Poppy is the first book I’ve read this year for the 2013 Australian Women Writers Challenge. It has been sitting on my bookshelf for about 10 years and it seemed right to finally read it. Modjeska herself describes it as ‘a mixture of fact and fiction, biography and novel,’ but it is also a meditation on femininity, scholarship, love and mothering. As a biography I found it frustrating and full of author intrusions until I became used to the authorial style and started liking it. “Poppy was antagonistic to the idea of history, and it may have been a displacement of her hostility to Richard, and to me, for it was something we shared, history, and I dare say we used it to exclude her.”
Modjeska seeks to unravel the reasons behind her mother’s breakdown and incarceration in a mental institution as well as come to terms with her own ambivalent relationship with her at the time of her death. Throughout the book, the author discusses her reluctance to let her mother tell her own story, as it were, finally releasing fragments of Poppy’s diaries and letters in their entirety towards the end of the book, and the end of Poppy’s life. I found it interesting that in Chapter Fourteen titled Faith, Poppy is allowed to speak through her diary and letters, of her trip to India, of meeting Rajneesh and becoming a sanyasin, with minimal authorial comment. But, as if she can’t help herself, Modjeska writes this line at the end of the India episode – “I find it hard to write without an edge of mockery creeping into my voice.” And perhaps this is the book’s flaw. That despite it’s impressive scholarship and undeniable lyricism, despite “that training ground for the masquerades of femininity,” Ms Modjeska’s tight control over the life she chooses to reveal, both hers and her mother’s, is ultimately both confusing and confused.
I’m glad I read it. It was challenging and not an easy read. The sub-text excluded me as the reader at times, and at other times, the guard dropped and I saw the clues that pointed towards the lives we choose for ourselves and those we imagine for our mothers.