Review — The Macabre Modern and Other Morbidities, by Kyla Lee Ward

- Reviewer:  Dr. Laura E. Goodin

 There is much to savor in Kyla Lee Ward’s The Macabre Modern and Other Morbitidies. A rich, complex collection of poetry, prose, and nonfiction, the works in this volume are wicked, witty, poignant, whimsical, hilarious, keenly intelligent, and deeply disquieting by turns, and often in combination.  They have in common an examination of the many ironies associated with death (or Death personified, who appears, particularly in the poems that constitute the book’s first half, as an arch and slightly jaded observer of humans’ efforts to deny or defy their inevitable fate).  The poems employ a variety of forms from strict rhyme and meter schemes (including, charmingly, the sonnet) to free verse, and – while they reward a competent reader who has a large vocabulary and a taste for subtext – they are written with a refreshing clarity and virtuosic use of poetics and diction that makes reading them essentially effortless.  The one prose-fiction piece in the collection is no less artistic in its images and poetics than the poems themselves.

 Ward intriguingly includes a foreword by noted medievalist and writer Dr. Gillian Polack and a comprehensive and well-written article by Ward herself that together provide a fascinating historical and literary context for the poems (and prose fable). 

 I highly recommend this book as a salutary injection of eternal perspective into a world far too preoccupied with the impulses, whims, and outrages of the moment.  However, despite its slender spine, it is not a book to hurry through.  Instead, I urge you to allow some time to linger with each poem and relish, with perhaps an ironic smile, the thought of your own mortality. 

Kyla Lee Ward is a performance artist, author, and poet

She lives and works in Sydney, Australia

Learn More - and purchase this book

Book jacket photo    The Macabre Modern and Other Morbitidies -    published August 2019

Book jacket photo The Macabre Modern and Other Morbitidies - published August 2019


The Lawyer
Concerns of justice set aside,
for misadventure, homicide,
and natural cause are all occult
when one considers the result!
And you who sought to fix the truth
shall hear it now: both age and youth
must join the dance, both rich and poor.
A truly universal law!

I’d argue definition here:
when death arrives is seldom clear!
Is this a vegetative state?
I must see the certificate!
Until the probate is released
no one is legally deceased.
You surely must retain your clerk:
at least think of the paperwork!

“Music is the Weapon” - a healing journey with Femi Kuti

Last weekend I was humbled to witness the most precious musical experience in my life.

I observed personal healing through music from a master musician.

Femi Kuti is the son of the world-famous Fela Kuti, and he was invited to Melbourne to play his father's Afrobeat tunes with the Public Opinion Afro Orchestra, of which i am a band member. In the first rehearsal he completely shocked us all by announcing that he didn't want to play Fela's tunes. They were too painful for him to revisit.

I immediately thought of the meaning of tunes in the set list. Fela had openly mocked and taunted the corrupt government of the time, who viciously retaliated, killing Fela's mother, and nearly beating Fela to death before imprisoning him. People had to run for their lives because of Fela. People were also united by his music.

I had read about this and watched documentary footage of the attack too, and yet the immediate human story of pain and suffering for the Kuti family was bought half way around the world into our rehearsal studio. I had never thought about what trauma Fela's children had to endure back then.

We all began to find a way to play the material. I for one was quite nervous and worried for what Femi was bravely facing.

The beautiful thing was that Femi pushed through his personal pain, and trusted us to support him.

The second rehearsal was a little easier and we all began to relax into things. Femi laughed and told stories, and at the concerts he completely blew us away, and openly showed us his own transformation towards healing. I was humbled to be allowed so completely into his story of transformation.

He put his own stamp on his father's tunes and took us all along for the ride. He acknowledged what we had all achieved and participated in.

On father's day yesterday I couldn't help but to reflect on how Femi had tried his best to honour his father's legacy despite his own pain.

Femi Kuti, you are an open hearted human. I thank you for showing us how to live fully.

Music is the weapon of the future
— Fela Anikulapo Kuti
Femi Kuti performs at Max Watt's in Melbourne. Picture: Natasha Blankfield -  Sydney Morning Herald

Femi Kuti performs at Max Watt's in Melbourne. Picture: Natasha Blankfield - Sydney Morning Herald

Femi Kuti performs with The Public Opinion Afro Orchestra at Max Watt's in Melbourne's CBD. Picture by: Natasha Blankfield - read more in the  Sydney Morning Herald

Femi Kuti performs with The Public Opinion Afro Orchestra at Max Watt's in Melbourne's CBD. Picture by: Natasha Blankfield - read more in the Sydney Morning Herald

The Fourth Sign of the Zodiac by Mary Oliver — and other musings

This morning I found myself listening to Mary Oliver reading her poem ‘The Fourth Sign of the Zodiac,’ a four-part poem that ‘recalls the shadowy underworld of loss and survival.’  It discusses what Oliver calls ‘the cancer visit’ when, in 2012, she was diagnosed with lung cancer and death had ‘left its calling-card.’ She has since been given a clean bill of health.[1]

As I listened to the Mary Oliver’s distinct American accent read the four-part poem, I was particularly struck by the third part:

I know, you never intended to be in this world.
But you're in it all the same.

so why not get started immediately.

I mean, belonging to it.
There is so much to admire, to weep over.

And to write music or poems about.

Bless the feet that take you to and fro.
Bless the eyes and the listening ears.
Bless the tongue, the marvel of taste.
Bless touching.

You could live a hundred years, it's happened.
Or not.
I am speaking from the fortunate platform
of many years,
none of which, I think, I ever wasted.
Do you need a prod?
Do you need a little darkness to get you going?
Let me be urgent as a knife, then,
and remind you of Keats,
so single of purpose and thinking, for a while,
he had a lifetime.

I am struck by the connections to the creative and creating life force that underlies this section of the poem. We name that life force, ‘God’.  Oliver begins by telling the reader that although they never intended to be in the world, they are in it all the same.  In this, I hear echoes of the psalmist’s words: ‘For it was you who formed me in my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb…My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth’ (Psalm 139:13, 15).

Oliver points to an innate dignity in humanity, one that we must not take for granted; one we choose to actively belong to in order that we might ‘admire and weep over’ the fullness of human life and suffering.  Suffering is an inevitable part of life, but one that the Christian story tells us is never undertaken alone.  The God who suffered with the Son on the cross, and who raised Jesus to life again, is with us in our suffering, in our sadness, and in our joy, and in the love we give and receive. Indeed, suffering and death is not the end of God’s plan for us.

The focus of the poem moves from addressing ‘you’ to one who blesses. For us, the one who blesses is God who, as our baptismal liturgy says, ‘created and sustains all living things.’ In this, Oliver invokes a kind of blessing for each of the senses, beginning with the feet, sight, hearing, taste and touch.

There is an over-whelming sense in this poem of the incredibly fragile but blessed nature of human life.  As one who has had death ‘leave its calling-card,’ Mary Oliver is stirring the reader to a life of action and appreciation, to make the most of the precious life we have been given, indeed blessed with; the life we have, through no choice of our own.

Oliver also shows how moments of darkness, like the diagnosis of cancer, prod us to find the abundance of life.  She shows us as one ‘speaking from the fortunate platform of many years, none of which, I think, I ever wasted’ that even in the face of death, nothing is wasted when a life has been – and continues to be – well lived.

Parish ministry can sometimes be an over-whelming and daunting prospect for the ideological priest.  Sometimes, the funerals are relentless, and when you add the sad death of a young person, one can find one’s emotional and physical tank empty.  Ultimately, though, to pay attention to the workings of God in these moments of exhaustion and grief is to notice in these ‘thin’ spaces, that the veil between life and death is but sheer fabric.  The administering of the Last Rites, for example, is one such moment when the veil is particularly thin; a moment of sacramental grace when the priest and the dying person tread upon the holiest of holy ground, sharing a moment of divine communion.  These are moments when heaven and earth meet, and the perceived ‘split’ between the two is named for the false perception that it is. 

Each funeral confronts me with the certainty of my own death.  I am reminded that it is essential for me to live my life purposefully, ‘finding God in all things,’ and seeking what George Herbert calls ‘heaven in the ordinary’ for there is much, as Mary Oliver points out, to admire and weep over, and to write music and poems about.

This can be a challenge in the face of my own doubts and insecurities, when as a priest I am called on to give hope, comfort, consolation; to colour in God for others as I sit with a family whose son has been tragically killed in a cycling accident, or when a father of a five year old has died of an unexplained medical event behind the wheel of his truck and semi-trailer in a rural part of Victoria.  These are moments when my doubt pales into insignificance, and no amount of academic study can prepare me for the reality of human suffering.  It is the space to be authentic, open, and honest.

Because even where there is deep pain or inadequacy, God invites us to fully belong to this adventure of life, because there really is “so much to admire, to weep over. And to write music or poems about.”