Issue 6: November 2012 – February 2013 Contents

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Two Visual Poems by Cornelis Vleeskens from his book ” A h ! “ Redfox Press 2011 (http://www.redfoxpress.com/dada-vleeskens.html). Thanks to Katherine Blackwell for the use of these images.

A Voice Caged in Paper: Les Wicks reviews ‘Private Conversations Vol 2’ by Cameron Hindrum

Private Conversations Vol 2 by Cameron Hindrum. Walleah Press, 2012.

private conversations

Cameron Hindrum is a familiar figure amongst the slam community, a big presence both on the stage and physically. He has comparatively recently ventured into the world of words on paper with his novel the Blue Cathedral published in 2011.

I always expect a lot from Walleah Press, a bright light in what can be a narrow, dark poetry tunnel. They publish mostly, but not exclusively, Tasmanian work. As usual the production and design of Private Conversations are first rate. It is a 32 page chapbook with space to spare, I did wonder, however, why they went with the two-volume chap book model.

There is so much to like about this book. Hindrum’s is an openhearted voice capable of the belly laugh, freely given love and shared poignancy. If Australian poetry needs a medical plan to treat its chronic disease, this inclusive veracity will clearly be a core part of the treatment regime. Language is appropriately simple and clear.

Poems like “Zen Suite” gleam:

a footstep
is a map
of all things

“Driving East” finishes:

All things drift towards the water:
By the water, find the beach.
It’s of no importance that
The horizon’s always out of reach.

“Good Manners” is a delightful study of a visiting Japanese woman. Hindrum deftly works with the dissonance between the expected, clichéd mannerism of a different culture, her politeness, to the piercing on Koyuki’s throat (which also works as a marvellous metaphor for her limitations in English). Towards the end there’s a brilliant play on both her tackling of Western language/mores and a jibe at Japanese whaling:

At dinner I watch her harpoon
a California Roll with
an expertly-handled chopstick

so much achieved in so few words, so unforced.

Consistently over decades I have seen adept page poets murder their work on stage through arrogance,laziness, sheer incompatibility or incapacity. Conversely, many of the leading performance poets fail to make the transition to the printed page. They are not mutually exclusive mediums, but each requires a certain critical mindset to be applied. Many poets who straddle both mediums will say that certain pieces can be performed regularly but will not appear in any book. Other works would almost never be read out loud. From a slam poet like Hindrum the challenge really was to look again at all his work and make sure they function on the printed page. “On explaining the facts of life to a six-year-old” and “On finding 20,000-year-old footprints near Lake Mungo, NSW” are examples of work that generously reward both the reader and the audience equally. But this doesn’t apply to all pieces with a little lazy language detracting from otherwise engaging narratives. “Love poem for Jack and Sylvia” was a joy to read but the constant repetition of the word old, while I saw it working phonically, just served as a dragging chain on paper for me.

Having said this I return to my core point that this is a book well worth reading and possibly more importantly a book that makes one hungry for Hindrum’s next.

– Les Wicks

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Les Wicks has toured widely and seen publication across 16 countries in 9 languages. His 10th book of poetry is Barking Wings (PressPress, 2012 http://www.presspress.com.au/Wicks.html). This year he will be performing at the world’s biggest poetry festival in Medellin. http://leswicks.tripod.com/lw.htm

Private Conversations Vol 2 is available from Walleah Press http://www.walleahpress.com.au/recent.html or http://walleahpress.com.au/garradunga/?tcp_product=private-conversations-volume-2-cameron-hindrum

Music and Words: Mark Roberts previews ‘Seven Stations – in any order – a love poem for Sydney’. A song cycle by poet Chris Mansell and composer Andrew Batt-Rawden

Seven Stations – in any order – a love poem for Sydney. A song cycle by poet Chris Mansell and composer Andrew Batt-Rawden. Alison Morgan (voice and thumb piano), Anna Fraser (voice), Ezmi Pepper (cello), Joe Manton (bass), Josh Hill (percussion), Stefan Duwe (viola), Acacia Quartet (string quartet), Andrew Batt-Rawden (voice and conductor). 7pm, Friday 01 March, 2013 at the Music Workshop, Sydney Conservatorium of Music

Stations Banner  600  x 357 pxReading the press release for Seven Stations – in any order – a love poem for Sydney, a song cycle for mixed ensemble and electronics by Andrew Batt-Rawden (composer) and Chris Mansell (poet), prompted two very early childhood memories.

The first was catching a train into the city with my mother. I must have been very young, it was well before I started school. I can remember waiting on the platform at Meadowbank station and watching a stream train fly through the station (yes I am that old!). Later, after the boarding the ‘red rattler’ there was the wonderful electric smell, the shuddering of the carriage, the rattling of the windows and the rhythm of the wheels on the track. After leaving Burwood the train curved towards the city. If you looked down you could see into backyards full of vegetables and washing lines, looking up you could see the city getting closer and closer. As the train approached Central it dropped down below the level of the other lines and criss-crossed under what looked like ancient brick aqueducts. Then, suddenly after leaving Central the train disappeared under a building into a dark noisy tunnel – only to emerge at Town Hall station where my mother and I climbed the stairs to emerge in the heart of Sydney.

The second memory is from much the same time. Growing up as a Catholic Easter was an interesting time for a child. There was lots of chocolate, but there was also the solemn Catholic Easter rituals. Good Friday was especially busy as there was Stations of the Cross in the morning and the Solemn Good Friday Mass (which went for ever!) in the afternoon. The Stations of the Cross was much more exciting. It was an easy narrative, there were pictures on the wall and the priest walked around the church telling a story – while it was a particular bloody and distressing story, it was one which I seemed to already be very familiar with – and there was lots of music. Many years later, as a long term lapsed Catholic, I returned to St Mary’s Cathedral for Stations of the Cross to hear the Cathedral Choir sing Miserere Mei Deus. It was a very moving experience.

While it seemed perfectly natural for me to make the connection between train stations and stations of the cross, I’m not sure it is a connection that others will easily make (particularly if they are not from Catholic or High Anglican background). Going a little deeper, however, there is something of a secular ritual about Seven Stations – We are taken on a tour of Sydney’s CBD train stations (though it appears this particular train does not stop at Wynard or Martin Place). At each station we hear a different response to the station, its history, its surroundings and the people who pass through it (and one of the stations is called ‘Kings Cross’).

Andrew Batt-Rawden

Andrew Batt-Rawden

It is perhaps a little surprising that there is not more collaboration between poets and composers. At first glance it would appear to be a natural extension of both the poet’s and composer’s work – in each case one should be enriched by the other. In reality, however, things can be a little different. For the poet (and I am coming from a writing background), the music adds another layer of complexity. The poet is working with the internal rhythm of the lines, wondering when to break a line, whether to use this word or that, understanding how the words/lines will look on the page. While they will also be working on the ‘sound’ of the poem, of how the poem will sound either read aloud/performed or the internal sound when it is read silently on the page, the addition of music can take the poem in a very different direction. The poem has suddenly lost any pretence of being self-contained – it is now part of something larger. The rhythm of the poem can be disrupted by an external rhythm, the words take on different sounds, even different meanings, in the context of the music it is now a part of.

For the composer I’m sure the task is no less difficult. On one level the poem becomes another instrument to write for – there are different ways for each word to be sung, the poem becomes part of the musical text, it is notated into a different language.

It is also a different task for a listener/reader. The reader of a poem brings their own context to the work, they respond to it and to an extent they make it their own. They can read it fast or slow, they can emphasise some words and let others almost disappear. When a poet reads or performs a poem that level is taken away. The poet/performer now controls many of the subtleties but it is still the words that convey most (but not all) of the impact.

Adding music into this mix muddies the waters even further. For most pop/rock/popular music I would argue that the words are still key, the lyrics of a pop song sit on top of the music, the beat may drive it but it is the singer, in most cases, who fronts the band. When we look at jazz, however, the relationship can start to blur. The voice begins to take on more of the attributes on an instrument and there is generally more interaction between the voice and the other instruments. This becomes even more apparent when we turn to classical music. On one level the voice is another instrument and the ‘sound’ may be as critical to the success of the piece as the meaning of the words.

So trying to preview the premier of a new song cycle for, voice mixed ensemble and electronics is problematic if all you have are the words of the song. Fortunately, in the case of Seven Stations – in any order – a love poem for sydney, one of the pieces, ‘Town Hall’, was previously performed as part of a Chronology Arts program in Newtown last August.

Town Hall (the station), we are told, is the second busiest station on the NSW rail network (Central is the busiest) and this is reflected in both the music and the words of the piece. The music begins with a frantic percussive cacophony which echoes the metal on metal sound of an underground train which slowly blends into a repetitive horn which suggests the traffic chaos of the city above the station. We are at once placed into the middle of the city. Then a few seconds of silence – perhaps reflecting the moment of calm between trains – before the city returns.

SStations cover grabWhile the words on the page also reflect this slightly frantic edge – In particular the way “I am” is repeated throughout the piece emphasises the repetition that takes place every time the train door opens as well as echoing the musical reference to the sound of the train wheels on the track – it is when we hear the words sung as part of the piece that we can begin to appreciate the value of this collaboration. In the recording I have heard Alison Morgan ( Soprano) and Jenny Duck-Chong (Mezzo Soprano) provide the words with depth, their voices sometimes weaving around each other, multiplying Mansell’s repetition, at other times complimenting each other, pushing the words out ahead of the music demanding our attention (“look at me!”).

Read in isolation from the music, Mansell’s text hints at different aspects of the station and its surroundings. It is linked to the Queen Victoria Shopping Centre and reference is made to the statue of the old Queen:

I am the Queen…….. Victoria
…………….reigning still
…………………over retail

in perhaps the strongest image of the piece the past history of the station site as a colonial cemetery is recalled in the next lines as the dead Queen becomes:

the white dark witch
………blessing
…..and cursing
….the newborn

……breaching
from the underground

In ‘Town Hall’ we can see evidence of the successful collaboration between Batt-Rawden’s music and Mansell’s words. Batt-Rawden’s manages to take Mansell’s text and makes it work on another level. It is a different experience to reading the words on the page – richer, but more demanding of the listener/reader.………..

I recently asked Chris Mansell how the collaboration with Andrew worked her reply suggested that it was a trusting collaboration where both parties were willing to let the other take the running at different times:

We worked both collaboratively and in isolation. We had meetings beforehand, swapping ideas, swapping sounds (I’d recorded train sounds), swapping music (Andrew giving me an idea of the sorts of things he liked). Despite the disparity in our ages, we were on the same wavelength creatively. Andrew is very energetic and likes to take risks musically. I didn’t want to hold on too tight to the words – I wanted to give him room to move. I wasn’t going to stand over his shoulder – that way it’s not a true collaboration, it’s one person trying to impose their will on another. You get better results if you can be surprised when you collaborate.

Reading through the text of the other 6 stations (“We adore Thee, O Christ, and bless Thee”) I became slowly aware of the potential of the complete song cycle. The text is playful at times – the title ‘Getting off at Redfern’ hinting at the old Australian (or at least Sydney based) colloquialism – or the reference in ‘Sydney Terminal’ to “the fruiting towns/ (Orange, Berry….)”

Seven Stations in any order – love poems for Sydney promises to be an event of some importance. Its first performance will take place at 7pm, Friday 01 March, 2013 at the Music Workshop, Sydney Conservatorium of Music, NSW. Lets hope it is the first of many performances and may there be many more collaborations between poets and composers.

– Mark Roberts

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Mark Roberts is a Sydney based writer and critic. He currently edits Rochford Street Review and P76 Magazine.

The text/poems for Seven Stations – in any order – a love poem for Sydney is available from Chris Mansell’s website http://www.chrismansell.com/Home.html

Information on Andrew Batt-Rawden can be found at the Chronology website http://www.chronologyarts.net/content/andrew-batt-rawden. A recording of ‘Town Hall’ can be found on Andrew’s SoundCloud page https://soundcloud.com/abattrawden.

Bookings for Seven Stations – in any order – a love poem for Sydney can be made at http://www.trybooking.com/Booking/BookingEventSummary.aspx?eid=39238

Sweet flesh of memory: Mark Roberts reviews Burning Rice by Eileen Chong

Burning Rice by Eileen Chong. Australian Poetry Limited, 2012.

burning rice
The title poem of Eillen Chong’s first collection of poetry, ‘Burning Rice’, refers to the different amounts of water needed to cook rice. Brown rice needs more than twice the amount of water to cook than white rice. In this instance the poet has miscalculated, forgetting to put in the extra water for brown rice:

…….I smelt the charring
then saw: scorched rice like black gold,

The impact of the burnt rice, however, goes beyond the inconvenience of having to throw out the charred grains, clean the pot and start again. The cooking of the rice is the last step in a long process which, to Chong, is almost spiritual:

‘Planting rice is never fun’ – generations
of men, women and children ankle-deep
in padi fields, bent double at the waist,
immersing seedlings day after day

Finally, the harvest: sharp scythes glinting
in the afternoon sun,….

There is a connection between the burnt grains of rice stuck to a pot and the long process of growing and processing the grains. In fact the connection is even deeper for it is not just the process that produced these grains but the generations who have planted and harvested the rice over years. So, in the last line the burning of the rice becomes almost a betrayal of tradition and family:

my ancestors’ ashes in a bowl

It is this connection between the present and the memory of a culturally disparate past, that lies at the centre of the best poems in this connection. For Chong the connection is often difficult, stretched across time, place and culture – but for the most part she manages to maintain and celebrate the richness of this difference.

In ‘Kelong’ this memory is driven by photographs in a album. Perhaps it is a constructed memory, based on the stories the poet has been told about the photos, as these are things she could not know first hand:

My mother smiles at the camera. Her cheeks push
against her glasses and her belly strains with me.

The series of photos in the poem record three generations (the unborn poet, her parents and grandparents) fishing off a jetty, cleaning and cooking their catch. In the final stanza the memory becomes real as chong places herself firmly in the poem, claiming the memory as her own:

I am there as dusk falls, when my grandmother steams

the orange fish in a wok, when my granfather picks out
the eyes with his chopsticks. I can taste the sweet flesh
even as I caress the outline of its carcass…….

The fish has become the link with the past, the ‘carcass’ of a memory, perhaps the earliest physical link the poet has with her family. The ‘”sweet flesh” another layer of memory that the poem has added on top of the original photographs.

This layered memory is also critical to the longest poem in the collection ‘Shophouse Victoria Street’. Here the poet has grown up surrounded by the ordinary domestic activities of generations living in the same space:

My father, dark-haired and pale-bodied, cradles me.
I wear a silk suit with brocade booties and a crooked
smile. On special days I cannot predict, my mother heaves
a large kettle onto the stove and then pours a stream of hot water

into the deep tiled trough. We scoop and pour
scrub and wash. Outside, my grandmother bends over
the black sewing machine. Under the trestle table
her foot pedals out a rhythm.

But Chong’s generation is the last to be born and live here. We are given no explanation beyond:

Family by family, like bees gone mad
we fled the nest

Only Great Grandmother remains, the only reason the family returns to visit until she dies alone “in the upstairs room”. There is a measured grief to this poem, a bitter-sweet memory of an old house, in another country, another culture. It is also a poem where a major break occurs. This is where generations of her family lived, the poem traces the richness of this memory, but also of the break – the great grandmother is left in the old place while the rest of the family swarm like bees trying to find a new home. The funeral that concludes the poem accounces the end – and sugests a new beginning.

There is sense in many of the poems in this collection of the poet making a statement – these are my memories, this is my history, this is my poetry. It is strong statement, well made.

Chong’s poetry is vividly descriptive, at times her languageborders on prose and indeed there is one fine prose poem, ‘My Father’s Lesson’, in the collection. It is, perhaps, the long descriptive lines of these poems, heavy with a sensuous imagery, which helps makes this such an impressive debut. It will be interesting to see how her work develops.

– Mark Roberts

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Mark Roberts is a Sydney based writer and critic. He currently edits Rochford Street Review and P76 Magazine.

Burning Rice is available from http://www.australianpoetry.org/2012/04/18/new-voices-series-2012/

Artist and Protector of Girls: joanne burns launches ‘Darger: his girls by’ Julie Chevalier

Darger; his girls by Julie Chevailer. Puncher & Wattmann 2012

This a slightly edited version of joanne burns’ launch speech for Julie Chevalier’s Darger:his girls which was delivered on 15th December 2012 at the Puncher & Wattmann Christmas Parter

Dargerhisgirlscover webIn the poem sequence Darger:his girls Julie Chevalier offers a multidimensional portrait of the life of Henry Darger – ‘Artist and Protector of Girls’ as inscribed on his gravestone. Darger, born in 1892, died in 1973, lived in Chicago. He was a reclusive man who worked all his adult life in Catholic hospitals, mainly as a cleaner. He is famous for his artworks – illustrations in an epic fiction totalling some 15,000 pages, entitled The Story of the Vivian Girls in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal. Darger’s vast collection of writings and artworks was discovered in his lodgings after he went into the care of the poorhouse nuns not long before his death. Darger’s preoccupation with children, especially young girls, has brought him into the forensic spotlight especially via the explorations of the psychologist John M MacGregor.

Chevalier provides a lucid introductory essay prefacing the poem sequence which discusses various issues regarding Darger – his behaviour, psychopathology, his art. But it is her 4 part poem sequence plus coda on which I am going to focus – on Chevalier’s poetic animation of Henry’s life from childhood to death: his plights, conflicts, moods, his creativity. Chevalier uses a range of poetic forms and structures to give us the textures of Henry’s life and psyche. She gives him plenty of space to speak for himself through the monologue form which prevails through most of the narrative. Drawing on art critique, critical biography, Darger’s writings including autobiography, and her own empathetic, astute, and inventive imagination Chevalier has produced a rich, feisty, and evocative portrait – without sensationalising, confining, or whitewashing her subject. In the coda Henry even appears and speaks from beyond the grave.

Section I follows the chronology of Henry’s childhood, revealing sharply the ordeals and problems that shaped Henry, the adult. The opening poem has him speaking :

‘for my birthday mama promised four candles
and a baby but god needed mama in heaven
newbaby was packed off to an orphanage she
didn’t even get a name’

This namelessness of his sister will cause him much sorrow, will haunt him. He will never be able to find her. The next poem ‘if we pray’ [for his father’s health, the discovery of his sister] introduces the role of God in his life, and his oscillating belief, doubt and anger at God’s treatment of him. This poem is the first of a number of list or litany form poems directed to, or dealing with God.

Chevalier uses several jarring nursery rhyme forms in the early poems to highlight Henry’s situation. The events they articulate result in his being placed in the Lincoln’s Asylum for feeble -minded childen. Here are some extracts :

henry had a little cock
its skin was mulberry red

……….

it left his pants in class one day
which was against the rules
it made the teacher yell and spray
to have a cock at school’

and

henry slashes
he throws ashes
daddy needs a badboy’s bin
to dump his little henry in’

In his ‘lincoln’s asylum’ monologue Henry reveals shocking child abuse and refers to moments of physical, maybe sexual violence, that appear later in his writings, illustrations – ‘……..every night i wake/with someone’s hands throttling my throat’. This image also suggesting a tongue hanging out. This too will appear in his works later. Henry via Chevalier observes that the children’s beds in rows are ‘like cemetery mounds’. In a subsequent incantatory poem ‘june down on the state farm’ Henry focusses on the farmer figure. Again we see the forceful nursery rhyme form deployed –

baa baa blondie
have you any pull
yes sir, yes sir
but my throat is full’

But there are moments of grace and sustenance. Henry and some boys escape by freight train and reach a farm owned by benign farmers

…………………there’s music through muslin
a mutt in the doorway the sweet smell of spuds

These pleasures don’t last long. Henry travels to Chicago to see his godmother, but the visit is disappointing. This poem is aptly titled ‘the milk tastes of onions’. However she does find him a job in a Catholic hospital.

Section II opens with the poem ‘losers’, which includes a catalogue of Henry’s hospital tasks, e.g. ‘sluices corridors of dangers’, ‘throws out scabs’. In the poem ‘he mourns the loss of the news clipping of the murdered child’ Henry has a deep crisis when the newspaper photo clipping of a little girl found dead in a Chicago ditch, Elsie Paroubek, is stolen, perhaps by his room mate, along with a manuscript and money. This child figure is significant in Henry’s psyche and will resurface in his creative work as Annie Aronburg. Chevalier evokes Henry’s inner turmoil by his vocalising his various reactions to this theft – physical, psychological, spiritual. Henry is adamant he had nothing to do with Elsie’s death. Has he been ‘punished for biological thoughts’. He makes a covenant with God – but only if God returns the clipping. Henry is angry when God does not answer his prayers! In a rush of merged words he declares:

i’ll truant his
masssacramentsconfessionnovenas

Chevalier uses a rush of merged words, word clusterings, lists, and word play, in various texts throughout the sequence as devices to track the pulse and texture of Henry’s psyche.

As a positive strategy Henry and his one friend, Whillie, make an altar to little Elsie in Whillie’s barn. It’s a touching yet fleeting moment. They celebrate with fairy floss and icecream. Soon though the shrine is destroyed, by ‘child haters’ according to Henry. God is in Henry’s bad books again! And then when Henry is called up for service in World War I, all 5’1” of him, he is soon sent home – the day after Christmas! – for ‘failure of limbs to support success in drilling’. He sure is a ‘child of woe’. Soon he’s back working at the hospital, and in his free time rescuing newspapers, comics, statues, spectacles from the trash can, items he will store in his room and use for his art. There is a fine image of these acquisitions : ‘a nest of warm newsprint fills a bony chair’.

Section III opens with a dramatic extract from Henry’s writings – from ‘the History of My Life’ [pp.4952 – 56]. Weather report writing was a daily Darger activity. Henry describes the Chicago tornado of 1913 using graphic images, tornado metaphors that are employed also in Henry’s creative work : the ‘protruding tongue’, ‘the child’s cloud belly’. The weather report is a clue to Henry’s consciousness. Next we see Henry in his room after work typing the story of The Vivian Girls, who will become child soldiers fighting the Glandelinian enemy to free child slaves. After an explosion at a bootlegger distillery close by Henry moves to new lodgings, which will become his famous room [or treasury]. He is now planning the pictorial creation of the Vivian girls whom he calls ‘my little revolutionary saints’. He will use a mix of tracing, painting, drawing, collaging etc. And the girls will be naked in battle for strategic reasons. He laments his inability to draw the girls freehand. Later he will castigate God again for failing him here. Chevalier gives Henry a pragmatic reason for giving the girls penises –

.. ‘i traced each girl
then added the details freehand
………………………… gave a penis to each vivian
girl as well for balance and strength’

In another poem he says

……………………………………….shape her
onto soft tissue give her the rhythm of repetition
the blessing of siblings …………………………..
the grace of proportion
the grace of running’…..

Chevalier further evokes Henry’s creativity in the poem ‘cloud cover’, cataloguing a variety of cloud images which drift across the page in spaced phrases.

She also reveals more disturbing aspects of Darger. In ‘belladonna’ we see this through the voice of Violet, one of the Vivians, who speaks of ‘the other mr darger’, of a ‘fierce looking traitor’, ‘a scary raider’. Darger declares ‘i’ll festoon white coral bells/with the girls’ intestines’. In a dream prose narrative from Henry’s writings he displays some conflicting attitudes to a beautiful girl he first sees as having the form of a guardian angel. In a following short prose poem the word ‘girl’ is repeated in different scenarios often evoking anger, dislike, disappointment. Yet in another prose poem about materials he finds in the rubbish bin Chevalier makes him rhythmically playful: ‘olive oyl tinfoil sir/ arthur conan doyle’. By presenting these fissures, instabilities in Henry, Chevalier creates dramatic tension.

Henry’s room becomes a vivid and animated theatre where Chevalier describes his illustrations and performances of the Vivians battling the Glandelinians – at the site of the battle of Jennie Richee. Henry declares ‘across my table a green gale blows a gate’. His room, the world outside, and his imagination conflate. In the poem ‘elemental warfare‘ a 78 on his Victrola, intended to mask the screams of the Vivian girls, fails the task. The girlfriend of a lodger thinks he has friends with him. Henry tells her no one is there. It is touching to see solitary Henry later call the girls ‘friends’. This micromoment of social exchange is further developed in the beautifully titled ‘the glossiest day’ where the landlord’s wife notices Henry’s artwork after changing a light globe for him – ‘Why you’re a good artist, Mr Darger!’ It’s an affirmative moment. Later Henry gives her some food scraps for the dog, having gruffly referred to her as a ‘jap’ earlier in the poem. But this sense of wellbeing is again fractured in Henry’s incantatory lament ‘too late’ where Henry is upset with the lack of fruition in his life. Another bad mood with God – ‘i cannot leave my girls to him’.

The final poem in this significant section of the narrative is the ‘bandage room’. Henry’s woundedness is stressed, using religion and the hospital scenario. This is a feisty litany full of attitude swings – from the sacred to the profane, from reverence to ridicule.There are several possible readings of this poem, and maybe Henry sees himself reflected in the imagery of ‘the Lord’. For example –

hail mary full of grace the lord kneels on lino
his rank socks holey…………….
or ‘hail mary full of his bunioned feet’
or ‘hail mary full of grace the lord is disinfected’

Section IV presents the last years of Henry’s life. It opens with ‘the miracle of mashed potatoes’ where we see a declining Darger, whose sore gums welcome the hospital nuns giving him soft food. He sings. He thanks God. Chevalier graphically charts his physical decline. In ‘st. lucia’s day’ dec 1971 Henry has returned from a hospital stay due to painful eye problems. He offers thanksgiving to St Lucia for his healed eyes – ‘a world of lucid mirrors/my vision newly washed’. Of his eye pain she writes

weeks ago i woke with a nightmare of broom straws
stabbing my eye waves of hot rain sluicing cheeks

After the frail Henry is taken into care at the Little Sisters of the Poor house the narrative reaches a dramatic climax, when David the lodger, and Mr Lerner, the landlord, discover the treasures of Henry’s room. This significant moment feels like both a violation and a blessing. Chevalier’s use of plain, down to earth language by the 2 men creates an ‘in your face’ edge rather than a tone of reverence. We see images of objects, which at first seem to be junk.

They carry down painting materials, colouring books, collapsed cartons etc., but when gusts of wind blow papers from a box they see the ‘escaped’ drawings, and Chevalier writes ‘the truth breaking in upon them’. ‘shee-it, chicks with dicks’ exclaims David; Lerner, the photographer replies ‘far out!’ – but also notes Henry’s skill with composition and colour. And so Darger’s works are saved – taken back up to his room.

The last poem of this section, set in the poor house, is a reckoning of Henry’s life, in list poem form, where the phrase ‘no room’ is repeated. The first line reads ‘henry joseph darger is allocated one bedside table’. Henry has been stripped of his creations, and of course God had failed him – especially for not finding him a child to adopt. The instruction ‘limit yourself to an eraser’ is a sharp and unsettling image.

One of the exceptional features of this verse narrative is the coda, where Henry returns and speaks from beyond the grave. Chevalier offers 2 poems with some brio, muscle, and playful cheek. In ‘it’s my room’ 1986 [13 years after his death] Henry defends himself in a forthright manner against the psychologist John MacGregor’s judgements of him after examining the preserved works in Henry’s room. Darger’s voice is powerful, and smart. Here’s an edited extract…

this shrink -e – dink’……….

this fraud pried and probed……..

he organised an archaeological dig in my cranium………

10 summers he interrogated me’

The last lines are vivid : ‘hello mr latrine-face

eat your own ass-burger pie

The 2nd poem where the poet narrator meets the revenant Henry on a beach in 2010 is a cheeky Chevalier creation – I’ll leave you to enjoy it yourselves when you buy a copy of this remarkable book.

-joanne burns

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joanne burns is a Sydney poet. Her most recent book is amphora Giramondo Publishing 2011. http://www.giramondopublishing.com/category/author/joanne-burns-author

Darger: his girls is available from http://www.puncherandwattmann.com/pwDarger.htm

Julie Chevalier’s website can be found at http://juliechevalier.net./

The Kraken Wakes – Rochford Street Review is back

An illustration from the original 1870 edition of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea

An illustration from the original 1870 edition of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea

January can be the cruellest month for an online journal – especially if the editor wants to have a week or so off over Christmas and then decides to move house. Unfortunately Rochford Street Review is basically a one household band – so when that household packs everything in boxes for a few weeks and moves,  the journal has to move as well. RSR has now emerged from a number of book boxes, internet access has been restored and we are ready to face the world again!

While we were away a new on-line book review journal has emerged. The Sydney Review of Books (http://sydneyreviewofbooks.com/) appeared a week or so ago. The SRB is run out of the Writing and Society Research Centre at the University of Western Sydney and, while it is great to see the Centre take expand its focus to include literary criticism, I did feel a little uneasy at times reading some about some of the details behind the initial launch of the site:

The present site is a pilot that has been developed with the support of the Writing and Society Research Centre at the University of Western Sydney. To begin with, the Sydney Review of Books has been conceived as a free online publication, in order to maximise its reach. After the initial posting of essays, new critical articles will be added at weekly intervals over the next two months. The funding of such an initiative is beyond the resources of the Centre alone. In offering you this selection of high quality criticism, by some of the best critics and writers in the country, we hope to enlist your support as readers, and that of funding agencies and sponsors, to ensure that the Review can continue as a dynamic contributor to our literary culture.

I guess there are a number of models you can use when starting up a literary journal, whether it be a creative journal or a journal of criticism. One model is to start with a sustainable model, one that you know can last for a period of time, and hope to build readership and support (both financial and non financial) as the journal grows. Another model is to start with a bang and hope to attract the government funding bodies and private sponsors as quickly as possible.

Both models have their advantages and disadvantages. Rochford Street Review was very much set up on a sustainable model with the intention of being able to run on the smell of an oily rag. While we have managed to do that for just over a year, growing our reading and reviewing base, the recent outage during January shows just how close we are sailing to the edge. The other thing I regret is not being able to pay reviewers. We have investigated a number of options to raise funds to do this even on a temporary basis – we asked for donations through a supporting subscription model, but did not attract the level of support we had hoped for. Maybe a crowd funding model might work better and this is one option we will look in the future.

On the other hand the ‘big bang’ option does carry the risk that the initial support will run dry before the second wave can pick up the slack, or the second wave isn’t as significant as it needs to be. It is hoped that this is not the case with SRB as the initial reviews and articles suggest that it could become a very influential site for Australian literary criticism if it can attract the ongoing support it needs.

Another point made by SRB which I found interesting was the statement that the site was “sparked by concerns about the dwindling space for literary criticism in Australian media”. In light of the recent discussions about the role of the mainstream media (msm) in the current political debate and the increasing importance of alternative voices, such as political blogs and movements such as ‘Destroy the Joint’ (http://www.destroythejoint.org/)which have embraced social media, I began to wonder about the role of the mainstream media in Australian literary criticism. First of all what do mean by ‘mainstream’ media in this context? The art and literary pages of the weekend papers obviously. The various book shows on Radio National – well they are definitely dwindling! What about the existing set of funded literary and cultural journals? A number of these have used the web to increase the amount of criticism they publish (while some such as Cordite and Mascara are purely online). I can’t really see a dwindling here – in fact if anything the amount of reviews and articles seem to be increasing in this area if anything (the new ‘Cordite Scholarly’ section (http://cordite.org.au/content/scholarly) being a case in point).

While it maybe possible to argue that has been a reduction in traditional outlets for literary criticism over recent years it is important not to forget the plethora of non traditional or non-mainstream outlets. Many of these are on web only publications – but while the web has made it easier to publish and distribute, these publications are doing much the same as the small magazines and presses were doing for years – flying under the mainstream radar and often pushing boundaries.

One one level you have journals like Verity La (http://verityla.com) which continue to regular publish insightful reviews and interviews. Is Verity La part of the critical literary ‘mainstream’? Probably not but it continues to push boundaries and ask questions.

One of the biggest areas of growth, in my opinion, has been the explosion of blogs about books and writing. While it might be difficult to class many of these as containing ‘traditional’ literary criticism, quite a few of them do and by overlooking them you are overlooking one of the most vibrant areas of literary discussion. But even if a blog or forum does not fit the traditional model they are also adding to the discussion and increasing the potential readership base for many new literary publications.

So while the appearance of the Sydney Review of Books is to be applauded and I hope that becomes a important part in the ongoing literary discussion, I think it is also important to recognise and value the importance of the smaller, often non-traditional, publications (both on and off-line) which continue to drive much of the vitality and excitement in the current literary environment.

So why the reference to Krakens? Besides from the fact that I have always wanted to include ‘Kraken’ in a title and the obvious references to mythology, Tennyson and Wyndham, I wanted to labour the image of the depth and diversity of Australian writing a little. The mainstream literary journals are the ocean liners on the surface of a vast ocean in whose depths lies all sorts of strange and wonderful things. This diversity needs to be accepted and celebrated….otherwise it can rise up and crush the largest ocean liner….Happy sailing!

– Mark Roberts

Poems for the People: Robbie Coburn reviews ‘Stepping Over Seasons’ by Ashley Capes

Stepping Over Seasons by Ashley Capes, Interactive Press. 2009

stepping over seasonsVictorian poet Ashley Capes has been a favourite of mine for quite some time now, beginning when I got a hold of a copy of his chapbook of Haiku Orion Tips the Saucepan (2010) and his collection Pollen and the Storm (2008). His second collection, Stepping Over Seasons, does not disappoint.

Capes’ work is distinguished by its searing honesty, uncharacteristic of much contemporary Australian poetry, or any modern poetry for that matter, touching on themes of love, loss, death, marriage, struggles of living in rural Australia and the placement of the poet in the modern world.

As a poet, Capes does not attempt to dazzle or confuse with an elaborate use of pretentious wording that eliminates everyone but scholars, rather presents a series of short poems that remind us of poetry’s true purpose and paint a picture with skilful simplicity.  It is no surprise that Mark William Jackson has stated Capes’ work “will appeal to both lovers of poetry and readers who have been burned by poetry in the past” (http://overland.org.au/blogs/not-assigned/2010/05/review-%E2%80%93-stepping-over-seasons/).

The collection focuses on depicting “the finer details of life” with an emphasis on “change within people and places as seasons change”, creating a broad and powerful body of work.

Capes has the ability to create an evocative poem from something as simple as an object or place, such as his wedding ring in ‘other objects’:

my wedding ring is a plain silver
barrel band. same as dad’s, very modest
and very hard to keep smooth,
with scratches I can’t keep track of
and don’t want to hide. It’s no good pretending

There is something fresh about the feel of this poem, as with the entire collection, with a perspective only observed by the active creative mind.  This is also demonstrated in the award winning ‘farm’, that explores the hardships of drought in small towns with a chilling use of metaphor:

dawn comes like someone embarrassed
to bring bad news, sunlight
very soft on weatherboard.

Perhaps the most moving and clearly relatable poems of all touch upon the darkness and hardship attached to the existence of a writer, such as ‘fujin’s bag’ and ‘late night’. ‘Late night’ discusses the limitations placed upon the artist in poetry with only words to produce an emotion or image. ‘fujin’s bag’ reflects on the displacement of the poet in the modern world while he sits at a desk writing late into the night, calling upon the happenings around him while still confined to the page:

still moulded
to the desk, blinking
back sleep, convincing
myself, somehow
that all this
darkness is necessary.

Personally the greatest triumph in the collection is one of the longer pieces ‘on the road’, that centres on the idea of death as a possibility in day to day routine when driving, and that the bustle of existence and force of habit eliminates thought:

you don’t think about
yourself just behind the glass
in the supposed repose of the white sheet,
belongings in a plastic bag:
one that’s somehow meant to sum you up
or give comfort to loved ones.

This poem also analyses the footprint that is left by the dead, how disposable a life seems to those not personally involved, and the realization that death is an inevitability.

Even when Capes is discussing darker topics such as a lifeless, empty town in ‘small town’, he manages to create and capture atmosphere with masterful simplicity and beauty:

marks on the footpath
don’t fade and the cemetery
never shrinks, only the town around it.

Capes’ output is truly remarkable, publishing high-calibre work consistently in almost every good lit journal in the country and I would go as far as to say this is his best release yet, and one of the best books of Australian poetry I’ve read in quite some time.

Simply put, this is a wonderful collection of astounding work that was recognized with a Commended Award in the 2009 IP Picks Best Poetry Competition that joins Capes’ other poetic achievements for individual pieces, such as commendations in the 2008 MPU Poetry Competition,  the 2009 Rosemary Dobson Prize and a prize in the 2008 Ipswich Poetry Feast Open Poetry Section.

For me, at least, this is a book that demands to be read again and again. I look forward to more work from Ashley Capes, who stands up with the best as one of Australia’s finest contemporary poets.

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Robbie Coburn is a poet, writer and performer from country Victoria. His first chapbook Human Batteries was published by Picaro Press in 2012. He is currently working on a book for children, a verse novel and a volume of memoir entitled Years of Skin.He can be found at: www.robbiecoburn.com

Stepping Over Seasons is available from Interactive Press: http://www.ipoz.biz/Titles/SOS.htm

 

These Heathen Dreams – help complete this important film on Christopher Barnett

these heathen dreamsThese Heathen Dreams is a film project attempting an intimate examination of Australian expatriate, Christopher Barnett; a revolutionary artist and poet who, despite many personal and professional challenges, remains faithful to his belief that art can change the world. The filmmakers are currently looking to raise the final $25,000 needed to complete this film through crowd funding  by 25 January 2013  http://www.pozible.com/index.php/archive/index/13510/description/0/0.

About Christopher Barnett

Best known as an avant-garde poet and dramaturg, Christopher Barnett won both acclaim and notoriety in Australia during the 70’s and 80’s before moving to France in 1992. He left behind a legacy of challenging works, including Selling Ourselves for Dinner, a play about the Russian futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, commissioned for the 1982 Adelaide Festival of Arts; Ulrike Meinhof Sings a one-woman performance piece about the infamous Baader-Meinhof group; and Basket Weaving for Amateurs, a controversial play attacking the complacency of Australia’s conservative literary establishment.

Battling fallout from celebrity and a drug dependency, this ‘enfant terrible’ of the Australian underground arts scene, sought refuge in the 1980’s in Nantes in Western France, where he established experimental arts lab and theatre company, Le Dernier Spectateur (http://dernier.spectateur.free.fr/index.php), which continues its work today. Working with the marginalized and disenfranchised of society, Barnett uses poetry, performance and music to assist people to overcome and survive their personal circumstances, for which he has earned praise and support from influential French figures, including notably the recently elected French Prime Minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault.

Using observational footage from France and archival film dating back to the 70’s Australia, where as a 13-year old prodigy poet Barnett is seen marching in a Vietnam moratorium beside the future Premier of South Australia Lyn Arnold; this documentary examines the contribution of an Australian artist who many claim to be one of its great living writers. Text from his recent poem, when they came/for you elegies/of resistance, acts as a Greek chorus throughout the documentary, and provides an insight into the power and poignancy of Barnett’s work.

From his formative years in Adelaide, when he was recruited by a Maoist faction of the Communist Party, through heady days in Melbourne punk scene as a controversial poet and playwright, to recent years in Nantes as a French citizen working as an ‘acteur sur le terrain’, THESE HEATHEN DREAMS is a study of the power of political activism, experienced through the life and times of the fascinating and eloquent warrior poet, Christopher Barnett.

About The Film

The filmmakers are aiming to make a high quality documentary. It will be an important film, demonstrating how art and artists can positively affect many people’s lives, can help them to survive their circumstances and bring out the best in humanity. The intention is not to make another ghettoized arts doco but to make the narrative shine as a fascinating story about an inspiring and engaging subject.

Christopher Barnett, poet, writer, dramaturg, arts-activist and social mediator, is not only a talented writer and performer whose works deserve to be better appreciated, but he is also a beacon for many other artists and audiences he has touched. His work continues to influence people, with a growing audience around the world through the Internet. The former mayor of Nantes and current French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault sees the role of culture in society as essential and Barnett as one of the great social mediators, stressing the value of his work with the most socially disadvantaged of society through his theatre company Le Dernier Spectateur.

There is a sense of urgency for in making this film with Christopher as his health is fast deteriorating. The filmmakers have declared they want to be there with him not only as filmmakers but also as artists supporting a fellow artist.

THE TEAM

Anne Tsoulis – Writer/Director/Co-producer

Anne is an experienced and accredited writer, director, script editor and creative producer for feature films, television and digital new media both locally and overseas with over twenty years in the industry. She has known Christopher Barnett since their time as teenage students together in Adelaide, South Australia.

Georgia Wallace-Crabbe – Producer

Georgia is a partner and director of production company Film Projects. She is an award winning documentary producer and director and a recipient of the AFI Best Documentary Award for Jade Babe 2005 (Producer) with diverse credits in documentary including the recent award winning film New Beijing 2010 (director/producer).

Resources

Information about The Heathen Dreams:

A non exhaustive list of resources about Christopher Barnett on the web.

Red Planet archive. Poster collection State Library of Victoria

Philip ‘Charlie’ Rees’ poster for the 1985-6 productions of Ulrike Meinhof Sings in Melbourne and Adelaide. Red Planet archive. Poster collection State Library of Victoria

General resources

If you are aware of any other online reviews or article on Christopher please email the details to rochfordstpress@optusnet.com.au.

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Searching for the Past: Robbie Coburn reviews ‘On the Circumvesuviana’ by Lucy Dougan

On the Circumvesuviana by Lucy Dougan, Picaro Press, 2012

On the circumvesuviana136

 

Lucy Dougan’s collection On the Circumvesuviana is very much a journey.
Although not quite narrative poetry due to the disjointed fragments of story between poems, Dougan creates an intelligent blend of confessional and indirect verse to tell her story from her perspective as a “love child” tracing her origins back to her homeland of Naples.

Many of the poems are narrated from a Neapolitan perspective as the poet recounts her native history, but still uphold a contemporary Australian viewpoint, creating an eclectic, fresh and distinctive voice. This presents a strikingly original standpoint to the reader, in which Dougan is both personally involved in the pieces while still remaining consistent in her introverted observations as a bystander. An example of this is an early poem in the collection “Beneath Us”:

The Lost ones
in deep watery chambers
tread a wheel
of encrusted walls
holding signs
like those left
waiting at airports.

The more direct focus on family and placement makes for some of the strongest poems in the collection, such as “I Went…(That Words Can’t), in which Dougan confronts and interrogates various members of her family in an attempt to put the pieces of her story into a cohesive sequence:

I went to my mother at the Trade Winds Cafe
and she said this is my story, not yours.
There and then the winds turned South.

Her mother’s statement perfectly highlights the place of the individual within both a family and a personal history, the piece becoming darker and more confronting as it progresses:

I went to the ashes of my
father that I call father
and my mother’s lover
and asked them if they thought
we could all rub along together.

The poem then draws to an unexpected and extremely evocative conclusion, a fine example of Dougan’s skill at poetic narration:

Finally, nobody said anything
and I was happy with that.

Dougan’s willingness to openly confront her position in her family as an illegitimate child is constantly combated by an introverted voice, leaving the reader to decide which parts of the story fit where, creating somewhat of an interpretive, non-linear verse novel.
She refers to both her biological father and mother’s husband as “my father that I call my father”, the latter stating ‘‘don’t make me get that DNA test” as a result of their meeting, the poet’s suffering evident as the journey progresses.

These interactions are just a select example of the many Dougan describes throughout the collection in her search for answers, another being with her ”uncle in the Mountains” who reaffirms her status as a “lovechild”, referring to her coming to be as:

a fairytale,
a chance meeting on a bus without suspension,
a cabin full of roses.

In comparison to this, Dougan is accepted and adored by her ”sisters and brother in San Giorgio” who say:

we have no word for half,
your face belongs here.

Dougan also explores this relationship with her half-siblings in Naples in other poems like the excellent “Thickly Then”, but often simultaneously alludes to an isolated childhood coupled with an internalized segregation from those around her:

I learned to love loneliness
and hugged my singularity close,
the last child – big gaps.

Although this initially reads as an exploration of sorrow, Dougan shows a subtle resistance against the forces of her anguish and an admirable willingness to confront both her personal past and that of her family in order to lay it to rest and move on. Her resilience is demonstrated in the poem “Wayside”:

My body wants
the dark of a city
when paths were lit
by shrines, by love,
their frail flames
petals no-one owns.

The overall standout component of this book is the unflinching honestly and intelligence Dougan upholds when recounting distressing elements of her life and journey, a factor that makes for some truly powerful poetry.

The final stanza of the title poem that concludes the book brings her search for answers in recounting her past in Naples to an end, while also acknowledging her inability to control where she comes from and the need to appreciate both the good and bad aspects of her heritage:

this damned theatricality
of selves- this constant circus
of being wedded
to a place, a story
as worn out and
full of grace as this.

This poem and the collection as a whole will leave few readers unmoved.
Despite being only a slim volume, On the Circumvesuviana is a compelling and unrushed book of poems that effectively explores the confusing and inevitable rift between the eyes of the past and the present within both families and cultures.

– Robbie Coburn

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Robbie Coburn is a poet and writer from country Victoria.
His first chapbook of poems Human Batteries was published by Picaro Press in 2012.
His website can be found at: http://www.robbiecoburn.com/

On the Circumvesuviana is available from http://www.picaropress.com/page1/page1.html

Abortion, desertion, corruption, self-interest, revenge and the need for justice: Petrina Meldrum reviews ‘The Tower Mill’ by James Moloney

The Tower Mill by James Moloney. QUP 2012

Tower MillThe Tower Mill is James Moloney’s first attempt at writing for adults. His reputation as one of Australia’s best known and well respected writers for children and young adults precedes him.

In the early stages of the novel we can be forgiven for feeling we are reading a YA novel as Moloney’s two main characters, Tom Riley, and Susan Kinnane (Tom’s mother), recount, from their own points of view, the history of their somewhat unconventional lives. Mother and son are given alternating sections within each chapter to tell their story, and although Tom, now an adult, is looking back, trying to make sense of how he feels about his mother’s role in his life, and Susan’s story is running forward, starting in 1968 when she is still a schoolgirl, and finishing in 2003; their stories are chronologically matched throughout, a structure that works extremely well. We are left to put the story of these two lives together and draw our own conclusions.

It is through the story, as we watch the characters mature emotionally, that we become aware of the shift from a young adult to an adult voice, a process that Moloney perhaps needed to go through himself in its writing, and which he has carried off with aplomb.

The backdrop for the story is Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s Queensland at a pivotal point in 1971 when the Springboks Rugby Team came to Brisbane and met with anti-apartheid protests. These, in turn, were met by the declaration of a State of Emergency, and followed by excessive force meted out by Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s police-force. There are political references throughout the novel; for those who have no prior knowledge of this era in Queensland’s history, the references do no more than whet the appetite, while, for those who lived through it, they provide a time for reflection. In view of Queensland’s present political climate, The Tower Mill could be read as a cautionary tale about where voter complacency can lead.

The book takes its title from The Tower Mill, a convict tower which gave its name to the hotel where the Springboks stayed while on tour. The protests took place outside the Hotel. Moloney has a fictional event take place, during a protest, that has a momentous effect on Tom’s life and that of his mother, Susan. We become involved, not always sympathetically, as we follow the consequences of the events that took place on that dark night in 1971.

Tom is the character most emotionally damaged by what happened that night. He never knew his father. He never felt his mother’s love. But the alternative would have been worse. From his point of view Susan always kept him at arms length; his brief encounters with her in his teen years felt more instructional than loving – how to be an activist – how to thumb your nose at authority – how not to conform. Susan might have been trying to open his mind beyond the conventional life he was leading with Mike Riley, the man he calls Dad, but for Tom, a teenager looking for a way into his mother’s heart, it was not what he was longing to hear.

Susan is a person with a vision of where her life should lead, and, like many who opt to follow their chosen path no matter what, she makes sacrifices that impact on others and leaves them to cope as they will. Her strong feminist views will do little to endear today’s readers who view gender politics in a more balanced way, but Susan is of her time and this needs to be taken into consideration. The characters whose lives she touches are left to pick up the pieces, not least the man she marries out of convenience, Mike Riley, a poet and English teacher. He becomes Tom’s surrogate father when Susan chooses to leave him and Tom and become a ‘political exile’ after receiving a letter, the contents of which are withheld from Mike until close to the end of the novel. If there is a weak point in the plot, I feel this is it. The content of the letter does not warrant the secrecy. If Susan were true to character, whatever the obstacles, whatever the outcome, she would have pursued the man responsible for taking away the life of her lover and Tom’s biological father, to the end. She would not have used it as an excuse to leave Brisbane for Sydney.

That said, The Tower Mill will not disappoint. We are left with plenty to think about long after we have put it down. The issues are huge: abortion, desertion, corruption, self-interest, the desire for revenge and the need for justice. Moloney has left Tom’s lack of willingness to agree to forgive and move on at the end of the novel open enough to allow him a way into a sequel, and to allow to Tom to take up the cause for justice his mother failed to pursue. I for one would look forward to reading it.

– Petrina Meldrum

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Petrina Meldrum is a Tasmanian based writer currently completing an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Tasmania. Her short stories for adults and children have appeared in a number of publications. She is presently working on a novel.

The Tower Mill is avaialble from http://www.uqp.uq.edu.au/book.aspx/1210/The%20Tower%20Mill