- A Welcome Life: Les Wicks reviews Honey & Hemlock by Julie Watts.
- Pushing Boundaries: Mark Roberts reviews amphora by joanne burns
- The Stella Prize Short List – a long time coming
- Language and Chatty Syntax: Andrew Burke reviews 1953: A verse narrative by Geoff Page
- What does satisfaction feel like: Miriam Zolin reviews Tarcutta Wake by Josephine Rowe
- Intellectual Exuberance and Dark Irony: Tina Giannoukos Reviews Street to Street by Brian Castro
- Recording Images: Robbie Coburn reviews Flying Low in the Minor Key by Anthony Lawrence
- Fragments and the Whole: Mark Roberts reviews The Pursuit of Happiness by Laurie Duggan
- The Ultimate Commitment: Michael Dransfield on the 40th Anniversary of His Death
- A Taster-Plate Full of Possibilities: Paul Summers reviews Water Mirrors by Nicholas Powel
- Spinifex Press and Finola Moorhead’s Modern Classic
- A Heartrending Memoir: Georgina Scillio reviews An Imaginary Mother by Bron Nicholls.
- Confronting the Culture, Language and History of War: Mark Roberts reviews Valence: Considering War Through Poetry and Theory by Susan Hawthorne
- Spineless Wonder announces the The joanne burns Award
- The Perfect Word: Lisa Wardle reviews the The Midnight Dress by Karen Foxlee
The Midnight Dress by Karen Foxlee. UQP 2013
The Midnight Dress is a story about many things – friendship, loss, secrets, betrayal – but most of all, love. The writing is emotive, evocative, atmospheric. I couldn’t read Rose’s story with half my attention on what I would say later in this review. I couldn’t help but become fully immersed in the world of the story.
This is the story of a motherless girl (Rose Lovell) and a fatherless girl (Pearl Kelly) who meet when Rose’s drifter father Patrick decides to stop in a small Northern Queensland town. Rose is, at first, reluctant to attend school. She is also reluctant to become friends with Pearl – a friendship that begins pessimistically, based on a snap decision Rose makes on the first day she attends Lenora High.
“Geography or French?” asks Pearl. “French,” says Rose. Pearl even asks Rose later in the book – “What if you had chosen Geography?”
It’s sugarcane country, and the annual Harvest Parade (something else Rose would much rather avoid) is the celebration that the story builds towards. However, as the reader, you know in advance that this won’t be all celebration, as right from the beginning you are privy to pieces of the later parts of this story. The tragedy that unfolds alongside the more hopeful story of Rose and Pearl’s growing friendship has your mind already searching the text for the clues that will solve the crime.
I was amazed by how well the unusual structure of this story worked. At first I found it a little odd that so much of what’s to come is divulged to the reader at the beginning of each chapter. Half to a few pages of italicized text that clearly begins somewhere near the end and outcome of the story, creating tension, building backwards chapter by chapter, until it meets up with the forward story and propels you towards an ending that has become inevitable.
The first sentence of the first chapter is “Will you forgive me if I tell you the ending?”
These chapter prologues (for want of a better description) are told from the POV of the all-seeing, all-knowing omnipotent narrator – in this case the author herself. Author intrusion doesn’t usually work, but for this story, even though – or more likely because – the structure is so unique, it works. Even so, at one point early on I wondered if I should skip them and just read the story through to the end. I wondered if that was a choice the author intended by structuring the novel in this way. I wondered if it would make a difference to the reading experience.
The other star of this story is Edie. The girls all need dresses for the Harvest Parade. Most girls travel into the city to get their gowns, in the hope of being chosen to be one of seven Harvest Princesses, but Rose has neither the money nor the inclination. She is told of a local dressmaker who may be able to help her with her dress. This is Edie, an elderly woman living a lonely life as an outcast – someone to be whispered about in the streets by the locals. Edie is different and we all know that society is intolerant and suspicious of difference, and these feelings are even more pronounced in a small town setting.
Edie’s history – a love story of sorts – is woven through the narrative during Rose’s visits. The making, by hand, of the Midnight Dress becomes a kind of meditative therapy. Edie becomes ‘mentor’, and Rose changes – becomes smoother, less sharp-edged – as the dress takes shape. Edie lives in squalor, yet seems happy surrounded by her ‘things’. She feels safe with the mountains and rainforest at her back. This is her home – however dysfunctional. She has grown roots here.
Edie’s house became, for me, a character in its own right. It was a living, breathing thing that I could picture in my mind as though I was right there looking at it, walking through it – which would be difficult with all of Edie’s things cluttering it up. The quality of the description of this relic of a house only proves how fully the author imagined it – with all of her senses. Edie tells Rose of the ‘spell’ the rainforest cast over herself and her mother; the same spell that Rose inevitably falls under. The same type of spell is cast by this author.
Foxlee masterfully gathers the threads of her story together to give the reader an ending that may not be unexpected yet is still extremely satisfying. Rose loved words – collected them in her green notebook. Foxlee loves words and has a knack for using the perfect one. I gave The Midnight Dress 5 stars on ‘Goodreads’ and I believe it deserves every one of those stars. I highly recommend this book.
– Lisa Wardle
Lisa Wardle is a writer, blogger and avid reader. She enjoys paper crafts and spending time with her family. She has interviewed more than 30 authors for her blog, and has had her poetry and stories published in various literary magazines. Her short story collection Reflections was published in 2009 by Ginninderra Press. She can be found at http://lisa-wardle.blogspot.com.au/
The Midnight Dress is available from http://www.uqp.uq.edu.au/book.aspx/1231/The%20Midnight%20Dress
It is pleasing to note that short/micro/nano/flash fiction publisher Spineless Wonder has named a new award in honour of renowned experimental poet/writer joanne burns. Spineless Wonder has described the award int the following terms:
The precise form that The joanne burns Award will take each year may change. For the past two years, for instance, the Spineless Wonders prose poem/microfiction competition has called for submissions with a maximum of 800 word limit. In future years, The joanne burns Award may be for other brief forms, such as nanofiction or for blended, genre-bending prose poem or poetic prose forms yet to be developed.
The theme of each year’s joanne burns Award will also vary. Some years the theme may be open whilst in others, such as in the 2012 Australian icons competition, the theme will be specified.
As in previous years, the competition will be blind judged according to the criteria set out in the Terms and Conditions. The joanne burns Award judge for each year, along with the competition parameters, will be announced in the first half of each year.
The joanne burns Award will carry a monetary reward as well as an offer of publication for those pieces judged to be the highest quality entries in our annual competitive cull.
The 2013 award is will be judged by Shady Cosgrove and opens on 1 June. It is un-themed, which I think means that you don’t have to worry about incorporating a particular topic in your writing, and the word length is limited to 800 words. Micro fiction and prose poems submissions are invited.
More information about the award can be found here: http://shortaustralianstories.com.au/the-joanne-burns-award/ and submission guidelines at http://shortaustralianstories.com.au/submissions/prose-poetrymicrofiction/.
It is fitting that Spineless Wonder have chosen to name this award after joanne burns. As I wrote in a review of burn’s last collection, amphora, “Burns has been writing and publishing for almost four decades, her first collection Snatch being published in 1972. Over the years she has established a reputation for pushing poetic boundaries and for blurring the distinction between poetry and prose with her published work consisting of a combination of poetry, prose poems and prose sequences”. Her work has been, perhaps, the most consistently experimental poetry/prose produced in Australia over the last 3 to 4 decades and she shows no sign of compromise now. I hope that those submitting work to this award are inspired by burns’ work and are prepared to push and crash through the barriers that guide so much creative writing in Australia today.
– Mark Roberts
Mark Roberts is a Sydney based writer and critic. He currently edits Rochford Street Review. He is currently working a collection of poetry.
The review of amphora can be found at https://rochfordstreetreview.com/2013/03/19/pushing-boundaries-mark-roberts-reviews-amphora-by-joanne-burns/
Spineless Wonder can be found at http://shortaustralianstories.com.au/
A selection of joanne burns’ work can be found at http://www.poetrylibrary.edu.au/poets/burns-joanne
Valence: Considering War Through Poetry and Theory by Susan Hawthorne. Spinifex 2011.
The fact is that it is not important to many people: They get by their whole lives without encountering it, and who is to say they are the worse for it?………..it is important to me. It’s an art in which language is put under pressure and investigated in ways which questions the assumptions that we make about it” (http://www.poetrylibrary.edu.au/poets/croggon-alison/a-unicorn-0612043/reviews/interview-alison-croggon-may-2013-21)
For the poet who comes to poetry with an avert political consciousness, who wants poetry to speak, question and argue, the issue becomes more complex. They are, for example, confronted by Auden’s statement in ‘In memory of W. B. Yeats’:
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.
Poetry can be an effective tool in to pressure both language and the assumptions that underlie society – but if such analysis remains, for the most part, firmly anchored in “the valley of its making” what is the point. The question, for the political poet, or the poet that has written a political poem, is how to escape from the valley?
Recently, during the ‘festival’ that ANZAC Day seems to have become I considered what happens when poetry/art does venture out its valley. I repeatedly heard Eric Bogle’s ‘The Band Played Walzing Maltida’ being played on the radio and TV – but the more I listened to the context it which it was being played the more I realised that it was no longer the anti-war song that I remembered. The words hadn’t changed but it had become an almost anthem, a hymn if you like – the message was now celebrating sacrifice and death rather than mourning and questioning them.
I guess if you work hard enough you can turn anything on its head – the ruling classes, after all, are not noted for their appreciation of irony and subtlety.
In approaching Susan Hawthorne’s extraordinary chapbook, Valence I found myself thinking of a number of things. Of course there was the tradition of war poetry, which most of know from the poetry of the First World War (Wilfred Owen and Sigfred Sasson). But there were also other images – a beautiful illustration by Carol Archer of a fence at Pine Gap on which the women who had camped at the gates, had tied many little ribbons (P76 Issue 2 1984). I also recalled an exhibition I had seen and reviewed in 1985 – Peace and Nuclear War in the Australian Landscape, an installation by Darani Lewers, Jan Birmingham and Tanya Crothers. In an interview I conducted with the artists Jan Birmingham spoke of the difficulty of representing images of war as powerful sections of the media have appropriated many of the more terrifying images of war and made them seem glamorous and exciting. (http://printedshadows.wordpress.com/category/exhibitions/peace-and-nuclear-war-in-the-australian-landscape/)
Valence is an “annotated poem”, each page contains a poem, together with some notes describing the thoughts and references behind the poems. At the back of the book there is a Bibliography referencing books and journal articles. Clearly this is no ordinary poetry book. We are also given a brief introduction:
I wrote this poem in 2009 over several weeks. I had been thinking about war, about the roles played by my mother and grandmother in the twentieth century wars. Then there was my mother’s brother, imprisoned in Changi who never recovered. How do you measure this loss?
The poem begins with the suggestion of war, the language which prepares us, pushes us towards acceptance:
all day long the gods have been screaming
their prevalent song of war and pre-emptive strike
language is important here, the language of war, of grief, of violence and loss. There are images, unexpected, that take your breath away – lines like:
that widowed ground has been filled with half-grown trees
recall old battlefields, the bodies buried and the vegetation returning. It also calls to mind the women, the civilian victims – the rape, the loss of family, the destruction of community – all part of the modern war machine: “buried poetry risen unbidden”
Memory plays a central role in these poems. The personal history of war, remembered atrocities, still fresh/flesh after decades – a lived history. In poem 6, about the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, Hawthorne writes:
in Sabra and Shatila only bodies are left
shadows of screams echoes of eyes
that have stopped seeing stopped recording
a nation’s memory will not unwrap when the chain
is nothing but missing links one by one
each memory becomes a wilderness
The book ends with a sense of despair – the legacy of the horrors of the 20th Century which continues into the new century:
you dream of flight with wings with claws some days
you sob because all the elegies for the dead all the strings
played with furious pathos will not stop the clot of war
But the poetry is really only half of Valence. It is an annotated poem and each page contains both a poem and a set of notes/observations. While at first this is a little disconcerting – do you read the poem and the notes at the same time or do you read all the poems before going back and reading the annotations? Once you overcome this slight dilemma, the annotations actually add to the impact of the overall poem.
The annotations often extend the poem they are linked to, expanding both the context and the meaning. The annotation for the first poem, for example (“all day long the gods have been screaming/their prevalent songs of war and pre-emptive strike/ war leaves you gobsmacked words slaughtered in the throat”), expands the impact of the poem:
Militarism, fundamentalism and the sex industry share the same ideology. Traumatised and vulnerable individuals become fodder for war and religion and pornography and prostitution.
In poem 6 (about the 1982 Lebanese War), Hawthorne shares with us the inspiration for the poem:
This poem came from seeing the film, Waltz with Bashir, an animated film made by Ari Folman in search of memories he had lost following the 1982 Lebanon War. Like the patients referred to in the poem, the minds of those who participate as soldiers in war sometimes stop recording
Valence is a powerful book on a number of levels. It contains a powerful anti-war poem, rich in imagery and history, full of passion and measured anger. It also operates on a more direct level, directly confronting the culture, language and history of war. In the end it doesn’t fit well in Auden’s poetic valley – it is a work that demands to be widely read. Perhaps it should be compulsory reading in the period leading up to the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli landings.
– Mark Roberts
Mark Roberts is a Sydney based writer and critic. He currently edits Rochford Street Review and is working on a collection of poetry.
Valence is available from http://www.spinifexpress.com.au/Bookstore/book/id=226/
An Imaginary Mother by Bron Nicholls. Black Pepper Publishing 2013.
Nicholls’ relationship with both her parents, especially her mother Phyll with whom, naturally, she spent more time, was very difficult. Often Nicholls was given contradictory messages and the more she tried to please her secretive and unpredictable mother, the more her mother frustrated her and belittled her efforts.
As a child Phyll and her younger sister Meg had been sent to Sutherland House, an orphanage for destitute children at Diamond Creek in Victoria. They were neither destitute nor orphans and never forgave their father for having sent them there. At the Home they were not ill-treated but their hair was cut short, they had very few possessions, the food was meager and they were made to work hard housekeeping or in the farm.
Phyll retreated into books and became an avid reader for the rest of her life, often living out in her head the events of the books she read. It was an escape into an imaginary life which caused her to ‘block’ out many things, including her family.
One of the main flaws of the narration in An Imaginary Mother s that Nicholls calls her mother ‘Phill’ and at other times—sometimes in the same paragraph—she calls her ‘Mum’. Again, with her father, he is both ‘John’ and ‘Dad’ when just she or he would have been clear enough. At times, this proved confusing and one had to re-read the piece to find out who are the people mentioned.
There are also sections of the story where we are left wondering what happened next. For example, the horrendous bus trip with Nicholls and Nicholls’s very sick sister was described in great detail and is very moving. But as the author changes subject immediately, the reader is left high and dry and not knowing what was wrong with girl: did she recover? Later on in the story, the girl reappears, so we can assume she did not die from whatever sickness she had been suffering.
In another instance, the author and her mother are sitting on the verandah, waiting for the father to arrive as he was late from work. The reader becomes anxious and worries: did Dad have an accident? Did he arrive home safely for dinner? But instead of answering these questions for us, Nicholls talks about her beloved dog, Jelly Roll, who is now old and who has to be put down by the vet. We get the impression that there is more affection for her dog, than for her father.
What was also sad about the author’s childhood is the way her Christian fundamentalist father’s rigid beliefs blighted his family’s lives and especially that of the author. When Nicholls tried to escape, she ended up in more trouble. She states very briefly (one sentence) that she got married to the violent young man with whom she had fled. We are not told why and how she decided to make such a seriously bad move and we are left rather puzzled: if she knew he was so unpleasant, why did she marry him? Was her desperation that great?
The marriage did not last long and she continued moving from place to place—she moved house more than 40 times—at times leaving jobs and friends behind her. She admits to be following the example of her parents, especially her father, whose restlessness made him continually change jobs, suburbs and States.
There are some bad luck stories, but Nicholls does not indulge in self-pity, on the contrary, she blames herself for when things go wrong. The way she cared for her ill mother in the last years of her life is very touching, even though her efforts were not always appreciated.
In spite of some shortcomings, this is a very worthwhile book to read, if not for anything else to learn about the consequences of mental illness on other members of a family. It is also a very interesting story about the struggles, both financial and social, of many Australian families in the early and middle part of the twentieth century.
The book has several photos of the mother, the author and her family and is an excellent way to engage the reader. The front cover, a photo of the mother, with the author as a baby in a washing tub in the garden, is rather delightful.
– Georgina Scillio
Georgina Scilliohas had work published in Quadrant, Arena, The Australian and several other literary journals. Her collection of short stories A Dandelion on the Roof won first prize in the 2008 Northern Notes Writers’ Festival.
An Imaginary Mother is available from http://blackpepperpublishing.com/nichollsaim.html
A Handwritten Modern Classic by Finola Moorhead. Spinifex Press 2013. (First Published by Post Neo Books 1982).
I must have read Finola Moorhead’s A Handwritten Modern Classic just after it was published in 1982. It was one of those books that you never forget. It was handwritten not typed.
I had to relearn how to read this book. I started as if this was just another book but by the second paragraph I had tripped over words and landed flat on my face.
Finola’s handwriting is not that hard to read (compared to mine for example) but I had to approach the text in a different manner, I had to read more closely, and I had to reread just to make sure… those last two letters are they ‘th’ or a strange ‘r’? Is the word “death” or “dear”? Reread the sentence…ah must be death!
But once you crack the code you are in!! And it’s a wonderful place to be (whether it is 1982 or 2013!) and the Post Neo edition has held a special place on my bookshelf for decades.
A Handwritten Modern Classic is a manifesto, it is (at times) handwritten poetry disguised as prose. Interestingly it still seems contemporary – Malcolm Fraser may not be PM but the issues remain the same. Above all it asks questions about writing and literature that we still need to ask today.
It is exciting that Spinifex has republished this small press classic – and brought it to the attention of a new generation, a new group of readers and writers. It will be interesting to see how it is received 30 years after Pete Spence and Post Neo Books decided to publish a handwritten manifesto – a classic even then!
Rochford Street Review is proud to be able to publish berni m janssen’s extraordinary launch speech for this ‘classic’ of Australian literature and is over the moon at being able to publish Finola Moorhead’s own thoughts on her classic becoming a classic!
- berni m janssen’s launch speech
- Thoughts on new edition of A Handwritten Modern Classic – Finola Moorhead
– Mark Roberts
A Handwritten Modern Classic is available from Spinifex Press http://www.spinifexpress.com.au/Bookstore/book/id=219/
A Handwritten Modern Classic by Finola Moorhead. Spinifex Press. 2013. First published by Post Neo Books 1982.
In 1977 Finola was writing the everything of her living, in her own hand, in a small notebook and this is The Handwritten Modern Classic. She was writing of her living, her thinking about her living, the thinking about writing, and writing all of this – this everything of Finola’s living at that time.
I first read the Handwritten Modern Classic in the eighties, and was delighted and my delight has been re-ignited.
Simone Weil says ‘attention is love’ and Finola is attending, attending to the everything of her living, and this everything so interesting and of interest, we feel Finola loving; living, thinking, writing, everything. We are immersed in this close attending of everything that is so interesting and it is in this that a present, a now, that continues to be now, is composed.
In The Handwritten that present is still so now, continuing into this present
In the handwritten the writer is always present: present in the writing of the hand
In the handwritten the voice of the writer is printed. The handwriting a voiceprint.
The handwriting composing the voice in a continuous present that we are reading now.
And so present, that my delight continues.
But, what a cheek Finola has! To name her writing a classic as she is writing it, well before she is dead. What a tongue in cheek she has! She is poking her tongue at capital H History, capital L Literature, capital A Authority and all capitalisation! Amongst other things.
– it is political to write a handwritten modern classic –
In 1977, feminism spoke of the personal as political, and so Finola writing the everything of her living is a political act. As a writer, thinker, feminist, lesbian, protestor, questioning, questioning the everything of living, outspoken, critiquing; this places her outside of the mainstream, on the outer. Standing on the outer is a way to look in, look at, closely. Standing on the outer, looking in, so many minute details, filter in to focus, out. Pass.
She is writing of the everything of living in that time of 1977 – the politics of politics, the politics of living, the politics of thinking, of being, of relationships, of communication; thinking about and questioning the everything of living – writing, freedom, rules, roles, genius, romantics, literature, philosophy, alienation, imagination, insanity and sanity, of what is correct, of escape, of sarcasm, expression, failure, success, of barricades, a little seventies literati gos , an occasional portrait, wry observations, and of conversations with mother, lovers, friends and of speaking of language unbound in a Fitzroy laundromat. What a gritty hilarious romp it is!
As Gertrude says –
The only thing that is different from one time to another is what is seen and what is seen depends upon how everybody is doing everything. This makes the thing we are looking at very different and this makes what those describe it make of it, it makes a composition, it confuses, it shows, it is, it looks, it likes it as it is, and this makes what is seen as it is seen. Nothing changes from generation to generation except the thing seen and that makes a composition.
(Composition as Explanantion)
Finola pays respect to her lineage. Nods to the thinkers and literary forebears: Austen, Woolfe, Simone Weil, Marcuse, Wittgenstein, Coleridge, Tolstoy, Eliot. We feel this continuity. And of course, the entire composition, more than a nod to Gertrude Stein. It’s a rigorous conversation with Gertrude’s Composition as Explanation.
The Handwritten makes us laugh, sigh, groan, roar in protest, escape into, deeply, deeply into, the thinking and the imagining and the writing. As Finola says ‘imagination is best employed on what is’.
I am breath-taken, breathless by the scope, the attention, the detail, and the writing – the language so wonderfully composed. Composing the everything of a living, in words elastic, precise, evocative; playing playful. A sentence being more.
The Handwritten Modern Classic is difficult to read. We are unfamiliar now with handwriting – an idiosyncratic flow of script. Finola’s handwriting loops and lurches across the page. You must pause whilst reading to distinguish an ‘i’ or an ‘l’, one must pause in the reading of the writing, take time to be with the writing, in a way that text typed, text texted does not.
We pause in the irregularity. Pause to decipher, and in those moments of pausing, we are ciphering the word, rolling it around, and the word is clarifying and as the word clarifies the sentence has formed and nestled in our consciousness. The act of ciphering the hand, makes space for the intensity of thinking, of thinking of living, of questioning the thinking of living and the writing is living with us, as close as it can be.
This writing makes us stop to think, and in the pause of reading we are thinking, as Finola has been thinking through her writing of her living. She is not only thinking of how the writing is to be written but how her living and thinking of her living and her writing of her thinking of living is written. We pause in the loops of the handwritten, as we pause in the loops and twists of living, and the loops and twists and returns of thinking. We return again and again. We must start again, in reading and thinking, and reading the writing of living and thinking.
As Gertrude says, writing is often not recognised at the time it is written whilst it is very contemporary and exciting, but that often it must wait some thirty years or more before it can be recognised. And this is mostly when the writer is dead. Long dead. However once it has been accepted after it has been refused, and the writing is still contemporary and exciting, this is what makes it a classic.
Finola has us in her now of the living of these days in 1977. There is a freshness still, a beauty of the moment, a now that continues into now, that makes it a classic. A classic does not have wrinkles in its words, nor dust collected in the serifs. Unless placed there, with intent.
Gertrude says that a classic is wonderfully beautiful, after many have found that it has been annoying, difficult, stimulating. Some see the beauty whilst it is still annoying difficult and stimulating. Others will never see beauty in such.
A classic endures time.
Fresh as it was then, we are in the present of her writing of her living of everything and it is a delight, and the delight also makes it a classic.
And so Finola, who with tongue in cheek, nodding to her philosophical and literary lineage, with imagination, attention and foresight wrote The Handwritten Modern Classic. She wrote this from the outer, from the other side of the law, and as Gertrude has said you are an outlaw, until you become a classic.
As I was reading, I was noting so many lines, sentences, thoughts that delighted me and that I wanted to quote -so many hilarious quotable lines that I wanted to share, to sprinkle through these launching words, but they became so thick, I may as well have read you the book, so better you buy it and trip with this handwritten, pause in its stimulating difficult beauty, living in the writing of the living and the thinking of the living and the writing of the everything. Buy this book, so that you can begin and begin again, for the continuing delight of it. Gertrude would be well pleased with this classic composition!
– berni m janssen
The Handwritten Modern Classic is available from Spinifex Press http://www.spinifexpress.com.au/Bookstore/book/id=219/
Notebooks with mock leather covers, looking like a Reader’s Digest edition of the Complete Works of, say, Thomas Hardy, called, I think, “modern classics”, were sold in newsagents. There were neither lines nor words within. Di Wilson gave me one. She had suffered me writing my first novel, Lots Of Potential. I have an elusive memory-feeling that this notebook was an ironic present. Di shared with my mother a rich vein of sarcasm. I play those curly balls with a straight bat. I do, and being a sportswoman, I know what I mean. Being a sportswoman never ever sat with the full package of “being a writer”. Being a writer meant that you were an indoorsy person who read well and didn’t mind the sound of your own voice. My voice does not have a particularly pleasant timbre. Like the disappointing image in the mirror, the sound of my voice on radio makes me recoil blushing and rushing outside to hit a ball. Hitting a ball with a straight bat means, when metaphorically referring to a response to sarcasm addressed to myself, is nodding and seriously doing what is sardonically suggested, that is, stepping to the pitch (for those ignorant of cricket = where the ball bounces) to disempower the spin, not aggressively trying to whack it for runs. But whack it for runs, it seems, is what I have done. Ania Walwicz said to Kris Hemensley some time between 1972 and 1977 about me, “Who can believe a writer in a tracksuit?”, a little thing I have remembered all these years because she nailed my problem. What the f*ck am I doing pretending to be a writer when I don’t look/act/seem like one? .Forty years on I reckon I know what would have ensued had I been believable in the sense that Ania meant. I don’t think I have to explain that to readers of the Rochford Street Review, but I really don’t mind not being invited to speak and read at Writer’s Weeks or Festivals, judge literary prizes, give my opinion on the best books written in a given year, teach creative writing, hunger for residencies, grants and so on. So much of that is what you seem, not what you are, or what you wrote exactly. It drove me mad and it does drive me crazy when I am interviewed by someone who has not taken the time to read what I’ve written enough to understand or appreciate what I did.
What I did in terms of literature is important to me; the how, where, why of the what. What my sportswomen-friends read is not what I write, though, dear literary folk, they do read, a lot; an amazing amount. Their opinions are fierce on who is best, better and good; they are talking about plot. Plot is what I am not good at, though I do try. What I love is how a story, or feeling, or insight, or record unfolds, how the writer explains and describes. I love structure, form, philosophy subtley embedded in metaphor, symbol and action. What literary writers like is language, and I love them for that, but English for me is like a second tongue even though I have no other. That, ironically, is why I am a writer.
Kris Hemensley, forty years ago, like he is now in owning Collected Works, was a person as place. He was where we who wanted to explore the possibilities of writing gravitated as villagers might gather and chat at the well; outside the establishment, the houses and offices of standards where stamps of approval were given in relation to accepted, tried and true values of literature as taught in universities and schools. He gave Melbourne its avante garde in the literary genre by being open and versed in what was being done in England, America and Europe in the moment of the 60s and 70s, and publishing new work in any way he could. I was lucky enough to visit that well and drink from its licence.
So freed from being a short-story writer, or playwright, — my poetry was always over-blown and declamatory – I could set about writing “writing”, as we called it at the well. What was verse? What was prose? Was it grammatical? Did punctuation matter? These were good questions. But I don’t think I ever really “got it”, which means I had a fundamental problem with post-modernism. Women’s Liberation had thrown a spanner in the works in that, suddenly, the track-suit (even though I didn’t own one) made sense to other people, women. So by 1975 my image fitted in with a mob while my writing could develop in another intellectual direction. By 1980 I had worked out that I could write fiction with a female aesthetic using the allowances afforded me by being for a short while in the company of men who were writing great stuff which changed literature for the rest of the century.
In between these two was the serendipitous gift of a notebook and the writing in 3 weeks in 1977 of A Handwritten Modern Classic whose first edition has a print-run of one. For all those apparently sane people who collect things, especially rare books this one is the very definition of unique. Start bidding. In 1985 it was published by Pete Spence, who opted in his concrete-poetic way to keep the hand-writing. When Spinifex Press brought out the hard copy for their e-book publication of it this year, I read my “classic” again and it’s cute, it’s crazy, it’s readable; it is the picture of a thirty-year old’s mind, which I recognise as mine.
How little we change! How much we change! We can never have that opinionated energy again; a certain sort of poetry is ever youthful. By poetry I mean a delightful marriage of words, fresh, like the first taste of an avocado; an experience of literature which feels like teenage love. Maybe the wearing down of the sandstone, aging, can result in something sculpturally nice; the sharp edges of criticism smoothed by the wisdom that one must accept that people need their illusions, their ideals now not much more than words spoken, that tolerance is a part of the caution we have learnt to survive, we are more circumspect with what we commit to paper. The re-issue of A Handwritten Modern Classic has brought home to me the importance of being true to your age, when putting thoughts into words for others to read.
– Finola Moorhead
A Handwritten Modern Classic is available from Spinifex Press http://www.spinifexpress.com.au/Bookstore/book/id=219/
Water Mirrors by Nicholas Powell. UQP Poetry Series. 2012
The hyperbole of publishers’ back-page blurbs is deserving of a critical review section in itself. UQP are in fluent overdrive here, proclaiming this debut collection to be: exceptional, luminous, dazzling, extraordinarily forceful & ruled by a gentle but masterly technique.
As a critical (& slightly cynical) reader i’m now anticipating one of two things: A work of astonishing genius or the disappointment of yet another over-egged or over-hyped pudding. I’m happy to say that this slim collection veers cautiously toward the former but does on occasion take recourse in the latter. Ultimately though it left me more hopeful than disappointed & to someone who scans as much contemporary poetry as i do, that counts as a notably good result.
To be fair to the UQP marketing department, there are many moments within the covers when the writing, or phrasing within the writing, more than lives up to its hype. Powell has a deft eye & ear for intimacy & vulnerability, & a strong, sensual , poetic vision of landscape & situation. Although in this reader’s opinion, he is better at documenting intimate moments or poetic ‘flash fictions’ than he is at maintaining more extended narrative.
In Dip, the book’s second poem, we encounter the protagonist’s seeming reticence to allow himself to be poetic, to trust in the validity of his ‘felt’ language & not let it be domineered by the language of ‘thought’.
Launching the miniscule canoes of frangipani leaves,
He thinks to say, the tree grieves, and thinks
Better of it, focussing on how the breeze
Feels on a cleaned body, and happy to have
Not shot his mouth off.
Perhaps this is a clue to the niggling demon which haunts some of Powell’s work in this collection, a confidence to trust in the economy (& obliqueness) of his own poetic language. There’s a lack of thrift sometimes, a prosaic intruder which infiltrates his phrasing, which is frustrating knowing how well he can condense & control. He needs to trust in his undoubted skill as a poet more, be confident & within that confidence, extend the parameters of his world & the ruthlessness of his economy.
Despite the pan-continental back-drops these are insular poems, inward looking poems from his own ‘little window’. They can occasionally feel slightly devoid of a ‘punctum’, nice vignettes but surprisingly empty of emotionality but when he writes well, the poems dance & the moments are well & truly nailed. My only other minor criticism is that it sometimes it feels as though ‘The Poet’ is a little too present, too pre-occupied with being a poet, whatever that actually means.
Powell is at his best when the language feels instinctive, honest & not overly wrought.
Light caught your tongue, & your tongue, sun
History is made by how we speak
(Line for the new year, Lithuania)
The pleasant pain of making
…the tincture of bedsheets
Clubbed by sunlight we have fallen
asleep in the cheap seats dreaming
Late Winter is a truly beautiful little poem, my favourite in the collection – it marries the minutiae of domestic detail with the vastness of an external natural almost metaphysical presence; it’s beautifully observed & is one poem handled with an incredible degree of economy.
Water Mirrors is inarguably a strong debut for which Nicholas Powell should be applauded, but it is, for me anyhow, glowing with promise rather than dazzling; it is generally strong but not exceptional. What Powell gives us with this offering of 42 poems is a taster-plate full of possibilities. I look forward to reconvening for the next sitting; I’d be backing him to get better & better.
– Paul Summers
Paul Summers is a northumbrian poet who lives in Central Queensland. his poems have appeared widely in print for over two decades and has performed his work all over the world. A founding co-editor of the ‘leftfield’ UK magazines billy liar and liar republic, he has also written for tv, film, radio, theatre and collaborated many times with artists and musicians on mixed-media projects and public art.
Water Mirrors is available at http://www.uqp.uq.edu.au/book.aspx/1207/Water%20Mirrors
Tomorrow marks the 40th anniversary of the death of Michael Dransfield who died on 20th April 1973. Last year Rochford Street Review published a series of articles and reprints of reviews on Dransfield as we felt that the approaching 40th anniversary of his death deserved acknowledgement – perhaps a new edition of some of his books for example. I did suggest to UQP that a facsimile edition of Street of the Long Voyage would be very popular…but alas today it appears that all of his work remains out of print.
So to commemorate this date I am republishing a review I wrote of the Rodney Hall edited Collected Poems which first appeared in Southerly in 1988.
The Rochford Street review Dransfield feature can be found here: https://rochfordstreetreview.com/2012/04/20/michael-dransfield-table-of-contents/
Robert Adamson is organising a memorial reading/seminar to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Michael’s death – for further details please check the Michael Dransfield Appreciation Group on Facebook http://www.facebook.com/groups/6075328475/ – or keep checking back here as Rochford Street Review will be publishing details as soon as they are available.
– Mark Roberts
Michael Dransfield Collected Poems Edited by Rodney Hall. University of Queensland Press 1987. Reviewed by Mark Roberts. First published in Southerly Volume 48. No 4. 1988. Collected on the Printed Shadows Website December 2011
When Michael Dransfield died on Good Friday, 1973 at the age of 24 he had already published three collections of poetry and established a reputation as one of the most successful and popular of the new wave of young Australian poets who had emerged in the late 1960s. Since his death a further four collections have appeared, culminating in the Collected Poems (UQP 1987). When one considers Dransfield’s rapid rise to prominence, together with the attention focused on his lifestyle and the tragedy of his early death, it was almost inevitable that, to some extent, his life would come to overshadow his poetry. In fact, in the fifteen years since his death, the ‘Dransfield myth’, together with the decline in fashionably of the romanticism at the heart of much of his poetic imagery, has meant that his reputation as a poet has been attacked by a number of critics. In such a context, the publication in one volume of all of Dransfield’s published work, provides us with the opportunity to review his overall achievement and, hopefully, to reach a more realistic assessment of his work.
One cannot begin to examine Dransfield’s career, however, without noting the important role Rodney Hall has played over the last twenty years in bringing Dransfield’s work to the poetry reading public. It was Hall, then poetry editor of The Australian, who first ‘discovered’ Dransfield’ in 1967. It was Hall who passed Dransfield’s work onto Tom Shapcott who was then putting together an anthology of contemporary Australian poetry for Sun Books which would eventually become Australian Poetry Now. Shapcott and Hall also helped Dransfield prepare his first two published collections, Streets of the Long Voyage (UQP 1970) and Inspector of Tides (UQP, 1972). While Hall encouraged Dransfield during his life, Dransfield’s death revealed the extent of Hall’s devotion to the younger poet. Hall took on the task of collecting all of Dransfield’s unpublished poems and prepared a selection for publication. The result were the two posthumous collections, Voyage into Solitude (UQP 1978) and The Second Month of Spring (UQP, 1980).
Hall has organised the Collected Poems so that the volumes in which the poems first appeared are mostly kept intact. As a result the poems appear in rough chronological order beginning with Streets of the Long Voyage (containing poems written between 1964 and 1969), The Inspector of Tides (1968 to 1971), Drug Poems (1967 to 1971), Memoirs of a Velvet Urinal (poems from mid 1971), Voyage into Solitude (a posthumous collection of unpublished poems from 1967 to 1971) and The Second Month of Spring (poems from 1972). Not all these volumes, however, have been left intact. In the introduction Hall argues that where a poem has been published in more than one collection, he has chosen to leave it in the ‘large book’. As Hall believes that Drug Poems was an anthology of “pieces addressing a particular subject”, a number of poems that had previously appeared in Streets of the Long Voyage and Inspector of Tides, and others that would later appear in Memoirs of a Velvet Urinal, have been left out of the Drug Poems section in the Collect Poems. While Hall’s argument for this exclusion is, of course, perfectly reasonable, it means that the overall effect of the Drug Poems section in the Collected Poems is reduced.
Reading through the poems from streets of the Long Voyage and The Inspector of Tides I was once again struck by the balance Dransfield is able to find between the apparent simplicity of his individual images and the overall complexity of his most successful poems. This can be clearly seen in one of his best known poems, ‘Pas de deux for lovers’, which begins
Morning ought not
to be complex
The sun is a seed
cast at dawn into the long
furrow of history
A seed is, of course, a simple object. But it contains the potential to be something far more complex. So Dransfield’s morning sun becomes a planted seed and, as it sprouts, the day suddenly becomes far more complicated until we reach the final line:
is so deep already with involvement
This overall richness of imagery, achieved by selective use of language and a careful juxtaposition of individual images, is one of Dransfield’s great strength in these first two books. One can recall numerous poems where he achieves it – ‘Chris’, “Surreptitious as Desdemona’, ‘Linear B’, ‘Death of Salvatore Quasimodo’, ‘Bum’s Rush’, ‘Ground Zero’, ‘Geography’, ‘Loft’ and ‘Inspector of Tides’ among others. While Dransfield, of course, was not the only one of his contemporaries to achieve this, the ease with which he achieved it again and again in these first two books, both of which were published before he was 22, is an indication of just how early he matured as a poet.
Dransfield was a self-declared romantic and the richness and delicacy of his imagery was an important part of his romanticism. The poems in his first two books are filled with what might be called clichéd romantic symbols – magic carpets, crystal wine glasses, Greek mythology, Vincent van Gough, ruined mansions , fallen aristocrats, candles and dukes. But Dransfield’s romanticism was not confined to his poetry. He increasingly attempted to live the romantic image of the ‘suffering’ artist cut off from mainstream society because of his/her sensitivity. This can, perhaps, be best seen in his drug poetry. Streets of the Long Voyage, The Inspector of Tides and Drug Poems contain some very powerful and moving drug poetry. ‘Bum’s Rush’, for example, is one of Dransfield’s best poems. But as his addiction deepened, drug related imagery began to dominate his poetry more and more.
In his earlier poetry drugs became a vehicle for his romanticism:
on Coleridge’s painted sea in Rimbaud’s
drunken boat. High like de Quincey or Vasco
I set a course
or the Pillars of Hercules, meaning to sail
over the edge of the world
Even death, if it was surrounded by drug imagery, took its place in Dransfield’s iconography of romanticism:
last week, I think on Tuesday,
just gave up breathing
a big smashed doll
with the needle still in her arm
I made a funeral of leaves
and sang the Book of Questions
to her face as white as hailstones
to her eyes as closed as heaven
‘For Ann so still and dreamy’
Dransfield, in fact, clothed the life of the poet and the junkie in the same romantic imagery;
Once you have become a drug addict
you never want to be anything else
to be a poet in Australia
is the ultimate commitment
‘Like this for years’
The inference here is clear, poets and junkies are really two sides of the same coin. This sense of the suffering individual artist/drug user, while clearly growing out of the milieu of the late 1960’s, has come, in time, to represent the less successful aspects of Dransfield’s romanticism.
On the acknowledgement page of the original Sun Books edition of Drug Poems, Dransfield states that a number of the poems “will appear in Memories of a Velvet Urinal to be published in the USA in 1972.” This was an overly optimistic note. According to Hall, Geoffrey Dutton had promised to take the manuscript with him to the US but, as it turned out, it was not accepted for publication. Memories of a Velvet Urinal was, in fact, to remain in a number of different manuscript forms until Maximus Books in a Adelaide published a version in 1975.
Shortly before his death, Dransfield gave Hall one of the manuscripts of Memories of a Velvet Urinal which Hall then sent to a British publisher. As this was clearly a later version of the manuscript than the one eventually published by Maximus Books, Hall has used it in the Collected Poems. The differences between the two versions are quite important. Dransfield had actually discarded a number of poems which appeared in the Maximus edition – “madness systems parts one, two, three, four and the last”, “Making it legal 1 &2”, “Flametree” and “To the great presidents” appear only as appendices to the Collected Poems. The situation is complicated by the appearance in the Collected Poems of another poem with the title “To the great presidents”. In the Maximus edition this poem appeared under the title
no more war
Hall argues, and the evidence would appear to support him, that this actually represents a separate concrete poem and not a title. At this point I would have appreciated a further note of explanation from Hall concerning the transfer of the title “To the great presidents” from one poem to another.
The Collected Poems version also rearranges the order of the poems so that the book is now divided into four sections. This is, in fact, the most important change as it brings Memoirs of a Velvet Urinal into line with both Streets of the Long Voyage and The Inspector of Tides, both of which were divided into sections. The Maximus edition has the feeling of almost being thrown together. It begins with ‘Epitaph with two quotations’, a poem which is physically difficult to read and one of the weaker poems in the book. The Collected Poems version, on the other hand, opens with the title poem, ‘Memoirs of a velvet urinal’, a striking poem about a homosexual encounter. Dransfield, by regrouping the collection, and rejecting a number of poems, has tightened the book considerably. Whereas it was quite easy to believe after reading the Maximus edition that all the poems had been written in the four-month period between May and August 1971 (which, in fact they had), the Collected Poems version has a much more crafted and professional feel to it.
There is also a tendency in Memoirs of a Velvet Urinal for Dransfield to move away from the heady romanticism of his earlier work. In a poem like ‘Play something Spanish’, lines like:
planes of light. yes. they were effective. yes. you
are lost in them, their obvious coast
led you away to a place you cannot identify. spain?
never. play something metaphysical…..
suggest that contemporary American poetry was beginning to have a greater influence on his work. Unfortunately, there are also poem, such as ‘Poem started in a bus’, which depends upon a heavily clichéd, moralist ending:
to forget violence while violence
It’s difficult to escape the feeling that Dransfield could still have done more to the manuscript of Memoirs of a Velvet Urinal. The evidence suggests that, in the face of a number of publishers’ rejections, this editorial process was well underway at the time of his death. If he had lived, Memoirs of a Velvet Urinal, in time, may have been shaped into a volume which surpassed the achievement of his first two books.
Voyage into Solitude is the first of two collections of unpublished work which Rodney Hall edited after Dransfield’s death. In this first collection Hall assembled his selection from the period 1967 to 1971. In effect this represents the material that Dransfield, and those who helped him, rejected when editing material for those books he did publish during his life.
Overall it is probably fair to say that Voyage into Solitude is a tribute to the editorial process which went into the first four books. There are only a few poems in this collection which I would have been prepared to argue for. These would include ‘Sonnet’, ‘The sun but not our children’ and the wonderfully descriptive ‘Pioneer Lane’. For the most part, however, it is easy to see why these poems were left out. Many seem incomplete, an image doesn’t work properly or, as is more common, is too clichéd to be effective. Though it was obviously important for Hall to collect and publish these “rejected” poems, in the context of the Collected Poems, Voyage into Solitude remains a book primarily for the Dransfield scholar or enthusiast.
While Dransfield seemed to be developing, almost organically, away from the lush romanticism of his earlier work in Memoirs of a Velvet Urinal, the poems in Hall’s second posthumous collection, The Second Month of Spring (UQP 1980), marks a dramatic change in both style and content. All the poems in this collection were written during the last year of Dransfield’s life. In April 1972 Dransfiield, while riding his motorcycle, was run off the road south of Sydney by an off-duty policeman. Besides some serious injuries to his head and leg, the pethadine he was given in hospital undid months of effort put into overcoming his addiction. As might be expected, the accident figures prominently in these last poems:
used to get through
three five six
books a day
now can’t read
much more than
one short poem
or an article
blame it on
happens to all who happen here
it was the same
since my last
they also serve
‘October elegy for Litt’
Dransfield stopped referring to his work as poems during this final period, preferring to call them raves. In effect the work in The Second Month of Spring can be likened to the final explosion of light a star gives off as it starts to collapse in upon itself. These last poems are, in fact, intensely personal, almost to the point of being a diary in verse.
As far as style goes they are poems cut back to the bare essentials:
will get you high
Word plays often become an end in themselves, and even his earlier work is not safe:
straits of the long
While this is not great poetry, it is difficult not to be moved by the extremes of emotion – anger, hope, resignation – and, at times, the intense physical pain, which these poems highlight.
Rodney Hall, in his introduction to Voyage into Solitude, made the point that Dransfield is one of the few Australian poets to ever have “a genuine popular following….among people who do not otherwise read poetry”. The sheer size and scope of the Collected Poems, I believe, illustrates why Dransfield was able to build up this following.
Dransfield may have felt that being a poet in Australia was “the ultimate committment”, but there is no doubt that the late 60s were an exciting time to be a young poet in Australia. While most of his contemporaries saw themselves as “modern” poets, breaking the hold of the conservatives on Australian poetry, Dransfield was reading the romantics as well as contemporary American and European poetry. Though critics may disapprove of Dransfield’s romanticism, there is little doubt that, during the late 60s, it tapped a feeling among young people and, as a result, can be said to lie behind much of Dransfield’s initial popularity.
Perhaps, in the final instance, Dransfield’s greatest strength can be seen in the development we can trace in the Collected Poems from the early, richly romantic poems, through to the more hard-edged poems of Memoirs of a Velvet Urinal. Sadly, his tragic death in 1973 cut short this development. We should be grateful to Rodney Hall for editing this collection because, if nothing else, it has helped focus attention back towards the poems and away from the “Dransfield myth” which has come to dominate his reputation since his death.
-Mark Roberts (1988)
Mark Roberts is a Sydney based writer and critic. He currently edits Rochford Street Review and is working on a collection of poetry.
A quick search of the UQP website suggests that there are no Dransfield books currently available (even the John Kinsella Selected Poems is “currently unavailable for purchase”).
The best place to read Dransfield’s poetry would be the Sydney University based Poetry Library who have 398 of his poems on-line http://www.poetrylibrary.edu.au/poets/dransfield-michael