Life lived outside the enclosure: Virginia Shepherd reviews ‘Small Wonders’ by Anna Couani

Small Wonders by Anna Couani 2011, Flying Islands Books, ASM Books & Cerebus Press.

small wonders101Some time ago I was staring through a microscope at a sample of seawater from the Great Barrier Reef. Affixed to the slide, long thin active strands of streaming protoplasm explored this barren and flattened landscape, groping for detritus, microscopic signposts. This new landscape is foreign, less than a millimeter deep and blasted from beneath by a white light as hot as a drowned sun. Tracking the strands, I found their origin, an individual amoeba reaching out from inside an elaborately sculpted shell, hundreds of body-lengths away from the tips of these exploratory strands, called poetically pseudopodia or ‘false feet’. The maligned outsider scientist Sheldrake argues that ‘the sense of being stared at’ is real, and the extended mind behaves like pseudopodia. Not only does light enter our eyes or other senses, but the mind reaches out through them, touching that which is distant, drawing together those objects, people, landscapes, even memories it has explored, generating a vast synthesis, a view of the world that centers on a unique space-time address and connects web-like to all it has touched.

The poems in this book are like that. From the centre of a web of extended mind the poems reach out, like protoplasmic strands, across time and space, touching simultaneously the near and the far, Kochi in India, the arms stretched towards Turkey, between lovers-to-be who stare out at the same eye level from different Sydney buildings, protoplasmic strands delicately touching the past, the personal, familial, political, macroscopic or microscopic, probing the relationship between surfaces, the interior, the exterior, the individual and the collective, between whole cities and the minutia of urban landscapes, extending between cultures, lovers, philosophies, art movements.

…she runs through the suburb
in her mind
scanning over the hills
like on Google maps, satellite view

lived there, lived there, lived there
each address like a portal
opening onto those memories
grouped like episodes
the flat with a studio
the flat with dark blue walls
where she taught herself all those
art techniques
way back
the feminist house
women with shaved heads in the big backyard…

– ‘small wonders’

Anna Couani writes like no-one else. The poems together form a micro-novel in a pocket format, an organismic structure that can be understood at the level of an individual poem, yet at another level achieves its own coherence, as an organism contains its cells, tissues and organs, and is more than the sum of those parts, themselves wholes. Understood, as our memories constantly reform the networks, the non-linear narratives of our lives. Anna Couani’s intensely observational writing, her microscope or telescope eye, gives us the perspective of life as it is lived daily outside the enclosure, outside that morass of mass culture and homogenised values, beyond the gated elites of white-anglo Australiana and gendered clubism. When the future seeks to know what it was like to be outside the mainstream, an artist, writer, teacher, feminist, left wing, or perhaps unclassifiable, what were the details of daily life, upon what did the inner eye reflect through the seventies and into the present, Anna Couani’s writing will take us there. As academic Anne Brewster wrote; “Her experimental fiction, I argue, in its efforts to defamiliarise reading conventions, articulates a crisis of belonging. In its radical poetics of the gendered everyday it seeks to locate the body in the alternative communities which characterise minority constituencies” (Anne Brewster. ‘The radical poetics of the gendered urban quotidian: reading Anna Couani’s literary experimentalism of the 1970s and 1980s’. In: Mycak, Sonia, and Amit Sarwal, eds. Australian Made: A Multicultural Reader. Sydney: Sydney University Press, 2010. p46).

Anna Couani’s early and later collections attract critical respect, growing still more interesting and relevant, aging well, provoking reflection on what changes, and what stays the same, partly because the writing is in a sense more real than conventional realism purports to be. Academics such as Anne Brewster posit that through ignoring conventional methods of realist poetry or fiction, speaking as an emissary from the outside, Anna Couani’s writing exposes the heap of artifice, the underlying unreality of realist conventions, and the means by which this ‘realism’ can serve as propaganda. This is why, according to Anne Brewster, Anna Couani’s early work Italy and The Train’ initially attracted mainly negative (even outraged) reviews, and why these later gave way to more appreciative evaluations. As Anne Brewster comments, “Writing which interrupts the conventions of realist prose fiction exposes how the truth effects of this fiction work” (p49). It is also more real. In The Harbour Breathes, 24 years ago, Anna Couani wrote

“…This is the tail-end of the previous dissident movement, using its power to suppress the current dissension, while the forces on the Right are massing, more powerful now than in feudal times and much more adaptable. And what are we going to do about it. How can we see our way clear through this pea-soup kind of thinking. And what is this pap they call excellence. We don’t have to buy it…”

– (from ‘The Pillar of Rooms’, in ‘The Harbour Breathes’, 1989)

– and now, in small wonders,

…beetling along the highway
rewriting history
it’s business as usual
multiculturalism, vanished
there’s a new order
but it’s not what they think
not like The New World Order
new people are out there
driving hard
people with something to say …

– from ‘driving’

Small wonders is the sixth of Anna Couani’s experimental prose and poetry works. She is well known as a writer who is not a member of literary clubs, eschewing conventional forms and the self-congratulatory camaraderie of insiders. Neurobiologist V. S Ramachandran commented in his recent book The Tell-Tale Brain “Homogeneity breeds weakness: theoretical blind spots, stale paradigms, an echo-chamber mentality, and cults of personality (p.xix)”. It is against such homogeneity, monocultural, gendered, and conformist, that Anna Couani’s writing is an effective antidote. If by kitsch we mean the enforced conformity of a homogenised establishment, the sentimental celebration of its icons, rituals, conventions, the denial and active cover-up of its negative and depressing realities, then Anna Couani’s writing is anti-kitsch.

The percipient observer here does not lay claim to unreal kitsch outsider-heroism but wakes at 4 am

…a huge dark space
breathing with ideas…

– from ‘awake’

mulling over work, can’t sleep, ends up marking student work

…Dear Diary
This home does not belong to me…

– from ‘awake’

cycles on the way to work past the new development

…what do you think about the new development?
seems okay, really, I quite like it.
it’s going to mean a lot of noise and chaos
whilst it’s being built. yeah.
bad for the people who have to move out.

– from ‘bicycle’

and did her grandmother have a lover, how did she negotiate it if women weren’t allowed out- the revision of this herstory,

…this is the animated closure
like in the titles of documentaries
where they show giant wheels
representing history
that rolls over the top of us
like a roller-coaster
inside out…

– from ‘walking alone’

From Kochi, the roughness of the roads shows up the silkiness of our roads, our lives, and yes, things do change:

lots of culture talks
things are so different now
talking about culture and indigeneity
kids with separated parents
that’s familiar
along the M5…

– from ‘driving’

Anna Couani has been exploring concepts of the sublime, not so much the idea of beauty in nature as it is sought by tourists, where the sun breaks through clouds over a mountain in an intimation of the divine, but those moments of incomprehension or shock that jolt, disturb or discombobulate us, when something darker emerges, something we might call the negative sublime.

“…..the sublime thing
I could have gone that way
with feminist representations
some did
that’s where I was wanting to go
drawing female figures falling into chasms
so much like classic Romantic images
it was men who dissuaded me……”

– from ‘sky’

Yet the poems do precisely this, in their disavowal of kitsch concepts of beauty, the sublime splits apart to reveal its innards. In the poem ‘translation’, dedicated to Sou Vai Keng, light and dark juxtaposed produce a chiaroscuro of childhood images, freedom and safety versus the nightmare. The schoolgirl, in navy blue and white dress, with straw hat, ‘independent and brave’, walks over the black and white tiles, through ‘pre-casino Macau’, traversing a beautiful cityscape, but then a dark tail arises to slash in the night, demonic and impersonal, a grinning visage, fiasco without humour, planting its hooks. Colour, art, is the only escape.

The subtle poem ‘sky’ is complex with musical shifts between poetic reflection and prose and it should be read aloud. The water-washed beginning appears to make overtures to Romantic art

…How we loved Caspar David Friedrich in the early 70s! Before we were ravaged by Conceptual Art that is…

and sets up the mood and expectation of the sublime:

…Sublime, the depth
of the harbour
a mirror of the mountains
valleys that continue
but now, into murky depths…

but then the façade is peeled back like an adhesive plaster.

……Is childhood magical? What is the temperature of the sublime?..

And there is little Heidi, from the 19th century novel, with her gingham swag holding the soft bread rolls, “Heidi, so lucky to be an orphan”. As in the poem ‘translation’, this eruption of the negative sublime

…brings up
my own past
sometime freedom and safety
but then this thing
……………with a black tail
……………suddenly swings around

hovers over the baby’s cot
soothing with silky words
then turns into something else…

– from ‘translation

As for art, and the art world bureaucrats,

that was the problem
between them and us

I met people who understood why you’d want to rail against the parochialism of your peers.

Australian art
it’s a joke
and in Australian minds
its all happening elsewhere
distance creates the sublime…

– from ‘sky’

This and other poems have the effect of water-colours, word-paintings with colour as a synaesthesia, a code for emotion, memory and connection. So many aquatic images, so many shades of blue, the local swimming pool which is Mediterranean blue, even though it’s caused by chlorine, the pale blue of the sky over the Blue Mountains, creating distance, sadness, the blue of that other harbour outpouring from the past, and then the effect of black calligraphy or lines drawn over the wash when the prose parts hook into you. Take this as an example of a word-painting (as the grandmother on the Greek island may have crept out by night, to meet a lover)

…the sunset from the hill
a really
……………..burning to purple
……………..the silent orb
the glistening
the emerald darkness
of the pine trees
chalky dusty limestone
smooth worn stones
silent in soft shoes…

– from ‘walking alone’

As an object the book has a great feel. Pocket-sized, its waxy cover photograph by Anna Couani is itself a poem that echoes the atmosphere of the poems within. The exterior of the writer’s home is part of the streetwise streetscape of Hilik Mirankar’s Queen St Gallery (Glebe). As with most houses in the street, the iron spines of the fence enclose a sculpture by Hilik Mirankar, this one of a figure with overarching raised arms, bursting Magritte-like through a door. The negative space of the figure forms a shadow, an apparition through which we glimpse a wall of Sydney sandstone, whilst in the foreground a shirt impaled on a fence is a remnant of Hilik Mirankar’s streetscape exhibition, where many such fluttering disembodied shirts hung from the iron spines that fence in terrace houses.

Within, the text is echoed by Debbie Sou Vai Keng’s evocative ink drawings, where trees like knives impale the clouds, a string of birds rise like sparks from some dark pool, reeds slash the face of the sun. Small wonders indeed. Sou Vai Keng is also the translator, into Chinese characters, of the poetry. Interesting visual structures emerge sculpturally from the complex ancient and newer logographs, and sometimes Greek, English, or computer-speak words leap out, as when the words Skype, Couani, Κουανης, and Skype again spring forward from the translation of ‘skype window’, creating meta-meaning that is both visual and poetic. Anna Couani met Sou Vai Keng when the latter translated some of her poetry for the anthology ‘Wombats of Bundanon’, produced by ASM Books. At Bundanon, the two discovered certain resonances between their lives as writers, artists and teachers, meeting again in Hong Kong and Macau. The poem ‘translation’ was written for Sou Vai Keng, as Anna Couani says, “…using her life partly and enmeshing it in my past as well. So the book is the result of a kind of dialogue between her and me, as well as connecting with Hilik Mirankar and his work in the street”. Small wonders is a fractal compression of connections.

It is true,

…new people are out there
driving hard
people with something to say
sculpture appeared in the street
slowing down drivers
speaking is occurring
people can speak
can’t actually be
it’s all digital
gone viral”

– from ‘driving’

and, in the end,

…maybe constraints help us to map the unknown…

–  from ‘sky’

– Virginia Shepherd

Some of Couani's earlier books: Were all women sex-mad, Rigmarole Books 1982, Italy & The Train Rigmarole Books 1985, The Harbour Breathes Masterthise/Sea Cruise Books 1989
Some of Couani’s earlier books: Were all women sex-mad, Rigmarole Books 1982, Italy & The Train Rigmarole Books 1985, The Harbour Breathes Masterthise/Sea Cruise Books 1989


For information on the availability of small wonders contact ASM at

A review by Mary Hawkins of  The Train (Sea Cruise Books)  1983 can be found in the first issue of P76 Magazine

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