New Shoots Poetry Prize 2016 winner: ‘Fallen Myrtle Trunk’ by Stuart Cooke

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stuart-cooke-picStuart Cooke lives on the Gold Coast, where he lectures in creative writing and literary studies at Griffith University. He has published collections of poetry, criticism and translation. His latest book, Opera was published by Five Islands Press in 2016. Stuart Cooke is the winner of the 2016 Gwen Harwood Poetry Prize.

‘Fallen Myrtle Trunk’: Zalehah Turner interviews Stuart Cooke

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Issue 20: October to December 2016

‘_____Hours’ (2015), Engrybirdz (Dorit Goldman and Mel Baveas), folded, shaped and taped White Pages: Business and Government, Sydney College Of Arts Honours Graduate Show, 18-24 November, 2015. photography der_melicious (Mel Baveas).

‘_____Hours’ (2015), Engrybirdz (Dorit Goldman and Mel Baveas), folded, shaped and taped White Pages: Business and Government, Sydney College Of Arts Honours Graduate Show, 18-24 November, 2015. photography der_melicious (Mel Baveas).

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Teasing Threads

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Published by Rochford Street Press
ISSN 2200-9922

 

Rochford Street Review Needs Your Support in 2017.

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As we enter 2017 Rochford Street Review urgently needs your help. Over the past five years we have published over 550 reviews and articles on Australian books, visual arts, film and music and we have had over 132,000 page views. Although we receive no government or other institutional support we attempt to offer all our reviewers at least a token payment.

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This Is The Review You Are Looking For: Perry Lam reviews ‘Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’

Star Wars has always been reliant on formula, what started out as a fusion of old samurai movies and Joseph Campbell myth making eventually (and this depends on who you ask) transforms or degenerates into a grand family opera told through time, space and the occasional teasing of creepy incestuous romance. Through seven massive franchise films, Star Wars has, for better and for worse, enforced the standard of blockbuster filmmaking. The Original Trilogy trailblazed in terms of cinematic storytelling, Lucas wanted to create something to ‘inspire the young’ and fight the then ailing studio system. With his use of mythic archetypes and borrowing heavily on Akira Kurosawa’s cinematic technique, Lucas created a series of films that reinvented cinema as not an artform but as a form of casual entertainment.

What was trailblazing eventually became the beaten, established path. With the prequels Lucas turns the franchise into effects driven spectacles, throwing the script to the wind, proving that story does not really matter in the grander scheme of marketing, merchandising and commercial interests. The transition from Original to prequel trilogies is ironic, what started out as a Rebel Alliance, bring the cinematic arts to mass audiences became the Galactic Empire, a commercial brand whose sole motivation is total market domination. George Lucas became the studio he fought so hard against. He has become, the Galactic Empire.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story Ph: Film Frame ©Lucasfilm LFL

With the sale to Disney, the films that are released thus far seem more interested in serving as a ‘Greatest Hits’ compilation for the franchise. Specifically, much of Disney’s cinematic and aesthetic style owes more to Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, than any other entry in the series. The emphasis on nostalgia, the use of desert locales, the ‘used future’ aesthetic and the narrowing down of lightsaber and Force users to two or less. These creative choices are all evident in The Force Awakens and in Rogue One. But as a film, Rogue One offers a few more surprises up its own sleeves.

Rogue One takes place between Episode 3 and Episode 4, with the Jedi wiped out, the Galactic Empire has risen to power, enforcing its tyranny across the galaxy. To further establish the Empire’s dominance, an ambitious Imperial Military Director, Orson Krennic leads the construction of the Death Star, a planet killing superweapon.

With the Death Star close to completion, it is up to a grizzled and war weary team of Rebel soldiers to steal the schematic plans of the superweapon, in order to find a way to defeat it and bring freedom back to the galaxy. Essentially, this is Death Star: The Origin Story.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story Death Star Ph: Film Frame ©Lucasfilm LFL

One of the great surprises of Rogue One is its willingness to break the franchise’s rules. Firstly, the film takes the series out of the saga of the Skywalker family and into the greasy hands and mudcaked boots of the regular joes and janes of the Galaxy Far, Far Away. By removing the familial and religious ‘Good vs Evil’ dynamic, we are left with compelling and previously unexplored shades of grey to both sides of the Galactic Civil War. Characters do what it takes to turn the tide of the conflict, at any cost. There is no ‘hate leads to suffering’ philosophical musings here, the only hate is between both sides and the only suffering is what each side subject to the other.

Previous entries in the series dealt in absolutes, Rebels are the good guys and the Empire are the bad, yet Rogue One is bold enough to roster both sides with horrible, broken people who probably have problems sleeping at night. Our two protagonists are cut from this tattered, bloodsoaked cloth, the stoic Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), wakes up to one too many traumatic dreams of childhood abandonment, and the serious and but no less dashing Han Solo surrogate, Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), not only shoots first but when we are first introduced to him, shoots people in the back too. Yavin 4 is as big a hive for scum and villainy as Mos Eisley Cantina.

Supporting characters are also filled out by intriguing and distinctly non Star Wars flavoured archetypes, adding new dimensions to the film and the overall mythos. The protocol droid K-2SO is a welcomed addition to the iconic line up of droids in the franchise, he is C3PO with the attitude of a scruffy-looking nerf herder, quipping and smart-assing his way through the narrative. K2 sets itself apart from the squeaky clean, kid appealing franchise icons that R2D2 and C3PO has become.

Substituted for that iconic droid duo, we are given a human alternative instead, in the form of the blind warrior monk Chirrut Emwe (Donnie Yen) and heavy weapons specialist Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen). While the gruff and no-nonsense Baze is badass in his own right, blowing away stormtroopers with his blaster rifle, it is Chirrut who wows the crowd with his intergalactic kung fu, constant sutra-like chanting, and that one joke related to his visual impairment. Yen’s Chirrut opens a new door for the Star Wars universe. Through him, we finally have an understanding of what The Force really means to the rest of the galaxy, it is a religion, to be accepted or rejected.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Felicity Jones) Ph: Film Frame ©Lucasfilm LFL

And I have not gone the villains themselves, the baddies aren’t exactly evil. As in the case with the lead villain, Director Orson Krennic. Played with snarly ambition by the great Ben Mendelsohn, Krennic is every middle management exec paranoid about his superiors taking credit for his own work, which in a twisted sense, makes him the most relatable character in the film. I would be pissed if someone takes credit for my work too.

Krennic may be the chief antagonist, but iconic villains in the form of Grand Moff Tarkin and Darth Vader do flank him in the narrative, though their appearance does at times weaken Krennic’s role as villainous authority and come across as fan service. It is justifiable though, as both have functions within the story. Grand Moff Tarkin’s appearance serves to highlight his role in Episode 4 and turns Krennic’s story arc into one of corporate and organizational infighting, this adds an interesting wrinkle to the Empire, who usually comes across as a faceless unit simply out to do the most evil thing possible.

Darth Vader, on the other hand, is something we REALLY need to talk about. While his appearance is brief, it re-establishes the character as one of the preeminent villains in film history. We always did hear either through the films or from other Star Wars media of Vader’s terrifying reputation, and skills in combat. But we have never actually seen him in action. Rogue One unleashes the Jedi formerly known as Anakin Skywalker and I’ll damn sure say it, he isn’t ‘just’ someone to be ‘feared, he isn’t ‘just intimidating’. This is Darth Vader in his absolute prime, he is genuinely terrifying. His single minute appearance transforms the film from a war movie into a slasher flick, as he mows down his opponents with supernatural ease and unchecked brutality. Anakin Skywalker is dead but Darth Vader is back.

As great as the characters are and as interesting as this new Star Wars universe is, the narrative does take a while to get going, to blame is the multiple set ups and character introductions. While they are absolutely necessary for the third act to function, there is also too much unnecessary traveling between planets that are redundant to the main plot. To be blunt, the main Death Star plans story arc does not actually get going until the end of the second act, much of the plot development in the first two is reserved to character establishment. That said, the greatness of the third act is because of the two acts that came before.

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You will notice the narrative and tonal shift of the finale. It is not much a gradual change as it is stepping off a cliff.  The finale is one of the best for a blockbuster in recent memory. A non-stop, all or nothing pitched battle between the Rebels and the Empire, winner takes all. It showcases the extraordinary difficulty that the Rebels have, when confronting the might of the Empire head to head. The battle scenes get ugly and unflinching as we are in the thick of it, storming the beachheads of Scarif with the ragtag Rebels, or accompanying Y-Wing bombers on their attack run, trying desperately to delay inevitable defeat against a superior opponent. It is more Apocalypse Now than Star Wars.

The final battle itself is a thing to behold, we have never seen the Rebels fight this hard. We read the opening crawl of Episode 4, we know this is their first major victory, we know spies managed to get their hands on the Death Star plans. What we do not know is how much of a cruel, relentless struggle this is. Culminating in an ending that, once you catch a glimpse of the back of the familiar curved white Rebel Soldier helmet and a nostalgic looking white starship corridor, it will make you wonder “Are they really going to do that?”. Yes, they did.

However, I do not agree that it is the darkest entry in the franchise, sure a lot of bad stuff happens and it is significantly darker for a Star Wars film but it is nowhere near the nihilism that was displayed in 2005’s Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. Back then, your standard Star Wars protagonist could be a paranoid, selfish man who ends up murdering children, strangling his pregnant wife (who later dies in childbirth), and engaging his friend/mentor in a duel to the death that ends up with said protagonist having all his limbs chopped off before burning in a river of lava, and no one would bat an eyelid. Of course, you can’t do that now, its 2016.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Donnie Yen) Ph: Film Frame ©Lucasfilm LFL

With that said, blaster bolts still fly and the body count is racked up, as the characters you are invested in are forced into a desperate fight to the survive against wave after wave of Imperial troops. Much credit has to go to the writers Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy, as well as director Gareth Edwards, for framing the Rebel cause as a courageous but ultimately hopeless one, with no reward other than a thermal detonator blast to the face.

Gareth Edwards is an inspired choice as director, having had previous experience playing around with the concept of scale in Monsters and Godzilla, we are now seeing the peaking of a young director. The Death Star looks monstrously grotesque in Rogue One, as Star Destroyers are dwarfed by the superweapon’s sheer mass. Edwards even manages to make establishing shots look cool. The opening shot of an Imperial transport vessel floating above the rings of a planet is gorgeous and novel in its approach to establishing locales.

The aesthetics of the film is perhaps its strongest point. Use of handheld cinematography accentuates the overall mise-en-scene, making us feel like we are right there with the rest of the Rogue One team. But it is the production design that gets to shine, the gritty ‘boots on the ground’ aesthetic is on full display here. Massive fallen statues of Jedi knights pepper the surface of the Jedi world of Jedha, Stormtroopers are no longer squeaky clean, their armor caked in grease and grit of countless skirmishes. These are details that are usually unnecessary but this meticulousness is what gives the film its deep immersion, a stand out sequence would be Jyn Erso’s escape from an Imperial prison transport on a miserable looking planet, this is the first time the Stormtroopers look bored and fed up with their jobs. And they got every reason to, even their dented and dirtied helmets tell their story before a single line of dialogue is uttered.

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The one aspect of the film that leaves us wanting however, is the generic score. Now, Star Wars is one of the most aurally defined fictional universes, but the score plays it too safe, relying on old motifs and the previous work of John Williams’ to define itself. Which clashes with the entire creative motivation of the film, with jaw dropping , previously unseen visuals of the Star Wars universe, including a scene where a Star Destroyer is literally chopped in half, it is disappointing that Michael Giacchino is unable to conjure up any orchestral magic to match the originality that permeates the rest of the film.

As a film reviewer, I would rather judge a film on its own merits but with Rogue One, its success lies with how it affects the film it chronologically precedes, Star Wars Episode 4: A New Hope. To judge this movie as a standalone does not appreciate what it has done, which is singlehandedly upping the ante and the importance of various plot points in the other films in the franchise. Bear in mind, this was supposed to be a ‘side story’ with no bearing on the events of the main saga. Yet Rogue One, with its compelling characters, intricate cinematography, production design and an absolute cracker of a third act, proves that being a side story does not mean you can’t be the main event.

 

 

**** and a half/5

One of the best films of the year and definitely the best blockbuster of 2016. With a great cast of characters, spellbinding production design and a killer final act, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story adds much needed originality and value into the events of Star Wars mythos, and in doing so surpasses most of the films it was supposed to play second fiddle to.

 

 

If you like this, you should watch:

Star Wars Episode 4: A New Hope- This should be first on your list after watching Rogue One, the blend is seamless and astonishing to behold, I cannot believe how both films work in storytelling so well.

Flashpoint- The plot may be thin but this film features Donnie Yen’s best choreographed fight scenes, and a viciously executed German suplex that has been emulated in Hollywood productions like Deadpool.

Monsters- Gareth Edwards low budget feature film debut. It is the epitome of sci fi indie filmmaking.

The Hidden Fortress- Akira Kurosawa is a tremendous influence on New Hollywood era filmmakers. And The Hidden Fortress is Star Wars’ greatest reference in terms of storytelling.

Room for Reflection: Annette Marfording Reviews ‘Here Where We Live’ by Cassie Flanagan Willanski

Here Where We Live by Cassie Flanagan Willanski, Wakefield Press 2016

here where we liveWillanski has extensive experience as an environmental volunteer and campaigner as well as a degree in environmental studies from the University of Adelaide, and this collection of short stories, which won the Wakefield Press Unpublished Manuscript award in 2014, reflects this interest. The collection includes eight short stories and one novella. Rather than falling within the traditional short story genre, however, her stories are offerings of moments of life, often those where mostly female characters face uncertainty, are at a turning point and come to a realisation about what it is that they desire from their lives and how that may affect their relationships. In addition to these environmental and human concerns – which ground the title of the book –, many of the stories are linked to Willanski’s research for her Master of Arts degree ‘about the ways white Australians have written about (and for) Indigenous people’ and her discoveries about white people’s attitudes to Indigenous people, as she explains in her author’s note. As a result, in several stories characters ask each other or themselves whether they are racist, in others, white characters learn about Indigenous history or historical events affecting Aboriginal people.

In ‘Oak Trees in the Desert’, the narrator, an elderly white woman, is the only white woman attending an international women’s conference against radioactive racism with many indigenous delegates. The story addresses the universal problems of uranium and nuclear testing and is the most political. At the end of the conference the narrator has enough courage to disclose that her late husband worked at Maralinga. In ‘Karko’, children on a school excursion learn about the Ibis man who carried his nephew’s body down the coast, his tears creating a series of fresh water springs in the sand. In ‘Some Yellow Flowers’, a young man tells his girlfriend about the Maria shipwreck and the subsequent massacre of the surviving white colonists by local Aborigines.

All stories are set in South Australia – where the author lives and grew up –, mostly in remote places near the coast or in the country and she evokes the landscape very skilfully. All are written in spare prose, often with poetic and rhythmic elements, contemplative in nature, which contributes to giving them a haunting quality, as her creative writing mentor Brian Castro says in comments quoted on the book cover.

The first story in the collection, ‘My Good Thing’, illustrates these elements strongly. This is how it begins:

This is my daughter’s country. That mallee sea with the undulating dunes and the rockholes where we take her back to camp. Twice a year at least, but sometimes more. This is her house, hear near the sea where the bay sparkles beside one window and the mallee grows straight up to the back door. This is the yard where she plays. These are the dogs, her friends and guardians. These are her dark brown eyes, her chubby bronze hand on my pink freckled arm. These are her father’s eyes, her grandmother’s eyes, back to the Dreaming, looking out of a face just like mine. Her expressions are my expressions. I carried her, but she comes from this land.

The final story in the collection, ‘Some Yellow Flowers’, is the novella and requires a patient reader to solve the puzzle as to who is who. It interweaves two couples whose paths intersect: one elderly with a first-person narrator addressing their beloved, one young who have to decide whether to marry, written in third-person. Those who persevere with the puzzle will be rewarded with an emotionally affecting story about the meaning of love and the potential conflict between love and individual freedom. It hones in on the author’s preoccupation with the theme of women’s lives and how to resolve that tension between love and individual freedom, especially if there are children – or potential children – in the picture.

With the exception of ‘Oak Trees in the Desert’, the story about the international women’s conference against radioactive racism, which reads in part like a list of biographies of the delegates, each story in Here Where We Live provides much room for reflection about our own lives and our reactions to climate change and – for those who are white – our attitudes to Aboriginal people. Equally importantly, each is beautifully written.

To keep readers engaged, single-author collections mostly vary in voice, theme, setting, character preoccupations, etc, but Willanski’s Here Where We Live does not. So while I recommend the book, it is best not read sequentially.

  – Annette Marfording

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Annette Marfording is a writer, blogger and critic who lives in regional New South Wales. She was Program Director of the Bellingen Readers and Writers Festival until 2015. Her book Celebrating Australian Writing: Conversations with Australian Authorshttp://www.annettemarfording.com/celebrating-australian-writing/ features 21 in-depth conversations with Australian authors on central themes in their body of work, writing methods, central tips for aspiring writers and more. It is available in independent bookshops in Sydney and online at www.coop.com.au or http://www.lulu.com/shop/annette-marfording/celebrating-australian-writing/paperback/product-22192469.html. All profits from the sale of the book go to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation.

Here Where We Live is available from http://www.wakefieldpress.com.au/product.php?productid=1283

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A Life in Words: Gig Ryan launches ‘Your Scratch Entourage’ by Kris Hemensley

Gig Ryan launched Your Scratch Entourage by Kris Hemensley, Cordite Books 2016, at Collected Works Bookshop on Tuesday, December 13, 2016,

your-scratch-entourageReading  Kris’s book has been a great salutary reminder of what poetry can be, beautiful language under pressure of thought and emotion, commemorative, unpredictable, a life, in words. There is also the specific Englishness of the poems, the poet in nature, following from Wordsworth and Coleridge.  As he puts it in ‘Against Dread’ –  ‘Natural’ is all that knows itself without an artist’s contribution’. Kris could, at a stretch, be seen as part of the British Poetry Revival that occurred in the 1960s, partly as reaction against the so-called Movement poets, then seen as bleak and ‘uptight’, but much more he is a seminal figure in Australian poetry, as both poet and catalyst of the equivalent revival here. The title of this book, also the title of the elegy to Barry McSweeney who died in 2000,  reminds me a little of Jeremy Prynne, in its enticing ambiguity. Does it mean those who have gone before, one’s entourage that has since passed away, that is, those who have been scratched from the race?  Or is it scratch as adjective meaning assembled from whatever is available, a good definition of poetry, but in this case it is also rather modest, because the bits and pieces go back to Shakespeare, to Keats, and also to Olson and Creeley. Some of the poems here have been re-assembled, and revised, over a period of forty years, and yet how fresh they seem. One doesn’t read this book as a Selected Poems, tracing the poet’s development, or lack of, chronologically, yet it is also a type of selected, like an anatomical dissection where we see the layers of time and events. And although there is a looking back over time, there is more a re-inhabiting of time, a sense that all times exist at once, that all we experience is forever in us and with us, with all those colleagues who have died still being present in our poems. (Today I found, online,  a 1977 review of Hemensley, by Sydney University academic, James Tulip, and he mentions Kris’s postscript to The Poem of the Clear Eye, in which brothers in a fish and chip shop merge into the fisherman in the shop’s painting:  ‘They flow in and out of each other in Hemensley’s mind – his comedy of empathy’, Southerly, No. 2, 1977, ‘Towards an Australian Modernism: New Writings of Kris Hemensley’ https://nanojim.com/2016/12/08/towards-an-australian-modernism-new-writings-of-kris-hemensley/). There is certainly a ‘comedy of empathy’ in many poems here, and it is this moderating, and modulating, empathy that encapsulates Kris’s metaphysics.

Two long sequences pay homage to rather neglected poets F. T. Prince and Ivor Gurney, as well as to his late friend, poet Charles Buckmaster, who killed himself, aged 21, in 1972 (you can find some Buckmaster poems on John Tranter’s website, from his 1979 anthology The New Australian Poetry http://johntranter.net/as-an-editor/1979-the-new-australian-poetry/buckmaster/, see also Kris Hemensley on Charles Buckmaster https://rochfordstreetreview.com/2012/12/04/kris-hemensley-recalls-charles-buckmaster-on-the-40th-anniversary-of-his-death/) as well as to many painters, and Kris has inherited the mellifluousness that he praises in these poets, as in ‘Leaving Bridport with Ivor Gurney’, a poem with an irregular rhyming scheme that then folds into rhyming couplets at its end. Ivor Gurney died in 1937, so, that is, in the poet’s world, all is contemporaneous, and our forebears accompany us everywhere. In Kris’s poems alliteration abounds, and sound and rhythm are uppermost.

It’s plain the poet’s own name proxies this place
heralding a combination of bliss & pain
that only music can measure or contain –
since leaving Bridport no conversation
just a word half choked on between gasping gaze
& the first note of murmured disbelief
& the silence trapping beauty in its maze
in which life & death spark the self-same blaze.
……………………………….(‘Leaving Bridport with Ivor Gurney’)

The recurring place-names, the bluebells and other flowers, compose a genealogy of the poet himself – ‘They walked on air. / They’d brushed nettle and bluebell. They thanked / their lucky stars for such an English April.’ (‘In the middle of the world at war’)

As Lucas Weschke’s introduction describes, many poems are in a rough hexameter, creating a rhythm perfectly suited to the constant sense of wonder, as the poet moves forward through the world painting its beauty and surprises, both reassembling and forgiving the past. Such reconciliation is the core of the wonderful poem ‘Father’s Dark Ship’, with its tolling triplet end words ‘harbour’ / ‘darker’ / ‘failure’ resolving at its finish into ‘youth’ / ‘once’ / ‘earth’, and the final ‘again’.

One thing that Kris has continued from the late sixties is a life-affirming optimism, also apparent in his love of the patterns of words, the puns and connotations that each might have. Dark and darkness recur throughout, yet delight always glints through, delight in absurdity  – ‘what does day bring besides bad news? / why no fog to bolt up vision in its broom cupboard?’ (‘English Sweets, 2’), and ‘I travel the trains as tho’ in a stagecoach / or on the back of a recalcitrant angel / who can’t yet dispose of his love of the earth’ (‘English Sweets, 1’).

Especially significant are the last two sequences of sonnets ‘More Midsummer Night’s Dream than Dante’,  and ‘Harbour’, the first an anaphoric sequence of sonnets, with its titular first line introducing each sonnet, a sort of Stations of the Cross, describing moments of awakening into revelation (a little like Jennifer Maiden’s sequences, and it is important to remember that Kris and Robert Kenny were among the first to publish Maiden’s work)  – ‘Whether journey’s beginning or end / I couldn’t fathom it. Time’s classic double-cross. / Weirder fate’s plaything now instead of cocky host.’

The most remarkable quality of these poems is their lack of unifying irony that so many of us wear like a sort of glove-puppet, which too often disguises embarrassment at any emotion or ambition.  There is irony of course, but it doesn’t smother the poet’s intentions, doesn’t build a ring road for readers to manoeuvre through. Kris, with his harrowing honesty, doesn’t swerve from either emotion or ambition, but like Whitman, like Shakespeare, encompasses all – ‘Prince & hick. Groan and grin.’ (‘More Midsummer Night’s Dream than Dante’).

 – Gig Ryan

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Gig Ryan is a poet and freelance reviewer. She has published numerous books including New and Selected Poems (Giramondo, Australia, 2011); Selected Poems (Bloodaxe, UK, 2012); songs with Disband, Six Goodbyes (1988), Driving Past, Real Estate (1999) and Travel (2006).

Your Scratch Entourage by Kris Hemensleyis available from  http://corditebooks.org.au/products/your-scratch-entourage

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“The writer-narrator takes the reader by the hand”: Carmel Bird reviews ‘Napoleon’s Roads’ by David Brooks

Napoleon’s Roads by David Brooks (UQP, 2016).

napoleons_roads_david_brooksThirty years ago, I read a most wonderful collection of short fiction. I think I reviewed it. It was The Book of Sei by David Brooks. Since then, I have read most of David’s books. Reading Napoleon’s Roads was a bit like finding that, The Book of Sei had a glorious new compartment, to which I now had access.

On the last page of Napoleon’s Roads, the narrator says, that critics say the ‘writer’s’ books are “beautifully written, even haunting”, but that there is always some indefinable thing missing, an unspoken absence around which everything turns’. Note the ‘but’ in that sentence. It signifies that idea that those critics, are in some way, disappointed by, or afraid of, the ‘thing missing’. The stories of David Brooks can be read as turning on the mysterious thing, and many readers, myself included, celebrate the way the fiction is constructed around that thing. It’s death of course, un-named.

In the second, last story of the collection, ‘A Traveller’s Tale’, a narrator speaks directly to readers on the subject of how stories work. The tone is deliciously direct and instructive, and the story could be productively studied in fiction-writing courses. ‘I want you to think about that,’ says the narrator. The readers and the quiet voice are up close, as the narrator leads on to the moment when everyone must step out ‘into the wide world, the difficult terrain’ of the story which is ‘horrid, distressing, almost untellable’. Death, you see?

‘Is that what we came here for, to wander about in the shadowy streets of ourselves?’ These shadowy streets are the Dantesque internal and external pathways through which the fiction moves, the roads built by Napoleon’s men, the dreamscapes of the imagination, the ways to enter or to leave ‘the city’.

The first piece in the collection is one paragraph called, ‘Paths to Writing’. It signals the nature of what is to follow, invoking in poetic prose the hope that words can carry, and sometimes reveal, the deep information of the human heart. ‘A Traveller’s Tale’ contains a magnificent short discussion of the word ‘heart’. The heart is one of the ‘most durable organs of the body’ but the word is so often metaphoric; the centre of love, the heart that ‘in the human mind’ is ‘heart-shaped’. The narrator explains that, when the word is being used in the tale, the word ‘heart’ is an amalgam of the organ and the metaphor. So information, messages, move across the collection, holding the reader’s hand for the journey, sometimes letting go.

Threaded throughout is a signposting image of birds, those manifestations of the soul, harbingers of doom, messengers of hope. As I read, there seemed to be a lot of doves, but in fact when I counted, I found there were only four, plus one that was ‘almost dove’. That one stopped me in my tracks.

‘Lost Pages’ concerns a writer whose work constantly fragments and disappears. Here the storyteller has an idea of writing something ‘about The Language of Birds’, the medieval language of the troubadours. He doesn’t of course, but other characters in other stories see and hear birds, all kinds of birds. ‘Swan’ is a particularly elegant tale of longing, ending with the image of a man’s rumpled bed where in the morning, a ‘bird-like shape has formed itself’ among the sheets.

One of the most delicious (if I may, borrow the word from the restaurant review) stories is ‘Ten Short Pieces’. These tiny jewels flash across the reader’s mind like exquisite samplings of what might be said, or meant, or stated, or missed in the longer stories. The narrator-writer thinks of himself as ‘a man at a table in a workshop’, making a shoe, mending a watch, saying ‘over and over, what lines he has in the hope that one of these lines will run on, will spill over into something he has not yet imagined’. Now this is a description of how a writer works. Again, this little piece, consisting of only two sentences, is perfect for offering to students of writing. Not to mention, the pleasure of coming to the end of the long, second sentence, only to learn that the tools the writer finds in his cupboard might be ‘a piece of sheepsong or the end of a shower of rain, an owl.’ Note the last comma. Brilliant.

The word ‘sheepsong’ took me back to David’s 1990 collection titled, Sheep and the Diva – opening a doorway backwards into the apartment building of the work. Somehow, it does seem sometimes to be a vast building, or perhaps a city, through which the writer-narrator takes the reader by the hand. Dante again, I suppose. Sometimes, there is a burst through, into bright freedom ‘breaking through a veil of green words’, and sometimes (six times, actually) there is a dark image of a panther in a cage, pacing.

The story, ‘Napoleon’s Roads, begins with the panther, and the final story, ‘The Panther’, ends with the writer-narrator standing before a painting of a panther. Here, the collection ends:

‘I can see him there, in the shadows.
He does not look at me.’

I want to conclude by referring to the story, ‘Grief’, which is one, along with, ‘The Dead’, that is concerned, perhaps most openly, with mortality. This story ends with the effect of a man saying the Rosary at a funeral: ‘the fright and confusion become dignity, music moving through us in a kind of praise, making us instruments, wind, clay vessels, a kind of brooding bird, almost dove.’

-Carmel Bird

Purchase Napoleon’s Roads by David Brooks
Read a sample of Napoleon’s Roads
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Carmel Bird is the winner of the 2016 Patrick White Literary Award. Her most recent books are the novel, Family Skeleton (2016) and the short story collection, My Hearts Are Your Hearts (2015).

Teasing Threads – Sundry Film and Literary Criticism: Ecce Laptop

Chris Palazzolo meditates on 21st century citizenship.

Image result for kiss me deadly imagesThere is a certain type of Buddhist meditation which aims to reduce our perceptions to a kind of non-judgemental screen; the world flows in through our senses – we hear it, we see it, we smell it – but our minds make no judgement about it; it is unshackled from language (silence), and all moral evaluations are suspended. Only at the more mystical margins of early Christianity was such meditative nihilism practised (before its eradication in the 4th century), and it wasn’t until the late 19th century that Western philosophers developed a scientific equivalent known as phenomenology.

A practitioner of these ‘mind-cleansing’ practices will confront a set of challenges unique to the world they inhabit. The Buddhist monk in 400 BCE suspended judgement on the cold of snow, the wind off the Himalayas, the words of passing wayfarers, etc. The phenomenologist, in his study in 1911, suspended judgement on a world of human artifice – walls, ceilings, furniture, radio, a phonograph (Thomas Mann called the phonograph a sarcophagus of music). The 21st century practitioner will be suspending judgement on a very strange world indeed.

As a 21st century Australian citizen and global consumer, I can imagine myself as this practitioner. Given a 12 hour period of ‘phenomenological consciousness’ what would I ‘observe’? Or, to put it another way, what does 21st century phenomena do across that horizon of exterior and interior Husserl called epoché? My first observation would be that a large amount of phenomena is computer generated signs. Vast, oceanic amounts of signs – images, text and sounds, ceaselessly changing – emanating from a sleek little machine perched on my lap. The thinking processes that decipher these signs must ceaselessly change too. The second observation would be my Thought (logos) about this thinking – that this same destructuring thinking (the rhizomatic, ‘thinking outside the square’ thinking of Silicon Valley) is what informs the enormous industries that manufactured this machine.

Ecce Laptop, that personalised global sign node that more and more of us are obliged to use for our daily bread. Most of us have neither the time nor the inclination to practice Buddhist meditation or phenomenological reduction, and so we have to make do with the ceaselessly alarmed, enraged and distracted thinking that attends any internet browse. All the things we do on this little machine; our banking, bill paying, form filling and socialising (email, social media), means that it is now an electronic synapse of our citizenship. Among other things it relieves us of the need to do many of these citizenly things in the presence of other citizens. The destructuring thinking which is the mode of thinking required to operate it, then runs the risk of becoming solipsistic as it seeks to fix a ruling sign on that exhausting inflow of in-formation signs. The human mind craves rest in the same way the body does. It finds this rest in structure. So in the structureless imminence of cyberspace there is no rest. The easiest ruling sign for the tired mind to latch onto is some kind of ideology. The world torments me; terrorists are going to cut my throat, hot singles get more sex than me, robots are going to take my job. What better way to stop all the changing by giving it a grand Meaning, connecting it all up to one evil cause whose sole purpose is to ruin me and my kind (which is just Me as well – logos)? I can rest then. The world is ruled by evil, but I and my kind are good. The day of reckoning will come. But here’s the thing: because the laptop, like a synapse, is an interactive device, the net absorbs the solipsistic struggle of the operator, turns it into more signs, which are then whipped by algorithms into ideological feeds coming back up the synapse. As recent world events have shown, a myriad of these sign-struggles clump together into profoundly unstable ideological blocs, hurtling around cyberspace, destroying civic identities and turning elections. Perhaps we all need to feel to the wind of the Himalayas on our faces.

 – Chris Palazzolo

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Teasing Threads is Chris Palazzolo, novelist and poet, editor at Regime Books in Perth, radio host on 6EBA FM North Perth, and was, until recently, manager of one of the last video shops in the world.

“Echoes, hauntings and play”: Lucy Wilks reviews ‘Bull Days’ by Tina Giannoukos

Bull Days by Tina Giannoukos. Arcadia, Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2016.

bull-daysIn her second collection of poetry, Bull Days, Tina Giannoukos elaborates on the dyad of the lover and the beloved, a relationship she guides through a cycle of fifty-eight sonnets, each more than equal to the exigencies of the form. Giannoukos nuances both the mutability and the steadfastness of love, its vows and caprices buoyed on thematic waves that break afresh in contrapuntal procession. This is a work of great finesse and accomplishment, daring in its navigation of the inconceivable, and plaintive at times with the spectre of a love welcomed into the life of the word at the very moment of the lover’s bereavement. The poems move with grace and proportion, euphoniously lamenting and celebrating this capacious and sometimes wraith-like affection, its lineaments ranging from the querulous and wearisome to the tender and marvellous. The poet salutes, resonates within, and invigorates a lyric tradition whose history informs her transfigurations, all the while staying open to a more contemporary idiom, the fusion handled with poise and a supple, writerly discipline.

The poems play with what Carole Birkan Berz (2014) calls the ‘iconicity’ of the sonnet, asking profound ontological questions at the very limits of what language makes possible. Describing an arc across time and space (mediated by a number of bird poems), they proceed through what Annie Finch (2009) terms ‘energy and containment, development and resting’ to a dialectical and speculative synthesis. In ‘LV’, a poem of equivocation and conjecture, the speaker asks, ‘what if / […] it’s the impossibility / of our being which troubles me more than our love.’ The play of iconicity and iconoclasm, of presence and absence, results in ‘another try at the impossible’, the success of which is attributable to the efficacy of the book’s underlying conceit.

As a sequence, the cycle manifests a ‘gestalt’ (Birkan Berz 2014) whereby the whole, greater than the sum of its parts, is rendered haunting and inexhaustible. Yet individual poems stand their ground, each evidence of this same dynamic writ small, and each teeming with its own expansiveness. Proliferating with variable connotation, the poems inhabit one another, evincing a spectral narrative beneath their elegant modulation. This narrative is one of both mutual reference, with words repeating across sonnets, and a going beyond such reference, by virtue of the subtle differences in the echoic inflection of the shared image that the words evoke. For example, the ‘gorgeous’ in ‘the gorgeous girls line up’ (‘XXXIX’) both informs and is quite other than that in ‘as if gorgeous beings, imitating / my dance, intend my imitation of them’ (‘LVIII’). Music, extremes of temperature, the conjunction of heavenly bodies, nature, and the power of the withheld name each constitute a substrate whose continuity is expressed fugally, each element taking on new tonal colours as new verbal environments and instruments adopt it.

From the opening poem the reader is witness to a love of vast amplitude and intensity, figured by the image of a cornucopian boundlessness, and made all the more striking by the measured tone and deft restraint in use of phrase and archetype. Here the beloved is a centaur who will appear to the speaker as she sails ‘across the empty doom’ (‘I’). Chronicling vicissitude and vagary with a light and playful touch, the cycle moves from an explosive detonation of love, as momentous and mysterious as the creation of the universe, through to disillusionment, imprecation and alienation. Love may be squalid, the lover a saboteur, or the dyad grievously denied, as in ‘XXX’, where ‘I saw the grief in your eyes when they took away / our silks and red cloth.’ The cycle ends with an invocation to ‘sleep in sea’s crooked arm, a starfish’ (‘LVIII’), and recapitulates the motifs of voyaging and subjection to the gods found earlier.

Giannoukos honours and disrupts an enduring and accommodating tradition whose lineage spans from Giacomo da Lentini (1210 – 1260), the Italian poet credited with the invention of the sonnet, to Ted Berrigan (1934 – 1983), a prominent member of the second generation of the New York School of Poets, and beyond. She titles the poems with Roman numerals, and in so doing, plays with linearity and its subversion, while also alluding obliquely to Shakespeare’s sonnets. Both as tribute and in their refusal to reproduce ‘the voice ventriloquised for [women] by men’ (Padel 2002, p.42), the poems enact a departure from the mainstream sonnet. They manifest what Jeff Hilson (Birkan Berz 2014) calls a ‘radical defamiliarisation’ of its scope and capabilities. ‘XVIII’, a call and response poem in multiple voices, ends with a witty, self-reflexive volta that deflates and undermines the propositional bombardment of the preceding thirteen lines, all the while intensifying their irony:

Give them subscriptions to porn. Get ‘em goin’!
The private is the domain of the public. That’s right!
Tell ‘em sex is good. Don’t panic. It’s a ruse!
Is this the Sapphic line? O Sweet! O Love!

The strength of this collection stems from each poem ‘bend[ing] the form to its own will, instead of obligingly succumbing to the form’s demands’, as Rachel Richardson (2013) writes of the contemporary sonnet. Giannoukos invents her own constraints, her novel use of punctuation (or its absence), of enjambment and internal assonance furthering what the sonnet can achieve. ‘[N]ew things’, writes Ruth Padel (2002, p.17), ‘come from breaking old ones. That is how a poetic tradition moves forward: it risks itself to maintain itself.’ In Giannoukos’s hands, the form becomes malleable and ghost-like, a submerged backbone for her linguistically innovative play. Interestingly, she uses both the word ‘risks’ (‘XV’) and ‘ghosts’ (‘XXXIII’), and accommodates both old and new in her vocabulary, the ‘bounty’ in ‘LVIII’, ‘glee’ in ‘III’ and ‘Behold’ in ‘XXXVI’ resting well with the ‘über-humans’ in ‘XXXVII’ and the ‘zilch’ in ‘V’. In ‘LVI’, registers as variable as the musical (‘My music’s no match for your melos’), the scientific (‘We count nerve cells. Measure the minutes’), the imploring (‘Give me what’s mine or a reprieve, life’), and the metatextual (‘These shifts in mood are impossible to endure’) coexist harmoniously.

Giannoukos uses variable line lengths and metres, giving the poems a music which plays rubato, in rhythms of flexible and spacious emphasis. Even where end rhyme is used, the rhyme may be visual, as in ‘XXIX’, where ‘[…] all despondent, the die / cast, men ramble about daughters and a son / intent on crushing all remaining dreams. / You propose instead one more drink, all bon- / homie. Pinot Gris, your pick’, or on the unstressed syllable, ‘Macho’ with ‘virago’ in ‘XXI’. Furthermore, where the poet does employ iambic pentameter, it may be ironic, as in ‘XLVIII’, where ‘I lose the rhythm, bop a pantomime’, or quite transcending any metronomic stringency, as in the beautifully modulated ‘The tongue of love tastes tough in these bull days’ (‘II’). Elegiac, ecstatic and witty, the poems move in and out of each other. Their polyvocal echoes, hauntings, playfulness, and risks are emblems inscribed in the fabric of the text, as well as descriptors of the poetics at work. In this sense they ‘interrogate’, ‘what [the] poem is doing, from inside it’ (Padel 2002, p.44).

The beloved is not portrayed as the idealised paragon encountered in some quarters of the tradition, but rather is the pivot for a response to, and questioning of, the sonnet tradition as much as the lyrical, enacted from within. ‘XXIII’, paralleling Shakespeare’s sonnet ‘CXXX’, where he begins ‘My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun’, addresses a beloved with ‘degenerate’ eyes, the speaker’s quest for him arising from her desire for a Corybantic communion (the Corybants were the wild attendants of the goddess Cybele, who performed elaborate dances in her honour). Exquisitely and voluptuously the diction stretches into a hyperlyrical meditation, kept just within the bounds of equilibrium by a finely wrought and chiselled virtuosity, fusing the simple with the exotic in images of singular beauty. In luscious and sensuous language the speaker disavows the ‘luscious youth’ with the ‘sensuous fringe’ in favour of the greying and ‘weathered’ older man.

The metrical fluidity of ‘I searched for your image in the disc before my eyes’ (two amphibrachs, one anapest and two iambs) recalls Alexander Pope’s dictum: ‘True ease in writing comes from art, not chance,/ as those move easiest who have learn’d to dance’ (Barnstone, 2016). The iambic pentameter of the final line, ‘It is / in contemplation that I know us best’, both seals the poem and restores, at least in spirit, the absent beloved to the lover. Interestingly, Giannoukos echoes Shakespeare, using the word ‘rare’ in relation to the beloved, ‘The dark curls, like a rare fringe’ referencing and playing with Shakespeare’s ‘And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare / As any she belied with false compare.’

Different echoes are encountered in the poems which inhabit the interstices between eros and thanatos, where love is haunted by echoes of death, and death by echoes of love. The speaker in following love’s course says in ‘II’, ‘I begin the long march in death’s dominion’, and in ‘LIII’, ‘I feel / the pulse of your breath as quick on my skin / as the fevered pulsations of a dying man.’ Elsewhere there is a more brutal echo of death, particularly in the poems that refract the dyad through the metaphor of the bull fight, in which the beloved as matador by necessity betrays the lover as bull. A gender ambiguity permeates these poems, as do ambiguities of voice and time. In ‘XX’, the bull as speaker asks:

What trophy to keep? My ears, my tail, my hooves?
No, throw my body parts to your sweetheart.
I hope she hurls flowers at you for it.
The crowd will wave handkerchiefs.

The bull anticipates the blade through its heart, its evisceration for the glory of the beloved. Through the use of the caesura and the imperative, the poet creates a staccato, emphatic sense of high tension as the contest plays out its potentially ineluctable end.

The ironic play of death and resurrection is hauntingly captured in ‘XLVI’. Here the Venusian volta, preceded by the taunts and bellowing of the rabble, is tempered by a picture of earthly ruin. The poem leads us to ask where is love’s congregation now, now that the face of light is hidden and the places of worship razed by time, neglect or nature:

I am a skygazer. I am witness to your
eclipse. The blue glow of your beauty
beatifies heaven. I gather myself
around me in horror. In the old temple
love-astrologers hand out business cards.
They spy you parachuting into Mongolia.
How you blacken the sun! It burns with a fiery rim.
This is the time of fear. It grows cold.

The moon bites the sun. Oh the crowd jeers!
It masks the sun. Oh the mob roars! Oh how
people rear their heads like the huge cobra!
In the glow of the dark Venus shone again
on the fallen stones and collapsed columns
of the ancient temples and on the eroded rocks.

Other figures of play also feature prominently in these poems. The ‘game of hearts’ in ‘III’, to which the speaker may or may not be equal, plays with a music that in ‘XXVII’ makes her ‘bountiful’, inheres in a ‘masquerade of teasing love-note, / where two quake on a crater’s perimeter’ (‘XXIX’), or makes us ‘conjure the sour acrimony / of two wearied by the thing dividing them’ (‘XXIV’). By the end, in ‘LVIII’, the speaker says, ‘I’m still gambling on signs, as if the gods / might yet sprinkle blessings and bounty over me’. Play may thus denote the innocent sport of affectionate largesse, a dissembling and perilous banter, the bitter fruit of schism, a wager on true or false portents, or a sexual dalliance, as in ‘V’, where the speaker says, ‘To know you played / me twice holds the truth I won’t / name: it was for zilch. I’m out.’

This refusal to name, which occurs elsewhere in the book, points to the unsayable, and to a speaker engaged in a recurrent working at the limits of utterance, crossing the threshold beyond which nothing can be said, and bearing in her train an array of ironic utterances. In ‘LIII’ she says, ‘Without / words to describe the colour of my love– / deep as the emerald I covet in the jeweller’s window– / I am helpless to offer reparation.’ Giannoukos alerts the reader both to the semantic insufficiency of the utterance, the divestment of language of any claim to adequacy in matters of love, and to the paradoxical challenge afforded by the apt simile. Similarly, in ‘XXVII’, a poem of love’s expansion and contraction, the anadiplosis or concatenation of ‘this’, and its use both as a pronoun and as an adjective, serve to render it able to be spoken in proliferating ways, thus showing the power of the rhetorical device:

The temperature of your love is changing.
It breaks my heart: there are no words for this.

How do I know? Because you have done this before.
Your love has always been a desert of climatic extremes.
My love for you cannot flourish in this chasm:
ecstatic in its reach it turns scornful in sorrow.

My love becomes extinct. Nothing compares with this.
This rubble of stone is all that remains of its immensity.

If ‘form should have an organic relation to sense, not merely be the vase into which content is poured’, as Tony Barnstone (2016) says, then Giannoukos styles her sonnets organically. Indeed, the words of the speaker in ‘XLII’ may be taken as her aesthetic credo: ‘Fill up / this jug with the amethyst liquid / of wild vines civilised in vineyards.’ With consummate craft Giannoukos adapts the sonnet’s form into a series of shapely, diversely contoured, amphora-like vessels, into which is distilled a nectar ‘civilised’ in the poetic tradition or ‘vineyard’. Han Yu (Barnstone 2016) stated that, the poet in the ‘chains’ of the sonnet may be said to ‘dance’. In a multiplicity of voices, moods, textures and transitions, she asks the reader to query the identity of the lover (woman, man or heavenly envoy) and the beloved (man, woman, centaur or God), whether they are singular or plural, and whether their very being is possible at all. In its entirety, Bull Days is a living opus of interdependent parts, communing through sonic reflexion, the vision of the spectral, a ludic and rhapsodic poetics of rapture and fellow-feeling, and elegiac tilts at the problem of the impossible in language, surmounted rhetorically by an overarching and richly polyphonic conceit.

-Lucy Wilks

Purchase Bull Days by Tina Giannoukos

Reference list

Barnstone, T. 2016, A manifesto on the contemporary sonnet: a personal aesthetics, The Cortland Review, 9 December, viewed 26 November 2016, <http://www.cortlandreview.com/features/06/december/barnstone_e.html>.

Birkan Berz, C. 2014, ‘Mapping the contemporary sonnet in mainstream and linguistically innovative late 20th– and early 21st– century British poetry’, Études Britanniques Contemporaines-Revues.org, No. 46, viewed 26 November 2016, <https://ebc.revues.org/1202>.

Finch, A. 2009, ‘Chaos in fourteen lines: reformations and deformations of the sonnet’, Contemporary Poetry Review, viewed 26 November 2016, <http://www.cprw.com/Misc/finch2.htm>.

Padel, R. 2002, 52 ways of looking at a poem or how reading modern poetry can change your life, Chatto & Windus, London.

Richardson, R, 2013, Learning the sonnet: A history and how-to guide to the famous form, Poetry Foundation, Chicago, 29 August, viewed 26 November 2016, <https://www.poetryfoundation.org/resources/learning/articles/detail/70051>.

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Lucy Wilks
is a Melbourne-based poet whose work has appeared in Verse, Meanjin, Southerly, Rabbit, Otoliths, Plumwood Mountain and Cordite.