. There’s tremendous bleakness in the suggestion, “Perhaps that is how every waking hour begins.” Somehow, now, the speaker takes over her own maternal tending. In the new country “Vicks” is the old-fashioned, comforting “folk” remedy. It’s not a certain salve in the poem, although the speaker places her hope in its power, like the dalanghita oil of childhood, to heal an internal storm.
The poem doesn’t bring us to a place of comfort. “I tread a dislocated / world, and each spot I step onto cleaves.” The line-break emphasises the displacement, and the rhyme of “cleaves” with the “leaves” of the previous stanza further reinforces the devastating change. Not even the ground is trustworthy. If the poem has set up an internal argument against an idea of a complete fracture of family relations, it also expresses the more complex fact that it’s not only “things” or bones which can be broken.
Romalyn Ante has recently been named as one of the winners of the 2021/2022 Jerwood Compton poetry fellowships, together with Dzifa Benson and Jamie Hale. Many congratulations to all three, and best wishes for their future projects and publications.