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Those who have suffered the mental strain of life’s vicissitudes often end up by becoming withdrawn.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


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/

Where Ugliness Bides its Time: B. J. Muirhead reviews ‘Breaking Beauty’ edited by Lynette Washington

Breaking Beauty edited by Lynette Washington MidnightSun Publishing 2014

breaking beauty.
The presentation and elucidation of beauty ceased being a primary aim of literature and visual art over one hundred years ago. This dismissal of beauty as a subject worthy of serious aesthetic consideration was new for visual artists, but not so new for writers, who always have peered deeply into the more unpleasant aspect of live, those areas, in fact, where ugliness bides its time.

In her introduction to the collection, Washington wrote that beauty is everywhere, but added the caveat that

Dualities allow us to understand things that are otherwise meaningless. There is no beauty without ugliness. We need to crack beauty open, we need to break it, to really understand it.

It may be true that there is no beauty without ugliness, but this seems to me to be erroneous, to be an attempt to state a matter of fact when no such statement is possible. Beauty, as with so many aspects of our experience of life, is relative to everything which surrounds it, and to the person experiencing it; but in these stories there is precious little beauty or understanding of what is beautiful within the ugliness. Unfortunately, Washington’s proposition appears to be a justification of the presentation of unpleasant stories which focus on relationships which haven’t worked, dead babies and school friends, the somewhat tedious mini-drama of demanding that a builder live up to the conditions in his contract, and more. The result is a collection of stories which verge on the pathological in their almost overwhelming negativity.

Amy Matthews, for example, in ‘This is the Body of Wonderful Jones’, presents us with a first person narrative about the narrator’s porn star twin sister, and the effect her existence has, especially when a man calls out wonderful during sex. Wonderful Jones’ body is watched, desired and surgically manipulated into a big breasted fantasy of beauty against which the narrator feels compared, against which she cannot compete. Moreover, at the end of the story, I had no sense about whether the narrator actually had a porn star sister called “Wonderful”, or if she suffered from a psychiatric problem, a delusion about a fantasy woman.

In Stefan Laszczuk’s ‘The Window Winder’ the narrator reflects on a fatal accident caused by his attempts to pick up the window winder handle of the car he was driving. The difficulty in doing this caused him to ram into the side of another car, and the impossibly sharp ladder he was transporting flew from the top of his car, through the open window of the other car, and decapitated the driver and passenger. What bothered the narrator still was the way the heads, rolling in the rear seat, came together and kissed, and how their hands were clasping each other when dead, but not prior to death. In the final paragraph Laszczuk writes:

Sometimes you just have to take what life gives you and try to remember that it is possible to find beauty in the worst tragedy.

Social platitude says that he is correct, but the story said nothing about beauty, nor was beauty his subject. Rather it conveyed a sense of somewhat flattened horror throughout, a sense that was not relieved by the simplistic, platitudinous comment at the end of the story. The subject, love and the presumption that it survives even the most tragic of deaths, was poorly developed in terms of the overall theme and provided no sense of satisfaction or narrative resolution.

Many of the stories in Breaking Beauty are the same: their subject is love, relationships and sex, with the unspoken presumption that beauty is lurking in the shadows of the situations presented, that they should be beautiful but in fact are not. In itself this isn’t a problem except that the book’s title, introduction and editor’s comments have led me to look for insights into beauty, for conceptual cracks, affirmations and evocations of both. Unfortunately these rarely appear in the stories, but when they do, the result can be quite chilling.

One such story is ‘O Lucky Man’ by Lesley Beasley. Richard, an apparently ill man, has driven to the beach for what may be the last time, and sits leaning against a child’s sand castle, trying to enjoy himself despite his pain and the rain coming down. From her beach house, Liliana is Listening to Chopin while thinking about her life—how long it has been since she played golf, why she had sold her husband’s business, her irritation with a new age spot. When she sees Richard watching the waves from the old hut, she makes a grand gesture:

A lucky man, she said to herself, no arthritis, no heart attacks. I spare you them all, she pronounced grandly, waving an imaginary wand. I give you wealth and health and a happy life. I give you love. And with a final theatrical flourish—I give you eternal youth.

We don’t know what is wrong with Richard, but we know enough to be certain that this blessing already is meaningless.

More directly focused on beauty is ‘The Beholders’, by Sean Williams. This story takes place in “the early days of d-mat,” when people were concerned that matter transmission would result in “a world of freaks and giant flies, or whatever.” At this time there was a system hack that, when installed in one’s home d-mat booth, slowly made the user more beautiful. In the year after Art had installed the hack, he noted that none of his friends complimented him on his increasing good looks. It was only when he confronted his friends directly that he discovered that they perceived none of his good looks, but thought he was aging and shabby. On investigating, he discovered that the d-mat hack produced an alteration in the brain which caused a change in self-perception so that the user thought they were beautiful, irrespective of their actual appearance. Art found others who had been tricked, forming a group called “The Beholders”, who found the man, and hacked him in return, so that he could see himself only as a “hideous freak.” Williams ends the story with a moral, which is a dangerous thing to do these days:

…in the time The Beholders had taken to catch the hacker, they had realised something very important. They were all getting older, like everyone else, no matter how they try to cheat. We all sag and lose our looks. We all shrink and fade away. But The Beholders will never stop thinking they’re beautiful.

This, to my mind, is the best of the stories which deal directly with beauty, if only because of the shock I experience when I look in a mirror and see just how far my experience of myself veers from the exterior. It also is one of the few stories which completely fulfils the editorial brief in a direct manner.

Equally compelling is ‘Thank you, Jean Harley’, in which Heather Johnson writes a sixty-one year old woman talking to her husband, Stompy, about their daughter while sitting at his grave. Pearl, the old woman, remembers the first time their daughter left home “for real”, how she had left Pearl a note saying Find love with Dad again. Let it in. Hold onto it. At the end of the story, Pearl acknowledges life itself, the life she lived with her husband, the life she is living as she talks to his absence:

This was her life, troublesome as it was, but here on this picnic blanket, talking with Stompy and remembering Jean, she knew it to be a beautiful thing. ‘Let’s both thank her, Stompy.’

The story conveys the sense of a satisfied, if not entirely fulfilled life, and provides the reader with a similar feeling, an understanding which the phrase “she knew it to be a beautiful thing” almost succeeds in destroying simply by being an unnecessary statement of what should have been obvious from the story, had it been developed a little more carefully.

More than anything else, the stories in this collection display an urge to see and experience unpleasantness and despair in the mundane, without taking the extra step that would bring beauty out of the background and into some focus. At the same time, and somewhat irritatingly, most of the stories are well enough written, in a technical sense, that they all are readable. Where they fail, and many of them do fail, is in the development of the ideas, in relating these to beauty and its failings in a satisfying manner. For this reason, the collection is less compelling and enjoyable than it should have been.

 – B. J. Muirhead


 B.J. 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 at http://bjmuirhead.wordpress.com   and http://inaforeigntown.wordpress.com.

Breaking Beauty is available from http://midnightsunpublishing.com/books/breaking-beauty/

Looking Forward: B. J. Muirhead Reviews ‘The World to Come’ edited by Patrick West and Om Prakash Dwivedi


The World to Come, edited by Patrick West and Om Prakash Dwivedi, Spineless Wonders 2014

The_World_To_ComeBooks in which stories are selected thematically always pique interest—we read with the hope of learning something about that theme, and we judge them not only on the pleasure the stories bring, but also on how effectively they bring us insight into that theme.

In The World to Come, the theme was the phrase which stands as the collections title. In their preface, the editors note that “the present is never no-where: it is always in a place. Where one is impacts when one is. Very deliberately, this collection harvests the voices of writers from all over the world, in fictional reflection on what the world to come looks like from where they are writing, in place and in time”.

One result of this is that the collection contains stories in a variety of genres, from purely literary to science fiction. There is, however, a common pessimistic and depressive tone that runs through most of the stories. Few of the writers present an optimistic future or, when they do, it is the optimism of surviving environmental catastrophe, a theme which holds many of the selected writers in thrall.

For many of the writers, the future conceived as the world to come is barren of humanity, full of despair. Out of several post-apocalyptic stories, John Shulman’s Progress stands out in its inability to present humanity in anything but the worst possible light. A small group of people in the Kalahari Desert have decided, without apparent evidence, that they are the sole human survivors, that it is their task to start humanity over again. But they cannot overcome their past morals, prejudices and training. They spend some time being self-congratulatory at surviving, some at wondering if there are enough of them (five) for their Adam and Eve hopes to be realistic, and a lot of time deciding who among their group is a suitable partner for procreation. One, a Navy Seal, gets drunk and rapes Stephanie, and it all continues falling apart even though there is at least one sign that they are not the last humans: Martin has captured a monkey with a water jug. At the end of the story, only one of the group remains. But…

N!amce squatted on his haunches and watched Stephanie from a nearby outcrop. She was an attractive female, pale and soft. She would die soon. The vultures, hyenas and insects would make quick work of her corpse. As the last human passed into history, the San Bushman did not reflect further. He had another monkey to find to lead him to water.

This story is fascinating for its presentation of ageism, racism and blatant human stupidity, but it also leaves much unsaid that may have led us to find the story more compelling, more revealing of humanity and ourselves as readers. The mere fact that N!amce survives is not enough. Instead I was left with the sense that too much had been left out, most importantly, any sense of humanity beyond a petty concern with who was going to fuck whom.

Stand out stories which are complete within themselves are Tham Chui-Joe’s The breaking of the glass, Tim Richards’ The outer territories, and Sébastien Doubinsky’s The future is wow.

All three of these stories fit into the category of science fiction in a fairly straightforward way. Tham’s story, set in the far future, when people live inside fully enclosed cities (not unlike Diaspar in Arthur Clarke’s The City and the Stars), is a story about a time travelling writer who appears and disappears and whose novels, published in the past, are influencing his future university friend who is studying them. This is a complex, understated story that withstood many readings without revealing all of itself

Tim Richards, on the other hand, gives us a story in which Australia has at least one colony in space which is harshly ruled by the leaders back home. (Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress came to mind here.) There is some lovely, unsubtle humour in this story. Kyle Hampson volunteers to teach Australian Studies at Paul Hogan High on Gorolya in Irwin, the capital of Kidman Provence. Hampson teaches two lessons, in the second of which he introduces the idea of Gorolyan studies because he wanted to learn about the colony and its culture.. Charged with state terrorism, Hampson is taken away, tortured and summarily executed. Fifty-three years later there is a large crowd in Assange Avenue where the first president of the Gorolyan Republic is to make a speech recognising the importance of Hampson’s two class contribution to the creation of the republic. Unfortunately the new president does not remember his name properly, and the town of Irwin is now to be known as Hampton, in his honour.

Doubinsky’s story, in contrast, is a straightforward story of conquest. They, the colonisers, are off to investigate a village, and discover that the planet’s native people have wiped it out, killing everyone: “The Beastmen had taken their kids back, destroying and killing everything in the process”, despite having been “offered” everything—medicine, progress, education. The story ends with the central character determined to “show the bastards. He would show them that democracy and freedom weren’t just empty words.”

Not all of the stories are set in the future. In Jeannette Delamoir’s story 1913: The world to come is made of love, a psychic reflects on the questions she is asked. They are, she says, all about love, but she doesn’t tell anyone what she actually sees, the forthcoming war, death and destruction: “explosions, shrapnel, barbed wire, grotesque technologies delivering pain and fear and dismemberment.” Despite this, she believes “the future is an ocean of love” because “When we die […] The only thing that remains is love: the essential core, the driving force”.

Where other stories in this collection try to create a sense of loss coupled with bewilderment, Delamoir’s story holds it close to us by presenting us with our very human desire to be loved, even if the future contains little but horror against which we must hold our hope and belief in love.

Other, equally powerful stories are John Fulton’s Caretakers, in which a young woman faces some unexpected complications as her father is dying, and Gamil yanaay walaybaa: No going home by Marcus Waters, which tells the tale of one aboriginal man’s journey through several lives, the last of which occurs in the present.

Many other stories attempt the same level of complexity—Fix, by Leone Ross, Ben Brooker’s Awake, to mention two—but they don’t possess the same depth, partly because don’t seem to have been adequately developed, and fail to provide the reader with sufficient context. In Fix, a somewhat confusing story about the world wide web coming alive, this is shown when the author writes “nobody needs condoms any more. Everybody knows: you fuck, you die.” In Awake the issue is sleep: if you sleep, you die. As a reader, I want to know why these things are the case, and being told by a first person narrator that no one knows why just doesn’t seem enough. These stories, along with several others, aim to describe and elucidate a mood, a direction which we hope never will be.

One last aspect of the collection which I would like to mention is about the book itself rather than the stories, and that is the design. Book design is more than the cover of a book, it is the layout of the page, the selection of typeface, margins, and so on. When it comes to designing a page, readability is the all important factor. It is, I admit, a difficult area of book design, but it is one which publishers (and editors, when given the opportunity) need to focus upon.

In The World to Come the chosen type face and layout form solid blocks, providing a density on the page which is difficult to read. The publishers would do well to consider this area more thoroughly and demand more adequate work: good overall book design that creates beautiful pages improves the readability and hence the saleability of their product.

Overall, despite this, The World to Come is a solid collection with a few outstanding stories, and a few less so. As such, it is worth buying for those stories which bear many readings as well as those stories which are so full of despair that they push us to seek different versions of the world.

 – B. J. Muirhead


B.J. 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 at http://bjmuirhead.wordpress.com   and http://inaforeigntown.wordpress.com.

The World to Come is available from http://shortaustralianstories.com.au/products-page/anthologies-3/the_world_to_come/#more-4073


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Even Poetic Exercises are Good for You: B. J. Muirhead Reviews The Weekly Poem edited by Jordie Albiston

The Weekly Poem: 52 Exercises In Closed & Open Poem Forms, edited by Jordie Albiston. Puncher & Wattmann 2014

the_weekly_poem_310_433_sThe Weekly Poem is a book of poetic exercises, one for each week of the year. Designed for teachers and students it is structured simplistically as an alphabetical list of poetic forms, for example: elegy, haiku, concrete poetry, prose poetry, and so on. Also included are thematic exercises such as childhood, love and coming of age poems.

Each exercise comes with a suggested subject, form, rhyme scheme, metre, line and poem lengths. Following this are notes on the form, and the task, suggested readings and examples. In the introduction Albiston says that the exercises are “formatted in shorthand”, by which is meant bullet points.

Bullet points are absolutely completely and utterly my least favourite method of passing on information. None the less, they are effective, especially for students, at whom this book is primarily aimed. Indeed, the first books I read about poetry and writing poetry were, quite frankly, frightening in their detailed discussion of prosody and poetic forms. I was thirteen at the time, so it should be no surprise that I quickly decided that free verse was the best path for me to follow. A few years later I discovered syllabic verse and although I never could decide how to count diphthongs, I counted anyway.

The Weekly Poem provides the answer to my childhood problem—diphthongs can be counted as one or two syllables, which is nice to know even though I no longer write syllabic verse. The book is full of small bits of information and cross references  which enable a student to pursue their knowledge of poetic forms and tricks a little deeper, and which answer many questions that can confuse beginning and experienced writers alike. It also has a small but functional glossary which most likely is more than enough for a high school student.

Having said this, it also lacks in a few important ways. The “coming of age” exercise, for example, suggest all that the other exercises suggest: a rhyme scheme, stanza type (tercets, to be “used as stepping-stones along path of self-development) and a maximum length of fifteen lines. None of the examples for this exercise, however, match these criteria. In itself this is not a major problem, and in many of the exercises it is not relevant, but an example which matches the criteria completely makes it easier for a beginner to understand just how the criteria can be used to create a poem. 

Small pieces of analysis, highlighting the application of the criteria and the different manners in which poets whose work is used as examples of the exercise also would have been useful, if only because it is a mistake to assume that all teachers will be able to provide sensible, extra information. I base this view, perhaps unfairly, on my current experience of having a child in year eleven and another in year nine, and the frequent nonsense they are taught about poetry and fiction, especially when they are writing something for assessment. (One child was told that poetry cannot be in prose form, and the other was told that conversation should be avoided in a short story, that the form itself was based description and plot and did not leave room for conversation.)


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As a basic workbook, however, The Weekly Poem is very effective and can be used by inexperienced and experienced poets to spur creation in moments when a push in one way or another is needed or sought. I have not had the book for long enough to do more than a few exercises in it, but it already has proved useful to me. The exercise “Monochord”, for example, to produce a single line of poetic writing on a theme of longing, fascinated me.

Even though I have read many monochords, I had never considered writing them myself. But I set about to doing Albiston’s exercise, and found myself challenged in a manner to which I am not accustomed. Pleasingly enough for me, the monochord produced not only worked well, but has been accepted for publication in the near future. To me, on a purely personal level, this shows the value of the book in that it challenged me to look at my poetic practice in a different manner. 

Viewed from a different angle, it also functions as a basic reference book which, if a student begins to take poetry seriously as an activity, provides an adequate foundation for future efforts. 

It doesn’t have the verve of a book like Stephen Fry’s The Ode Less Travelled, which carries the reader and prospective poet through Fry’s joy and the potential humour of taking a poetic thought for a ride, but it doesn’t aim to do this. In its aim of being a work book, with basic information about poetry and structured exercises, it has succeeded in being a valuable, functional resource that will not be out of date at any time in the near future.

– B. J. Muirhead


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 at http://bjmuirhead.wordpress.com   and http://inaforeigntown.wordpress.com.

The Weekly Poem is available from https://puncherandwattmann.com/books/book/the-weekly-poem


Alien Steampunk: B. J. Muirhead reviews ‘The Airmen (Part 1: The Pirates of Aireon)’ by R.J. Ashby

The Airmen (Part 1: The Pirates of Aireon) by R.J. Ashby. Dragonfall Press 2012.

AirmenScience-fiction is a very difficult area in which to publish. A part of the reason is the unwillingness of publishers to take on unknown authors in a world where it seems that fame alone sells. I would not have believed the extent to which this is the case if one sci-fi writer had not told me over coffee that his publisher was begging him to write fantasy in place of the planned volumes he already had been signed to write. The point of mentioning this is that, in spite of this, there is a lot of good work written and published that may not receive the exposure it deserves.

The Pirates of Aireon is one such work. It is a science-fiction adventure set on a planet which seems entirely unsuited to human life, a planet almost entirely covered by ocean, above which float giant cities which are divided into groupings of nations, all of which surround Rimland, the one known area of land, in the middle of which is a lake, complete with sailing ships and another island on which is the entrance to Underworld, where no one but priests of the Sacred Flame are welcome.

Everything technological which the people need for life, the metal for the cities and airships, fruit, vegetables and more, come from Rimland and Underworld; everything but fish and ocean driftweed, the latter being an unpalatable but nutritious seaweed infested with giant leeches. The ocean also is home to a variety of dangerous creatures, including a variety of sharks and krakens, which hide in deep water and attack creatures on the water surface. Airships are the only viable means of transport between the cities and Rimland, and are made of lightweight, gravity resisting metal skeletons covered with canvas.

Jardan, the twenty-one year old central male character, lives on the Rochelle, a three hulled, three winged airship with his father Borges. As airmen they find and strip wrecked airships of everything that is useful, in particular the valuable engine parts and the crystals which power them. Airmen avoid the cities which are overcrowded, polluted and often dangerous, preferring to live a nomadic life in their airships, only stopping at the cities when they need supplies and have salvage to sell.

Most of this is learnt in the first few chapters, which present an almost idyllic lifestyle for Jardan and Borges, apart from the need to keep watch for pirates, and the predators in the ocean.

The set up for the story is accomplished and peaks our interest. In fact, the entire book holds a reader’s interest easily, partly because the action is ongoing and compelling enough to sustain interest, and partly because new information is injected into the action in a way that is natural and pushes the story forward until we are deeply involved in a culture which is almost unbelievably vicious and anarchic within a rigid social structure. People kill each other regularly, almost without thought. The worst among them are the pirates, living in Aireon, a city which many have heard of, but whose location is known to few. Jardan arrives in Aireon after killing all but one of the pirates who attacked the Rochelle and killed his father. The only escape, after he and the female pirate Rowella had been rescued by a salvage vessel, whose crew Jardan then killed when they planned to rape Rowella, was the pirate city of Aireon, where Jardan is sold as a slave.

Both Jardan and Rowella are accomplished pilots and fighters, and when they escape Aireon they are accompanied by an acolyte from Rimland, who convinces them to take their stolen airship to Rimland where the truth of their presence on the planet is discovered by Jardan and Rowella.

The difficulty for me in writing about it is that there is so much action in this book, so many plot diversions and twists, that it is very difficult to provide a feel for the work that doesn’t seem as though it is outrageously absurd. There is a sadistic assassin, for example, who chases Jardan after the latter, without meaning to, caused the death of the son of a crime gang leader, and there is the Chairwoman, the insane elderly leader of the pirates and grandmother to Rowella, who saves Jardan from the Chairwoman and who becomes, after many misunderstandings, Jardan’s lover. But it is not the most complex novel of this type, and this gives it a directness which other adventure stories often lack. Suffice it to say, therefore, that the story is well constructed and believable within the constraints of the planet and steampunk technology, bearing in mind that the story expands and evolves so that many of our questions—how did such a strange society come about? being just one—are answered.

As the first in a planned series of books this sustained, and restrained, release of relevant information works well, and we certainly don’t have anywhere near all of the answers by the end, but nor does the end leave us hanging uncomfortably waiting for the next volume. By the time we reach the last page, the story being told has been finished satisfactorily, which in this instance means that although everything in this volume has been resolved, new elements have been introduced as the foundation for the next book in the series.

The second book in The Airmen series (The Kraken Hunters) has been written, but the whole series is a victim of the closure of Dragonfall Press.

Ashby, however, is a determined writer, and has commenced a new series, (The Kingbreaker Chronicles) published by Ticonderoga Publications.

I personally hope, however, that The Airmen series will be revived. Part One is a good read for kids, and anyone else who likes adventure with a dash of planetary science fiction.

– Bruce Muirhead


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 at http://bjmuirhead.wordpress.com and http://inaforeigntown.wordpress.com.

Unfortunately with the closure of Dragonfall Press it maybe difficult to locate a copy of The Airmen. A search of the internet, however, may turn up some copies. Further details maybe available from R.J. Ashby’s website http://www.rjashby.com/index.html.

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Stepping Out of the devine: B. J. Muirhead reviews ‘The Niquab and the Mumkin’ by David Foster

The Niquab and the Mumkin by David Foster. Puncher & Watermann 2014

The_Niqab_and_the_MumkinThe title essay of this collection, according to its author, is “effectively a thesis on mysticism” that makes no claims to originality.

Although it is very thoroughly and effectively researched, the truth is that it is not a thesis in any traditional fashion. There is little to no argumentation and few explanatory asides that link and explain all of the information made available to us.

Rather it is a complex blending of the personal and the academic, of images and stories which centre around a set of central ideas: tawid, or the recognition of the sole reality of God; the relationship between God and creature (hahut) experienced as relationship with the Divine Female (Shakti, shekhina, Quan Yin, Fatima, the daughter of the prophet, and more); the nature of the primacy of vision and its relationship to the Clear Light seen at the moment of death, as described in the Bardo Thodol (Tibetan Book of The Dead).

Linking these, and much more, is the notion of the veil (niqab) behind which the mumkin (possibility) awaits, behind which we may see possibilities which both go beyond and defy reason.

For anyone interested in the “light” that is the “Face of God” and the manner in which we may experience this “light”, The Niqab and the Mumkin is a compelling essay which opens with its own instructions on how to read what follows.

…if born sighted, we favour vision, for when we dream—so to create a meeting place with hungry ghosts and angels—we deploy what we have seen, remixing imagery to suit oneiric need… (p. 11)

It is this remixing of what we have seen which is important for what follows. The novel, Foster says (p. 15)

…demands imagination, the summoning up of visual imagery from heard sound. The words we read on a page pass through the auditory centres of the brain, so that we always hear a voice when reading: there is no such thing as silent reading(.)

This is more than fair notice that we need to listen to our inner voice whilst reading and engage our imagination in order to pass through the veil and reach the realm of possibility. And a goodly part of this listening is imagining what Foster interjects about his own life at regular intervals in the essay.

We are not merely provided with illustrative, autobiographical snippets, however. There are some sixty pages of information about mystical experience, with diversions into Foster’s life and views, which we are intended to hear and imagine as commentary on mysticism before he announces that he should recount his own experience, which gave him “food for thought and motivation for reading.” (p. 70)

The efficient cause of his experience, as recounted by Foster himself, was the realisation that his work was being eclipsed by the work of David Foster Wallace, that the coincidence of their names even resulted in his being mistaken for Wallace. On realising this he asked:

What was I to do over the next six weeks? Venture on the spiritual journey of a lifetime? (p. 72)

It began with a nightmare, followed by prayer and a cessation of drinking. The niqab, he says, slipped from the mumkin and he could sense his Lady—the feminine aspect of God—take him by the hand. He was experiencing a direct, immediate relationship with the Female aspect of divine manifestation through which God’s presence is felt. (It is this which informs some of his comments on homosexuality, that is, the old and patriarchal notion that God is experienced via the feminine, thus rendering homosexuality less than attractive, especially when coupled with his own personal experiences of homosexuality, mentioned but passed over quickly in the text.)

There is more, so much more to this essay, from his apparent acceptance of his experience, and then his apparent dismissal of it as a “breakdown”, to the always always accompanying detail and questing into the nature of mystical experience and all that the various religions have had to say about it. At one point Foster comments on the way the experience would be described from different positions, saying that a psychiatrist would likely make a note saying “manic-depressive moving from customary clinical depression to stress induced mania,” whilst Sufi comment may be that “few can remain within the limits of proper conduct in expansion.” What the secular psychiatric viewpoint leaves out is everything Foster talks about in this essay, everything which makes it a profound springboard into experience beyond Foster’s personal story.

The other six essays in the book are smaller in size and breadth, but each of them asks us to peek behind the veil of our preconceptions, producing ideas and statements that are bound to offend those who don’t want to be challenged. In ‘A Plea on Behalf of Eros’, for example, Foster bluntly states that

We deny equality and fraternity to those we perceive as different to ourselves, preferring to offer them liberty instead—the liberty to call themselves anything they like. (p. 97)

He then makes it clear that, in respect of race, that we passionately object to words like half-caste, quadroon, mulatto, preferring instead to call them black and encourage them to call themselves black, thus reinforcing the issue of race and ongoing racism in the most subtle of ways. As he says later in the book (p. 116), “you need to train yourself to see the white, not just the black, in men like Colin Powell,” a statement which holds true for anyone of any non-white race living in a contemporary Western society on a permanent basis.

Foster’s comments on race in these essays hold an anger that is broad and based in his, I think accurate, awareness that so much of what is taken to be “aboriginality” is a white, Western myth that does little to remove racism from the Australian social agenda. I don’t know how correct he is—I don’t know if we can apply notions of truth and correctness to this subject— but much of what he says rings true to me.

I hope I sound as impressed by this book as I am. Foster has taken a set of impossible situations and experiences and turned them into essays that challenge our assumptions and preconceptions. “We read,” Foster writes (p. 107), “in order to learn how to live and die…”

Frequently politically incorrect, the ideas in these essays invite us behind the niqab to see Foster himself, to imagine what we may not wish to hear about Foster’s own experience which, none the less, hold together opinions which are difficult to ignore once heard.

– B. J. Muirhead


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) and Flesh (2014), continue his lifetime interest in the human body and its relation to the inevitability of age and death. He can be found at http://bjmuirhead.wordpress.com and http://inaforeigntown.wordpress.com

The Niquab and the Mumkin is available from http://puncherandwattmann.com/books/book/the-niqab-and-the-mumkin

Rochford Street Review relies on donations to cover costs. Any funds left over are used to pay reviewers.

The Problem of Reading: B. J. Muirhead reviews ‘Flashing the Square’ & ‘Writing to the Edge’

Flashing the Square,edited by Linda Godfrey and Bronwyn Mehan. Spineless Wonders 2014 and Writing to the Edge, edited by Linda Godfrey and Ali Jane Smith. Spineless Wonders 2014.

Flashing the SquareIn the introduction to Flashing the square, the editors mention the “problem” of how to read short and micro-fiction and suggest various approaches, including “on the ceiling while you are sitting in the dentist chair.” Having been produced as a companion publication to Richard Holt’s video installation Flashing the square (Melbourne Writer’s Festival, 2014, in Federation Square), this idea isn’t necessarily absurd. This, however, is a book, and it presumes a more relaxed situation, a matter of choice about when to take time to read rather than be distracted from scraping, drilling and grasping tools.

Almost as a comment on how to read micro-fiction and prose poetry, the left hand pages are blank. This creates a visual space that is unusual but very helpful in a collection of very intense, occasionally difficult pieces which require both visual and intellectual space if they are to be assimilated.

On first reading, Flashing the Square did not pass my bookshop test—the first, quick reading and flick through the book usually given standing in a bookshop prior to a decision to purchase. Some of the pieces seemed almost squashed, with too much left out in pieces that would benefit from as little as a dozen more words. Others began with lists intended to set a scene, but which seem pointless and boring. But on second and third reading, the works fell into place within themselves, images, ideas and words fell into place and began to expose themselves. Daniel John Pilkington’s ‘Tram 96 to St Kilda’ is an example of this. It began badly, with a list that did not inspire me to read on:

Corners. Jolting. Shoulders, elbows, knees, bags and flat faces, various tablets with their soft illuminations, their persistent genii.

When Pilkington turned from this list to describe aspects of being on a tram, the piece lifts, and then he writes about two young brothers:

One simply refuses: to have a conversation. The other seethes: you wouldn’t know if you were having a conversation. And the first, triumphant in closing some esoteric syllogism, nods: a conversation is when someone hurts someone. Silence.

This marvellous observation is dropped into our awareness then taken away again as Pilkington returns to a description of being on a tram in the aftermath of the conversation.

The works in this particular book often require patience, and expect the reader to delve deeply into themselves and their lives, fleshing out the story with an understanding of the possibilities lying within the words on the page.

Of course, there is a sense in which all writing demands this type of engagement from the reader, but few books contain work which puts the reader on the line along with the work, and in this book the reader definitely is on the line, facing a space deep within themselves. This seems to be because the writers have challenged the reader with spaces within the work which can be filled only by imagining between and beyond the words. At least partially this was because many of the ideas were larger than the allocated space

WTEIn many respects, what I’ve said reflects my own difficulties with the book, and one of these difficulties was a particular surprise to me. I experienced on ongoing urge to revise and re-write many of the pieces. This is an urge to which I am not accustomed, except with my own work. Usually I just don’t like the piece I’m reading, and I move on, or put it down and don’t read it. But these pieces kept me reading even when I stumbled over an idea or word.

When we turn to Writing to the Edge, the situation is quite different. None of the pieces seem smaller than the ideas and story they are presenting, and I feel more at home reading this book.

Whilst both books have a large variety of subjects and story lines, the constraints on the size are looser in Writing to the Edge, and authors have been able to fit their ideas into pieces whose size is more in accord with the ideas and their treatment. Hence we find small one paragraph pieces such as Elizabeth Hodgson’s ‘Crone’s which presents us with the idea of a group of old women:

Not just old like your granny. But older. Older than anyone else you’ve ever known about. And they’re there at every funeral of an elderly person. No one calls them. They know when to appear.

These women, unknown by anyone, may even be dead themselves, Hodgson says. And there are even smaller pieces by the inevitable Philip Hammial, ‘Family Reunion’ for example:

Aunt Jane is in father’s bed. Uncle Jack is in mother’s bed. I’m in bed with seven cousins, male, female, trans. Who will do what to who is anyone’s guess.

For the most part the longer pieces are more akin to what we think of as “traditional” stories, a perfect example of this being Mark Smith’s Joanne Burns Award winning ‘10.42 to Sydenham’.

In this story a man, about whom we learn little, saves a young woman from being harassed by louts on a train. All we really know about him is that he had killed people when very young. Clearly not a normal activity for an Australian. Only at the end of the story do we discover that he is coloured when the following conversation occurs:

“Where are you from?” she asked.

“Sydenham,” he replied politely.

She laughed, but caught herself. “I’m sorry. I… I mean, what country?”

He smiled, a brief flash of white teeth. “I know what you meant.”

The “problem” of how to read micro-fiction does not appear in this volume; nor did I feel the urge to revise or re-write any of the pieces. There are challenges and ideas needing to be experienced, and they left me feeling fulfilled and happier for the reading.

All in all, Writing to the Edge is a much more pleasant volume to read; it is the book you would give someone who doesn’t usually read micro-fiction. Flashing the Square is the book you give to someone who already reads and likes micro-fiction, someone who is up to the challenges it provides.

– Bruce Muirhead


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) and Flesh (2014), continue his lifetime interest in the human body and its relation to the inevitability of age and death. He can be found at http://bjmuirhead.wordpress.com and http://inaforeigntown.wordpress.com

Straddling Prose Poetry and Microfiction: Shady Cosgrove launches Writing to the Edge: Prose Poems & Microfiction can be found here: https://rochfordstreetreview.com/2014/09/12/straddling-prose-poetry-and-microfiction-shady-cosgrove-launches-writing-to-the-edge-prose-poems-microfiction/

Flashing the Square is available from http://shortaustralianstories.com.au/products-page/microlit/flashing_the_square/#more-4074. Writing to the Edge is available from http://shortaustralianstories.com.au/products-page/microlit/writing_to_the_edge/#more-4097

Rochford Street Review relies on donations to cover costs. Any funds left over are used to pay reviewers.