An Acute Aesthetic Sensibility: Alex Skovron launches ‘Flute of Milk’ by Susan Fealy

Flute of Milk by Susan Fealy, UWAP 2017, was launched by Alex Skovron at Collected Works Bookshop on 16 March 2017.

Susan Fealy at the launch of Flute of Milk. Photo by Richard Mudford.

It was near enough to a decade ago that one Susan Fealy materialized on the Melbourne literary scene as if out of nowhere – or so it seems in retrospect, and so it appeared to me at the time. She had written a searching response to my then recently published novella, The Poet, and this led to an exchange of emails and our first meeting. We began to cross paths at poetry readings, and I soon discovered that Susan loved to write long but interesting emails packed with her musings and reflections on matters literary, artistic, or otherwise noteworthy. As time went on, these emails, and our conversations whenever we met up, gradually revealed to me a person who thought hard about language, art, ideas, the natural world; a serious, passionate reader who probed deeply into whatever text was before her or whatever notion was exercising her mind.

These characteristics are richly mirrored in Susan Fealy’s poetry. I believe that Flute of Milk is a very strong first collection. It has certainly been a while coming, and this has worked much to its advantage. Because Susan has been patient and unrushed, fine-tuning her work with meticulous care at every opportunity. The result is the volume we’re launching here today: an accomplished and impressive book of poems.

Where to begin? Let me venture to say, first of all, that close observation is one hallmark of this collection, and that (if I may put it this way) the author’s poetic lens is focused on discerning the molecules of experience as mediated by memory, intellect, and an acute aesthetic sensibility. Memory, in one guise or another, is a driving force in many of the poems – the fulcrum on which the innocence of seeing, and the experience of being and feeling, are balanced.

The title-poem, appearing right near the start of the book, opens with a radiant still-life description of a dairy, but soon modulates into the poet’s first-person voice, and then this:

Memory prefers to hold things still,
but the past, present and future
are a long flute of milk.  [16]

With this all-important image suddenly illuminated and transformed, the poem pauses to ‘hold still’ for a moment one such precious memory, before flowing forward and into its beautifully rendered conclusion – which I must let you discover for yourselves. From there, the book just builds in authority as we read.

Before long we encounter a cluster of poems beginning with ‘What Memory is Like’ [26] and opening onto two evocative backward glances into childhood: the prose-poem ‘Black on the Tongue’ – ‘It was hot. I was ten. My towel knotted my waist …’ [28] – and the lyrical music of ‘A Measure of Flying’, where the poet recalls: ‘The ironbark fringed the sky and scribbled our pool with leaves. / In summer we dived down, determined to rescue the blue.’ [29]

A major and much-recurring motif throughout Susan’s poetry is her abiding concern
with colour. It makes almost countless appearances – from a casually instructive ‘A Confluence of Blues’ [18], with its vivid, disarming closure; to its role as a touchstone in an extraordinary elegy addressed to the late Peter Steele, titled ‘Faith is Green’ [24]. Indeed, reading this collection, I was constantly alert to the many tone-colours that shimmer across its pages. Some poems are themselves like a pellucid watercolour wash, others glisten with the harder texture of oils. In others again, silence (or the unspoken) becomes a colouring all of its own. Let me quote in full one short, chromatic poem, ‘Intimidations’ – but watch how the poet steps through several shades of red to attain a consummation at once joyful and ambiguous:

Each dawn has been a clotted pink;
…………………………………….the clouds, almost a red, infuse
unlikely ink into the sky. Camellias
climb in crimson confusion over fencelines,

And prunus plums arrange their frozen stars
as if auditioning them for small parts
……………………………………………in a Sisley or Corot.
My iceberg had the audacity to bloom pink,
…………………………………………………and still I can sing away the spring.
………..  …………………………………………………………………………………..[22]

I think it would be fair to say that Susan’s poetic landscape is interspersed with both the colours and the shapes of the natural world. There are botanical tributes aplenty; various fruit assert their presence – in ‘Apple Days’, the apples ‘brood / large as infants’ heads / welcome as teenage breasts’ [33]; and birds are familiars that escort or accompany not a few of the poems – such as, in ‘Flight’, some ‘Doves, looking down– / like humans standing at a funeral’ [43]. Bees and sundry insects occasionally turn up as well. Listen to ‘The Striped Moth’, a poem set in the Melbourne Museum:

At 5 pm your wings will hang with shadow.
Now, they feed on light. Do you remember
tapping at the window, frantic as a tiny bell?
Or is your soul composed—a forest of shadows?

A tiger is latched in you: those eyes crouch
like stars and your pelt is stopped as a tinderbox.
A tree expands in the veins of your wings—
counts one night and half a dawn—signs off.  [58]

And as we read, we notice how objects too, natural or inanimate, artefacts of all kinds, are converted into talismans for the poet to scrutinize and then turn over in her imagination’s eye, examining them from every angle, prismatically, attentive to the intricacies and the wonders, to the ideas they represent. In ‘Sculpting into Mind’ she declares: ‘I love ephemeral things’, such as ‘fluff human dust / flotsam the quietest things / can speak’ [34] – things that might include a cloud, a stone, a bowl, or a box of words arranged in uneven rows on a page. ‘A Poem’, she explains,

is close
to a musical instrument.
It’s a place
to leave your fingers
and your lips.
A poem aches to be
a woodland flute
but is more a piano.
Some poems are conch shells,
familiar as bone
in your hands. A poem
gleams in arc-light–
sparks from atolls in the dark.  [35]

The spark for the book’s opening poem, ‘Made in Delft’ [15], can be traced to the gleam of oil on canvas. A prelude to the title-poem that follows next, it offers a vibrant ekphrastic response to The Milkmaid by Johannes Vermeer. Elsewhere, the porcelain bowls admired by the poet in ‘Southern Ice Porcelain’ strike her as ‘so perfect they must exist / in an alphabet of shape’, as they ‘wait / for the company of angels’ [68]. While on ‘The Wabi-sabi Storage Jar’, the subject of the facing poem, ‘Night kisses a mountain’ [69]. Earlier, in ‘Seeing the Pregnant Woman at Pompeii’ [41], nature’s deadly, unwitting artistry also makes an appearance – it’s a poem whose heart-rending empathy reaches back across twenty centuries.

Alex Skovron launching Susan Fealy’s Flute of Milk. Photo by Jennifer McKenzie.

The sense of a gathered, contemplative calm in many of the poems is counterpointed in others whose mood or trajectory can take us by surprise – whether in the didactic wittiness and whimsy of ‘How to Dive in Kelp Forest’ [32], or amid the situational surrealities of ‘Breast Imaging’ [48]; in the gentle but pointed humour of ‘Instructions for Weaning a Baby’ (‘Tell her its overrated’) [45], or the playful, not to say mischievous, mock-flirtation of ‘In the Formal Wear Shop’:

I’ll propose to him (I think)
let’s sail to Marrakesh,
unfurl the shirts,
cast into blue,
stain our souls
vermillion.  [20]

The poet as woman and mother takes us into different territory again. For instance, there is the intimate, arresting sonnet ‘Bringing You Home’ [44], with its rhymes so borderline they’re subliminal. And after trying to lift out two quotes from this next poem, I decided that it really needs to be heard as a whole. It’s the third frame (called ‘Nursery rime’) from the sequence ‘Frames for Better or Worse’:

You dawned like winter sunlight
pale gold on the walls. A glitter
edging my shut window. Translucent
as if you swallowed a morning star.
Your breath unsettles like dust
of gardens. Your fingers take root
in air. You are a cloud growing
flowers, a bird-house with wombsong
in your eyes. You, origami child:
now sleep refolds your baby mask.  [51]

As the focus moves in and out of larger themes embracing relationship, love and death, we come upon edgier or bittersweet moments. Quite early in the book, a monologue titled ‘In Lieu of a Statue’, sparked by a novel of Marilynne Robinson, meditates on an absent mother:

My grandmother used to say
close your eyes, remember how she was.
But the space against my lids
is flat and black as the sky.  [23]

Much later another poem, ‘In the Cemetery’, begins:

Graves tread
oblong shadows
on the silvered path—
primitive dominoes  [54]

And at the other end of the scale, as it were, the deftly poised ‘We Outgrow Love like Other Things’ employs funereal tropes to bid farewell to an ended relationship:

When I wake, the sun
scrims the tree and the sky
pours out its clear blue.
Glitter of morning.
I will bury you with champagne
and two glasses.  [52]

Technical skill, craftsmanship and a steadfast concern for language are evident throughout this versatile collection – language that can startle and delight without trying to be showy. Susan is prepared to experiment with line, layout, punctuation and form, to construct a range of vehicles for the shifting rhythms, modes and melodies that animate her poetry: we are offered couplets and quatrains, sonnets and free verse, prose-poems, epigrammatic miniatures, linked sequences – and a villanelle, ‘Metamorphosis’ [56], where she riffs on crows and jackdaws, cathedral-birds and Kafka, with a dose of Czech etymology thrown in!

Kafka is far from alone – despite (if I may digress) what all the mythmakers would have us believe about him! Anyway, a variety of familiar names make cameo appearances throughout Flute of Milk, scattered among the poems and epigraphs, or unmasked in the endnotes at the back of the book. We catch glimpses of Adamson and Albiston, Banville and Baudelaire, Chagall, Dickinson and Glück (that’s Louise not Christoph Willibald), not to mention MacLeish, Matisse and Whiteley. This poet is ever-receptive to the inspiration of other writers and artists.

To sum up, then, with a somewhat broader brush: I think that at the heart of Susan Fealy’s poetic there dwells a passionate capacity, a need, to observe, to penetrate – to weigh on the scales of language – the sights and sensations, the thoughts and feelings, that colour our days and can reaffirm or reset who we are. A keen, imaginative questioning hovers about these pages: an interrogative disposition that is often implicit rather than expressed (implicit, although phrases introduced with ‘why’, ‘what’, ‘how’ or ‘how to’ occur perhaps twenty times across the poems). Now and then, this coincides with a deceptively offhanded tone, or a rhetorical elision, where the poetic moment is magnetized by a refusal not to clip the syntax. Susan’s voice can be sprightly but composed, patient but pressing, inquisitive, earnest, affectionate. And under her original gaze, what is apprehended can risk becoming something stranger and richer.

To put it another way, there is a charged, sensuous exhilaration in her act of seeing, and a joy in the endless possibilities of language as a lens for that seeing – a glass for pinpointing and magnifying the diverse fragments that make up our world and can nourish our spirit. As she writes, a little cryptically, in ‘The Hope Stone’:

and the night seems small,
like an old boot
scuffed at the toe. As if
there could be another one.  [57]

And of course there is, there must be. Just around the edge of the poem. Just barely out of sight …

Susan is known and appreciated, by those of us who are acquainted with her, as a loyal, compassionate friend, and as a stalwart and active member of the Melbourne poetry community. She has attended innumerable Collected Works and other poetry events over the years, supporting her fellow-writers and celebrating their achievements. Well, tonight it’s her turn – and our turn to celebrate her achievement. So please raise your flutes of milk, or whatever else they contain, and let’s drink a toast to Susan, so that I can declare this remarkable vessel officially launched.

 — Alex Skovron


Alex Skovron is the author of six collections of poetry and a prose novella. His numerous public readings include appearances in China, Serbia, India, Ireland and Macedonia. The Attic, a bilingual selection of his poetry translated into French, was published in 2013, a volume of Chinese translations is underway, and his novella
The Poet has been translated into Czech. His latest book, Towards the Equator: New
& Selected Poems
(2014), was shortlisted in the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards.
A collection of short stories,
The Man who Took to his Bed, is forthcoming from Puncher & Wattmann.

Flute of Milk is available from

Flute of Milk is available for review. Please go to the Book Notes page for details.

Teasing Threads – Some thoughts on a beautiful photograph

Chris Palazzolo examines a photo from the newspaper.


The photograph has an ambiguous status in the science of signs. In one sense it signifies its referent by resemblance to the referent, in the same way we understand representational painting signifies by resembling. A painting of a tree signifies a tree by resemblance to a tree. Likewise a photo of a tree signifies a tree by resemblance. Neither the painting nor the photo are the tree itself – they are a sign of tree (an iconic sign, Peirce would say). But in another sense the photo is an entirely different kind of sign because it has a direct connection to the referent. The photo of the tree is the tree itself, because it shares with the tree traces of the same photons that bounced off it at the moment the shutter captured them. The photo is an event. Not just a sign of an event, but a trace of the event ‘painting’ itself onto chemically treated paper or into digital storage devices, with the very light particles that made it visible in the first place.

I could study the photo of these men for hours. Its beauty, its eventality, is in that lightspeed point of convergence where consent and formal composition meet. Every man in that room is consenting to be photographed. But only when this photo is being taken. A second, a half second later that consent can be withdrawn by any one of them; one could shut his eyes, turn his face away, hold a hand up in front of his face – a gesture signifying (and this would be so even if it was only one of them) withdrawal of consent for all of them. The consent is momentary, guarded but unanimous, an unspoken ‘here we are, take the photo now, you’ll never get us like this again.’ The crossed arms, the wary glances, the deflected exchanges, the absence of any dress up speaks of time off from building site, warehouse, and showroom – everything signifies the unanimity of not wanting to be here and the momentary willingness to put that on record.

The composition are the visual ‘lines’ that keep all those elements of consenting signs taut – the ‘cues’ of momentness. The room is the formal space within which the men wait and is structured by two parallel lines – two rows of chairs in the right third of the frame and a kind of linked-chain fleur-de-lis type pattern on the carpet on the left third. Most of the men are standing on this part of the carpet which weighs the picture to the left. However, the gazes of three men in the foreground balance the frame. Two standing men glance guardedly at the camera, their gazes directed to the centre, the ‘I’ of the photo (and so lock with the eye that studies the photo) while the seated man in the immediate foreground gazes off camera into the right corner of the frame. This man’s gaze is the key to the photo’s compositional balance. The two standing men glance at us, drawing us into the drama of nerves and anguish that their consent has allowed us to view, but their glances are not enough to rebalance the photo because there’s too much weight on the left. It’s the unblinking blue eyes of the seated man, gazing off sightlessly to the right that pulls the photo into balance.

The compositional lines make a coherent visual space for the eye to roam around and pick up telling details. One of the first details I notice is the old carpet, large patches so worn the underlying stitching is showing. The poverty of the carpet makes me aware that there are no pictures on the walls, or fancy fittings, or any other furniture apart from the chairs (though there appears to be an urn and styrofoam cups on a table against the back wall). The Parmelia-Hilton is a five star hotel, but this is not a five star room where one would imagine shareholders or company executives meet. This is a tradesmen’s room. There are no illusions here. No illusions and no money. Another detail (and this is one my eye always comes back to because in a way it’s the heaviest sign in the picture) is the hands of the seated man in the foreground. Hard dry hands, knuckled like articulated rocks. There is something inexpressibly tender and human the way they rest together loosely interlocked, something paradoxical in how they look so strong and so vulnerable. Almost all the other men have hidden their hands in pockets or under arms. But this man makes no attempt to hide his. So much about him is in his hands. It doesn’t matter whether he votes conservative, considers himself a businessman (a contractor), eschews unions or whatever; he is a working class man, and in this case the long hours in which he laboured and the skills with which his hands fashioned materials into useful things have failed to transform into money. His resting hands and staring eyes speak for all the men in that room. Deleted from capital, cut loose, high and dry, inert things.

  – Chris Palazzolo


Teasing Threads is Chris Palazzolo, novelist and poet, editor at Regime Books in Perth, radio host on 6EBA FM North Perth, and was, until recently, manager of one of the last video shops in the world. His novel, Scene and Circles, is available from

Living up to Tradition: Perry Lam reviews ‘Heukseok Kids’

This film review is part of Rochford Street Review’s coverage of the 2017 Golden Koala Chinese Film Festival.

The opening film of the Golden Koala Chinese Film Festival Heukseok Kids is a clear message of the festival intentions of both showcasing new Chinese cinema as well as to present the works of up and coming directors.

Heukseok Kids tells the tale of Defu, a Chinese film student based in Seoul, after 8 years overseas, he is informed of his mother’s terminal illness and has to return home. When Defu returns home, he not only has to come to make amends with his dying mother, but also discover his role in his dysfunctional family as a husband and father.


Arthouse features have a tendency to be extremely personal pieces of celluloid. Unlike commercial fare, the vision of the filmmaker takes priority over all commercial considerations, this is the case with Heukseok Kids, which is based on Chinese director Liu Defu (whom the character of Defu is named after) experiences living overseas in Korea as well as in his home country of Mainland China.

This personal quality permeates through all levels of the film, its screenplay, its performances and its cinematography. There is a sense of intimacy in the narrative, we are always close to Defu and his narrative transformation. The sequence in Korea features a confident, even more virile representation of Defu as a character, he is outgoing, engages in one night stands and cracks jokes with his food photography obsessed Korean friend. However, upon his return to China, all Dionysian traits are drained from his personality, as he comes face to face with, and at times fall short (due to his time abroad) of his responsibilities as a man in Chinese society. This Dionysian/Apollonian dichotomy is novel in its concept, and is an issue that is a rarely explored facet of Chinese cinema.

The film services extremely well as a character study of Defu but due to its prioritizing of its protagonist, it fails in developing its secondary characters, with most of them being reduced to caricatures that we know all too well. The bitter wife, the bum brother, the quiet and hapless father. The secondary characters serve more as shattered reflections of the protagonist than actual characters, every interaction with them only serves to inform us more on Defu, his past actions and their consequences than on the other characters themselves. This is not necessarily a bad thing, the narrative’s myopic focus on Defu actually paints a fascinating portrait of a man stuck in two cultures. A brilliant example of this is Defu and his wife’s discussion about their passionless marriage and his obligations as a husband and father, his wife carries much of the dialogue of this scene but it is Defu who gets the bulk of the character development, as he sits on the couch, too preoccupied texting his Korean buddies. He doesn’t care.


The narrative does take a weaker turn, as it limps to its ending, as Defu becomes a more confused and conflicted character, so does the narrative. The first two acts are strong in its execution of theme and tone but it abruptly ends with nothing resolved. I do understand that a film does not need to answer all its audience’s questions but while the build-up is consistent on the first two acts, we do not see any pay off for all the character development that was invested in Defu and that may leave some people wanting.

The cinematography isn’t beautiful in the aesthetic sense of the word but brings a poetic elegance to the film. Great cinematography has always been misunderstood as ‘great looking images’ but these images may distract from the narrative. This is not the case with Heukseok Kids, as the cinematography, while at times ugly, serves the story first, it is realistic and borderline documentarian in its approach. The world of Heukseok Kids is a claustrophobic one, constant use of over the shoulder shots and tight mid shots imprison Defu into the frame. An even bigger marvel is witnessing how Liu Defu (The Director) manages to make wideshots look oppressive and contrainted, one of the most haunting images of the film comes in the form of Defu (The character) eating in the corner of a dark living room, with old photos of family members and ancestors hanging prominently on the walls behind him. The message is clear, Defu is failing to live up to tradition.


Ray Argall, President of the Australian Director’s Guild presenting the Certificate of Selection to the director of Heukseok Kids, Liu Defu.

While the dysfunction of youth is a strong theme, the film offers a stronger examination of Chinese tradition. The male characters constantly fail constantly at being a ‘Chinese Man’, images and ideals that are set upon them whether through tradition or family. In a memorable scene, Defu’s daughter realizes that her father himself is also still a student, like her. Despite Defu being a father, as a student, he is unable to fully provide for his daughter, likewise to Defu’s brother, who in their father’s words, is a ‘loser’, more a hindrance than a provider to the family. On another note, the father daughter scene brings to fore Chinese society’s obsession with education and how this obsession has become a tradition, unchanged for generations, from father to daughter. Which adds an interesting crease to how we view tradition, if we don’t go against it, wouldn’t all our outcomes be the same?

At its source, Heukseok Kids is a film about questions. It questions the strict traditions of Chinese society, it questions its protagonist’s role in his life, most of all, it questions the importance of your obligations versus your aspirations. While it does not provide a solid answer nor a satisfying pay off, Heukseok Kids is nonetheless a strong debut from a talented young director and provides a thought provoking time at the movies, one to ponder over drinks with friends.


*** out of 5

A strong, if at times uneven meditation on the role of the man in contemporary Chinese society. Like the best of arthouse cinema, it is the questions they raise that are much more satisfying than the answers.



If you like this, you should watch:

Lost In Translation- All millennials should watch this movie. Beautifully written and acted film about loneliness and alienation in the big city.

Taxi Driver- Like how Heukseok Kids confront the idea of what a man is and should be in Chinese society, Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece does the same (and goes further) with American society.

Caché– Heukseok Kid’s narrative structure and visuals bears resemblance to Michael Haneke’s frustrating meditation on the scars of French colonialism. From its ‘drop  off’ third act to its realistic, if mundane visuals of everyday life.




Perry Lam is an Associate Editor of Rochford Street Review. He is the director of  the documentary short film BLACK RAT  has been selected for numerous film festivals both in Sydney and overseas.

The Golden Koala Chinese Film Festival kicks off on 2nd of February 2017 and takes place at venues across Australia. For further information go to

‘Abecedary of Despair’ by Tatiana Bonch-Osmolovskaya

Abecedary of Despair

.                                      architecture
.                       of your face
.         traps of the eyelashes
.                                    arches of the brows
.               breath, advances of the lips
.                       and apathy of the eyes

.                     absolute nonsense
.not on the subject
.         Byronic buffoonery
.        to wade beyond the faded tower
.            white bulls for the poor
.                    fables, deliriums

.                             precious blazes are dying
.                     pigeon circus escaped
.                          innocent laughter or cry
.              Philistines, Cretans, long way away
.      nests of lethargic snakes under foot
.          cyclone, and screeches of loons

.                                      drowsiness, afternoon rest
.                              in a dense oak-grove
.                    if managed to make a vow
.                                      done! point a pole
.                   over the olden Mirgorod
.                                      don’t lag behind, go!

.                daily indolence
.  bunch of dried valerians
.           nightly whisper in thorny bushes
.                    the curse of text
.                       troubled flight of sea terns
.   cruel good fortune


.             nicotine traces on the finger, yellow frame
.of a ring, two wrinkles across forehead
.             locking the door, wait for – tails or heads
.                              a word born from silence
.                           tears, blames, fear of loss, silence again
.                                      lost and found jail

.               a desire to get alive
.                      stings, gills and jowls
.   somebody’s strange body
.           in wondrous gentle yours
.              veins of disgrace on yellowish skin
.             the same – grief and mildness

.                                                                           shrivelled idol
.                             sour beer, tainted vodka, sheer spirits
.distant grey clouds, blizzards and pouring showers
.                                        rivers overgrown with duckweed
.       cubical town disappearing beyond the hill
.                  forgotten arrears, new debts of the day

.                           passionate kiss through shut eyes
.                 magical lying dreams
.                                   in a moment between husky and wolf
.on the deck of sea liner
.                     in a chaise lounge of the days
. sailing by the labyrinth of the lazy ice bliss

.             innocent strangers in jungles, again as one and for all
.started to clamber by the majestic ladder
.                                               of Jack the Ripper
.                      Mars in tears of jalouse, Venus constantly jabbers of
.                      the invisible project
.                                           jam jar tomorrow

.sadness of the empty skulls
.           stately flesh trunks, a peat bog is on fire
.                    a strong cocktail for the road
.              on the vast market square, under the green monument
.                                   sparkling epithets
.          just don’t look back!

.                                          islands of small celebrations
.             surrounded by cold ocean
.                                   of dull waiting
.                       of Marco Polo, Columbus
.                                        at least Vasco da Gama
.       by the midday trembling of waves

.silence of a mobile, SMS, Skype, comments and mails
.              up growth of mirages during the plague
.                 prize for dumbness, columnist’s dream
.           on the road to Moscow, a prayed highway
.                    hobos, tramps and freaks
.                            be calm, look better before and leap, keep silence

. the waves of strong wings
.                 over the dozen seas
.   curvature of the continents
.               touch of the gentle hands
.  waving good bye, moon blindness
.          promising to return

.        Saturday silver is brought
.                           to each comer. a quick sense is composed
.              snow is drifting on candles
.        the neighbours are gossiping, then go to sleep
.                   you dreams for their dreams through the wall
.                     remaining yourself

.aerial burial mound, peace
.                          full of pearls
.                 from the top to the bottom
.                              earsplitting consonances in the morning
.  of the ducks lined up in the sloping lines
.          falling into the plate of the sun

.     it is true that in the acquisition of English metaphysics
.  evident by a number of quotes
.                           in their exquisite philosophical speculations
.      in chilling answers to questions
.                            of the uniqueness of human beings
.                              there is quite a violence for the spirit of poetry

.           an instruction to the healing rite is lost. a patient
.stands face to face with the blind priest
.                                                he capers, calling for
.                     a dark bird, the lady of rain
.        a goal is achieved with the sunrise
.                                                  light variations are possible

.                                       suitcase filled with black-wood
.         with ivory, opals, pearls, precious nonsense, dried grass
.     with the colonial wonders
. in the hands of a magician, shopkeeper, a salesman
.              wandering to the east and the south
.              he will be back with six months

.later, enjoying hot chocolate, fresh bread
.                                    just not a Madeleine! decided to walk
.astride. no one in the chalets. last season is finished. new season
.      is not open yet. terrible thought
.                      may be too hasty decision
.            the journey’s completed

.in the next time would be no next time. the present
.        still possible, but a tatter watch for completely
.                      new stuff
.          women are put on by the habit to birth
.        forbidding mourning valediction. Forbidding
.                             touch forgiveness

.gold fishes swim through the salted waves
.            rust eats iron behind the closed valve
.                        azure pours onto the canvas
.                                             blackbirds have flown until
.     the autumn. the language of iced river of nonsense
.                              white lies for the convicts, breakage of bonds

.        September. borrowed memories, feeling a pain
.it’s just a headache. a waste. to breath,
.           to scream, to howl, blocking the memory
.               fretted trees’ worlds underneath
.       drunken summer, while the profile of sailing ship
.       disappears. a runaway thought

.                      soufflé of oxymorons, existential bodies
.                moved by an exemplary evacuation from the height
.a poet in front of the next word
. composes epitaph to rex. not a word
.                                         expanding out
.              giving up the noxious feelings

.    miniature of an elephant, a yellow camel or another beast
.   paint so worn there is no way to say for sure which one
.       an animal carries the kingly lovers. its moves provide
.      further pleasure for the royal couple
.   an observer on the boundary line
.                      a face is hidden by the veil. the hands are white

.       again distinguishing you. a bizarre look
.repeating over the glass, summarising
.                                      each day, hazardous poison
.                                                  vocalised copy
.                        an unmelodious terzetto. a drop of eternal
.                                      life. recognised myself at last

-Tatiana Bonch-Osmolovskaya

‘АБЕЦЕДАРИЙ ОТЧАЯНИЯ’ by Татьяна Бонч-Осмоловская was originally published in НОВОЕ ЛИТЕРАТУРНОЕ ОБОЗРЕНИЕ, (New Literary Review), a print journal with online republication of most of the texts. ‘АБЕЦЕДАРИЙ ОТЧАЯНИЯ’ was originally written in Russian and translated into English by Tatiana. ‘АБЕЦЕДАРИЙ ОТЧАЯНИЯ’ was published in the on-line version of НЛО: ‘АБЕЦЕДАРИЙ ОТЧАЯНИЯ’ (‘Abecedary of Despair’) by Tatiana Bonch-Osmolovskaya has been published in issue 21 of Rochford Street Review in both Russian and English with Tatiana’s permission.

Read the original in Russian: ‘АБЕЦЕДАРИЙ ОТЧАЯНИЯ’ by Татьяна Бонч-Осмоловская

Tatiana Bonch-Osmolovskaya
is an artist, writer and translator with a background in natural science. Tatiana was born in Simferopol in Crimea. Tatiana studied physics in Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, received a Candidate of philology degree from Moscow State Humanitarian University, and a PhD degree from the University of New South Wales, Australia, in the area of contemporary Russian experimental poetry. She is a member of the Union of Russian Writers and Russian PEN Centre. Tatiana is the author of ten books of prose, poetry and translations, including Introduction into the literature of formal restrictions (Samara: Bakhrakh-M, 2009, in Russian), Idti legko (New York: Stosvet Press, 2011, in Russian), and Istoki istiny (Moscow: Art-Haus Media, 2015, in Russian). She co-edited the anthology Freedom of restriction in Russian. Her poetry written in English has been published in Can I tell you a secret?, Across the Russian Wor(l)d, Bridges Anthologies, London Grip, The Disappearing, Journal of Humanistic Mathematics, and The POEM. Tatiana awards include the Symmetry Festival (Budapest, 2003), International Burlyuk Mark (2009), Booknik’s short story contest (Moscow, 2009), Okno literary journal (2010), Nora Gal literary translation contest (short list, 2015), Novyi Mir literary contest for Osip Mandelstam anniversary (2015), and Russian Prize contest (long list, 2015). Tatiana has participated in 30 art exhibitions in Russia, Europe, USA, and Australia, including personal exhibitions in Russia and Australia. She is interested in the representation of strict mathematical forms in arts; in ordered and chaotic structures; in writing and creating art objects on formal language and literary restrictions. Tatiana is also a researcher and an organiser of cultural projects.


‘Мама, мама, когда мы будем дома?’ (‘Mother, mother, when will we return home?’) by Yan Satunovsky

Mother, mother,
when will we return home?
When we will see
our sweet plebeian yard
and hear
our neighbors talking:

– Oh Lord, we were so frightened,
we ran so fast,
and you?
– In Andizhane we lived,
and you?
– In Siberia,
and you?
– And we were killed.

I want so much to be back home,
so that all that happened would be over
and so that everything was fine.
.                                         1941
– Yan Satunovsky

translated by Tatiana Bonch-Osmolovskaya

Мама, мама,
когда мы будем дома?
Когда мы увидим
наш дорогой плебейский двор
и услышим
соседей наших разговор:

– Боже, мы так боялись,
мы так бежали,
а вы?
– А мы жили в Андижане,
а вы?
А мы в Сибири,
а вы?
– А нас убили.

так хочется уже быть дома,
чтобы всё, что было, прошло,
и чтоб всё было хорошо.
.                                         1941
– Yan Satunovsky

‘Мама, мама, когда мы будем дома?’ by Yan Satunovsky has been published in Rochford Street Review in both Russian and English with his daughter Viktoria Pashkovskaya’s permission. The English translation, ‘Mother, mother, when will we return home?’ is by Tatiana Bonch-Osmolovskaya.


Yan Satunovsky (Iakob Abramovich Satunovsky, Ян Сатуновский, 1913-1982) was a Russian poet and literary critic. He had a degree in physical chemistry and worked as an engineer. He starting writing poetry in 1938 and his early work is close to that of the Russian constructivist poets in form and style. He was in the army in World War II. He was awarded several medals but was also wounded. After the war, he worked and lived in Elektrostal city near Moscow. In 1961, he joined the Russian unofficial poetry group Lianozovo. During the Soviet era, only his poems for children were officially published in the USSR, although a number of poems were published outside of Russia.
Satunovsky’s poetic voice is that of a person who was run over by the totalitarian era and who stands alone to oppose the mass insanity. He writes about humanism and human values when the state values prevail. He was possibly the first Soviet poet who spoke out about the Holocaust. His poetry was written after the horror of Auschwitz and the Gulag. It seeks the truth and genuine beauty among lies and terror.
His books include Хочу ли я посмертной славы. Москва, 1992 (Do I dream of the posthumous fame. Moscow, 1992); Рубленая проза. Мюнхен, Otto Sagner Verlag, 1994 (Rustic prose. Munich, Otto Sagner Verlag, 1994); and Среди бела дня. Москва, ОГИ, 2001 (In broad daylight. Moscow, OGI, 2001).



‘Занятия археологией’ (‘Practising archaeology’) and ‘australis’ by Vladimir Aristov (Владимир Аристов)

Practising archaeology

.How do I know that we are alive?
.    How can I tell the living medley
.    From caverns of Herculaneum?

.     So I walked on the river’s banks,
.     I entered into people’s conversations
.     And I admired the primordial form
.     Which was ready to be a house or a palace.

.       To imprint cold furrows beneath a tractor
.       On the fresh dirt of the early mouldings,
.        Ripping out rags
.       From a dark working jacket under a bush.

.         Just blow slightly away the orange dust from eyelashes
.     Dyed by Egyptian ochre,
.        And to gather from everyone a ribbed drapery of the colour
.     Of blue backyard sunset.

.     To look through the thickness of the slime
.     Not above the vicinity of Mycenae’s gates,
.     But underneath and through the grid
.     Of a dry insipid pavement under the lion gates
.     Of the former grids of English Club,
.      To read the schedule of the night: yes, we are closed
.                                            on Saturdays.

.      You can write endlessly about it:
.      Because I myself write a scroll and I myself read it:
.      Like a prewar whisper in a gateway
.     And the conifer trumpet voice of war roses,
.     And a dream of postwar mausoleums,
.     So to cross a swamp
.     One should fasten general’s epaulettes to the folk boots.

.      Do not be in a hurry in inventorying the matters,
.      (Do not forget yourself among the others…)
.      In changing handshakes as strong as cement
.      And kisses – spots on granite,
.      In twinkling of those lights of illuminations
.      And hate of nameless days.

.      To breathe by all the sharp-sighted senile breath,
.       So that not dust, but pollen of the golden serpent
.       Would go away by the right hand
.       And become the earth gravity.

-Vladimir Aristov (Владимир Аристов)

translated by Tatiana Bonch-Osmolovskaya

Занятия археологией

.Откуда знаю я, что живы мы.
.   Как отличить мне месиво живое
.   От Геркуланума пустот?

.  И я ходил по берегам реки,
.  Вступал в людские разговоры
.  И любовался первозданной формой,
.  Готовой стать иль домом иль дворцом.

.   Под трактором холодные борозды
.   На грязи свежей раннего литья
.     Запечатлеть, выпарывая ветошь
.  Из темной телогрейки под кутом.

.         Едва сдувать оранжевую пыль с ресниц,
.Окрашенных египетскою охрой,
.        И цвета синего дворового заката
.Ткань рубчатую собрать со всех.

.Не сверху у ворот в Микенах
.Заглядывать сквозь толщу ила,
.Но снизу сквозь решетку тротуара
.Сухого пресного под львиными вратами
.Решеток бывших английского клуба
. Читать о распорядке ночи: да, закрыто
.                                            по субботам.

.  Писать об этом можно без конца:
.  Ведь свиток я пишу и сам читаю:
.  Как в подворотнях довоенный шепот
.  И хвойный трубный голос роз военных
.И сон послевоенных мавзолеев,
.Когда чтобы через болото перебраться,
.На ичиги прикручивают генеральские погоны.

.  Не торопиться в описи вещей,
.  (Себя не позабыть среди других…)
.  Рукопожатий крепких, как цемент,
.  И поцелуев – пятен на граните,
.  Сверканий тех огней иллюминальных
.  И ненависти безымянных дней.

.  Всем зорким старческим дыханием дышать,
.    Чтобы не пыль, – пыльца золотозмейки
.    По правую бы руку отходила
.    И становилась тяжестью земной.

-Vladimir Aristov (Владимир Аристов)



(to her looking through the sea)

.        That linen water

                       (not averting glance from all south oceans and seas)

.                      arose suddenly again
.                           you recalled as you were rinsing

.                           there table-clothes were not laid on the waters

.                                   this festival is scattered
.                                           dispensed is the surface of feasts and attires
.                                                    and dark of hairs taken away from the face

.                                  as if again you see the reflection of sacred northern rivers
.                                                      under the gloomy steep
.                                                where you have rinsed the linen before

.     and today’s trembling flags that now are seen to you
.                                with marine stripes of sways
.                                       inside them the ice of fish in depth
.                                              shells crabs and corals

.                            but that linen water
.                                caressed your hands
.                                  you touched it so
.                                      as if you laundered it

.                                 the ancient water was clearing up

.                           wrinkles were vanishing

.                   and you see between the fingers
.                  the other constellations in the water were out
.             the Pavo and the Phoenix and close to us, the Centaurus

.                   the marine signs are embroidered

.            and to you inclined
.               in the reflections is seen the Southern Cross

-Vladimir Aristov (Владимир Аристов)

translated by Tatiana Bonch-Osmolovskaya


(смотрящей сквозь море)

.        Та полотняная вода

.                        (взгляд не отводя от южных всех морей и океанов)

.                      возникла вдруг опять
.                           вспомнила ты как полоскала

.                           там где на воды скатерти не стелили

.                                   здешний фестиваль развеян
.                                           роздана поверхность празднеств и убранств
.                                                    и темноту волос убрав с лица

.                           ты словно снова взглянешь в отраженье священных северных рек
.                                                      под сумрачным обрывом
.                                                где прежде полотно ты полоскала

.     и нынешние флаги трепетные что тебе теперь видны
.                                с полосками морскими колыханий
.                                       в них скрыты рыбы лед на глубине
.                                              ракушки, крабы и кораллы

.                            но та полотняная вода
.                                ласкала твои руки
.                                  так к ней прикасалась ты
.                                      как будто ты ее стирала

.                                 светлела давняя вода

.                           морщины исчезали

.                   и видишь что меж пальцев
.                  выступили в воде истинные созвездия иные
.             Павлин и Феникс и ближний к нам Центавр

.                   вышиты морские знаки

.            и тебе склоненной
.               в отраженьи виден Южный Крест

-Vladimir Aristov (Владимир Аристов)

Vladimir Aristov’s poems ‘Занятия археологией’ and ‘australis (смотрящей сквозь море)’ were last published in Открытые дворы (Moscow, New Literary Review, 2016, pages: 313-314 and 71 respectively). They have been republished in Rochford Street Review along with translations by Tatiana Bonch-Osmolovskaya, ‘Practising archaeology’ and ‘australis (to her looking through the sea)’, with Vladimir Aristov’s permission.


Vladimir Aristov (Владимир Аристов) was born in 1950 in Moscow, Russia. He graduated from Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, has a degree in physics, and works as a professor of physics. His poetry has been published since 1997. He is an author of five books of poetry, one novel, a play, and a number of essays. He is a laureate of Alexey Kruchenych poetry prize (1993), Andrey Bely poetry prize (2008), and Razlichie (Difference) poetry prize (2016).

“The writer-narrator takes the reader by the hand”: Carmel Bird reviews ‘Napoleon’s Roads’ by David Brooks

Napoleon’s Roads by David Brooks (UQP, 2016).

napoleons_roads_david_brooksThirty years ago, I read a most wonderful collection of short fiction. I think I reviewed it. It was The Book of Sei by David Brooks. Since then, I have read most of David’s books. Reading Napoleon’s Roads was a bit like finding that, The Book of Sei had a glorious new compartment, to which I now had access.

On the last page of Napoleon’s Roads, the narrator says, that critics say the ‘writer’s’ books are “beautifully written, even haunting”, but that there is always some indefinable thing missing, an unspoken absence around which everything turns’. Note the ‘but’ in that sentence. It signifies that idea that those critics, are in some way, disappointed by, or afraid of, the ‘thing missing’. The stories of David Brooks can be read as turning on the mysterious thing, and many readers, myself included, celebrate the way the fiction is constructed around that thing. It’s death of course, un-named.

In the second, last story of the collection, ‘A Traveller’s Tale’, a narrator speaks directly to readers on the subject of how stories work. The tone is deliciously direct and instructive, and the story could be productively studied in fiction-writing courses. ‘I want you to think about that,’ says the narrator. The readers and the quiet voice are up close, as the narrator leads on to the moment when everyone must step out ‘into the wide world, the difficult terrain’ of the story which is ‘horrid, distressing, almost untellable’. Death, you see?

‘Is that what we came here for, to wander about in the shadowy streets of ourselves?’ These shadowy streets are the Dantesque internal and external pathways through which the fiction moves, the roads built by Napoleon’s men, the dreamscapes of the imagination, the ways to enter or to leave ‘the city’.

The first piece in the collection is one paragraph called, ‘Paths to Writing’. It signals the nature of what is to follow, invoking in poetic prose the hope that words can carry, and sometimes reveal, the deep information of the human heart. ‘A Traveller’s Tale’ contains a magnificent short discussion of the word ‘heart’. The heart is one of the ‘most durable organs of the body’ but the word is so often metaphoric; the centre of love, the heart that ‘in the human mind’ is ‘heart-shaped’. The narrator explains that, when the word is being used in the tale, the word ‘heart’ is an amalgam of the organ and the metaphor. So information, messages, move across the collection, holding the reader’s hand for the journey, sometimes letting go.

Threaded throughout is a signposting image of birds, those manifestations of the soul, harbingers of doom, messengers of hope. As I read, there seemed to be a lot of doves, but in fact when I counted, I found there were only four, plus one that was ‘almost dove’. That one stopped me in my tracks.

‘Lost Pages’ concerns a writer whose work constantly fragments and disappears. Here the storyteller has an idea of writing something ‘about The Language of Birds’, the medieval language of the troubadours. He doesn’t of course, but other characters in other stories see and hear birds, all kinds of birds. ‘Swan’ is a particularly elegant tale of longing, ending with the image of a man’s rumpled bed where in the morning, a ‘bird-like shape has formed itself’ among the sheets.

One of the most delicious (if I may, borrow the word from the restaurant review) stories is ‘Ten Short Pieces’. These tiny jewels flash across the reader’s mind like exquisite samplings of what might be said, or meant, or stated, or missed in the longer stories. The narrator-writer thinks of himself as ‘a man at a table in a workshop’, making a shoe, mending a watch, saying ‘over and over, what lines he has in the hope that one of these lines will run on, will spill over into something he has not yet imagined’. Now this is a description of how a writer works. Again, this little piece, consisting of only two sentences, is perfect for offering to students of writing. Not to mention, the pleasure of coming to the end of the long, second sentence, only to learn that the tools the writer finds in his cupboard might be ‘a piece of sheepsong or the end of a shower of rain, an owl.’ Note the last comma. Brilliant.

The word ‘sheepsong’ took me back to David’s 1990 collection titled, Sheep and the Diva – opening a doorway backwards into the apartment building of the work. Somehow, it does seem sometimes to be a vast building, or perhaps a city, through which the writer-narrator takes the reader by the hand. Dante again, I suppose. Sometimes, there is a burst through, into bright freedom ‘breaking through a veil of green words’, and sometimes (six times, actually) there is a dark image of a panther in a cage, pacing.

The story, ‘Napoleon’s Roads, begins with the panther, and the final story, ‘The Panther’, ends with the writer-narrator standing before a painting of a panther. Here, the collection ends:

‘I can see him there, in the shadows.
He does not look at me.’

I want to conclude by referring to the story, ‘Grief’, which is one, along with, ‘The Dead’, that is concerned, perhaps most openly, with mortality. This story ends with the effect of a man saying the Rosary at a funeral: ‘the fright and confusion become dignity, music moving through us in a kind of praise, making us instruments, wind, clay vessels, a kind of brooding bird, almost dove.’

-Carmel Bird

Purchase Napoleon’s Roads by David Brooks
Read a sample of Napoleon’s Roads

Carmel Bird is the winner of the 2016 Patrick White Literary Award. Her most recent books are the novel, Family Skeleton (2016) and the short story collection, My Hearts Are Your Hearts (2015).

Emerging Talents of World Cinema: Perry Lam previews the 2017 Golden Koala Chinese Film Festival

The Golden Koala Film Festival is back for its 2017 edition, the festival is known for showcasing interesting films from Chinese speaking countries shows no signs of stopping after an extremely successful 2016 edition. The 2017 Golden Koala Chinese Film Festivals pulls out all the stops, unlike the cinematic offerings of the festival’s history, where there was an emphasis on introducing a form of cinematic experience to Australian shores, the 2017 edition does not break the rules as change them.

Equally ambitious is the festival schedule. The festival screenings take place in 6 different Australian cities (Sydney, Melbourne, Perth, Adelaide, Brisbane and Canberra). With a designated screening location in each city, offering ample opportunity for Australian audiences to experience how Chinese speaking countries such as China, Taiwan and Hong Kong interpret genres that we are familiar with.

The Golden Koala Chinese Film Festival’s President, Mr. Ray Shen, mentions that the aim of the 2017 edition of the Golden Koala Chinese Film Festival is to showcase new, up and coming directors, especially in their creative prime. As noted by Mr. Shen, he believes that a director’s purest, most powerful works are within the first three films of their careers.


Hence, this focus on new directors has created an extremely intriguing festival line up of horror, comedy and dramatic films. Fitting into this new approach is The Bride by Taiwanese director Lingo Hsieh, whose short film work has been selected for the prestigious Golden Horse Film Festival in 2014. The Bride weaves a tale of unintended consequences and dealing with the supernatural, reminisces of the terrifying cinematic offerings of the Asian horror movie boom of the late 90s and early 2000s. From its strong, distinctive use of colour and shadowy cinematography, Hsieh’s debut feature hits all the right notes in terms of sheer genre thrills and will be one of the films to watch in the upcoming Golden Koala Film Festival.

New directors are also represented in the experimental and arthouse genre, such as The Dog by twenty year old Lam Can-Zhao. The film follows a stray dog as it journeys through modern Guangzhou. Shot in black and white and heavily influenced by documentary and guerrilla filmmaking in its execution, The Dog is an intriguing exercise in stylistic and narrative experimentation. The frequent use of long takes and static cinematography by Lam Can-Zhao stretches the limits of our cinematic expectations, creating a robust neo realist examination of Chinese ‘ordinariness’.


The Dog is also being screened at the 32nd edition of the distinguished Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, with its selection in two illustrious film festivals and featuring such bold stylistic stabs at cinema, Lam Can-Zhao is fast becoming not just one of China’s emerging talents of cinema but also the world’s.

On the other end of the genre spectrum is the comedy-thriller Robbery. Ping is down and out and in desperate need of cash, he takes a night shift job at a convenience store and together with his co-worker, their night escalates as they serve the eccentric and flamboyant customers of the night, before things finally come to a head when the convenience store gets robbed.

A neon drenched, vulgar romp of a film filled with eccentric characters, shoot outs and cops and robbers. It is directed by the equally flamboyantly named director, Fire Lee. Who has previous worked as an actor in Hong Kong films and has now transitioned to a role behind the camera. It will be interesting to witness how Lee’s stylized approach adds to the popular and well-worn genre of comedy thriller.


Finally there is the Song of Cotton, a dramatic tour de force based on the American National Book Award and Hemingway Award winner Ha Jin’s novel ‘A Pension Plan’. Mian Hua takes up a job as a caretaker for an aging boxer, as Mian Hua continues her work, she has to come to terms with the aging boxer’s absent and distrustful family while at the same time struggle to provide the old man with much needed care.

Song of Cotton has garnered multiple accolades, sweeping the 19th Shanghai International Film Festival with Best Film, Best New Director, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress wins. It also served as the closing film for the 6th Beijing Film Festival. With a plethora of awards, Song of Cotton is one of the cornerstones of this year’s festival and in a festival filled with genre thrills and stylized narratives, stands out for its sheer dramatic simplicity.


These films are just four of the many great films that are in competition for prestigious awards at the festival. With a tough selection process headed by Mr. Ray Shen, the Golden Koala Chinese Film Festival brings to Australia the best Chinese language films this season in both thought provoking cinema and light wacky entertainment. The festival itself kicks off on the 2nd of February in Sydney, before screenings open up for the rest of the month in Melbourne, Perth, Adelaide, Brisbane and Canberra, before ending on the 20th of February. For more information on the film festival and the terrific film that are part of its official selection as well as to book tickets, do visit the Golden Koala Chinese Film Festival website at:


Perry Lam is an Associate Editor of Rochford Street Review and a film and commercials director. He directed the documentary short film BLACK RAT,  which has been screened at over 10 film festivals and showcases and won 3 awards, including Best Documentary at Phoenix Comicon 2016.  His latest short film Hard Vision, is currently on its festival run. You can follow him on Instagram at: perrylam29

“Echoes, hauntings and play”: Lucy Wilks reviews ‘Bull Days’ by Tina Giannoukos

Bull Days by Tina Giannoukos. Arcadia, Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2016.

bull-daysIn her second collection of poetry, Bull Days, Tina Giannoukos elaborates on the dyad of the lover and the beloved, a relationship she guides through a cycle of fifty-eight sonnets, each more than equal to the exigencies of the form. Giannoukos nuances both the mutability and the steadfastness of love, its vows and caprices buoyed on thematic waves that break afresh in contrapuntal procession. This is a work of great finesse and accomplishment, daring in its navigation of the inconceivable, and plaintive at times with the spectre of a love welcomed into the life of the word at the very moment of the lover’s bereavement. The poems move with grace and proportion, euphoniously lamenting and celebrating this capacious and sometimes wraith-like affection, its lineaments ranging from the querulous and wearisome to the tender and marvellous. The poet salutes, resonates within, and invigorates a lyric tradition whose history informs her transfigurations, all the while staying open to a more contemporary idiom, the fusion handled with poise and a supple, writerly discipline.

The poems play with what Carole Birkan Berz (2014) calls the ‘iconicity’ of the sonnet, asking profound ontological questions at the very limits of what language makes possible. Describing an arc across time and space (mediated by a number of bird poems), they proceed through what Annie Finch (2009) terms ‘energy and containment, development and resting’ to a dialectical and speculative synthesis. In ‘LV’, a poem of equivocation and conjecture, the speaker asks, ‘what if / […] it’s the impossibility / of our being which troubles me more than our love.’ The play of iconicity and iconoclasm, of presence and absence, results in ‘another try at the impossible’, the success of which is attributable to the efficacy of the book’s underlying conceit.

As a sequence, the cycle manifests a ‘gestalt’ (Birkan Berz 2014) whereby the whole, greater than the sum of its parts, is rendered haunting and inexhaustible. Yet individual poems stand their ground, each evidence of this same dynamic writ small, and each teeming with its own expansiveness. Proliferating with variable connotation, the poems inhabit one another, evincing a spectral narrative beneath their elegant modulation. This narrative is one of both mutual reference, with words repeating across sonnets, and a going beyond such reference, by virtue of the subtle differences in the echoic inflection of the shared image that the words evoke. For example, the ‘gorgeous’ in ‘the gorgeous girls line up’ (‘XXXIX’) both informs and is quite other than that in ‘as if gorgeous beings, imitating / my dance, intend my imitation of them’ (‘LVIII’). Music, extremes of temperature, the conjunction of heavenly bodies, nature, and the power of the withheld name each constitute a substrate whose continuity is expressed fugally, each element taking on new tonal colours as new verbal environments and instruments adopt it.

From the opening poem the reader is witness to a love of vast amplitude and intensity, figured by the image of a cornucopian boundlessness, and made all the more striking by the measured tone and deft restraint in use of phrase and archetype. Here the beloved is a centaur who will appear to the speaker as she sails ‘across the empty doom’ (‘I’). Chronicling vicissitude and vagary with a light and playful touch, the cycle moves from an explosive detonation of love, as momentous and mysterious as the creation of the universe, through to disillusionment, imprecation and alienation. Love may be squalid, the lover a saboteur, or the dyad grievously denied, as in ‘XXX’, where ‘I saw the grief in your eyes when they took away / our silks and red cloth.’ The cycle ends with an invocation to ‘sleep in sea’s crooked arm, a starfish’ (‘LVIII’), and recapitulates the motifs of voyaging and subjection to the gods found earlier.

Giannoukos honours and disrupts an enduring and accommodating tradition whose lineage spans from Giacomo da Lentini (1210 – 1260), the Italian poet credited with the invention of the sonnet, to Ted Berrigan (1934 – 1983), a prominent member of the second generation of the New York School of Poets, and beyond. She titles the poems with Roman numerals, and in so doing, plays with linearity and its subversion, while also alluding obliquely to Shakespeare’s sonnets. Both as tribute and in their refusal to reproduce ‘the voice ventriloquised for [women] by men’ (Padel 2002, p.42), the poems enact a departure from the mainstream sonnet. They manifest what Jeff Hilson (Birkan Berz 2014) calls a ‘radical defamiliarisation’ of its scope and capabilities. ‘XVIII’, a call and response poem in multiple voices, ends with a witty, self-reflexive volta that deflates and undermines the propositional bombardment of the preceding thirteen lines, all the while intensifying their irony:

Give them subscriptions to porn. Get ‘em goin’!
The private is the domain of the public. That’s right!
Tell ‘em sex is good. Don’t panic. It’s a ruse!
Is this the Sapphic line? O Sweet! O Love!

The strength of this collection stems from each poem ‘bend[ing] the form to its own will, instead of obligingly succumbing to the form’s demands’, as Rachel Richardson (2013) writes of the contemporary sonnet. Giannoukos invents her own constraints, her novel use of punctuation (or its absence), of enjambment and internal assonance furthering what the sonnet can achieve. ‘[N]ew things’, writes Ruth Padel (2002, p.17), ‘come from breaking old ones. That is how a poetic tradition moves forward: it risks itself to maintain itself.’ In Giannoukos’s hands, the form becomes malleable and ghost-like, a submerged backbone for her linguistically innovative play. Interestingly, she uses both the word ‘risks’ (‘XV’) and ‘ghosts’ (‘XXXIII’), and accommodates both old and new in her vocabulary, the ‘bounty’ in ‘LVIII’, ‘glee’ in ‘III’ and ‘Behold’ in ‘XXXVI’ resting well with the ‘über-humans’ in ‘XXXVII’ and the ‘zilch’ in ‘V’. In ‘LVI’, registers as variable as the musical (‘My music’s no match for your melos’), the scientific (‘We count nerve cells. Measure the minutes’), the imploring (‘Give me what’s mine or a reprieve, life’), and the metatextual (‘These shifts in mood are impossible to endure’) coexist harmoniously.

Giannoukos uses variable line lengths and metres, giving the poems a music which plays rubato, in rhythms of flexible and spacious emphasis. Even where end rhyme is used, the rhyme may be visual, as in ‘XXIX’, where ‘[…] all despondent, the die / cast, men ramble about daughters and a son / intent on crushing all remaining dreams. / You propose instead one more drink, all bon- / homie. Pinot Gris, your pick’, or on the unstressed syllable, ‘Macho’ with ‘virago’ in ‘XXI’. Furthermore, where the poet does employ iambic pentameter, it may be ironic, as in ‘XLVIII’, where ‘I lose the rhythm, bop a pantomime’, or quite transcending any metronomic stringency, as in the beautifully modulated ‘The tongue of love tastes tough in these bull days’ (‘II’). Elegiac, ecstatic and witty, the poems move in and out of each other. Their polyvocal echoes, hauntings, playfulness, and risks are emblems inscribed in the fabric of the text, as well as descriptors of the poetics at work. In this sense they ‘interrogate’, ‘what [the] poem is doing, from inside it’ (Padel 2002, p.44).

The beloved is not portrayed as the idealised paragon encountered in some quarters of the tradition, but rather is the pivot for a response to, and questioning of, the sonnet tradition as much as the lyrical, enacted from within. ‘XXIII’, paralleling Shakespeare’s sonnet ‘CXXX’, where he begins ‘My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun’, addresses a beloved with ‘degenerate’ eyes, the speaker’s quest for him arising from her desire for a Corybantic communion (the Corybants were the wild attendants of the goddess Cybele, who performed elaborate dances in her honour). Exquisitely and voluptuously the diction stretches into a hyperlyrical meditation, kept just within the bounds of equilibrium by a finely wrought and chiselled virtuosity, fusing the simple with the exotic in images of singular beauty. In luscious and sensuous language the speaker disavows the ‘luscious youth’ with the ‘sensuous fringe’ in favour of the greying and ‘weathered’ older man.

The metrical fluidity of ‘I searched for your image in the disc before my eyes’ (two amphibrachs, one anapest and two iambs) recalls Alexander Pope’s dictum: ‘True ease in writing comes from art, not chance,/ as those move easiest who have learn’d to dance’ (Barnstone, 2016). The iambic pentameter of the final line, ‘It is / in contemplation that I know us best’, both seals the poem and restores, at least in spirit, the absent beloved to the lover. Interestingly, Giannoukos echoes Shakespeare, using the word ‘rare’ in relation to the beloved, ‘The dark curls, like a rare fringe’ referencing and playing with Shakespeare’s ‘And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare / As any she belied with false compare.’

Different echoes are encountered in the poems which inhabit the interstices between eros and thanatos, where love is haunted by echoes of death, and death by echoes of love. The speaker in following love’s course says in ‘II’, ‘I begin the long march in death’s dominion’, and in ‘LIII’, ‘I feel / the pulse of your breath as quick on my skin / as the fevered pulsations of a dying man.’ Elsewhere there is a more brutal echo of death, particularly in the poems that refract the dyad through the metaphor of the bull fight, in which the beloved as matador by necessity betrays the lover as bull. A gender ambiguity permeates these poems, as do ambiguities of voice and time. In ‘XX’, the bull as speaker asks:

What trophy to keep? My ears, my tail, my hooves?
No, throw my body parts to your sweetheart.
I hope she hurls flowers at you for it.
The crowd will wave handkerchiefs.

The bull anticipates the blade through its heart, its evisceration for the glory of the beloved. Through the use of the caesura and the imperative, the poet creates a staccato, emphatic sense of high tension as the contest plays out its potentially ineluctable end.

The ironic play of death and resurrection is hauntingly captured in ‘XLVI’. Here the Venusian volta, preceded by the taunts and bellowing of the rabble, is tempered by a picture of earthly ruin. The poem leads us to ask where is love’s congregation now, now that the face of light is hidden and the places of worship razed by time, neglect or nature:

I am a skygazer. I am witness to your
eclipse. The blue glow of your beauty
beatifies heaven. I gather myself
around me in horror. In the old temple
love-astrologers hand out business cards.
They spy you parachuting into Mongolia.
How you blacken the sun! It burns with a fiery rim.
This is the time of fear. It grows cold.

The moon bites the sun. Oh the crowd jeers!
It masks the sun. Oh the mob roars! Oh how
people rear their heads like the huge cobra!
In the glow of the dark Venus shone again
on the fallen stones and collapsed columns
of the ancient temples and on the eroded rocks.

Other figures of play also feature prominently in these poems. The ‘game of hearts’ in ‘III’, to which the speaker may or may not be equal, plays with a music that in ‘XXVII’ makes her ‘bountiful’, inheres in a ‘masquerade of teasing love-note, / where two quake on a crater’s perimeter’ (‘XXIX’), or makes us ‘conjure the sour acrimony / of two wearied by the thing dividing them’ (‘XXIV’). By the end, in ‘LVIII’, the speaker says, ‘I’m still gambling on signs, as if the gods / might yet sprinkle blessings and bounty over me’. Play may thus denote the innocent sport of affectionate largesse, a dissembling and perilous banter, the bitter fruit of schism, a wager on true or false portents, or a sexual dalliance, as in ‘V’, where the speaker says, ‘To know you played / me twice holds the truth I won’t / name: it was for zilch. I’m out.’

This refusal to name, which occurs elsewhere in the book, points to the unsayable, and to a speaker engaged in a recurrent working at the limits of utterance, crossing the threshold beyond which nothing can be said, and bearing in her train an array of ironic utterances. In ‘LIII’ she says, ‘Without / words to describe the colour of my love– / deep as the emerald I covet in the jeweller’s window– / I am helpless to offer reparation.’ Giannoukos alerts the reader both to the semantic insufficiency of the utterance, the divestment of language of any claim to adequacy in matters of love, and to the paradoxical challenge afforded by the apt simile. Similarly, in ‘XXVII’, a poem of love’s expansion and contraction, the anadiplosis or concatenation of ‘this’, and its use both as a pronoun and as an adjective, serve to render it able to be spoken in proliferating ways, thus showing the power of the rhetorical device:

The temperature of your love is changing.
It breaks my heart: there are no words for this.

How do I know? Because you have done this before.
Your love has always been a desert of climatic extremes.
My love for you cannot flourish in this chasm:
ecstatic in its reach it turns scornful in sorrow.

My love becomes extinct. Nothing compares with this.
This rubble of stone is all that remains of its immensity.

If ‘form should have an organic relation to sense, not merely be the vase into which content is poured’, as Tony Barnstone (2016) says, then Giannoukos styles her sonnets organically. Indeed, the words of the speaker in ‘XLII’ may be taken as her aesthetic credo: ‘Fill up / this jug with the amethyst liquid / of wild vines civilised in vineyards.’ With consummate craft Giannoukos adapts the sonnet’s form into a series of shapely, diversely contoured, amphora-like vessels, into which is distilled a nectar ‘civilised’ in the poetic tradition or ‘vineyard’. Han Yu (Barnstone 2016) stated that, the poet in the ‘chains’ of the sonnet may be said to ‘dance’. In a multiplicity of voices, moods, textures and transitions, she asks the reader to query the identity of the lover (woman, man or heavenly envoy) and the beloved (man, woman, centaur or God), whether they are singular or plural, and whether their very being is possible at all. In its entirety, Bull Days is a living opus of interdependent parts, communing through sonic reflexion, the vision of the spectral, a ludic and rhapsodic poetics of rapture and fellow-feeling, and elegiac tilts at the problem of the impossible in language, surmounted rhetorically by an overarching and richly polyphonic conceit.

-Lucy Wilks

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Reference list

Barnstone, T. 2016, A manifesto on the contemporary sonnet: a personal aesthetics, The Cortland Review, 9 December, viewed 26 November 2016, <>.

Birkan Berz, C. 2014, ‘Mapping the contemporary sonnet in mainstream and linguistically innovative late 20th– and early 21st– century British poetry’, Études Britanniques, No. 46, viewed 26 November 2016, <>.

Finch, A. 2009, ‘Chaos in fourteen lines: reformations and deformations of the sonnet’, Contemporary Poetry Review, viewed 26 November 2016, <>.

Padel, R. 2002, 52 ways of looking at a poem or how reading modern poetry can change your life, Chatto & Windus, London.

Richardson, R, 2013, Learning the sonnet: A history and how-to guide to the famous form, Poetry Foundation, Chicago, 29 August, viewed 26 November 2016, <>.

Lucy Wilks
is a Melbourne-based poet whose work has appeared in Verse, Meanjin, Southerly, Rabbit, Otoliths, Plumwood Mountain and Cordite.

“A cacophony of art and story that ranges from the absurd to the downright terrifying”: Anna Forsyth reviews ‘The Apocalypse Awards’ by Nathan Curnow

The Apocalypse Awards by Nathan Curnow. Arcadia/ Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2016.

the-apocalyspe-awardsIn London’s Oxford Street, a man in a tattered coat wanders up and down, his sandwich board emblazoned with big red painted letters: The End is Nigh. It’s a phrase that has since entered the vernacular to mock the doomsayers who use any political changing of the guard or climate statistic to confirm their end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it predictions. As humans, we are just as obsessed with our demise as a species, as we are with uncovering the truth about our origins. What results is a cacophony of art and story that ranges from the absurd to the downright terrifying. Dante’s Inferno is no picnic and neither is the Book of Revelation, but the subject has also created some of the best fodder for entertainment, including the hugely popular, The Walking Dead series.

Enter award-winning, Ballarat poet, Nathan Curnow with his latest release, The Apocalypse Awards. The title is of course, tongue-in-cheek. “Who does it best!?” the reality television narrator asks the audience. Although, many lives will be destroyed in the glossy, gladiator-style slaughter under the flashing lights. If anyone can bring an intelligent, fresh angle to the subject of our times, it is Curnow. The book is a master stroke. No one could read these haunting, vivid vignettes without gasping, even if it is difficult to put into words the reason for the rude shock. It’s like looking in to a dark mirror. Curnow’s deft touch ensures that we are unable to look away from the wreckage. We are rubbernecking our own car smashes.

One could spend hours staring at the cover artwork, the intricate, Dolor (For Whom the Bell Tolls), sculpture by Stephen Ives. The name means, ‘a state of great sorrow or distress’. The knight on the horse is frozen in mid gallop. The horse and rider’s flesh is stripped to thin ribbons, hanging from their skeletons. However, the small detail that may be missed is also, the most crucial: a tiny, hunched man in red walks across the outstretched lance with a walking stick. Is this the ‘End is Nigh’ man? Or is this man in the collective sense, shuffling toward death? It’s a chilling image set amidst the icy blue of Dolor. A blue that nothing comes out of (‘Welcome’).

Between its covers, the collection is visceral and tender at the same time. If anyone wants to touch the subject after this, it might be time for a rethink. It shows a mind on fire with the wonder and horror of the circus of cruelty that, as alluded to in the opening quotes from Kafka and Gaiman, is in fact, an ongoing apocalypse of our own species. In a cruel irony, the fear and anticipation of the event itself, has driven us to madness, in the form of countless wars and a violent plundering of resources.

One of Curnow’s strengths is his use of imagery. He has an eye as good as, any novelist. At times, the pathos of the situations he sketches is so dark, it almost feels funny, in a laughing-at-a-funeral way. There is an obvious iceberg of research or knowledge underneath the poems, with all the biblical and literary references one would expect, given the subject, including Jules Vern. Aside from these, each poem contains enough quotable lines to graffiti the whole of Melbourne.

Some of the imagery Curnow employs is garish or surreal, such as the exploding watermelon, (you won’t get through if you wear a helmet: ‘Xanadu’), the euthanised, party balloons (‘Duel’) and the corpse kissing booth (‘Corpse Fete’). Curnow also uses colour to great effect: The Paint inside us making a break (‘Nosebleeds’). The colour of a licorice plague (‘Botanicals’).

Then there are the shocking images, such as those in the poem ‘Zoo’:

The fairy penguins are on lollipop sticks…
The giraffe was the first beheading
They tried to use its neck as a periscope…

Or this clanger from ‘Confession’:

I chewed his ears like dried apricots.

The ink-on-paper illustrations of Lily Mae Martin are the only visuals in the text. The drawings depict women in shock, their mouths twisted in fright. These don’t sugar coat the idea that many of the scenarios outlined are real and horrific, underneath Curnow’s often absurd rendering. But the poet is never absurd without skill or reason. He is the Cirque du Soleil of poets, effortlessly walking the tightrope while both, frightening and thrilling his audience. This is a collection that will stay with the reader long after reading, as they emerge from their rooms, blinking in the light and contemplating this apocalyptic existence, with its spectacles of pleasure and pain.

–Anna Forsyth

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Anna Forsyth is a writer and freelance editor, originally from New Zealand, now living in Melbourne. Her poems have appeared in FourW, Landfall and other journals. She is the convener of the monthly female driven poetry event and refugee fundraiser, Girls on Key.