Watching to See What’s Next: Michele Seminara launches ‘fourW’ Issue 28

fourW Issue 28 was launched by Michele Seminara at Gleebooks in Sydney on 25 November 2017 at Gleebooks

Michele Seminara launching fourW Issue 28

Before we begin the proceedings, I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation, and pay my respects to the Elders, past and present.

Today I am delighted to be launching this year’s fourW anthology, and thank Editor David Gilbey, as well as those from Booranga Writers Centre and Charles Sturt University, for asking me to launch this important literary journal as it celebrates its 28th year of continuous publication.

This is a watershed year for fourW. As is the case for many literary journals, the economic viability of the anthology has been brought into question as funding to cover the printing of the magazine has this year been withdrawn, and the Booranga Writers Centre Committee explore new ways forward. This hasn’t stopped fourW twenty-eight coming into being however, albeit in a slightly modified form, and the committee are determined that it won’t stop the anthology continuing into the future. As they explore alternatives such as downsizing the print run, printing on demand, or publishing online, one thing is certain – the creativity and open mindedness that shape the anthology will see it continue to adapt and reflect our contemporary transnational landscape, in form as well as in content.

From Russia to Hong Kong to Sri Lanka, from rural to urban and outback Australia, fourW twenty-eight sees its subjects seeking – internally and externally – for meaning; questing, in all the various ways we do, for happiness; and living in states of connection and disconnection that are by turns helped and hindered by modern technology. In Erwin Cabucos’ story ‘Lights of Different Colours’, we see relationships fractured and reconfigured by economic necessity as Christy lives apart from her own family in the Philippines while working as a housekeeper for the Chen family in Hong Kong. Emotions become entangled as Christy grows daily more familiar with her employers and their child, rather than with her own, who she communicates with via iPhone.

She hears the tell-tale moans of pleasure from Mr. and Mrs. Chen’s room at the far end of the apartment and thinks about her husband, and how she wishes she could be with him right now. She wraps herself once more with the flannelette sheet before spreading the quilt on top of her, and ducks her head under the covers before checking the photograph of her family one last time on her iPhone. It’s 1.50 am; in four hours she has to get up again to make her employers’ breakfast before they go to work. Unexpectedly her phone vibrates softly and a text comes up. It is her husband, Lando: “I miss you, Chris. I love you, palangga.” She presses the auto response button that returns her usual message to him – her love. She hugs the phone to her chest and closes her eyes. (19)

High up in another city, in a hospital building in Sri Lanka, George Saranapala surveys the changing landscape of his country – and his life – as he awaits heart surgery. In the story ‘To Keep Pace’ by Rajith Savanadasa, technology facilitates an intimacy that is not always welcome. As George discovers after reluctantly being “hooked-up” to Facebook and subsequently stumbling upon his son Andrew’s account, there is such a thing as too much information:

George started seeing curious things on Andrew’s Facebook. There were rainbow coloured pictures saying ‘All We Need is Love,’ or ‘Colouring Outside the Lines.’ Pink triangles proclaimed, ‘Fix Marriage Not Gays.’ There was a photo of Andrew in a sleeveless top and sunglasses, his arm draped around a topless young man’s shoulders. George clicked and pushed at keys furiously but the windows that revealed these revolting images refused to close. He poked at the power button but his shaking finger missed repeatedly and finally, in his desperation, George pulled out the cord from the wall-socket. He never plugged it in again. If Facebook was telling a truth, it was not a truth George could agree with, not a truth he wanted to know. It was much later that he realised the things he called Truth and Lies were extinct. The new world was full of uncertainties, indeterminacies and cats in boxes suspended between life and death. Where was the clearly defined future he was promised? (143)

As John Carey warns us in his poem ‘Post Truth’, the dizzying array of information we are now bombarded with –

…may be a fake news item bombing
us from Montenegro or Fox News or it
just might be a double-bluff. Trust no-one. (p23)

But we do want to trust, and we do want to connect – the question explored by the pieces in fourW twenty-eight is who should we trust? And how far can we afford to go? In ‘Joel and Jess on the Verge’ by Julie Maclean, the about-to-be-married Joel and Jess contemplate the wisdom of taking the plunge and the meaning behind the oft habitual words “I love you”, when Joel experiences “the urge to vomit” at the thought of pledging himself “to the exclusion of all others” (121), and Jess finds herself turning her back on the partner lying beside her in bed to find solace and connection inside the ever present iPhone. In Louise D’Arcy’s small-town Australian story ‘Alex and Max go for a Walk’, Alec finds a different solution to the same problem as he contemplates whether to break up or shack up with girlfriend Cindy. Like many of us, Alec decides that their dog, Max, is the safest bet when it comes to trusting:

When he got home he’d ring Cindy. Say thanks. Say thanks but no thanks. He’d say you can put back your dried flowers and scented candles round the bath, and I’ll keep Max. He had no illusions about the fallout but you had to break things into manageable portions and then you just had to start somewhere. (p39)

Yes, we have to start somewhere, and Australians love to travel the long roads, or blue skies, or expansive seas, or more seldom the circuitous pathways of their own minds in search of that elusive connection to self, others, and sometimes even a higher power. It is these connections which make life meaningful and – dare we say it – passable, if not always pleasurable. And so poets Rory Harris and Nathanael O’Reilly hit the road in their poems ‘road’ and ‘(Un)belonging’, with Harris telling us how the road’s “old familiar rhythm” helps “to repair & replace the broken bodies of our lives” (59), while a recently returned home O’Reilly wonders “…if I could ever belong / again after so much time and distance”(132). Mran-Maree Laing turns inwards in her poem ‘The raw faces’, asking us to “please tell me the raw faces, including our own” (94), while in Daniel King’s story ‘The Astrological Coasters’ the protagonist is lost in a trance-like search for meaning and identity, wondering “Who could bear, after all, a life that consists in staying where one’s purpose and role are unclear, and where the only kind of guidance seems to come from the stars?” (85) Ali Jane Smith turns to yoga in her poem ‘Christmastime!’ to help her deal with the stress of the festive season, only to find:

… it’s best
to just be yourself
a philosophy I’ve long held
though I’m still learning
the practical applications

and lately I’ve learned too
that self you’re better-off being
is now and then an imaginary reindeer ( 159)

Some choose to go deeper still, like Frank in Biff Ward’s ‘To the West’, who spends forty days alone at sea hoping “he might feel pure again. He thought of it as wanting to die – he was going to sail to oblivion. Yet still he was beseeching God – he was no longer sure what for. All he knew was that he had to go.” (168)

One thing is for sure: whatever path you might be travelling, it’s a good bet the far-reaching writing in fourW twenty-eight has got you covered. Because ultimately, like the surfer who refuses “to come in from the water” in Damen O’Brien’s poem ‘Catching the Last Wave’, preferring instead to stay on her board watching “Each annus horribilis and all the perfect years/ …lining up over the horizon” (129), we’re all just riding the wave of change as best we can. And, just as the creators of fourW are doing, we’re all watching to see what’s next.

 – Michele Seminara


Michele Seminara is a poet and editor from Sydney. Her first poetry collection, Engraft, was published by Island Press (2016), and a collaborative chapbook, Scar to Scar, (written with Robbie Coburn) was published by PressPress (2016). Her latest publication is HUSH (Blank Rune Press, 2017). Michele is Managing Editor of online creative arts journal Verity La.

For information on how to purchase fourW go to

A World of Inner and Outer Captivity: Suzanne Bellamy launches ‘Dark Matters’ by Susan Hawthorne

Dark Matters by Susan Hawthorne was launched by Suzanne Bellamy at Muse in Canberra on 24 October 2017

My friendship with Susan Hawthorne, writer and publisher at Spinifex Press – the author being celebrated here tonight at Muse – stretches back over decades now. I can assure you that we have done a great deal of hilarious laughing over those years, and I am emphasizing that humour at the outset because the subject matter of Susan’s novel isn’t funny, it’s confronting, which is a little tough on the person doing the launch. Susan’s novel is deeply involved in the dark matters of torture, but I remind you at the start that this is creative writing, this is the creation of a textual art space, this is the business of the artist, to take the reader to hard places and bring them out again. This is not torture, this is art practice, a novel of exploration of dark matter.

FORM. The form of the novel is striking. The first visual impact of the novel on the reader, its physicality, is of scattered fragments on the page, scraps and movement, not a continuous unfolding narrative. This is a puzzle, a mystery building over time and place, locked inside several brains and memories. The reader is a participant from the start, sorting out the puzzle. You cannot sit outside and observe, you enter and try to sort out the fragments. Time sequences shift, you don’t know what’s happening, the gaps in the paper on the page create the presence of the book’s most important presence, SILENCE. There is a lot of Silence, of unknowns. And yet the text is unified, there is a story, there is a kind of shifting reality, it emerges fitfully, it is visible. There is sound, vibrations, Voices, broken bits of lives and possibilities. Three narrators act as a broken chorus and lead us through a horror story of sorts, across complicated time, geographies, memories, inventions. Deeply individualised and yet linked to broad political events, there are threads of a common story among women somehow reunited in the crazy maze of patriarchal overlay, from one girl’s curiosity through family explorations to the terrible history of whole countries.

LANGUAGE.  In all of Susan Hawthorne’s writings across several genres, language itself is her central engagement. She has a core fascination, creatively and as a scholar, with all kinds of language; text, signs, symbols, sounds, body language, sound language, animal language vegetal consciousness in general. She is also a scholar of Ancient Languages, the archaeology of language, visual verbal, and held in Silence. This stretches also to made-up language, Origin Myths about words. Underlying all that word focus flows the great river of women writers and artists, the long line of women, known and unknown, the women writers and artists that are her/our heritage. In all the previous books of poetry and a verse novel including Cow (2011), Limen (2013), Lupa and Lamb (2014), Earth’s Breath (2009), The Butterfly Effect (2005) these rich voices of the past echo and reinvent themselves in the pages, an intertext of women’s creative heritage, and the core of Susan’s feminism and lesbianism. In this new novel too, they are layered into the text in subtle and obvious ways. Here are language fragments from the deep past, women’s cultural threads sometimes open sometimes hidden away for survival, here is CODE, hieroglyphics, pictographs, scratches of meaning and messages.

Susan has indeed chosen to write in many forms over the last few decades – essays, poems, novels, theory, a quiz book, translation. What unites all these structures and ways of speaking is her core vision, and she has found multiple ways to show us what she sees, what she knows, what she wants, what she doesn’t understand, and what pains her. I know she has been carrying around a version of this novel a long time, and so now it is here, Dark Matters.

I wonder, why now it emerges? Why the novel form now? This is in fact her first return to the form of the novel since The Falling Woman back in 1992. My own speculation on this question is because this form allows a lot of freedom to incorporate all her ways of seeing. It seems to have a looseness that can fold many things into it, unlike a poem, freer than a long essay, released from the disciplines of factual reality.  As a novel, it is deeply poetic, almost in parts a kind of prose poem. Susan has created a tool that can invoke multiplicity and looseness. There is here Voice, story, memory, myth building, myth recovery, invention and certainly deep POLITICS. This is her territory and always has been in our long association as friends, political allies, creative sisters, and for me as a reader of the work. A World is Remembered, Created new, Reimagined, And We are in it, Susan’s line. The intertext presences in this novel are layered, dense and subtle in parts and sometimes right in your face. Sappho of course, the great ancestor, plus Stein, Woolf, Monique Wittig, Mary Daly, Leonora Carrington (the hearing trumpet appears), the women of the Surrealist movement.  The beloved literature and art of our generation of lesbian artists and writers and scholars is all here, woven into the textual underlay.

On TORTURE.  There were matters that I needed to think deeply about and address here tonight, on the ethical depiction of horror and torture. We are surrounded by this material in popular culture but for the artist they are serious themes to consider. How to represent this creatively? How to be transformative, and not just dump trauma on the reader? How to convey horror and yet also be effective? How does this function for a woman writing about women and torture, how to write about it? The torture of lesbians and women has been part of the Great Silence, but how to convey it with power and responsibility, not as desensitized or voyeuristic or pornographic? This is not a new question and women writers have considered it in many ways. In a recent book about Hannah Arendt, Susan Sontag and others, (Tough Enough by Deborah Nelson, 2017) the author says “Causing Pain to the Reader is sometimes acceptable.”  The 20th C, a century of trauma was also one of traumatic representation.  “The problem is not that we do not know what is happening but that we cannot bear to be changed by that knowledge when we do know.” Now in the 21st C, an escalation and normalization of torture presents this to artists in a whole new way. How do you write about it? What form do you choose?

Writer and Sculptor Kate Millett, who died only recently, also puzzled over how to convey torture and cruelty, in her books The Basement (1979), about the torture and murder of Sylvia Likens in 1965, and also in The Politics of Cruelty (1994). But it was in her Sculpture, in the non-verbal space that she explored the Uses of Torture most powerfully, creating a world of inner and outer captivity, programmatic torture. Susan Sontag, in Regarding The Pain of Others, addressed this question of torture in photographs, considering how Virginia Woolf in her book Three Guineas chose which photos of dead children in the Spanish Civil War not to use. The point is that artists and writers make choices, ask what the purpose and limits are in recreating the dark matter of torture.

How has Susan thought and written about this? I know she has considered it for many years. We have talked about it, as she has sought out and researched torture particularly about lesbians. In this novel she has made choices, great ones. It is graphic and powerful but somehow it also cleans and transcends and empowers the reader. Certainly it did me. The body sensates the realities of torture in complex responses, fear, pain anticipation, creative dissociation, and the brain is very present. We are of course outsiders but we are made to be there and think through the matter, the dark matter, and stay grounded and still think about what is happening. Always we know deeply this is art space not a torture room.

The Story of Lesbians on Planet Earth preoccupies some of us very much, it being a fugitive tale with uncertain outcomes and endings. Attacks on the very word and language of Lesbian in the 21st C are a new challenge. Lesbia Sapiens Magnificata as a Form finds itself under threat again, the very word. Susan in this novel invokes “an Imaginary Encyclopedia about Lesbians. A Universe in which lesbian symbols lie at the centre.” This I think actually describes all her work. The novel echoes all her previous work and takes a courageous step into territory made invisible by old fears no longer able to be contained. The times of Silence are over.

As to Susan’s larger project. Spinifex Press is a remarkable experiment in feminist publishing, a triumph of survival. It continues to produce clear voices in real books in hard times. It is its own kind of marvellous reality, and I celebrate the books and the women.

 – Suzanne Bellamy

 Suzanne Bellamy is an artist and a scholar. She has produced works in porcelain for many years. Her prints often reference artists such as Virginia Woolf and Gertrude Stein. In 1996 she created the art performance/ archive installation The Lost Culture of Women’s Liberation 1969-74, the Pre-Dynastic Phase, an archaeological, activist women’s history project, which has now been presented many times both in Australia and in the USA in museum or slide/performance format. Suzanne Bellamy’s artwork appears on the cover of Dark Matters (Road Map 2004. Etched embossed monoprint on Fabriano paper). The image interprets a photograph of Mitochondria, the Motherline DNA, from an old Scientific American photograph. She is currently completing a PhD in Australian Studies at the University of Sydney.

Dark Matters is available from

“unearthed, precious and intimate”- Emma Cooper reviews ‘Thea Astley: Selected Poems’

Thea Astley: Selected Poems edited by Cheryl Taylor (UQP 2017).

Thea Astley UQPThis collection illustrates Thea Astley’s rarely acknowledged passion for poetry. The way verse contributed to her development as an Australian literary icon is often overlooked, let alone documented so insightfully. Editor, Cheryl Taylor, has compiled Selected Poems in so that Astley’s writing seems unearthed, precious and intimate. The poems are arranged in chronological order, along with careful biographical notes, documenting Astley’s growth from schoolgirl to celebrated and cerebral author. By tracing her making through her poems, the collection shows the formative writing processes that led to her renowned style. The book is an unfurling of Astley’s progress, in both writing and living.

Thea Astley is best known for her fiction. She published seventeen novels, received the Miles Franklin Award four times, more times than any other author in her lifetime, and wrote until her death in 2004. In 1989, she won the Patrick White Award for her contributions to Australian literature and her novels have received numerous accolades. Works such as The Well-Dressed Explorer (1962), The Slow Natives (1965), It’s Always Raining in Mango (1987), The Multiple Effects of Rainshadow (1996), and Drylands (1999) are testament to Astley’s artistry. Unsurprisingly, her propensity for lush imagery and the precision of her syntax is well suited to poetry. Across the two modes, there is a persistence of themes and style: an affinity for water and the Queensland landscapes of her youth; a dexterity and opulence in her language; and a humour and ferocity in her social commentary.

Selected Poems were collated from Thea Astley’s archive in the Fryer Library, University of Queensland, which contains over two hundred poems, mostly from two lined schoolbooks. About twenty-five pieces were published during her lifetime. Most, however, were produced very early in her writing career. As expected in a chronological collection, the best work appears later in Selected Poems and most of these have never been published. The section Adulthood includes pieces from Exercise Book B in the archive. It appears Astley originally gathered these poems for a collection, but abandoned the project. These pieces, and Astley’s use of first-person narration within them, are the most revealing and eloquent in Selected Poems.

The first half of the collection contains the poems Astley produced in her childhood, adolescence, and student years at All Hallows Convent in Brisbane and her time at University of Queensland, until the age of 20. The initial poems, mostly from Exercise Book A, seem as if penned between the margins of textbooks: they are youthful, sentimental and full of zeal. It’s easy to imagine a teenage Astley, in wartime Brisbane, in the pages: her fondness for landscape and dreaming; her spirited accounts of first love. Phrases such as ‘shadows hurled/ With windy cloaks like swelling waves’ and ‘chained to a tottering world’ in ‘Poem [1]’ foreshadow the themes, style and sound patterning which feature in her later fiction. When Astley, interviewed in 1990, referred to writing ‘poetry in adolescence’ as though it were an affliction, she was likely recalling these poems. She referred to them as ‘a form of acne – I think I’m having a poem’. Although this hardly applies to Astley’s work – which, even so early in her writing career, is ripe with careful sensory detail and demonstrates her growing fascination with language and lyrical conventions – it is interesting to keep her dismissal of her early poetry in mind. There is a strong self-awareness in her adolescent poems. In ‘Creation’, she wrote of ‘loneliness’ and her impatience to experience the world, stating it ‘must be part of my making’. Her cry, ‘But O God! The pain in the making’ is satirical and self-deprecating; yet, as the ambition in her poems reveals, she was inspired and energised in her creative development. During her university years, this determination grew and she experimented with traditional forms and meter. Her work, which involves allusions to classic poetry and translations of French lyric poets, shows her honing her skills through emulation.

The poems in the second half of Selected Poems are sharper, wittier and, in their preoccupation with nature, stronger and more specific. From Exercise Book B, these poems were created between 1945 and 1957: a time of significant transition in Astley’s life. Her courtship and the early years of her marriage to husband, Jack Gregson; the resulting estrangement from her parents; moving to various parts of Australia; and her work as a high-school teacher: inklings of these biographical traits leak into her poetry. Astley’s poems move through remembered spaces and map the landscapes and seascapes of her youth. She wrote sonnets to Queensland islands in ‘Magnetic’ and ‘Whitsundays’; described ‘rhyming beaches’ and ‘the blue sea… sucking the shore’s white rind’ in her poem ‘Dunes’. However, when the scenery leaves her cold, such as that in ‘Hunters Hill [1]’, she is just as poetic:

When you see this flattened landscape
Creeping like a tired crustacean
Over a sea-bed; when you see
Tired claws of suburbs scrabbling
At the greenness; pray for us now.

As in her fiction, Astley’s poetry often describes the drudgery of suburbia and small towns. In ‘Hunters Hill [1]’, she writes of returning to a mythical Queensland, stating ‘my feet, time-tortured, crave / Familiar floors.’ The ambivalent feelings she conveys towards her surrounds – changes of residence, travel, nostalgia, her relationship with her husband – recur like the ‘rain’s incessant drumming’ in her poem ‘A Warning’. Rain and movement in bodies of water are enduring themes throughout the Adulthood section of Selected Poems; their descriptions are among the most memorable and moving of Taylor’s selection.

The majority of Thea Astley’s poetic output is included in this collection, offering a rare and very personal view into her life and creative process – more personal, perhaps, for the moments of imperfection in some poems. Watching Astley refine the skills and imagery she accomplished in her fiction is where the real pleasure in reading Selected Poems lies. While the collection may be unremarkable for readers indifferent or unfamiliar with her fiction, Astley’s innovative contributions to Australian literature and the full scope of her creative work deserve to be acknowledged and Cheryl Taylor does this elegantly.

-Emma Cooper


Emma Cooper is a writer living in Sydney. She is working on a novel called The Horizontal Woman and studying a Master of Creative Writing at the University of Sydney. Emma is originally from Cairns, Australia.

Thea Astley: Selected Poems (2017) is available from UQP


A Life in Words: Gig Ryan launches ‘Your Scratch Entourage’ by Kris Hemensley

Gig Ryan launched Your Scratch Entourage by Kris Hemensley, Cordite Books 2016, at Collected Works Bookshop on Tuesday, December 13, 2016,

your-scratch-entourageReading  Kris’s book has been a great salutary reminder of what poetry can be, beautiful language under pressure of thought and emotion, commemorative, unpredictable, a life, in words. There is also the specific Englishness of the poems, the poet in nature, following from Wordsworth and Coleridge.  As he puts it in ‘Against Dread’ –  ‘Natural’ is all that knows itself without an artist’s contribution’. Kris could, at a stretch, be seen as part of the British Poetry Revival that occurred in the 1960s, partly as reaction against the so-called Movement poets, then seen as bleak and ‘uptight’, but much more he is a seminal figure in Australian poetry, as both poet and catalyst of the equivalent revival here. The title of this book, also the title of the elegy to Barry McSweeney who died in 2000,  reminds me a little of Jeremy Prynne, in its enticing ambiguity. Does it mean those who have gone before, one’s entourage that has since passed away, that is, those who have been scratched from the race?  Or is it scratch as adjective meaning assembled from whatever is available, a good definition of poetry, but in this case it is also rather modest, because the bits and pieces go back to Shakespeare, to Keats, and also to Olson and Creeley. Some of the poems here have been re-assembled, and revised, over a period of forty years, and yet how fresh they seem. One doesn’t read this book as a Selected Poems, tracing the poet’s development, or lack of, chronologically, yet it is also a type of selected, like an anatomical dissection where we see the layers of time and events. And although there is a looking back over time, there is more a re-inhabiting of time, a sense that all times exist at once, that all we experience is forever in us and with us, with all those colleagues who have died still being present in our poems. (Today I found, online,  a 1977 review of Hemensley, by Sydney University academic, James Tulip, and he mentions Kris’s postscript to The Poem of the Clear Eye, in which brothers in a fish and chip shop merge into the fisherman in the shop’s painting:  ‘They flow in and out of each other in Hemensley’s mind – his comedy of empathy’, Southerly, No. 2, 1977, ‘Towards an Australian Modernism: New Writings of Kris Hemensley’ There is certainly a ‘comedy of empathy’ in many poems here, and it is this moderating, and modulating, empathy that encapsulates Kris’s metaphysics.

Two long sequences pay homage to rather neglected poets F. T. Prince and Ivor Gurney, as well as to his late friend, poet Charles Buckmaster, who killed himself, aged 21, in 1972 (you can find some Buckmaster poems on John Tranter’s website, from his 1979 anthology The New Australian Poetry, see also Kris Hemensley on Charles Buckmaster as well as to many painters, and Kris has inherited the mellifluousness that he praises in these poets, as in ‘Leaving Bridport with Ivor Gurney’, a poem with an irregular rhyming scheme that then folds into rhyming couplets at its end. Ivor Gurney died in 1937, so, that is, in the poet’s world, all is contemporaneous, and our forebears accompany us everywhere. In Kris’s poems alliteration abounds, and sound and rhythm are uppermost.

It’s plain the poet’s own name proxies this place
heralding a combination of bliss & pain
that only music can measure or contain –
since leaving Bridport no conversation
just a word half choked on between gasping gaze
& the first note of murmured disbelief
& the silence trapping beauty in its maze
in which life & death spark the self-same blaze.
……………………………….(‘Leaving Bridport with Ivor Gurney’)

The recurring place-names, the bluebells and other flowers, compose a genealogy of the poet himself – ‘They walked on air. / They’d brushed nettle and bluebell. They thanked / their lucky stars for such an English April.’ (‘In the middle of the world at war’)

As Lucas Weschke’s introduction describes, many poems are in a rough hexameter, creating a rhythm perfectly suited to the constant sense of wonder, as the poet moves forward through the world painting its beauty and surprises, both reassembling and forgiving the past. Such reconciliation is the core of the wonderful poem ‘Father’s Dark Ship’, with its tolling triplet end words ‘harbour’ / ‘darker’ / ‘failure’ resolving at its finish into ‘youth’ / ‘once’ / ‘earth’, and the final ‘again’.

One thing that Kris has continued from the late sixties is a life-affirming optimism, also apparent in his love of the patterns of words, the puns and connotations that each might have. Dark and darkness recur throughout, yet delight always glints through, delight in absurdity  – ‘what does day bring besides bad news? / why no fog to bolt up vision in its broom cupboard?’ (‘English Sweets, 2’), and ‘I travel the trains as tho’ in a stagecoach / or on the back of a recalcitrant angel / who can’t yet dispose of his love of the earth’ (‘English Sweets, 1’).

Especially significant are the last two sequences of sonnets ‘More Midsummer Night’s Dream than Dante’,  and ‘Harbour’, the first an anaphoric sequence of sonnets, with its titular first line introducing each sonnet, a sort of Stations of the Cross, describing moments of awakening into revelation (a little like Jennifer Maiden’s sequences, and it is important to remember that Kris and Robert Kenny were among the first to publish Maiden’s work)  – ‘Whether journey’s beginning or end / I couldn’t fathom it. Time’s classic double-cross. / Weirder fate’s plaything now instead of cocky host.’

The most remarkable quality of these poems is their lack of unifying irony that so many of us wear like a sort of glove-puppet, which too often disguises embarrassment at any emotion or ambition.  There is irony of course, but it doesn’t smother the poet’s intentions, doesn’t build a ring road for readers to manoeuvre through. Kris, with his harrowing honesty, doesn’t swerve from either emotion or ambition, but like Whitman, like Shakespeare, encompasses all – ‘Prince & hick. Groan and grin.’ (‘More Midsummer Night’s Dream than Dante’).

 – Gig Ryan


Gig Ryan is a poet and freelance reviewer. She has published numerous books including New and Selected Poems (Giramondo, Australia, 2011); Selected Poems (Bloodaxe, UK, 2012); songs with Disband, Six Goodbyes (1988), Driving Past, Real Estate (1999) and Travel (2006).

Your Scratch Entourage by Kris Hemensleyis available from



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Carmel Bird

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

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

Teasing Threads – Sundry Film and Literary Criticism: On regional writing.

Chris Palazzolo continues his musings on Regionality.

Image result for shoppers imagesIn my last column I chucked a few ideas around for a theory of Regional Reading. I proposed this kind of reading as a tactical response to technological changes in the structure of media and publishing, that is to say, technology’s white-anting of the nexus of authority, aesthetics and capital in those industries, and the now quite conceivable extinction of The Book and The Movie (through hyper-production). I concluded with a few words on how I write these columns, and I would like to continue where I left off under the subject heading Regional Writing.

As I’ve already stated, I write these columns in a café in my local shopping centre. But this is not the whole story. I actually only write the first draft here. The subsequent drafts I work over in the following evenings at home, after my kids have gone to bed and the house is quiet. It usually takes me three drafts before I’m ready to post, each session requiring approximately three hours of ‘writing labour’ (thinking and typing). For the sake of brevity I’ll focus on the first session (the café-shopping centre draft) because the fact that prior to it taking place no draft existed at all (the ‘something from nothing’ moment) makes it the best session to illustrate Regionality on the act of creation.

Traditional readings start from the assumption that the Author has placed a meaning inside their piece of writing (a column, an essay, a book). That meaning is the idea that was in the Author’s mind as they wrote; its existence preceded the writing of the piece, and the writing serves to give it expression – the reader’s duty is to find out what it is. Now I can’t speak for every writer, but if the truth be known, I only have vague and jumbled ideas when I sit at this table and switch on my laptop, and sometimes I don’t have any at all. Most of the time, the ideas only start to form as I write, and they’re usually highly contingent on the line I write first. It’s as if ideas coincide with the act of writing, in the same way I form ideas in conversation with another person I’ve just bumped into. The ideas are as contingent on what the other person says (which I can never completely anticipate, even if it is some polite chat about the weather) as those that precede my own utterance. Utterance and idea are in dialogue in other words and no psychology or linguistics has ever been able to say which comes first. Writing and ideas are the same; they are in dialogue with each other, and with my Region.

I described Regionality as a continuous proximity. It is also zones of proximity, graduated distances which become less and less proximate, but no matter how far away they are share with my Region the world. This is what I meant when I said Regionality is the world; the world is everywhere and always continually less and less and more and more proximate; the world mixes in through all the zones of all the regions. The café table where I sit is my immediate zone. My perceptions of what goes on in my zone are open and fluid, but zones are formed by the shape my region takes, that is to say the built environment which segments the region; zones it. Zones are not just physical, they’re reinforced by government, council and commercial laws; I sit in the café, the café is a business, I’m obliged to buy something (sometimes I’ll start with tea and sometimes black coffee). I watch the people in the next zone, the shopping centre concourse, who are obliged (by zonal regulation) to keep walking past. Dressed in colourful manufactures, they’re engaged in the same benign activities as millions of other people all around the world; purchasing and consuming goods from far away zones of (less benign) production. Their passing presences, as they continue into further away zones, or come and sit in the café near me, hold my attention, distract me, and sometimes, in glancing ways, are strung into the dialogue of writing and ideas. There are all sorts of things going on like this, and the whole hubbub is in my pieces. A good reading should be able to hear it all.

I write about books and movies, or I call books and movies into existence in my writing, for the sake of coherence. The raw experience of Regionality is like a private language, utterly relative to everyone else’s regions. Books and movies are still (thankfully) part of a shared language where we can be understood, and engaged in a dialogue of exciting ideas. The excitement for me is pulling together out of my teeming region, something with form and meaning, something which depends for its existence on other existents, but which has never existed before, until now.

– Chris Palazzolo


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

A Life Evolving: David O’Sullivan Reviews ‘First Things First, Selected Letters of Kate Llewellyn’

First Things First: Selected Letters By Kate Llewellyn 1977-2004 edited by Ruth Bacchus and Barbara Hill, Wakefield Press 2015

first things firstI enjoy reading the correspondence from leading authors and thinkers. I love the insight provided by seeing a glimpse of famous people’s personal lives and thoughts. Examples include Franz Kafka’s letters which reveal his inner turmoil and love, and Vladimir Nabokov’s letters to his wife, examining their enchantment and connection. First Things First, Selected Letters of Kate Llewellyn is no exception. Published here for the first time are a selection of Kate Llewellyn’s personal correspondence from 1977-2004. Writers of this quality are fascinating to read; you get to experience their skill with the written word. The guard that artists build so carefully, so often held up, is rarely penetrated, but here we get a rare chance to see a famous life examined. The reader is able to see what thoughts, doubts, and struggles exist in the mind of Kate Llewellyn.

We see Kate Llewellyn the thinker:

We drove to the wetlands twenty kilometres away and saw the trees standing dead in it with pink galahs decorating them like bows of ribbon.

The person

I am stiff in the limbs as I helped haul in two tonnes (or is it ton) of salmon this afternoon. A great day. A great haul. I wandered along for about four kilometres to get my mail from a small P.O. store on the beach. When I got back I saw a fisherman running to his boat parked on the beach. I said, “Do you know something I don’t?” He said… “a big mob of salmon up at Sellicks Beach. Hop in if you want to come.” I leapt into the four-wheel drive (an old wreck) and at the top of the ramp, in leapt his elderly cousin Colin with a big dog… I was in my bathers squashed between men, dog, gear and binoculars in my lap.

And, of course, the artist

I’ve always said I will write anywhere. You could throw me into prison, cut off my arms and legs and you will find me in the morning with a pen in my mouth writing on the floor.

This book provides a record of activities and actions taken by the author over a significant period of her life in a way a biography could not. We feel her happiness, frustration, and joy. We see the sad and exciting. Time moves by and as she ages gracefully, we see a life evolve.

The letters reflect the love, intelligence, shortcomings and kindness of Llewellyn. From her everyday experiences:

Jack sitting here eating poached eggs and gravy on toast, a thing Hugh and I love…

to the difficulties of travelling to book fairs “three hours each way” only to “only sell three books.” We also see reflected the history of Australia and the effect it had on Llewellyn:

13th March 1993

Dear Bob and Mandy,

Well labor won… thank god… a modern miracle… until the last week I thought they were gone goslings as Wendy would say. All, or many artists will be heaving sighs of relief.

These letters brim with the personality of the poet and prose master; they reflect her power to transfer images from her mind to the mind of the reader with skill and ease. These selected letters are a must read for fans of Llewellyn, the insights provided into the life of an author. The experiences of travelling, writing, perfecting her craft may also appeal to people who are attracted to art and artists. The journey that we follow is one into a genuine life well lived.

On the other side of this, I must issue a warning. At times this journey can be rather dull. At times, the book can be like reading the letters from your grandmother’s long gone and unfamiliar friends, after your grandmother has passed away. There were pages I skimmed, there were life events, that although interesting for those connected at the time, I felt more like an outsider who could not care less. But for each of these times, as I read on, glimpses of genius would flare up and reignite my interest.

Editors Ruth Bacchus and Barbara Hill have read through decades of correspondence to bring what they consider to be the most poignant and revealing notes. This book is like getting to know a new lover, you dip into the intimate side of their lives, amusing and touching moments are revealed, you live through the dry and dull moments and you are left with the memory of truly knowing another living human.

 – David O’Sullivan


David O’Sullivan is a writer and an academic literacy and learning adviser at Charles Sturt University. David is the author of two novels The Bomber and Anvil Soul. You can follow David’s writing blog at

First Things First: Selected Letters By Kate Llewellyn 1977-2004 is available from

Kerryn Goldsworthy’s launch speech for First Things First: Selected Letters By Kate Llewellyn can be found at


Teasing Threads – Sundry Film and Literary Criticism: On regional reading

Chris Palazzolo looks at one way of seeing through the contemporary murk

Novels and narrative films are easy things to analyse because they are (or have been) customarily presented to us as singular objects. In the case of the novel, the objective form is the Book (authored, published, commodified) and in the case of the narrative film (an automated audio-visual spectacle of a definite duration), a Movie. With the internet now demonstrating what the much scoffed-at deconstructionists warned us about 50 years ago – that the ‘object’ status of the Book and Movie are historically contingent things, and that the age of the ‘text,’ which is neither objective nor singular, is now upon us, analysts are going to have to deal with a whole spooky realm of ‘regional’ readings – where defining a ‘region’ of text and calling that ‘region’ a novel, or a movie, is an act of will on the part of the reader. The collapse of the traditional model of book publishing and selling, and the feverish fractalising of electronic media means that commercial culture is going to be of less and less help in this regard; it’s embracing the ‘age of the text’ with planet enveloping enthusiasm.

Should we be afraid of these developments? After all, just over a century ago there were no such things as movies, and the Book as we know it now has really only been with us for a century and a half (sure, there are ‘books’ from the middle ages, but they were extremely rare things, and many of those the creations of monastic curators rather than single authors). Even up to the end of the nineteenth century the most common form of storytelling was poetic and verbal and the most common form of publishing, pamphlets and serials. Even our conception of criticism and analysis – of unlocking meaning from a single objective movie or book (including contemporary reviews which reduce criticism to whether something is good or bad) has only been with us for a century. But with the sense that our civilisation is threatened from all kinds of forces (political, economic and environmental) it’s natural that many readers would find the current situation alarming. How can we evaluate, that is to say determine what is worthy by virtue of its inspiration, its genius, and so validate what we regard as the best in our civilisation – how can we say anything is better than anything else – if there are no longer any reliable Objects for us to single out and study? The whole purpose of reading seems redundant. All we can do now is flit across surfaces and surrender our minds to memes.

But perhaps there are plenty of masterpieces out there. They’re just not only from the great metropolitan centres of cultural production anymore. Perhaps the finest films of these times are ‘home movies,’ made with an artfulness and delicacy that we don’t have the critical tools to appreciate yet, uploaded onto Youtube? Perhaps the greatest novels of the twenty first century are not being published by the presses of New York or London; they’re to be found in that continent sized slush-pile of online self-published manuscripts? It’s impossible for us to know because the enormity of the change (to say nothing of the amount of the stuff) makes all of it look like dross. We can’t get a critical purchase on it because the scale and speed that it accumulates makes all our intellectual tools seem so feeble.

The 21st century is the century of the regions and the first direct threat to the West’s metropolitan hegemony since the Second World War. All of the big macro events of the last two decades, from the catastrophe of the Middle East to Brexit in Europe and Trumpism in the US are in critical ways the ‘revenge’ of the regions on the metropolitan centres of the West where so much of the world’s capital and prestige has accumulated. These events mark the beginnings of a global adjustment so to speak, and terrible crimes are already being committed because of it. We are all involved in it, no matter where we live; everyplace in the world is now as important as any other. That’s why I propose the concept of ‘regional reading,’ as a way to get a perspective on things. I mean regional to be understood in its geopolitical usage, but also in its existential usage, that is to say a kind of continuous proximity that bears on any kind of individual activity. And I mean reading to be understood, not as the opposite of writing, but as a kind of writing – an activity that calls meaning and form into existence. I write my Teasing Threads posts in a café in my local shopping centre, so that café bears on, or contributes to, the writing. It’s not just my mental labour that produces them, but all the things going on in my region also have an input; the café, the course of shoppers walking by, the gratifying sounds of other people’s kids chucking tantrums, etc. All of it colours and inflects what I write, sometimes even changes its direction altogether. The concept of text is much more useful in this regard than the closed concepts of books and movies. But if I choose to call books and movies into existence in the middle of the shopping centre, that’s because I’m a fifty year old guy and I love books and movies. The greatest works of art give a vantage point on the world, and as the world is regional only a regional reading can see the world.



By way of a post-script I would like to take the opportunity to promote my novel Scene and Circles. I’m doing this here on the flimsy pretext of regionality. It is a very regional novel, both in its subject matter and its literary status (an online slushpile masterpiece). But I’d love to see it as a proper book one day.



– Chris Palazzolo



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


“A vision of past savagery that lies maddeningly between truth and fiction”: James Dunk reviews Sarah Drummond’s ‘The Sound’

The Sound by Sarah Drummond. Fremantle Press (2016).

the-soundSarah Drummond’s debut book, Salt Story: Of Sea-Dogs and Fisherwomen was a rare one – a non-fictional account of the sea and its people arising from the author’s own experience. It was short-listed for the West Australian Premier’s Book Awards in 2014.

Drummond’s second novel, The Sound, fictionalises the lived experience of others, carefully reconstructing the world of the sealers who worked in the hinterland of British colonialism in Australia in the 1820s. It vividly recreates King George’s Sound, a bay at the south-western tip of the continent, as a theatre of cross purposes, of freedom and death – a beautiful place tortured by European savagery.

Drummond’s novel is a beautifully written excursion into the ethics of this violent world. Her protagonist is William Hook, a Maori man who crosses the Tasman in search of the sealers who sacked his village. To find them, he joins a sealing crew. The novel follows closely the small band from Hobart, through the islands of Bass Strait, to the Sound, dwelling on the relationships ‘Billhook’ forms with the white sealers and with the Aboriginal women in the group. Some are coerced; all are pursuing private agendas. They span the gamut of privilege and agency.

In Salamanca Bay, Hobart’s now charming and genteel dockside district, two heavy black pots stand in commemoration of the whaling industry. On ship decks, on the islands of Bass Strait, and on southern shores, blubber was boiled down for days at a stretch and drained into barrels of oil. These cauldrons now stand as opaque relics of ecological destruction. Phillip Hoare’s Leviathan, or the Whale (Fourth Estate, 2009) illuminated this history with its winsome, devastating portrayal of whale life and the life of whalers. Leviathan ties the early march of industrial progress to the hunting of cetaceans: the whales of the oceans died in thousands to light the streets of European cities.

‘Sealing’ was like ‘whaling’ (words which elide the black pots and bloody harpoons), except that where whales were fearsome quarry, seals were gormless creatures waiting beside the sea for men to club them. Graphic passages in The Sound describe this killing. Drummond’s language here is vivid and precise. She conjures the past in its infinitesimal details without labouring these details: a difficult balance to achieve. In less elegant historical novels, the paraphrasing of technical information gleaned from long researches easily breaks whatever spell may be obtaining. Drummond, however, deploys the fine grain of the past in order to bring the past credibly and compellingly into the present.

The Sound is set in the world of the sealers, deserters, and escapees who fled from colonial society and authority to the southern shore of the Australian continent and the islands of the Bass Strait. The Sound’s dust jacket calls it a ‘violent and lawless world.’ It was constituted in defiance of the authority and regularity, the sovereignty and justice of imperial Britain and in flagrant disregard for the subjectivity and sovereignty of Aboriginal people. The Empire, for all its sins, brought an air of bureaucratic formality to the areas it directly controlled, and this proscribed certain behaviours. At its territorial fringe, however, those who fled its restraints wielded European knowledge and technology licentiously.

Few of us read to be brutalised, but the problem of writing about the past is that it was often brutal. Penny Russell’s history of colonial mores, Savage or Civilised?: Manners in Colonial Australia (UNSW Press, 2010) maps the navigation of etiquette in colonial society. Although her work has mostly treated civility, rather than savagery, Russell is hardly a historian of niceness, seeking merely to divert. She delves into the archive of polite and impolite gestures, reading the construction of colonial society with a critical eye. Other literature, both fictional and non-fictional, simply conjures a past in which ‘civilisation’ really indicated virtue and restraint. The virtuous frontier summoned by this writing is a pleasant place to visit: a place where the dramas of individual and familial life can be played out in the curated world of the ‘pioneers’, rather than at the actual ragged edge of empire. Savagery is harder. To write about it is to either demonise it – to make it fundamentally, unfeasibly other – or to do the unpleasant work of imagining ourselves into the emotional and intellectual spaces in which savagery seems civilised. Nietzsche’s abyss threatens to open also in ourselves during the act of gazing.

The shroud lying over the Australian history of sealing, and sexual and labour slavery implied by it, is partly the deliberate work of its denizens, opposed as they were to authority, regularity, and record-keeping. But it has been reinforced by modern sensibilities. Although in many ways sealers and whalers were colonial pioneers, and even excelled in certain of the traits we laud in our more palatable pioneers, Australian narratives have neglected them. They represent the colonial darkness over which the brief, but rancorous history wars were fought. The literate public has tended to allow them the seclusion they themselves sought. As if they were not also the product of our empires, and builders of our ‘civilisations’.

Despite Lynnette Russell’s excellent Roving Mariners: Australian Aboriginal Whalers and Sealers in the Southern Oceans, 1790-1870 (State University of New York Press, 2012), then, the world of these sealers remains for the most part an informal, uncertain one. In fiction, however, such a world can still be effectively explored. The mainspring behind The Sound is an unassuming, but entirely enthralling statement made by William Hook, to Edmund Lockyer, who arrived at King George’s Sound in 1826 as commandant of a new British settlement. The text, which appears in Historical Records of Australia, is reproduced in full on Drummond’s website, amongst a plethora of biographical and historical writing, all anchored by conventional references in the established historical record. It bears witness to crimes by sealers against the indigenous people of the Sound. British law, which had been largely theoretical, was breaking in.

Drummond uses Billhook to guide her through the mechanical difficulty of writing about savagery, that of perspective. How can we get close enough to savagery to see it properly? Drummond makes ‘Billhook’ the victim of a massacre in adjacent imperial borderlands – a real attack carried out in 1817 in Otago by James Kelly and the crew of the Sophia – but one not clearly linked with William Hook. By this means, readers only gradually enter the mindset of the sealers; the ugliness is introduced in stages. When we encounter genuine brutality, therefore, we are imaginatively involved with the brutalisers. The clubbing of seal cubs pales beside the abduction and rape of Aboriginal women. This was what transpired at the edge of empire.

Or was it? There is little evidence of precisely what happened amongst these sealers and whalers. This dearth has allowed space for prevarication, and justified silence. This savagery was a thing half known. Certain ‘cultural warriors’ sacralise a threshold of written factuality – something only achieved within that imperial formality; everything beyond is speculative, even malicious. This self-serving standard protects that image of the virtuous pioneers, who wrote their own histories.

In her dispute with Kate Grenville, author of a different imagined account of frontier brutality, The Secret River, the historian Inga Clendinnen (2006) argued that historians are set apart from novelists by their ‘moral contract’ with the past. At the end of The Sound, a note claims this moral authority for the author, if not the novel. Readers are directed to Drummond’s website, where a collection of closely-referenced biographical pieces explore the recorded past in the manner of what she calls ‘straight history’. Fiction, however, may be bolder than history, and the novel itself follows, imaginatively, the slender evidence to its likely conclusions.

Drummond is contractually bound not to the past, as it actually was, but to the problem of human savagery. It was unpleasant to get close enough to the characters to write them compellingly – particularly the sealer, Samuel Bailey. “I’m completely stalled with that writing,” Drummond (2013, para. 12) blogged at one point. “I don’t like them. I don’t want to hang out with Samuel Bailey every day. When I do, he does my fucking head in. I feel crazy by the end of the day. I just want to climb out of my own brain.”

Why take up such a project, without an injunction from actual victims to bear witness? Drummond uses the conceit of Bluebeard’s chamber to explore her fascination with Bailey. Like Bluebeard’s young bride, she blundered her way into a dangerous contract, telling herself ‘his beard is not quite so blue’. Researching, and particularly writing, was for Drummond the opening of the chamber, and the loss of this cultivated innocence. “When you shine a light in a dark cave,” Drummond (2013, para 29) writes of the minds of the sealers, “the crevices and corners become all the more darker.”

The problem fiction writers have, and historians do not, is that here there is no cave. The crevices and corners, while certainly dark, are written into the past from Drummond’s imagination. Fiction is wonderful; it transports us from the prosaic not only into rich-hued worlds, but into the thrust of meaningful narratives. Historical fiction produces these narratives by smoothing out past episodes that almost hang together. It abridges the pieces of men and women which we can find scattered in the records of the past that almost make believable characters. It can turn the past into a place we understand. But it cannot at the same time hold these men and women to account. A novel like The Sound, finally, has its own delicate cruelty. It traumatises with a vision of past savagery that lies maddeningly between truth and fiction.

-James Dunk

Reference list

Clendinnen, I. 2006, The history question: who owns the past?, Quarterly Essay 23, Black Inc., Melbourne.

Drummond, S. 2013, ‘Predator dreams,’ A winedark sea: ripping yarns, beautiful lies and a few home truths, weblog, 10 July, viewed 23 September 2016, <>.

Purchase Sarah Drummond’s The Sound from Fremantle Press here
Read a chapter from The Sound here


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

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A Characteristically Bold Innovation in Form: Peter Stanley Launches ‘Plevna: A Biography in Verse’ by Geoff Page

Plevna: A Biography in Verse by Geoff Page. UWAP 2016

plevnaLadies and gentlemen, colleagues, friends. Good evening and thank you, Geoff, for inviting me to do the honours tonight. I’ve known and admired Geoff Page for about thirty years. In the early 1980s he put together an anthology of poetry reflecting on the Great War and submitted it to the Australian War Memorial, where I worked, and which in those days saw itself as open to publish words that did more than merely salute brave, dead diggers. His book, Shadows from Wire, was an honest and critical reflection on that war and all war, and it went on to be re-published by Penguin and become what I think can rightly be described as a best-seller in Australian verse.

As a sign of the passing of time, I remember that Geoff submitted the manuscript in a blue spring-backed binder, with the photographs (which were an integral part of his concept) stuck into a series of typed pages. It looked more like a school project than a manuscript, but he was after all a high school teacher, and ah, it was a more innocent age …

Since then Geoff has of course established a reputation as one of Australia’s foremost poets, and there can be few readers of the Saturday Canberra Times who are not aware of his standing as not only a poet himself but also as a critic and interpreter of poetry. That Geoff has survived the Fairfaxisation of our Canberra Times is a testament to his stature as a poet known nationally and not just in Canberra.

Geoff has always had an interest in reflecting on history through his use of words. I had the great pleasure in preparation for today of reading his novel Benton’s Conviction. It was not, as I had mis-remembered, written in verse, but it was all the same a very fine rendering of the stresses that the Great War brought to an Australian community. I noticed that it was dedicated to the memory of the Rev. Linden Webb, whose unusually principled sermons in Hay, NSW, questioning the easy acceptance of the war as a Christian crusade I referred to in my recent chapters on the war’s effects on Australian society.

And Geoff’s use of poetry to sharpen our awareness of important issues in history is fixed in my memory. In the early 1990s Geoff spoke at one of the big annual history conferences we used to hold at the Memorial. Geoff recited some of the poems he’d written commenting on frontier conflict in the settlement of colonial Australia: an unusual form and an unexpected venue, but they were different times. That subject – the acceptance of the fact and significance of frontier conflict – is still not resolved. It might be time to give those poems another outing, Geoff.

This evening we gather to celebrate Geoff’s latest book, and a characteristically bold innovation in form, a ‘Biography in Verse’ of Charles ‘Plevna’ Ryan. (If you try to find ‘biography in verse’ in the National Library’s catalogue you get just one hit: Plevna. (There are a very few memoirs in verse, but only one biography: this book is literally unique. As people say these days Plevna is ‘one of the only’ books to describe a life in verse.)

Who was Charles Ryan and why was he nicknamed ‘Plevna’? I don’t want to spoil your enjoyment of Geoff’s account of Ryan’s life, so I’ll just say that he was a Melbourne-born surgeon who in the late 1870s found himself working as a medical officer for the Ottoman Turkish army at the siege of Plevna, in Bulgaria.

As Geoff shows, this eventful, stressful and traumatic period was the most intense time in Charles Ryan’s life and it defined him thereafter, when he had returned to practise in Melbourne, to marry and live a more sedate life – but he always carried the nickname of ‘Plevna’.

Ryan became the Ottoman empire’s first honorary consul in Australia, and he embodies an important stage in the long relationship between Australia and Turkey. In a book that I’ve just published, co-written with Vicken Babkenian, Armenia, Australia and the Great War, we mention Plevna Ryan’s service during a typhus epidemic in Ezeroum, in eastern Turkey. Indeed, we noticed the same anecdote that Geoff tells – but I’ll quote Geoff’s version, because it’s more economical and elegant than ours:

Along with Denniston and Stoker [British surgeons]
you treat Armenians for nothing,
including their archbishop who
insists you take, in recompense,
an ancient Persian bracelet
rescued from the time of Xerxes.

Did its maker’s father fight
at Salamis or Marathon?
you cannot help but wonder …

Here we have a writer whose skill and confidence with words enables him to do something that no one else has dared to do – to render a man’s life (or at least the most dramatic and accessible parts of it) in a form not usually associated with biography. It persuades me how verse enables a biographer to expose the essence of the story and of the emotions that underpin it – even when they are not apparent (as I hinted, Charles Ryan was a pretty buttoned up Victorian, and a surgeon to boot) – but some of his experiences in the Russo-Turkish war must have affected him for years, something to which Geoff’s text alludes. Geoff’s adept words and spare but sharp lines are like a lively life sketch rather than a fully worked-up oil painting.

But in just a few lines Geoff gives us the essence of Ryan’s experience – as a 60-year-old he served on Gallipoli as the 1st Division’s senior medico (one of the oldest combatants on the peninsula). Here he is at the celebrated 24 May truce on Gallipoli:

Those bodies, sprawled and rotting,
are hazardous to health
and dysentery is rife already.
You walk among the corpses,
quietly giving orders.
The shovel parties overlap;
and now some Turkish officers
have seen your Plevna decorations.
They think, like some Circassian,
you stole them from the dead and start to remonstrate.
‘No, no,’ you say in Turkish.
‘I got these when I fought at Plevna
with Gazi Osman Pasha.’
And then, we’re told, they’re hugging you
expansively as comrades.

And so on until Ryan’s death, on a ship off the South Australian coast in 1926.

I liked the sense of Geoff’s reflections throughout the book. On the very last page he wittily observes the challenges of writing any biography, in verse or not, noticing the

… random slips of evidence
the internet preserves,
managing the clash of dates,
the multiple accounts,
the various lacunae,
the several contradictions
that hinder and release,
forcing one to speculate
while falsifying nothing.

Ladies and gentlemen, friends, I hope that I’ve given you a fair impression of a wonderfully innovative, bold and fair ‘biography in verse’, one which resurrects one of the great characters of late Victorian Australia and one of the most notable characters on Gallipoli, a man who uniquely spanned two of the belligerent nations then and forever since.

On your behalf I congratulate Geoff Page on another wonderful book, which I pronounce duly launched. Congratulations, Geoff.

 – Peter Stanley

Prof. Peter Stanley of UNSW Canberra is one of Australia’s most active military social historians, and President of Honest history. His latest book is Armenia, Australia and the Great War. 

Plevna: A Biography in Verse is available from

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