A review of Heimlich Unheimlich by Hazel Smith and Sieglinde Karl-Spence

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Heimlich Unheimlich
a poetry and art collaboration
Hazel Smith (poet) and Sieglinde Karl-Spence (artist)
Apothecary Archive
May 2024, 53 pages, A$35.00, Hard Cover, ISBN: 978-0-6488079-9-5

Lately, I’ve been finding myself drawn to work that blurs genre boundaries. So much exciting art seems to happen where poetry meets unusual forms, music, visual art and collaboration. This is the space where Hazel Smith tends to work and her latest book Heimlich Unheimlich, a collaboration with artist Sieglinde Karl-Spence, is no exception.  The short book is beautifully written and visually arresting, combining memoir, imagery, fiction, poetry, and the linking of two very different lives that meld and weave together like the names they give themselves – Hessian and Muslin. These names play on the actual names of two migrant girls coming of age: Hessian, a German, and Muslin, a Jew.  The authors manage, in richly condensed language and imagery, to pack a lot of meaning into a fifty-three page book. 

Heimlich Unheimlich is a much an art book as it is a poetry book, and is created with collage imagery using photographs from the both authors’ family albums superimposed on one another, or on other images and backgrounds of places, people, natural items, and archival items to create a visual montage that tells as much of a story as the words of poetry which interrogate, heighten, or counter the image: 

a family tree is a set of tags
it does not disclose
the lives of the people to whom the names belong
what they were like
the homes from which they were torn
(“Archive of the Evergreen”)

Many of the pieces use sound in ways that are non-semantic and visceral: spaced to mimic breath, alliterated, stuttered, and embodied, with breaks, etymology, and play:

memory is
bricolage not reproduction
scraps scribblings
shreds slivers
mix reassemble

memory is a collage not a video recorder (“from rubble to reliving”) 

The images and text meld together perfectly, like the collages which include letters, evocative backdrops that look like wallpaper, text including the poetry that drives the book forward, and other people’s texts, fonts, cynaotypes, floral and plant prints, and images patched together and faded in and out so that the whole book feels like a familiar memory or dream.  The book plays with the contrast and connections between Sieglinde Karl-Spence’s (Hessian) childhood in Germany with Hazel Smiths’ (Muslin) in England – both migrants to Australia, both creative, and both living in the shadow of World War II and the Holocaust. The connection between history, identity and these two characters’ lives is both delicate and powerful, the weaving of story mirrored literally in the weaving of fabric:

a rag-merchant
he traded in recycled cloth
long before regeneration was in vogue
(a thriving business until synthetics sundered it)
the wool was shredded revivified by mixing, grinding
fabric’s alchemy

Germany, Britain, and Australia are part of the visual backdrops, with different spaces and places mingling with a full array of sensual imagery: the music of Muslin’s violin, scents like coffee, tastes like salami, and sounds like whistling. At times the languages of English, German and Yiddish mirror one another, as these two children do, through the families they are held in and the legacy of pain and beauty they’ve inherited.  

Heimlich Unheimlich is a beautiful book that invites the reader to engage with the text in circular ways, coming back to each page to experience it differently each time. It’s a memoir and a story but it’s also an experience that invites the reader to participate in the making of a self and the ways in which we are interconnected.

The work was first shown as a project in the Hazelhurst Arts Centre in Sydney and later as an exhibition at the John Mullins Memorial Art Gallery in Queensland. A slideshow showing images of previous exhibitions of Heimlich Unheimlich in Sydney and Perth is available here (scroll down) https://www.australysis.com/ and a video from the exhibition was shown at the Electronic Literature Organisation’s Virtual Gallery Exhibition, (un)continuity, in 2020, based in Orlando, Florida, US:  https://projects.cah.ucf.edu/mediaartsexhibits/uncontinuity/Smith/smith.html.