A Slightly Frustrating Novel : Mark Roberts Reviews ‘Black Mountain’ by Venero Armanno

Black Mountain by Venero Armanno UQP 2012

black mountainI have a pile of books on desk waiting to be reviewed or to be more correct, waiting for me to have the time to review them. Black Mountain by Venero Armanno has been waiting longer than most. Published in 2012 it was one of those books that intrigued me with its back cover blurb about a boy being sold into slavery to work in the sulphur mines of Sicily over a century ago. Finally, four years late, I finally picked it up.

Interestingly, after finally reading it I had to wait a few weeks before putting pen to paper. The novel itself was relatively easy to read once you get into it and has a strong central narrative that drives the reader forward. But it is also working on a number of different levels, and not all of them are successful.

Black Mountain opens with a man dreaming of a creature with no face. The man and the creature are in a bare room and the creature begs for the man to strangle him one senses to put him out of his misery. As he chokes the creature the blank face takes on the form of the man strangling him. The dream belongs to Mark Alter, a twenty two year old university drop out living alone outside a small coastal town in Australia. He has been having the dream about the creature for as long as he can remember. One night after watching a movie in the town cinema he decides to write a film script featuring the creature and then sends it off to a well known film producer. A few weeks later the producer contacts him and accuses him of plagiarising the creature from a novel called Black Mountain by a writer called Cesare Montenero.

Alter finds a copy of the book and finds that his creature really does feature in Montenero’s novel. He then attempts to track down the elderly and reclusive Montenero in an attempt to understand how they can share the same creatue. When he finally does tracks him down he finds that Montenero has fled and that his home, or more accurately a mansion, is empty. But he also finds a metal box with a manuscript inside and it is this manuscript which provides the bulk of Armanno’s novel . The manuscript is split up into a number of books (Black Book, Blue Book, Green Book etc) and details Montenero’s life from his days as a young slave working in the sulphur mines of Sicily to old age in Australia.

It does, however, takes 30 pages to get to the beginning of Montenero’s manuscript and I had rapidly become tired of the story of Mark Alter by that point. Alter is a very one dimensional character and his story so unlikely that it was only my interest in how we would get to the sulphur mines of Sicily that kept me going.  But the manuscript is a different matter. The character of the young Montenero is richly drawn and the dissolution and hopelessness of the sulphur mines, and the child slaves that are forced to work there, stands out. This is powerful narrative writing which continues through much of the rest of the novel as the young Montenero escapes and is rescued almost on the point of death.

As the story unfolds, however, we begin to learn more about Montenero’s background. He was not, as he thought, sold into slavery as a young boy by his family, rather he was the result of a long running experiment to ‘clone’ humans, an experiment which was shut down during WW1. As Montenero learns more about his background the narrative again starts to break down as the fantasy element of the novel, a sort of Victorian genetic enginering, begins to assert itself.

Black Mountain is for me a slightly frustrating novel and I sense that Armanno is trying to do a little too much in it. I did note that he has written a number of young adult novels (along with another 9 novels) and I did feel at times, particularly during the Prologue, that there elements of a YA novel close to the surface. Perhaps as a result I felt Black Mountain to be a uneven novel, which is ashame because when it is good, such as in the large section revolving around the young Montenero’s life in Sicily, his escape from from the sulphur mines and his rise and fall as a writer, it is very very good. There is just too much getting in the way of the core narrative. As an editor I would have perhaps suggested ditching the Mark Alter character completely and concentrating purely on the life story of Montenero. The novel may have been slightly shorter but you would be thrust into the drama of the sulphur mines almost from page one.

So in the end Black Mountain didn’t quite live up my expectations, which were perhaps a little high given how long I had waited before reading the novel. I felt a little like finally drinking a wine that had been cellared for years only to find that it had just past its peak.

 – Mark Roberts

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Mark Roberts is a Sydney based writer and critic. He is the founding editor of Rochford Street Review and publisher of Rochford Street Press. His collection of poetry, Concrete Flamingos, was published by Island Press in February 2016.

Black Mountain is available from http://www.uqp.uq.edu.au/book.aspx/1205/Black%20Mountain

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Telling Their Story Straight: Annette Marfording Reviews ‘Not Just Black and White’ by Lesley and Tammy Williams

Not Just Black and White: A Conversation Between a Mother and Daughter by Lesley and Tammy Williams. UQP 2015

not just black and whiteThe David Unaipon Award for Indigenous Writing was established in 1988, named after the political activist and scientist to become the first indigenous author to be published in Australia in 1929. The award is given annually to the best unpublished manuscript in any writing genre by an indigenous writer and supported by University of Queensland Press. I’ve read the David Unaipon award-winning books for many years, including Larissa Behrendt’s first novel Home, Dylan Coleman’s Mazin’ Grace, Nicole Watson’s crime novel The Boundary, and Kate Howarth’s memoir Ten Hail Marys. All have been wonderful and important books, which have enriched the literary landscape in Australia and given white Australians an insight into the injustices imposed upon and affecting Aboriginal lives. And so it is with the 2014 winner of the David Unaipon Award, Lesley and Tammy Williams’ Not Just Black and White: a conversation between a mother and daughter.

Many indigenous authors write poetry, fiction and non-fiction that is steeped in history: personal history, Australian history, as it has affected them. Unsurprisingly, given the number of Aboriginal people touched by it, the Stolen Generations policy and its effects have often been the focus: Doris Pilkington’s Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence, Larissa Behrendt’s Home, and Ali Cobby Eckerman’s Too Afraid to Cry are powerful examples.

Lesley and Tammy Williams’ memoir Not Just Black And White: a conversation between a mother and a daughter focuses on a different aspect of the so-called Aboriginal Protection legislation: its absolute control on every aspect of the lives of those removed from their traditional lands and relocated to life in Aboriginal settlements or missions.

Lesley Williams’ and her family’s life was governed by the Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act 1897 (Qld). She grew up in Cherbourg, a government-controlled settlement for Aboriginal ‘inmates’ founded as Barambah Aboriginal Settlement in 1901, where Lesley’s family had lived ever since the removal of both sides of her grandparents from their traditional lands. The beginning of her narrative hits the reader in the solar plexus when Lesley describes a tourist bus touring the settlement, white faces pressed against the windows, people disembarking with cameras ready, flashes erupting: the ‘inmates’ as zoo animals.

Lesley tells the reader much about the conditions and the way of life of Aboriginal people within the settlement during the 1940s, 50s and 60s. Houses were overcrowded, poorly insulated, with an outside tap for washing bodies and clothes. The government officials in charge controlled their movements within the settlement, restricted contact with relatives and friends who lived outside, read their mail, strictly rationed quantities of food and other necessary items. ‘Permission to marry’ certificates were required, necessitating proof of ‘good character’, ‘freedom from disease’, ‘thriftiness with money’ and the ‘capability of maintaining a wife’. Somewhat ironically, Christianity, or at least attendance at Sunday School was compulsory. So was work: carpentry, plumbing, farmwork for men; sewing, cooking, cleaning for women. An analogy with a jail does not seem far-fetched.

After eight years of school, boys were sent to the settlement’s training farm or to work as stockmen in the area; girls had to do a year of domestic-science training. At the age of sixteen, girls were then ready to be sent away from home and family to work as domestic servants at a farm or city home with no say over location or conditions of the contract. The law required that wages under a set rate be paid into a state-owned bank account. It was only many years later that Lesley found out about this, never having been paid a cent of the wages she had earned, except for whatever pocket money her employers had seen fit to pay her. Similarly, a portion of the child endowment payments Lesley’s grandmother was entitled to as a result of bringing up nine grandchildren was held back and ended up in the Queensland government’s coffers. The grandchildren meanwhile growing up in abject poverty, the grandmother constantly at risk of the children being removed from her care for child neglect.

Lesley Williams describes her life in chronological order, interspersed with comments and questions by her daughter Tammy, which increase as Tammy gets older. Lesley takes us from her childhood on the settlement in Cherbourg to her various jobs as a domestic servant, some on farms, one in the city of Brisbane, with employers ranging from cold to kind to the wealthy Mrs Andrée Roberts in Brisbane, with whom she works for seven years from her early twenties. Here Lesley was treated not only humanely, but as a friend. Perhaps most importantly, Andrée boosted Lesley’s self-confidence and taught her about her rights and entitlements. Andrée also encouraged Lesley to make contact with Aboriginal friends who worked in Brisbane, but their meetings often had to be during the day or if at night, at Andrée’s house. The reason? In those days a night curfew within Brisbane’s city boundaries was imposed on Aboriginal people, which meant that they were not allowed to go to certain areas after dark. It was also in Brisbane that she met the young man whom she would marry and have children with.

The way in which Lesley transcended the difficult conditions of her young life, the poverty, the self-doubt, pain, and anger caused by racist taunts, the loss and tragedy she suffered as an adult, all the while working hard to keep her three children fed and educated, is truly inspiring. One day, after Tammy had gotten into trouble at school following a severe racist taunt against her, Lesley told her, “‘There are two ways to fight racism… The first way is to fight with your fists. But if you keep on fighting that way, sooner or later you’ll end up in goal… [The other way is to f]ight the bastards back… Except, this time, you fight ‘em with your talents and achievements…’”

In 1991 Lesley began her fight for justice. Research had found that the total amount of wages withheld from Aboriginal workers’ wages was about $200 million, with evidence of fraud and faulty bookkeeping by government officials. Her long campaign for the return of these wages included correspondence with the Minister for Family Services and Aboriginal and Islander Affairs, suing the Queensland government, and speaking to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights about the issue. She tells her story straight, not omitting in-fighting about strategy among Aborigines. This amazing, feisty woman ended up winning several awards and gaining her community a significant proportion of the wages that had been stolen from them.

This 2014 winner of the David Unaipon Award, Not Just Black and White: a conversation between a mother and daughter by Lesley and Tammy Williams is a wonderful and enlightening addition to the series of David Unaipon award-winning books, which gives an insight into yet another two major injustices imposed upon and affecting Aboriginal lives: completely controlled lives in missions and the scandal of the stolen wages. Highly recommended.

Not Just Black and White has been short-listed for the 2016 NSW Premiers’ Literary  Indigenous  Writer’s Prize along with Ghost River by Tony Birch, Inside My Mother by Alice Cobby Eckermann,  Dirty Words by Natalie Harkin, Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe and Heat and Light by Ellen van Neerven. The winner will be announced on 16 May 2016.

 – Annette Marfording

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Annette Marfording is a writer, broadcaster and critic who lives in regional New South Wales. She was Program Director of the Bellingen Readers and Writers Festival until 2015. Her book Celebrating Australian Writing: Conversations with Australian Authors features 21 in-depth conversations with Australian authors on their books, central themes in their body of work, writing methods, central tips for aspiring writers and more. It is available in independent bookshops in Sydney and on the NSW Mid-North-Coast and online at www.coop.com.au or http://www.lulu.com/shop/annette-marfording/celebrating-australian-writing/paperback/product-22192469.html. All profits from the sale of the book go to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation.

Not Just Black and White: a conversation between a mother and daughter is available from http://www.uqp.uq.edu.au/Book.aspx/1361/Not%20Just%20Black%20and%20White

Not Just Black and White: a conversation between a mother and daughter also has its own website http://www.notjustblackandwhite.com.au/

Bittersweet is Umami: Ashley Haywood Reviews ‘Eating My Grandmother: A Grief Cycle’ by Krissy Kneen

Eating My Grandmother: A Grief Cycle by Krissy Kneen UQP, 2015.

eating my grandmother‘She is ghosting’ becomes a more palpable image when the grieving poet begins eating her grandmother’s ashes. This is the fugue-like theme to Krissy Kneen’s first poetry collection Eating my Grandmother: A Grief Cycle, which won the 2014 Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize. Kneen is otherwise known as a novelist, short-story writer and documentary filmmaker, a writer of memoir, erotic fiction, candid and playful prose—actually, the first time I saw Kneen read her prose, she was naked, as was the audience, at a Queensland Poetry Festival (2015) event celebrating eroticism in literature.

Eating my Grandmother’s ‘cycle’ is sustained by Kneen’s continual returning to the urn for another taste of her grandmother, which preludes further clearing and stripping away of the more intangible material: mystery, forgetting, remembering, grief. ‘Once cleared the room writes itself ’, poet and academic Anne Carson tells us of her method in Economy of the Unlost. I was reminded of this when reading Kneen’s poetry. Carson adds that ‘It’s the clearing that takes time. It is the clearing that is the mystery’. Kneen’s subtext is like this room with her body in the midst of clearing and stripping away what is unknowable—to look more closely at the flesh and bones of what is knowable, what is within reach, what is more tangible—in her way making sense of her grief following the death of her grandmother.

Kneen’s imagery deals with her ‘clearing’ as she writes her way into a visceral, singular nakedness. As she proceeds, Kneen points out the mystery that surrounded her grandmother in life, but answers to who was Dragitsa Marusic (or Lotty Kneen) are not sought after here—for they are not clearly within reach, they are mystery that perhaps takes up too much room here. Kneen’s grandmother, for example, is like the fairy tales ‘she collected in her bone-rattle hands / re-told through her snag-tooth mouth’. She is ‘Lie upon lie upon missing truth. / Migrant papers, lost’; ‘She sails free / from the burning of her birth certificates’ in life and now death; simply put (in Requiem, ix):

All the burning buildings piled with
smoulder
coals of hidden history
taken to the grave.

So, what is within reach? Kneen tells us, the urn: ‘Clear, water-tight, half-priced from Bunnings’. The tangible grit of Marusic’s cremated remains, the taste and feel of them on Kneen’s tongue—‘I feel the scratch of her fingernail tracking my trachea’—and the day-to-day life that ensues. Kneen’s grief cycle begins with the following lines, which are among the most tantalising in this poetry collection (in Prelude):

I pick a grain of her, stolen from the urn
place it on my tongue.
Her body.
My blood.

She lodges in me.

Readers of Carson, who has written much on grief and Eros, might recognise Carson’s influence on Kneen’s poetry. Concerning Kneen’s style, I was especially reminded of Carson’s The Beauty of the Husband: A fictional essay in 29 tangos. And, with thinking about the nature of grief—what Eating my Grandmother inspires—I began thinking about Carson’s critical work Eros the Bittersweet. Eros, in Greek, does not so much mean love but desire for who or what is not fully within us, or who or what is not within reach. Grief, in this way, is akin to desire. But, unlike the potential to be touched by the beloved in our lives, those who elicit grief in us usually remain unreachable.

Kneen challenges this idea of grief when she reaches for a grain of grandmother and brings it into her body. Bittersweet is umami in ‘Eating my Grandmother’. Endocannibalism—consuming the flesh of family or community, be it roasted, pickled, fermented or ash—is, to the western mind, an extreme form of grieving still practised in a number of cultures today. In Fugue, iv:

I eat unspeakably,
swallowing whole as one might an oyster
the unnamed part of her.
Today’s funeral offering.

If we think of Kneen’s collection as like a fugue, which names one section among Prelude, Requiem and Cadenza, the theme is the ash-grain of her grandmother. With every grain she eats, Kneen’s grief-fugue cycle grows. The poet’s body is both ‘warm coffin’ and ‘womb’ for the grains she consumes. The concept of growth tied to the necessity of death—or discontinuity, as in a fugue for it’s musical continuance, or dislocation, as in a fugue state, in which a new identity may be forged—is a paradox that Kneen wraps her fingers around and brings into her body like the ouroboros. The poet is self-eating (Her body. / My blood.) for self-making: ‘in all the painful trudge of days ahead I grow / in grit / in earth / in death’.

Eating my Grandmother inspires much thought on the nature of grief. Kneen extends her practise of endocannibalism to consuming pica—‘the inedible things that I have eaten’. Pica is an object void of nourishment; nevertheless, it nourishes the sensing of reality, enriches a moment, with the companion of taste. This is the singularness of Kneen’s grief cycle: moving toward the moment, or a moment of self-making, of new configurations, all flesh and bone and vulnerable—‘And here I am undone. // Now is the time … // Now is the time. If Eating my Grandmother is a eulogy, it is also a self-eulogy (which is not to say momento mori).

Kneen’s premise, or prelude, is intoxicating—endocannibalism certainly takes hold of the reader’s attention. Eating my Grandmother is confessional, sensual and honest. The reader is invited into a poetic narrative. All of this is attractive for many readers. Some readers of poetry may find, at times, a word and/or line break that could be better placed for, or a non-poetic repetition diminishing, the potential of her ideas. Kneen’s ideas are complex and stimulating, and are what held me to Eating my Grandmother, but it’s hard to know how far I’ve run wild with them on my own. Nevertheless, I have run wild—rejection of the unreachable, grief akin to desire, endocannibalism as a reachable act in grief, growth in death, writing into the moment of a naked ‘undone’—what more can I ask from poetry? Eating my Grandmother: A grief cycle is a remarkable achievement for a first collection.

Eating my Grandmother: A grief cycle was launched at the Queensland Poetry Festival 2015.

 – Ashley Haywood

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Ashley Haywood is a writer with work published in Australia and performed in the streets of Paris. Recently, she received a PhD with her thesis Harlequin Blue and The Picasso Experiment. Most recently, her writing appears in Spineless Wonders’ anthology Out of Place. She also paints with pigments collected in her travels. Ashley currently lives between Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne.

Eating my Grandmother: A grief cycle is available from  http://www.uqp.uq.edu.au/Book.aspx/1353/Eating%20My%20Grandmother-%20A%20Grief%20Cycle

 

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A Place Where You Can Bring Things Together: Andrew Burke reviews ‘Open House’ by David Brooks

Open House by David Brooks, UQP 2015.

open house david brrokesThere are many themes in David Brooks new book Open House, many values of love, many heart felt convictions, many parables and narratives. The collection’s cohesion is the poet’s voice, borne out of colloquial language, stated in an intimate cadence and brought together by true conviction.

The main theme of the collection is man’s cruelty to animals. And this animal kingdom encompasses every living creature – from slugs to elephants. Mankind should live at peace with all creatures. As Francis Ponge once wrote: We only have to lower our standard of dominating nature, and to raise our standard of participating in it, in order to make this reconciliation take place.

Even though some poems here are polemical, they are not blunt force instruments. The poems are persuasive and thoughtful, sharing a belief with the reader rather than wielding language like a bludgeon. But I am saying too much of what they are not: here is an example of what they are – from the poem ‘Phasmid’:

They call them Phasmatidae, I think, the genus,
though I might well be wrong;
the species I simply cannot trace: small
stick-like insects so perfectly disguised
you’d think them a part of a eucalypt until,
the wind or some sudden
disturbance of the leaves dislodging them, they fall
onto something not their colour. Match-length
scrolls of bark, they could be, though looking more closely
you think something more delicate, utterly.

Three more verses expand on the theme until this last verse:

The next day the car was gone
and the creature also from my mind until,
driving in again, a few days later still,
and getting out of the car, I saw her
lying less than a metre from me, her hind-part
just crushed by my driver’s-side wheel.
I picked her up, of course, and buried her beneath
the tree from which I’ve always thought she came
and since then, for eleven years or more, I’ve
wondered what could be their name.

One of the great strengths of Brooks style is his clarity of vision. When poetry in English was polluted by faux philosophy and stylistic filigree in the late 19th century, Pound and Eliot et al went to Eastern poetry for a cure – the image was at the heart of the new poetry, the sharp image transporting emotions from the poet to the reader via the page. We hardly notice such a technique in our contemporary poetry until it is used in an exceptionally excellent manner – or the reverse. Here Brooks uses the clarity of the senses to paint pictures which carry vibrant thoughts without force or flippancy.

Almost always there is something
flickering on the edge of our attention, like someone
at the back of a crowd, trying to catch our eye.
Sometimes it delivers its message, some-
times in doesn’t.
…………..This last three months or so
there has been a long row of pumpkins
in a farmer’s field, running parallel to the highway …

Five verses of meditation on pumpkins later, Pumpkins on the Koper Road ends with these lines:

The mystical significance of pumpkins quite
escapes me. But maybe that’s the point: that it’s
one of the businesses of things to go, one of
the businesses of poets to try to hold them.

A simple imagistic poem follows, August:

No wind, and yet
a flock of tiny
sparrows
drifting
to the road like leaves.

Some of these small poems lie in the text like a pause for breath, both physical and thoughtful. There are love poems here, and a small amount of elegies, and some poems near the end of the collection focussed on our relationship with sheep – ‘Reading to the Sheep’ is a delightful poem, prompting many trains of thought (see Emery Brook’s launch speech for more). The Lambs carries much weight in its approach to lambs and sheep as used for tales in the Bible – Brooks’s reading is rich and thoughtful:

and a reminder too, that ‘sacrifice’
means to make sacred: it’s all
to do with lambs, rams, ewes and wethers, it seems to me,
not God,
a way to justify a choice of food
we know to be cruel beyond measure
but for which we nevertheless continue to hanker, though
not just that but – back to the tales – the curious way in
which,
read carefully, we find they admit to it all …

Open House ‘is a place where you can bring things together’, as David Brooks says about poems in one poem. It’s a healthy size at over 150 pages and a multi-level collection, beautifully written

with its own intimate tones echoing long after you have put it down.

– Andrew Burke

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Andrew Burke has been writing and publishing in Australia and beyond since the 60s. He holds a PhD from Edith Cowan University, and his current titles from Walleah Press are Undercover of Lightness (2012) and One Hour Seeds Another (2014) Burke blogs at http://hispirits.blogspot.com/

Open House is available from http://www.uqp.uq.edu.au/Book.aspx/1336/Open%20House

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The poems are their own defence: Brook Emery launches ‘Open House’ by David Brooks

Open House by David Brooks, UQO 2015 was launched by Brook Emery on 26 March 2015 at the Common Room, Wolley Building at the University of Sydney

open house david brrokes
Open House
is a big book, 150 or so pages as against the fashion for slim volumes. And, modestly, David has forbidden me to speak about him or it for more than five minutes. In that time I won’t be able to say much with much authority so, as an alternative, I thought I might just ask a few questions. . . which David is forbidden to answer.

Before I do I’ll risk spending 30 seconds on a poem by Jack Gilbert which, rather oddly, touches on at least some of the issues raised by David’s poetry.

.

Poetry is a kind of lying,
necessarily. To profit the poet
or beauty. But also in
that truth may be told only so.

Those who, admirably, refuse
to falsify (as those who will not
risk pretensions) are excluded
from saying even so much.

Degas said he didn’t paint
what he saw, but what

would enable them to see
the thing he had.

This poem is paradoxical when considered in the light of Jack Gilbert’s own poetry as well as David Brooks’s poetry because Gilbert is a truth-telling poet who has no time for pretension or obvious artifice – in another poem he speaks contemptuously of ‘newness strutting around as if it were significant. / Irony, neatness and rhyme pretending to be poetry’ – and he draws extensively on his own life for his poetry. As does David. I believe Jack Gilbert as I believe David Brooks. So, in the light of  such artfully lineated lines as ‘you / cannot not / utter you must / say, and say’ from the poem ‘Witness’ I’d like to ask David how much ‘truth’ and how much ‘lying’ is there in ‘Open House’? In case this is misconstrued I need to stress that I’m not speaking morality or absolutes here, I’m only interested in the process of making poetry, the marriage of observation and experience, invention and imagination. The art that goes into making a work of art such as these poems.

This leads me to a second question: ‘David, how do you build and shape a poem?’ At the back of this question is the response Henry Miller gave to the question ‘How do you work?’ Miller replied something like, ‘I stammer, I grope, I look for any and all means possible and imaginable.’ A number of poems in Open House  ponder this question more or less directly, for example, ‘Indian Mynahs’ where David writes of ‘how you need a nest or alcove / to lodge a poem in, how you / build it with whatever comes to hand, / stalks of dry dandelion, say, or bird feathers, twigs / of memory, fragments’, and the poem ‘Captain Hunter and the Petrels’ where he writes, ‘A poem is a place where you can bring things together, you / don’t have to know why. The mad and the bad, the / gentle and the dead, tooth-ache and heart-ache / and the ache and quandary of history.’ How is it possible, David, for poems to be simultaneously artful and artless?

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A number of David’s poems begin, at least apparently, as he is washing up or making coffee and looking out the window, or standing in the shower, or waking at night. In an incidental, casual, almost diaristic way, he begins describing what he is thinking or what he sees and in this way he can move from Baudelaire giving his soul to poetry to cockroaches and slugs crawling across the floor, from a crow on a Blue Mountains Ash to a memory and ‘…  the pain and the confusion and the / embarrassment of it, the regrets and the / damage and the stubborn, un- / trackable grieving …’, from a Blue Mountains dust storm to the Taj Mahal, the Vatican, the Louvre, and back to the dust ‘burning /as the world / turns away from us / angry beyond measure’, or from almost anywhere and anything to almost anywhere else. In other words David gives us the moment, the trigger, the process, the mental and emotional journey, and the poem, a method which chimes with Howard Nemerov’s notion that a poem is not so much a thought as a mind thinking. I find this way of working very attractive, I like the thinking this mind does, the diversions and digressions it takes, the way it takes me with it, and the places it ends up. The journey, the conversation, is always worth the ride.

I’d like to remind David that he writes in one poem about a poet pronouncing, again, the death of poetry, and tell him I heard a poet ask the other day, ‘How can you possibly write a personal poem these days?’, and I’d guess both of us know poets who blanch at any appearance of the first person singular pronoun in a poem. Then I’d accuse him of writing a book which revels in the joy and importance of poetry and, in addition, one littered with ‘I’ and ‘we’. ‘Defend yourself, David,’ I’d say, ‘defend yourself.’ Defence, of course, is unnecessary, so consistent, so thoughtful, so self-aware and self-critical are the poems. They display none of the solipsism, sloppy thinking, self-pity and self-romanticising that may mar so-called confessional poems. The poems in Open House open up, they reach out to the reader rather than close down to the self. I am convinced that for David, ‘truth may be told only so.’ The poems are their own defence.

I have no questions about David’s, let’s call them, ‘animal’ poems. These speak for themselves too. And speak powerfully. They make me uncomfortable, they make me squirm. They are direct, they are clear, they take a stance, they are frankly polemical, but they are also poems. This is not a hint but, in this regard, I’m hoping David might read the really beautiful ‘Reading to the Sheep. These poems think through the language and the images, they don’t hector or ladle moralism on top of obviousness, even though, unashamedly, they seek to persuade. In the context of the whole book, in the context of what I see as the book’s overarching concern with how we should live in the world, how much we are in need of passion and compassion, they are natural and unremarkable, remarkable as they are. It should be noted that here, as with the confessional poems, David is ‘risking pretension’, not as we might understand that term in everyday parlance but in Jack Gilbert’s terms where risking pretension is a willingness to say openly ‘big’ things about, say, love and death and cruelty and that ‘big’, over-arching conundrum, ‘what is it like to be human?’ rather than hide behind neat, distanced, risk-averse, ironic, tricksy, little poems.

If I had time I’d ask David to tell me something about anger and something about love; I’d ask him about sadness and joy; and humour; I’d ask him about ‘seventeen kinds of death’ and ‘Seventy-Seven Stupidities’;  I’d ask him how Milosz stopped him writing poetry and how he started writing again; I’d ask him whether it is just my imagination or whether his voice, his poetry starts to change, become more urgent, with ‘Urban Elegies’, and has become ever more conversational and, simultaneously, more urgent, vital and uncompromising since; I’d ask David, and this is a very strange question given how direct and lucid the book is, what is Open House about? How does it see the world? How does it want to see the world?

I’d ask these last two questions because David’s poetry performs that magical, mysterious poetic trick of saying more than it says, and the ‘more’ hovers in the mind behind or underneath or in between or beyond the words.

But, as six and a bit minutes have ticked by, all I can do is ask David to read a couple of poems and, perhaps, the answers will materialise. At least, to go back to Degas and Jack Gilbert, you’ll have some inkling of ‘the thing’ David has, and how generously, how nakedly, he shares that ‘thing’ with us as readers.

Reading to the Sheep

It is a cold afternoon in early winter and my wife
is reading to the sheep the first departmental seminar paper
from her doctoral thesis while unbeknownst to her
I watch through the kitchen window. She is wearing
her winter jacket, and the sheep
in their thickening coats
are chewing on the already-stripped stalks of the rampant
…..mint
and what is left of the autumn grass around the potato bed.
The thesis is on the grief of animals and she is reading
about the mourning of chickens for their mates,
about the grief of calves for their mothers, mothers for their
…..stolen calves,
about huge elephants in the Kenyan dusk
turning over and over the bones of their dead,
she is reading about birds
placing branches over the bodies of their companions,
and about how, knowing they did not know, the Lord
of some people or another – maybe it was ours –
sent crows to teach them due
reverence and rites for the departed,
she is reading about ants, carrying away
so carefully the bodies of their fellows,
she is reading about dogs
starving themselves after the loss of their loved ones,
about dolphins holding, at the surface of the water, their
…..dying friends,
about macaque mothers carrying their infants
for months after the last breath has left them.
Now and again, when she pauses, lost
in the incipience of her own sorrow, perhaps,
or just asking for breath,
one or another of the two sheep comes to her
in the sad May twilight
and with the top of his head, where
the horns have not so long ago been sawn away,
nudges her hand
as if to comfort her,
or perhaps only to ask her to turn a page.

The light thickens, and a wind picks up. Ducks
settle about her, and the sheep
rest at her feet. Night
turns into day, then night, then day again.
Rain comes and goes. The seminar passes. Spring
turns into early summer, drifts towards autumn.
The sheep rise, stretch, graze, return,
leaves pile around them and are blown
away by the winds of another winter.
Your hair
turns grey – look at it! – and a million lines
comes to the backs of your hands.
You find this poem.
She is still reading.

-Brook Emery

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Brook Emery’s most recent book, Collusion (John Leonard Press, 2012), was shortlisted for the Western Australian Premier’s Literary Awards. His first book, and dug my fingers in the sand, won the Judith Wright Calanthe Prize and it, along with Misplaced Heart and Uncommon Light, was shortlisted for the Kenneth Slessor Prize.

Open House is available from http://www.uqp.uq.edu.au/Book.aspx/1336/Open%20House

Specialling the Special: Stevi-Lee Alver reviews ‘The Special’ by David Stavanger

The Special by David Stavanger. University of Queensland Press, 2014. 

Screenshot 2014-11-06 14.55.20Within the health system the word “specialling” implies that, for various reasons, a patient is provided with one-to-one care. The Special is concerned with the practice of specialling that takes place when people, at risk of harming themselves, are placed under continuous supervision. This occurs generally in prisons and psychiatric hospitals and is colloquially known as suicide watch.

The Special, initially propelled by urgency and speed, becomes obfuscated by unperturbed acceptance. The sentiments fuelling this collection are, if not obfuscated than at least, restrained by a seemingly transparent nihilism described by Stavanger as, ‘the loss of agency, the Seroquel / mandala, the thoughts that walk.’

This nihilistic tone meanders the entire collection, which is comprised of a prologue, Axis I to Axis V, and an Appendix. Drawing on professional and personal experiences, Stavanger’s poetry playfully embodies desolation, allowing voices and subject matter to emerge from the tensions within disparities, and forming concepts of self and being that don’t coincide with what is stable, unified, or permanent. The first example of this is in the prologue, which offers various definitions for the word special:

Latin specialis individual, particular

adjective English
of peculiar or restricted kind. being other than usual

adjective Old French
sweetheart; special person or thing, c.1300

noun
a featured attraction of dish, at a reduced price

urban adjective
euphemism for having a behavioural or mental disability

mental health terminology Australia
‘to special’ is to observe a suicidal or psychotic mental
health in-patient overnight with limited support or sleep

Free of absolutes, The Special continuously examines and challenges accepted notions of sanity, disturbing and shifting binary oppositions such as sane/insane and doctor/patient, and exposing the nuisances and incongruities existing within the mental health net. As if playing tour guide, Stavanger’s poetry takes us from the courtyards of psychiatric wards to the front doors and neighbourhoods of people living with mental health issues; from the i-dotting and t-crossing of paperwork to the debilitating side-effects of psychoactive medications; from the utterances of doctors to the inhumane history of psychiatric treatment; from therapy sessions and online dating to the dissevering of familial ties. This book, rather than sinking under the weight of such heavy topics, is kept afloat with precision injections of humour.

RSVP

You

Seeking a relationship with a              Psychotherapist

My current relationship status           Hyper-vigilant

My height                                           ….Reduced
My body type                                     …Venus flytrap
Do you have children                        ..One previous episode

My personality                                 I like it when you smile,
…..                                                        .  I love it when you don’t

My Hair
My eyes
                                             ….A colour that doesn’t run

My desires                                          ..Citrus fruit but not in a
…………………………………………………weird way

Religion                                               .Marked obsessive traits

Pets                                                     ..Mild panic attacks

Zodiac sign                                          Cipramil

Here the contemporary imagery of online dating is eclipsed by the dissidence within the RSVP profile. Throughout the book the absurdity of personality questionnaires, surveys, and box-ticking diagnostics develop a running commentary.

11. To be human is to
a) wear the right name tag
b) shower daily
c) give what you can’t give
d) fold back into the white

However, the power exerted by such surveys in assessing sanity, categorising, diagnosing, and changing lives soon extinguishes momentary humour. The first of nine staccato prose poems, ‘out of danger’, uses a curious combination of random phrases, performing what is known as “word salad”—a symptom of certain neurological disorders. This poem, embodying the possible severance between intended communication and actual communication, illustrates the absurdity of current assessment practices.

thinking. using a microwave. drinking. not drinking. voices
from the pillow. not talking to yourself. talking to yourself.
talking to taxi drivers. parenting. going to a lecture. enjoying
it. declaring yourself a legend. believing it. sensing you have
an erection when you don’t have a penis.

Stavanger explicitly refers again to this phenomenon during the second prose poem, ‘nobody whistles in the dark’, in the sentence: ‘in the ward no new words are welcomed, you can talk like a salad but you can’t ask for water.’ The discomfort produced by this sentence brings the reader’s attention—once again—to the undeniable power play resulting from discourse disjuncture: if one talks ‘like a salad’ and ‘can’t ask for water’ what chance do they have of appropriately answering the questions of generic assessments.

However, there are instances when attempts to denounce the system, destigmatise mental illness, give the disenfranchised voice, and expand audience awareness feels slightly dogged and laboured.

the Psychiatrist can sign you away
the Psychiatrist can give you a script
or several pills depending on diagnosis

Occasionally, Stavanger’s use of repetition feels rhythmically counterproductive and forced. However, his poetry is accessible and his point is clear.

the Psychiatrist can give you a title
the Psychiatrist can give you a new name
so that when you start barking on the train
you can introduce yourself on your own terms

 

An eclectic collection, Stavanger’s poetry vividly portrays the reality of dreary confinement, lack of rights, and height of vulnerability that people suffering mental illness can be subjected to. Ultimately a denial of absolutes, the voices of The Special—at odds with the subject matter—form tight bonds through loose associations, create a multitude of tension within language, and encourage multiplicity in interpretation.

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Based in Bangalow, Stevi-Lee Alver currently studies at Southern Cross University and nurses at the North Coast Cancer Institute. Her poetry and fiction have recently appeared in Writing to the Edge, Jabberwocky, and Northerly, and will be forthcoming in Coastlines 5, Homegrown Ghosts, and Questions.

The Special is available from http://www.uqp.uq.edu.au/Book.aspx/1305/The%20Special

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An Unflinching Dissection of Human Behavior: Lisa Wardle reviews ‘The Sky So Heavy’ by Claire Zorn

The Sky So Heavy by Claire Zorn. UQP. 2013

‘You never know how strong you are until being strong is the only choice you have.’

sky so heavyThis is the story of seventeen-year-old Fin and his twelve-year-old brother Max, a nuclear ‘accident’ and the events that follow. Written by an Australian author, set in an Australian landscape – The Blue Mountains – this is a dystopian survival story that piqued my interest from the start.

Zorn is quick to establish her characters ‘normal’ world – school, friends, crushes, and home life – before dropping them into a survival situation. Nuclear winter. These boys must quickly learn to fend for themselves without the aid of adults. Their parents are absent and it is soon apparent that the adults remaining cannot be relied on to behave in the usual way. Even the police can’t be trusted.

Tragedy and disaster have a way of bringing out the best and the worst in people. There are two ways people commonly react, they can become selfish, fearing only for themselves and their own situation, or they can become selfless, banding together to help those in need.

‘The true measure of a man is how he behaves when no one is watching.’

Take Starvos, the local shop owner, for instance. At first he is only concerned with how much money he can make. He makes a show of caring about everyone in the community by limiting the number of items people can buy at any time, yet he immediately doubles his prices. Later, with no idea how long the current situation will continue and concerned only for himself, he closes his shop, hides the food out of sight and is prepared to kill to protect it.

The tension builds steadily as the food runs out and people become desperate, but after reading more than 100 pages I began to wish something new would happen. There wasn’t enough action and the same goals and obstacles were repeating themselves. Thankfully, it wasn’t long before the story shifted. Along with Lucy, Fin’s crush, and a boy from their school, Fin and Max finally leave the mountains and head for Sydney in search of their mother, who incidentally works for the government.

Survival of the fittest.
Dog eat dog.
Every man for himself.
Us and them.

These are the clichés and themes that filled my mind while reading The Sky So Heavy. The idea that some people are more deserving of life than others, more worthy of being saved and protected, is the refugee situation at its core. I’d be blind not to see the parallels between this fictional story and the plight of those seeking Asylum on our own shores. Zorn shines a light on Australia’s Asylum Seeker situation and the way fear and greed and misinformation can be used to support the ‘us and them’ mentality. Inhumanity.

This is our Country.
These are our resources.
You don’t deserve them.
You are not one of us.

Segregation is not a new concept in society, but the divide between the haves and the have-nots has never been more obvious. The outsider, the old, the sick, the young, the disabled, the injured – who is useful, and therefore worth saving, worth spending money (resources) on, and who is not, is reminiscent of Nazi Germany.

Zorn undertakes an unflinching dissection of human behavior under extreme conditions. People either keep their humanity in the face of incredible challenges, or they lose it, and in doing so lose themselves. It’s these near-future potentially possible scenarios that frighten us most I believe, simply because they are believable. The likelihood of them happening within our lifetimes is real. And that is terrifying.

In a world, fictional or otherwise, where money no longer has power, it is those who control the giving or withholding of our basic human needs, such as food, water, shelter and safety, who hold the balance of power. How willingly they reject those in need reveals all.

It’s a harsh world, cruel at times.

It’s been said that ‘truth is stranger than fiction’, but it’s also been said that ‘fiction shines a light on the truth’. Zorn has positioned her spotlight well.

– Lisa Wardle

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Lisa Wardle is a writer, blogger and avid reader. She has interviewed more than 30 authors for her blog, and has had her poetry and stories published in various literary magazines. Her short story collection Reflections was published in 2009 by Ginninderra Press. She can be found at http://lisa-wardle.blogspot.com.au/

The Sky So Heavy is available from http://www.uqp.uq.edu.au/Book.aspx/1263/The%20Sky%20So%20Heavy

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Rochford Street Review relies on the support of its readers to continue. If you like what we are doing please consider making a donation.

Traversing identity and surrealism: Libby Hart reviews ‘Free Logic’ by Rachael Briggs

Free Logic by Rachael Briggs, University of Queensland Press, 2013.

free logicIn a recent radio interview English novelist, Zadie Smith, argued that book prizes are now “everything” to up-and-coming writers. A prize is ‘not some kind of cherry on the top,’ Smith explained, ‘it’s essential to getting noticed, to getting readers.’ Rachael Briggs can attest to this as several doors have opened for her—in the way of commissioned writing, teaching and judging opportunities—since she won the 2012 Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize for Free Logic, which was originally titled Cryptids of the Interior in manuscript form.

Thirty-one year old Briggs, who is US born but divides her time between Brisbane and Canberra where she is philosophy research fellow at both Griffith University and the Australian National University, also won the Val Vallis Award for Unpublished Poetry in 2011 for her suite of seven sonnets, ‘Tough Luck’, that form the third section of Free Logic. Only one poem (‘Singularity’) is acknowledged as being published in a journal prior to the publication of Free Logic. This seems quite remarkable on two levels: Free Logic is a 118-page collection and collections by other poets would require a succession of published works before any publishing house would consider reading their manuscript. I guess this is the beauty of having manuscript competitions because it fosters opportunity and egalitarianism.

According to the University of Queensland Press media release for Free Logic, ‘the Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize is recognised as the leading award for discovering the best new Australian poetry talent’. It is also a publication prize for first poetry collections.

The first collection is a fragile creature and Free Logic brings up a really interesting quandary for this reader. When compiling a manuscript do you include everything—or mostly everything—you have ever written thus far? Or do you only include those pieces that you believe will last and will provide a touchstone for your overall voice and preoccupations? Do you kill your darlings? Or do you nurture them? It is a very personal decision to make and only the poet concerned can make it.

What is evident though in Free Logic is that these pieces have been written over a length of time that includes adolescence and fledgling adulthood; as such this collection has the feel of a much younger writer than someone in their thirties. Throughout the collection Briggs has an incredibly angry voice that unfortunately echoes angst-ridden confessional and semi-confessional teenage poetry.

In every sense Free Logic is about navigation and finding a way through the world we live and love in. A sizeable landscape of identity and body politick (same sex and third gender), love and loss, surrealism and popular culture, as well as philosophy is charted throughout its pages. The collection is made up of nine sections that total 76 poems overall. Briggs treats these nine sections as individual suites and this brings a thoughtful touch to the collection that is admirable.

Free Logic begins with, ‘Twelve Love Stories’, that venture through one year of linked and seasonal narratives about love. Section two, ‘Solve for X and Y’, acts as a suite of micro stories that are both futuristic and surrealist. Here Briggs discusses private burdens often held within the body. This is best illustrated through the poem, ‘Minnow’:

Simone, always terrified of fish,
caught a pink minnow
in the deadfall of her stomach.

… To fling it out to sea,
said the doctor,
would require either a completed parental notification form or a judicial
…………bypass, in addition to an ultrasound and two counselling sessions
…………with a clinically-trained psychologist …

She leaves the doctor’s surgery with the fish still inside of her, punching ‘… it in the stomach, / but each morning, it failed to appear belly-up in the toilet bowl’. By the poem’s end the reader begins to understand the reasons for Simone’s misfortune:

When it reached the size of a largemouth bass,
the minnow swam for land,
slicing Simone
with its fin, thin as the one
Simone has drawn through her mother.

Fish as subject matter appear elsewhere in Free Logic, making up one section or suite of poems, ‘Toothfish’, about the tale of a pet fish that reads a little like Finding Nemo and Godzilla with a (Tim) Burtonesque twist. Like the poem, ‘Minnow’, (above) not all is what it seems.

What is clear is that Briggs is a storyteller. A lot of the work is best suited to and written for performance poetry in mind. However it is the same sex love poems and gender poems that bring out the authenticity of Briggs’ voice. In the award-winning suite, ‘Tough Luck’, she explains: ‘I twist / the bandages around my chest—too tight— / can’t breathe—unwrap and start again // … I check the mirror. Half a man looks back’ (from ‘King for an Evening’).

Similarly in the poem, ‘Confessional’ from the ‘This Poem Is Not About You’ suite, Briggs explains: ‘Forget Rachael. I’d rather be Rae, or Ray: / a brass flourish that could announce anybody.’ Elsewhere within the ‘Tough Love’ suite Briggs discusses wearing a dress to a wedding and how it makes her feel like she is in drag (‘Thanks for Inviting Me’); and in a memory of herself as a young girl written in the third person she describes how, ‘she cracks her / knuckles, acting butch, but then, / she’s crying in the bathroom yet again’ (from ‘My Feet are Three Sizes Too Small’).

Free Logic ends with the poem, ‘Third Gender Roles’. The last three lines of the book encapsulate what is most pressing for Briggs and what are her major preoccupations: identity and exploration for what is most authentic to Briggs as an individual and as a poet:

Let’s do it. Let’s be anything
…………except the boy and (God forbid)
…………………..the girl.

Overall, Free Logic does feel for this reader like two collections in one; as such it leaves the impression of being a little too corpulent. For a more intimate and rewarding read the work could have been separated into love and loss poems as one volume and fabulist pieces as another. But Zadie Smith is right, book prizes are “everything” now, and Rachael Briggs is sure to gain a lot of attention and readership through the publication of Free Logic.

– Libby Hart

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Free Logic is available from http://www.uqp.uq.edu.au/book.aspx/1262/Free%20Logic

Libby Hart is the author of two books of poetry: Fresh News from the Arctic, which won the Anne Elder Award and was shortlisted for the Mary Gilmore Prize; and This Floating World, which was shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Awards and The Age Book of the Year Awards, and longlisted for the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards. This Floating World was also devised for stage and received the Shelton Lea Award. Her third collection, Wild, is forthcoming in 2014.

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Battered Zucchini Flowers: Julia Miller reviews ‘The Conversation’ by David Brooks

The Conversation by David Brooks, UQP 2012

conversationI have spent much of the last six months travelling and, as a consequence, much of my reading has been done on a device. For me this has been less than ideal. While ebooks may be convenient (under certain circumstances), I have been craving the feel of a ‘real’ book. My review copy of David Brooks’ The Conversation certainly satisfied my immediate craving. The hard copy is a stunningly beautiful book, the dust jacket is a work of art in itself – featuring a Cezanne painting (Still Life with Blue Drapery) which blends into the golds and yellows which feature in the rest of the cover design. And the book seems substantial – seemingly much more real than the files I had been carrying around.

And David Brooks can write. As somebody new to Australian literature this was the first time I had come across him and he impressed from the opening paragraph. His prose is clear and direct and we enter easily into the narrative:

But the area appeared empty and spiritless at this time between seasons, not to say windy, and left him with little to do but look inward. No problem normally, he tended to enjoy his own company, but he was in one of those flat places in his life, listless.

The novel opens with a delicious description of an aimless day spent wandering around Trieste – a city I assume Brooks knows well as his biographical note explains that he divides his time between the Blue Mountains in NSW and a village on the sea coast of Slovenia.

It doesn’t take long for Brooks to introduce one of the main themes of the novel – food. No sooner has the main character (we don’t know his name yet) arrived in Trieste than we read:

He had ordered a double espresso, asking for extra hot water to tease it out, and a plain croissant, dunking chunks of the pastry in the rich black liquid like a peasant…….the oily film it left on the surface, the delicious confusion of flavours in the mouth, a taste he had always associated with calmness, freedom, sunshine, mornings like this.

For me the rich descriptiveness of Brooks’ prose, how he writes of landscape, food and wine, is the strength of this novel – what kept me reading it. And in the final instance I did need something to keep me reading because there is, a least for me, a great weakness at the core of this novel.

The actual ‘conversation’ that gives its name to the title takes place in a restaurant over a long and beautifully described dinner. The male character is seated alone at a table outside having just ordered his meal, writing out postcards to his wife and children, when a gust of wind scatters the postcard. One of them is picked up by a young woman at an adjoining table. She holds it up for him, he comes over, they talk and then decide to share a table and the conversation begins.

This is the beginning of an extended cliché. The middle aged man divorced, remarried, discussing life – but mainly relationships, sex and desire – with a beautiful young woman who also seeks his advice on matters of the heart. It is, perhaps, a plot that is written by and for educated aging middle class males. I thought of a certain genre of French and Italian movies, the aging male lusting after the beautiful younger woman – perhaps with Gérard Depardieu playing the male lead.

The cliché includes many of the standard elements – the young woman describes her obligatory lesbian experience and there is also the hint of a threesome which, when she describes the actual circumstances, is less than what he was imagining. Then there is the conclusion, the kiss in the car outside his hotel:

He pulled away, gently and reluctantly, and tied to read her eyes in the faint light. They seemed to implore, but whether to kiss her again, to stay, to go, to say nothing, he couldn’t tell. She leant towards him, pulled him to her and kissed him once more, as long and deep, even longer, then broke from him, pushed him lightly but firmly away.

Of course he walks up the stairs and decides to turn and wave “ But there was nothing. Nothing. No car, no lights moving away, no traffic”.

And so my introduction to David Brooks was ultimately disappointing. He had promised so much, rich descriptive prose that brought place and food to life in front of me. But when he began to speak he fell into the old male trap. How much more interesting the conversation might have been if it had been with a woman his own age, exploring two different lives rich with experience. Or even with another male where both gradually open up and reach a shared intimacy.

But all was not lost. I have taken away from this book a very good recipe for battered zucchini flowers and there was enough to make we want to read some more of Brooks’ work.

– Julia Miller

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Julia Miller is from Ireland is is currently travelling around Australia. She is currently working on a verse novel.

The Conversation is available from http://www.uqp.uq.edu.au/book.aspx/1220/The%20Conversation

The Perfect Word: Lisa Wardle reviews the The Midnight Dress by Karen Foxlee

The Midnight Dress by Karen Foxlee. UQP 2013

Midnight DressThis book broke my heart.

The Midnight Dress is a story about many things – friendship, loss, secrets, betrayal – but most of all, love. The writing is emotive, evocative, atmospheric. I couldn’t read Rose’s story with half my attention on what I would say later in this review. I couldn’t help but become fully immersed in the world of the story.

This is the story of a motherless girl (Rose Lovell) and a fatherless girl (Pearl Kelly) who meet when Rose’s drifter father Patrick decides to stop in a small Northern Queensland town. Rose is, at first, reluctant to attend school. She is also reluctant to become friends with Pearl – a friendship that begins pessimistically, based on a snap decision Rose makes on the first day she attends Lenora High.

“Geography or French?” asks Pearl. “French,” says Rose. Pearl even asks Rose later in the book – “What if you had chosen Geography?”

It’s sugarcane country, and the annual Harvest Parade (something else Rose would much rather avoid) is the celebration that the story builds towards. However, as the reader, you know in advance that this won’t be all celebration, as right from the beginning you are privy to pieces of the later parts of this story. The tragedy that unfolds alongside the more hopeful story of Rose and Pearl’s growing friendship has your mind already searching the text for the clues that will solve the crime.

I was amazed by how well the unusual structure of this story worked. At first I found it a little odd that so much of what’s to come is divulged to the reader at the beginning of each chapter. Half to a few pages of italicized text that clearly begins somewhere near the end and outcome of the story, creating tension, building backwards chapter by chapter, until it meets up with the forward story and propels you towards an ending that has become inevitable.

The first sentence of the first chapter is “Will you forgive me if I tell you the ending?”

These chapter prologues (for want of a better description) are told from the POV of the all-seeing, all-knowing omnipotent narrator – in this case the author herself. Author intrusion doesn’t usually work, but for this story, even though – or more likely because – the structure is so unique, it works. Even so, at one point early on I wondered if I should skip them and just read the story through to the end. I wondered if that was a choice the author intended by structuring the novel in this way. I wondered if it would make a difference to the reading experience.

The other star of this story is Edie. The girls all need dresses for the Harvest Parade. Most girls travel into the city to get their gowns, in the hope of being chosen to be one of seven Harvest Princesses, but Rose has neither the money nor the inclination. She is told of a local dressmaker who may be able to help her with her dress. This is Edie, an elderly woman living a lonely life as an outcast – someone to be whispered about in the streets by the locals. Edie is different and we all know that society is intolerant and suspicious of difference, and these feelings are even more pronounced in a small town setting.

Edie’s history – a love story of sorts – is woven through the narrative during Rose’s visits. The making, by hand, of the Midnight Dress becomes a kind of meditative therapy. Edie becomes ‘mentor’, and Rose changes – becomes smoother, less sharp-edged – as the dress takes shape. Edie lives in squalor, yet seems happy surrounded by her ‘things’. She feels safe with the mountains and rainforest at her back. This is her home – however dysfunctional. She has grown roots here.

Edie’s house became, for me, a character in its own right. It was a living, breathing thing that I could picture in my mind as though I was right there looking at it, walking through it – which would be difficult with all of Edie’s things cluttering it up. The quality of the description of this relic of a house only proves how fully the author imagined it – with all of her senses. Edie tells Rose of the ‘spell’ the rainforest cast over herself and her mother; the same spell that Rose inevitably falls under. The same type of spell is cast by this author.

Foxlee masterfully gathers the threads of her story together to give the reader an ending that may not be unexpected yet is still extremely satisfying. Rose loved words – collected them in her green notebook. Foxlee loves words and has a knack for using the perfect one. I gave The Midnight Dress 5 stars on ‘Goodreads’ and I believe it deserves every one of those stars. I highly recommend this book.

– Lisa Wardle

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Lisa Wardle is a writer, blogger and avid reader. She enjoys paper crafts and spending time with her family. She has interviewed more than 30 authors for her blog, and has had her poetry and stories published in various literary magazines. Her short story collection Reflections was published in 2009 by Ginninderra Press. She can be found at http://lisa-wardle.blogspot.com.au/

The Midnight Dress is available from http://www.uqp.uq.edu.au/book.aspx/1231/The%20Midnight%20Dress