A Need to Examine the Life of the Nation: Kit Kelen reflects on ‘To End All Wars’

Kit Kelen, who was one of the editors of To End All Wars, edited by  Dael Allison, Anna Couani, Kit Kelen and Les Wicks,  Puncher and Wattmann, 2018, gave the following speech at the launch of the anthology at the Shop Gallery Glebe on 27 October 2018

Greetings all. Just a few words and a few more words about this anthology and how it came about. The idea for the collection came from a discussion, in Istanbul, between myself and Les Wicks at the International Poetry Festival there, a few years ago. It was a discussion involving some Turkish poets and translators as well.

Some background. We were annoyed because the Department of Foriegn Affairs and Trade (DFAT) had just pulled the plug on funding for a reading that we were scheduled to be doing at Gallipoli. No explanation of course. Who can comment on operational matters involving the conscience all at sea? But we quickly came to the conclusion it might have something to do with our credentials as peace-nik poets, so to speak.

Being in Turkey and contemplating Gallipoli and the centenary that had just happened, we thought it would be a good thing to bring together a bilingual parallel text collection of Australian/New Zealand and Turkish poets (everything translated both ways), reflecting on, not the first ANZAC day per se, but rather the centenary of it. Reflecting on what it means to Turks and to Australians, and what there might be of this, in either culture, deeper than the official account and general solemn ra-ra – for in our case, the sacred national icon of this particular biscuit (the ANZAC communion wafer). We were interested in reflecting on the reflection you could say. We were interested in setting up a two-way poetry mirror, a particular one not seen before.

There are traces of that original idea in this collection you’re holding in your hand today, thanks to the generous assistance of David Musgrave and Puncher and Wattmann.

As you’ll know, things have become progressively more difficult politically in Turkey over the past few years since Les and I were last there, and especially for progressive intellectuals or anyone wishing to critique the received wisdom of, for instance, national origins. This WWI period which marks the end of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of Attaturk’s modern Turkish state – is particularly sensitive. This is precisely what had made the original idea of the bilingual anthology very attractive to us – that this conflict a hundred years ago, and its beginnings and endings had so much to do, in Australia’s and in Turkey’s case, with our originary myths of nationhood – ‘baptism of fire’ myths, of the kind that were very prevalent in Australia at the time of Federation and from that time up until the beginning of the First World War.

The advent of Federation in Australia was replete with a prospective bellicosity, very relevant for us here today – because, before the event, the popular poetry proclaiming Australia as such – Dorothea Mackellar aside – was largely a poetry of war (pretentiously prophetic often). Some of it was humorously so. Take for instance C.J. Dennis’s 1908 mock anthem, the ‘Australaise’, an impressive celebration of the Australian infix:

Fellers of Australier,
Blokes an’ coves an’ coots
Shift yer (bloody) carcasses,
Move yer (bloody) boots,
Gird yer (bloody) loins up,
Get yer (bloody) gun,
Set the (bloody) enermy,
An’ watch the (bastards) run.

Get a (bloody) move on,
Have some (bloody) sense,
Learn the (bloody) art of
Self de-(bloody)-fence.

(You’ll forgive my having inserted some words missing in the original, or you might choose to amplify there yourself.)

Closer to the moment of Federation, one Australian Boer War correspondent by the name of A.B.Paterson was encouraged by the events he witnessed to express the sentiment that the world-wide Empire of the British proved that ‘kinship conquers space’. And from this assertion he was able to throw out a challenge (or threat), more characteristic of his time than his oeuvre: ‘those who fight the British Isles must fight the British race!’ Paterson kept up the race rhetoric for the Great War too. In his 1915 ‘Open letter to the troops: we’re all Australians now’ the Banjo wrote:

The mettle that a race can show
Is proved with shot and steel,
And now we know what nations know
And feel what nations feel.

Probably the best known lyrics of the time relating specifically to Australia’s participation in the First World War are those of W.W. Francis’ ‘Australia will be there!’. It was adopted by the AIF from the war’s beginning and remained popular throughout.

Rally round the banner of your country
Take the field with brothers o’er the foam;
On land or sea, wherever you be,
Keep your eye on Germany!
For England Home and Beauty
Have no cause to fear!
Should auld acquaintance be forgot?
No! No! No! No! No! Australia will be there!
Australia will be there!

Let’s note that ‘the banner of your country’ referred to here was unlikely to have been the Australian flag. Though it had been invented for a competition in 1901, and had some official status by 1908, this wasn’t clarified until Menzies’ Flags Act of 1953. Though many Australians today, in love with the eternal quality of their national devotions find it hard to believe, it was the Union Jack that mainly draped the coffins of the WWI Australian war dead. There was no Australian passport till 1949 either.

Now while Australian and New Zealand losses in the Gallipoli campaign and throughout WWI were devastatingly high (witness the WWI wall at the War Memorial in Canberra), the Turkish losses at Gallipoli may have been ten times as high as the ANZACs’. We Australians and New Zealanders lost that battle but we won the war. The Turks paid the higher price.

But were they Turkish losses or ANZAC losses? They were the losses of respective empires – the Ottoman and the British. The senseless and useless pain and suffering Turks and Australians experienced in the Gallipoli event, and for generations after, was at the command and in the service of world empires. Between then and now, Australians have indeed once defended this continent from foreign invasion, but one hundred years and more later, Australians are dying on foreign battlefields, still in the service of world empire – still in the service of a white man’s world empire.


Kit Kelen launching To End All Wars at the Shop Gallery Glebe on 27 October 2018

No Australian with feeling for the idea of being Australian could have watched ABC TV over the last two months without having the Aussie heartstrings tugged in two impressively concerted directions. On the one hand there’s the anthem quality in ‘I am, You are, We are Australian’

(vision messaged for multiculturalism) – ‘from all the lands of Earth we come’. (And let me add I believe this campaign is a brilliant first shot over the closet dogwhistling racist bows for the upcoming federal election. This is a campaign for the ABC [and its continued public ownership], for public ownership in general, and for a multicultural Australia. Three for the price of one!)

The other heartstring tugger has been the (relentlessly advertised) Invictus games. Let’s think about what they are. A moving celebration of the determination, the courage, the resilience of those otherwise broken by war. Yes. Can anyone doubt the value of this exercise for the sportsmen and women involved? Can anyone doubt the debt these people are owed by the nation states for whom they have given their all?

But how do these games and the powerful emotion they generate make us feel about war and about the causes of war? And about our responsibility for war, in our case, as voters in a parliamentary democracy? Royal patronage takes things out of the political domain and helps us to not ask questions. Questions for instance about corporate sponsorship for the games from entities that profit by making weapons and weapons systems.

Is anyone brave enough to criticise INVICTUS? Invictus? And who is undefeated?. These brave broken warriors of ours of course! Who have they – who have we – fought? And why? Who have they – have we – defeated? And how just was our cause? How proud of our participation in these conflict should we – should they – be?

Is it sacrilege to ask such questions?

The wars in which Australia, and most of the other Invictus participating nations, have engaged in the last two decades have been under the general umbrella of a global war on terror, or what could be considered a long term reprisal for 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington DC (attacks resulting in roughly 3000 deaths in 2001). Let us consider these numbers for a sense of proportion and in order especially – self-interestedly – to ask whether the wars on terror have made us safer.

Richard Clarke, a counter-terrorism expert who worked in the US National Security Council between 1992 and 2003 was highly critical of the Bush Administration’s counter terrorism strategy and decision to invade Iraq (on trumped up ‘weapons of mass destruction’ intelligence). Clark has written, ‘far from addressing the popular appeal of the enemy that attacked us, Bush handed that enemy precisely what it wanted and needed, proof that America was at war with Islam, that we were the new Crusaders come to occupy Muslim land’.

There has been too much taken for granted of what terror is and where it comes from. We need to ask now – in a global way – what terror is and who produces it. We’ve needed to ask this for a long time. We need to ask what it is that drives persons of conviction to kill themselves and others for a cause they feel to be just, for a cause they feel to be ignored. Is terror just about foreign looking types blowing themselves up and taking others, perhaps us, with them? Or is terror also something that could fall from the sky, directed by remote control, with the best – if still often flawed – technology in the world. Is terror something only worth reporting at any length when it happens to people who happen to look like us?

Here are some old figures to help. Because of the difficulty and vagueness of record keeping, it is difficult to find accurate figures for (especially civilian) death tolls for Afghanistan and Iraq, due to Western-involved hostilities in these countries since 2001. Estimates as of a few years ago for Afghanistan have been of over 31,000 civilian deaths due to war-related violence. Estimates as high as 360,000 additional fatalities have been made, based on a ratio of indirect to direct deaths in contemporary conflicts. Iraq War casualties had been estimated at 461,000 total deaths as of June 2011. I cannot see how the deaths of unarmed civilians, random or targeted, does not amount to terror. I cannot see how those who live beyond, and having witnessed, such events have not been terrorized.

Perspective! Saddam Hussein was undoubtedly a nasty and bloodthirsty tyrant; he was though very much less lethal to his people than we of the coalition of the willing have been.

And what about the terrorist threat at home?

Australians have died in numbers in overseas terror attacks (especially Bali – 92 deaths in 2002 and 2004), but since 1972 there have been 15 deaths in Australia from terrorist attacks (5 of those 15 deaths were of perpetrators). Since 9/11 there have been 5 deaths of Australian (non-perpetrators) on Australian soil due to terror attacks.

Have we got things in perspective here? Think of the road toll since that time. Think of deaths from cigarettes, deaths from sugary drinks. Think of the 373 deaths by suicide of former Australian military personnel between 2002 and 2016. For 2014–2016, ex-serving men aged under 30 had a suicide rate 2.2 times that of Australian men the same age. Think of black deaths in custody. Think of the number of Australian women who have died as result of violence from their partners so far this year.


Sarah St Vincent Welch reading at the launch of To End All Wars

The figure of the digger looms large for Australians in history’s mythic page. It suggests long continuities in the Australian story – from the Goldfields (conjuring the spirit of Eureka) to the trenches in France, and till today.

I want to focus on Gallipoli, not just because it was the original topos for this book, but because it has been made the time and the place most sacred to Australia’s sense of itself as a nation among nations. A time and a place of defeat for us. A moment and a place of terrible loss foretold. The making sacred of Gallipoli for Australians has been intensified and massively funded during and since the Howard years

What were we doing at Gallipoli?

We know now that Gallipoli was stupid and unfair in the way imperialism and racism and greed are wrong and stupid. It was the wrong place for Australians and New Zealanders to be; it was the wrong reason for them to be there. But having been there still makes us who we are. And that’s why we shouldn’t forget. Here’s the key point: a continuity masks a discontinuity. The reason we should continue to say lest we forget in the twenty first century is the opposite of the reason why this was the right thing for white British people in Australia to say eighty years ago. The sacrifice of Australians who lost their lives at Galipoli wasn’t noble or worthwhile. It was just idiotic. They were being used and used stupidly. It was the sacrifice of sub-imperial entities, ‘The Commonwealth of Australia’ and ‘The Dominion of New Zealand’, on behalf of the British Empire. These are some of the things we shouldn’t forget. It’s not immediately clear what role ‘national’ identity played in this sacrifice, but in memory of the senseless credulity of Australia and Australians, in memory of their mindless obedience to people who declared themselves their betters, we should never forget Galipoli, the Anzacs. The lesson the whole world should not forget in the case of the Great War, as in the case of many other conflicts, was neatly expressed by Noam Chomsky in his book 9-11: ‘We need not stride resolutely towards catastrophe, merely because those are the marching orders’.


I am, you are, we are …

The memory of Gallipoli has been the perfect counterbalance to the forgetting of the great (and shameful) British victory that Australia has been since the invasion began in 1788. The memory of Gallipoli has been the perfect counterbalance to the forgetting of Aboriginal Australia which white Australia needed to do in order to justify itself. One war far away in which we were the victims, the heroes, the martyrs. One war over there to forgive and forget the unmentionable war which gave us our land and made us who we are and can be.

The unleashing of Australian fury at the Turk on Turkish soil involved multiple displacements in the emerging psyche of Australian and New Zealand, these British nations-coming-into-being. Well into the centenary of this tragic rhetorical train it is still our losses we mourn. Australian guilt for the fate of the nearly 100,000 Turks who died in the Galipoli campaign has never been seriously entertained. Today the Turks celebrate their victory at Canakkale as having enabled the consciousness of nation through which Ataturk would achieve the modern Turkish state. The paradox for them is that the successful defense of the Ottoman Empire enabled what is still today called an Independence War.

White Australians on an individual basis don’t think of themselves as having dispossessed anyone. If no one is responsible for dispossessing Aboriginal people, then what was it supplanted Aboriginal rights in Australia? Note the anachronism – for the purposes of the question – of all of the abstractions involved: Australia, Aborigines, rights, possession, prior ownership. These are all western names for things with a western history. Ideas. These are all British triumphs – of understanding and of classification. They put the place in the box

After Galipoli, any ethical problem, which might have been associated with Australians having been there, faded naturally into the distance. How much guilt can one attach to martyrdom? Along with actual distance, the Treaties had consigned everything of the Great War and before to another world ‘over there’ & ‘back then’. But by then Galipoli had already served the function of displacing from popular consciousness the ethical problems associated with Australians being here and now in Australia.


Sailing back to Byzantium for a bit. Me and Les on the Bosphorus! By the time it became clear that we would not have enough Turkish participation (despite the great numbers of brilliant Turkish poets) we already had a lot of interest from Australian poets who wanted to be part of the project. So this is how our Plan B came to be; the concept now simply being to have Australian and New Zealand poets reflect on the centenary of the Armistice ending the First World War.

On the back of the book, we posit a ‘barely veiled triumphalism’ in the countries that were victorious. Having already been taken to task for this, I think it’s appropriate now to answer the question – just what does that mean? ‘A barely veiled triumphalism’. And aren’t we mean to be raining on this parade on behalf of all those who – like Jesus on the cross – died for us? Do we mock their suffering and sacrifice if we ask a few questions about it; for instance if we ask – was it worthwhile? And was it really actually for us?

In fact I believe we honour the fallen when we make the effort to understand the meaning of their sacrifice, to understand the meaning of what happened to them. We honour the fallen when we try to understand, rather than making rote gestures of devotion, before the altar of nation or of empire. We honour the victims of rote gesture in this way by asking always ‘why’ (?).

Lest we forget? Absolutely. But for a certain kind of worshipper at the shrine of nation, that ‘lest we forget’ is a lightly coded message – really it means ‘lest we regret’. Patriotism is, as Oscar Wilde told us, the last refuge of the scoundrel, and chauvinists fear the weakness that comes of having their unreasoned faith examined. There is a need to examine the life of the nation. There is need to challenge, and more than ever at this particular moment, those people who believe that all the becoming nation did in the way of war on the way to getting us here was right and good and proper. Much of it was and much of it wasn’t, and we grow as a people when we make the effort to discuss which was which. We grow through that kind of conversation


Linda Adair reading at the launch of To End All Wars

The Australian War Memorial cannot be claimed to be a celebration or a glorification or a justification for war, but it is a place of worship for nation. It makes war sacred and makes it an unchallengeable fact of our past and who we are. It is a demand for respect for the fallen – whom it is true age does not weary. Although the years may well, in some cases, condemn what they have done in our name, in the names of those they could never know.

The War Memorial should be a place for reflection, for putting things in perspective. But perspective is precisely what we have lost in Australia when it comes to thinking about war, about our wars.

The revival and the extraordinary amplification of the Gallipoli myth – what I would call the Gallipolisation of Australian self-recognition – is largely down to John Howard, and to those on both sides of parliament who have slavishly followed him into those trenches where we glory in our goodness and forget the harm we’ve done.

I’d like to refer you to Ben Brooker’s excellent recent article, in Overland, about recent Australian spending on war commemorations. Just a snippet – $700 million on the ANZAC centenary commemoration spend– around 3 ½ times more than is being spent by every other country that took part in the War combined. Then there’s the fact that the Australian government is spending $1.1 billion on war memorials between 2014 and 2028. Consider the other things on which this money might be spent.

Not a penny of that commemorative money in this book though. We found the last shilling ourselves!


When we think so much about the Invictus Games we are not thinking about why these young men and women, now needing repair, were sent to war in the first place. There can be no doubt that the Invictus Games is a good thing for them. But is the spectacle of the Invictus Games a good thing for us? For our collective conscience?

What the anthem quality of national sentiment (I am, you are…) , what the war on terror, what the Invictus Games and the Australian War Memorial all have in common is that they promote a mythology of who we are and how good we are, at the expense of an understanding of and an acknowledgement of some questions that are very simple, very fundamental – for instance – how it is we are here; for instance – who is responsible for the crimes against humanity – crimes of undeclared war – by means of which we are here.

For better and for worse Australia has been becoming a white man’s country for several hundred years; becoming other things as well of course; becoming better in many many ways.

Yes it’s good we Australians defeated fascism and didn’t become a Japanese colony, and this victory could not have been achieved without our armed forces and without the loss of Australian lives. And we should rightly mourn such loss and celebrate such a victory. The way the world is looking today, we should gird up the loins for possible further struggles to come – further struggles for democracy and against fascism.

This polemic is not about singling Australia out as bad country, not at all. I firmly believe that, despite the current leadership and its lack of moral fibre, we’re one of the best nations, but I wonder if nations are such a good idea.

Does poetry – do the arts – need to be in the service of nations?

I think a book like this – full of diverse forms of witnessing and reflection – is about how we can be better, how we can find better ways to be in the world. Poetry is a means of world bettering.

Today, nation is the world’s deadliest abstraction. It is military force that makes nations deadly.

Christopher ‘Poodle’ Pine wants Australia to be one of the world’s ten top weapons exporting nations. Is that a good aspiration for him to have on our behalf ?

Is it sacrilege to ask such a question when we are remembering our war dead? Might we be glorifying in war at times without meaning to do so? Blood sacrifice… baptism of fire – these were – these are – words gloried in. Are empires good to die for, good to kill for? Do we need to have nations? Would the world be better off, be safer, if there were no nations or empires?

I think it’s very pertinent today to ask these questions that were on so many lips one hundred years ago when that Armistice was signed.


Bringing this book together has been a truly collective effort. In this book are many of the usual suspects of Australian poetry along with many unexpected voices. I’ve decided for this speech to mention none of them in particular, for fear of favouring any over others. Their words are here for you, and though dipping in and out is the more conventional method, I recommend you read the collection cover to cover if you can find the time to do that.

This is less an anthology of anti-war poems per se than we the editors might, from the outset, have imagined. It is more a collection of witnessings, mainly civilian witnessings, of events and impacts of war. This war and the next one and the ones that have followed since – these wars have shaped so much of who-we-all-are gathered in this room today.

So thanks to DFAT and the government of Tony Abbott for motivating a bunch of peacenik poets to get off their spotty behinds and encourage some serious thinking about what 11/11/1918 has meant for Australians and for New Zealanders.

Les and I were joined by Anna Couani and Dael Allison, which among other things, made us a gender-equitable team for the task. Anna has provided the wonderful etching for our cover. Dael and Les have been our logistical powerhouse in getting this job done. I thank them all. An honour and a privilege to work with them on this book.

It’s been a very interesting editorial collaboration – largely conducted at a distance, by e-mail …

I think each of the four of us combined very different but compatible skills. There were repeated moments each of us felt groaningly overwhelmed by this project, and someone always – one of we four – stepped into whatever breach there was to fill.

The project had its own momentum and found its publisher and here we are today.

Conscience with its own rudder! That’s what poetry can be! And it’s what I hope you can all grab hold of somewhere between these covers.

 – Kit Kelen

Volumes of Kit Kelen’s poetry have been published in Chinese, Portuguese, French, Italian, Spanish, Swedish, Indonesian and Filipino. His most recent English-language collection, Poor Man’s Coat – Hardanger Poems was published by University of Western Australia Press in 2018. Kit Kelen is Emeritus Professor of English at the University of Macau, where he taught Literature and Creative Writing for many years.

To End All Wars is available from https://puncherandwattmann.com/books/book/to-end-all-wars

Featured Writers from To End All Wars






























Christopher (Kit) Kelen,

Emeritus Professor of English

(University of Macau)

Conjoint Professor in the School of Humanities & Social Science

(University of Newcastle)

Series Editor, Flying Islands Pocket Poets




Volumes of Kit Kelen’s poetry have been published in Chinese, Portuguese, French, Italian, Spanish, Swedish, Indonesian and Filipino. His most recent English-language collection, Poor Man’s Coat – Hardanger Poems was published by University of Western Australia Press in 2018. Kit Kelen is Emeritus Professor of English at the University of Macau, where he taught Literature and Creative Writing for many years.



Unfolding Complexity: Mark Roberts considers Anna Couani’s ‘thinking process’

This is a slightly edited version of Mark Roberts’ introduction to thinking process by Anna Couani, Owl Publications, 2017

Anna has been a friend and a mentor for more years than I care to remember. As a young poet in the late 1970s I had discovered New Poetry magazine and the Poets Union readings at the Royal Standard Hotel in Sydney. I began to meet poets and I read as widely as could among the small literary magazines and presses of the time. Then, I think it was in 1979, I came across Italy by Anna Couani (Rigmarole of the Hours 1977).

There are a number of things that I can remember from the first time that I read that book, the wonderful cover, which consisted of a simple line drawing of a kitchen with a pot on a hot plate and a bottle of salt off to the left and the opening lines of ‘Untitled’, the first prose piece in the book:

As I write down the sentences, mentally compose them and then read them off, they begin to break off like huge chunks of glacial ice, the row of type – the glacier’s cliff face at the water.”

There was  also, later in Italy, a drawing of a doorway, with most of a cane chair, a mirror leaning up against the wall reflecting another chair and a window and a piece of paper pinned to the wall with the word ‘Poetry’ written on it. This picture, for me, encapsulates Anna’s work, both literary and visual. It is, on first glance, a simple line drawing of a room. But as it draws you in the complexity begins to unfold. There is the hidden window reflected in the mirror, is it a glimpse through the doorway? There is the intricate detail of the cane chair and the piece of paper/poetry hanging on the wall.

It is interesting to realise that the connection between the visual and the literary has always been at the centre of Anna’s work. Early in her latest collection, thinking process, Anna asks:

is it ekphrasis
if the poet also made the picture?

She doesn’t directly answer this question but we know after reading the poems in this collection that the answer is a resounding ‘yes’. For Anna the “thinking process’ revolves around making art, whether it it is the writing of the poems, the making of the visual art that the poems describe , or the process of making space for the world of art and imagination. In the opening poem, ‘the idea of worlds’ she refers to her “world of work” as a school teacher:

the poignancy that
no one can understand
how it feels

the sense of restriction

but there is the other world “the virtual world already there / in the peripheral vision”. This other world is already an art work

a shimmering white border
enclosing a blue and green world

Anna’s background as a teacher runs through many of these poems. In a sequence of poems about making a print of an iris flower Anna refers to being a student learning a new printmaking technique. There is also a playfulness to many of these poems. The playfulness of an image that ends up being something completely different to what was intended, or the playfulness of words in a poem such as ‘2C’ which discusses how we are taught to ‘see’ an image. The ‘2C’ of the title is echoed in the poem when Anna writes that:

so that could mean
a scene in 2D

thinking process is an important book full of finely crafted poems by a writer and artist who has played a critical, if under appreciated, role in the Sydney and wider Australian cultural scene for many decades. There is a final image from poem ‘200’ which, for me, encapsulates the success of this collection:

but texture and colour can sing
like the traditional finger painted end papers
of old books
something beautiful to see and touch.

 – Mark Roberts


Mark Roberts is one of the founding editors of Rochford Street Review. His latest collection of poetry, Concrete Flamingos, was published by Island Press in 2016.

thinking process is available from http://www.owlpublishing.com.au/chapbook-series.html

Ideas for Novels 5 – Anna Couani

Introduction/Bio……….Ideas for Novels 1……….Ideas for Novels 2………

Ideas for Novels 3…….Ideas for Novels 4….….Background to Ideas for Novels 


autumn and winter shadows
long ones
emphasise the horizontal
although they often look diagonal
create rhomboid shapes across open spaces

tall trees create space
traditionally cathedral-like
or is it that cathedrals are tree-like
gothic, with
branches that arch across

did we tread so lightly
that we were invisible

and in the late afternoon
when the city noises
quieten down
sounds describe
the space
children’s voices

a few hundred square metres

so much begun
so little finished

set in a provincial town
to be described

by wide streets

pedestrian events
literally at street
even big events

reduced, distanced
by the all-seeing writer
male persona
who rips the heart out
of the story

-Anna Couani

Illustraion from Italy by Anna Couani

illustration from Italy by Anna Couani. Rigmarole of the Hours 1977.


Anna Couani was the feature writer for Issue 14. This is the final post in a series of five poems – Ideas for Novels.



Life lived outside the enclosure: Virginia Shepherd reviews ‘Small Wonders’ by Anna Couani

Small Wonders by Anna Couani 2011, Flying Islands Books, ASM Books & Cerebus Press.

small wonders101Some time ago I was staring through a microscope at a sample of seawater from the Great Barrier Reef. Affixed to the slide, long thin active strands of streaming protoplasm explored this barren and flattened landscape, groping for detritus, microscopic signposts. This new landscape is foreign, less than a millimeter deep and blasted from beneath by a white light as hot as a drowned sun. Tracking the strands, I found their origin, an individual amoeba reaching out from inside an elaborately sculpted shell, hundreds of body-lengths away from the tips of these exploratory strands, called poetically pseudopodia or ‘false feet’. The maligned outsider scientist Sheldrake argues that ‘the sense of being stared at’ is real, and the extended mind behaves like pseudopodia. Not only does light enter our eyes or other senses, but the mind reaches out through them, touching that which is distant, drawing together those objects, people, landscapes, even memories it has explored, generating a vast synthesis, a view of the world that centers on a unique space-time address and connects web-like to all it has touched.

The poems in this book are like that. From the centre of a web of extended mind the poems reach out, like protoplasmic strands, across time and space, touching simultaneously the near and the far, Kochi in India, the arms stretched towards Turkey, between lovers-to-be who stare out at the same eye level from different Sydney buildings, protoplasmic strands delicately touching the past, the personal, familial, political, macroscopic or microscopic, probing the relationship between surfaces, the interior, the exterior, the individual and the collective, between whole cities and the minutia of urban landscapes, extending between cultures, lovers, philosophies, art movements.

…she runs through the suburb
in her mind
scanning over the hills
like on Google maps, satellite view

lived there, lived there, lived there
each address like a portal
opening onto those memories
grouped like episodes
the flat with a studio
the flat with dark blue walls
where she taught herself all those
art techniques
way back
the feminist house
women with shaved heads in the big backyard…

– ‘small wonders’

Anna Couani writes like no-one else. The poems together form a micro-novel in a pocket format, an organismic structure that can be understood at the level of an individual poem, yet at another level achieves its own coherence, as an organism contains its cells, tissues and organs, and is more than the sum of those parts, themselves wholes. Understood, as our memories constantly reform the networks, the non-linear narratives of our lives. Anna Couani’s intensely observational writing, her microscope or telescope eye, gives us the perspective of life as it is lived daily outside the enclosure, outside that morass of mass culture and homogenised values, beyond the gated elites of white-anglo Australiana and gendered clubism. When the future seeks to know what it was like to be outside the mainstream, an artist, writer, teacher, feminist, left wing, or perhaps unclassifiable, what were the details of daily life, upon what did the inner eye reflect through the seventies and into the present, Anna Couani’s writing will take us there. As academic Anne Brewster wrote; “Her experimental fiction, I argue, in its efforts to defamiliarise reading conventions, articulates a crisis of belonging. In its radical poetics of the gendered everyday it seeks to locate the body in the alternative communities which characterise minority constituencies” (Anne Brewster. ‘The radical poetics of the gendered urban quotidian: reading Anna Couani’s literary experimentalism of the 1970s and 1980s’. In: Mycak, Sonia, and Amit Sarwal, eds. Australian Made: A Multicultural Reader. Sydney: Sydney University Press, 2010. p46).

Anna Couani’s early and later collections attract critical respect, growing still more interesting and relevant, aging well, provoking reflection on what changes, and what stays the same, partly because the writing is in a sense more real than conventional realism purports to be. Academics such as Anne Brewster posit that through ignoring conventional methods of realist poetry or fiction, speaking as an emissary from the outside, Anna Couani’s writing exposes the heap of artifice, the underlying unreality of realist conventions, and the means by which this ‘realism’ can serve as propaganda. This is why, according to Anne Brewster, Anna Couani’s early work Italy and The Train’ initially attracted mainly negative (even outraged) reviews, and why these later gave way to more appreciative evaluations. As Anne Brewster comments, “Writing which interrupts the conventions of realist prose fiction exposes how the truth effects of this fiction work” (p49). It is also more real. In The Harbour Breathes, 24 years ago, Anna Couani wrote

“…This is the tail-end of the previous dissident movement, using its power to suppress the current dissension, while the forces on the Right are massing, more powerful now than in feudal times and much more adaptable. And what are we going to do about it. How can we see our way clear through this pea-soup kind of thinking. And what is this pap they call excellence. We don’t have to buy it…”

– (from ‘The Pillar of Rooms’, in ‘The Harbour Breathes’, 1989)

– and now, in small wonders,

…beetling along the highway
rewriting history
it’s business as usual
multiculturalism, vanished
there’s a new order
but it’s not what they think
not like The New World Order
new people are out there
driving hard
people with something to say …

– from ‘driving’

Small wonders is the sixth of Anna Couani’s experimental prose and poetry works. She is well known as a writer who is not a member of literary clubs, eschewing conventional forms and the self-congratulatory camaraderie of insiders. Neurobiologist V. S Ramachandran commented in his recent book The Tell-Tale Brain “Homogeneity breeds weakness: theoretical blind spots, stale paradigms, an echo-chamber mentality, and cults of personality (p.xix)”. It is against such homogeneity, monocultural, gendered, and conformist, that Anna Couani’s writing is an effective antidote. If by kitsch we mean the enforced conformity of a homogenised establishment, the sentimental celebration of its icons, rituals, conventions, the denial and active cover-up of its negative and depressing realities, then Anna Couani’s writing is anti-kitsch.

The percipient observer here does not lay claim to unreal kitsch outsider-heroism but wakes at 4 am

…a huge dark space
breathing with ideas…

– from ‘awake’

mulling over work, can’t sleep, ends up marking student work

…Dear Diary
This home does not belong to me…

– from ‘awake’

cycles on the way to work past the new development

…what do you think about the new development?
seems okay, really, I quite like it.
it’s going to mean a lot of noise and chaos
whilst it’s being built. yeah.
bad for the people who have to move out.

– from ‘bicycle’

and did her grandmother have a lover, how did she negotiate it if women weren’t allowed out- the revision of this herstory,

…this is the animated closure
like in the titles of documentaries
where they show giant wheels
representing history
that rolls over the top of us
like a roller-coaster
inside out…

– from ‘walking alone’

From Kochi, the roughness of the roads shows up the silkiness of our roads, our lives, and yes, things do change:

lots of culture talks
things are so different now
talking about culture and indigeneity
kids with separated parents
that’s familiar
along the M5…

– from ‘driving’

Anna Couani has been exploring concepts of the sublime, not so much the idea of beauty in nature as it is sought by tourists, where the sun breaks through clouds over a mountain in an intimation of the divine, but those moments of incomprehension or shock that jolt, disturb or discombobulate us, when something darker emerges, something we might call the negative sublime.

“…..the sublime thing
I could have gone that way
with feminist representations
some did
that’s where I was wanting to go
drawing female figures falling into chasms
so much like classic Romantic images
it was men who dissuaded me……”

– from ‘sky’

Yet the poems do precisely this, in their disavowal of kitsch concepts of beauty, the sublime splits apart to reveal its innards. In the poem ‘translation’, dedicated to Sou Vai Keng, light and dark juxtaposed produce a chiaroscuro of childhood images, freedom and safety versus the nightmare. The schoolgirl, in navy blue and white dress, with straw hat, ‘independent and brave’, walks over the black and white tiles, through ‘pre-casino Macau’, traversing a beautiful cityscape, but then a dark tail arises to slash in the night, demonic and impersonal, a grinning visage, fiasco without humour, planting its hooks. Colour, art, is the only escape.

The subtle poem ‘sky’ is complex with musical shifts between poetic reflection and prose and it should be read aloud. The water-washed beginning appears to make overtures to Romantic art

…How we loved Caspar David Friedrich in the early 70s! Before we were ravaged by Conceptual Art that is…

and sets up the mood and expectation of the sublime:

…Sublime, the depth
of the harbour
a mirror of the mountains
valleys that continue
but now, into murky depths…

but then the façade is peeled back like an adhesive plaster.

……Is childhood magical? What is the temperature of the sublime?..

And there is little Heidi, from the 19th century novel, with her gingham swag holding the soft bread rolls, “Heidi, so lucky to be an orphan”. As in the poem ‘translation’, this eruption of the negative sublime

…brings up
my own past
sometime freedom and safety
but then this thing
……………with a black tail
……………suddenly swings around

hovers over the baby’s cot
soothing with silky words
then turns into something else…

– from ‘translation

As for art, and the art world bureaucrats,

that was the problem
between them and us

I met people who understood why you’d want to rail against the parochialism of your peers.

Australian art
it’s a joke
and in Australian minds
its all happening elsewhere
distance creates the sublime…

– from ‘sky’

This and other poems have the effect of water-colours, word-paintings with colour as a synaesthesia, a code for emotion, memory and connection. So many aquatic images, so many shades of blue, the local swimming pool which is Mediterranean blue, even though it’s caused by chlorine, the pale blue of the sky over the Blue Mountains, creating distance, sadness, the blue of that other harbour outpouring from the past, and then the effect of black calligraphy or lines drawn over the wash when the prose parts hook into you. Take this as an example of a word-painting (as the grandmother on the Greek island may have crept out by night, to meet a lover)

…the sunset from the hill
a really
……………..burning to purple
……………..the silent orb
the glistening
the emerald darkness
of the pine trees
chalky dusty limestone
smooth worn stones
silent in soft shoes…

– from ‘walking alone’

As an object the book has a great feel. Pocket-sized, its waxy cover photograph by Anna Couani is itself a poem that echoes the atmosphere of the poems within. The exterior of the writer’s home is part of the streetwise streetscape of Hilik Mirankar’s Queen St Gallery (Glebe). As with most houses in the street, the iron spines of the fence enclose a sculpture by Hilik Mirankar, this one of a figure with overarching raised arms, bursting Magritte-like through a door. The negative space of the figure forms a shadow, an apparition through which we glimpse a wall of Sydney sandstone, whilst in the foreground a shirt impaled on a fence is a remnant of Hilik Mirankar’s streetscape exhibition, where many such fluttering disembodied shirts hung from the iron spines that fence in terrace houses.

Within, the text is echoed by Debbie Sou Vai Keng’s evocative ink drawings, where trees like knives impale the clouds, a string of birds rise like sparks from some dark pool, reeds slash the face of the sun. Small wonders indeed. Sou Vai Keng is also the translator, into Chinese characters, of the poetry. Interesting visual structures emerge sculpturally from the complex ancient and newer logographs, and sometimes Greek, English, or computer-speak words leap out, as when the words Skype, Couani, Κουανης, and Skype again spring forward from the translation of ‘skype window’, creating meta-meaning that is both visual and poetic. Anna Couani met Sou Vai Keng when the latter translated some of her poetry for the anthology ‘Wombats of Bundanon’, produced by ASM Books. At Bundanon, the two discovered certain resonances between their lives as writers, artists and teachers, meeting again in Hong Kong and Macau. The poem ‘translation’ was written for Sou Vai Keng, as Anna Couani says, “…using her life partly and enmeshing it in my past as well. So the book is the result of a kind of dialogue between her and me, as well as connecting with Hilik Mirankar and his work in the street”. Small wonders is a fractal compression of connections.

It is true,

…new people are out there
driving hard
people with something to say
sculpture appeared in the street
slowing down drivers
speaking is occurring
people can speak
can’t actually be
it’s all digital
gone viral”

– from ‘driving’

and, in the end,

…maybe constraints help us to map the unknown…

–  from ‘sky’

– Virginia Shepherd

Some of Couani's earlier books: Were all women sex-mad, Rigmarole Books 1982, Italy & The Train Rigmarole Books 1985, The Harbour Breathes Masterthise/Sea Cruise Books 1989

Some of Couani’s earlier books: Were all women sex-mad, Rigmarole Books 1982, Italy & The Train Rigmarole Books 1985, The Harbour Breathes Masterthise/Sea Cruise Books 1989


For information on the availability of small wonders contact ASM at KitKelen@gmail.com.

A review by Mary Hawkins of  The Train (Sea Cruise Books)  1983 can be found in the first issue of P76 Magazine http://p76issue1.wordpress.com/2012/08/22/barbara-brooks-leaving-queensland-anna-couani-the-train-review-by-mary-hawkins/