Language and Chatty Syntax: Andrew Burke reviews 1953: A verse narrative by Geoff Page

1953: A verse narrative by Geoff Page UQP Poetry Series (2013)

1953Geoff Page has written a rich-veined poetry novel entitled and set in 1953. I read it once over the course of many busy days and was so interrupted by daily events, I went back to it and read it again slowly, taking notes and writing comments. As a child, I picked flies to pieces and disrobed caterpillars, with much the same result. Maybe I’ll just tell you what I think.

I must tell you, openly and whole-heartedly, I enjoyed it. I read it and reread some poems that jolted my memory, and, as Frank Moorhouse says on the back, stopped me in my tracks. (Yes, I remember 1953.) I’ve read many ‘verse novels’ and liked only some of them: Seth’s The Golden Gate for his dexterous use of the sonnet form; Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid for its vibrant lively language and the great use of detailed research; Murray’s Fredy Neptune for its depth of narrative and strength of poetic; Amos Oz’s The Same Sea, for its sensuous writing and application of narrative to bring alive historic conflict. I’ve also read many verse novels that have been inspired by these successful works and found the majority of them wanting, the poetry weak. My vision of a successful ‘verse novel’ is a strong narrative written in good poetry. My version of good poetry may not be yours, but that’s the way the poetic foot rambles.

What makes a novel? Setting, characters and plot are the bare bones. So let us look at 1953 through these elements.

Geoff Page sets the tone and the pace in the first poem, skilfully painting a country town circa 1953 and setting up the ‘style’ of the book at the same time:

The stories here start everywhere,
already half-way through,
a web of roots, of nodes and networks

An interesting point-of-view is used here as the author takes the reader through the town of Eurandangee as through the lens of a cinematographer (as in Arthur Miller’s novel The Misfits) –

Our view is slowly moving right,
slow enough to count the houses,
roofs grey-white and galvanised,
gardens with their shrubs and lawns
that only just remember water.
Off towards the western edge
we see the brickwork turn to fibro
and campfires out the back.
The main street’s straight as parted hair:

Through his language and chatty syntax, we feel the love and tenderness Page has for a rural Australian long gone …

The people are from brush-strokes only;
We do not see their faces.
We recognise Akubras though,
bigger brims for smaller places.
We see the European trees
thirsting in the park
though not the damage underneath.
We see the marble digger,
musing on his column.

Throughout the book, Page’s wit shines through, with an affectionate tone in the portraits of big knobs, fringe dwellers, shearers, fettlers, diggers and returned soldiers, and skylarking schoolkids under the caring eye of their school teacher. I live in a country town in NSW now, and I can still recognise his characters as I shop with merchants and negotiate with tradesmen around this town.

The setting is stopped in time: ‘a Tuesday, right on half past two, / 17th February, / 1953.’ After WWII, but during the Korean War; before Queen Elizabeth’s coronation visit but after the first Holden had rolled off the assembly line; during the time of worldwide tension called the Cold War. World events do come home to play on some of the characters here, but many continue the quiet rural lives of those generations before them. They often question whether they should have stayed or not. Well, the clock doesn’t move, but the characters do interact and go about their daily lives, as in an outback version of Dylan Thomas’s Llareggub.

I don’t know in which order Page wrote the portraits of the characters that make up the tale, but he has shuffled them in such a way as to create webs of narrative as real as in any small, close community. Nothing much happens, but there again a lot is happening, if you get my drift: there’s an affair, with rich emotions to explore through three of the main participants; there’s the results of an earlier affair for a young girl and a shifty shearer – her parents, a child born, lives changed forever; the nightmarish aftermaths of war on returned diggers and wives; a story of a ‘half-caste’ family (as they were known back then), with the mother drinking and the kids tending for themselves. The Royal Hotel is one of the central social settings, and is the stage for much class distinction of the time.

The first word on the book’s back blurb is ‘suspenseful’ – and I can’t see that. Suspense doesn’t really enter into it for me. The town is a living breathing example of a country community set back then, 1953, when sheep and wool prices were at their ‘apogee’ and there was still a choice to stay home after school was done. There is tragedy at the end, misplaced love and sex along the way, the laying of the vital railways of Australia, war in action and reaction, and a rich and affectionate portrait of a country town – but suspense? No. If anything, the characterisations are mildly predictable, but executed in such a warm-hearted and witty way that they are fresh again.

The plot, as such, is already half-way through from the first word. And absolutely about to begin with the last – which I won’t quote because it would be a ‘spoiler’. It is a difficult task to set yourself as the author: a town stopped at two thirty on a Tuesday sixty years ago, with a multitude of characters busy in their lives of loving, warring, making life and making a living – stop-framed and backgrounded, loaded – as it were – with the next events in their lives about to explode. Page moves the characters through dramatic monologues and single-character point of view narratives. It is a kaleidoscope with all the pieces coming together to create a dynamic multi-faceted tableau.

I only have one gripe. One of the best ways to breathe life in characters on the page is to give them something to say. To my mind, there should be more dialogue in these stories. Someone wise once said, ‘A character comes alive when they open their mouth’. When this happens in these pages, the scene becomes alive. I particularly like the narrative mode of poem XV. Three young women, like a bored Greek chorus, are gossiping about Peggy with character assassination and hints of an affair but no facts – the lethal mixture for social trouble in any small community.

‘That Peggy, she’s a bit stuck-up,
Now she’s married Stan, I reckon.
She’s not the girl she used to be
Back at Doctor God’s.’
The speaker, maybe twenty-five,
Rocks a pram pulled in beside her.

They talk and sip shandies, light a smoke and gaze about, before continuing:

‘So, what’s the story then?
What’s she keeping from us, eh?’
‘Or who might be a better question,’
says Number 1 across her shoulder,
off to buy the round.
The other two see what she means,
check the baby as they wait,
half-annoyed there’s nothing yet
a girl can really get stuck into.

Today’s society with all its joys, ills and treacherous, luxuries took root yesterday in just such communities as Eurandangee, Tuesday , 17 February, 1953. Entire sections of your local library have texts that explore the historical, ethical, socio-logical, racial and economic themes whispered in the pages of this rich seedbed of a book, but this book has a tapestry of human emotions running through it. Go read 1953 and ponder what happens next – in 1953 and 2013.

– Andrew Burke

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Andrew Burke is a leading Australian poet.His two latest nooks are Undercover of Lightness: New & Selected Poems (Walleah Press, Hobart) and Shikibu Shuffle in collaboration with Phil Hall,(above/ground press, Ontario). He blogs at hi spirits.

1953 can be obtained from UQP http://www.uqp.uq.edu.au/book.aspx/1232/1953

Winners of the inaugural Queensland Literary Awards announced.

Back in April this year Rochford Street Review reacted with resigned shock at the axing of the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards by the incoming LNP Government. It was “resigned shock” as really we didn’t expect anything better from a conservative government which could trace their roots back to Bjelke-Petersen.  This action, which was supposed to save the Queensland tax payer a total of $244,475, was one of the first ‘slash and burn’ economic responses which have spread across Queensland over the last six months. Ironically it has recently appeared that, despite the economic gloom and doom which has seen funding to Arts organisations, slashed, thousands of public servants sacked  and health and disability services downgraded, Premier Newman has managed to find a spare $200,000 to subsidise the latest incarnation of the reality TV show Big Brother.  Rochford Street Review is not the first to note that $200,000 would have been enough to sustain the Premier’s Literary Awards.

Despite Premier Newman’s disregard for the arts in Queensland, writers across Queensland and Australia rallied in the days following the announcement.  A small group from the literary and arts community decided to step in where Premier Newman was scared to tread and set up the inaugural 2012 Queensland Literary Awards.  A fund-raising campaign was set up and over $30,000 was raised for author prizes and associated running costs.

After months of hard work, most of it by an army of volunteers, the awards winners were announced at a glittering awards ceremony at the Queensland State Library. In the days lading up to the ceremony Queensland Arts Minister,  Ros Bates,  promised to “open discussions” with the organisers of the Awards to ensure they “continued into the future”. While we can hope I wouldn’t suggest holding your breath…..

Here are the short listed titles along with the winners:

Unpublished Indigenous Writer – David Unaipon Award

  • Siv Parker for Story WINNER 2012
  • Ellen van Neerven-Currie for Hard
  • Dorothy Williams-Kemp for My Journey that May Never End

Emerging QLD Author – Manuscript Award

  • Aaron Smibert for Scratches on the Surface
  • Luke Thomas for Home Mechanics
  • Catherine Titasey for Island of the Unexpected  WINNER 2012
  • Ariella van Luyn for Hidden Objects

Literary or Media Work Advancing Public Debate – Harry Williams Award

  • Paul Cleary for Too Much Luck: The Mining Boom and Australia’s Future
  • George Megalogenis for The Australian Moment: How We Were Made for These Times  WINNER 2012
  • Michael Wesley for There Goes the Neighbourhood

Science Book Award

  • Robyn Arianrhod for Seduced by Logic
  • Frank Bowden for Gone Viral
  • Rob Brooks for Sex, Genes and Rock ‘n’ Roll  WINNER 2012
  • Dr Richard Smith for Australia: The Time Traveller’s Guide

History Book Award

  • Robyn Arianrhod for Seduced by Logic
  • James Boyce for 1835: The Founding of Melbourne and the Conquest of Australia
  • Bill Gammage for Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia WINNER 2012
  • Nicole Moore for The Censor’s Library

Fiction

  • Peter Carey for The Chemistry of Tears
  • Anna Funder for All That  I Am
  • Kate Grenville for Sarah Thornhill
  • Alex Miller for Autumn Laing
  • Frank Moorhouse for Cold Light WINNER 2012

Non-fiction

  • Robin de Crespigny for The People Smuggler WINNER 2012
  • Jane Gleeson-White for Double Entry
  • Patrick Holland for Riding the Trains in Japan
  • William McInnes & Sarah Watt for Worse Things Happen at Sea
  • Alice Pung for Her Father’s Daughter

Australian Short Story collection – Steele Rudd Award

  • Rodney Hall for Silence
  • Marion  Halligan for Shooting the Fox
  • John Kinsella for In the Shade of the Shady Tree
  • Ryan O’Neill for The Weight of a Human Heart
  • Janette Turner Hospital for Forecast: Turbulence WINNER 2012

Judith Wright Calanthe Poetry Award

  • Anthony Lawrence for The Welfare of my Enemy
  • David McCooey for Outside
  • Rhyll McMaster for Late Night Shopping
  • Peter Rose for Crimson Crop WINNER 2012
  • Simon West for The Yellow Gum’s Conversion

Children’s Book Award

  • Pamela Rushby for The Horses Didn’t Come Home
  • John Flanagan for Brotherband: The Outcasts
  • Libby Gleeson & Freya Blackwood for Look, a Book!
  • Elizabeth Honey for Ten Blue Wrens
  • Briony Stewart for Kumiko and the Shadow Catchers WINNER 2012

Young Adult Book Award

  • Kirsty Eagar for Night Beach
  • Neil Grant for The Ink Bridge WINNER 2012
  • Judith Clarke for Three Summers
  • Margo Lanagan for Sea Hearts
  • Vikki  Wakefield for All I ever wanted

Drama Script (Stage)

  • Angela Betzien for War Crimes WINNER 2012
  • Wayne Blair for Bloodland
  • Patricia Cornelius for Taxi
  • Rita Kalnejais for Babyteeth
  • Lally Katz for A Golem Story

Television Script

  • Blake Ayshford for The Straits (episode 3 )
  • Brendan Cowell for The Slap (episode 3)
  • Liz Doran for Dance Academy (season 2, ep 24)
  • Anthony Mullins for Strange Calls (episode 3)
  • Sue Smith for Mabo WINNER 2012

Film Script

  • Louise Fox for Dead Europe WINNER 2012
  • Miro Bilbrough for Being Venice
  • Shayne Armstrong & Shane Krause for Rarer Monsters
  • Brendan Cowell for Save Your Legs

-Mark Roberts

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Queensland Literary Awards Website

Carol Novack – A life remembered. Tributes from John Jenkins and Rae Desmond Jones

Carol Novack, ca. 1974 / 1975, Adelaide, Australia (photo: Terry Bennett). Source Mad Hatters' Review

Carol Novack, writer, poet, editor and luminary publisher of the alternative and edgy Mad Hatters’ Review, MadHat Press and the MadHat Arts Foundation,  died on 29 December last year. Although she was born in the USA, and spent much of her life there, she spent a number of years in Australia during the 1970’s and made a major contribution to the development of Australian poetry during those years. During these years she worked as an editor for the Cosmopolitan, and began publishing her poetry.  Makar Press published her collection, Living Alone Without a Dictionary, as part of the Gargoyle Poets Series in 1974, and her work was included in The Penguin Book of Australian Women Poets.  She was the recipient of an Australian Council of the Arts writer’s grant. She left Australia in 1977.

After a traveling in India and Europe, Carol returned to New York City where she completed a law degree. As an attorney, she worked first in the Criminal Appeals Bureau of the New York Legal Aid Society and later as a solo practitioner, championing the causes of artists and the underprivileged.

She went on to receive her master’s degree in social work (community organizing), and teach lyrical fiction writing at The Women’s Studio Center in NYC, returning to the serious pursuit of her own writing in 2004.  “The muse just suddenly reared her jerky head again,” she said.

From the mid-2000s, she began publishing her gender-bending hybrid metafiction— “her little aliens,” as she called them—in many journals and anthologies, including: American Letters & Commentaries, Exquisite Corpse, La Petite Zine, LIT, Missippi Review, Notre Dame Review and Caketrain.

In 2005 she founded the Mad Hatters’ Review, one of the first online journals with a true multimedia approach, marrying literature, film, art and music in an annual collage of some of the most explosive arts on the web.“

Carol curated the successful Mad Hatters’ Review reading series at KGB Bar in New York, and performed herself at many venues in New York City and elsewhere.  After re-settling in Asheville, North Carolina in 2010, she began a new reading series at The Black College Museum & Arts Center and founded a non-profit arts organization, MadHat, Inc., which now includes the Review; MadHat Press, a print publisher; and an artist’s retreat at her mountain home in Asheville.

Before her death,  Carol was working several new projects, including the novella Felicia’s Nose, in collaboration with Tom Bradley.  Both Felicia’s Nose and a collection of  Carol’s shorter works are anticipated for publication in the near future.

Thanks to Marc Vincenz for allow Rochford Street Review to run an edited version of his tribute to Carol which was original posted on Mad Hatters’ Blog on January 5 2012

Carol’s impact on Australian poetry can be measured by the number of moving tributes posted on the Mad Hatter Review following her death. John Jenkins and Rae Desmond Jones have given Rochford Street Review permission to republish their tributes.

Tribute to Carol Novack by John Jenkins

I first met Carol Novack in 1974 in Melbourne, at a literary party hosted by Meanjin magazine, an Australian literary institution published by Melbourne University. The new editor wanted to refresh and revitalize it by including new talent and directions. I had recently had a short story published, and was introduced to Carol by the novelist, Finola Morehead.

I remember leaning beside a settee, drinks poised; people chatting intelligently around us, as Carol and I hit it off from the first word: the attraction immediate and mutual, our conversation bright and animated. I was delighted by Carol’s effortless style: her quick intelligence, zany humor and ready smile. She was indeed a New Yorker and pure oxygen to me. Her urbanity was polished and real, yet refreshingly free of anything po-faced or ponderous. Indeed, there was always a hint of something wicked and unexpected: together with an infectious relish and enjoyment of people, life, conversation, everything.

She was on a visit to Melbourne, down from Sydney for just a few days. So I invited her to dinner, to discover if the attraction wasn’t something I had imagined, or just the sort from a wine glass. A few days later, we agreed that I should accompany Carol back to Sydney. Everything was moving very fast: but such throw-the-dice impulsiveness was often the badge of our relationship.

We set off in my old car, which nearly ended the story at the very start. At one point, I became fatigued, and asked Carol to take the wheel. She readily agreed, then struck something on the next bend. We ended flying through space and emerged, somehow, by the side of the road, as my car span slowly around on its roof in the middle of the highway, and a truck blared down upon us. The world might have stopped shunting into eerie slow motion by then, but—miraculously—neither of us was hurt.

We just sat by the roadside, wide-eyed, in utter disbelief to still be alive. It seemed we sat there forever, and might still be there today, but it was really only minutes. There was a pub nearby, with a tow truck parked outside. Almost casually, as if it happened every day—and maybe it did—the tow truck driver put up some barriers, righted our car and towed it back to his workshop somewhere. ‘It’s a total right-off mate’, he said, ‘but I won’t charge you if you let me strip it down for parts.’ I agreed, and the driver of the truck that nearly ran us down offered us a lift to Sydney.

Carol had been living in the palmy suburb of Woollahra, in a comfortable house she co-rented with the poet Joanne Burns, but the lease was almost up, so Carol and I moved into a small and comfortable place not far away, in the fashionable suburb of Paddington. We lived together there for about a year, and Carol told me how she came to Australia. Apparently, not long before we met, she had married an Australian academic in New York. Her husband then took a senior post at an Australian university. Carol said he was a terrific person, but she soon realised the path marriage paved for her was not the one she really, ultimately, wanted. The domestic life of housewife was not to be her destiny. She was much more artistically inclined; and very adventurous: so had parted from her husband after mutual agreement.

Our life together in Paddington was certainly never dull, as it happened, and not very domestic either. There were many parties, which we either hosted or attended; ferry voyages around Sydney harbor to meet poets and writers; always lively discussions of art, politics and writing – and it was sometimes hard to say whether the arguments or agreements were the more heated. A heady round of restaurant and café meetings where the wine and conversation flowed freely, and spirits were often high. Generally, the mid to late ‘70s were sunny and exciting years in Sydney literary life. Even when we moved from Paddington, after finding lower-rent places in down-market Ultimo then Glebe, the excitement continued.

We met, and often socialized and partied with, some of the most talented and interesting people connected with poetry and writing of those years: Frank Moorhouse, Joanne Burns, Michael Wilding, Rae Desmond Jones, Ken Bolton, Pat Woolley, David Malouf, Bob Adamson, Clive Evatt, Nigel Roberts, Anna Couani, Dorothy Porter, Kerry Leves, Bruce Beaver, Dorothy Hewett, Merv Lilley, Rudi Krausmann, John Tranter, Mike Parr, Dave Marsh, Vicki Viidikas, Dennis Gallagher, Laurie Duggan, Alex Danko…far too many to list here…but collectively creating an effervescent milieu both absorbing and upbeat.

Of course, Carol and I had also to earn a living. This proved relatively easy for Carol, who had always been an academic high-achiever, and proved an equally fast learner when moving from one profession to another. Her research skills were considerable, and she put them to work for Lachlan Vintage Village, a re-created historical attraction in Forbes, New South Wales, built according to historically accurate specifications Carol supplied to the architects. Meanwhile, I worked as a book distributor; before we somehow hit on the idea of writing (or sometimes co-writing) articles for Cosmopolitan magazine.

Cosmo liked Carol so much, they happily hired her, as staff writer and sub-editor; and she then arranged full-time work for me in the mag’s umbrella company, Sungravure, which had a big stable of magazines; and was further owned by the Fairfax group of magazine, newspaper and radio media. And this, effectively, is how we both entered well-paid commercial journalism. In parallel with this, we both continued writing poems, articles, stories and whatever took our fancy.

I remain forever grateful to Carol for opening this new career door for me, as I was rather directionless at the time, never quite knowing how to balance means and ends, or make the latter meet. It was only in the last few months of our time together, that things got really rocky. One of Carol’s favorite movies was Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and we would sometimes have hilarious mock arguments in a parody style of Albee’s famous play. But it was sometimes too real, too close to the bone; such as one night Carol’s dramatic finale was to throw all my clothes out a second-storey window, down into the street. No doubt I had committed some misdemeanor or other, and thoroughly deserved it. I was often ‘a handful’, and emotionally unpredictable. Such as the night I splashed Vodka over dumbstruck friends, while staggering into an incoherent and feverish tirade against the world, with Carol chuckling wildly to one side.

Eventually, we decided neither of us was ready to settle down, into even a casually de-facto version of married life, as we both had wild oats to sow, if not so carefully nurture or cultivate. Besides this, I wanted to travel to Indonesia, while Carol began longing for family, and familiarity, in New York. Eventually, we sat down together, and after a long, sober and rather melancholy conversation, agreed to part; but it was in a spirit of true friendship, and without bitterness.

Carol always had a wonderful sense of humor. She was also naturally kind-hearted and had a great capacity for joy and happiness. She was generous to a fault, both in spirit and materially when people needed help. Though always a ‘straight talker’, very frank and to the point when she needed to be, she was also a fiercely loyal friend. Once she liked and trusted you, you were there for life. All these fine qualities in her nature, and many more beyond listing here, were always evident to me, as they were to all who knew her well. And Carol had a talent for attracting friends to her warm and generous and outgoing nature, which always illuminated her wonderfully buoyant and creative life.

I saw Carol on two occasions after we had split up, and she had returned to New York. The first time was at her West 13th Street apartment in New York, when Carol introduced me to her (decidedly zany) friends, then took me around town to see the sights. At that time Carol was a member of ‘The Party Line’: nothing political, but a group of amusing ‘party animals’, who rang each other to pass on addresses of the best gigs in town.

I went along for the ride, ending up at a ‘do’ thrown by novelist Joseph Heller, at the swank Four Seasons Hotel; and another bash for friends of Lou Reed in some ratty, black-painted room downtown where the amplified sound of smashing bottles rang from the walls as one-time Velvet Underground singer Nico wailed into a frenzied, feeding-back microphone.

The very last time I saw Carol was in Ireland, in 2004. A quiet meeting. We both happened to be in Dublin at the time, and our paths crossed almost by chance. It was a happy reunion; and we took a coach tour, on a rare sunny day in Ireland, to some interesting historical sites. We were clearly both older and wiser by then, and spent a gentle afternoon reminiscing about good times and bad, about what had come to both of us, and friends past and present. Carol studied Asian culture, and even spoke a little Mandarin. She often quoted one of her favorite poems, I think it was by the Chinese poet Ouyang Xiu: ‘Life is best like a drunk falling off the back of a wagon, who rolls to the roadside, and by chance sees only the star-filled sky.’ I can’t remember the exact quote, but this might be close: and I always think of it when I think of Carol.

—John Jenkins, Melbourne, Jan 2012

Memories of Carol Novack – Rae Desmond Jones

I set eyes on Carol Novack one warm evening late in 1972. My first chapbook had been published, and I was invited to read at a forthcoming Adelaide Festival of Arts. I had never read out loud before, and needed practice. This took place in a semi derelict Protestant Church in one of Sydney’s less desirable suburbs (things have changed). I was sitting in the front pew shuffling poems when a striking woman draped in flowing clothes with long raven hair walked onto the stage and began to read. Her poem was a tapestry of chthonian images, showers of light and darkness.

Our friendship proved deep and enduring. Through 1976 she shared a small white terrace house near Bondi Junction with the poet Joanne Burns, where the conversation and the wine flowed well into the early hours. The house was a vibrant centre of literary and cultural ferment. Carol loved the company of poets and artists and frequently encouraged others before fully developing her own considerable talent. The late poet Vicki Viidikas heard her read in a small studio and asked her pointedly why she had not written and published more of her truly astonishing poems. Carol was unable to respond, a rare event.

Carol had courage. After she returned to the United States she contacted me from New York. On 9/11 I phoned her. She was calm and controlled, despite ash and dust and smoke in the air. She also was able to know and accept individual weaknesses and failings with humour and sensitivity. Once you were Carol’s friend, it was for life. This may have been linked with her literary gift, in which she examined and sought to reconcile her own complexity and ambiguities. Like her personality, her writing is complex and demanding: it lives.

– Rae Desmond Jones, Sydney, 2012

Other tributes from Australian writers have also been published on the Mad Hatters’ Review Blog:

Link to Mad Hatters' Blog

Link to Mad Hatters' Review