Rochford Street Review Needs Your Support in 2017.


thankyoutypewriter - Edited

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.

But to keep going for another 12 months we need your support. January is the month when many of our bills fall due. The total is almost $200 in domain registration fees and various Word Press subscriptions we need to maintain the site. We also want to be able to continue to offer at least a token payment to our valuable reviewers (and we aim to try to increase this amount) and ensure the site remains free to access.

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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:

  • Ian Gibbins
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  • Sarah St Vincent Welch
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There have also been a handful of anonymous together with reviewers, writers and donations who have donated their payments back to the Review. These generous donations have allowed us to pay our postage and other associated fees over the course of the year and to also offer our writers a small token payment for their work.



Empathy for a convict conflicts with the harsh reality of stolen land: James Dunk reviews ‘Cotter: A Novel’ by Richard Begbie

Cotter: A Novel by Richard Begbie (Longhead Press, 2016).

cotterWhile the ‘convict stain’ has become a tired cliché in Australian history writing, it is a more interesting facet of Australian fiction. The fact that many of the early British colonists were criminals transported here against their will complicates the common colonial narratives and generalisations, as Kate Grenville showed in her immensely popular The Secret River (2005). Through Australian historical fiction, readers have become introduced the ‘good convict’ drawn into terrible acts of violence partly, because of the injustices of penal transportation.

The protagonist of Richard Begbie’s third book, Cotter: A Novel, is a young Irish convict, sentenced to hang for the tantalising crime of Whiteboyism. The Whiteboys were members of a secret agrarian society who fought for fair rent and smallhold subsistence farming in the eighteenth century. Dressed in white smocks, they conducted violent, marvellously theatrical actions against the landlords and tithe collectors.

The novel follows one of forty Whiteboys sentenced to death in a Special Commission to deal with the menace in 1822: the young, aggrieved Garrett Cotter. It deals sympathetically with his plight, and follows him closely through a failed action, capture, and a Kafkaesque mass trial. Begbie quotes Edmund Burke on the function of English law in Ireland: a machine ‘as well fitted for the oppression, impoverishment, and degradation of a people … as ever proceeded from the perverted ingenuity of man.’ (p.13) Having prepared himself for execution, Cotter finds that his sentence has been commuted to transportation for life. Despite this clemency, Cotter feels crushed by the inestimable weight of English sovereignty, and this sense forms the backdrop for the colonial narrative which follows. As with the hundreds of thousands of men and women sent out in punishment from Europe to the Americas, Africa, Australia, and elsewhere, Cotter is disconcerted by the idea of transportation. The future is unknown to him.

Whiteboys were called ‘levellers’ by the landholders they fought, but this novel represents a later work of levelling. Convictism stains our colonial literature with the idea that Europeans in Australia were more sinned against than sinners. A novel that begins with a cold English trial and a sentence of transportation is set upon a trajectory to absolution. The narrative of Cotter withholds this, but in a deeper sense, the novel grants what justice, religion and conscience cannot.

Criminal justice had already sent Cotter into exile, and for him has no further moral claims. His Catholicism has little more purchase, offering only occasional consolation, and the memory of simpler times. When the roving, outcast priest Joseph Therry arrives at Lake George to hear Cotter’s confession, it is not any of the metropolitan sins that trouble him, but his betrayal of the Aboriginal man Onyong, by leading white men to his country. ‘‘Tis a terrible problem we have made for the Aborigines,’ Therry sighs, ‘and for ourselves as well.’ (p. 181) Cotter, perhaps sensing a certain hollowness, accepts the sacrament weakly, distracted by a more pressing moral drama than the one it invokes.

Cotter’s colonial story had begun as a genial one. Fortunate to be assigned to a fair master, he becomes adept at handling cattle, and earns the respect of his superiors. He begins the slow path to material success but English law still casts its pall over him. In New South Wales, the law was idiosyncratic and open to abuse, since it relied on untrained magistrates selected from a small pool of upstanding, heavily vested men. When Cotter is wrongly accused of stealing a horse by a vindictive neighbouring landholder, he is run through the vagaries of this law and eventually banished for four years beyond the limits of settlement. It was an unusual sentence; authorities were wary of the lawless interior and eager to prevent convict mobility and association. Cotter retires to country on the Murrumbidgee to which he has already been led by Onyong, a gift in a time of punishing drought. It is rich country, the cultivated hunting grounds of Onyong’s people, and will eventually be taken up by others in Cotter’s wake. However, Cotter has already led his master, Frank Kenny, to land near Lake George, also shown to him by Onyong. Kenny claimed the land as his own. Cotter is aware that it was a theft which he enabled.

Where others are half-conscious, or entirely oblivious, Cotter is aware of the collateral damage of this expansion because of the familiarity which has grown between Onyong and himself. The Irishman quickly comes to respect, even fear the Indigenous man, who is written compellingly as a person of grace and strength whom his people and colonists alike find impressive. Onyong even has a breastplate describing him as a king. Their cautious relationship is at the heart of the novel, which, despite the faint notes of impending catastrophe, lingers over this intimacy. The description on the dust jacket claims their connection reflects, ‘a haunting moment in Australia’s story, when white humility and aboriginal knowledge might have combined to produce a kinder stewardship’. The prologue suggests not only that the novel is set ‘between an echo of Ireland to the one side and the song of a people old as time on the other’ (p. 10), but that it has a program.

Cotter’s historicism is integral to this program. Like stories of other ordinary men and women, it is woven together from a sparse infrastructure of records. Some of its chapters begin with quotes from these newspapers, diaries and government orders. A rudimentary chronology runs throughout, with the year printed intermittently in large, bold type, so that it is not simply a novel set in the past, as in any other foreign land. It rather clothes itself in chronological and historical detail. Why then does its subtitle announce, quite gratuitously, that this is A Novel? With its frequent dialogue and access to Cotter’s inner self, it is unlikely to be confused with history. Does the title then seek grace, or permission? Does Begbie embed this narrative so definitively, borrowing authority from the historical sources interleaved between its chapters, so as to present an alternative colonial history?

Here, in the slow bleeding out of settler colonialism, such a project is problematic. In the late twentieth century, theories of criminal justice were rocked by provocations which studied the law’s actual function, asking whom it served. The cynical view of English criminal law in Cotter is in part a product of this critique. Law, as the Whiteboys discovered, served the propertied classes. However, we should also ask what work this novel does, and for whom.

Cotter takes a convict as its protagonist and goes to great lengths to establish a basic injustice in the way he has been treated by English law, so that in some degree the injustice against convicts is equated with injustice against Aboriginal peoples. All Cotter’s interactions with Aboriginal men and women are coloured by this inequity, which helps him sympathise with their plight. It also, however, helps produce a settler colonial palliative.

When Cotter is forced from land he has taken as his own, Begbie has his protagonist compare his loss at the hands of a free landholder with colonial dispossession: ‘It was as simple for Murray to take over country he had come to feel as part of him as it had been for himself to presume upon the blacks.’ (p. 294) This comparison is, if not disingenuous, egregious. While Burke’s relentless machine, English law, crushed Cotter almost to death, it was by no means the most perverse product of British imperial ingenuity. This was, rather, the racialised discourse which savaged the culture and dignity of peoples precisely as it pronounced them savages. This savagery, dressed as civility, was so effective that even intelligent men like Aubrey Murray could hold Aboriginal people culpable under his own, intruding law. ‘The plain fact,’ he pronounces, ‘is the average blackfellow won’t stick at anything … We must be kind and generous to them, but we also must acknowledge their limitations.’ (p. 294) The large landholding Murray, of course, had more to lose than Garrett Cotter in seeing colonialism for what it was.

The fact that the injustice to convicts and Indigenous peoples is not comparable is clear from the function of the law. For all the injustice of transportation, convicts were enabled to make new lives, and many did. The same law indicted Aboriginal men and women for trespasses it could not possibly countenance, and bequeathed a perverse superiority on convicts and free alike as they took up land. Cotter knows this, and even welcomes it, since his success rode on the loss of these others. ‘He searched his heart, to discover that he shared something of the fatalism of both Murray and Onyong. It had been there all along. Even as he grieved for the man and his people, he was looking to a future for himself that included a pardon, a family, a remembered history.’ (p. 337).

For all Cotter’s knowing, he still stumbles into calling the country ‘his’, and for all his powerlessness, he still comes out with Onyong’s land. One of the pleasing results of writing the novel for Begbie, is that he has brought together descendants of Cotter and Onyong, who was an elder of the Ngambri nation. However, when the three met and were photographed together, it was on land that has belonged to the Cotter family since the events described in the novel, and the name Cotter is written across the land west of Canberra.

There is no doubt that the author feels remorse about the history of this country. He writes this into Cotter’s reflections, so that the novel, in turn, elicits remorse. Yet, this remorse is constructed from the sense of the inevitable which oppresses the pages. While Cotter takes opportunities to show his gratitude, and respect, white men and their cattle, fleeing drought, press further and further into the country. The depression that engulfs Cotter for a stretch is not that of the country, or its people, but of being at the mercy of climate, law, and history. Amends for Cotter’s betrayal would never be made.

The novel picks up pace in its final chapters: while the suffering of Onyong and his people escalate to the point of collapse, Cotter is on the up. Friends, family, and pastoral success promise to establish him in society, and to undo his intimacy with Onyong, his family, and his world, though retaining their knowledge of country. Onyong’s world disintegrates, and Cotter comes upon the vivacious young woman who had been betrothed to him, now begging for a drink outside a pub. Although she has aged terribly, they recognise each other, and he sees in her what his people have done. For they are all his people. ‘Cotter struggled for something to say, and found nothing’ (p. 352). Instead, he presses a sixpence into her hand, which brings this imagined history crashing indelicately into the bankrupt race relations of the present.

The novel’s trajectory suggests that guilt lies with the drought-prone climate, or cultural failures, or alcohol, or worse still, the idea that bad colonists were to blame for violence and dispossession – an extension of the invidious ‘bad convict’ trope. More profoundly, Cotter looks to impersonal structures, and the inarticulate tide of history, for cause. Whatever goodwill, or guilt, that may have surfaced in the colonists was overwhelmed by the advancing front of western law, agriculture, and economics; by the entire, self-perpetuating system of western ‘civilisation’. This is compelling, but insufficient, since it offers a quiet absolution. Rather, those responsible for the crimes of colonisation were landholders like Aubrey Murray and Frank Kenny, and men and women like Ann Russell and Garrett Cotter. The threshold of the dispossession of this country was a supreme and unforgivable denigration of Aboriginal law, knowledge, and culture, and of men, women and children, for personal and imperial gain. ‘At some points the novel enters contested areas,’ writes Begbie in his notes, but in fact it never strays from them.

-James Dunk


James Dunk is a historian and writer living in Sydney’s Inner West. He holds a PhD from the University of Sydney.

Cotter by Richard Begbie on ABC Books Plus

Vale Roy Fisher

Roy Fisher. Pphotograph by Ornella Trevisan.

In what is turning out to be a sad week for poetry Rochford Street Review was saddened to hear of the death of Bristish Poet Roy Fisher. Fisher was raised in Birmingham, England, and educated at Birmingham University. His numerous collections of poetry include City (1961), A Furnace (1986), which was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation, The Dow Low Drop: New and Selected Poems (1996), and The Long and Short of It: Poems 1955–2005 (2005). The first American edition of his work was his Selected Poems (2011). His work is included in the New Penguin Book of English Verse (2000) and the Anthology of Twentieth-Century British and Irish Poetry (2001).  Fisher had been housebound for several years, preferring to remain in his much loved house in the Derbyshire Peak District than to be looked after in a care home. Playing the language, pleasuring the imagination and teasing the senses, Fisher’s witty, inventive and anarchic poetry gave lasting delight to his many dedicated readers for over half a century.

A detailed obituary is available on his publishers website (Bloodaxe Books)

Featuring Zalehah Turner

Over the coming issues Rochford Street Review will feature the work of our hardworking editors. The first editor to grace the RSR pages is Associate Editor Zalehah Turner. Since coming aboard Rochford Street Review a little over a year ago Zalehah has made a major contribution to keeping the journal running, editing both the Featured Writers and Artists sections as well as editing, marking up and publishing work. Without her help I’m not sure that RSR would have survived the last twelve months.

Zalehah Turner Biographical Note

Mark Roberts interviews Zalehah Turner    Zalehah Turner Four Poems

Zalehah Turner is a Sydney based poet, writer, critic, and editor undertaking Honours (BA Communication) in 2017. She is an Associate Editor of Rochford Street Review (RSR), an online journal of cultural criticism with a strong focus on poetry. Zalehah edits, publishes and promotes many of the featured articles and poets in RSR. She has also reviewed a wide range of cultural events for both it and Vertigo. Her mixed media poetry has been exhibited at several venues around Australia. Her most recent series, Interstices, was published on the Vertigo website in October 2016.

Mark Roberts interviews Zalehah Turner

Zalehah Turner Biographical Note   Zalehah Turner Four Poems

When did you start writing poetry? Can you remember the first poem you ever wrote?

The first poem I ever wrote was either ‘The House of Change’ or ‘Pills, Opportunities and Optimism’. Both were part of a series six of poems written as an assessment piece for English in High School. I’ve always been interested in intermedia and transmedia poetry. I created a one woman show accompanied by audio and visual media for Theatre based on ‘Pills, Opportunity and Optimism’. The rest of the five poems, I developed as theatrical, multimedia pieces for a play I wrote for the same subject entitled, Andrea, Alec and Avril which included contemporary ballet, a medusa style, snake queen on stilts, skaters in wire meshing, and a Chinese dragon rat.

The threat of death interrupted my studies at 19 and continued to over many years. However, I never stopped writing and drawing. The first poems that I wrote after returning to university study were four haikus which were displayed in Federation Square as part of the Overload Poetry Festival in 2008.

What made you want to write to start writing poetry?

The short answer, reading ‘Howl’ by Allen Ginsberg and my love of words and poetry.

Can you talk about some of the major influences on your work? Who were the poets that inspired you to start writing and have those influences changed over time?

My work is influenced by art, films, novels, music, and poetry. I am continually impressed by the power of expression from creatives working in a variety of mediums who come from diverse backgrounds and experiences. Milton by Blake made a significant impact on me at a young age. It was on my mother’s bookshelf along with other books of poetry and works of literature. It seemed magical, powerful and mysterious. It definitely encouraged my desire to engage through both art and poetry. Howl by Allen Ginsberg inspired me to start writing poetry. Its impact on my life was uncontested until, I read The Wasteland by T.S. Eliot. I read and re-read the poem and was incredibly intrigued by all the literary and personal references within it. Admittedly, I first read T.S. Eliot’s The Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats as a child, so, perhaps his influence was there all along. My poetry was, and still is, incredibly influenced by Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space.

Curating the featured writers for Rochford Street Review has also significantly inspired me. It may also have inadvertently helped me develop my Honours Project. It has significantly increased my appreciation of Australian poetry as well as, opening me up to work from Manus Island, Ukraine, and Russia. Interviewing poets and reading their reflections upon their own work is incredibly interesting and inspiring.
For me one of the highlights of your work at RSR has been the leading role you took with the New Shoots Prize (co-creating, judging, promoting). Can you tell me about how you went about organising that prize and the work involved? I’m particularly interested in understanding if it influenced your own work in any way.

I undertook an internship with The Red Room Company early in 2016 where I complied a collection of plant inspired poetry for Tamryn Bennett, the Artistic Director of the RRC. The RRC were just beginning their project New Shoots. I saw the opportunity, as an Associate Editor of Rochford Street Review, to collaborate by developing a prize or rather prizes where the winners could be published in RSR, RRC and on the Royal Botanic Garden website. Tamryn and I agreed on the guidelines which I wrote and she put together a great package of poetry anthologies, seed packets and journals for the different prizes. There was an incredible amount of work involved but as ecology, poetry and community engagement are all very important to me, it was an invaluable and inspiring experience. I was impressed with the submissions, the variation and range, as well as, the strength in the poetry. I put together a shortlist. Tamryn and I easily agreed on all the winners, and most of the highly commended.

I developed a plant inspired poetry prompt for social media each Sunday as way to promote, inspire and engage poets and plant lovers. It opened my eyes to the incredible changes that the planet is undergoing and the amazing responses from artists, poets and the world as a whole. Publishing the poems and interviewing the winning and highly commended poets was a great chance to go back and take an in depth look at poems we had chosen and find out what the poets had to say about their own work. If the entire experience didn’t influence the way I think and write, including the topics I write on, I would be surprised. Sure enough, when I met with my Honours supervisor late last year to discuss my project for 2017, I warned her of the possible impact of New Shoots on my chosen project!

What are you working on now?

I am currently editing a couple of poetry reviews from contributors which I aim to publish in Rochford Street Review soon. I am also reviewing two poetry collections, one art exhibition, and currently finalising the editing and layout for the Featured Writer for issue 22. Aside for my work as Associate Editor at Rochford Street Review, I am working on a 30-page intermedia poetry collection entitled, Critical condition, focused on the interstitial threshold between life and death in medical crises. Critical condition is my Honours Project and the Creative component of my Honours (Communication) degree at the University of Technology, Sydney which I started last week.

Many Thanks Zalehah

Zalehah Turner: Four Poems

Zalehah Turner Biographical Note  Mark Roberts interviews Zalehah Turner

Leaf Litter. Photograph by Zalehah Turner

Comfort zone

out of her comfort zone
limitless without reason
thin boundaries
dividing and conquering
a timeline where comfort
meets kill
zoned for re-development

made and delivered
pegged for down time
in the red light district
a phosphorescent display
the air toxic
with the scent
of chemicals

she asks for a taste
on tick, tempting fate
and testing boundaries
crossing the strip
with a careless disregard
for passing cars

he is waiting
at the fountain
testing the limits
of personal space
exhaling as she moves
through trial and error
borderline, non-negotiable

she leaves, eyes glazed
her stance altered
almost hesitant
a distancing technique
for crossing thin

Slip Light. Photograph by Zalehah Turner

Intimate distance

a space lies
between words, a light
ambivalent and hovering

a breath in
lips, half open
half closed
like eyes crusted
with dream
sleep in spin cycle

liminal loop
wholes turning
taciturn corners
in the blink
of an I
two become one
tongue-tied, in the space
where lies meet

mistakes compound
over the intimate
under cover
of space craft

Space to Fire. Photograph by Zalehah Turner

The other side of madness

we find ourselves
at a loss for words
carving wholes
out of reason
delivering lies
in an increasingly
internal space
lying on the other
side of madness

I’m trying you on for size
our hands fit so closely it hurts
too heinous this crime
which makes one rely
on an other
only to wake, screaming
arm in arm
finding time for the eternal
in a moment’s breath

Negative Space. Photograph by Zalehah Turner

Miscarriage of justice

I’m bleeding

embryonic tissue
fallen but not forgotten
mixes with the blood
of afterlife
thick and congealed
dispersing at a rate
which few
but the willing
and only children
care to watch
the loss of life
counted in weeks
into water, untouched

by a priest
the committed atheist
within buries blind
faith deep
beneath layers
of facia and connective
tissue, scarred
but never scared

I release
my finger
from the button
where I had maintained
constant and steady
pressure, twisted life
saving techniques
kicking in
when least needed

water pressure
takes its course
pulling my insides
under so quickly
it hurts

and unblessed
into the mains
making me rethink
and belief

is harder than you
think and I don’t

in the afterlife
there is only space
where no one
can hear you

 –  Zalehah Turner

Vale Joanne Kyger

Joanne Kyger .Photo by Andrew Kenower.

Rochford Street Review was saddened to learn of the death of Joanne Kyger on 22 March. Associated with the poets of the San Francisco Renaissance, poet Joanne Kyger studied philosophy and literature at the University of California, Santa Barbara, moving to San Francisco in 1957 just before she finished her degree. In San Francisco she attended the Sunday meetings of Jack Spicer and Robert Duncan, and moved into the East West House, a communal house for students of Zen Buddhism and Asian studies. She lived in Japan with Gary Snyder, her husband at the time, and traveled in India with Snyder, Allen Ginsberg, and Peter Orlovsky. She eventually returned to California, where she lived until her death in 2017. (Text courtesy of the Poetry Foundation)

Full bography and links to poems are available at


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 — Alex Skovron


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

Flute of Milk is available from

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

Nothing if Not Self-Aware: Jonathan Dunk reviews ‘Chimerica’, a Play by Lucy Kirkwood

Chimerica, written by Lucy Kirkwood and directed by Kip Williams. Sydney Theatre Company

The cast of Sydney Theatre Company’s Chimerica. Photo © Brett Boardman

Lucy Kirkwood’s Chimerica is an immense historical epic spanning, continents, decades, and genres. Its structural centre is the relationship between Joe, an American photographer, (Mark Leontard Winter) and Zhang Lin, a Chinese dissident (Jason Chong) who frustrates and abets the former’s fixation upon the ‘story’ behind the iconic ‘Tank Man’ photograph twenty years after Tiananmen. There’s a strange distance in this structure: the image acquires its iconic poignancy in the context of its history, in the force of the principles and ideas for which an unarmed student defies the mighty edifice of state power at all costs. Here, however, the subject is less the symbol itself than its translation-loss, as Joe pursues the ‘Tank Man’ through the back-channels of undocumented immigration it becomes clearer that his obsession articulates an unease with the moral limitations of his own privilege. Joe’s value-system, a capitalist individualism displayed through lavish ensemble scenes illustrating American political functions, cannot explain humble self-sacrifice. The virtue of Leonard Winter’s performance is how deeply unlikeable his conventionally ‘heroic’ photographer becomes.

In contrast to the extremely visual energy of the American scenes, much of the Chinese narrative occurs in dream and reverie as the audience moves through Zhang Lin’s memories. Given the importance of cultural difference and misunderstanding at key junctures in the plot, I expect this disjunction between an aggressively vivid, fast paced American reality, and ethereal visions of Chinese culture is quite deliberate. However, in tandem with other aspects of the production it creates an unsettling invocation of the old cliché of the inscrutable or exotic Asian. The direction’s filmic quality, moreover, has strong inclinations towards the literal, which prevent this uncanny quality from being interpretable as an admission of cultural limitation.

It’s often visually compelling, and doubtless the American/Chinese cultural axis is marked by significant culture clash, but I left the theatre uneasy. We’re no longer limited to a reductive or essentialist view of cultural difference. Even if we were, a play about Tiananmen emphasizing an American’s inability to understand it would still be an awkward approach. I think the production’s fascination with the Tank Man’s act of sacrifice stems from the particular conditions of its politics. Both the American and Chinese aspects of the narrative prominently feature debates over the conflict between principle and profit, and the ambivalence of this dialectic leaves one with the sense that this play’s intellectual structure doesn’t extend much beyond conventional middle class aspirations, or the American dream, if you like. This is interesting, and from what I could tell of the opening night’s audience, highly resonant. However, between the sub-plot involving the charismatic executive Tessa – played ably by Geraldine Hakewell – attempting to use iconic images of the Chinese poor to sell credit cards, and the mystery plot’s eventual dénouement – one can’t help feel that there’s something appropriative about this play. Zhang Lin’s narrative finally seems to argue that there are only personal motives, it translates the Tank Man’s extraordinary act of political, and principled sacrifice, into an advertisement for bourgeois values. As a statement about the slippage of global exchange, this is interesting, as a reflection of the Tiananmen atrocity, it seems to lack empathy.

Mark Leonard Winter and Jason Chong in Sydney Theatre Company’s Chimerica.
Photo © Brett Boardman

Chimerica is nothing if not self-aware. Explaining his compulsion in a reflexive authorial monologue Joe explains that martyrs don’t cut it anymore – they’re passé, we need a positive story, a hero to teach us about atrocities elsewhere without making us too uncomfortable. Perhaps this says more about the modern theatre audience than it does about this particular play, but even through Leonard Winter’s self-aware performance this comes a little too close to indifference. The most overtly critical moment in the drama occurs when Tessa pitches a campaign, and – for reasons beyond dramaturgic sense – decides instead to criticize the entire endeavour. If this was a spark of political conscience however, it soon devolves into the platitudes that ‘we’re not defined by our work, and we should all just try to be nice’; as though such definition were not a luxury afforded to certain kinds of work in certain parts of the world.

We learn that her version of ‘being nice’ means moonlighting for a protest organisation while she hawks American Express nine-to-five. This is a minor detail; but it emphasizes the substance of this production’s politics: no activist group worth its salt would accept the labor of a corporate executive, and that’s not how people react to being pepper-sprayed.

The strangeness of this dynamic becomes more acute if we spatialize the curation of this performance: an audience in Sydney trying to approach Chinese culture and history through an English playwright’s idea of American politics. This uncomfortable dynamic is magnified by the play’s tenuous approach to questions of representation. Jason Chong performs his role with dignity and intelligence, but the play only seems interested in his character’s loss, rather than the ideas for which he fought. Add this to the relatively small number of Asian actors in this large cast, the occasionally orientalising twangs of The Sweats’ soundscape, and the uncomfortable proportion between Mandarin and broken English in the dialogue, and one can’t but feel this isn’t the way we should be representing cultural difference anymore.

There are approximately one million Chinese Australians, and plenty of them work in the arts, and if you want to encounter something more like the reality of Chinese experience I suggest you read the lively writing published by Peril or Mascara, or the poetry of Kim Cheng Boey, or the novels of Brian Castro. Looking farther afield, the superb protest poetry and criticism of Liu Xiabao – one of the leaders of the Tiananmen protests who remains in incarceration today – memorialises the terror of Tiananmen without reducing it to a theatre of western anxieties.

 – Jonathan Dunk


Jonathan Dunk is a PhD candidate at the University of Sydney, where he teaches Australian Literature. His work has been published in The Australian Book Review,Southerly, and Cordite, and shortlisted for the 2015 Overland Victoria Short-story prize.

Tickets to Chimerica can be obtained at

This is the Book for You: Amy Brown launches ‘redactor’ by Eddie Paterson

redactor by Eddie Paterson, Whitmore Press 2017, was launched by Amy Brown at the Bella Union Bar, Trades Hall, Melbourne on 1 February.

‘This is the book for you’ is the title of a satirical, distilled review, which begins ‘joan collins is an extraordinary orchid of evil & beauty’; it also happens to be true of redactor – whatever “true” means these days. This is the book for you, because of its acute timeliness.  With wit and sagacity, Eddie Paterson’s latest collection of poems seems to herald and ward against several recent dystopian events. I’ll start with the most obvious: as I type, the U.S. president’s last tweet was:


Congratulations to @FoxNews for being number one in inauguration ratings. They were many times higher than FAKE NEWS @CNN – public is smart!

We are living in an era of “fake news” and “alternative facts”. “Post truth”, the Oxford Dictionary’s word of 2016, is defined as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’. Donald Trump has demonstrated how objective facts, when swayed by subjective beliefs, are uselessly fickle. Perhaps the only thing that Eddie Paterson has in common with Trump is that he has demonstrated this hegemony of subjectivity over the objective fact too, albeit benevolently. The first section of redactor, titled ‘Aversion’, is a dossier of manipulated of information. ‘Bureau of Statistics’, a droll portrait of this nation via figures, begins:

31 australians have died
since 1996 watering
their christmas tree while
the fairy lights were plugged in
19 australians have died
in the last 3 years by eating
christmas decorations they believed were
chocolate hospitals reported 4 broken
arms last year after cracker pulling incidents

All text – the legend of the map at a zoo, census data, personal email excerpts – is the redactable material from which versions of the truth are made. Eddie’s redaction, in the sense of editing and arranging, draws attention to the myriad “truths” any written communication yields and encourages readers to avert, or turn away, from the well-trodden path of interpretation, to read from an unexpected angle.

Any retelling of an experience is necessarily subjective. The experiences recorded in the first section of redactor are surreal due to the precision of the description. Flying into Melbourne, Eddie sees:

great blimps
move through the clouds,
huge grey airships
curl amongst skyscrapers & through suburbs
& it’s a minute or two
before i realise i’m looking at the harbour
& not the sky & fog is eating the world.

At the supermarket, a screaming kid latches on to Eddie:

he pulls himself
up my arm
& screams in my face.
the mother unhinges her child
from my arm. i go on looking for the Special K.
the squeaking
on my trolley
spins round & round.

Librarian types are referred to as ‘the dewy ones’, legs as ‘loaves of bread’ and an airport as ‘a lung with particles moving through it’. The crisp exactness of these metaphors is a relief next to the stale communiqués found on bulletin boards and government websites. Still, Eddie’s satirical redaction of these depressing texts renders them fresh. For example-

this is the boy
this is a picture of the boy
do not feed the boy
any nuts,
unchecked snacks or sandwiches
do not give the boy
liquids, inc. water, cordial, milk,
without express permission.
please monitor the boy &
notify if situation does not improve.
if there is an escalation,
perform the procedure.
if you are unfamiliar with the procedure
do not ask the boy
he will be prone
by then.


After hearing Eddie read this poem early last year, my partner now refers to our son almost exclusively as “the boy”.

For anyone embroiled in the Centrelink “debt recovery” debacle, Eddie’s treatment of Kafkaesque bureaucratic missives will offer some consolation. And, for anyone who is or has been a postgrad arts student or sessional academic, much of redactor will ring true – in some cases it may ring so piercingly true that you suspect you are reading phrases plucked from your own emails; you may wonder whether the redacted name under the tiny black rectangle is yours.

Writing from within such a niche métier risks riddling a book with exclusive in-jokes. Feeling excluded is in this case part of the point, I think. One poem refers directly to the Brechtian theatre term, ‘Verfremdungseffekt’, which is the distancing or alienating of the audience from the experience of the characters in a performance. In-jokes act as a form of encryption, which the reader is invited to try and crack. There is a deliberate positioning of the reader as eavesdropper and voyeur, particularly in the second section of the book, ‘Call and Response’. Here, the reader is privy to redacted gossip, discussions about films, books and reality TV. Indeed, this section of redactor could be classed as “reality poetry”, except its scripting and editing is much subtler than in your average episode of Beauty and the Geek.  There is a cryptic motif of mint slice biscuits – why? Well might the person or computer scanning these emails wonder. German psychologist Michal Kosinski, whose research inadvertently enabled the inauguration of Trump, created a psychometric application capable of identifying a person’s characteristics in meticulous detail based upon their Facebook “likes”. With 300 likes, Kosinski boasted that his model could predict a person’s answers to a questionnaire better than their lover could; Trump’s campaign used this technology to search for and manipulate undecided voters.

So, a pattern of mint slice mentions could be a poetic motif, or a piece of ‘big data’ ripe for psychometric analysis. Another dystopian event this collection seemed to predict was the Turnbull Government’s data retention scheme. Originally designed to combat terrorism, there is now the suggestion that the data collected could be subpoenaed for use in civil cases. What is private, what is sensitive, what is classified? What aspects of ourselves should we be endeavouring to protect or hide? In his prolific, ‘Barbara Cartland Love Poem’, Eddie provides what I read as an answer to these questions:

& as for my brain – contains far too many basketball statistics
from the 80s, references to hbo serials & guilt/doubt which
hangs off me like an overstuffed quicksilver you are welcome to
the stupid thing. i am unkind. for it also contains the memory of
you lying next to kafka in a park on an unexpectedly beautiful
afternoon. that bit i’ll keep, you can have the rest

This image that must be kept is repeated on the last page of the collection, in ‘Love Poem’:

leave me with the park with the sun & that afternoon when
unexpectedly you moved away from kafka & toward me.

Perhaps it is sentimental of me, but I find these final lines optimistic, suggesting that even in this Kafkaesque world, moments of beauty, intimacy and privacy will not be completely oppressed.

So, for anyone feeling despondent about global politics, or battling with Centrelink, or whose New Year’s resolution was to quit Facebook, or whose guilty pleasures include reality television and mint slice biscuits: this is the book for you. Buy it, seek solace in it, and keep it nearby – you are going to need it.

 – Amy Brown


Amy Brown is a New Zealand poet, novelist and teacher who now lives in Melbourne. In 2012 she completed a PhD in creative writing on contemporary epic poetry. Her latest book, The Odour of Sanctity, was published by Victoria University Press.

redactor is available from