Issue 14 April 2015 – June 2015


The grass is greener was installed as part of Cecilia White’s three week solo exhibition THIN AIR in March 2013 at The Lock-Up Cultural Centre, Newcastle.


Ideas for Novels 5 – Anna Couani

Introduction/Bio……….Ideas for Novels 1……….Ideas for Novels 2………

Ideas for Novels 3…….Ideas for Novels 4….….Background to Ideas for Novels 


autumn and winter shadows
long ones
emphasise the horizontal
although they often look diagonal
create rhomboid shapes across open spaces

tall trees create space
traditionally cathedral-like
or is it that cathedrals are tree-like
gothic, with
branches that arch across

did we tread so lightly
that we were invisible

and in the late afternoon
when the city noises
quieten down
sounds describe
the space
children’s voices

a few hundred square metres

so much begun
so little finished

set in a provincial town
to be described

by wide streets

pedestrian events
literally at street
even big events

reduced, distanced
by the all-seeing writer
male persona
who rips the heart out
of the story

-Anna Couani

Illustraion from Italy by Anna Couani

illustration from Italy by Anna Couani. Rigmarole of the Hours 1977.


Anna Couani was the feature writer for Issue 14. This is the final post in a series of five poems – Ideas for Novels.



A Portrait of the Artist as Place: Joe Dolce Reviews ‘Bluewren Cantos’ by Mark Tredinnick

Bluewren Cantos by Mark Tredinnick. Pitt Street Poetry 2013.

Both of our mouths
Can fit upon this flute I carry.

-Hafiz, ‘I Saw Two Birds’

blue wren cantosIn the notes, to Mark Tredinnick’s Bluewren Cantos, he remarks, ‘I’ve rarely written a poem into which a bird did not want to fly and there are equally few into which those dear to me did not want to wander.’

Birds fly into forty-five of the sixty-two poems in this collection of verse and there are twenty-nine personal dedications.

Reading Bluewren Cantos is a most rewarding challenge. Love, sexuality, spirituality and bucolic meditation twist a lovely braid. To seriously open this book is to take a hike in poetic Country with an enthusiastic and observant guide. Unexpectedly, Leonard Cohen, Rumi, Emily Dickinson, JS Bach and Seamus Heaney trek along beside you. The result is a good and colourful picnic, in true Hafiz style.

In one of the shorter poems, dedicated to his daughter, ‘Lucy and the Maple Leaf’, we get a glimpse of the creative bond and love of words between father and child:

…………………………………….It is late
Autumn, a Saturday, and the maple by the house

Has begun to drop its fiery leaves like hints (hot
Tips) at winter’s feet. She holds one out for me: a paw
Print in a child’s hand, a slightly death that stole a small girl’s heart.

Make it a poem, she says. But I take the leaf and draw instead
A shape for memory to fill, some lines for love to learn…

The music in the above poem is reminiscent of the sensibility in Elizabeth’s Bishop’s, ‘Sestina’. There is a lot of music in Bluewren Cantos. After all, birds have been known to sing. (I think they were the first.)

The term canto itself, while a measure of division in a long poem, can also refer to the highest part in choral music, the canto firmo, the melody line forming the basic of polyphonic music.

A quiet flutter of Emily Dickinson also floats through Tredinnick’s forest of a book. From her opening introductory epigraph: ‘I am…small like the Wren’, the tone of mindfulness is set for the journey. But the Emily that inspires these poems is much different that the one that Billy Collins poetically undresses in his poem, ‘Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes’:

The complexity of women’s undergarments
in nineteenth-century America
is not to be waved off,
and I proceeded like a polar explorer
through clips, clasps, and moorings,
catches, straps, and whalebone stays,
sailing toward the iceberg of her nakedness.

Mr. Collins clearly has some untoward zoological intentions for our little wren. But in Bluewren Cantos, she alights on a different branch:

…that profounder site
That polar privacy
A soul admitted to itself –

also whispering, into ‘The Thing With Feathers’, Hope:

…so that I mighty sit here in a frayed linen shirt and weathered
Jeans a foot above the tide and wonder how I’m meant to live…

In the massive 297 lines, and 18 sections of ‘The Wombat Vedas’, which won the Newcastle Poetry Prize, in 2011, a simple key to unlocking the poem lay in these brief confessional lines:

We fought, you and I, when I left. And I drove down here as if all the way back
Into some old autistic childhood. But now, my bags unpacked,
…………………………the fire burning, and a three-quarter moon
Edging out of the dark hills behind, loneliness grows slender and stretches out beside me,
……………..and the night is a sackful of stars.

His bags are unpacked, his loneliness has grown slender and for the next few hours we stretch out beside Tredinnick as he surrenders to the common praeternatural available to us all.

Many of the longer poems, in Bluewren Cantos, are pastoral mediations. They flow together like parts of one infinite extended work in which verses could well be interchangeable.

George Seferis once wrote about the poetry of CP Cavafy:

“…the work of Cavafy should be read and judged not as a series of separate poems, but as one and the same poem…. and we shall understand him more easily if we read him with the feeling of the continuous presence of his work as a whole.” (On the Greek Style)

One emerges from a sustained reading of Tredinnick’s Cantos with this continuous presence of his work as a whole.

In the epigraph to the Bluewren Cantos title poem, he quotes Jack Gilbert’s ‘Trying to Write Poetry’:

There is a wren sitting in the branches
Of my spirit, and it chooses not to sing.
It is listening to learn its song.

Has Emily’s little bird also flown into Gilbert’s tree? Tredinnick says later:

I learn slowly, but the birds teach me distance and delight,
The knack of being here and elsewhere at once. The more I dwell, the less I know for sure;
I live in a state of habitual confusion, like Berger, a man who’s lived in love
A long time now. In art, as in love and weather, one’s mind is (in) one’s body again.
One is, for a time, a place. Painted by bluewrens.

One is, for a time, a place. This line, for me, is the heart of Bluewren Cantos. And Tredinnick’s unique poetic vision.

JS Bach, my favorite composer, fugues along in the background in four poems, ‘Wombat Vedas’, ‘A Day at the Desk’, ‘Thing With Feathers’ – and in ‘Partita’:

…………………….Bach, you say, turned music
………………….into speech. He taught heaven how to walk, the gods
How to talk, on earth.

I’ve always viewed Bach as the fifth New Testament prophet – only arriving a millennium later. Matthew, Mark, Luke, John – and Johann Sebastian. Not simply Christian, but a mystic of the highest order. How else to understand a devout Lutheran who also created a choral masterpiece for the Catholic Church (the B-Minor Mass) that was so flawed in liturgical structure (but O so magnificent in Spirit) that it was utter heresy for any Roman Catholic clergy to even consider presenting it in its time. Hence why it was never heard until one hundred years after Bach’s death.

Mark Tredinnick

Mark Tredinnick

Bach lifted the Word to a place beyond Words. Even beyond Prayer. Christian scripture might arguably one day become as much top-shelf myth as befell the fate of the Greek and Roman gospels but the musical Testament of JS Bach will continue to remain vital and alive for as long as human birds sing.

And Bach, as mystic, is completely comfortable in Tredinnick’s country beside his other mystical poet Friend, Rumi.

So why did Mark Tredinnick title this particular collection of poetry Bluewren Cantos? As he says, ‘You don’t find the birds, they find you.’

Let’s step into the Grand Aviary of Poetry for a brief moment.

The Bird has replaced The Rose, star of ye olde Romantic times, as the most accessible metaphor in modern poetry. Charles Bukowski had a sensitive ‘Bluebird’ that he kept hidden away during the day. The bird wanted to get out but Charlie poured whisky on its head and blew cigarette smoke into its beak. He only opened the cage door when people were asleep because, as he admonished it, ‘You want to screw up the works? You want to blow my book sales in Europe?’

The bluebirds in Bluewren Cantos don’t drink or blow smoke rings and they don’t shuffle on perches. If they can be said to be metaphors, they are free-range metaphors. They soar, swoop and hunt – and sometimes simply sit still and ignore image-hungry poets until the poets tire and go home.

Fowl have been flying in poetry for a very long time. In classic Chinese, you find: Screech owls moan in the yellowing Mulberry trees, and A single wild goose climbs into the void, in the work of Tu Fu. A crowing cock wakes me like a blow, in Lu Yu, and the oriole is not to blame for the broken dream of a Bygone Spring, in Chu Shu Chen.

Wallace Stevens wrote about the (lucky) thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird. And the blinding dazzle of his gold-feathered bird, singing in the palm at the end of the mind whose …fire-fangled feathers dangle down, seems a natural soulmate for Tredinnick’s lightning-strike kingfisher:

‘Catching Fire; or, The Art of Sitting’

……………………..for Judith Beveridge

………………………….As kingfishers catch fire,
…………………………  .dragonflies draw flame.
……………………………………….– Gerard Manley Hopkins


Mid-afternoon, I look up from my desk to see
A kingfisher alight in the water poplar.

For ten blue minutes she sits wrapped in
Her sacerdotal self, murder on her mind,

And I watch her steal her own silent show, doing
Nothing, immaculately, among the silver leaves.

Until, as if my eyes had pinned her, the instant
They drop, she flies: the stillest bird

In Christendom reaches escape velocity faster
Than I can find a pen. And I’d like to learn

To sit so still and to disappear so well, my body
Become a famished thought, my mind become a world.

I think Tredinnick’s understanding of stillness, and its relationship to action, is the focused and coiled spring of a Shaolin White Crane master.

WB Yeats imagined not a natural bird, but one of ‘hammered gold and gold enameling… to sing to the lords and ladies of Byzantium’. I wonder if Yeats’ wind-up bird also was intended sing for the poor and disenfranchised, who probably weren’t allowed anywhere near Byzantium? (Except, that is, via the back street dens of Coleridge’s laudanum-laced pleasure domes.)

Robert Adamson, the most bird-watching poet in Australia, in his book, The Golden Bird, clearly nods his beak to Yeats’ but pessimistically, in the way he writes about the poet in the title poem:

……………When his heart
stopped, did he believe
it would transcend him:
gold-foil wings hovering
over the void…

Now as far as I can figure, Yeats’ budgie was fashioned of ‘hammered gold and gold enameling’, not ‘gold-foil wings’. More significantly, it certainly did transcend him, or else we wouldn’t be talking about it now.

Will Adamson’s own metaphoric fowls follow Icarus’s fate down or continue to enchant in two hundred years? (i.e. if a mechanical bird perches in a tree and there is no one there to wind it, does it still sing?)

Photograph - Southerly 23/8/2013.  Speaking of love - Blog post by  Mark Tredinnick  (

Photograph – Southerly 23/8/2013. Speaking of love – Blog post by Mark Tredinnick (

Xenophanes originated the word anthropomorphism to describe the perception of a divine being in human form. Anthropomorphism is present in all religious teaching and mythology.

But one of the inherent dangers of over-projecting human characteristics or psychological states into birds and other animals – known as abstract anthropomorphism – is its reverse state – dehumanization – the tendency in times of extreme crisis or desperation to view humans as nonhuman objects or animals. What that renowned ornithologist, Jung, might have called the Shadow-wren.

I remember once pulling a cuddly doe-eyed possum by its tail from the eave of a bush house and watch it transform from a cute Disney child’s toy into the Bride of Chucky in five seconds, whipping around and carving four long gashes in my forearm. And it pissed on me as well. I think the same possum must have visited Tredinnick, in ‘Tough Love: a Deconstructed Sonnet’:

It’s so much easier to show kindness, I find, to a possum
Around lunchtime the next day. . .
It’s so much easier then than it was at three am when the possum pulled,
For the fourteenth time – like a lover exchanged and all the locks changed –
At the wire you’d nailed over the only way into the home it had mistaken,

These past five months, for its own: your ceiling.

Deities can also be persistent territorial predators, and even Muses get horny and peckish.

‘Rainforest Bird; or, on Looking Over Someone’s Shoulder at the Photograph of a Hindu Carving in an Inflight Magazine’

Love is an abject goddess.
……………………..She’s a sculpture of beatific hunger,
All one’s wanting petrified, quickened by chisel, and left out to think about it
In the rain. Love is a wretched beauty, and her round breasts trine
……………………..her second mouth, and moss grows
Between her fingers. Her demeanour is serene, but soon
Her proverbial arms are all over you,
………………and her green tongue flashes
Like a rainforest bird across your breast, again and again and again.

Surfacing in some of Mark Tredinnick’s work is a tendency toward what a close friend of mine, an English teacher from McGill University, once admonished me for doing myself – always looking for an Absolute. A definitive experience from which one might, finally, be able to say: That’s it. Full stop.

Harvesting absolutes is a signature of the endearment of Tredinnick’s style but also tends to be somewhat predictable at times.

In the brilliant and well-deserved Montreal International Poetry Prize 2011 winning poem, ‘Walking Underwater’, he writes:

…moss deckles the edges of the oaks and firs,
Which hold out stoically inside the sweetest excuse for day-
Light I’ve ever seen.

In the Bluewren Cantos, he kingfishes the Absolute in ‘A Day At Your Desk All Along the Shoalhaven’:

…And you knew you’d never spend
A better day alive again on Earth.

‘Sulphur-crested Sonnet’:

The white bird high in the crown of the elm is a better idea
Than any you’ve had all day…

and ‘Half Moon in Late September’:

…there’s a half moon like half
An answer, as much of the truth as anyone can hope to catch.

I am reminded of the adage: do not question too much the Meaning of life; but Live one’s life so that it has meaning.

Thankfully, these poems do both. They are continually asking: what am I here for? But in the asking, they answer the question: the creating of the beautiful verse that is the core part of the kind of Living that gives his life meaning. Bluewren Cantos is a sparkling journal of ecdysis for Tredinnick – and anyone else who wants it.

It is possible to imagine
Love that ends as beautifully as it began.

– Mark Tredinnick, ‘It is Possible to Imagine.’

Tredinnick often summons the Beloved – an intoxicating image I first discovered in the poems of St John of the Cross:

I abandoned and forgot myself,
laying my face on my Beloved.

Christ was the Beloved of St John’s poems, the true source of his Bride’s longing.

Martin Luther King Jr spoke of peace on earth as ‘the Beloved Community’.

Rumi said:

The real Beloved is your Beginning and your End.
When you find that One,
you’ll no longer expect anything else.

Early Persians believed that poetry was a subtler vehicle than prose for approaching the ineffable mystery that was beyond words. The Orientalist scholar, Dr. W.M. Thackston, noted that Sufi poet, Hafiz, ‘sang a rare blend of human and mystic love so balanced that it was impossible to separate one from the other.’ (Hafiz also, unfortunately, in contemporary usage, means ‘memoriser’ – someone who knows the Koran by heart – something he was apparently able to do.)

There was another practical purpose in the Middle Ages for veiling God with the cloth of Beloved, Lover or Friend. It made it difficult to censor poetry for unusual mystical ideas that often fell outside of the traditional constricts of Islamic Canon.

In ‘Hell and Back (Again)’, Tredinnick introduces another brief confessional key to unlock the invigoration in ordinary miracles:

After a weekend low, under which I wandered, hardly able
To decide where, I made a poem, as if it were a decision
That made me.
……..And now, of course, the weather has turned
Out for the best, and love is a garden in the city, fashioning
Flowers out of light.
……..I am the fish in the Beloved’s stream again.

Returning to the mundane, however, can often take its toll. In ‘A Book of Common Prayer’, while lost in the contemplation of the flight of one flock, he almost annihilates another:

………………………………..They pray
By spreading their wings and falling into
Their lives. Each flight a book of common

Prayer. And at dusk I got another chance
To try my hand at grace. Driving, it must be said,
A little too fast, thinking a little too hard,

I almost took out a family of ducks, crossing
The road from the suburbs to the swamp,
One parent ahead and one parent after,

Six little ones strung in dactyls between. And
Even song would not have saved them, had my foot
Not pedalled then such a sudden and purposive prayer.

Insightful, very funny – and a memorable parable.

In his notes at the end of the Bluewren Cantos, he offers the complete lovely Emily Dickinson quote, a fragment of which first opened the book:

Thomas Wentworth Higginson wrote to Emily Dickinson in 1892 asking for a picture. She replied, ‘ Could you believe me without? I had no portrait, now, but am small, like the wren; and my hair is bold, like the chestnut bur; and my eyes, like the sherry in the glass, that the guest leaves. Would this do just as well?’

If we were to ask for a portrait of Mark Tredinnick from Bluewren Cantos, one that we too could believe, perhaps we could say ‘vast like the Beloved, with eyes, like moonlight left on the water, after a low flight, singing up poetic Country.’

Would this do just as well?

-Joe Dolce


Joe Dolce was born in Painesville, Ohio, USA in 1947 and moved to Australia, 1979. His poetry has appeared in Best Australian Poems 2014, was shortlisted for both the Newcastle Poetry Prize 2014 and the Canberra Vice Chancellor’s Poetry Prize 2014 and he won the 25th Launceston Poetry Cup. He has poetry, essays, song-lyrics and photographs have been published in Monthly, Southerly, Canberra Times, PEN MELBOURNE, Quadrant, Australian Love Poems, Meanjin, Etchings, Overland, Cordite, Little Raven, Contrappasso, Voltage (US), Not Shut Up (UK), Tupelo Quarterly (US) and Antipodes (US).

Flowing Lines and Hypnotic Melodies: Jean Kent launches Bluewren Cantos by Mark Tredinnick at the Newcastle Writers Fesrtival 2014

Bluewren Cantos is available from


Forever the Same & Never the Same: Maureen Gordon Opens ‘Floribunda’ an Exhibition by Judy Morris and Ian Gibbins

Maureen Gordon opened Floribunda – Drawings by Judy Morris and Texts by Ian Gibbins at the Hahndorf Academy Gallery, 68 Main Street Hahndorf South Australia on 14 June 2015. The exhibition runs until 27 July 2015

Maureen Gordon opening Floribunda

Maureen Gordon opening Floribunda

I’d like to welcome you here and say that it is a pleasure and privilege to be asked to speak at this exhibition of work by Judy Morris and Ian Gibbins; also I’d like to thank the Hahndorf Academy for continuing to offer the good work of giving artists the fresh air of opportunity that the rustle of encouragement brings.

But most of all I want to applaud Judy Morris and Ian Gibbins for creating, just for our enjoyment, a collection of drawing and poetry that offers us the full blooded and uncompromised pleasure of both a feast for the eyes and food for thought.

Because… not only are there two artists here, a happy situation we are confidently used to, but we are also being treated to two genres, or types, of creativity.

I am a lover of both drawing and poetry and here today we will see and hear a splendid demonstration of observation and interpretation…

About drawing…I’ve heard people referring to drawing as the naked truth, and I have supposed that to be a romantic way of saying that all the marks show.
But I have looked closely at these intensely worked drawings by Judy Morris and they reassure me that drawing is seldom so singular nor so simple as just making marks…
I understand drawing as the primary manual skill of visual creation.*

About poetry…I learnt at school that poetry is about patterns of words, and that it’s made of lines not sentences, and I now know that our verb to create comes from the ancient Greek word for poet, and so the concept of the poet as creator is ancient…so I understand poetry as the primary verbal skill of literary creation.

As a young historian I realised that making drawings and making poems are two of the oldest seriously sophisticated, complex, descriptive and intentionally researched professional activities of humanity. Both activities are fundamental to civilization.


I believe that if we could go far enough back in time we would meet the person who first said with authority and a piece of red ochre in her hand ‘Look I’ll show you’ and her partner who said, in patterns of words ‘Listen and I’ll tell you’.

Judy Morris and Ian Gibbins are both modern scientists, until 2005 Judy was associate professor and research fellow at Flinders University Centre for neuro science, Ian Gibbons until recently has been Professor of Anatomy and Histology, and they are also inheritors and practitioners of the ancient arts of drawing and poetry.

Judy had the bred in the bone advantage of a father who could draw, but even if Judy’s meticulous drawing style was embedded in her DNA, she still had to find it; happily for us she did, and drawing supported her ability to see the microscopic structures and functions of nerve cells which is, as you might guess, a job where detail matters; Judy has said that the close scrutiny of the flowers allows her to reimagine them as subjects, and to capture in graphite and coloured pencil images of her experience of seeing the flowers, of being with the flowers, of responding to the flowers. Judy says she only comes to see them fully through drawing them.

How does she do this? Judy sets up her subject, a flower, a leaf, a piece of the world, and studies it with a macro camera, so she gets a more or less microscopic view of her subject and then, or so it seems to my eyes, she intertwines and overlays through the drawing those details within the flowers that elude the unaided eye; in her drawings I sense the smells, the down on the leaves and petals, the sturdiness of the stalks and stems, the haze of perfume.

Judy Morris and Maureen Goron

Judy Morris and Maureen Goron

Judy’s drawings here on the walls are not purely botanical, they are dynamically detailed and intelligent responses to life, made from the deep decisions of articulating her materials with her source, of energising her coloured pencils and graphite with the ancient abundance of Flora.

What about the poetry then? Shakespeare said ‘‘the poet’s pen…gives to airy nothing…a name.’’**

Ian Gibbins is a poet and as he is also a musician I can surmise that he too has the felicity of some aural sensibility embedded in his DNA, and despite Shakespeare’s assertions, the poet doesn’t create out of “nothing” and make a world out of air, the poet always has something to say, something to explore.

Ian Gibbins

Ian Gibbins

When I read Ian’s poems I was startled by the joyful experience of my hair lifting from my scalp. I scuttled into the words and stayed there for a while, jumping back and forth from Ian’s poems to Judy’s drawings. Deep scrutiny of the botanical names of Judy’s subject Flora were the start of Ian’s delicious journey, which I followed, looking through the glass over the drawings and through the words of the poems, it’s a trip worth taking, to go back and forth reading the poems to the listening drawings.

And furthermore Ian has given us these poems, here in this book Ian has given us a treasure to take home, to read and read again.

All types of art are hard work, and Judy and Ian have worked intelligently, courageously and imaginatively to describe, for us, the unbidden and fleeting intimations of another level of being…just so that you can see and read what you will.
Poetry like drawing has been with us forever, drawing like poetry is forever the same and never the same, every new drawing, every new poem, is just that, it is new, it is a renewal of the ancient human genre. So let us applaud these two artists.

** **

* The Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc Cave in the Ardèche department of southern 
France contains the earliest known and best preserved figurative cave
paintings in the world, as well as other evidence of Upper 
Palaeolithic life, dated to c.32,000 BP. Cresswell Crags c.43,000BP
** Shakespeare A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Act 5, scene 1.
 the poet's pen
 Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
 a local habitation and a name.

– Maureen Gordon


Illustration by Judy Morris


Accompanying text by Ian Gibbins


Maureen Gordon  studied and exhibited sculpture and painting in England before marrying the Australian painter Jeremy Gordon and moving to Australia where she  taught art history and theory at the University of South Australia, The SA School of Art and at Flinders Uni as adjunct. She was head of Art History and Theory at The Adelaide Central School of Art. In retirement she writes and gives workshops on ancient and medieval materials and techniques.

The book of the exhibition, Floribunda, drawings by Judy Morris with poems by Ian Gibbins, is available from

Further details of the exhibition are available at


A Collection of Great Variety and Intensity: Charles Freyberg reviews ‘An Existential Grammar’ by Paul Scully

An Existential Grammar by Paul Scully. Walleah Press 2014

existential grammarPaul Scully’s poems in An Existential Grammar have a wide range of settings and timeframes. He speaks to us from an olive grove outside Rome in the 5th Century BC, a rural vicarage in winter, a red rattler train, a village in Cambodia littered with memories of war, a rugged mountain walk, the cafes of the inner west, amongst many others. Each poem responds to the life in these settings with a formal, precise clarity of language, an acceptance, a dissatisfied intelligence, sometimes a wry humour. They can be places of safety for intimacy and thoughtfulness, or places the speaker feels at odds with. The strong emotion and memories in many of the poems are well grounded, triggered by vivid detail.

In the opening poems about Cincinnatus, Scully’s language reflects his complex response to his time and place.

…………….Discordant voices
that riffle through Livy, I harmonized them
with plangent afterthought, arpeggiated
your reflections with my sensibilities-
the faultlines of others, our own dissonances ….

Unusual words like ‘arpeggiated’ and “plangent’ sharpen the ambiguity of Scully’s emotional life. His diction does not over intellectualise the poems, because he also has a gift for finding the sensuality of his character’s responses. Cincinnatus is looking for peace in his rural haven, which he experiences in his body as well as his mind

Honeycomb smoked from a choreography of hives
earlier in the day, bread with crusts of earth
and wine and water tasting faintly of terracotta.
My wife’s face shines through contours of contentment.

He is seeking an escape from the shrill voices of Roman republican politics – ‘the thought of their contest exhausts me’. The thought of his life outside the farm is never far away as he tries to still his discontentment. It reminds me a little of Auden’s nuanced language trying to find more complex truths than war in his poems responding to the chaos of the late 1930s.

In “Lost and Found” Father Raymund restlessly searches for an almost lost faith, an emotional/ intellectual journey which animates the whole poem.

…………Father Raymond had decided
the calling he still grieved was more wish than summons.
to be wrapped in a yielding black,
identified with the communion of others
ritualizing hope in their daily lives …ever since
he had lived a consolation life, truth be told,
and anxiety became his vocation.

Later in the poem, we follow the search in the priest’s senses, an unquiet mind in a lively body trying to move beyond the drabness of his setting,

He caught a whiff of himself, sour disuse of age,
toasty in flannelette with the heater turned up high.
Washing was now timetable, eating perfunctory …
as he huffed down into his chair, even that.

“Whiff, toasty, huffed’ are the kind of words that place the priest in his body. His discomfort triggers memories of his time as a missionary in Papua New Guinea, a cold wind is outside, his children are non believers, but he reconciles himself to this. So a kindly intelligence is slowly built, an outsider to be sure, responding physically and emotionally to his surroundings and his memories. He’s the kind of keenly alive solitary that Patrick White might have enjoyed. Spiritual needs grow from a well drawn setting and past life that allows us to follow Raymund through his unsolvable ruminations. The poem becomes a lot more than a dry discourse on lost faith. This is my favourite poem of the collection.

I think this pattern of human needs growing out of a setting is continued in the wasteland of a dying mining town in ‘A Mother Country (“Chambers of a Black Hand”). The children are still lively, despite (or because of) the setting.

Farther west
packing- taped windows truck carcasses
and derelict cars outnumber the flies,
summon memories of kids loose on flat- beds
whooping over joyful corrugations,
sights trained from camouflage ….

Here again we see the sharpness of Scully’s carefully chosen unusual diction ‘truck carcasses’ ‘whooping’, ‘loose’ ‘corrugations’ that conveys both his character’s physicality and a sense impression of their surroundings. There’s a strong interplay here between vivid imagery and human tenacity.

We see this also on a “Red Rattler “ train on its journey through the ‘dun colour of suburbs” as the poet watches the antics of a mentally ill man. He swears, he ‘crumples into a ball of clothes that rolls towards the door’, then a policeman hassles him, but even so ‘he surges upright  trumpets his intent  flags fractionally’. It’s a portrait that engages our aural imagination and sense of touch while keeping a vivid sense of movement. Like Father Raymund he’s a solitary alive in his senses, uncomfortable with his surroundings, fighting for his emotional life.

There are also a number of travel poems, where Scully shows a society’s tenacity despite dispossession and violence. In “Orphans of the Storm” there are memories of “the coarse stammer of AK47s/ when bullets weren’t being saved/ the chop and rasp of machetes through emaciation.” Here memory is the setting as a tuk-tuk driver’s sleep in a hammock ‘placates history”. The ‘old corruptions” are still there, but perhaps there can be a ‘rebirth at least/ into a life/ that can endure.’ Scully’s characters are always aware of their surroundings, but within this, life always continues.

Another strand of Scully’s poetry deals with the intimacy of a longstanding marriage set in nature. In “Southern Wright Water”, a couple are on holiday ‘as infant night/ enables sight and dark/light waves wash through our ears” The surroundings soothe, and the couple are easy in their home and cherished possessions –

………..sometimes the old flirtation
animates ambling love through our feet on cradling lino,
a glass too many of wine, tea served in crockery that aches
to be held fragile and firm as breath.

The ability of natural surroundings to produce a warm and humorous intimacy between people is also explored in “Inflammation of the Gums”. A couple walk through an undulating forest landscape described with breathtaking beauty –

Agitation in the branches: singly
Or in family groups, finches flitted ….

….. Longer stemmed birds interleaved with them,
sucked at banksia, their tails arced or elongated in flight.
Two lyrebirds sculpted a breath held moment …..

The couple get lost and wet, but despite (or because of) this humorous chaos, the memories remain. “It was several days before we reacquired nuance, the birds/ reasserted themselves, the gums attained the rose of memory.” Again Scully engagingly shows the relationship between setting and inner life.

This is a short sampling of the poems in a collection of great variety and intensity. Scully’s well chosen language, lively unusual characters and vividly drawn settings shine throughout.

-Charles Freyberg


Charles Freyberg is a Sydney poet and playwright. He has studied poetry writing
with Judy Beveridge at the University of Sydney. His poetry was recently
performed as Dining at the Edge at El Roco in Kings Cross. His play the Rose
also recently won best drama at Short and Sweet Sydney at the Newtown

An Existential Grammar is available from–An-Existential-Grammar_p_34.html


Inexplicable Angles : Charlotte Guest Reviews ‘Babel Fish’ by Jillian Pattinson

Babel Fish by Jillian Pattinson, Puncher & Wattmann 2014

babel_fish_310_449_sIt is often considered bad practice to focus too heavily on the relationship between the title of a work and its content. It’s too easy an entry into criticism or interpretation, they say, an obvious foray – what ‘meaning’ does one lend the other? Yet Babel Fish, the title of Jillian Pattinson’s first collection of poetry, is such a perfect distillation of the work that it demands attention.

Babel Fish glides through the biblical, the linguistic, and the scientific with serene elegance. Each poem reads as a confident inquiry into the specifics of being, straddling the celestial and the terrestrial with ease. The story of the tower of Babel and the splitting up of language, along with other biblical narratives and figures invoked, lends the collection a religiosity that is simultaneously dissolved the non-scriptural, the biological. Take, for instance, the opening poem:


Fifty billion Ehux algae converge at the surface
of the Southern Ocean, their brilliance a mirror,
a mayday, that might well be mistaken
for the second coming. Heavy weather
blows up, scattering the host across the ocean
like so much spilt seed. But, even as it sinks back
into the abyss, each algae glows. Even washed up
on an empty beach. Even in the gut of a cuttlefish,
a lone E. huxleyi deciphers capillaries of internal ink
in light of its own bioluminescence. So much
to wonder at in the single cell of this simple being.
As if, by some trick of osmosis, it has plumbed
the essence of the Buddha’s own fading illumination—
make of yourself a light

With the eye of the biologist, attuned to the poetry of science and the natural world in a manner not unlike Rachel Carson, Jillian Pattinson reminds us of the interconnectedness of all things. The ‘uni’-verse is exploded, splintered into ‘multi’-verse, but through a kaleidoscopic lens of what already exists – established disciplines and discourses. Keats said Newton destroyed the beauty of the rainbow by explaining where the colours came from, but Dawkins argues that knowing where the colours come from enhances the beauty of the rainbow. Babel Fish appears to share this attitude to science and enquiry, locating beauty in origins, causation and explanation. Pattinson explores the celestial and the terrestrial, the corporeal and the ethereal in a way that seems to say I have not combined these polar opposites, but rather discovered them already united, one and the same, disgruntled at their separation.

Indeed, what is striking is how disarming Pattinson’s collection is. As a self-declared ‘avid reader’ I was embarrassed by my own surprise at the interdisciplinary nature of Babel Fish. Not only does the reader encounter different fields, modes of enquiry, and poetic forms, but ever-expanding subsets coexisting harmoniously. On the whole, disciplinary boundaries are becoming more porous, more permeable, yet it is testament to the tunnel vision that has so characterised ‘uni’-versities that the idea of a decompartmentalised and integrated world is so novel. Babel Fish says that what we see when we truly look is an inextricable ecology of life.

By focusing on the biological/botanical in Babel Fish, I don’t mean to suggest that Pattinson’s poetry is limited in its subject matter. Pattinson simultaneously probes the quality of taciturn lives, the workings of those people whose quiet veneer masks layers of deep feeling. Take the following excerpts from the poem ‘The Still Point’, which won the inaugural UTAS Place and Experience Poetry Prize:

At the still point of the turning world – T.S. Eliot

Only here,
in the crease of the map,
in the midst of things,
are we so placed,
so oriented.

From the bank
the river moves slowly.
From the water
the ground shears
and slides away.

‘The Still Point’ speaks of the folded quality of a moment in time, oriented by the narratives within which it is encased. This notion is reminiscent of Nabokov’s predilection for the substance of units of time, or of Blake’s depictions of the finite and the infinite residing in the same symbol.

Here you float
face down,
eyes open,
searching the rocks
and shadows below.

There is a way back.
Then there is no way.
Then there is.

The rocks are always
and never the same.
The river is always
and never the same.
So is the light.

The deep pool holds you still
against the slow turning
of the world.
Here you well up,
you eddy.

You are here.
Then you are not here.
Then you are.

chest deep amid the river,
all you can’t see
into all you think you know.

Dusk swells the slow pool.
Rocks merge into water.
Inexplicable angles of light
catch the cast line.

Her command of rhythm and repetition makes room for thoughts to echo; the patterns of imagery and phrases create sonic ripples that reflect the routines we fall into and which shape our lives.

In a recent interview with the Australian Poetry Podcast, Andrew Burke stated that poets must school themselves in the traditions of poetry before attempting to shake off their shackles. This is of course a rephrasing of the old adage that one must abide by the rules before they can be broken. The truth in Burke’s words can be illustrated by Jillian Pattinson’s poetry. Pattinson utilises a number of recognisable forms alongside free verse; such forms include portrait, lyrical, imagistic, narrative and ekphrastic poetry. Further, the second section of the book, ‘The Night God Introduces Fox & Cat to Crow’, functions as an embedded verse novella. The effect of such multitudes of form and thought is ‘kaleidoscopic’, which indeed comes from the Greek terms kalos and eidos meaning ‘to examine beauty.’

Babel Fish is an accomplished debut collection and a deserving recipient, in its manuscript form, of the 2010 Alec Bolton Prize.

– Charlotte Guest


Charlotte Guest is the Publishing Officer at UWA Publishing, and a first class Literature Honours student from the University of Western Australia. She is also a regular reviewer for The Australia Times Theatre magazine. Her work has been previously published in a number of journals, including dotdotdash and Run Rabbit Magazine.

Babel Fish is available from


Differences: Anna Couani reviews ‘Haifa Fragments’ by Khulud Khamis

Haifa Fragments by Khulud Khamis Spinifex Press 2015

haifa fragmentsHaifa Fragments is a novel written by Khulud Khamis, a Haifa native, and so has an authentic Haifa ‘feel’. The book evokes the social uniqueness and geography of the city that is situated on the slopes of Mount Carmel, and interestingly, the Arab quarter which is the less affluent area near the bottom of the mountain near the coast and the port. The more affluent areas, mostly Jewish, are closer to the top of the mountain. Khamis has been able to do this, without lengthy descriptive passages, through the actions of characters living their everyday lives. The apartment, where the main character, Maisoon, lives and works as a jeweller, becomes a kind of focal point in the novel, a comfy and productive space that the character constantly returns to and where most of her personal relationships are enacted. Its sunlit balcony looks over the local market that is inhabited by the same small traders every day. The flat she lives in is family property and her own parents live nearby. This situation, of a single woman artisan working and living alone, marks out the equivocal position that Maisoon occupies in relation to the city, her family and the state of Israel. Her family are Christian Palestinians and while they suffer a certain amount of institutional racism from Jewish Israelis, they own property and have a stable life in Haifa where Jews and Arabs have been living more or less harmoniously for a long time. One of the plot threads however, explores the cost of this harmony to the Palestinian population.

Maisoon’s family are not exactly religious and mostly support her independence as a woman. However, they have a problem with her Muslim boyfriend, Ziyad, and whilst not totally rejecting him, feel uneasy about the relationship. On the other hand, Ziyad, also not religious, cannot take Maisoon to meet his family unless it’s to declare that they will marry. A woman’s reluctance to marry has a different significance in Israel/Palestine than in Australia because marriage laws are determined by religious law.

The book traces some of the relationships between ethnic groups in today’s Israel and Palestine but limits itself to secular people from Haifa, including Christian and Muslim Palestinians, a Jewish jewellery retailer and a Muslim family from the West Bank. It is odd to describe the characters like that however, because it is not their religion that defines them, certainly not in this novel. But it introduces a Western reader (the novel is written in English, not translated to English) to some of the complexities of contemporary Israel/Palestine where diverse cultures intersect and differences might be as much cultural and linguistic as religious.

One of the main threads in the book is the story of a young Palestinian woman from the West Bank who lives in a refugee camp but manages to regularly slip into Haifa to stay with Maisoon. Whilst the narrative doesn’t shy away from a discussion of the misery of the condition of Palestinians living in poverty on the West Bank, it approaches the lives of the characters in a positive way and enables them to achieve positive outcomes in their work and personal lives.

As a visitor to Israel, the prevalence of people carrying guns everywhere is rather alarming and there is a character in the book who has that experience. On my first visit to Israel, I felt that the military visibility in the country was all about the Arab/Israeli conflict, but another impression that can form is that the country is obviously dominated by the macho of military involvement. Although women do compulsory military service in Israel, there is a very male feel about military things, as there is in Australia. Women in the Israeli state don’t enjoy quite the same equality with men that we have in Australia in the eyes of the law when it comes to marriage and divorce that is controlled by religious courts that favour males.


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This book is as much about a woman seeking self-determination and agency as it is about trying to reconcile and overcome the cultural and political differences in the country. Although Maisoon judges her father harshly for his lack of pro-Palestinian activism, she finds that, like her father, her economic future is bound up with Israeli Jews. She enters a business partnership with a Jewish retailer and this is constructed as a positive thing in the book.

One of the features of the book is that it includes quite a lot of expressions in Arabic, written in English alphabet. There is a glossary at the back of the book but most of the meanings can be guessed. However, if the reader is an Israeli or Palestinian, they find that most of the expressions are common loan words in vernacular Hebrew. The inclusion of these expressions as is, rather than translated, also gives the reader a taste of the country and the hybrid nature of the spoken language. She smatters the English with Arabic words as the locals do with Hebrew. Although this doesn’t occur in the novel, Yiddish words are also common in spoken Hebrew, as they are in New York English.

Overall, Haifa Fragments is a compelling read because it’s from a context that we rarely hear about at ground level or in the voice of a Palestinian. Apart from that there are several narrative threads that develop and keep the reader engaged, a mystery about Maisoon’s father, the worry about the plight of the young Palestinian woman and the uncertainty of Maisoon’s relationship with Ziyad. She’s writing about a fraught situation but somehow keeps it light.

– Anna Couani


Anna Couani is a Sydney writer and school teacher. Her most recent book is a collection of poetry, Small Wonders from Flying Islands Books 2012, with Chinese translations. She is Rochford Street Review’s featured wirter for Issue 14 

Haifa Fragments is available from


Sydney Film Festival Competition Winners Announced

The closing night of the Sydney Film Festival featured the highly anticipated world premiere of Neil Armfield’s Holding the Man to a sold out audience at the State Theatre. Along with the screening winners of the various competitions which had run over the course of the festival were also announced.

The Sydney Film Prize

Miguel Gomes’ Arabian Nights

Miguel Gomes’ Arabian Nights

Arabian Nights, directed by Miguel Gomes, was awarded Sydney Film Festival’s $62,000 Sydney Film Prize. The cash prize, now in its eighth year, is awarded for a film’s ‘emotional power and resonance; audaciousness, cutting-edge, courageousness; and capacity to go beyond the usual treatment of the subject matter’.

In announcing the award Jury President Liz Watts said “It is the Jury’s unanimous decision to award this year’s Sydney Film Prize to Arabian Nights Volume 1, 2, 3; directed by Miguel Gomes . Arabian Nights is a film of ambition and political vision which confronts, frustrates, and spellbinds – and ultimately reminds us that cinema continues to be a powerful vehicle to examine the human condition.”

Ambitious, indignant and filled with offbeat humour, Miguel Gomes’ extraordinary trilogy draws on the structure of Arabian Nights; to create a vivid portrait of Portugal today. Gomes was anguished by the austerity measures imposed on his homeland and commissioned journalists to gather true stories from all over the country that were then fictionalised.

Miguel Gomes accepted the award from Lapland.

For a run down of the films in the official competition see


The Documentary Australia Foundation Award for Australian Documentary

October 1, 2004 - Baquba, Iraq: Time Magazine writer Michael Ware advances with U.S. soldiers with the 25th Infantry Division, 1st battalion, 14th regiment, Alpha Company, 1st Platoon, looks around a corner while a smoke grenade covers his advance during an attack to take back Samarra from insurgent control. The operation circled the city of Samarra with four battalions. After the initial attack the city is to be held with 500 Iraqi National Guard units after the fight. (Max Becherer/Polaris) ///

October 1, 2004 – Baquba, Iraq: Time Magazine writer Michael Ware advances with U.S. soldiers with the 25th Infantry Division, 1st battalion, 14th regiment, Alpha Company, 1st Platoon, looks around a corner while a smoke grenade covers his advance during an attack to take back Samarra from insurgent control. The operation circled the city of Samarra with four battalions. After the initial attack the city is to be held with 500 Iraqi National Guard units after the fight. (Max Becherer/Polaris)

Journalist Michael Ware and two-time Oscar winner Bill Guttentag were awarded the Documentary Australia Foundation Award for Australian Documentary, worth $10,000, for Only the Dead, with a special mention going to The Lost Aviator directed by Andrew Lancaster.

DAF Award for Australian Documentary Jury Member Dr Mitzi Goldman said “This year’s films are again a very strong collection of 10 documentaries. We have seen stories about refugees in Australia, animal welfare, indigenous culture and family and cultural history, each one with great strengths in very different style….After much deliberation however the DAF award goes to Only the Dead, a deeply confronting and controversial film. It raises many uncomfortable issues that present a story resulting from embedded journalism following the invasion of Iraq.”

“The extraordinary raw footage in this film, of the kind so often used to sensationalise, shock and recruit in other contexts, is here given authentic power by being tied to a diary in which the narrator, struggling with trauma, reveals how daily conflict can confound understanding and analysis.”

“The result is a film that complicates our engagement with the war by offering an extremely personal point of view, emotionally dragging us through the horrors of violence and implicating us in the messy narrative of war and death. The storyteller, embedded with US troops, inhabits a zone of physical and moral conflict that, while constituting a strong anti-war testimony, also treads the blurred line between winners and losers, heroes and cowards, us and them,”

The jury made special mention of The Lost Aviator, “a finely crafted documentary that blends sensitive family history with an inquisitive and bold account of a dramatic and tragic story. The film displays great storytelling skill, beautiful production values and mastery over its narrative”.

The Dendy Awards for Australian Short Films


Grace Under Water is the second collaboration between writer Chrissie McMahon and animation director Anthony Lawrence. The film is based on a short story by Chrissie in which young stepmother Lou, (voiced by Zoe Carides) struggles to find a way to love her fiercely independent step daughter Grace (voiced byLola Carlton) .

The Dendy Awards for Australian Short Films were awarded to:

  • Dendy Live Action Short Award. A Single Body directed and written by Sotiris Dounoukos.
  • Yoram Gross Animation Award: Grace Under Water directed and produced by Anthony Lawrence
  • Rouben Mamoulian Award for Best Director: Brooke Goldfinch for Red Rover with a special mention to Ryan Griffen for You Turn.

The 2015 Jury for the Dendy Awards for Australian Short Film was comprised of Australian filmmaker Alex Proyas; Australian producer Greer Simpkin; and Palestinian filmmaker Suha Arraf.

In a joint statement the Dendy Jury said: “Amongst the varied style of films it was extremely difficult to choose one that stood out for the Dendy Live Action Short Award. ….. we chose the film which took us to a real world, made us believe in the human story being told. The insight to these people’s lives created a world and situation which was complete and had great emotional resonance.”

“The film the jury has chosen for the Yoram Gross Animation Award has an eerily human quality with touching, complex and unresolved relationships. Incorporating an original technique, this film created a unique cinematic experience,”

“The jury chose a film that showcased self-assured and accomplished direction for the Rouben Mamoulian Award for Best Director. This film had a confidence and ambition which showed great promise”.

Event Cinemas Australian Short Screenplay Award

Bluey, written and directed by Darlene Johnson. Winner of the Event Cinema Australian Short Screenplay Award.

Bluey, written and directed by Darlene Johnson. Winner of the Event Cinema Australian Short Screenplay Award.

The 2015 Dendy Awards for Australian Short Film 2015 Jury also judges the Event Cinemas Australian Short Screenplay Award, comprising of Greek-Australian filmmaker Alex Proyas; Australian producer Greer Simpkin; and Palestinian filmmaker Suha Arraf. This award, which provides a $5000 cash prize for best short screenplay to one of the short fiction films selected for the Sydney Film Festival program, is open to all Australian short films screening in the Festival. This year the award was given to Bluey, written and directed by Darlene Johnson.

In a joint statement the jury said: “The film chosen for the Event Cinemas Australian Short Screenplay Award displayed great ability to build strong character – convincing interplay between characters and natural dialogue.”

– Mark Roberts


The 62nd Sydney Film Festival ran from 3rd to 14th June –

Rochford Street Review will continue to run a series of reviews of films which screened at the Sydney Film Festival over the coming weeks.


Sydney Film Festival 2015: Vinterberg and Hardy – ‘Far From the Madding Crowd’

Far From the Madding Crowd Directed by Thomas Vinterberg, 2015. Screened at the Sydney Film Festival on Wednesday 3 June (Second screening Saturday 13 June).  General Release date 25 June 2015.

Carey Mulligan as Bathsheba Everdene in Thomas Vinterberg's adapation of Hardy's Far From the Madding Crowd

Carey Mulligan as Bathsheba Everdene in Thomas Vinterberg’s adapation of Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd

I’ve always liked Thomas Hardy’s novels. There is an element of escapism of course, the luscious rural imagery evokes a lost Victorian landscape, but there is also often an undercurrent of rebellion against Victorian society running through many of Hardy’s main characters – think of the fate of Tess in Tess of the d’Urbervilles, or Jude in Jude in the Obscure.

Bathsheba Everdene, the central character in Far From the Madding Crowd, is also an individual constrained by the conventions of Victorian society. As a woman who comes into property, the expectation is that she will marry and allow her husband to run the farm. Instead she sets out to learn how to run the farm herself while spurning the advances of her wealthy and powerful neighbour.

Like most of Hardy’s major novels there have been numerous film adaptations of Far from the Madding Crowd, the first being a silent 1915 adapation directed by Laurence Trimble and featuring Florence Turner in the role of Bathsheba Everdene. The most well known version is probably the 1967  John Schlesinger production featuring Julie Christie, Alan Bates, Terence Stamp, and Peter Finch in the lead roles.

The latest adaptation, directed by Thomas Vinterberg (The Hunt ) and featuring Carey Mulligan in the lead role, emphasises the modernness of Hardy’s novel. Indeed when a novel has been filmed as many times as Far from the Madding Crowd it does become difficult to view it purely on its own terms. It is first the film of a very popular and studied novel, but it is also has to be viewed through the other films made from the novel. Vinterberg’s film succeeds on this criteria, it has interpreted the original novel and has given us a different and strong film.

Vinterberg concentrates on the changing relationship between Bathsheba and Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts), a small tenant farmer who unsuccessfully asks Bathsheba to marry him at the opening of the film. Mulligan’s Bathsheba appears much more actively independent than Christie’s Bathsheba reflecting, perhaps more about changes in society over the last 50 years than a deliberate attempt to reinvent Hardy’s novel. Mulligan’s Bathsheba strides through the film, she creates a presence and she expects to be treated the same as the male farmers who surround her. At the same time, however, the film is essentially a romance, Bathsheba is surrounded by suitors, Gabriel Oak who is the first to propose and who later finds himself employed by Bathsheba, her wealthy neighbour William Boldwood who can see the advantage of uniting their two farms but lacks the emotional confidence to press his claim and the fickle Sergeant Troy who does win her heart but turns on her after their marriage.

Bathsheba has to battle to save her farm from her husband and Gabriel becomes more and more important to the success of the farm. When her husband is reported as being drowned it is her neighbour, however, who makes a second attempt. He is, of course, the safe choice, the farm would be secure and Bathsheba’s future would be mapped out. But she hangs back until everything comes to a head when her husband suddenly returns. A fight follows and Boldwood kills her husband.

Interestingly Vinterberg’s film has a traditionally romantic ending as Bathsheba and Gabriel finally realise the strength of their emotions in the final scenes. Interestingly both the novel and the 1967 film have a much more ambiguous ending – will they or won’t they? Vinterberg has decoded the conclusion for us and while it is a traditionally satisfying ending I was left wondering if a little ambiguity might not have lifted the ending just a little bit more.

Overall, however, Vinterberg’s Far From the Madding Crowd is a successful adaptation of Hardy’s novel and is, perhaps, superior in many ways to John Schlesinger’s 1967 version.

– Mark Roberts


Mark Roberts is a Sydney based writer and critic and editor of Rochford Street Review.

Screening details for Far From the Madding Crowd at the Sydney Film Festval
Sydney Film Festival general information


This Tethering Muliebrity: Edric Mesmer Reviews ‘terra bravura’ by Meredith Wattison

terra bravura by Meredith Wattison Puncher & Wattmann, 2015

terra_bravura_310_437_sFor the poet, the task of genealogy is not a new one; see Beowulf; even Exodus.

Meredith Wattison’s terra bravura, however, is a personal-historical genealogy that covers and recovers the intersecting scapes forging modern Australia, from cultural and individual inheritance and exile to colonialism, filial duty, and motherhood. Each trope takes part in, as it takes apart, the construction of the self—that recognition of the unknowable kindred amid the clashing horrors and passions of the past…The bravura is in the telling.

Narrative for Wattison (in this, her sixth book) is cadenced and abstract, gifts that allow her a large realm of cerebral play, echoic within an open architectural music. Consider these lines from the first poem, naming and laying spined the scion’s calling:

I have come for the helium esoterica of the desert,
the flying, tearing silk cyan,
the karmic Kaddish,
the straw-yellow grasses,
their dada, goat-mouthed grazers,
loose ferruginous shift
rough sutured with failed fences…(11).

The poet-narrator is looking for the grave of her father’s grandmother, she who died “by plumbism, saturnism, miner’s consumption” (11)—while we readers, extending this metaphor, likewise go wayward; become contagion; spelunk. “She is the split stone to step from / to Europe” (12), with name-symbol Europe reached not only through lineal lore but by syllabic map, from “eudemonia” and by way of “euphonic” in lines preceding. Heredity and memory operate linguistically so, as we follow alongside an acquisitioned imagery:

All the English exotica
of superseding bulrushes
and swans with crowns
in 1960s children’s book
soft propaganda (15-16).

(Note there the echo between “exotica” and “esoterica” from opening.) Learnt ancestry, like learning to read, is coded (“Her brutalised son, / his brutalised son” (12)) and, as family stories go, only partially told; they remain problematically labyrinthine. Think here of Anne Bradstreet, another who engendered a newly foreign psychic scape:

Silent alone, where none or saw, or heard,
In pathless paths I lead my wandering feet,
My humble eyes to lofty skies I reared
To sing some song, my mazed Muse thought meet

(from “Contemplations,” quoted in Wilson).

Like Bradstreet, Wattison is singularly searching, in pursuit as much as pursued by narrative.

A black swan
followed me here,
stars sobbing from its beak,
it is tied by a thread
to my ankle,
a dark, octopus-pot moon
is tied to the anguished other (17).

The image will play leitmotif and foil. Trace of fox, swan, orange, peach, egg, moon, and hues of red whorl through, lacing as from behind these texturing tapestries in rhizomatic warp. These allow the poet her points of pursuit, while woof—providing chase—comes often by way of family photo albums:

The mother, daughter,
cousin, aunt gene pool,
nebulous in black and white,
in summer’s sleeveless cotton,
it’s all shifts, buttons and gathers,
grinning superficiality,
1950s muliebrity (32).

Muliebrity: that feminine quality indicative of womanhood, rather than girlhood. Consider from Hesiod’s Catalogue of Women this translated fragment of papyrus:

Or such as the daughter of god-like Erysichthon

[ ] son of Triopas
Mestra with fair tresses, who shone like the Charites.
Him the tribes of mortal men called Aithon,
named after the strong burning famine.
……………….bur]ning famine all men [ ]
……………….for mortals [ ]
……………….knowing frequent plans in her heart [ ]
……………………………………….…buy (?) [ ]
…………………………………………..of women [ (Rutherford, 104).

And consider this editor’s footnote:

The mother is omitted in the ehoie that begins the Aspis (= fr. 195), where we have the patronymic “son of Electryon”, and also in fr. 58.7. Both mother and father are, however, specified in fr. 26.5ff (footnote 22).

Gender always factors in ehoie-poetry. It signifies in Wattison’s genealogy: how names are omitted, relationships highlighted; the latter become a kinship lattice, in this instance among women. The notion of the fragment is also brought to the fore, where names and direct orders of lineage go unremembered, perhaps now unknowable.

In his analysis of Hesiod, Rutherford admits the haziness of time and retelling when dealing with ancient and partial texts: “These lines probably describe Sisyphus acquiring Mestra for his son, though, depending on how we reconstruct the papyrus, it is possible that this is a previous wedding” (Rutherford, 105). A change in word, an omission, can alter the meaning. In terra bravura, ellipses and elapses between century-long decades are compensated for through their relations, even “when cramping against the trompe l’oeil of women” (33).

I could not help but follow
the empyreal group.
In its bacchanalian centre
a Pan with Titian ringlets,
mandrels half-naked, burnished women,
a naked gravy-skinned, bread-crust,
wet, toffee silk nimbused girl
not much younger than myself,
squatting in the squall
of a dying wave’s evanescence (89).

Again, the loss/the loosening from the fixed/the literal allows the poet-narrator renegotiation with those hierarchal narratives so inherent to patriarchy. There is pause there. As Nikolas Rose writes in “Identity, Genealogy, History”—

To the apparent linearity, unidirectionality and irreversibility of time, we can counterpose the multiplicity of places, planes and practices. And in each of these spaces, repertoires of conduct are activated that are not bounded by the enclosure formed by the human skin or carried in a stable form in the interior of an individual: they are rather webs of tension across a space that accord human beings capacities and powers to the extent that they catch them up in hybrid assemblages of knowledges, instruments, vocabularies, systems of judgement and technical artefacts (Rose, 324).

It is perhaps because of Wattison’s highly visual vocabulary— specifically, one steeped in visual arts—that she is able to turn these absences into wholly formed considerations of absence. Take for example a scene wherein the narrator’s niece photographs her mother’s eye:

It is non-monumental.
It is as intimate
as a home birth
without preparation,

during a meal

in the landscape

without a camera (116).

Here, the image takes reference against the icon—takes refuge in the image of unhospitalized matrilineality—just as the linear is delivered from held stanza upon open waves of line. The unphotographed remains equivalent to that photographed, and that which is now photographed plays non-iconic recourse to the iconographic. This is quite relevant in genealogies where women have so often been left out, unnamed, or masked within the patronymic: “pastiched / homogenized, / seminal” (97). To flip this, Wattison does not merely resort to the finding or inventing of names, instead considering the written history itself as that “cursive sea in an inkwell”—at times unnavigable, unfathomable—a “quilled extravagance / as riveting as what is erased” (103). This is a poet-narrator who sees the potentially shifting paradigms of naming, image-making; icons, iconoclasts, scions…

In their study of age and aging in the late works of Virginia Woolf, Rishi Goyal and Rita Charon identify the competing models of narrative in The Years and The Waves as “a cyclical epistemology of history” and “a linear, eschatological movement” (Goyal and Charon, 70). [It is significant that during revisions of terra bravura Wattison was rereading Woolf in the course of writing two essays.] The authors posit how:

Like The Years […] The Waves explores the possibilities of change and continuity in history through individual lives. Both novels flirt with formal structures based on historical reflexivity: The Waves (which is divided into sections based on the natural rhythms of the sun moving though the sky and the waves striking a beach) and The Years (structured as a series of chapters with year headings) are modeled on two opposing historical assumptions (ibid.).

Wattison’s genealogy refuses to confer this modernist duality; aware of the binary thought of such logic, the poems of terra bravura counter formal paradigms just as they refuse form, chronology, even titling. But as for Woolf’s “change and continuity in history through individual lives,” this terra bravura embraces. Like the returning image of the black swan, Wattison has found a creature of (European) imagination, made real by the expanding circles of colonial encounter: the surprise of Cygnus atratus to the unaccustomed eye; once of monotypic genus, Chenopis, now assimilated as much into the Linnaean as we readers into its environ—language-corpus.

The tongue’s root,
the trunk’s febrile acquisition
are heavy-fleshed concentrics (86).

At the last, this book is threnodic homage; some utterance found at the center of what constitutes this made self. Wattison is returned by way of the last two poems (one prose, one epistolary) to the literality of her father’s recession into dementia.

My father will not use the visor to check the glare. He holds his hand up like a Biblical gesture, an exaggeration, a mime, the coming of a plague. I tilt the visor for him. It ceases to be Biblical (127).

Per Tina Darragh’s linguistic investigation into personal phonemic inheritance, we might think of that most intimate of orreries, one’s individually acquisitioned vocabulary—

in thinking
about cliche as sound
sound as the shared element
of geography and the subconscious (Darragh, 15)

—the cohort that is origin; its parentage:

As a group they have the mien of horses.
The sun harsh, bleaching.
The photographer one-eyed, pedantic.
This side of the stone wall,
white quartz crested
like Hokusai’s great wave,
is the exclusion zone
of father’s English and glare (46).

To meet with level gaze the departure of this horizon at the point of its arrival…I told you, bravura is this telling.

– Edric Mesmer

Works Cited

Darragh, Tina. Striking Resemblance: Work, 1980-1986. Providence: Burning Deck, 1989.

Goyal, Rishi and Rita Charon. “In Waves of Time, Space, and Self: The Dwelling-Place of Age in Virginia Woolf’s The Waves.” Storying Later Life: Issues, Investigations, and Interventions in Narrative Gerontology. Eds. Gary Kenyon, Ernst Bohlmeijer, and William L. Randall. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Rose, Nikolas. “Identity, Genealogy, History.” Identity: a reader. Eds. Paul du Gay, Jessica Evans, and Peter Redman. London: SAGE, 2000. Reprint, 2005.

Rutherford, Ian. “Mestra at Athens: Hesiod fr. 43 and the poetics of panhellenism.”The Hesiod Catalogue of Women: Constructions and Reconstructions. Ed. Richard Hunter. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Wattison, Meredith. terra bravura. Glebe: Puncher & Wattmann, 2015.

Wilson, Rob. “‘Enrapted Senses’: Anne Bradstreet’s ‘Contemplations.’” American Sublime: The Genealogy of a Poetic Genre. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991.


Edric Mesmer is collator of the little (international) magazine, Yellow Field; currently, he serves as cataloger to the Poetry Collection of the University at Buffalo. Of monodies & homophony (2015), a collection of his poems, is available through Small Press Distrubution

terra bravura is available from