Fragments and the Whole: Mark Roberts reviews ‘The Pursuit of Happiness’ by Laurie Duggan

The Pursuit of Happiness by Laurie Duggan. Shearsman Books (UK) 2012.

dugganLaurie Duggan was one of the first Australian poets who captured my imagination when, as a seventeen year old, I came across ‘Marijuana Christmas’ in an issue of New Poetry. Forgetting for a minute how exciting the title ‘Marijuana Christmas’ was to a 17 year old, Duggan’s poem was expansive, both in subject matter and the way it spread across the page. It was also much longer than the poetry I was used to, spreading across 8 pages of New Poetry. But while it was long, it was also fragmentary, as Duggan took notices stuck to the wall of a post office, quotes from newspapers and friends, signs glimpsed from a train and worked them into the poem with some beautiful descriptive and lyrically rich poetry.

This fragmentary nature of Duggan’s writing has been has been commented on before and there are some obvious parallels to the visual arts – the use of collage and bricolage for example. For me, one of the keys to understanding this part of Duggan’s writing became apparent in an interview David McCooey conducted with him in 2003 (Double Dialogues Issue 5 2003. http://www.doubledialogues.com/archive/issue_five/duggan_mccooey.htm). In this interview Duggan talks about how a childhood illness, which resulted in a collapse at school, hospitalisation and substantial memory loss, impacted how he approached writing one of his early books, Adventures in Paradise (1982):

One of the problems I have with my childhood—and this affects the way the poem gets going and its compositional process—is that I have very few real memories of it. I did, as Adventures suggests, have a stroke when I was sixteen, and I think I suffered a good deal of memory loss as a side-effect. So what the poem presents is really a disparate group of snapshots (often things I think are memory are memories of photographs viewed later rather than the actual events).

He then goes on to describe memory and autobiography as “ridiculous constructs, made out of all sorts of odd pieces of information”. While he might be talking about a specific book and process it is possible to see this early approach to writing reflected through much of his subsequent work. It is at its most obvious, perhaps in the powerful book length poetic narrative The Ash Range (1987) where he welds together fragments of historical documents with descriptions and analysis in both prose and poetry to create a powerful narrative of place (the Gippsland area of Victoria), both real and imagined.

I began reading The Pursuit of Happiness at the same time I came across the notion of ‘fragmentary literature’ through the US based on-line literary journal Qarrtsiluni (http://qarrtsiluni.com/about/). The journal was having a literary ‘Fragments’ themed issue and, through the guest editors, Olivia Dresher and Catherine Ednie, I discovered the ‘manifesto’ of the Fragmentary Literature movement in the shape of Olivia Dresher’s introduction to the anthology In Pieces An Anthology of Fragmentary Writing (Impassio Press 2006). In this she writes:

One quality of fragmentary writing is the lack of a traditional beginning or end. Instead, the two are merged into a brief and concentrated middle……. Fragments can stand alone, separate from one another; they are written (and can be read) in quick, illuminating bursts and can feel complete just as they are. There’s an energy within a fragment that gives the writer and reader a sense of freedom’

This notion of ‘fragmentary writing’ made me recall McCooey’s comments around Duggan’s use of bricolage in his Double Dialogues interview. Indeed in The Pursuit of Happiness we can see Duggan experimenting with fragments, both as stand alone extremely small poetic structures and also as components in much larger pieces.

Perhaps the most obvious use of the small fragmentary structures in the collection can be seen in the two Angles sequences, ‘Angles 1-18’ and Angles 19-32. Interesting the two sequences occur towards the beginning and the end of the collection, effectively providing bookends for the majority of the poems in the book.

The ‘Angles themselves range from simple ‘found poems’:

on Clapham High Street
– VOLTAIR –
– drycleaners of distinction – “

Angles (4)

Which recall a much earlier fragments of found poetry such as:

In Herani, the Post Office
“Counter-cultural Americans are
just as mad as straight Americans” ”

‘Marijuana Christmas (1976)’

to almost haiku like sequences:

the door knob
cold to touch
frost on the western rooftops
ethereal blue plastic
on rows of vegetables”

Angles (7)

On one level these short fragments almost seem to be pieces that Duggan couldn’t expand or place in a larger piece, but liked too much to discard. As Dresher says they can be read “in quick, illuminating bursts and can feel complete just as they are”. They may also be working however, on another level. The title ‘Angles’ perhaps provides a hint. Each fragment provides a different view, a different angle of looking at the poet’s surroundings – in the this case the different social and physical landscapes of England. While there are longer poems here that examine different aspects of Duggan’s experience of England (and indeed Europe), there is an immediacy to these shorter pieces which suggests perhaps an outsider attempting to come to terms with a new environment which, while familiar on may levels, still has many points of difference from the familiar Australian context.

This notion of the post-colonial returning to the colonial centre, the ‘empire writing back’ (to borrow a phrase from Bill Ashcroft and Helen Triffin), is an interesting way to approach Duggan’s recent English based writing. There is definitely something very ‘un-English’ about much of the work in The Pursuit of Happiness and his previous two collections, the chapbook Allotments (2011) and Crab & Winkle (2009). Duggan approaches the English landscape with a lightness and brightness which perhaps springs from his descriptions of the Australian landscape. In the same way that the early colonial painters painted the Australian landscape through an English/European perspective, Duggan brings to his observations of England a sensibility that has been shaped by a very Australian consciousness.

It is interesting to approach the longest poem on this collection, ‘The Nathan Papers’, with this understanding in mind. ‘The Nathan Papers’, we are told, is older than the other poems in the book, having been written during an eighteen month residency at Griffith University during 2005-2006. The poem begins centred firmly in a Australia described by an artist:

eucalyptus after rain, even this , trunks straight or sinuous,
reminds of Sydney Long, art has made this environment, its
pathways, marked, curve towards the dormitories”

It is a familiar landscape, populated with familiar people and places. Bus connections are described in detail and Duggan describes places once familiar to him which have now been lost:

the Green Iguana (Newtown)
the Prince Edward Hotel (Darlington)
Nicholas Ponder Bookseller (Double Bay)
But not Nicholas Ponder.

For someone not familiar with the Sydney literary scent of a certain period then perhaps some notes would have been appreciated at this point, but this naming of place is a technique that Duggan is continuing to employ in his more recent English writing.

Indeed the conclusion of this poem finds Duggan in England “in the dining hall, Eliot College, Kent”. ‘The Nathan Papers’ details an important journey for Duggan, from the familiar and comfortable to the new which, at the same time, is much older than the post-colonial Australia he has left behind. It is a journey that has been at the centre of his recent work and which he has further developed with skill in The Pursuit of Happiness. It has provided an extra dimension to Duggan’s work and one which I will be interested to see develop over the next few years.

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.

The Pursuit of Happiness is available from http://www.shearsman.com/pages/books/catalog/2012/dugganPoH.html

Recording Images: Robbie Coburn reviews ‘Flying Low in the Minor Key” by Anthony Lawrence

Flying Low in the Minor Key by Anthony Lawrence, River Road Press, 2011.

Anthony-Lawrence-CD-cover-image-21-150x150Anthony Lawrence is unquestionably one of Australia’s most important contemporary poets. Flying Low in the Minor Key, released on CD as part of the excellent River Road Poetry series, brings together 30 of Lawrence’s finest poems spanning from his first collection to his most recent and uncollected work, read by the poet himself.

There is much to enjoy here, and it is clear this fine compilation has been delicately chosen to be listened to either in its entirety or simply as individual tracks.

The blurb for the release sums up Lawrence’s style perfectly, as “perhaps the most Romantic of Australian poets” but the true appeal in Lawrence’s work is in his stark imagery and diversity, and this collection is a wonderful display of his command over the lyrical, and the clear drive of narrative that runs fiercely through his verse.

This is evident from the moment the listener presses play in the fantastic opener “The Drive”, which recounts a childhood incident involving the firebombing of a car, beginning with Lawrence remembering the drive to the police station with his father:

My father could not look at me as we sat in the back of a white Sedan
on our way to the police station
But I looked at him.
He was staring straight ahead through all the years his son
had disappointed him.

It is this no-holds-barred, controlled lyricism that separates the poet from many of his contemporaries, tackling less glamorous topics with clarity while still upholding his use of description, creating an atmosphere that is honest, confessional and compelling. The poem continues:

When the detectives arrived I was having a family portrait taken…
I ran behind the Sunday school buildings and confessed
to the lawn scraping currawongs,
I watched black smoke, like useless prayer, gutter into the Sydney sky.
The sirens were a long time coming.

While ultimately being an appreciation and acknowledgement of family that is hidden during the angst and turmoil of adolescence, as the poet and his parents now “talk… about the violent spirit of a teenage son”, while sharing “their names” and “blood”, Lawrence consistently manages to intertwine experience with evocative imagery, creating a visual element most written poetry fails to achieve.

Another standout is the award-winning and hauntingly atmospheric “The Rain”:

Rain, and driving thoughts of rain, miles
and hours of it, inches and yards of light
and dark rain, where seamless cloud has been
stitched and gathered into a great undoing
of itself…

A heavily descriptive piece, water is a consistent theme in Lawrence’s work, particularly in earlier collections The Darkwood Aquarium, Three Days Out of Tidal Town and Cold Wires of Rain, and becomes a foundation for much of the work presented here.

The poet has a particular appreciation for the alluring qualities of rivers and oceans in poems such as “The Trawler” and “Oceanography”, while the title poem, far different in subject describes “the night’s paint being prepared or still wet on the leaves and grass”, as a change unexpectedly occurs.

The latter poem breaks away from Lawrence’s usual take on the lyric, written in the 2nd person, creating vivid imagery that causes the listener to ponder its deeper meaning, revealing the impressive range and control of the poet’s voice. Lawrence characteristically writes from the point of view of a naturalist, and this piece effectively summarizes the collection as a whole.

Ultimately, this is a brilliant CD, presented in a beautifully printed cardboard sleeve that demands to be heard again and again, and would be enjoyed by any regular readers of Lawrence’s work and indeed all lovers of good poetry.

To hear the poems is an experience far more intimate than simply reading in silence, and Flying Low in the Minor Key is moving and memorable listening, reaffirming why Lawrence, all these years on, remains at the forefront of Australian poetry.

– Robbie Coburn

——————————————————————————-

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

Flying Low in the Minor Key is available from River Road Press: http://www.riverroadpress.net/?page_id=331

Intellectual Exuberance and Dark Irony: Tina Giannoukos Reviews ‘Street to Street’ by Brian Castro

Street to Street by Brian Castro Giramondo Publishing 2012

castro-cover-a4-264x300The intellectual exuberance and dark ironies of Brian Castro’s Street to Street make this another Castro extravaganza in story-telling. Street to Street is the unfolding of two lives gradually intertwining, the unfortunate biographer, Brendan Costa, and his difficult subject, the poet-scholar Christopher Brennan. In its disconsolate exhilaration and poetic melancholia, Street to Street is an ode to creativity and its spectacular and not-so spectacular fulfilment.

Brennan’s language, his metaphysical concerns, his difficult life, and the aleatory location of his poems in an unreal zone of abstracted time and space make him a liminal and challenging figure. He is the sort of hybrid writer that Castro is naturally drawn to — what he has called “writers who do not conform, either generically or canonically”. Such writers “trouble rather than entertain”. These “‘non-national writers’” are not necessarily celebrated: “they are suspect and ‘illegal’” (Castro, Brian. “Arrested Motion and Future-mourning: Hybridity and Creativity.” Southerly. 2008 68 3. Page 119). Brennan is a threshold figure of Australian poetry whose individual poetics and bohemian life remain sources of interest and discussion.

The narrator of Street to Street is Costa’s friend and colleague, known as The Labrador. He informs us that Costa, in his sixties and working on Brennan for over a decade, “was not offering a biography of Brennan, not even a minor, muddy one, pickling the stones of false memory” (17). This is familiar Castro territory of the hopelessness of auto/biography as testamentary evidence, a terrain explored so extravagantly but differently in Shanghai Dancing. Instead, Costa “was thinking of one loose thread: the way a life unravels, falls apart, becomes dissolute, not for all of the obvious reasons like alcohol or disastrous relationships or depressive illness, but through mood” (17). Life in Street to Street is a disappearing act, a dissolving reality, a matter of spectral possibilities.

To highlight the Labrador as narrator of Street to Street is to join in the exquisite play of Castro’s narrative hand. He so skilfully merges the identity of Costa, Brennan and the Labrador that the novella becomes another Castro sleight of hand. We might ask who is really telling the story, and it is sometimes impossible to tell. The merging of narrative identities raises the question of whose creativity is at stake: Brennan’s, his biographer’s, the Labrador’s or Castro’s own as the ghost behind all three, the phantom hand that elegantly traces the lines of fate that seemingly converge in the body of the Labrador, the storyteller who appropriates Costa’s life and his narrative.

Street to Street carries the sense of some primal scene of emasculation: Brennan stands utterly denuded before his wife and his mother-in-law while his biographer, Costa, is stripped bare by the female Head of Department. For both men, their lovers are a salvation of sorts, but what salvation can there really be? Brennan tears himself up in bed lying next to his young lover while Costa makes desperate preparations for the arrival of his. Castro may enshroud Brennan in the familiar fog of alcohol, but his triumph is to enter into Brennan’s despair in such a way that we begin to wonder what is the meaning of creativity.

A project within Street to Street is the dual critique of the university in the powerful interrogation of Brennan’s unhappy experience in his own time and Costa’s own scathing treatment in an increasingly commercialised academy. Castro himself is critical of the contemporary university, arguing that “deep thinkers and critics … have been turned into marketeers and petty bureaucrats” (119). Costa’s own unravelling is as devastatingly imagined as Brennan’s, undone by the academy and his own subject. Is the biographer morally responsible for his subject’s failings? Costa’s statement that “I am not defending the man … but I do stand for his contradictions” (137) suggests the moral conundrum of biography. To take on the life of another as biographer is to be implicated in that life.

Some of the most superbly imagined passages in Street to Street are those dealing with Brennan’s decay. In its compression, Street to Street is like a beautiful long prose poem whose jagged edge is a wider critique of what a literary and intellectual culture might be. The novella is part of Giramondo’s series of Shorts. Those familiar with Castro’s writing know already of his intense compressions and his paradoxical expansions. At its exhilarating best, Street to Street has the mesmerising power of Shanghai Dancing. Of course, Street to Street carries its own incandescent weight. It breathes the darkness of Brennan’s life, its highs and lows, its own iridescent hopes and shadowy despairs, with an ironic compassion for the domesticity the poet is enjoying with his young mistress, Violet Singer, before her terrible death. In the intensely imagined bond, Castro gives us the claustrophobic closing in of life on Brennan himself, a tragic-comic figure of his own poetic making: “Nobody noticed his muttering that he had finally found the Absolute” (139) which once was “the absolute imagination, placeless, unsullied by distraction” (84).

In the unravelling lives of Brennan and his biographer, Castro has perhaps too ready a subject for his own themes, the interrogation of writing and of the academy, but if that is the case, Street to Street is a disquieting reflection on our literary and intellectual culture. Brennan is no mere cipher for the interrogation of writing and its discontents, and Costa is not his straightforward double. Without sentimentality but much dark humour, Street to Street evokes the creative dangers of Brennan’s life and the philistine narrowness of his era as much as the creative dangers of his biographer’s life and the philistine afflictions of the contemporary era.

Castro imagines a life of Christopher Brennan and gives us a haunting narrative. His imaginative rendering of Brennan’s life and the biographer’s own reality, and the wider cultural forces in which they’re enmeshed, prises open the subject of what it means to possess an enriching intellectual culture. In its vertigo-like effect, Street to Street holds us in its dizzying grip.

-Tina Giannoukos

———————————————————————————————-

Tina Giannoukos is a poet, fiction writer and reviewer. Her first book of poetry is In a Bigger City (Five Islands Press, 2005). Her poetry is anthologised in Southern Sun, Aegean Light: Poetry of Second-Generation Greek Australians (Arcadia, 2011). Her most recent poetry publication is the sonnet sequence in Border-Crossings: Narrative and Demarcation in Postcolonial Literatures and Media (Winter, 2012). She has a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Melbourne. She has been a recipient of a Varuna Writers Fellowship, and has read her poetry in Greece and China.

Street to street is available from http://www.giramondopublishing.com/street-to-street

What does satisfaction feel like?: Miriam Zolin reviews Tarcutta Wake by Josephine Rowe

Tarcutta Wake by Josephine Rowe. UQP 2012

tarcutta wakeIn our first world comfort zone, we’ve mostly forgotten what it feels like to have an empty belly. That kind of hunger is mostly something we’ve found a way to solve. But there are other hungers, and it is these yearnings for a those other kinds of sustenance that Josephine Rowe tackles in Tarcutta Wake. This collection of short stories, snippets and slices pares back the layers of her characters’ lives to describe – with metaphor and indirect gaze – the human ache to be the weft in something’s weave.

Tarcutta sits at the mid-point between Australia’s two largest cities, Sydney and Melbourne. It’s in New South Wales, on the Hume Highway and up until relatively recently was the main road route between the two centres. Four hundred and fifty six kilometres from Melbourne and 438 kilometres from Sydney: whether or not you stop there, the secret of its position has the pull of the symmetrically symbolic. (Few ever stopped there, I gather – and even fewer now that it’s been bypassed by a dual carriageway freeway). I could not help making the leap, as I read and re-read this collection, extrapolating out from Tarcutta to ‘mid-point’ and leaping out from there to ‘limbo’. The story that names the collection is at least in part about being past the midway point – it touches on aging and death – so maybe I’m reading too much into nothing, but that’s something Rowe’s stories tend to lead us to. Our species has a kind of inbuilt hunger for stories, and we are good at filling in the gaps, even if we’d rather someone did it for us.

On my desk at home I have stack of other peoples’ photos. They are old, faded and sepia. I bought a vintage album and they were in it but because I bought the album for the album, and because I couldn’t bear to discard these pictures of real people, I keep them in a stack tied with ribbon and I reach out to look at them from time to time, between other things. I can see just enough in them to be tantalised by who they might be and what their stories might be, but knowing is impossible; they are completely out of context. A man in a suit with a brick wall and climbing roses behind him holds his trumpet in his left hand, against his midriff. A buxom older lady with a tight bodice glares into the camera. A family of five stare at me from the centre of a dirt road – a strange little group in the middle of nowhere, all dressed up for civilisation and only gumtrees all around. These photos have a similar effect on me to Rowe’s collection. Her pieces are like snapshots, full of intricate detail and deftly drawn characters. Her people are fleshed out in delicate brushstrokes, and we feel we almost know them, but she is all show and no tell. In ‘Into The Arms Of The Parade’ a model takes a break from sitting for a portrait. She is intrigued by the artist’s existence, and wishes she could turn over a postcard she sees on the shelf: ‘I thought that if I could only flip it over and read what was on the back, I might be able to know something about her.’ The model is experiencing something like I experienced when I read the story with her in it. I wanted the back of the postcard.

Another story, ‘Heart of Gold’ is narrated by a puzzled observer of some strange and unexplained behaviour. The piece finishes with the line, ‘We tried our best to make sense of it.’ As did I. I turned that page back and forth, reading the story over and over again to try and make sense of it. The piece became more and more beautiful the more I read it – I believe I could recite it now, if prompted. But the meaning I yearned for was out of reach.

The paradox of Rowe’s writing is that even as she stops short of rounding out her pieces to something we could recognise as a ‘story’, you do sense that you are in safe hands. She has a gentle, assured touch, a deep understanding of what it means to be searching and lost. But she draws no conclusions. Without a doubt, her portraits of people and circumstance create a clear, true picture, each authentic in its simplicity and complexity, poetic in its language. But they are only portraits. The story is somewhere else.

And no, there is nothing unfinished about this collection. The writing is all beautiful – breathtakingly so. But it does have incompleteness about it. These stories will not help you find answers to your questions. They will not provide you with explanations. They will, instead, push you gently to the window and remind you to keep searching for a way to satisfy your own very human need to connect.

– Miriam Zolin

————————————————————————————-

Miriam Zolin’s writing has recently appeared in PenTales, Griffith Review, Cordite Poetry Review, Australian Book Review and The Sleepers Almanac.

Tarcutta Wake is availble from http://www.uqp.uq.edu.au/book.aspx/1206/Tarcutta%20Wake

For another view of Tarcutta Wake see Lyndon Walker’s resposnse Practicing for the Novel: Lyndon Walker reflects on Tarcutta Wake by Josephine Rowe

Language and Chatty Syntax: Andrew Burke reviews 1953: A verse narrative by Geoff Page

1953: A verse narrative by Geoff Page UQP Poetry Series (2013)

1953Geoff Page has written a rich-veined poetry novel entitled and set in 1953. I read it once over the course of many busy days and was so interrupted by daily events, I went back to it and read it again slowly, taking notes and writing comments. As a child, I picked flies to pieces and disrobed caterpillars, with much the same result. Maybe I’ll just tell you what I think.

I must tell you, openly and whole-heartedly, I enjoyed it. I read it and reread some poems that jolted my memory, and, as Frank Moorhouse says on the back, stopped me in my tracks. (Yes, I remember 1953.) I’ve read many ‘verse novels’ and liked only some of them: Seth’s The Golden Gate for his dexterous use of the sonnet form; Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid for its vibrant lively language and the great use of detailed research; Murray’s Fredy Neptune for its depth of narrative and strength of poetic; Amos Oz’s The Same Sea, for its sensuous writing and application of narrative to bring alive historic conflict. I’ve also read many verse novels that have been inspired by these successful works and found the majority of them wanting, the poetry weak. My vision of a successful ‘verse novel’ is a strong narrative written in good poetry. My version of good poetry may not be yours, but that’s the way the poetic foot rambles.

What makes a novel? Setting, characters and plot are the bare bones. So let us look at 1953 through these elements.

Geoff Page sets the tone and the pace in the first poem, skilfully painting a country town circa 1953 and setting up the ‘style’ of the book at the same time:

The stories here start everywhere,
already half-way through,
a web of roots, of nodes and networks

An interesting point-of-view is used here as the author takes the reader through the town of Eurandangee as through the lens of a cinematographer (as in Arthur Miller’s novel The Misfits) –

Our view is slowly moving right,
slow enough to count the houses,
roofs grey-white and galvanised,
gardens with their shrubs and lawns
that only just remember water.
Off towards the western edge
we see the brickwork turn to fibro
and campfires out the back.
The main street’s straight as parted hair:

Through his language and chatty syntax, we feel the love and tenderness Page has for a rural Australian long gone …

The people are from brush-strokes only;
We do not see their faces.
We recognise Akubras though,
bigger brims for smaller places.
We see the European trees
thirsting in the park
though not the damage underneath.
We see the marble digger,
musing on his column.

Throughout the book, Page’s wit shines through, with an affectionate tone in the portraits of big knobs, fringe dwellers, shearers, fettlers, diggers and returned soldiers, and skylarking schoolkids under the caring eye of their school teacher. I live in a country town in NSW now, and I can still recognise his characters as I shop with merchants and negotiate with tradesmen around this town.

The setting is stopped in time: ‘a Tuesday, right on half past two, / 17th February, / 1953.’ After WWII, but during the Korean War; before Queen Elizabeth’s coronation visit but after the first Holden had rolled off the assembly line; during the time of worldwide tension called the Cold War. World events do come home to play on some of the characters here, but many continue the quiet rural lives of those generations before them. They often question whether they should have stayed or not. Well, the clock doesn’t move, but the characters do interact and go about their daily lives, as in an outback version of Dylan Thomas’s Llareggub.

I don’t know in which order Page wrote the portraits of the characters that make up the tale, but he has shuffled them in such a way as to create webs of narrative as real as in any small, close community. Nothing much happens, but there again a lot is happening, if you get my drift: there’s an affair, with rich emotions to explore through three of the main participants; there’s the results of an earlier affair for a young girl and a shifty shearer – her parents, a child born, lives changed forever; the nightmarish aftermaths of war on returned diggers and wives; a story of a ‘half-caste’ family (as they were known back then), with the mother drinking and the kids tending for themselves. The Royal Hotel is one of the central social settings, and is the stage for much class distinction of the time.

The first word on the book’s back blurb is ‘suspenseful’ – and I can’t see that. Suspense doesn’t really enter into it for me. The town is a living breathing example of a country community set back then, 1953, when sheep and wool prices were at their ‘apogee’ and there was still a choice to stay home after school was done. There is tragedy at the end, misplaced love and sex along the way, the laying of the vital railways of Australia, war in action and reaction, and a rich and affectionate portrait of a country town – but suspense? No. If anything, the characterisations are mildly predictable, but executed in such a warm-hearted and witty way that they are fresh again.

The plot, as such, is already half-way through from the first word. And absolutely about to begin with the last – which I won’t quote because it would be a ‘spoiler’. It is a difficult task to set yourself as the author: a town stopped at two thirty on a Tuesday sixty years ago, with a multitude of characters busy in their lives of loving, warring, making life and making a living – stop-framed and backgrounded, loaded – as it were – with the next events in their lives about to explode. Page moves the characters through dramatic monologues and single-character point of view narratives. It is a kaleidoscope with all the pieces coming together to create a dynamic multi-faceted tableau.

I only have one gripe. One of the best ways to breathe life in characters on the page is to give them something to say. To my mind, there should be more dialogue in these stories. Someone wise once said, ‘A character comes alive when they open their mouth’. When this happens in these pages, the scene becomes alive. I particularly like the narrative mode of poem XV. Three young women, like a bored Greek chorus, are gossiping about Peggy with character assassination and hints of an affair but no facts – the lethal mixture for social trouble in any small community.

‘That Peggy, she’s a bit stuck-up,
Now she’s married Stan, I reckon.
She’s not the girl she used to be
Back at Doctor God’s.’
The speaker, maybe twenty-five,
Rocks a pram pulled in beside her.

They talk and sip shandies, light a smoke and gaze about, before continuing:

‘So, what’s the story then?
What’s she keeping from us, eh?’
‘Or who might be a better question,’
says Number 1 across her shoulder,
off to buy the round.
The other two see what she means,
check the baby as they wait,
half-annoyed there’s nothing yet
a girl can really get stuck into.

Today’s society with all its joys, ills and treacherous, luxuries took root yesterday in just such communities as Eurandangee, Tuesday , 17 February, 1953. Entire sections of your local library have texts that explore the historical, ethical, socio-logical, racial and economic themes whispered in the pages of this rich seedbed of a book, but this book has a tapestry of human emotions running through it. Go read 1953 and ponder what happens next – in 1953 and 2013.

– Andrew Burke

—————————————————————————-

Andrew Burke is a leading Australian poet.His two latest nooks are Undercover of Lightness: New & Selected Poems (Walleah Press, Hobart) and Shikibu Shuffle in collaboration with Phil Hall,(above/ground press, Ontario). He blogs at hi spirits.

1953 can be obtained from UQP http://www.uqp.uq.edu.au/book.aspx/1232/1953

The Stella Prize Short List – a long time coming

stella-logo-largeThe issue of gender equality in literature one is a difficult one. One one side there is the argument that writing should be selected, published, read and awarded on its merits irrespective of who wrote it and that the writer’s gender, race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, politics etc should not come into it. On the other hand there is the argument that  such objectivity is impossible, that all the odds the odds are stacked against writers who write from outside one of the literary mainstreams.

As someone who has edited a literary magazine and as an editor of a website that attempts to run reviews and criticism of new Australian writing, such questions are critical to the way I approach my work. When P76 was receiving unsolicited work my memory is that we received far more work from male writers than female writers (this was in the 1980s and 1990s). While I don’t pretend to know the reasons why I suspect that it is not that there were more males writing poetry than females – I tend to suspect that males felt more confident sending their work out or saw their work as public whereas perhaps some women writers felt less condiment offering their work for publications. Oner way I attempted to overcome this was to approach a number of women writers directly to try and ensure a more balanced gender split.

With Rochford Street Review the issue is a little more complicated – on one level there is the question of how many books by male writers have been reviewed compared to female writers. Then there is the question of the reviewer – how many of our reviewers are female as opposed to male. I attempted to collate some of these figures on the occasion of Rochford Street Review’s first birthday last November. The results of this analysis can be found at https://rochfordstreetreview.com/2012/12/02/happy-birthday-rochford-street-review/.

And so to the Stella Prize. There is a certain irony in the fact that up to 2012 works by female writers have won 16 out of 55 Miles Franklin Awards. While the importance of these statistics can be debated, the questions obvious go much deeper than a single award. During 2012 there was a widespread perception that women’s rights where under attack. There were, for example,  the obvious attacks lead by the commercial radio shock jocks which were reflected in gender specific attacks against Australia’s first female Prime Minister. One of the founders of the Stella Prize, writer and editor Sophie Cunningham, summed it up when she said “After a rapid acceleration in women’s rights in the ’70s and ’80s, things have started to go backwards”.

This was also playing out in the literary arena. By 2012 it was pointed out that roughly 50% of books published in Australia were by women, yet books by women were under represented in Award short lists and on the review pages. So in mid 2012 a group of women decided to set up an Australian Literary Award open to women writers only. Based on the Britain’s Orange Prize for fiction, the Stella Award was to offer a prise of Aust$50,000 for the ‘best’ book by an Australian Woman – unlike the British award it is not limited to fiction.

This week the short list for the initial award was announced. Those making the final cut are:

  • The Burial – Courtney Collins (Allen & Unwin)
  • Questions of Travel – Michelle de Kretser (Allen & Unwin)
  • The Sunlit Zone – Lisa Jacobson (Five Islands Press)
  • Like a House on Fire – Cate Kennedy (Scribe Publications)
  • Sea Hearts – Margo Lanagan (Allen & Unwin)
  • Mateship with Birds – Carrie Tiffany (Picador)

Interestingly, while the prize was not limited purely to fiction, it would appear that all he short listed books fall into that category (one could debate the status of The Sunlit Zone as a verse novel). While it would have good to see some more poetry among the shortlist, it is encouraging to see Five Island and Scribe making the cut against the larger publishers.

The winner will be announced in Melbourne on 16 April.

– Mark Roberts

—————————————————————————————–

The Stella Prize website can be found at: http://thestellaprize.com.au/

Pushing Boundaries: Mark Roberts reviews amphora by joanne burns

amphora by joanne burns. Giramondo 2011.

burns-cover-final-215x300Burns 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.

Much of burns’ earliest work from the 1970’s was, in fact, poetry – though it was very much the experimental poetry that the ‘new poets’ were working with at the time. ‘carve her name with pride’, from her second collection Ratz, is perhaps sounding a warning to those of us who attempt to categorise and label her work:

the critics are coming
they’re here, they’re here

perception ‘n logic, linguistic deception
the cutlery’s laid, the dishes prepared

metaphors marinate, mashed metaphysics
roasted rhetoric phonetically fried
coffee dichotomy, Jane Austen cheese

…..sing a song of critics
…..bellies growing high
…..first class honours theses
…..hang the bones to dry

There is a playfulness in this poem, though very much tongue in check. It is interesting to consider that these days, particular after the publication of amphora, the critics have indeed been coming – in most cases to praise!

Burns very quickly, however, moved towards the short prose, or prose poem sequence and, in collections such as Correspondences (with Pam Brown, Red Press 1979) and Ventriloquy (Sea Crusie Books 1981), we find her at ease with the short prose genre – what might be called today ‘micro fiction’, but which was then very much prose poetry. In some ways the prose poem, and particularly the way burns approached them in the late 70’s and 80’s, could be seen as a political statement, something Moya Costello alludes to when she refers to the rise of the prose poem/micro fiction among Australian feminist writers during this period:  “I was trained in the art of short fiction in the early 1980s by being a member of the Sydney Women Writers Workshop who, to put it crudely, favoured experimental short prose over the novel, which was seen as colonised by patriarchy”.(http://reviews.media-culture.org.au/modules.php?name=News&file=article&sid=1785#FNT6).

In part It is this background that makes burns such a fascinating writer. Boundaries have indeed been pushed (and in some cases broken completely), but her work has continued to developed and to suprise. Her latest collection, amphora, is further evidence of this development. It is a major work, complex and at times dense, but burns has remained true to her roots – amphora is also surprising and unexpected and difficult to tie down, just like much of her work stretching back to the 1970’s.

For example, while there are some very fine prose poems in amphora, I was also pleasantly surprised by the strength of the work that falls, for the most part, under the more traditional ‘poetry’ tag, especially those in the first section of the collection ‘ichoria’.

Even here, however, burns can’t help slipping back into the prose poem from time to time. In the opening poem, for example, we see her moving easily from a conversational poetic form:

i know an angel poem can be a cliché
but every poet’s got an angel somewhere
cruising through their work even if they don’t
admit it; ruffle the leaves of any old anthology
and you’ll hear angels speaking through the dust

to a lines that start leaning towards a more prose like structure:

my kind of angel comes like a flash of light a silver
wink  in the  dark a stroke  of  thought  behind the
brow down the  nape of the neck so slow it’s really
fast.it could remind you that you’re about to die if
you don’t move your arse

‘pitch’

In some respects this change from the ragged line breaks of the first section to the prose like justification of the second is almost like a gear change. It forces the reader to read in a slightly different way, by breaking up both the rhythm of the poem and the way the lines form across the page. In this poem, however, it also allows burns to insert a personal experience into a more general discussion. In the prose/poem section we read of how the poet narrowly avoided death when a speeding car heads straight towards her:

……………………………………..i felt too vague. in that
slow step to the right the prod of an instant angel
surely reached across to save my life

In reality the entire poem revolves around this central prose section. The personal experience in the centre lends weight to the more poetic discussion around dusty angels speaking from old anthologies or the fallen angel “who descended from a star then lost its light.” that take place at the beginning and end of the poem.

Burns uses the same combination of poetry and prose in ‘rung’ which is one of the most impressive pieces in this collection. The first section of this piece uses poetry, the second section starts using poetry and then slowly changes into prose. The rest of this piece then moves between poetry and prose. This actually works very well and creates a structure which allows burns to explore some complex notions of memory.

The ‘rung’ of the poem refers to the rungs of a ladder and it is the dusty of rung of her father’s ladder which opens the poem. This simple domestic object:

covered in dust, draped in
an ancient sarong, its rungs
to hang disoriented clothes,

Becomes a symbol  of the martyrdom of St Perpetua, an early Christian female saint who, in a vision while in prison, saw a narrow golden ladder reaching up to heaven.

But if the opening section of the collection is full to overflowing with catholic icons, burns’ angels aren’t the angels of spiritual belief, rather they are the angels of childhood memories – the result of a traditional Catholic upbringing.  In ‘Rung’ burns highlights the conflicting symbolic uses of the ladder. While for St Perpetua the ladder is the golden ladder stretching to heaven which the faithful must climb, for burns:

this ladder has no fine points sticking up towards
heaven.  i feel no drowse. No golden dream….

Rather burns questions the need to go up ladders, rejecting the

…………..…medieval images of sinners falling down
the ladder to hell and the lascivious instruments of
satan’s torturers…

for burns the ladder represents a chance to “…climb down the ladder / of memory”. The strength of this poem lies in the conflict between the images (relics) of a Catholic childhood, the stories of the martyrdom of the saints, their ‘visions’ of the climb into heaven and burns’ desire to move beyond these images to the recollections and memories which has driven much of her work over years:

……………………..…………………….not the tongue stretching
Up for the dry sticky host of a first communion gravitas
But arms reaching out for that first swim in deep water

While there is plethora of angels and saints in the first few sections of amphora, it is the consistency of the work through the entire collection which is its major strength. At 135 pages it is almost as long as some Selected or Collected poems going around and, indeed I have read selected works with a greater variation of ‘quality’ – the poems in amphora retain their intensity throughout the collection. After the ‘surprise’ of the intense catholic iconography in the early section of her book, it was the more conventional   work in the middle and later sections of amphora suggest that this will one of burn’s major collections. All in all amphora deserves to become one the ‘must read’ collections of Australian poetry. In it joanne burns has drawn on her work over the last 30 years or so to create a work that threatens to become a classic.

– Mark Roberts

———————————————————————————————

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

amphora is available from Giramondo http://www.giramondopublishing.com/category/author/joanne-burns-author

A Welcomed Life: Les Wicks reviews ‘Honey & Hemlock’ by Julie Watts

Honey & Hemlock by Julie Watts. Sunline Press, 2013.

Honey and hemlockWhen I was lucky enough to have a stay at Tom Collins House in Perth I was told about the historical resentment that WA writers had about the exclusionary attitudes of “the scene” over east. Considerably lessened, they’d say, but still very real. I was surprised at this proposition in the age of comparatively cheap airfares and e-mails scuttling across the globe, but in the end I saw their point.

Julie Watts was one of an array of dynamic, fascinating emerging poets whom I ran across during my stay. I was expecting good writing when I received her first book “Honey & Hemlock” but I got a hell of a lot more. Like many inaugural titles the subjects are heavily autobiographical ranging across lovers, parents, daughter, mishap, nursing home and pets. But given that familiarity of theme, the reader is even more enriched by the gift of her language… the way she makes enlivens these themes.

There is a heavy dose of joy and wonder throughout this collection, yet more vital medications for the future of Australian poetry. All within the context of a fully nuanced life; in “After the Eye Injury” we’re breathlessly led along a pilgrimage of newly re-experienced colours to her altar of light. With “A Swim in the Sea” the poet plays with a simplicity of moment to a turn at the end that saw an audible ah from this reader. The familiarity with and love of the sea is evident throughout this collection

Watts savours a real sensuality in “6:45 AM” and “Achilles heel” then follows through with this startling new take on an eggs & sperm in “Eggs” – sperm on a tissue in a bin:

for three days they butt
at a white rough sheet
of pulverised tree.

This open sensuality carries through so much of this collection in everything from the stroking of the cat to breathing salt air… “A Spit of Sun”

and the world bursts
a pollen of people

The expenditure of time honing her craft is evident throughout. “Lilith” is a deeply satisfying study. In “I like Old Women” she comments:

they understand invisibility
no one can touch them now

“Maslow and the Ladybird” is another poem that careens out from the simple proposition of a ladybird landing on the poet’s wrist. It concludes:

vermilion folds a savannah
of all libidos

“So Much Depends” finishes the book and I couldn’t extract a single word from this poem, the whole works so perfectly. Had I been allowed only to read six books this year, there would not be a moment of regret if this had been one of them. Any of us “eastern-staters” who may not have run across her or even Roland Leach’s Sunline Press are strongly encouraged to rectify the issue.

– Les Wicks

——————————————————————————————–

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

Honey & Hemlock is available from Sunline Press. http://www.sunlinepress.com.au/