Powerful and Extensive: B. J. Muirhead Reviews ‘Death Fugue’ by Sheng Keyi

Death Fugue by Sheng Keyi. Giramondo 2016

DeathFugueSheng Keyi’s Death Fugue is a novel which deals with political and social freedom in the face of government lies, control and violence. Despite this, it is a deeply compassionate and personal novel which focuses on the manner in which large, socially and personally traumatic events permeate lives over time leaving them, perchance, with little or nothing to say that can provide reprieve from past events and the life they now live. It is saved from being mere political rhetoric by focusing on one man, Yuan Mengliu, a surgeon in the capital city Beiping in the fictional country of Dayang, neighbouring China. Yuan is a good surgeon, but he is disconnected from his patients to the point that he usually doesn’t know or take any interest in the name of the people whose bodies he is cutting into. What he does take interest in are women: he is an unashamed womaniser who is “convinced that, once stripped of clothing, all women would go back to their true state. The body could not lie.” The opening of the book explains this, and sets the personal context for the story:

Those who have suffered the mental strain of life’s vicissitudes often end up by becoming withdrawn. Their earlier zeal has died; their beliefs wander off like stray dogs. They allow the heart to grow barren, and the mind to be overrun with weeds. They experience a sort of mental arthritis, like a dull ache on a cloudy day. There is no remedy. They hurt. They endure. They distract themselves in various ways, whether by making money, or by emigrating, or by womanising. Yuan Mengliu fell into the last group.

How and why Mengliu became the distant, almost uncaring surgeon and womaniser is the subject of this book, which places the purely personal in the context of a political story which begins with the appearance of a pile of shit in Round Square.

…it was a dark brown lump smelling of buckwheat, soft in texture, and standing nine stories high. It’s bottom layer was fifty metres in diameter. It’s structure was like that of a layered cake, narrowing to a relatively artistic spire at the top.

Needless to say, the appearance of the pile of shit in the centre of the capital, close to the Wisdom Bureau (the National Youth Administration for Elite Wisdom), where Mengliu worked in the Literature Department, caused a public uproar. The shit was removed quickly, and the government offered the completely irrelevant explanation that it had been gorilla shit, as proven by DNA tests. The Tower Incident, as it became known, lead to mass public demonstrations and to the violent crushing of the demonstrators with tanks, bullets and disappearances. Most of this information is offered in the opening two chapters, and sets the scene for Sheng’s aim of trying to talk about the after effects of the events in Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. Indeed, the protests in the book are an accurate recounting of the Tiananmen Square protests and their end in the massacre of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people. With an opening and context such as this, it might be expected that the book would focus on the protests and have an explicitly political agenda, but this is not the case in any expected manner. Rather, the story focuses on how Mengliu met the love of his life (Qizi) in the very first protest march, then lost her, presumed dead, and ceased being a poet in order to become a surgeon. Most importantly, it deals with his inability and unwillingness to write in order to produce political propaganda. Much of the story occurs in a land known as Swan Valley, whose residents and spiritual leader attempt to coerce Mengliu into writing poetry again, to celebrate the beauty, the perfect society that has been created on scientific and political principles of equality, peace, prosperity and other lies. Mengliu’s trip to Swan Valley occurs twenty years after the Tower Incident and the suppression of the protests which followed. Every year Mengliu searches for Qizi—he is convinced that she is still alive, and his love for her haunts him. He is in a small sail boat, floating in the ocean, when a storm rises:

The maddened clouds surged together, twisting in a fury into one great pillar that towered over the lake and drew it up into a funnel, leaving a spinning whirlpool at its centre. The sail, caught in the winds, began to flap violently, and everything turned black before Mengliu’s eyes. Both his body and his consciousness were sucked into the great black hole.

When he wakes, he is in a forest through which he must struggle before encountering peaceful and friendly wild beasts, before arriving at Swan Valley, where he stays until he learns the truth of himself, and returns to the sail boat from which he is rescued by the local people he had been staying with. It is only at this time that it becomes apparent that his journey has been a psychological fugue, an hallucination which brought him back to himself as a poet and protester who refused to protest, even if he never writes again. There is much, so much that I haven’t mentioned, particularly about Qizi and her various incarnations in Mengliu’s life, but this is to be expected when reviewing a large book. Ultimately, it is a book about personal and social survival which, for Chinese and non-Chinese readers alike, encompasses much more than the fictional recounting of the Tiananmen Square protests. It would have been easy to make this a depressing or nihilistic book, but Sheng has avoided this course, to the great benefit of her message. It is, however, occasionally frightening, simply because it is quite easy to recognise many aspects of the contemporary West in the nanny state of Swan Valley—although, fortunately, sex is not illegal here, as it is in Swan Valley. It also is, unusually for a novel with such serious intent, easy to read and very entertaining, full of laughable situations, ideals, frustrations and very human compassion for those who have become dispossessed from themselves. Because this is the case, it is a book which should be, and deserves to be read widely. My one caveat is in respect of the symbolism that Sheng relies on. It is powerful and extensive, from the tower of shit and the inadequate government explanation, to Qizi, who ceased being Mengliu’s lover and became the leader of the protests, thus standing in place of the Styrofoam and plaster statue—the “Goddess of Democracy”—that was erected in the final days of of the Tiananmen Square protests. Many symbols and references are likely to escape an English reader, however. In Swan Valley (the name of which may be symbolic of something I am unaware of), for example, it is explained that a young chef

…holds in high esteem the chef who butchered oxen for King Hui of Liang…Everything is an art. Does its beauty match that of a good poem?

The reference here is to a passage in Zhuangzi, Chapter Three, and the teaching of following the course, or tao, in order to nourish one’s life. Whilst this reference is likely to be well understood in China, it is sheer happenstance that I am aware of it, its source and some of its meaning. That there are many other references and contexts which would expand the meaning and effect of the writing is obvious, and I fear that I have missed much of Sheng’s intent as a result, even though the most potent symbol—Mengliu’s silence, his refusal to write poetry again—cannot be missed. None the less, even if Western readers fail to grasp much of the cultural symbolism, Death Fugue is a book full of easily understood ideas and situations, focused around the Hero’s journey, which is the basic structure of the book and of Mengliu’s trip to and time in Swan Valley. A note at the back of the book informs us that the translation and publication was made possible by a philanthropic gift, from Mr William Chiu, to the University of Western Sydney Foundation Trust. This gift has been well repaid with this translation and publication, and I hope it is further repaid by the readership which the book deserves.

– Bruce Muirhead

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BJ Muirhead is a writer and photographer living in rural Queensland. He has published online and in print journals, and was included in an anthology of Queensland poetry (1986). He has published art criticism and was photographic reviewer for the Courier-Mail newspaper in the 1980s. His writing and recent exhibitions, Primary Evidence (2011) andFlesh (2014), continue his lifetime interest in the human body and its relation to the inevitability of age and death. He can be found athttp://bjmuirhead.wordpress.com  and http://inaforeigntown.wordpress.com.

Death Fugue is available from http://www.giramondopublishing.com/fiction/death-fugue/

Sydney Writers Festival: Ye Xin discusses ‘Educated Youth’

Educated Youth by Ye Xin was originally published in China in 1991. The first English translation has just been published by Giramondo Publishing (translated by Jin Han). Ye Xin spoke at Chatswood Library on 19 May as part of the Sydney Writers Festival.

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Ye Xin with translator Jing Han discussing Educated Youth at Chatswood Library as part of the 2016 Sydney Writers Festival

It was an interesting experience to attend a literary event in Sydney where over half of the audience was non-European and where non-Chinese speakers had to rely on a translator to follow what was going on.

In retrospect, however, the real surprise was just how rare this experience is. Australia is a linguistically diverse continent – in the late nineteenth century there were approximately 250 indigenous languages or dialects in use around the country (and despite the best efforts of Australian governments over the last 116 years many of these languages are still spoken) – and to our north there are millions of people whose native language is not English. Yet our literature is still predominately an English language literature – work written in or by Australians, even in other European languages, still ranks as curiosity rather than part of the mainstream.

This maybe slowly changing Owl Press, which has been around since the 1990s, publishes writing by Greek Australians and Spinifex Press, is celebrating 25 years of publishing this year, has also been active in publishing and translating the works of women writers from around the world and has an Indian publishing program that stretches back 24 years. We have also seen publishers like Vagabond Press embrace writing from around Asia and the Pacific over recent years as it attempts to include Australian writing in a wider local literary context. Giramondo have also been active in expanding their publishing program beyond the English centric borders of Australian culture and their latest publication, a translation of Ye Xin’s 1991 novel Educated Youth, is further evidence of this.

Ye Xin spoke about his novel at Chatswood Library last Thursday as part of the 2016 Sydney Writers Festival. Through his interrupter he described the main themes of the novel, the “educated youths” or zhiqing, high school graduates who found themselves separated from their families and sent into the country side as part of the Cultural Revolution. Ye Xin, who was one of the zhiging, explained that many of them embraced the change with revolutionary zeal as they felt that they needed to be “re-educated”, others simply “went with the flow”. As the years passed many married, had children and settled down. Then when Mao died they were suddenly free to return to the city under certain circumstances. Only unmarried zhiging were allowed to move back. Many simply abandoned their families, or found means to quickly divorce and flee. Years later, however, the children they left behind began travelling to the cities to look for their parents, many of whom who had married and started new families.

Considering it is now 50 years since the beginning of the Cultural Revolution the publication of the English translation of Educated Youth is a timely one and Ye Xin’s author’s talk raised a number of issues for both the Chinese and non-Chinese members of the audience.

 – Mark Roberts

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Mark Roberts is a Sydney based writer, critic and publisher. He is the founding editor of Rochford Street Review and his own work has ben published in numerous journals both in Australia and overseas. His latest collection, Concrete Flamingos, was published by Island Press in February.

Educated Youth is available from http://www.giramondopublishing.com/fiction/educated-youth/

Fracturing Colonialism: Phillip Hall Reviews ‘Journey To Horseshoe Bend’ by TGH Strehlow

Journey To Horseshoe Bend by TGH Strehlow, Giramondo Classic Reprints 2015.

Journey to horseshie bendJourney To Horseshoe Bend (first published in 1969) is the most unlikely of adventure stories as it recounts the desperate, but doomed, attempt in 1922 to save the life of Lutheran pastor, Carl Strehlow, who is described as ‘that grand old man’ of the Hermannsburg Aboriginal Mission. This book is also a colonial-era paean to Aboriginal culture and sense of Country – to the ‘creative Aboriginal mind’ – and, therefore, a celebration of the landscape of Australia’s arid interior; but it also rails against the ‘hypocrisy’ and ‘small-minded meanness’ of urban elites and church organisations, even as it reflects on the biblical experience of suffering to be found in the book of Job and Gethsemane chapters.

The story begins in 1922 when Carl Strehlow becomes seriously ill, far from help, at his Mission in Hermannsburg. This was a time before the Royal Flying Doctor Service and the Mission did not have a car (nor were there ‘roads’ in this part of the country anyway). Strehlow was too sick to walk or ride a horse. The intention was to make the perilous 611-km journey from Hermannsburg to the Oodnadatta railhead in a horse-drawn buggy in order to seek medical aid in Adelaide – but the desperate party could travel no further than the 257-km to Horseshoe Bend. The searing desert heat of the dry Finke River defeats them.

The narrator of Journey To Horseshoe Bend is Carl’s son, the linguist and anthropologist TGH (Theo) Strehlow, who writes this account of his father’s death march forty years after the events described. And while Theo Strehlow does capture every moment that ‘the sick man was jolted about unmercifully’ (p 44) he also, unexpectedly, describes the journey as ‘the greatest adventure of his young life’ (p 39). This long walk, with Hermannsburg Indigenous family and friends, must have seemed like a heaven-sent opportunity for the curious and passionate young Theo Strehlow as he revels in every opportunity to learn about Aranda culture and language. And while his values cannot always be described as being post-colonial he certainly does not uncritically perpetuate the racist and colonial values of the society to which he belongs.
Theo Strehlow is critical of those who prefer ‘the more prosaic’ Anglo place names – such as Boggy Hill – over their ‘true’ Indigenous names – such as Alitera (p 43). This is because:

Theo … was fully aware that every hill and mountain, every river and creek, every spring, rockhole, and waterhole, every plain and clay-pan, and all the highest dune crests in the sandhill areas, bore names of their own, and that they derived these names from the sacred myths and songs of the Aranda people. (p 287)

As Theo Strehlow walks beside his friends he sees evidence of this numinous landscape everywhere. At the Alitera waterhole he recounts the story of the two ancestral ilumbalitnana or white ghost-gum serpents and wallaby ancestor (pp 42-46) and he describes the Irbmangkara caves and pools which had been such an important Aranda ceremonial centre for ‘thousands of years’ (pp 46-48). Theo Strehlow knows that:

To the Aranda, Central Australia had been the Land of Altjira, the Land of Eternity. (p 288)

At the Irbmangkara waterhole Theo is ‘conscious of one of the loveliest landscapes he has ever seen’ (p 65) but he also knows that at this place of great scenic beauty there occurred one of the Northern Territory’s worst massacres of Aboriginal people. Theo Strehlow recounts how the much-hated Mounted Constable WH Willshire was responsible for numerous shootings of Aboriginal people, including the 1891 massacre at Irbmangkara waterhole (pp 48-65). Theo Strehlow quotes Willshire, who later wrote of this episode that:

Our Martini-Henry carbines at this critical moment were talking English in the silent majesty of those great eternal rocks. The mountain was swathed in a regal robe of fiery grandeur, and its ominous roar was close upon us. The weird, awful beauty of the scene held us spellbound. (pp 62-63)

Theo Strehlow writes of how Willshire would eventually be committed to stand trial for his criminal frontier behavior but was defended by Sir John Downer (previously the Premier of South Australia) and of course acquitted (pp 64-65).

One of the proudest anecdotes that Theo recounts about the life of his father at Hermannsburg relates to an exchange that his father had with the hated frontier mounted constables. Theo writes that his father always had a reputation for ‘fearlessly upholding justice for the Aboriginal people against unprincipled white men’ (p 9) when one day a group of mounted constables arrived at Hermannsburg and rounded up a group of men, women and children. They then got ready to ‘take them away and shoot them some miles out in the bush’ but the group’s ‘terrified relatives ran screaming for help’ to their pastor who ‘rushed in blazing fury … and shouted angrily for the release of his parishioners’ (p 10). The pastor sent the constables packing with the ‘menacing tones…and don’t you ever let me catch you hunting people again at Hermannsburg’ (p 10).

There are other aspects of this memoir that many contemporary readers may not find as accessible or interesting: endless praise of the ‘heroism’, ‘bravery’ and mateship of outback pioneers – even when they use stock whips on their Aboriginal employees (pp 200-207) – and the condemnations of ‘southerners’ (urban elites) and church organisations for ‘hypocrisy’, ‘meanness’, and ‘failures of compassion’. But the way that Theo Strehlow relates his intimate understanding of an Aranda sense of Country and the record that he gives of Central Australian massacre history make this book very important, even essential.

The book concludes with the young Theo Strehlow contemplating his father’s grave when a ‘deafening roll of thunder… shakes the scorched and heat-baked landscape’ (p 283) ushering in ‘the first wild fury of a triumphant rainstorm’ (p 285). To the Aranda ‘the existence and the continual re-creation of all forms of life depended on the fertilising and quickening power of rain’ (p 289). And to this boy:

The rain that was falling on his father’s grave had come to represent the symbol of life, the promise of life, the assurance of life, and the certainty of life. Life could not be fully conquered by death; for the power of life was greater than the destructiveness of death. Life was from eternity to eternity. (p 290)

Journey To Horseshoe Bend is certainly that rare thing; it is a genuine classic. It is as essential, and timely, today as when it was first published.

 – Phillip Hall

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Phillip Hall is a poet working as an editor with Verity La’s ‘Emerging Indigenous Writers’ Project’ (http://verityla.com/submission-guidelines/black-wallaby-ngana-banggarai-emerging-indigenous-writers-project/) and as ‘Poetry Reader’ at Overland (https://overland.org.au/). In 2014 he published Sweetened in Coals. He is currently working on a collection of place-based poetry called Fume. This project celebrates, and responds to, Indigenous Culture in theNorthern Territory’s Gulf of Carpentaria. In November 2015 Blank Rune Press will publish a chapbook of Phillip’s collaborative work with Diwurruwurru: The Borroloola Poetry Club.

 Journey to Horseshoe Bend is available from  http://www.giramondopublishing.com/non-fiction/journey-to-horseshoe-bend/

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A Discursive Poetics: Caitlin Maling Reviews ‘Drones and Phantoms’ by Jennifer Maiden

Drones and Phantoms by Jennifer Maiden Giramondo Publishing 2014

Drones and PhantomsIn her eighteenth book Drones and Phantoms Jennifer Maiden returns to war. This is perhaps unsurprising as we remain a country, and a world, embedded in conflict and no other poet exists as purely in the Kairos of our exact sociopolitical moment as Maiden. Hers is a discursive poetics, in conversation and argument with day-to-day events and the people that influence them—definitively a poetry aimed at bringing us the news.

This is evident in her use of three recurrent poetic structures, George Jeffreys poems, diary poems and what can be loosely termed a public-figure-wakes-up-has-enigmatic-conversation-with-other-public-figure poems (think Hilary Clinton chatting with Eleanor Roosevelt). These primarily dialogic forms are features of her previous books, (most notably the preceding four) extending out each collection into an extended poetic dialogue. Although each poem, each book, remains discrete, it’s more in the way that a particular phone call ends than in the limits of a physical object. This is what allows Maiden to stay so particularly in the present. ‘Hilary and Eleanor 10: The Coppice’ is, as the name suggests, the tenth of a series of conversations. In this one we find Hilary recounting the Bin Laden assassination:

the drone and that Bin Laden episode
of reality TV,’ added Hilary, before
the old lady added them herself. ‘Yes,’
said Eleanor without variation, ‘I thought
watching live assassinations, some of them
involving children wouldn’t be all that
helpful for your health, dear, whether
we speak of arteries or soul, indeed
to have trapped oneself as an audience
to prove oneself an actor isn’t what
I would ever want for you

This is a telling ending. Television and the act of watching, and, subsequently, what watching requires of us, are some of Maiden’s more complex and ambiguous themes. The ‘audience’ spoken of here is simultaneously Clinton, the reader and, most loaded, the poet herself. In these conversation poems, despite the public figures that occur and reoccur, we always get the sense that the poet is interrogating herself. Here she questions whether it is action enough to bear witness and what, if news is converted into entertainment, the nature of that witness is. Can the poet reporting on the action ever escape questions of how much of their witness is self-serving: speech to prove one can speak? It is this complexity that helps Maiden out of corners that could otherwise prove problematically didactic, reminding us of Yeats’s famous mantra “we make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.”

It is in her diary poems that we best see Maiden levelling her gaze at herself and her craft. Maiden, like Yeats, is prone to working and reworking themes, images, ideas and using sequencing through her collections to guide the reader along her thought pattern. In ‘Tanya and Jane’ we find Tanya Plibersek and Jane Austen having tea and chocolates:

Jane was
so sympathetic too about her children.
From her shrewd Slovenian family, Tanya
respected this property of an aunty, grateful
when Jane admired her new baby.

Then in the next poem, ‘Diary Poem: Uses of the Politician’s Wife’, the poet offers us advice on how to read the previous interaction between ‘Tanya and Jane’:

The
policy of the belittling alternative
is so entrenched that when I wrote
a Plibersek Austen poem the assumption
from one practiced reader was that I meant
by describing their relationships with babies
to recommend that over
their professions, although in fact
I was suggesting that a lack
of critical confidence in both areas
was unwarranted and socially defined,
all similes on creation intertwined.

By placing this poem after the originating poem, Maiden rewrites the first poem and as readers we are compelled to perform a re-reading. In Drones and Phantoms, and particularly in the diary poems, Maiden deftly directs such commentary at her readers and critics, acknowledging the fallibility of poetry to directly communicate, while actually justifying its power. Throughout the collection she highlights ethical or moral ambiguity and the ability poetry has to rest within discomfiture and uncertainty, her frequent rewritings and references to her own past work are key ways she embodies these concerns.

The biggest risk Maiden runs in being so invested in the day-to-day political is in not maintaining freshness. For all the strengths of the collection, the title poem is a curious let down. Weaving snippets of media together—Julia Gillard’s commentary on her hair and discourse on American use of drones—the poem is failed by a lack of the reflexive personal perspective that grounds some of the other political poems. The ending of the poem has pleasing prosody:

…….while some other
indirect country considers surrender
and its teasing leader’s unlucky
hairdresser gives up

however, the poem’s overall sparse pairing of oppositional Australian/American political statements is not extended otherwise through use of voice or image. In this poem what we are left with is news of the temporary sort.

Such is pleasingly not the case for most of the other standalone poems. ‘Maps in the Mind’ uses repetition to establish a tone of questioning insistence, the speaker demanding we engage with Manus Island: ‘too hot, too late, too cold/ the maps-in-the-mind of Manus Island,/ like maps of Manus Island.’ In this poem, as in all of Drones and Phantoms, Maiden proves herself incapable of evasion, forcing herself and her readers to confront the present world and think, not just about the role of poetry, but what role each of us has in our worlds construction, even through just the simple act of looking, of reading.

 – Caitlin Maling

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Caitlin Maling is a Western Australian poet. Her first collection, Conversations I’ve Never Had, was published earlier this year through Fremantle Press. Shane McCauley’s launch speech for Conversations I’ve Never Had can be found here  https://rochfordstreetreview.com/2015/02/17/the-interplay-of-tones-and-images-shane-mccauley-launches-conversations-ive-never-had-by-caitlin-maling/

Drones and Phantoms is available from  http://www.giramondopublishing.com/author/jennifer-maiden/drones-and-phantoms/

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Poetry as Needlework: Simon Patton Reviews Lucy Dougan’s ‘The Guardians’

Lucy Dougan’s The Guardians Giramondo Press, 2015. 

GuardiansThe Guardians is Lucy Dougan’s seventh book and in it there are a surprising number of poems featuring the motif of sewing. It comes to the fore in “Sewing the Dog”, a tender presentation of a boy’s interest in needle and thread, while another poem, “Bump and Grind”, mentions “the rose buds / of which the sewing on / gave me so many small wounds”. In “A Renovation (Girl’s Work)”, the speaker declares that she will devote herself to mending things, for “there is something so / beautiful about the flawed work / human hands can do”. Significantly, the same poem also quotes the artist Louise Bourgeois in an epigraph: “I’ve always had a fascination with the needle. . . . The magic power of the needle. The needle is used to repair the damage.”

Dougan’s evident delight in needlework seems to influence her own conception of poetry as a kind of stitching together of two dimensions: an event or life situation (sometimes, but not all ways, damaging) on the one hand, and some reflection on the broader meaning. Although not all her poems are written this way, many of the ones that appealed to me made use of this approach.

A simple example of this procedure is provided by “At Villa Bruno”:

At Villa Bruno
the presiding nymph
has black texta circles
around all her bits.
She watches us
with her nipples, her navel,
as we trail on opposite sides
of the long garden bed,
swapping names:
my bay for your lauro,
your arancia for my orange,
until our paths meet.
We fall into the spaciousness
of another century.
We might have trailing skirts, masks.
I take the crushed leaves, the proffered fruit,
and feel the blind nymph’s
cool bemusement
as we step outside all drawn rings.
Nothing before
has tasted so close
to its wild estate.

In this gently exultant poem, a kind of geometry of correspondences is sketched out to make sense of the bare facts of what happened. Firstly, the “black texta circles” of the opening become much more meaningful in the conclusion when they are echoed in the phrase “as we step outside all drawn rings”, a reference to the charmed circle of conventional behaviour that the speaker is inspired by her feelings to transgress. Secondly, as the speaker and her friend walk on opposite sides of the garden, they swap names in English and Italian for the trees they see there, an act that involves a simple linguistic stitching together. With the line “until our paths meet”, the central moment of the poem is literally sewn up, and the two people come together to exchange gifts in a manner that hints at a strongly intimate bond.

Apart from the skilful embroidering of correspondences, Dougan employs another device to heighten the significance of her work: tension between opposites. In “At Villa Bruno”, there is an understated tautness throughout the poem between the conspicuous, civilized splendour of the setting with its classical sculpture and formal gardens, and private, passionate feelings. Dougan is also often able to encapsulate such tensions in a single word or phrase: in this case, “wild estate” merges with impressive inventiveness the “wild state” of untamed human nature with the “country estate” in which urbane values predominate. We see the same thing in “Guillemots”, where the word “clutches” refers to both the menacing “seeker of eggs” as well as the set of eggs in their own right.

This thoughtful organization of the text is the prime means by which Dougan adds significance to the low-key incidents described in the poem and brings out their deeper meaning. In contrast, the rhythms of the poem are strictly controlled in the use of short line-lengths, and the diction throughout is insistently plain. The only real source of verbal excitement is provided by the use of Italian words and by the occasional abrupt switch of register: once in the form of the crudely colloquial “all her bits”, and a second time with the elevated “proffered”, a word-choice which effectively complements the shift back in time to a presumably more formal age of “trailing skirts”. On the whole, the voice of the poem is quiet but exact, considered and contained rather than unguarded and expansive

Dougan’s sewing dynamic often involves the creation of a key image or symbol that is at once concrete and emblematic. Such images serve as a bridge between Dougan’s two dimensions. “Nettle Soup”, for example, makes use of such a bridging sign in its presentation of the theme of discord between a parent and her child:

And then I think
I will just take off
because I am sick of your merde.
What gives me the idea?
You’re running with a bad crowd,
who think the word juvie
has a cute ring to it
but at least they are stylish.
You bring home Vogue Uomo
and there’s my escape
in a spread of pages:
nettle soup in big white bowls
with the sting cooked out.
I rewrite my life
in grass-green drizzle round the rim
as the hedgerows beckon.
The other ingredients
are not so hard on the hands.
A big skirt and a lupine-looking man,
an art-directed caravan
with Tom-Tom on tap
so that when the soup gets thin
(and believe me, it will)
we can find our way
to the next stinging patch.

Just as the sting of the nettles can be removed by cooking, the speaker of the poem imagines that the irritation of her family situation can be eased by a flight into fantasy — in this case a fantasy of a Romantic pseudo-gypsy lifestyle where “hedgerows beckon”. This withdrawal from reality, complete here with “lupine-looking man” and “an art directed caravan”, allows her to rewrite her life and so find temporary relief from her problem. The poem carefully prepares for the appearance of the emblem; there is no unnatural forcing of it into the poem. What is more, it conveniently lends itself to the elaboration of a series of other images and phrases in the manner of an extended metaphor: relief is implied by “with the sting cooked out”; the artful drizzle of soup on the rim of the bowl links up with the idea of re-writing one’s life-story; and “the soup gets thin” neatly conveys the idea that the irritating problem is bound to return. In other words, most of the key moments of the situation are “sewn up” with the text’s central image.

In the final lines, the speaker is forced to acknowledge that her nettle-soup daydream will not make her frustration go away. Dougan is generally very attentive to the formulation of her conclusions, and in this poem, the lines “we can find our way / to the next stinging patch” add one final element to the overall meaning, presenting the bitter, double-edged realization that the desire to escape into the dream-reality represented by the bowl of nettle soup is as sure to return as the trouble is.

Readers particularly interested in the push and shove of family relations will enjoy other poems in this vein, including “The Patch”, “The Ties My Sister Makes”, and “Guillemots”. Elsewhere, this approach, reminiscent of the to-ing and fro-ing of a sewing needle in action, lends itself to the deft contemplation of more intellectual topics. For me, “Tate Modern” is one of the most memorable poems in The Guardians:

Bourgeois’ Maman
her spider mother
crouches diabolically over London
you can walk right in to the gallery
through the sinister entrance
of her legs
it’s that game all children play
making the miniature monstrous
inside you can line up
and buy handkerchiefs
bearing the legend
I’ve been to hell
and back
and I can tell you
it was wonderful
all that satin stitch
would be hard on a nose
with a cold I thought
and then of coffee long ago
with an arts bureaucrat
sod the exhibition
let’s cut to the merch
merch here, I discover,
is a kind of love talk
and I am requisitely seduced
by two pink magnets
art is a guarantee of sanity claims one,
the other commands be calm
then joke with the man in the line
behind me who wants to buy
be calm too
that we got spat out of the exhibition
at a video spool of the artist
dismantling her studio
in rock-god style
he holds the magnet up
to the glossy indifference
of the Thames
like I need this
he laughs
do you?

Again, the organization is of great importance here. Art — at least as it is exemplified by an influential contemporary gallery — is largely reduced to horror and ugliness (Bourgeois’ spooky spider sculpture, handkerchiefs embroidered with a message from hell, mindless studio destruction) in the exhibits and to the avid consumption of trite, ruthlessly marketed “merch”, a term alphabetically so close to Dougan’s merde in “Nettle Soup”. As the speaker negotiates her way through the Tate, she is at the same time surreptitiously threading a course between these two despairing notions in search of what her own art could mean. She seems to find an answer of sorts in a kitsch pink magnet proclaiming art to be a kind of safeguard of sanity. Although she is “requisitely” seduced — the formal register of the word signals that her acquiescence is not mindless — and although the form of the object is designed to demean the meaning of the message it conveys — she manages to write a poem that achieves a less deranged point of view. Acknowledging some of the conspicuous problems that plague art, as well as the atmosphere of indifference that pervades a profit-obsessed society, is at least a step towards a basic level of sanity.

Lucy Dougan - Photograph University of Western Australian

Lucy Dougan – Photograph University of Western Australian

Guardianship serves as the umbrella concept for this book, and some of Dougan’s reflections on it are touched on in these three examples. We see it perhaps primarily in the relationship between parents and their children, as well as in the interrelationship of generations. For instance, Dougan writes in her opening poem “The Mask” of “each of her mother’s mothers / stretching right back”, while in “Old Sarum” she writes of her childhood self looking forward to becoming a grandmother with a wallet lined “with the concertinaed faces of grandchildren”. Elsewhere, in “Fritz”, the young girl who speaks the poem recalls an incident which brought out in her a precocious maternity, and in another poem she has a brief vision of a river of heredity: “the dazzling way in which / the lights halo now on the river, / the dazzling way in which / genes that stretch right back / perpetuate . . .” (“Tower Bridge to Greenwich, 24.01.11). Dougan is oddly haunted by the idea of inherited traits and the sweep of human continuity, and feels spooked by this inheritance: “foolish to think / that your stubborn body / with its genetic hand-me-downs / is not implicated, / is not the haunted house” (“Poem on All Souls’ Day”). This heightened generational awareness has both positive and negative sides to it: it is certainly a factor in human solidarity, but it can also undermine individuality, reducing us largely to a set of inherited traits. It seems to me to be one of Dougan’s most original contributions to Australian poetry.

Secondly, Dougan explores the notion of guardianship with regard to the wild. As we have seen in the poem on Villa Bruno, wilderness can also be a quality that belongs to human beings, especially in terms of their bodies and physical desires. A childhood memory — the release of some pet mice — serves as the impetus for “The Mice”. When the speaker returns to the scene of this incident as an adult, she finds a man sitting “just at the edge / of where it used to be wild” and this loss of some link with nature brings with it a palpable sense of artificiality: “from the poshed-up frontage / there was something wrong / with the man / he seemed to be doing an imitation / of a man sitting in the sun”. A pair of foxes glimpsed from a window in Westbourne Grove impresses the speaker with “candour”; at the same time, she is reminded of the less remarkable wildness of “those unknown other lives” happening in the flats across the road (“The Foxes”). If we fail to protect this wild quality, we lose something fundamental to our make-up.

Finally, as the title poem makes clear, the idea also takes us into the territory of “guardian angels” and their role as a source of consolation in the encounter with serious pain and death:

I could not bear the empyrean capped,
not after living so long under the ground.

You were away
when I found the lump.
You came back with a wooden duck
and a black toy dog.
In the thick of it
the duck would come to live
with the small plastic shepherd
and the stone our daughter found out in the river —
its shape sat safe in my hands.
The piggy bank was another gift.
My friend said put a coin in it a day
and smash it when you need to buy the dress
for your daughter’s wedding.
But the dog — the dog was quite something.
Being stuffed, it said nothing.
In a dream it sat quietly by our own living dog
and she looked at me straight out of her old eyes and said
Go on — it’s OK to pick it up.

I’m not sure what to make of this. The opening underworldly lines about not being able to bear “the empyrean capped” seem mythological in tone, but the texture of the rest of the poem is resolutely mundane. The unengaging description of an incongruous set of objects — wooden duck, toy dog, piggy bank — may indicate an overwhelming yearning for privacy; the focus on such objects also suggests an unusually intense state of mind, an intensity perhaps triggered by anxieties about her health. To me, the poem reads like an attempt to commemorate a very strange and extremely crucial experience, but both the privacy and the particularity of the experience have resisted any attempts to sew any broader pattern of sense in to it. Privacy itself constitutes another important part of the notion of guardianship in this book and, in an age of advanced technologies of surveillance and data collection, it too is another aspect of our lives that needs to be looked after. Writing privately, however, brings with it some technical challenges: personal references and memories can work to exclude the reader, especially in the case of poems explicitly dedicated and or addressed to family members and friends. They can also seem trivial when the significance they so obviously hold for the poet is not matched by any pressure or vitality of the phrase-making: “Now your feet have outgrown / these kitten heels, / sensible purchase from a stalwart aunt, / so I wore them all next winter / in another hemisphere [ . . . ] / They are good for gardening, / dashes to the shops . . .” (“Julia, Reading”).

T. S. Eliot’s well-known theory of the objective correlative — “a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion” — may be an influence here. Eliot’s idea may help to explain several conspicuous features of Dougan’s poetry. First of all, there is the general staidness of the language. It seems that verbal excitement of any kind is equated with an undesirable emotionalism and so is suppressed in favour of an objective “formula”. This restraint is clearly present in the poetry’s presentation of objects, often characterized by a fairly banal use of adjectives:

“her mother had dragged out an old brown trunk”

(“The Mask”)
.

“I laugh and say nothing / as he hands me the little green slip”

(“The Forge”)
.

“Small white flowers dot the lawn / and the gravestones, leaning / willy-nilly like bad old teeth, / stretch beyond you”

(“Julia, Reading”)

.
“I was getting to know the cramped proportions / of old lives in this little eyrie”

(“London, Misbooked”)

.
“Their gaze was not territorial / or neutral but simply there / as the grass was there, the trees / were there, and the old summer furniture”

(“The Foxes”)

.
“Too soon it would be time to move on / and sit on the wheel humps / inside the old red postie’s van”

(“Fritz”)

.
“The dog ran in there. / It had been a mistake / to take his old trail. / He had picked up the scent / and bolted; / down the loved path, / through the painted green door / and the black and white tiled hall.”

(“The Old House”)

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This subordination of detail to design has the advantage of focusing the reader’s attention on what the back-cover blurb calls “cumulative effects”, but at the same time results in a lack of intensity, since the images are often generic and anonymous rather than keenly perceived and registered. This in turn ultimately weakens the overall appeal of the work, even when the design is strong. Unity, or what Jane Hirshfield calls “a glittering, multifaceted expression of interconnectedness”, is for this reason not achieved.¹

Pre-eminence of design together with documentary diction may also explain the weakness of the openings of many of the poems. There are exceptions here and there — “Belly down on the graveyard lawn” makes for a memorable start to “Julia, Reading” — but frequently Dougan’s beginnings are workaday, to be read through quickly so that the links of central chain of events can be put in place. Titles too tend to function as simple short-hand labels without any true poetic function of their own, forgetting that they too can be whole poems in miniature.

Of course, any book of poems will also contain things do not conform to the established techniques and explicit concerns of the bulk of its contents. Poems such as “Wayside”, “A Bourne”, “Dearest” and “From the Queensway” operate in other, sometimes more lyrical, modes. In my view, a very interesting moment is provided by “Atavism II”:

That boy lazing
in the truth
of his tattoos
(deep inside himself
deep inside the way light
from the sheet of water
talks to the ceiling)
and in the change-room
small shoes
side by side
with the larger pair
that walked here
with them.

Bodies tiled in placed:
a man mid-dive,
a woman alert to a child,
each attitude repeating
an anonymous civic grace
old as mosaics
we have uncovered.

I don’t think there is anything else in The Guardians like the first part of this poem. It has a powerful suggestive quality, a quality supported by the freshness of some of the phrasing (“lazing / in the truth / of his tattoos”; “the way light / from the sheets of water / talks to the ceiling”; “side by side / with the larger pair / that walked here”), as well as the wonderful power of “change-room”. There is also greater “musicality” in the lines, with the repetition of vowel sounds in the pairs “truth/tattoo” and “water/talks”, as well as the occurrence of off-rhymes such as “light/sheet” and “pair/here”. The images seemed charged with meaning, but it is difficult to narrow that meaning down to a single simple idea. In his Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry, Jacques Maritain writes of the “humble revelation”, “a particular flash of reality bursting forth in its unforgettable individuality, but infinite in its meaning and echoing capacity”.² I feel that Dougan achieves this here: the details are realized with precision and distinctness and at the same time they are imbued with a paradoxical resonance that gets the reader thinking.

In contrast, the second part of the poem resorts to her more familiar stitching and depends mainly on the ingenious linking of images and ideas, especially through the verb “tiled in” which at once evokes a crowd of bodies gathered around a public swimming pool, and prepares the way for the reference to the old “mosaics” of ancient cities. Again though, the details possess no real individuality or immediacy, and I can’t help feeling that the abstract theme of atavism tends to overpower them: to me a dive is not really suggestive of a civic grace, even though it may be graceful as an athletic gesture.

Importantly, this poem hints at two different orders of poetry: infinite echoing capacity in the first stanza, and a conscientious embroidery of events with an externally-derived significance in the second. I prefer the first type: it doesn’t reduce the specifics of the poem to a secondary position, nor does it pin the meaning too insistently onto one clearly defined idea. The two dimensions are fused in a way that seems seamless. What’s more, readers are left with more scope to savour the possibilities of the poems for themselves, in their own unguarded ways.

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¹ Jane Hirschfield: Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry: 8.
² Jacques Maritain: Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry: 115.

 – Simon Patton

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Simon Patton translates Chinese literature. He lives with his partner, two cats and Sealyham the Terrier near Chinaman Creek in Central Victoria. Three of his Hong Kong poems appeared in Australian Poetry Journal 5.1 and another four are about to come out in the “Long Distance” issue of Contrappasso.

The Guardians is available from http://www.giramondopublishing.com/poetry/the-guardians/

Lucy Dougan’s previous collection, On the Circumvesuviana, has previously been reviewed on Rochford Street Review:  Searching for the Past: Robbie Coburn reviews On the Circumvesuviana by Lucy Dougan

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A Powerful Evocation of an Artistic Friendship: James Keating Reviews ‘Battarbee and Namatjira’ by Martin Edmond

Battarbee and Namatjira by Martin Edmond Giramondo Publishing, 2014

Battarbee & NamatjiraIn 1951, Miles Franklin recounted to American friends the ‘great fun’ which had erupted over Australian Aboriginal art.

An old friend…was telling us recently that the administrators, in the interests of the art, have difficulty keeping track of who does the paintings. Namitajira [sic] will sign any of his tribes’ work with the greatest goodwill and also honesty for they are natural practicing communists. When a member of the tribe gets money or food all the others whack-in of natural right like the children of one parent. The administration supplied them with only a limited number of drawing boards each one numbered to try and keep order but that did not worry them, they beat out the white bark of trees and used that. It appears they have tremendous facility.

Albert Namatjira, the subject of her condescending assessment, was forty-nine and the most celebrated indigenous man in Australia. He had exhibited paintings at solo shows across the country and starred in a nationally distributed documentary film. Though his work often displeased critics, unfairly rankled by his perceived ‘imitation’ of European water-colourists or the success of an Arrernte man working in a medium ‘entirely false to his own culture’, he commanded as much as 100 guineas per canvas. His luminous watercolours inspired a cottage industry of Arrernte artists, collectively known as the Hermannsburg School, after the remote central Australian mission he transformed into a tourist attraction. Nevertheless, as Franklin alluded in her letter, from his birth in 1902 Namatjira lived and worked under the care and surveillance of ‘the administrators’: Hermannsburg’s Lutheran missionaries.

Martin Edmond’s Battarbee and Namatjira is a dual biography, documenting Namatjira’s life alongside that of his lesser known teacher, art-dealer, and friend Rex Battarbee. Drawing on Battarbee’s voluminous diaries and an extensive archive of personal papers collated by the poet Nigel Roberts, Edmond traces the evolution of the men’s relationship from their first meetings in the 1930s through to Battarbee’s wartime role as a Protector of Aborigines, and his uneasy control of Namatjira’s artistic output through the Aranda Arts Council. The author of two previous books about painters, including Dark Night: Walking with McCahon (2011)—a splendidly contemplative recreation of the New Zealand artist’s brief disappearance in Sydney—Edmond is well equipped to deal with this rich and troubling subject matter.

Born in Warrnambool in 1893, and invalided out from Second Bullecourt in 1917, Battarbee trained as a commercial artist during a decade-long convalescence from his wartime injuries. In 1928 he purchased a Model T and, emulating the commercial and artistic practice of the Taos School, embarked on a fifteen-month long outback painting tour. On his ‘third attempt to find the way to paradise’ in 1932, Battarbee spent six weeks in Hermannsburg, the place he would ultimately spend much of his life. Returning with his ‘house on wheels’ a year later, he exhibited his work to thronged crowds in the mission schoolroom. Pastor Friedrich Albrecht, the mission superintendent, recalled the exhibition as revelation for Namatjira, who abandoned pokerwork for the more lucrative practice of landscape painting. Edmond, however, unravels Albrecht’s Damascene interpretation. Namatjira, a craftsman of decorated boomerang and woomera, had been exposed to European artists and their ‘side-on’ perspective for years before Battarbee’s exhibition, and had already asked the Victorian to help him acquire paint and brushes.

Edmonds’ book is packed with these reflections. Throughout, he weaves the voices of his protagonists, carefully tracing the their personal and artistic relationship. Given the nature of his surviving sources, it is the lesser-known Battarbee who speaks loudest, his honest compassion and affection for Namatjira radiating from the page. Particularly interesting are his diarised recollections of his friend’s artistic development. On a 1936 trip, he expressed his admiration for a sketch Namatjira made of Palm Valley: ‘He has got a good colour sense and puts it on even stronger than I do and good light in his pictures too. I feel now he will make a name for himself…I know that I could not do anything like as good at so early a stage of water colour painting. It even makes me sit up and take note of whether he sees better than I do.’ Namatjira left few letters behind, but Edmond does his best to present a complicated character: proud, generous, introspective, and funny. Though he jokingly recounted a 1954 trip to Sydney by noting ‘everybody talked too much’, he also used the opportunity to protest to a journalist that ‘these Native Affairs people want to keep me down all the time. For a long time I was like a blind man…but now I can see and I see they want to keep me down.’

In producing Battarbee and Namatjira, Edmonds and his publisher, Giramondo, confronted the tragedy of Namatjira’s final years. Though the book is filled with vivid black and white photographs, the usual insert of colour plates is absent. Instead, readers are directed to an accompanying website to view paintings discussed in the text. Ordinarily, this might be considered an impediment to an artists’ biography, but allows room for Edmonds’ thoughtful descriptions of both men’s ‘rich and strange’ attempts to manifest ‘a world not seen before’. Yet, the omission was not an authorial decision, but a latter-day consequence of the legal, financial, and emotional turmoil that accompanied Namatjira’s commercial success. Though he enjoyed several thousand pounds in annual sales after World War II, the demands on his purse from friends and relations, and the depredations of the taxation office increased exponentially. Worn-down by ill health, the deaths of relatives, and his officially-thwarted attempts to build a house in Alice Springs and become a ‘useful’ grazier, by the mid-1950s Namatjira produced little new work. Instead, he derived an income from the sale of reproductions. By 1957, galvanised by the forgery scandals Franklin breezily reported to her friends, and the increasing value of Namatjira reproductions, Legend Press had acquired the entirety of his copyright. Since then, they have fiercely guarded the privilege of reproducing his art—a misfortune Edmond has described elsewhere as ‘the ultimate act of dispossession.’

The story of Albert Namatjira and Rex Battarbee is not one of ‘great fun’, nor is it an unalloyed tragedy. Rather, Edmond’s book is a powerful evocation of an artistic friendship that crossed cultural boundaries at a moment of flux in white Australia’s Aboriginal policy. Though the absence of footnotes or an index will trouble some readers, as will the awkward interaction between the text and Giramondo’s online photo archive, in the context of a captivating story of dual lives these concerns are minor. A compelling melange of history, biography, and criticism, Battarbee and Namatjira shines as brightly as both men’s watercolours and deserves a wide readership.

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James Keating is a doctoral research candidate at the School of Humanities and Languages at the University of New South Wales. He obtained a Master’s degree in History (Victoria University of Wellington, 2011) and worked as a historian for the Office of Treaty Settlements in New Zealand. His current research considers the individual connections and organisational networks that linked Australasian women’s rights activists with their counterparts across the world in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Battarbee and Namatjira is avaliable from http://www.giramondopublishing.com/non-fiction/battarbee-and-namatjira/

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Surreal Inventiveness: Peter Kirkpatrick launches ‘brush’ by joanne burns

brush by joanne burns (Giramondo 2014) was launched by Peter Kirkpatrick at Gleebooks on 11 November 2014

brushWhen Giramondo asked me to launch joanne’s latest collection, I felt an immediate and very real frisson of excitement. Here was a brush with fame! joanne is one of this country’s finest poets, and I’ve immensely enjoyed reading her work over the years. For me, as I expect for many of us, the reading of poetry is an experience of the senses – especially that of sound – before, and even after, it’s an activity of the mind and of thought. Or perhaps that’s just me. Working at a university makes me suspicious of intellectuals.

But what I mean is that – like many if not most of us here – I like to feel a poem’s textures and music before trying to form any more reasoned insights, let alone any conclusions about its meaning. In that way the reading of poetry – like the consumption of any art – simply offers a more intense way of being in the world. But it’s my role today to launch this book, so it’s not enough for me merely to brush up against it, like a cat against an ankle. I can’t brush off the expectation of having to make a coherent public statement about it, or brush aside its considerable virtues, however broad brush my comments will be.

God knows that, as a teaching academic, I spend enough time wondering what kinds if reasonable things to say about a particular poem or poet, when my first impulse is often to just to point and say, Whacko-the-chook, isn’t that entirely fucking lovely! – and so collect my salary and leave for the pub. With that particular critical methodology in mind, then, here is ‘sibylance’ – spelt s-i-b-y-l-a-n-c-e – the first poem in the sequence ‘road’, which appropriately joins the beginning and end of joanne’s book::

sun sings through the dust of the window
and the silver sink what a birdshine, lime
rind glows through the jam jar, epiphany
way above the trench of garbage bins down
below, you could be fishing on any old river
right now this could be one of your last finer split
second moments, meet me on the golden green;
there is movement in the grimy courtyard someone
shifting apartments dumping decor, a framed photo
of marilyn maybe madonna maybe not, more likely
a poster of a georgia o’keefe bloom, jaded floral art
a little crinkled where a vodkatini or an orgasm hit the wall:
moma moma where art thou; past the front door packs
of paris hilton wannabes looking likely in sunfrocks
skim along the streets towards skinny lattes, all eyes
preying for someone to snap them inside a slow
myth at the crossroads

This isn’t a lecture, I hope (old habits die hard), but I’d draw your attention to the way the poem moves through three zones: the kitchen, with its shiny sink and lime marmalade; then down to the garbage bins and the detritus of the courtyard in which someone moving flats has left a damaged framed print, maybe of a female star, maybe of a Georgia O’Keefe flower painting; and then into the outside world in which ‘paris hilton wannabes… skim along the streets towards skinny lattes’. The references are all emphatically female, but not uncritically so. The jump from the singing domestic space with its ‘birdshine’ to ersatz Paris Hiltons seems enormous, but is it? The poem in a way descends from a bright, even epiphanic kitchen, to images of the commodification of women artists (Monroe, Madonna, O’Keefe): a process that leaves the wannabe models ‘preying [p-r-e-y-i-n-g] for someone to snap them inside a slow/myth at the crossroads’. Modern myth is now the mass media which creates and, through mechanical reproduction, endlessly reconsecrates corporate versions of the ideal woman as goddesses of fashion. ‘Moma moma where art thou’, indeed. (And surely there are moments when we all want our MoMA.)

I said that the ‘road’ sequence linked the beginning and the end of brush, and I think it’s possible to read this book somewhat against the grain of its conspicuous, surreal anti-linearity as something of a livre composé. We begin with the sequence ‘bluff’, a terrific series of satirical riffs on the discourses of capitalism, and in particular those of the stock market, and end with ‘wooing the owl (or the great sleep forward)’. Loosely speaking, then, we journey from a patriarchal world along a sibylline road towards the realm of night and sleep, long associated with the moon and thus the female principle, and here too with the owl: the owl of Minerva, perhaps, symbol of wisdom, though one that has still to be wooed and won over. I dare say writing poetry can sometimes feel like herding owls.

But I’ll leave you to form your own connective tissues between the individual sequences as you read them. Before I say more about the poems, let me draw your attention to the terrific cover illustration, a 1946 watercolour by Joy Hester. It’s like Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly has become the evil robot he always wanted to be, turned into the face of Luna Park, and now eats women alive. As an example of multi-layered imagery that turns on a dime, as the Americans say, it’s not unlike what happens in brush.

What strikes me most forcefully about joanne’s work, in this volume as in her earlier collections, is its witty discontinuities, its surreal inventiveness, and its satirical mashups of other discourses: qualities that I would principally characterise as playful – and I don’t necessarily mean ‘playful’ in a lighthearted sense, for one can play quite seriously. Ask any hardcore computer gamer. Irony and satire are both playful modes, in the sense that they play upon their objects. The word – and I’m not the first to make this observation regarding joanne’s craft – is ludic, from the Latin to play. Indeed, the word ludicrous didn’t originally come into the language as meaning absurd or preposterous, but rather, as the OED has it, ‘Pertaining to play or sport; sportive; intended in jest, jocular, derisive’. Thus Doctor Johnson wrote of Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock, by way of high praise, that ‘it was universally allowed to be the most attractive of all ludicrous compositions’. In its original sense, then, I might tentatively suggest that joanne is possibly the most ludicrous poet in Australia. Here’s an example of what I mean, from the title poem ‘bluff’ in the book’s first sequence. This is ‘fancy’:

iv. fancy

bankers danced the zumba junta
in the constitutional ballroom just
a bit of festive fancy dress like a
tv mockumentary on a bitter winter’s
night the pink batt cocktails kept them
warm enough; some escorted current
spouses others escorted escorts there was
a mix up when pecuniary interests were
introduced to love investments, just by chance;
certain guests rang promptly for their drivers, others
rang up potential losses; there was a moment when
the floorboards shifted like a listing, like a tower of
mini pizzas whose anchovies shone like bullets; then
the dollar suddenly shot up reaching the peak of the
continental drapes

‘Bankers danced the zumba junta/in the constitutional ballroom’ suggests the links between capitalism and political power, particularly in the South American context. Notice the copulative assonances in the first line; ‘zumba junta’ is in fact an internal near-rhyme. ‘The constitutional ballroom’ sounds like it could be a function centre in Canberra. Well might the anchovies on the mini pizzas shine ‘like bullets’. Well might the drink de jour be ‘pink batt cocktails’, maybe served with asbestos canapés, courtesy of Mr Fluffy. But money and power also mean money and sex: ‘some escorted current/spouses others escorted escorts there was/a mix up when pecuniary interests were/introduced to love investments’. This is a kind of chiasmus: we may want to say ‘pecuniary investments and love interests’, but joanne splendidly swaps the adjectives. Then there’s the clever punning of ‘certain guests rang promptly for their drivers, others/rang up potential losses’: a rhetorical device called antanaclasis. I could go on (unless plied with alcohol I generally do). But the point is that the continual play on words here is perfectly serious while also remaining perfectly playful.

If I can use an old-fashioned term before going on to update it, what’s happening in joanne’s word-play here is a kind of poetic vaudeville, or what Henry Jenkins in a different context calls a ‘vaudeville aesthetic’. Vaudeville: that form of entertainment that now goes under the name ‘variety’ and which is based on rapid sequences of acts that offer constant sensation and surprise. Variety may have moved to the club circuit, but it was once a potent mode of popular entertainment that challenged straight theatre, with its emphasis on verisimilitude and the subordination of all elements of a production to its dramatic unity. To that extent you might say that joanne is the poetic antidote to David Williamson. But once upon a time variety offered a powerful model for the modernist avant-garde. Thus in 1913 the Italian futurist Filippo Marinetti could write of ‘The Variety Theatre’ as generating ‘the Futurist marvellous’, whose elements include:
(a) powerful caricatures; (b) abysses of the ridiculous; (c) delicious, impalpable ironies; (d) all-embracing, definitive symbols; (e) cascades of uncontrollable hilarity; (f) profound analogies between humanity, the animal, vegetable and mechanical worlds; (g) flashes of revealing cynicism; (h) plots full of wit, repartee, and conundrums that aerate the intelligence; (i) the whole gamut of laughter and smiles, to flay the nerves…
Etcetera. I reckon that’s a pretty fair description of what takes place in joanne’s poetry.

But don’t get me wrong. For all that Federal Parliament might suggest otherwise, I know that vaudeville is dead. Searching for a funkier term to describe the aesthetic mode of joanne’s verse, might I suggest channel surfing or, better still, zapping? The famous lack of capital letters in joanne’s poetry certainly implies that each element has a kind of equivalence in the linguistic structure. No word looks over the shoulders of another, you might say. But even zapping isn’t quite the right term, because it’s not as if you’re moving moment to moment from a news broadcast to a sitcom to an animal documentary as you might when channel surfing on TV. Joanne’s poems don’t normally jump entirely out of their channels every couple of lines; each poem stays within its special groove. Rather, what she achieves is a kind of crosstalk or co-channel interference in which one ‘signal’ is, as it were, superimposed on another. We live in an overcrowded media spectrum and, in a complex, layered way, joanne’s work echoes the ludic, ironic and, at times, serendipitous collisions in communication that occur within it. In that way she becomes our poet of the multi-media vernacular.

Which brings me to my final point. As joanne writes, ‘falling is a kind of vernacular’. That’s the last line of the poem called ‘easy’ from ‘in the mood’, the second sequence of brush: ‘falling is a kind of vernacular’. The vernacular is what we do artlessly, what we speak without having to think about our words. All of us fall into language as children and, speaking for myself at least, I continue to fall around within it, stumbling over it, and getting it twisted around my tongue. But joanne refers to literal falling, those brushes with death: tripping over and losing your glasses; a child running into a wall during play; and, poignantly, a boy who has fallen from ‘the top of a city tower’, who had earlier impressed the speaker by asking her the meaning of that word ‘vernacular’. Everybody falls, has physically fallen: we do it without thinking. It’s as everyday, as vernacular as sleeping and eating, but never rehearsed, never regulated like those activities. Instead it’s surprising, shocking, dangerous. For that reason just about everybody does falling very badly. But not the practitioner of vaudeville. Not Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton or Roy Rene. They knew how to fall so that they didn’t get hurt; they made it into an art form; they made it playful. They brushed themselves off and prepared themselves for the next sensation.

Joanne burns is a poet who shows us how to fall craftily and elegantly with words – to surprise, to shock, to take risks, and to play – and her work zaps the sensational vernacular world we all inhabit as crosstalking, late modern citizens of language.

– Peter Kirkpatrick

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brush is available from http://www.giramondopublishing.com/poetry/brush/

Peter Kirkpatrick teaches Australian Literature in the Department of English at Sydney University. He has published two collections of verse, Wish You Were Here (Five Islands, 1996) and Westering (Puncher & Wattmann, 2006), as well as the chapbook Australian Gothic and Other Poems (Picaro Press, 2012).

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Clutching, Following, Wondering, Gazing: Lisa Gorton Launches ‘Final Theory’ by Bonny Cassidy

Final Theory by Bonny Cassidy (Giramondo Press 2014) was launched by Lisa Gorton at Collected Works on 2 July 2014.

Final TheoryBonny Cassidy’s Final Theory is an admirably strange collection: an epic, vast in ambition, built of fragments. In Final Theory Cassidy takes a magnifying glass and makes it work repeatedly as a telescope. Geological time, anthropogenic cataclysm, existential doubt, her own death, the end of poetry: Cassidy works all these concerns into myriad small marvels of description; or, more exactly, into the gaps and disjunctions between myriad small marvels of description. This is poetry that disrupts the picture plane: sharp, angular, disconcerting. What isn’t in it matters as much as what is. Reading Final Theory, you enter a place stripped of the sort of sentiment and rhetoric that would transform it into a landscape, a possession, a nation. Perhaps the most remarkable of this book’s gifts is the sense that it gives you of place itself.

But the structure of this collection is also remarkable. It is in four parts, alternating between two different points of view. The first and third parts track a couple driving through a post-apocalyptic scene. Part I sets the scene with characteristic suddenness: with their sun dying, humans have set a new sun in the moon’s place; the land is buckling and breaking up. The couple drive their Toyota into the mountains: a poet and photographer memorialising the end of human time. Like Adam and Eve in Milton’s Paradise Lost, Cassidy’s couple find ‘the world was all before them’. ‘“We’ll drive ‘til this land swims, ”/ you say. “My camera might sink/ but we’ll be safe inside it:/ fat and rich and pink”.’ Among its other elements, Final Theory is a love poem, and Cassidy has achieved this, with compelling strangeness, almost without a lyric voice.

Final Theory is set in a place which has time as its vanishing point, a place which everywhere opens up into destruction. That is to say, Cassidy has invented a place equal to her style, in which each thing exists over an abyss. What is art for, she is asking; what truth does it have? At times in Final Theory this question comes to the surface: ‘Order and delay/ cannot be made from space and time; how could they?’ That question is built into her descriptions, which see things close-up and also from the future’s perspective. Cassidy wrote the first poems of Final Theory in New Zealand after researching geology and the history of Gondwana. Rocks, dried-up lakes, skeletons and ruins: the couple in Final Theory drive through geological time, places where what has happened exists not as a story but as layered remains. That geological interest shapes the style as well as the narrative of Final Theory, in which the stanzas themselves appear like rock outcrops on the page. Cassidy describes boulders as ‘the colour of old fires/ clean as knowledge’. Cassidy’s pared-back, impersonal style – her interest in pure statement – makes the stanzas rock-like: massy, reduced to essentials.

Final Theory has an epigraph from the New Zealand poet James Baxter. Cassidy’s sense of place takes something, I think, from his abrupt definitive descriptions. Take his poem ‘Cold Spring’, for instance: ‘Stone sea moves southward; the volcanic island/Scrub sides quiet, surf-eaten/ In antarctic isolation’ (Cold Spring). Cassidy’s poems in Final Theory are built out of such sudden perceptions. Here are just two examples: ‘The lake rose, floating/ on the valley/ then deepened to a stop./ Sailing peaks.’ (40); or, ‘Bucking/ under/ distant melt// talking to itself/ this chain of push’ (17). One of Cassidy’s achievements here is to work that compressed and abrupt style into an epic form, bringing in strange effects of space and time.

Cassidy is deeply interested in ways of seeing. The couple drive through rocks and desert and see things from the perspective of a poem or a camera: things caught in language, held in light. Cassidy writes, ‘The poem and the photo are desire/ collected, dispersed. As each boulder/ found its lodgement here…’ (55). This is characteristic of Cassidy’s self-awareness, her analytical eye: the poetry of their road-trip is something not of flow but of outcrop. The effect is to bring in question how stories work – how much of them is desire. The poet, among rocks and desert, dreams of water.

In the other parts of Final Theory the poems enter another way of seeing: an underworld of water. They take the perspective of a girl under the sea: speechless, amphibious. These parts of the book create an utterly different structure of imagery. For the child, things are all touch. Her language is sensuous in the mouth: hurl, trench, huff, curly, scum, fug, bergy, mush, gulch, silt; and her lines often ease into breathing patterns. What is the relationship between these parts of the book? The child is encountering a drowned world, consuming what she sees. Underwater the girl finds a skeleton at a keyboard. Pulling herself from the pool, she grabs hold of the arm:

Clutching the clutching thing, she follows
its thumb, down the double bow and hinge
…..of an arm.

…..It lifts
from a scree of rubbish and shell.

The child flops
out of the pool, onto her front.
When squeezed, the hand’s knuckles pop
into her palm.

She worries at them with her gums,
gazing into a blank screen.

This marvellous strange passage is characteristic of Cassidy’s interest in what you might call the bare bones of things. This collection shows her more metaphysical than the metaphysical poets ever were, because less baroque.

What Cassidy brings us close to in Final Theory is a trick, a trouble and longing built into thought itself, being fixed on what is outside thought: a blank screen. This is why the girl travelling underwater has such force in this collection: clutching, following, wondering, gazing out of the strange silence of her world. The girl finds a photograph and she eats it. She discovers a Toyota sunk deep into a rift, climbs into it, climbs out of it, and comes to light. Though the connection between the poem’s surface and underwater realms remains mysterious, for me this part of the poem recalls the creation myths that Mircea Eliade and Charles Long characterise, in which some being, suspended in a primordial realm, is brought by dream, utterance, or bodily remains into existence. In this light, Cassidy’s fragmentary epic creates a myth of its own creation: ‘an inkling child of soil and grit’: something that happened once, and something that is happening now, in its future, as we read.

Above ground and underwater, in time and out of time, in theory and in dream: the parts of the poem generate each other. Here perhaps the current search for a ‘final theory’ finds its counterpart in first conceptions of how the universe began. Final Theory works into its structure T. S. Eliot’s pronouncement in ‘Burnt Norton’: Time present and time past/ Are both perhaps present in time future/ And time future contained in time past./ If all time is eternally present/ All time is unredeemable.’ So the couple on the surface are like Adam and Eve, except at the end of history, and the poem alternates part by part between first and last cosmologies: a creation myth and a final theory.

Except that there is no final theory. As Cassidy puts it in one poem: ‘I search the rear window/ for a final perspective — // but end in only an idea, diffused/ into a ranging sheet of light.’ It is one of the ironies that Einstein died thinking of himself as a failure. The two great recent visions of reality – quantum physics and the general theory of relativity – work within their own terms and yet are incompatible. With a telescope, we can look back through light almost to the beginning of time. With a microscope, we can look down through matter to its flickerings in and out of being. Between such frames of reference, what is a poem?

In the way she structures Final Theory, Cassidy pays tribute to Jennifer Maiden’s idea that ‘poetry is disparate concepts combined in binary structures … its varied manifestations of the binary the essence of mnemonic technique’. The poet in Final Theory writes: ‘I’m switching the poem off and on; it’s not a pet, after all, but a function’. She comes across forms of binary memory: a telegraph, out of use; and midges rising like a smoke signal: ‘dot dash stop’. The whole of Final Theory has the energy of something being brought into being, beginning again and again. In such ways, the conceptual ambition of the poem is drawn down into its details, its principles of composition, even, with its short and broken ‘dot dash’ stanzas and alternating parts: memory turning on and off, detail and abyss. A fragmentary epic, a love story, creation myth of itself, this is a collection that sees itself from the perspective of deep time. Cassidys’ Final Theory is sharply analytical and also mesmerising: a lastingly interesting book, an impressive achievement. She writes: ‘All my words are gunning for extinction, all they can tell us is:/ live more’.

– Lisa Gorton

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Lisa Gorton writes poetry, essays and fiction. She is the poetry editor of ABR. Her latest collection poetry Hotel Hyperion was shortlisted for the Queensland Literary Awards and Western Australian Premier’s Prize for Poetry. Her awards include the Philip Hodgins Memorial Medal, Vincent Buckley Poetry Prize and Victorian Premier’s Prize for Poetry. Her novel The Life of Houses is forthcoming from Giramondo in 2015.

Final Theory is available from http://www.giramondopublishing.com/poetry/final-theory/

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A Genre for our Generation: Heather Taylor Johnson reviews ‘The Swan Book’ by Alexis Wright

The Swan Book by Alexis Wright. Giramondo Publishing 2013

The-Swan-Book-cover-199x300It was with great trepidation that I opened up Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book because I had read Carpentaria and likened the reading process to that of Ulysses. As with Joyce, I got that Wright was doing something new with language and, as with Joyce, I therefore understood that Carpentaria was an important book, but I can’t say that I enjoyed reading either (and just for the record, I finished both). The book was downright difficult, sometimes teetering on will-I-ever-get-to-the-end kind of difficult. Why, then, did I even think about reading The Swan Book? Because Wright’s risk-taking with storytelling stayed with me, and though Carpentaria still intimidates me as it stares me down from my bookshelf, I’ve never stopped thinking about it. And I suppose that’s why I need to compare the two books before I can move on to talk about The Swan Book in its own right. The Swan Book is just as innovative, just as Big, just as enviable a feat as its predecessor, yet the reading process was far from difficult; I loved every minute of it, and I could’ve gone on reading for weeks and weeks. I think it’s the intensity of the imagery. I think it’s the swans.

Oblivia is a tragically mute Aboriginal girl living on an old shell of a boat with Bella Donna, a European refugee half mad from global warming disasters and the memory of landwars, half mad from waiting for her own white swan to find her in the swamp among the hundreds, maybe thousands, of black swans keeping the pair company. It’s an unconventional friendship but Bella Donna is sure Oblivia is better off with her than in the hollow of the tree she’d pulled the girl out from. Oblivia doesn’t question their friendship, only knows it is what it is: home. And after Bella Donna dies, and Oblivia remains on the hull, the swans become all that she knows: her home.

Poor Oblivia! Just as Bella Donna was sure the girl was better off with her, so is Warren Finch, the first Aboriginal president of Australia. He takes her from the swamp and brings her to the city as his ‘promised wife’, trying to hold onto traditional law regardless of Oblivia’s human rights. What follows is the story of Oblivia trying to get back home – in her mind and geographically – with the help of a bevy of black swans.

Truly this is cli-fi, a genre for our generation, at its most stylised. When our mistreatment of the Earth turns our world upside down, does our ability to relate to one another follow suite? When land becomes devastated, do we, too, fall in a heap of hopelessness or, maybe worse, ambivalence? In a time and place where 33.5 C is considered ‘too cold’, climate change contributed to a need for changeover to traditional laws held in the hearts and passed down in the stories of the traditional custodians of the land, but this is no solution. Wright tackles the urgency for environmental change while simultaneously drawing our attention to infractions of human rights through Australia’s long history of governmental intervention. For instance, the swamp, or ‘Swan Lake’ is a Relocation Camp, or an Aboriginal Detention Centre, and it’s a cesspool of rubbish. There are traces of the Northern Territory National Emergency Response (or ‘the intervention’), the Stolen Generation, our appalling treatment of Boat People and centuries of misogyny. If the swans (and the talking monkey and the lone owl and the slave camels) make for fine symbolism in this cautionary anthropocentric tale, then there is good reason to believe that Wright’s main aim here is to tell us to wake up – we’re fucking everything up! Brecht famously said that ‘art is not a mirror to reflect the world, but a hammer with which to shape it.’ With The Swan Book, Wright is hammering away. ‘I like challenges,’ she told the audience at this year’s Adelaide Writers’ Week; ‘I came from a background of challenges.’

If this sounds overwhelming, it is. But Wright balances out the chaos of the story (and our world) with magic and mythology. The fact that swans seem to land on each page in a swirl of concentric circles – never fully encapsulating any one theme, yet playing a role in every action and reaction – allows the reader to get a little lost; and one good thing about getting a little lost is finding your way. Add in a complex grammar in which past tense moves to present in the same paragraph, the same sentence, the same thought, and things can get pretty disorienting at first. But hang in there because soon the storytelling aspect of the book (that which is injected straight into the heart of her writing) will take over and grammatical inconsistencies feel natural and right and you’ll begin to think ‘Aha! This is why she’s up for the Miles Franklin again! This is why she’s possibly the most important writer writing now!’ With The Swan Book, Wright challenges the physicality, the morality and the essence of our nation’s geographical landscape, cultural landscape and literary landscape. Ultimately this is a Dreamtime story, teaching us about our past and cautioning us about our future. It is no grander than any other you have read, just written with an impeccable attention to detail.

– Heather Taylor Johnson

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Heather Taylor Johnson is the author of three poetry books, Exit WoundsLetters to my Lover from a Small Mountain Town and Thirsting for Lemonade. She has a PhD in Creative Writing and occasionally teaches it at Flinders University. Her novel, Pursuing Love and Death, is published by HarperCollins.

The Swan Book is available from http://www.giramondopublishing.com/fiction/the-swan-book/