Texture and Complexity: Carmel Macdonald Grahame launches ‘Suburban Whistlestop’

The Watsonia Poets Anthology, Suburban Whistlestop, a Melbourne Poets Union publication edited by Jennifer Chrystie, Judy Keighran and Ann Sadedin, was launched by Carmel Macdonald Grahame at the Watsonia Library, Watsonia, Melbourne on 11th December 2018.

Some words are not easily used by poets. For example, writers have had to argue for a long time on behalf of the word Domestic. Domestic references and themes like family life, a focus on children, households, household labour, gardens, food, a daily walk…have been belittled in the past and seen as unworthy of poetry, even somehow inherently unpoetic. There is a general understanding about the grand tradition, that great public themes like war, the glories of history, or great abstractions like Love and Death have had the upper hand, so to speak.

And it occurs to me that the word Suburban comes with similar entailments, has been burdened with some background idea suggesting a place of oblivion, or at the very least complacency and dullness. The painter Howard Arkley was making this point in the 1970s, 80s and 90s with work that turned away from landscapes, and instead demonstrated what rich material the suburban context offers an artist, much richer material than a glib word like lifestyle might suggest. The suburbs have texture and complexity, are filled with detail that represents lives as they are lived, are the site of great good fortune and loss, like any other human context. Of course they do. And given that we are so suburban a nation, it seems important that our artists attend to it, rather than seeing it as unpoetic.

Well here they do attend to it. This collection addresses the tensions circulating around that word. It fills a space between art and the ordinary lives we live in suburban settings. It shows how various these are: I think of the difference between Dorothy Poulopoulous’s Melbourne Moments, Christina Spry’s September, and John Jenkins’ Early Winter…Watsonia, Doncaster, Kangaroo Ground…wherever they are, poets taking notice, finely observing…

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In this collection you find poetry that attends to ‘the inner life’, for example; whether painful or joyful: After an intimate, fully realised family moment, Wendy Fleming’s’Before the Baby Came’, ends:

Don’t ask what happens next
Just know that this scene
Stays within me

Pointing to the involuntary and precious nature of memory. And having something significant to say about childhood.

Kay Arthur’s ‘The Arrival’ and ‘A-Ward’ convey tenderness and vulnerability, using a collection of details like hairbrushes, roses, tea being poured, the weight of the pot, shortbreads in a tin, mugs…the poem takes the combined meaning of all these to speak of the kind of experience for which descriptions like Mental health are blunt objects in the extreme.

Gay Miller’s ‘To Contribute, Pain, My Middle’ capture inner dialogues with a self negotiating with adversity, something we all do.

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Far from complacency there is a potent sense of history here. Paul Dunnell’s ‘Dry Waves addresses Australian colonisation and honours the indigenous people who were forced to submit to it—

I have been thinking this is Gurindji country
Long before we came…

Jennifer Chrystie’s ‘The Pewter Plate’ concentrates on that emblem of Dirk Hartog Island, where William de Vlamingh nailed a plate to a post in 1697. A quite different sensibility was at work there in response to this country. Part of the point being that the two poems resonate because of each other’s presence in the collection. This added resonance, created by links between dissimilar poems, is often at work, producing the something more that comes of collaborative projects.

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There is also a potent sense of the future here. Vigilance about the environment runs through the collection, even underpinning poems that may at first appear to be personal. So the suburban context opens out, picks up on universal concerns: ‘…we race on, burning dreams and time away…’

The lines come from John Jenkins’ poem ‘Slick’, a kind of fugue on a theme of oil, picking the reader up and carrying up towards the poem’s sense of an impending future.

In an entirely different voice, with its edge of mysticism, Fee Sievers’ ‘Rainmaker’ renders the losses that come in the wake of drought, grieves on our behalf.

Margaret Hopkins’ theme is Nature. In Divided Reality she is explicit:

Owning and using the earth
Without respect…
Refusing to acknowledge
Global warming while polar ice melts…

Just to quote a couple of lines, in which the nexus between Nature and politics is at work.

Nature and respect for it, and our relationship with it, is the theme underlying a poem like Marietta Elliott’s spider, in the voice of a woman in the shower…

I don’t mind you, small creature
Battling inhuman odds…

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In all this I want to acknowledge the attentive editing. When a poem (also by Jennifer Chrystie) entitled ‘Mosquito’ — humourous and witty — is followed by one like ‘spider’ — gentle and finely observed — we have a sense of the poems being stitched into each other, either thematically or by means of form — of which there is plenty of variety, these are poets who know what they are doing — giving the collection a satisfying continuity and coherence.

In the end I don’t read this as a collective voice, although some readers may want to on behalf of the Watsonia-ness of the contributors, a part of the point. But rather I want to read it as a collection of voices. There is a choral effect to the whole. This is because of the diversity in the poetry itself—whether formal or discursive, whether the language a poet uses has a colloquial register or reaches for poetic tones…And so on.

In this choral effect there is a sense of those tones rising.

Ann Sadedin, in ‘Wild Wisdom’ invokes revisionary thinking about ‘The Hidden Life of Trees’ a text she cites. The poem ends—

I am here, belonging
To the vastness of things.

Her poems strike me as taking a particular interest in things being not what they seem, being MORE than they seem, and that being a lesson of nature.

Other poems reach overtly for the sublime, that aesthetic that is about our diminishment in the face of forces, especially natural forces, which are more than we can apprehend. This is the kind of energy at work in a poem like Paul Willason’s ‘The Great Shark’.

…the terror of its alien perfection
Bound in blood
To swim the oceans framed
within the mind’s vast sweep

John Prytherch engages with the sublime directly in a poem like ‘Psalm of the Winds’, insofar as the poem deals with wonder and human smallness, using the biblical poetic form to frame it and despite everything inflecting it with hope.

There are more. And there is more to every poem in Suburban Whistlestop and to the work of every poet represented than I have been able to say really…there is just more, more to it all. And the whole, this chorus, speaks of The More resonating through a word like Suburban.

Congratulations to the Watsonia Poets. I commend the collection to everyone who reads poetry.

 – Carmel Macdonald Grahame

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Carmel Macdonald Grahame lives in Victoria. Her short fiction, poetry, critical essays and reviews appear in literary journals and anthologies. A novel, Personal Effects, was published with University of Western Australia Publishing in 2014. She has been a winner of the Melbourne Poets Union Prize and co-winner of the Patricia Hackett Prize in her home state, Western Australia, where she has been a teacher of literature and writing.

Suburban Whistlestop is available from https://www.melbournepoetsunion.com/

 

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

Breaking Beauty edited by Lynette Washington MidnightSun Publishing 2014

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

In her introduction to the collection, Washington wrote that beauty is everywhere, but added the caveat that
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Dualities allow us to understand things that are otherwise meaningless. There is no beauty without ugliness. We need to crack beauty open, we need to break it, to really understand it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 – B. J. Muirhead

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 B.J. Muirhead is a writer and photographer living in rural Queensland. He has published online and in print journals, and was included in an anthology of Queensland poetry (1986). He has published art criticism and was photographic reviewer for the Courier-Mail newspaper in the 1980s. His writing and recent exhibitions, Primary Evidence (2011) andFlesh (2014), continue his lifetime interest in the human body and its relation to the inevitability of age and death. He can be found at http://bjmuirhead.wordpress.com   and http://inaforeigntown.wordpress.com.

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