Funny, Insightful and Touching: Anna Forsyth Reviews ‘Fair Game’ by Carmel Bird

Fair Game by Carmel Bird. Finlay Lloyd press, 2015.

fair game 2This petit offering from Finlay Lloyd Press represents prolific author and essayist Carmel Bird’s first longer memoir piece, with the inclusion of her short story,  What World is This? from a ballet based on Carmel’s research on Tasmanian history.  This book is part of a set of five short works released together by Finlay Lloyd. Though the book itself is light enough, the contents carry the weight of an important historical subject: The Princess Royal girls, or the group of women sent on a fateful journey to Van Dieman’s Land (Tasmania) to become the wives of the men sent to the penal colony. Carmel warns the reader that her account ‘…will waver, will veer off course…in service of the narrative itself.’ The book is written in a rambling style, but Carmel is an insightful tour guide of the subject. Because of its combination of memoir and historical essay forms, it is more of a woven tapestry that gives us a bigger picture, as opposed to a singular historical narrative.

Traditional histories of Tasmania have lent themselves to the masculine perspective; their heroes and villains being the convict and pioneer men, those battlers who forged a part of Australia’s history with grit and rippling muscles (if cinematic portrayals are correct). What these histories largely omit are the women who, through a variety of circumstances, found themselves bit players in this hyper-masculine world; their struggles and contributions reduced to marginalia in our textbooks (if that). This book then forms an important piece of the narrative puzzle. It could be that it warrants more than the 60 pages it was given. It is not a revisionist work, and not comprehensive by any means, but a simple snapshot of the lived experiences of pre-Tasmanian era women.

The title, Fair Game, comes from the lithograph on the cover, entitled, E-migration, or a Flight of Fair Game, by Alfred Ducote. At first glance, it’s a gentile portrait, in pastels of Georgian women flitting across the ocean, portrayed as delicate butterflies. One imagines a soft, gentle landing for these characters. But on closer inspection (Carmel with her magnifying glass), we see the true meaning of the satirical piece. The women depicted are the chosen few, sent by barque sailing ship (The Princess Royal) on a gruelling trip, we are told lasted just over four months. They are seen as property, with a tiny figure waiting for them reaching up with a net and exclaiming ‘I spies mine’. A woman wielding a broom is seen positioned on the opposite coast shooing the woman away as ‘Vermont’. This is indicative of the view of the particular women who were chosen to be part of this group. Not dissimilar to the men in that sense. Van Diemen’s seen as almost an offshore dump for those in society deemed less than respectable.

In terms of source material, it is interesting to note the audacity of Coultmann Smith in stamping his tome with ‘The whole story of the convicts’. His, Shadow over Tasmania was endorsed by the state premier in 1941 as a definitive and final word on the subject. Carmel notes in her cheeky way that it is a ‘creepy old paperback’ and bemoans the lack of substantial works to base her research on. An interesting aside is that a historical essay she wrote for a high school cultural exchange was rejected on the basis of its dark subject matter (i.e. Aborigines and convicts). Now Carmel can finally have her say, giving a voice to those who barely even register in the mythology. She doesn’t pull any punches politically either, stating, “I regard ‘settlement’ as a horrible euphemism, a choking smoke screen, language working to obscure the truth of the British invasion of the island, of the deliberate genocide of the local people…”. It’s a forthright statement and a sentiment shared by many.

The fact that it is part memoir softens what could be another dark and guilt-inducing look at a chapter in Australia’s history. If the array of history books were laid out as a buffet, don’t be fooled into thinking this is akin to a light and fluffy pavlova dessert. In some ways, it would have done it a greater service to package it in a more authoritative way. The choice of the comical lithograph almost mocks the women whose suffering Carmel touches on in the book. Knowing what we do now, those political cartoons of old veer into demeaning and offensive territory. It could just as well be for that reason that it was chosen. The gritty reality for these women is in stark contrast to this saccharine portrayal.

In her glamorous author shot on the back cover, Carmel smiles at us, her neck adorned with a frilly scarf. But don’t be put off by the traditionally feminine wrapping of this book. It is funny, insightful, touching and will hopefully open the door to more of the hidden stories of Australia’s past that have been swept under the carpet.

 – Anna Forsyth


Anna Forsyth is a writer and freelance editor, originally from NZ, now living in Melbourne. Her poems have appeared in FourW, Landfall and other journals. She is the convenor of the monthly female driven poetry event and refugee fundraiser, Girls on Key – https://www.facebook.com/girlsonkey/.

For details on how to purchase a copy of Fair Game go to http://finlaylloyd.com/fl-smalls/

A World of Connections: Owen Bullock Reviews Trace by Cassandra Atherton

Trace by Cassandra Atherton. Finlay Lloyd Press, 2015 

tracefrontcover

  1. Trace – the idea of tracing a person, so unobtainable, so inviting.
  2. Invention: ‘You pressed up against the shiny side, me on the matte side’.
  3. Sometimes the references seem too random, e.g. to Kubla Khan and to being cuckolded – but perhaps I’ve missed something. The tension in the reader set up by the knowledge that the writer deliberately focuses on intertexts. Literary reference as trace – Derrida would be happy.
  4. The poetry is embodied in physical reactions, to love-making and anticipation of the lover’s absence: ‘I trace you for the first time when you are gone’. This is practical poetry.
  5. I’ve read the eponymous poem six times. To find a way to respond creatively as well as discursively. Something about the difference in the lovers’ height resonates. And the message from one of the kauri trees – the giant podocarps of the New Zealand native bush – as I placed my ear to it, ‘you are not a veil’. At the time I thought of this book. Three messages from three different trees, each related to one of the three books I’ve been asked to review. You are not a veil. Less distance between this book and myself. It has to be lived to be reviewed. I respond:

you’re taller
by two inches
I never felt a problem in that

I hugged our visitor goodbye
she’s two inches taller than you
and thought it might be difficult for her
to find the right man
because of male insecurities

  1. Going back to Trace: the voice ends up tracing itself in attempting to trace the other.
  2. The writing has an inevitable quality, in the best sense: it had to take this form.
  3. Accompanying line drawings by Phil Day extend the work.
  4. The picture of the author on the back cover eating a strawberry echoes the sensuality of the writing.
  5. The size of the book delights the pocket.
  6. For ‘Valentine’s Day Massacre’ notes say ‘great image choice’: a high-heeled shoe. The poem begins, ‘You tell me not to answer the phone’. Plath and Veronica Lake – alright by me. Reference to film noir – I remember the massacre scene, nothing else. The voice the femme fatales and could shoot out a heart. I’m writing this in a tent. My partner . . .

asks me to get her chocolates in the camp kitchen one hundred yards of rain between. Heart. Beat. I have some white chocolate left and stand in the rain eating it watching the thousands of ripples intersect like art on the river.

The voice mentions a kitchen at the beginning of Valentine’ Day Massacre, after the phone.

Will you play scrabble with me now darling?

  1. Phrases such as ‘My stripy banana lounge’! Words like ‘Toxin’. Close the topic of Vitamin D. You too can see the connection.
  2. ‘I want to be a square pink button with a harp sound when you click on me’. From Rubbish. Envious.
  3. ‘Kamikaze dress’ evokes and defines and the idea of humming into the decaying emptiness is like laughing at the abyss [Danse Macabre].
  4. The incongruous detail that is human life made clearer with a dash of surrealism – Corner of the sky.
  5. She memorises the sound of the soup spoon scooping up an oddly shaped potato. She makes soup fresh. Listens to her own swallowing. The soup is like the sea. The cake resembles land, the suggestion of ‘desert’ within ‘dessert’ assists. ‘Blue bread’ evokes ‘bluebeard’. Semiotic satisfaction. She listens to the cake. And celebrates the cash in the till; she’ll settle here near Lygon Street.
  6. Why is it that a voice admitting that it’s afraid to live is appealing? A fear of being served coffee that’s too strong for the palette. To soften the serious. The palette [always write whilst reading]. A world of connections. Of the next thought. Tiredness. Is death. Associated Freud’s acknowledgement of the desire for absolute silence. Rest, oblivion. But what is the significance of the title Marzipan.
  7. A skeleton. And five lines on Poe. Follows. Fragment to fragment. The part invites. Gestalt.
  8. Shiny things. Being material. Being heartless. Lessons and fears. She doesn’t remember dying. But you don’t remember dying.
  9. Relationships. Seeking. ‘It’s time to cut you open’. The preoccupations.
  10. William Carlos Williams. Recycled. Then serious issues: vegetarianism. Which resonate:

our friend Mike
visiting
greets the cows next door
with open arms
hello!
do you smell meat on me?
no.
because I’m just like you

Back to relationship. Mutton as lamb. And Williams: plums. Dragons. Pigs. Cute animals.

  1. The two apples or two cherries that are a bicycle. Phil Day’s inventive drawings.
  2. Murderer. Zygote. Yes, they’re linked. Eggs he buys her.
  3. Personal. Anecdote. Remembrance. But pithy, detailed, challenging.
    The sweetness of bananas. Brown spot. I relate.
    The lonely cat of a teen singer. Promises. No hallmark here.
    Ground zero. The charred lunchbox with his name. The foetal position. Hiroshima. Say no more. Nothing to say, yet still inhabit.
  4. Betrayal. A kiss. Hamlet. Line drawing in duplicate, the skull seems to be moving.
  5. Turbulence. Land. A relationship. [A Midsummer Night’s Dream meets modern air travel.] The line is a cloud. Drawing.
  6. Irrational associations. I love them. Part of the mind to enjoy, not its tedious episodes. Other people’s descriptions intersect. Doubling the stories. I feel like an adverb. That is wise saying. Topics. Mention of the title page near the end.
  7. Shipwreck. Lighthouse drawing. Worryingly phallic. Vertigo.
  8. To go ice skating, because you love the word ‘rink’.
    Initial earlobes – it should happen all the time: the only studding.
    Writing Rebecca on his back. I met a woman who had her sister’s haiku tattooed. And a maitre d with Shakespeare up & down her arms. But plasma’s going too far, isn’t it. The voice makes this clear. And Proust. And Fowles. How far we go.
  9. Size of the book. Less than a hand long. Less than a hand wide. Aesthetic delight. A cat on the front cover. 60pp. Cassandra Atherton. Finlay Lloyd. Buy. Trace. Bookmark tucked in.

 – Owen Bullock

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Owen Bullock’s publications include urban haiku (Recent Work Press, 2015), breakfast with epiphanies (Oceanbooks, NZ, 2012) and sometimes the sky isn’t big enough (Steele Roberts, NZ, 2010). He is a former editor of Poetry New Zealand and Kokako; edited anthologies for the New Zealand Poetry Society; was one of the editors who produced Take Five: Best Contemporary Tanka, Vol IV, and edited the first two anthologies from the University of Canberra’s Vice-Chancellor’s International Poetry Prize: Dazzled and Underneath (with Niloofar Fanaiyan). He recently won the Canberra Critics’ Circle Award for Poetry. Owen is a PhD Candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Canberra.

Trace is available from http://finlaylloyd.com/fl-smalls/