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As we enter 2017 Rochford Street Review urgently needs your help. Over the past five years we have published over 550 reviews and articles on Australian books, visual arts, film and music and we have had over 132,000 page views. Although we receive no government or other institutional support we attempt to offer all our reviewers at least a token payment.

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Rochford Street Review would also like to thank the following people and organisations who have supported us over the last twelve months:

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Teasing Threads – Sundry Film and Literary Criticism: Jim Jarmusch’s ‘Only Lovers Left Alive’

Chris Palazzolo is so charmed by Only Lovers Left Alive (directed by Jim Jarmusch, 2013) he’s written a little blurb for it.

 In the second decade of the 21st century, what city would you choose to live in if you were a vampire? Jim Jarmusch has the answer in Only Lovers Left Alive. Tangier and Detroit. Husband and wife vampires, Adam and Eve (Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton) are at the stage of their marriage (1000 years, give or take a century or two) where they don’t need to be together all the time, but can go and pursue their own interests at opposite ends of the earth fully trusting each other’s love and loyalty. Each has their favourite city which they choose to live in. Eve lives in Tangier, city of refuge on the southern Mediterranean for 2500 years, and in modern times, port of call and meeting place for generations of European, Middle Eastern, and American artists, intellectuals, poets and spies. There she lives the  life of an aristocratic ex-pat, collecting curios and hanging out with other vampire ex-pats like Elizabethan playwright and spy Christopher Marlowe (reports of his murder in 1593 were greatly exaggerated). Adam lives in the post-industrial ghost city of Detroit, home of the US car industry and Motown records. There, in a Rockefeller era three story house in a neighbourhood of abandoned houses, he is left alone to compose grunge dirges for independent record labels. He is effortlessly the best of his peers in that scene, because, of course he has no peers; he’s been composing funeral music since the 16th century (he even collaborated with Schubert) and the fuzzy guitars and industrial percussion of grunge music just happens to be to his taste.

Life for these vampires is fun. They are old enough to have learnt how to do everything perfectly and to know exactly what they want to do. They are not troubled by the doubts that afflict the mortal. The only necessity in their lives is a regular supply of quality blood, which has to be sourced from medical outlets because, in the 21st century killing people is just too much trouble. Should that supply be interrupted though, well, what choice do they have? In the meantime life is forever leisure, doing what you want to do, staying up all night, and sleeping all day. Naturally they become the philosophers, leaders of taste for mortals (zombies as they call humans) sensitive and patient enough to listen because they never shout. Best of all they can live wherever they want to, wherever they think real beauty and style survives. And beauty and style must always have a bit of suffering and neglect in it.

Jim Jarmusch is the poet of the regional city. Throughout his career his cool/dorky characters have struck their hip postures in once legendary small American cities, increasingly overshadowed by the relentless New York focus of US popular culture; cities like Memphis, Pittsburgh, New Orleans, St Louis and Detroit. His vampires are paragons of good taste. They would never be so vulgar as to settle in Los Angeles or New York, self-promoting, celebrity obsessed theme parks of mediated urbanity. Real beauty, real style, is quietly industrious; it doesn’t care whether you notice it or not, because it knows it’s the best and doesn’t have to loudly assert itself. This is the wisdom of the undead. They have long long pasts, but they are the future too.

– Chris Palazzolo

Alert to Erasure, Exclusion, and Appropriation: Tina Giannoukos launches ‘The Herring Lass’ by Michelle Cahill

The Herring Lass, Michelle Cahill, ARC Publications (2016), was launched by Tina Giannoukos at Collected Works Bookshop, Melbourne, on Friday 10 February 2017.

Tina Giannoukos (left) with Michelle Cahill at the launch opf The Herring Lass at Collected Works Bookshop. Photo Richard Mudford

Tina Giannoukos (left) with Michelle Cahill at the launch of The Herring Lass at Collected Works Bookshop. Photo Richard Mudford

It’s a great honour to launch Michelle Cahill’s new poetry collection, The Herring Lass. Firstly, I’d like to thank Michelle for this honour. Secondly, launching this collection gives me the opportunity to speak of Michelle’s superb craftsmanship. With the publication of this collection, Michelle affirms her position as a consummate poet of extraordinary range and skill. She’s not only an acclaimed poet. She’s also an acclaimed fiction writer, essayist, and editor of the online Mascara Literary Review.

The Herring Lass burrows into history and ranges over the present. It is in some respects the apotheosis, or summit, of themes she has explored with tremendous insight in previous poetry collections. However, in The Herring Lass, her third full collection, she does so with renewed depth, skill, and complexity. The collection runs to 48 formal poems, including sonnets, which command our attention. Their tone is formal, elegant, and elegiac They can begin ekphrastically before turning inward, lending them both a public and a private quality. Throughout, Michelle’s lyric is confronting, as individual poems traffic in complex ideas. In this respect, the poems are exacting, intellectual, and unsettling. Her language is strong, uncompromising, and utterly beguiling. The collection is as much a major contribution to poetries concerned with the complex legacies of historical injustices and contemporary wrongs as it is to poetries concerned with beauty.

On her blog, Negative Capability, Michelle calls The Herring Lass “a collection themed on human and non-human animal migrations”. However, it’s the way these migrations are handled that renders The Herring Lass rich in its poetics and themes. We can take the image of the suggestively peripatetic and rather muscular figure on the cover, which is a beautiful image, a reproduction of an 1894 painting by the American painter, Homer Winslow, as a metaphor for Michelle’s circumnavigations in The Herring Lass. The collection’s title is also the title of the opening poem, “The Herring Lass”, an emblematic poem about the herring women who traipsed “from port to port”, chasing the herring, but hardly prospering. Throughout Michelle takes on various animal and human identities, awakening us to our shared destinies of suffering and loss. However, she also reminds us elliptically, elegantly, unwaveringly of imperialism’s injustices, gesturing in the final stanza of “The Herring Lass” to other migrations, other inequalities:

She stands by a trough in the dark, guttering cold.
Black hulls heel under press of lugsails, foremasts low.
They drift with shoals of migrant herring the sea returns.

Through the metaphor of the sea, Michelle repeatedly draws subtle links between geographic co-ordinates. In “Harbour”, she offers these lines of reflection:

He is not the sea’s signature, its memory of human
coal, its middle passage of linen, tobacco, gold.
When beckoned, he leaves the harbour quietly.

The traveller enters the bank to haunt the empty
creels, his seaweed hair. She hears a pipe rinsing
flagstones, Zambia’s swamps — all the drowned past. 

T. S. Eliot has said that “no art is more stubbornly national than poetry” (Eliot, T.S. “The Social Function of Poetry.” On Poetry and Poets. Faber. London: 1957), but when a language with an imperialist past is also a lingua franca, we witness how a poet of Michelle’s skill can use it to great effect to critique injustice across time and space. Crossing intellectual, historical, and geographical space, as well as inner and outer geographies of self, The Herring Lass achieves that most extraordinary thing in a poetry that is as richly metaphorical and as well wrought as this, the attention to the ethical. Michelle sifts through the detritus of history and the debris of the present to interrogate injustice—animals hunted to extinction or near extinction, refugees abandoned to their fate, men or women seeking redemption. All this is in a beautifully wrought language that never overwhelms but underscores her themes. Listen to these lines from the first sonnet in “The Grieving Sonnets” sequence:

Autumn winds come biting over tribal meridians,
raking syllables of country, of forty thousand years
barred by intrusions. On the rabbit-quarried dunes
blood money is history’s hole, the lake is dredged.
Here in this gap, I flick a cigarette in the bone quiet.
If there’s memory in my veins the ants carve it over
my body, edgy for a fix, or a verse the wind runnels.

Her contemporary lyric, in which rapture and grief collide, is emblematic of a poetic consciousness alert to erasure, exclusion, and appropriation. If it is imperialism’s slave trade in “Harbour” then it is the plight of refugees in “Interlude”. In the latter poem, Michelle articulates a powerlessness in the face of the contemporary movements of people within the context of a series of escalating griefs:

Or I could mention the Rohingya Burmese father of four
…………………………..closing the door, in haste, unlocking
suitcases to scribble down the UNHCR-ID on the back
…………………………..of some food coupon, the sound of a hose
filling buckets of water for the day’s quota; his exquisite wife.

Above all, The Herring Lass is a superbly realised paean to the power of language to bring forth truth. In “The Edge of Empire”, we are confronted with the absurdity of walls: “But nothing could drive out the Barbarians”. Michelle deploys the world’s argot of pain, its vernaculars of interrogation, to meet head-on our collective traumas and complacencies. As one of her personas—or is it heteronyms?—says in Youth, by Josephine Jayshree Conrady”:

I spoke the argot of the navy: rosin, whale-oil,
cordage, hemp, windlass, hooks.
……………………………I caught the accents
of shore boat smugglers, spice traders,
I smelt the paraffin smoke of burning coal,
the bursting aromas of strange fruit, peppers,
the almond breath of slaves as we paddled
from our clipper to the shores of Mauritius.

Through her magnificent short story collection, Letter to Pessoa, Michelle’s interest in the early twentieth century Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa is now well established. Pessoa was famous for his assumptions of other identities, which he called heteronyms. As George Steiner has argued, “Pseudonym writing is not rare in literature or philosophy” (Steiner, George. “A Man of Many Parts”. Review. The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa. The Guardian. June 2, 2001), but Pessoa’s heteronyms are “something different and exceedingly strange”, inventing for each of his voices “a highly distinctive poetic idiom and technique, a complex biography …” and even “subtle interrelations and reciprocities of awareness”. In The Herring Lass, Michelle’s personas, human and animal, are so beautifully realized that they possess the affecting power of the heteronym, suppling a biography from the content of the poems themselves, if not history. In “Day of a Seal, 1820”, Michelle handles its subject matter eloquently, elegiacally, subtly sketching in the power dynamics of colonial-era seal killing. She does so in the fabulously realised voice of an animal Other, a seal:

A tall ship patrols the coast,
…………………………….the pelagic fish skirr.
I sniff the kelp and the bloodworms,
……………………………..mould into an eroded kerb
with a twist of neck, whisking as if
……………………..           ………hiding my fur is natural
……………………..           ………instinct for milk or man.

The chilling realisation of the voice of an animal Other not only in this poem but also in others is so well executed that Michelle moves us into the strange. However, her human persona poems also have their own affecting power. In Youth, by Josephine Jayshree Conrady”, of which I was just talking about before, the female speaker utters in sibylline tones: “Words scrabble. I piece them as a montage, / inlay after inlay.” Playfully heteronymic, Michelle’s articulation of injustice renders such persona poems powerful and resonant. In “Charles Dickens Weeps for his Last Childe”, a poem that quietly ironises colonial era’s notion of the antipodes as the ground of various European desires, her Dickens persona says:

Autumn with her rich unleaving of oak, elm and maple
measures my bleakness. For days the wind has refused to speak.

My youngest, Plorn, waits in the boarding house with his dog,
his armoury of rifles, revolvers, saddles and family portraits

which will decorate the saloon. But when the fiddler plays a shanty,
when the sails are unfurled, the anchor raised out of mud

that other world begins with its nautical discipline. So remote
from landfall or the idleness of London, strange things can happen.

While The Herring Lass deals in global disaffections, historical and contemporary, which at any rate embroil Australia, several poems specifically address the Australian context. The seal poem is one. Another is the whaling poem, “Twofold Bay, 1930”, where the speaker chillingly utters: “I can taste the words whiten / into thin milk of settler culture, bloodlines turnstiled.”. Yet another is the “Thylacine”. In the latter, the animal Other says, “Canine / feline / marsupial / carnivore — I confuzzled”, rendering the poem a metaphor for the puzzle of multiple cultural and linguistic identities. But the following utterance of the thylacine is suggestive of the violence that can be directed towards the Other, including the animal Other:

“ …………………………….All the deals and export licences
distempered me, a shy beast, affectionate by turns.
The palaeontologist knows economics cheated me,
a continent spread her legs to quarry the Tarkine frost.

Submerged beneath the musical tenor of her elegant, unswerving line, Michelle refocuses the lyrical as considered rather than ecstatic. Her lyric promotes an initially distancing effect, achieved through the utilisation often of the ekphrastic but turns elegiac, confronting. Her double-voiced lyric simultaneously enacts desire and grief. As she says in “How the Dusk Portions Time”:

So dusk emulsifies desire, or maybe it’s the reverse
— we are tenants of this periphrastic end. Office cubicles
half-lit, ladder the sky, turning their discretionary gaze
…………………….to what’s sketched by the carbon ink.

What ultimately makes The Herring Lass such a rewarding work is its multi-layering. The poems are a joy to read, to sound out. In the ekphrastic-like “Night Birds”, a flawlessly executed sonnet, like all the sonnets in the collection, including “The Grieving Sonnets” sequence, Michelle deploys emotion, difference, exile. Riffing on Mallarmé’s own poem about a white swan trapped in ice, she writes:

My body rivers over absent fields, where words rescue
or reduce me until I try to erase whiteness, her artefacts —
a snow-dusted angel of the lake, the symmetry of elms
undressing like brides in the night’s incomplete sentence.

This is a poet who loves language—an observation also made by Michael Sharkey reviewing her first collection, The Accidental Cage. There is no doubt that Michelle is the consummate poet, her metaphor making a structuring device through which she draws together disparate realities across time and space. Her dual attention to language, its beauties, and the archival, the legacies of imperialism, renders The Herring Lass a work of sophistication and commitment. This dual attention to language and politics makes the poems resonant and compelling. The attention to the rhythm of language and movement of thought unifies the collection at the level of form and content. A sharp intelligence, musically and linguistically, courses through the poems rendering them subtle, uncompromising, and beautiful. The concluding lines of “Windscape” remind us of the affecting power of her poems:

To be broken or to sing — which is our destiny? A bottle
jangles downhill, leaves scrape, watched by the psychic owl
as the wind’s curved reflexion pours into abstract fields.

In conclusion, The Herring Lass challenges the notion of discrete borders: historical, geographical, cultural, animal, human. It showcases Michelle’s lyric at its best. Through her poetic, the sensual music of her lines and the metaphorical richness of her poetry, she exposes all that is violent, imperialistic, and exclusionary. She conjoins ethics to poetry without didactism, remaining true to poetry’s provocations. She joins the global to the local. She is a world poet as much as a local one.

My heartfelt congratulations to Michelle on this wonderful collection. And I’m delighted to declare The Herring Lass launched.

 – Tina Giannoukos

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Tina Giannoukos has published two collections of poetry. Her most recent collection, Bull Days (ASP, 2016), was shortlisted in the Victorian Premiers Literary Awards 2017. She hold a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Melbourne.

The Herring Lass is available from https://www.arcpublications.co.uk/books/michelle-cahill-the-herring-lass-558 

Quoting the Art: Lisa Sharp reviews ‘Time After Time’ an exhibition by Ken Weathersby

Time After Time by Ken Weathersby at Minus Space, 16 Main Street, Suite A, Brooklyn, NY 11201 USA

This is a review of an exhibition I haven’t seen. Well I haven’t seen it in person – there is a bit of an art world adage that you have to stand before great paintings to absorb them fully. To inhale the whiff of paint, to behold the smear of a precise shade of colour, decipher some infinitesimal mark, a slavish detail of the surface, to read the insights into the mystique of making only told by close observation of a dripping or crafted edge.

Ken Weathersby: Time After Time at Minus Space, installation view (Image courtesy Minus Space)

Ken Weathersby: Time After Time at Minus Space, installation view
(Image courtesy Minus Space)

Well I’ve seen this exhibition of Ken Weathersby’s recent paintings through the glassy gaze of my computer screen. It’s been a portal to the show currently showing at Minus Space, a gallery in Brooklyn New York specializing in international reductive art. So, no whiff, nor revelatory oily brushstroke here. It’s a wondrous portal this rectangle of glass – a sometime window, sometime screen, through which I can view images of paintings hanging on New York walls. To those who would argue a loss of sentience in the perceptual experience, there is perhaps a corresponding heightened lucidity. The effect, while bereft of aroma and human interaction, reduces picture after picture to pictorial trope, or sign, in an experience that seems infinitely repeatable (bookmarkable). The exhibition and its works are instantly accessible, making for a democratic, flattened version of a gallery visit. Beyond medium-specificity, my virtual visit is post-media and post-gallery as I gaze through and at successive images on the flat, even, blue-lit screen.

This brings up another art world maxim, this one from the origins of modernist abstraction – and that is the measure of success in creating push and pull; that tension between surface and window on a planar surface. Intriguingly, this tense little action is enacted not only in the experience of viewing-by-screen but is also a feature of Weathersby’s work. Using the same mode of display and with a similar sense of detachment, Ken Weathersby takes images from art history books, crops and frames them through cut-out windows within his paintings. The images are of ancient sculptures – familiar to art students of Western European-derived art history – so already have an iconic quality as purveyors of noble truths – and this facilitates their interpretation as tropes or signs for ‘art’. Embedded neatly in rectangular format within the linen canvas we see a bent marble neck, a little figure bristling with fertility, a serpentine contrapposto, a tousled head of gilded curls – with all the heft and weight of the tradition of ancient sculpture. Yet their significance within the works are not as representations of things in the world, but of lineage, the passing of time, the narrative of art history and its influence now.

Ken Weathersby, 258, 2016, acrylic on linen over panel, over panelcollage, 38 x 36 inches. (Image courtesy Minus Space)

Ken Weathersby, 258, 2016, acrylic on linen over panel, over panelcollage, 38 x 36 inches. (Image courtesy Minus Space)

The placement of these collaged historical images within the picture plane, often slightly to one side, occasionally tilted, but always small, is almost deferential or humble as against the rest of the pictorial activity. Weathersby seems to use the images as vague references for his precisely drawn gridded and geometrical abstractions. These abstract patternings often pick up on a colour, aspect of form or muted palette from the image, then repeating and elaborating upon it, like a melodic variation acting as counterpoint to the image.

On the walls, the scale and format of the works seem to allude to the authority of the form of the Book, as rectangular, portable repository of knowledge. On closer inspection (zooming in) this effect is only accentuated by occasional fragments of text, Weathersby’s use of pencil lines and other visible notations of his hand. These recall the well-thumbed familiarity of a text book much in use as a reference.

Ken Weathersby, 260, 2016, acrylic and graphite on linen, Collage, 40 x 30 inches. (Image courtesy Minus Space)

Ken Weathersby, 260, 2016, acrylic and graphite on linen, Collage, 40 x 30 inches. (Image courtesy Minus Space)

An artist and reviewer, Sharon Butler (fortunate enough to visit the exhibition in person) observes that the yellowing and aged papers of the art history texts are apparent in the paintings. She notes that the effect is to convey a collapsing of three different eras; the time of the sculpture, the time of the art text and the time of Weathersby’s inclusion in his paintings. This is a really valuable insight, as many artists in their studios conduct these sorts of temporal dialogues in their heads, and Weathersby manages to so eloquently communicate that familiar referential (and reverential) process within these concise, elegant and self-contained pictures.

What is surprising, and refreshing, is the ease of juxtaposition of the figurative with the abstract. There is in the history of abstract painting as it pulled away from representation, a certain cool posture of detachment from the world. It is a posture that has resulted in art variously labelled as the non-objective, the concrete, the formalist, the minimal and the reductive. However, art history through the ages is simply intrinsic to art and artists today. So the posture is also human, reflected in the desire for solitude – whether as a reader, artist in the studio, time traveller or internet browser, and and there is much recognition, and warmth in that aspect of Ken Weathersby’s recent paintings.

 – Lisa Sharp


Lisa Sharp is a Malaysian-born Australian artist, writer and curator currently living and working in Sydney. Following an earlier career in the law, she recently attained a Bachelor of Fine Arts (with Honours in Painting) at the National Art School. Lisa likes to write and muse about art, art making and artists and her blog is at www.lisa-sharp.tumblr.com

February 2017

(All images courtesy of Minus Space)

Ken Weathersby: Time After Time is on exhibition at Minus Space January 7 – February 25  http://www.minusspace.com/2016/11/ken-weathersby-time-after-time/

MINUS SPACE 16 Main Street, Suite A, Brooklyn, NY 11201 http://www.minusspace.com

 

New Shoots Poetry Prize 2016 winner: ‘Fallen Myrtle Trunk’ by Stuart Cooke

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stuart-cooke-picStuart Cooke lives on the Gold Coast, where he lectures in creative writing and literary studies at Griffith University. He has published collections of poetry, criticism and translation. His latest book, Opera was published by Five Islands Press in 2016. Stuart Cooke is the winner of the 2016 Gwen Harwood Poetry Prize.

‘Fallen Myrtle Trunk’: Zalehah Turner interviews Stuart Cooke

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Teasing Threads – Some thoughts on a beautiful photograph

Chris Palazzolo examines a photo from the newspaper.

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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

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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 https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/449419

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

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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.  https://rochfordstreetreview.com/2016/02/02/welcome-perry-lam-rochford-street-review-associate-editor/

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 http://www.cff.org.au/.

A fascination with sound, individual words and language: Paul Scully talks about his latest book, ‘Suture Lines’

“To me, the best poetry engages the mind, the emotions and the senses, and words are what we have to work with, so I try to steep myself in them.”- Paul Scully

Suture Lines by Paul Scully (Guillotine Press, 2016).

suture-linesHow did your new collection, Suture Lines, come about?

Paul Scully: In many ways, Suture Lines (SL) grew out of my Master’s degree at Sydney University. Many of the poems first found life there. The time and the shaping and filtering that aims at a viable collection have also played a part, but I hope it has attained an independent existence.
Putting a collection together is a strange process. You bring the pieces together, assemble them into theme or relationship groupings, prune sections or omit poems that are below the standard of the rest or that don’t fit well with the bulk of the collection, read and reread, and try to be your own critic.
I had one established poet look at my first collection, An Existential Grammar (EG), and two poets look at SL, at different stages. For Suture Lines, feedback at the earlier stage focused me on pruning more aggressively with a view to making my voice more distinctive. At the later stage, it concentrated my attentions, on reorganising and reducing the number of sections and aiming at a punchier and more concentrated presentation. I really appreciate the time and effort all three poets spent on me.
Then there is trying to find a publisher if you are not a poet with a well-established publishing relationship, particularly if you go out seeking when the Government announces radical changes to arts sector funding. This seemed to mean that lists were being restricted until some funding surety was received, although that may have been a polite way of communicating lack of interest.
An Existential Grammar was published by Walleah Press, so was naturally my first port of call. Ralph Wessman there advised me that he wasn’t necessarily going to continue publishing and was restricting new work at that time. I’ve since read that he doesn’t often publish multiple works by the same author. I don’t know what Walleah’s current state of play is. So I had to look elsewhere.
Guillotine Press is quite a new publishing firm and I approached them at a time when they were looking for poetry in particular. Mark Rafidi has been very enthusiastic about my work and supportive. One of my friends has a volume coming out with him later this year and Mark wants to grow the enterprise.

How does Suture Lines differ from An Existential Grammar?

P.S.: There are more themed poem sequences (five versus one) and, at this stage of my writing, I think I have a greater fascination with sound, individual words and language per se. To me the best poetry engages the mind, the emotions and the senses, and words are what we have to work with, so I try to steep myself in them. Caitlin Maling’s blurb describes this as being “in thrall with language” and (very generously) in the nature of “birdsong”. To this extent Suture Lines is a somewhat more integrated read, I think.
On that score, David Musgrave made an interesting observation in his blurb that the collection deals with the “many forms and dimensions of love”. While I was certainly aware that love featured strongly in certain poems, I hadn’t intuited it as a more pervasive theme. I now think David is right and wonder how that came to be.
The title, Suture Lines, comes from a line in a poem, as did An Existential Grammar. To me, it speaks to what I hope is an unconscious wholeness emerging from the bits and pieces that make up the collection.

Can you describe some of the sequences?

P.S.: The ‘Librarians of Alexandria’ sequence in Suture Lines began with the ‘Cincinnatus’ sequence in An Existential Grammar. Cincinnatus was appointed dictator for the defence of Rome, then renounced the position when the job was done, though the detail is far more nuanced than that simple summary. I had enjoyed getting into the mind of an historical figure and creating a hopefully personal sub-text to the reported history. I had always been taken with the notion of storing all the wisdom of the world in a single place, one of the reported motivations for the Royal Library, and the sequence grew from there. The burning of the library on the order of a Coptic patriarch was an act of unspeakable barbarism. Maybe I’ll return to the library someday.
The ‘On a Wing and a Prayer’ sequence in Suture Lines came from my master’s dissertation. It is based on the Attar’s Conference of the Birds, a Persian classic. I hadn’t read the original in full (in translation obviously) at the very early stage. I don’t really know why I was attracted to it, other than I’d read Rumi and about Sufism, and was intrigued about a mystical form of Islam when we read so much about fundamentalism. I was also fascinated by the whirling dervishes of a particular Sufi sect in Turkey and am a sucker for birds.
The plan had been to write an Australian version. I found that Anne Fairbairn had already done so, albeit in a stripped-down form, so changed tack. I was mightily relieved at this after I realised the enormity of my original intention. I wanted to use classic forms as well as free verse, the original having been written in couplets of fixed syllabic length and rhyme points, and mirror somehow the allegories that Attar inserts into the narrative. I came across Tim Low’s Where Song Began in the process of working on the poems and its thesis that the first song birds came from Australia and PNG. It provided a rich source of material to draw from. This was important in the end since there are so many bird poems out there and I needed some element of differentiation.
The ‘Face Value’ sequence in Suture Lines was originally two sequences. The first drew from a magazine article and the second, from something that happened to my brother in London. The magazine article was about a couple, the male of whom suffered from face blindness, the inability to recognise facial features. Sufferers use other cues to navigate the world of relationships. The article described incidents from the man’s life and the woman’s challenges in dealing with a beloved who couldn’t recognise her in a conventional manner.
As for my brother, he is a priest in the East End of London. Someone stole the crucifix from the wall of his church. After a few days, the guy found the Twitter world ablaze with news of the theft, was overcome with guilt, and returned the crucifix. They were the starting points at least. I put the two sequences together as part of consolidating the manuscript under the notion that things are not always what they first seem.
All this sounds a bit manufactured. While there is some degree of planning, the process for me is organic, whatever that means, and I’d like to think that quality persists.

What distinguishes your poetry?

P.S.: Like many people I am often attracted to the side-track and alley-way, even when the ostensible topic is well-covered. In the ‘Librarians of Alexandria’, I found that one of the librarians was credited with developing the first cataloguing system. I eventually landed on him whining to his regular courtesan about how the scholars annoy him because they can’t remember where things are and she comes up with the idea to give them a kind of guide to that effect. For the hoopoe/ sheikh figure in my take on The Conference of the Birds, the role is split between a marbled frogmouth, not “its tawny cousin”, perhaps the more obvious choice, and the reclusive bristlebird. The underlying element of duality in Sufism is hopefully more powerful because of it. For the religious part of ‘Face Value’, a garage sale at a convent around the corner from where I live gave me a new angle.
I am especially pleased when a poem ends in an unexpected place (even to me). For instance, the catalogue poem which ends with the courtesan reflecting on her role, not the librarian’s and a poem about a visit to the Arctic which ends with a comment that the greatest gods pray for irrelevance.

An Existential Grammar acknowledges your father, Kenrick Scully (pseudonym John Dawes). What has been his influence on your writing?

P.S.: A parent obviously influences in all sorts of ways. For me as a writer, in the first place, that my father wrote. Our place was always overflowing with books. Secondly, that he wrote poetry, as well as novels, non-fiction, plays, children’s verse and journalism. His work is not well known these days but, in his day, he encouraged poets like Peter Skrzynecki. My brother, Kevin, has written a book that covers Dad’s career (and many other things). I don’t think I write anything like my father, though, and I have never consciously sought to do so, nor not to do so.

You have worked in finance. T. S Eliot also. Has that darkened your writing as it is reported to have done for him?

P.S.: If I could write like Eliot, I’d take light, dark, anything!
The short answer is no. I came at finance as a professional choice when I was young out of an interest in maths (via actuarial studies). I worked in it full time for some 25-30 years and still work part-time in it. It’s conventional to think of a sector in unitary terms, whereas there’s considerable diversity and people of all sorts of opinions and interests. Some of the biggest supporters of action on climate change, for example, are in insurance.
One thing it has done is deepen my interest in poetry (and literature generally) if anything, as another means of being a more rounded person.
You asked about my view on the cuts in arts from this perspective. I don’t think there was any financial motivation in the original decision. It was purely political.

-Paul Scully

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Paul Scully
is a Sydney-based poet and author of two collections, An Existential Grammar by published by Walleah Press in 2014 and Suture Lines by Guillotine Press in 2016. His work has appeared in print and online journals in Australia and the USA. He is a current Board member of Australian Poetry.

Purchase Suture Lines by Paul Scully from Guillotine Press

Word, Body, Voice: Sarah St Vincent Welch reviews Bare Witness Theatre Company’s ‘Paradise Lost’.

Paradise Lost by Bare Witness Theatre Company featuring Christopher Samuel Caroll. For performance details in Perth and Adelaide please scroll down.

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Christopher Samuel Carroll in Paradise Lost (Photo:Richard Lennon)

I approached Christopher Samuel Carroll’s performance of Paradise Lost at Belconnen Arts Centre in North Canberra with great curiosity, wondering how the epic poem of Satan’s fall and the temptation of Adam and Eve could be adapted to a one hour one-man show. Its emotion, physicality, imagery, and the intelligent interpretation of John Milton’s 17th century epic poem was electrifying. How would Carroll adapt the twelve ‘books’, I had asked myself, that take about a day and night to read out loud, to just one hour? The answer was with sensitivity and love and knowledge of the text, with body and voice and an eye and ear and heart for character, drama and complexity.

In that hour Carroll transformed from Satan, to narrator, to Angels, to Adam, Eve, Serpent and God, Sin and Death, to Chaos, and conjured the intimate theatre space of Belconnen Arts Centre into the vastness of Hell, Heaven and Paradise. He flew and fell and stalked, railed and argued, persuaded and seduced, and the audience was entranced. My jaw dropped on several occasions; it was as if I had encountered the ancient tale for the first time.

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Christopher Samuel Carroll in Paradise Lost (Photo:Richard Lennon)

Butoh (a Japanese form of dance), was a way into the poem for this adaptation; Carroll is stripped off, hairless, and painted white. Butoh developed after World War II, and is iconoclastic and counter to traditional Japanese and Western forms. Aptly for this adaptation it also has a preoccupation with death and spirits. It is often grotesque and often involves transmogrification (watch out for Satan’s perusal of the creatures in Paradise and how he enters the serpent – if you manage to get to the Perth or Adelaide season – it is incredible).  There is also beauty in the depiction of the innocent Adam and Eve in Paradise, even more poignant in contrast to their grief, and there is the grandeur and wrath of God. But Satan is our protagonist, in his fallen state, soon to also be the state of humankind, and his and our own pride, jealousy and revenge are rapturously explored in this great narrative.

It is tempting to dwell on the dynamic physical qualities of Paradise Lost, but Carroll’s voice equally brings the poem to life. Rich and persuasive, Milton’s narrative and imagery soar in this performance. Carroll is Irish and his early training as an actor was with classical texts at Samuel Beckett Centre, Trinity College Dublin, and this is evident in his powerful, sensual rendering of this poem.  Every word and phrase is relished; their sounds, rhythms, and meanings.

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Christopher Samuel Carroll in Paradise Lost (photo: Richard Lennon)

Carroll conceived of the idea of adapting Paradise Lost five years ago, and this idea (along with the text tucked in his bag) travelled with him to Japan where he did workshops with the Tokyo-based Butoh company, Dairakudakan. Carroll also trained at Ecole Internationale de Theatre Jacques Lecoq in Paris, which is renowned for its physical theatre and mime.

He has worked as an actor with companies all over Ireland, and writes his own original work for performance (most recently another one-man show ‘Early Grave, Fashionably Late’ was performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, then Wexford Spiegeltent Festival and last year at Smiths Alternative in Canberra). He is also the Artistic Director of Bare Witness Theatre. barewitnesstheatre.com

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Christopher Samuel Carroll in Paradise Lost (photo:Richard Lennon)

 

Paradise Lost finished its season at Belconnen Arts Centre on 28 January, and was the culmination of a five-week residency. It is touring in Australia to the Fringe World Festival in Perth (31 January – 4 February) playing at the Flamingo Locomotive Engine room, and then the Adelaide Fringe Festival (16-25 February) at Henrietta’s.

I returned for another performance in Belconnen to savour the details (pleased at the reasonable ticket price that enabled me to come back for more), and to observe Satan’s story again, to listen to his plight and our own. I lingered by Lake Ginninderra afterwards for a few moments, and watched the ripples on the water, felt the hot inland wind flicker over my skin, and the deep stillness and satisfaction of experiencing a great work.

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Christopher Samuel Carroll in Paradise Lost (photo:Richard Lennon)

 

 – Sarah St Vincent Welch

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Sarah St Vincent Welch grew up swimming in Middle Harbour and now loves walking on Mt Majura. She teaches creative writing in the community. She co-edited The Pearly Griffin – the story of the old Griffin Centre with Lizz Murphy, and two short story anthologies – The Circulatory System and Time Pieces with Craig Cormick. She also co-edited FIRST: Surrender with Francesca Rendle-Short in 2007 (a student anthology at the University of Canberra). Her chapbook Open will be published by Rochford Street Press in March.

Paradise Lost ran at the Belconnen Arts Centre from 26-28 January. It will be performed in Perth at the Flaming Locomotive Engine Room, State Theatre Centre WA , Corner Roe and William Street , Northbridge from 31 January to 4th February  https://www.fringeworld.com.au/whats_on/event/paradise_lost/c30484a8-8026-4ad9-b74f-1db5a390a9c8/.It will then tour to Adelaide for a season as part of the Adelaide Fringe at Henrietta’s at The Henry Austin 29 Chesser St, Adelaide, from 16 to 25 February https://www.adelaidefringe.com.au/fringetix/paradise-lost

 

Adventurous, challenging and thoughtful: Paul Scully reviews ‘Our Lady of the Fence Post’ by J.H. Crone

Our Lady of the Fence Post by J. H. Crone (UWA Publishing, 2016).

our_lady_of_the_fence_postH. Crone’s Our Lady of the Fence Post, a book-length poetic dissertation of sorts, begins as an imaginative interleaving of two narratives: the effects on the seaside community of Sunshine Bay (a cipher for Coogee) of the Bali bombings and the sighting of a Marian apparition there. The community is particularised through “bystander” characters including, Mari, Maria de Jesus, Joe, and Mae who have their own stories and afford the work a vital personal dimension. The loci and vessels of connection are place, religion (Islam, Catholicism and, more distantly, Hinduism), and the secondary impacts that “great” events wreak on “collateral” and individual lives. Crone goes so far as to hint at causality, as well as connection, by having an expert suggest that the sightings are a manifestation of the spiritual unease the bombings and their antecedents have engendered.

The Balinese exemplify the “collateral”: affected by the terrorism of the bombers, the tourists, assertive of their right to behave as they wish, and then, the withdrawal of tourism.

The names of the women play on a sea/ mother/ “Mary” theme, as per a quotation from H.D. (Hilda Doolittle) cited by Crone. Mari owns a baker’s shop near the site of the apparitions, and is married to Joe, a man deeply affected by the bombings with a tendency towards violence. Mari is given the “briny taste of a fat lip” by Joe; Jesus/Maria is a sighter of Mary and mother to a son who died in the bombings; and Mae is a reporter with a religious upbringing.

The interleaving is illustrated stylistically in the poem, ‘How to Make Terrorists Pay’, where the lines alternate between the actions and reactions of schoolgirls and other protestors and those of Joe, as he attempts to navigate a way through them.

Crone widens her ambit as the verses progress to bring in Anzac Day, the Cronulla riots (relocated to Sunshine Bay), the war in Iraq, the rise in local influence of Islamic State, racism, and the demonisation of refugees. She also fashions a disquisition on the feminine and feminist in the poem, ‘The Inquisition’. It contextualises this concern by examining church historical views on the figure of Mary, the mother of Jesus, parallels in Greek mythology, and the conflict between a nun theologian and an exclusively male church hierarchy. A dying and unbelieving cancer patient observes, “The more the Virgin/ is elevated, the lower the status of women of ordinary birth.” I have italicised ‘virgin’ to highlight Crone’s analysis of the paradoxical refutation of female sexuality, yet glorification of motherhood as the defining female role inherent in the virgin icon.

The role of women is otherwise illustrated in the reflected musings and dialogues of Mari and Maria, their respective wife-husband and reimagined mother-son relationships and developments in their lives over the course of the work, and Mae’s Damascene evolution from reporter to disability worker. These three women eventually chart new lives for themselves since, for Crone, “resurrection” (used in the title of two poems) is personally determined─ Mae concludes:

The memory of Maria’s intense joy
in the midst of the sublime nonsense of the storm
has become a symbol in my mind
for the feeling
that I have finally become─
who I truly am.

While Crone risks diffuseness at times as she opens her gaze, the progression reads naturally enough and allows her to illustrate how a prisoner converts to Islam and radicalises as the book closes.

The work can clearly be read as modern allegorical. By way of illustration, the strongest impressions on my first reading were of the stories and overall tone. There is, however, resolute craft at work. Crone employs a range of poetic forms, from the conventional and even, exotic, such as the triolet and sestina, as well as, concrete-style forms, direct citations, prose poetry, dream sequences, faux riddles and reportage, social media formats, and elements of farce. The poem, ‘The Universal Bum Puppet Show’, presents a political comedy skit of obvious provenance at an A-lister party! Her mode of address also ranges from the direct to the speculative and her language from the prosaic to the more symbolic and imagistic. All this not only provides visual and textual variety but also reflects the multiple angles through which Crone transects her material.

Sympathy appears to be reserved for the Balinese and the female characters, and nuance largely for the later. While these are clear authorial choices, consistent with Crone’s foci, and understandable given poetry’s emphasis on economy, it does lend an air of the stereotype to the other characters, at times a little at odds with the otherwise, insightful and perceptive work. As always there is an exception to this, when Crone likens Joe’s heart to “a doe-eyed pygmy possum/ in a pool of snowmelt caused by the thrum/ of a new power plant”. As well, I found the incursion of Ginger Mick, coming unheralded and unrepeated, and a little jarring. The writing here is well-crafted, though, strongly echoic of C. J. Dennis’ diction, as best as I can recall, enhanced by incorporations from the original, and illustrates a continuity of attitude I assume Crone wants to convey, but is slighted somewhat by a similar unidimensionality.

Despite these quibbles, Our Lady of the Fence Post is adventurous, “spirited” (to quote Peter Minter from the title pages), challenging and thoughtful, and exhibits a conviction in the role of characterisation and an assured poetic versatility.

-Paul Scully

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Paul Scully is a Sydney-based poet and author of two collections, An Existential Grammar by published by Walleah Press in 2014 and Suture Lines by Guillotine Press in 2016. His work has appeared in print and online journals in Australia and the USA. He is a current Board member of Australian Poetry and is a member of a poetry group at which J.H.Crone is a periodic attendee.

Purchase Our Lady of the Fence Post by J. H. Crone from UWA Publishing
Read Our Lady of the Fence Post (extract) by J. H. Crone

Linguistically and Conceptually Challenging: Alison-Jane Hunter reviews ‘Wild Gestures’ by Lucy Durneen

Wild Gestures: Stories by Lucy Durneen (MidnightSun Publishing, 2017).

wild-gestures-659x1024Lucy Durneen’s collection of short stories, Wild Gestures, sets out to challenge the reader both linguistically and conceptually. There are loose threads that link the narratives together, mostly surrounding the sense of infinite darkness in her world paradigm. Her themes revolve around lost opportunities and a Hardyesque sense of the inevitability of failure and betrayal. The protagonists are lost and seeking meaning in their lives through actions, relationships and control of the external world and each is doomed to failure.

The opening narrative, Time is a River without Banks, is a tumultuous story of a mother’s attempt to protect her child from all pain and the inevitable loss of life this induces. Excluded from the world, the mother loses all she seeks to cherish, until she finally loses her voice “the mother was reduced to a language of absence”. The gothic elements of the narrative reminded me strongly of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper. The horror felt by the mother and her exclusion from reality (literally and figuratively blocking out doors and windows) has that juxtaposition of spiritual hyperbole only found in pure gothic narratives. The lack of control, or the wild gestures of the title, are haunting and reinforce the sense of impending doom present from the outset.

The imagery in the narratives are powerful and constantly reinforced. However, while, the metaphors and imagery work well, the similes often feel a little contrived. In Noli mi tangere, the protagonist considers the nature of love as a young girl. She opens with: “When he asked her to go down to the promenade she thought; so this is what it feels like. Love. It felt less incredible than she had imagined.” This feels honest and has the ambiguous questioning tone of a young girl but the additional sentence: “To be honest, if felt more like the start of Mono, or her period” feels forced – an extension that is unnecessary. The language of gothic is already rich and tending to the repetitious, so extending on an extension undermines the power of the complexity of the language used.

The rather graphic references to sex and sexuality in the narratives also tend to feel rather ugly and simultaneously slightly prudish: we are invited to disapprove as much as to feel the emptiness of the failed intimacy. In The Old Madness and the Sea, we are given the sub chapter opening: “Murray didn’t feel very much to blame, if he was honest. He felt sudden gusts of entitlement to infidelity. He was no more than an aimless moon orbiting within a bigger system that made cheating possible.” His lies compound as he sets out to claim a “veneer of authenticity” to his behaviour. For the reader, the negativity of the paradigm in which a man has such a sense of entitlement creates a sense of bathos: at such times the characters can move from gothic to the absurd. This fundamental nihilism undermines the nobility of the wild gestures themselves, which are essentially life affirming through the imperative to act and to claim rather than to accept and die without having at least tried to change or control the world.

Interestingly, it is the female lead who salvages some meaning from the relationship: one in which the man fails even to learn her name correctly. “I don’t know when we’re going to start being honest with each other, but I thought it might be handy if your wife comes looking for me.” Here, the woman implicitly has taken control of his nihilism and invested it with a purpose which betrays his own implicit cruelty. However, despite her challenge, the underlying nihilism is so ugly that it is hard to perceive strength in her actions or admire her determination to salvage meaning and so, the wild gesture is betrayed at every level.

In the same way that Plath’s The Bell Jar is highly seductive yet ultimately betraying of youth and hope, so too the nihilism coupled with the seductive qualities of the writing, invite destruction of hope and emotional growth through the vicarious experiences of the narratives. Yet in the very same short story, Durneen has a fascinating paragraph that is life-affirming, when she speaks of the Samoan perceptions of facial tattoos: “When Samoans tattoo their faces, he learned, they are recording marks in time…To illustrate yourself in this way could only be a beautiful thing, an art, not a monstrosity.” This critical difference also claims positivity for the wild gestures. They reflect, even if they do not carry, meaning. It is their repetition and our reflection on them that mark us out as very human, with all our frailties exposed yet celebrated.

The penultimate narrative, This is Eden, contains this powerful image: “A long laugh roars through the divorce party and what I am reminded of is a school of sharks…How appropriate this is for animals that have to keep moving or die.” Perhaps this is the key message of this challenging text: that life itself has intrinsic value, however horrendous or betraying the experience. The narrative finishes with the biblical image of the apple, “the juice… bitter and old… that feeling, young and sweet.” For Durneen, this is knowledge – a woman’s birthright through the actions of a mythical first woman. Knowledge is to be claimed: “I think of it now, and I bite and I bite and I bite.”

Is pain our raison d’être as women in the current political and social climate? I hope she’s wrong but until I’m sure, I’ll continue to make my own wild gestures and seek meaning in this crazy world.

-Alison-Jane Hunter

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Alison-Jane Hunter is an insatiable reader. Her book reviews have been published in the South Australian English Teachers’ Association journal, Opinion, and her theatre reviews, in FringeReview- Adelaide.

Purchase Wild Gestures by Lucy Durneen from MidnightSun Publishing