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

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



– 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.


Living Twice Squared: Stevi-Lee Alver Observes Eileen Myles at Sydney University

Eileen Myles performed at the Footbridge Theatre at the University of Sydney on Thursday 26th May 2016

Eileen Myles. Photograph Poetry Foundation (http://www.poetryfoundation.org/)

Eileen Myles. Photograph Poetry Foundation (http://www.poetryfoundation.org/)

Experiencing Eileen Myles perform at the University of Sydney last week left me floating in an indelible cloud of jouissance. It wasn’t as simple as hearing her read or the sound of her voice, it was interacting with a corporeal performance of poetry. It was witnessing a body becoming the beat of a poem, an act that changes something in the room, shifts directions, alters perceptions, tattoos the air with words.

It felt as though there was a collective transformation as language, moving through the flesh of a poet, generated a bodily response within the audience. When introducing Myles, Kate Lilley couldn’t have put it better: “an event with Eileen Myles is no ordinary event, in this country or any other… It’s a page-turning, hanging-out type experience… Tonight it’s as if we are living four times. Tonight, we are living twice squared.”

Myles embodies the potential of poetry as a public and political platform, rather than a private, silent process. As her playful energy enveloped Footbridge Theatre there was an undeniable sensation that language is what makes us who we are. She leaves us with the impression that outside of language we are unable to know ourselves, that we can only come to know what we don’t know through language and—through language—we can reach the limit of our understanding.

Eileen Myles reading ‘The Sadness of Leaving’ at Sydney University

Her rhythm is one of spontaneity and effortless precision. A single instant was born from each line. The theatre became a collection of shimmering moments, all buzzing and rubbing up against one another, in an unforgettable evening of poetic multiplicities.

“I love tulips because they die so beautifully.” ~ Eileen Myles

– Stevi-Lee Alver


Stevi-Lee Alver has had her fiction, poetry, and reviews published across Australia and the United States. She enjoys collaborating with visual artists, six-word stories, wine and cooking. Her recently published chapbook, Cactus, is available from Rochford Street Press https://rochfordstreetpress.wordpress.com/rochford-street-press-titles/

Fusion of the Personal and the Imagined: Robbie Coburn Reviews ‘Lilies and Stars’ by Rebecca Law

Lilies and Stars by Rebecca Law, Picaro Press 2013

Lilliey-coverIt seems rare in modern verse to see a poet approach language traditionally, or at least follow the university-taught guidelines of how to construct a poem; be that through a refusal to use capitalisation or experimentation with form, it seems now the traditionalist might be the one breaking the mould.

Filled with a deep sense of romanticism, desire and longing, Rebecca Law’s second collection of poems achieves this in its evocation of a charming series of landscapes where the correlation of the imagined and ‘real’ world runs through the lines.

Law seems to be following a tradition of romantic poets, using sometimes familiar imagery but with a unique and expressive originality.

Constructed musically and always bearing an assured, clear grace, it is as if Law has crafted a unique theology, drawing on her own beliefs as a practicing catholic, and there is a kind of sacred atmosphere one inhabits when reading Lilies and Stars.

The collection opens with the question ‘what can one make with a bucket?’ (“The Shivering Song”), proceeding to reveal a love poem filled with stunning imagery of water and a subtle exploration of connection.

A great sense of longing underpins the lines and human relationships are dealt with carefully, constantly using the land and the elements to frame them.
The shorter love poems within this collection are by far the most effecting and employ a level of honesty often rare in much modern work. “Form of” simply and effectively recounts a former love, expressing longing and an aching desire:

Last night
I wanted not to love you
your distance and silence:
then conversely
it was this howling
I wanted to love forever,

heaving my backbone
in my sleep.

Regardless of the content of the poem, the real strength of the work is its precise rhythm, like Yeats, where the personal and the natural exist as one and aren’t afraid to dream: ‘The world/is everything/within azure/reaching higher’ (“The Road”)

Although Law now resides in Sydney, these are poems that could be written about any environment and there is a timeless quality in the traditional approach of the verse. This lies in the fact that, although Australian, Law seems to write outside of any existing timeframe, combining the personal with an expert understanding of mythology. The presence of symbolists such as Baudelaire and Verlaine as influences contribute to what Law has described as an “[interest] in the surreal, the symbolic and the sublime as romantic concepts that displace and liberate the word from a human preoccupation with living and dying” (Overland, September 18 2012. ed. Peter Minter).

This careful use of imagery that comes as a result is both powerful and mesmerising. A beautiful example of is displayed in “Ocean, Sky & Wreath” in which the poet plays with images, creating an atmospheric music for the reader:

Where the whale sinks,
stars are a floor,
ceilings, cloud,
daylight an aura

Family is a constant source of light and dark shades and runs below the surface of much of the work, as the poet recalls people and times, asserting that ‘The flight away and back towards home [is] an exercise in learning grace’. 

“Infusions of Shoreline Fauna” is a moving tribute to the poet’s mother and one of the finest examples of what Law manages so well in her approach to her subjects:

This lowly tree reminds me of mother,
white pebbles and sprouting grass….

Mother you are always old
for your years, my own growth
distanced more and more
into adulthood

A highly confessional and moving piece, the careful use of spare verse to describe the personal entwine with natural imagery to create a beautiful balance and resonance. Again a haunting longing seeds the lines as ‘lavender bouquets outlast/hours of any starry night/for whomsoever mutters a wish.’

A startling marriage of the earth, the sky and the imagination, with this collection Law’s touch is gentle and affecting, consistently displaying a polished sense of line and metre.
With such assured lyricism, perhaps the ultimate triumph of the work is the blending of personal experience with fantastic imagery.
It is as if Law is attempting to recapture the romantic notion of poetry so many fall in love with, however unfashionable this kind of writing may appear beside other contemporary work.

With its mystical imagery and passionate lyricism, Lilies and Stars is extremely effective in achieving what it intends to.

-Robbie Coburn


Robbie Coburn was born in June 1994 in Melbourne and grew up in the rural district of Woodstock, Victoria. He has published a collection, Rain Season (Picaro Press, 2013), as well as several chapbooks and pamphlets – Before Bone and Viscera (2014) is available from Rochford Street Press – https://rochfordstreetreview.com/2014/07/18/ rochford-st-press-is-proud-to-announce-the-publication-of-before-bone-and-viscera-by-robbie-coburn/. His latest chapbook is Mad Songs (Blank Rune Press, 2015). A new collection of poetry The Other Flesh and a novel Conversation with Skin, are forthcoming. He currently resides in Melbourne and can be found at www.robbiecoburn.com.au

Lilies and Stars is available through Rebecca Law’s website http://rbcclaw.wix.com/rebecca-kylie-law

When Romance is too Culturally Meaningful to be Common: Rebecca Law reviews Martin Langford’s ‘ground’

ground by Martin Langford. Puncher and Wattmann 2015

ground_310_440_sReading Martin Langford’s ground made me long for the kind of mood state celebrated in the Rick Springfield song ‘Free and Easy’. In this tense, studious collection ‘just knowing that you’re there’ is not enough to sustain happiness and ‘waking in the morning’ doesn’t illicit a casual ‘walk by the shore, miles from everyone…feeling free and easy’. So instead, here we are in Australia, you, me and the next door neighbour wondering with great angst why the climate isn’t great, the future looks bleak and the past is too miserable to forget. What’s needed is a beginning and the ground is a good enough start excepting that’s in trouble too- the clay is cracking and dried up, roads ‘shimmer, tacky with heat’, the ‘bleached grasses’ are dying and what is more, the sky here only ‘swells’ and the sun is ‘colourless’. With such constant negativity I wanted some sense of an RU OK day just to check if Langford’s insistence we never arrive anywhere and it is impossible to ‘articulate home’ was a nationwide catastrophe waiting to happen. A sort of where have I been all this time if this is what is really going on in Australia (says Langford with a wink and a nudge).

This is a poetry of disjunctions, of the pull of the wild that can’t sustain its original intentions, of the unsettled and the pathetique. The human gazes at its world looking for something and nature carries on its persistent evolutionary tumbles and turns; but always in reaching out or even meeting our utmost energetic states we are forced to recede again to ‘sorrows of the limpid and mild’. What happened was Captain Cook came and ‘planted a flag’. Our soldiers ‘died at Gallipoli’. First they said ‘nobody lived here’ then ‘they made room for Indigenous people’. And for that, the massacres and the silence, the absences and the emptiness (of spirit) there is the ‘working out what to do next, and then doing it’. There is a fight going on, a struggle to settle in and settle down but Langford is dismissive and wants to dance. After all, in “Broken Bay”, where there is a will there is way: ‘back in the suburbs/ the small rooms light up/ for the night cliff’ and ‘shearwaters shoulder/ the bomb of the wind’.

In the heart of Sydney’s CBD ‘someone/ keeps making a point but the listeners/ vague out when the seagulls tilt sideways’ and this is either the malady or upside of living in Australia: language matters less when the ‘air…is swarmed by a perfume called “Distance”/….and ‘there’s a breeze/ off the river so faint it’s like breath on the skin’. Here, the best conversations come in the wind or are summoned by the gaze but never form words: instead, find the ‘gaze of an other’. Good sense is like ‘woodsmoke-and-lassitude days in the streets without trees’, of little consequence or meaning for the intransience of living in a country whose histories are so eclectic even your own can be untold ‘heart-work’, a granted legend. The point is we are all here together, scrambling for place, for destinations, a sense of arriving ‘home’. But with consideration for the wildflower principle, there is another way to bloom and that is to amble and plonk respectively: for ‘beauty is not destination’. Which begs the question what was land first but ‘a clearing of prayer for our barley’. Or ‘a meadow at Windsor with hayricks and steeples’, a ‘pastoral idyll’, a ‘dancing-itself of the rhythms of seed-life’, the ‘site of our stories/ our lost child/ our sorrowing ground’. And then that familiar retraction, a kind of Langfordesque erasure: ‘what was this land?’

In ground everything is a problem because, like Eric and Annersley, the two dozer drivers who don’t gel, living in Australia is complex, complicated. There are animosities but in the end, we have to work the same land ‘because we are clever/ because need is tough’. Here, there are ghosts of soldiers ‘whose footsteps..echo in halls like important, dull songs’, crows who ‘tell the plain, not the kind truth’ and ‘thrushes…cuckoo-shrikes- / carving dusk-contours and -hollows’. And the ‘impulse’ to dance, ‘a sun of participants dancing/ a source/ not a grief’. That way we might ‘get the weight of this place/ in our bodyminds’ and in dancing help ‘the small creeks run clear again/ …the firetails and wrens to come back/ …our own understandings…/ specific, loose-limbed’.

On “The Kingfishers Wings” beautifically light can refract from the sorrows, deaths, dismissals and shadows to the ‘azure’ of our attention, our tears, our desire for flight from/ out of the mire. In ground meaning is lower case and simplified, less a definition and word than a sense of something to look at and look around from the vantage point of feeling it beneath you…Like a poetic encyclopaedia of Australia’s transition from paddock to city, from ship to house, war to a makeshift peace, ground is sensitive to its subject matter and respectfully inoffensive. Its gaze is studious and uptight and captures details with such eloquence they almost seem caught in the lines of their stanzas, prized or wittily expressive. The subheadings assist an orientation through what seems otherwise a hike through a terrain of surprises and eccentric journeys. Alas, you don’t feel ‘free and easy’ reading the collection, being in Langford’s world for the 155 pages of poetry, but you learn something and perhaps that too, is time well spent.

 – Rebecca Law


Rebecca Kylie Law is a Sydney based poet, essayist and reviewer. Her poetry collections include Offset, Lilies and Stars. The Arrow & The Lyre and In My Days and In My Sleep  (May, Interactive Press). Other  publications include Notes for The Translators, Poems for the Young Chinese Adult, Best Poem Journal, Australian Love Poems 2013, Southerly, Westerly, Rochford Street Review, The Australian, The Euroscientist Ezine, The Lake, Pacific Poetry, Spiritus and Assisi: An online journal of Arts & Letters. She is currently completing her Phd at the UWS. Rebecca Kylie Law was Rochford Street Review’s featured writer for Issue 16  https://rochfordstreetreview.com/2015/10/06/featured-writer-rebecca-kylie-law-biographical-note/

ground is available from https://puncherandwattmann.com/books/book/ground

Decades of Percolation: Anna Couani Launches ‘Concrete Flamingos’ by Mark Roberts

Concrete Flamingos by Mark Roberts, Island Press 2016 was launched in Sydney by Anna Couani on 27th February 2016 at the Friend in Hand Hotel. Concrete Flamingos, along with the other four titles on Island Press’ 2016 list will be launched in Melbourne at the Dan O’Connell Hotel, Carlton, on 19th March – details  https://www.facebook.com/events/914712998643164/

concrete-flamingosThanks for coming today and thanks to Mark for asking me to launch his long-awaited and beautiful book, Concrete Flamingos.

Mark is probably best known to most of us as a can-do person, as an officer of the Poets Union in the 80’s, running a small magazine P76 and now The Rochford Street Review online review journal. He’s also had a full-on career in various jobs, has so many skills and raised a family with Linda Adair. He’s always been kind of busy.

Mark and I were Poets Union officers at the same time during the 80’s where we were addressing important political issues and issues about payment of writers, and sales and distribution. Island Press was in existence at that time, previously run by Philip Roberts, taken over for a short while by Ken Bolton and I and then passed on to Philip Hammial when Philip Roberts left the country. The small press scene was pretty lively and buzzing – we all knew each other, even the interstate people (this was before Facebook, before the internet), and it was the remnants of that scene that Mark first encountered as a young poet. It’s so gratifying that it was publications like the ones I was involved with that inspired Mark to write and to publish poetry.

When I first met Mark and worked with him in the Poets Union, there was no need to explain what we older people were trying to do in the small press scene, and what we were trying to do with organising public readings, pushing for better book distribution, promoting women writers, writers from diverse backgrounds and gay writers because he understood all that perfectly, was probably more ofay with those ideas than some of the older people he was influenced by. The things we’d been fighting for were a kind of given for Mark and the other younger poets like Adam Aitken, Dipti Saravanamutu and Kit Kelen. And also for people like Sarah St Vincent Welch, Moya Costello, Jane Skelton and Virginia Shepherd, to name a few.

It would be odd to speak about Mark and only mention his poetry because he has been a poet/producer/publisher, something like an artist run space in the visual art field. So a collection of Mark’s own work somehow has a special significance because it is positioned within a milieu that he has been rather instrumental in creating. He takes his place alongside lots of other practitioners who have participated actively in the literary world in ways that create infrastructure that benefits us all. I love the piece in the book that repeats the line you tell me I’m not a poet over and over again. Something writer/publishers often encounter from other writers.

This lovely book of poems is bedded in a sense of communalism. Mark’s authorial voice and perspective refer to this. The work has a self-consciousness, a knowledge of where we are and where we came from. It is obviously the precursor to the historical sequence he’s writing now, as in the poem crossing the mountains. It is a book of many disparate parts and that makes it interesting.

There are 4 concrete poems in the book, all called ‘Concrete Flamingo’. The first one consists of 8 columns of illegible text and this poem/image is then digitally transformed three times in the other 3 that are placed at intervals throughout the book. That’s one example of the humour that runs through the collection. In another poem, ‘Letter to Frank’, Mark (addressing Frank O’Hara I imagine) throws many odd referential bits together that are at the same time absurd and theoretically interesting. I’m quoting parts of it, it goes:

like you i want to be a construction worker/

i have a copy of the planning regulations
which i am rewriting in the style of the new york

and finally,

& all the construction workers have gone home
maybe to write poems

Something like a good humoured Ken Bolton poem but one that also swipes at urban consolidation and the elitism of the literary world. There’s often a political dimension or reference in Mark’s work. Just creeps in somehow.

And Mark’s not scared to mention the domestic details that so many male poets shy away from. Like in shapes

my life
a cluttered base
rooms scattered
with papers & books
baskets of washing spilling
onto the floor an ironing board
with a shirt half ironed & discarded
a stain demanding a soak & a rewash

Some of the poems have an intense local feel, that is visual and immediate, many emphasising colour and somehow full of affect. An obvious example is ‘The only marigold in Erskineville. It starts:

i walk through a black & white suburb thinking
of a poem i could write about how longing & desire
creep up on you like a shadow on a cloudy day.

it ends with:

i transfer your postcard
to my coat pocket & notice
again the explosion of the marigold
outside the church

The emotions draw attention to themselves through their erasure and are made poignant somehow through the use of colour and contrast.

The poem red uses the colour (red obviously) as a recurring motif that has not only a visual intensity but also symbolic meaning

red neon pulses like veins pumping blood.

it appropriates a few crime fiction narrative devices and somehow conflates the road death of a possum with a human murder, ending with:

whose face is this?
a memory?
i remember nothing
except blood.

There are two short sequences in the book. The first one, breaking – 1918, based on Virginia Woolf’s diary for 1918 Mark writes in the first person about the end of WWII. Interesting in that he adopts Woolf’s persona.

The other sequence is from the life of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, based on an 1889 biography of a German writer who died in 1781. In this sequence, Mark inserts quotes from Lessing’s plays. The poems ironically recreate the over-inflected language of the era.

This is so much more to talk about in the book, the chunks of prose, the night walks, the Sydney landscapes, the train poems – gives me ideas about how to occupy myself on public transport – also how to manage the writing of a poem a day for project 366 (http://project365plus.blogspot.com.au/)– think local, publish global. There’s a lot to read and enjoy in this book, decades of percolation and consideration have gone into it. So buy the book to support the writer and the publisher. If you haven’t already explored Mark’s world, check out The Rochford Street Review and Printed Shadows (https://printedshadows.wordpress.com/), both online publications. There’s a wealth of material there.

Congratulations to Mark on the publication and to Island Press for bringing it out.

 – Anna Couani


Anna Couani is a Sydney writer and artist who taught Art and ESL most of her life. Her most recent book is a collection of poetry, Small Wonders, Flying Islands Books. Some of her previous work is available at http://seacruise.ath.cx/annacouani/.

Concrete Flamingos is available from  https://printedshadows.wordpress.com/2016/01/23/concrete-flamingos-poems-by-mark-roberts/



Island Press' 2016 Poets will be at the The Dan O Connel Hotel Melbourne at 2pm on 19th March 2016

Michele Seminara Engraft, David Gilbey, Pachinko Sunset, Lauren Williams Cleanskin Poems, Les Wicks, Getting By Not Fitting In, Mark Roberts, concrete flamingos

Towards an Ethics of Poetry: Dominique Hecq launches ‘either, Orpheus’ and ‘Report from a border’ by Dan Disney

Dominique Hecq launched Dan Disney’s either, Orpheus (UWAP) and Report from a border (light-trap press) at COLLECTED WORKS, Melbourne on February 11, 2016

Weaving her way

the woods the city the maze
of slums on the outskirts
where the abject poor seethe
like a rising storm
& nodding to herself the exiled reviewer stumbles
……………………………………………….like a poet testing
the cadences & shifting lines
towards a light less
………………is a ship bound for utopia
……………………….(Baudelaire vs Disney)

………………………………villanelles rev-
O! luce ion eyes
…………the form
…………in parodic conversation
…………with the philosophers & the poets

…………………………..bound for utopia

…………Immanuel Can’t & Charles Seem Hic

…………but [yes] mostly Kierkegaard & Rilke

…………………………………………(Hecq vs Lacan)

Orpheus_coverBoth either, Orpheus and Report from a Border are complex books. Both are syntactically and typographically inventive. Through perfecting the art of quotation, both are tributes to the richness, value, inescapability of language in its spoken and written forms, books and ideas. And despite their tackling very different themes, both gesture towards what might be called an ethics of poetry.

As the homage that opens this review suggests either, Orpheus is a ludic book that engages with other texts in self-reflexive fashion. And yet it is never narcissistic. Through utilising shifting personas and modes of poetic diction, it achieves some kind of exclusive inclusiveness which resonates with its subject matter: what it means to be human in the maze of (post)modernity.

The unifying principle at the heart of the maze is a concern with poetic forms and forms of exile. either, Orpheus tells of the burdens of history and the ruins of memory. It speaks of the erasure of consciousness, the decolonisation of affects, and it speaks of death without any touch of nostalgia for origins from a variety of viewpoints. The poems speak in and through themselves while showing the reader the many approaches that gain purchase in Disney’s poetic world.

In brief, this world is formal, historical, etymological, and to a lesser extent, political, biographical, and eco-critical in its postmodern sense of play, satire, and suspicion, and the concurrent romantic vision of the redemptive possibilities of art. The reader who seeks modernist seriousness in either, Orpheus will soon be frustrated with the hiccups of villanelles that morph into villaknelles where repetition and quotation are often used to great ironic effect. It is especially evident in poems such as those from ‘accelerations and inertias’ which won first place in the 2015 Gwen Harwood Poetry Prize. In these poems, the connections between works, ideas, figures and patters are amazingly intricate and illuminating, particularly upon discovering their textual sources:

These texts engage with a range of textual sources: (i) originates after reading the interview with Charles Wright in The Paris Review (No. 113, Winter 1989); (ii) originates after reading ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction ‘ by Walter Benjamin against the grain of ‘Always On’ by Sherry Turkle; (iii) originates after reading ‘Cultural Pedigree’ by Pierre Bourdieu alongside ‘Income and Output’ by Thomas Piketty; (iv) originates after reading the interview with A.R. Ammons in The Paris Review (No. 139, Summer 1986); (v) originates after reading the interview with Jorge Luis Borges in The Paris Review (No 40, Winter-Spring 1967). Disney 2015: 108)

On the other hand, the reader who wants only postmodern indeterminacy and scepticism will stumble over recurring lines from the mystic poet Rainer Maria Rilke in the epigraphs to part one and three and in echoes of Rilke texts throughout the collection. There is cause not for despair here, but for fascination and excitement in the possibilities of interplay.

Thus, either, Orpheus foregrounds the influences of philosophers, social theorists and other poets. Disney’s work, shows (off) how he responds and re-reads such figures as Kierkegaard and Rilke, Jorge Luis Borges, Ted Hughes, Charles Wright, Paul Muldoon, John Ashberry, George Seferis, Jean-Paul Sartre, Czeslaw Milosz, Seamus Heaney, Philip Larkin, T.S. Eliot, Marianne Moore, Gary Snyder, William Wordsworth, Pierre Bourdieu, Elizabeth Bishop, Yves Bonnefoy, Joseph Brodsky, John Cage (a favourite), Anne Carson, Robert Graves, Immanuel Kant, Walter Benjamin, Alain Badiou and many others—named or not (I read a reference to Lacan in the swarm of bees first invoked in relation to Rilke). Rather conspicuously absent are references to Australian thinkers and poets; the exception is Les Murray, in a rather ambivalent piece. I wonder why.

My guess is that Dan Disney may think of himself as self-imposed exile. And I suspect that he is closer to Paul Muldoon than any other living poet he engages with in virtual conversation, apart from Dante, another exile, whose influence is felt from the start of the prologue onwards. In fact, the word ‘exile’ recurs as a mantra in either, Orpheus, and although absent in Report from a Border, it is exile which is this work’s subject matter. In Disney’s poetic world. ‘The exile…exists in a median state, neither completely at one with the new setting nor fully disencumbered of the old, beset with half-involvements and half-detachmnebnts’ (Said 1996: 49). However in this world, the exile is divested from ‘nostalgic and sentimental’ attributes (49). Disney’s exilic figure could be said to be a latent exile. Aethetically and ethically, then Disney joins the company of Dante, Baudelaire and Muldoon

border_coverLike these poets, Disney strives to bring forth the contradictions at the heart of his human and poetic heritage. The only thing is that the word ‘soul’ is not frequently called upon in Disney’s poetry. Nor are overt instances of an autobiographical nature. Disney and Muldoon share an interest in writing the poetical and experiential landscapes of poetry, but Disney, like Dante, and unlike Baudelaire and Muldoon, shies away from any family history and emotional terrain that might partake of a work’s ‘hidden architecture’ to cite Valéry translated by Muldoon (2004: 25). Nonetheless, what they all strive to convey is that ‘very little is as it seems’ (Muldoon 2004: 25), or put it in imagist mode, that ‘truth is a ship bound for utopia’ (Disney 2015a). Although both are reluctant to support any claims for art’s importance and near sacred status, both affirm their faith at least in art’s power to express ideas, feelings and affects, especially despair. Muldoon does so in elegies written upon the death of family and friends; Disney does so in elegies for the unknown and often unnamed of (post)modernity. This testifies to a common understanding of aesthetic illumination as well as redemptive drive. On hearing myself say the last sentence, though, I’m not sure this is the right way to put it.

While either, Orpheus is universal in significance and intertextual engagement, Report from a border, co-devised with graphic artist John Warwicker, is more local in character. It shares similar formal and thematic concerns with either, Orpheus, but its topos is not the tortuous road to modernity; rather, it is the torturous backdrop of a colonised ‘cove’ (Disney 2015b: 74). Here, the typographical experiments enhance the social critique rather than the formal and philosophical possibilities of poetry. Almost every page in the book is deliberately offering multiple ways of being read and therefore foregrounds multiple points of views. Here inclusive exclusiveness often excludes the reader by questioning her values, which is disconcerting at times, but no doubt intended.

In these more overtly politicised poems, Disney displays his penchant for satire of a Swiftian mode by making use of the whole gamut of possibilities typography offers, especially in conveying the violence of/and inflicted by language. Thus whereas either, Orpheus creates a fable of social and political and aesthetic experience that uncovers truths about what it means to be human, Report from a border translates vignettes of social and political experiences that discover and uncover hidden truths about human nature. And what is hidden is often hideous. In this work, we are all exiles, and it is unclear whether redemption is possible, especially for Australians, who are irrevocably caught in the mesh of postcolonialism (read neo-colonialism).

Dan Disney is a rare pyro-technician who dazzles with his poetic acumen and depth of reflection. He matches the complexity and uncertainty of the 21st century with a poetic project that is enthrallingly uncertain, yet nevertheless vibrant and generative in its wit, wisdom and ongoing effort to find meanings in the world.

 – Dominique Hecq, February 2016.

Works cited

Disney, D 2015a either, Orpheus Crawley: University of Western Australia Press

Disney, D 2015b Report from a border Maleny: light-trap press

Disney, D 2015c ‘from accelerations & inertias’, Island, 143, 104-108

Muldoon, P 2004 Moy Sand and Gravel New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux

Said, E 1996 Representations of the Intellectual New York: Vintage


Dominique Hecq is a Belgian born poet, fiction writer, and translator who, many years ago, came to Australia to write a PhD on exile in Australian literature. She has become a character in her own fictions of exile and teaches writing at Swinburne University of Technology. Out of Bounds and Stretchmarks of Sun are her most recent poetry collections.

Report from a border is available from http://www.light-trap.net/report_from_border.html

either, Orpheus is available from http://uwap.uwa.edu.au/products/either-orpheus

An Imaginative Renewal: Peter Kirkpatrick launches ‘Pachinko Sunset’ by David Gilbey

Pachinko Sunset by David Gilbey Island Press 2016 was launched in Sydney by Peter Kirkpatrick on 27th February 2016 at the Friend in Hand Hotel. Pachinko Sunset, along with the other titles on Island Press’ 2016 list will be launched in Melbourne at the Dan O’Connell Hotel, Carlton, on 19th March – details  https://www.facebook.com/events/914712998643164/

David Gilbey reading at the Sydney Launch of Pachinko Sunset. Photograph Tahira Husain

David Gilbey reading at the Sydney Launch of Pachinko Sunset. Photograph Tahira Husain

Sometimes I think there is a book of poems to be written in praise of ironing. Indeed, in many ways poetry resembles ironing – not least because most people say they don’t enjoy it. But what’s not to like about ironing? You take a wrinkled shirt or a pair of pants – in days gone by it might also have included bed linen, or even underwear – and restore it to its always intended, as it were ideal, Platonic form. If ironing is a perfectly mundane activity, its orderly rhythms can also become a form of meditation, whereby you enter that calm place in the mind inhabited by people who go fishing, or who enter holy orders – or who write poems. You take an ordinary, untidy object from the ordinary, untidy world and give it fresh shape and meaning, renewing its significance. I might go so far as to say that somebody ironing embodies a domestic version of Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History, making whole again, not the vast wreckage of time, but the rucks and rumples of the rinse cycle.

I’m pleased to learn that David Gilbey is a man who loves to iron. He even has a poem all about it in Pachinko Sunset, “Iron Men”:

An iron believes in order, pressing even rebellious seersucker into place.
pleats are a challenge: in Japan my daughter’s school tunic
was my Sunday night labour of love,
threading camels through a needle’s eye.

Not only is it nice to encounter a man who has been up close and personal with seersucker, I like the way that last line inverts the whole painstaking “order” semingly imposed by ironing. “Iron Men” also indicates that David is a frequent visitor to Japan. Three times, he tells us, he has been a Visiting Professor at Miyagi Gakuin Women’s University in the city of Sendai in northern Honshu. Speaking as somebody whose linguistic range beyond English and swearing extends only to some high school French, I can’t imagine what it’s like to work at such a level across such a very different language as Japanese. It’s significant, then, that several of David’s poems play on mistranslation, and the surprising misdirections of meaning that result. In fact, mistranslation as misdirection is a keynote of Pachinko Sunset. Perhaps a better word might be indirection: the diversion rather than the complete loss of meaning.

In a section from the long sequence “Haibun Hikes”, David asks his Sendai students to write about an imagined holiday to Australia, and then cobbles together a passage of his own, using their mistakes, for them to mark. He turns the result into a sonnet, what he calls “a ‘found’ poem [created] out of our mutual language-making”:

The hotel there was more beautiful than our imagination.
At lunch I eat crocodile and lasagne.
I go to sea and swim enough with a shoal of fishes.
We saw many famous animals: kangaroo, koara [sic],
And the shy duck-mouth otter.

Yes, the effect is predictably humorous. But when in this transcultural exchange a platypus becomes “the shy duck-mouth otter” things also become both strange and yet somehow right, an imaginative renewal.

I have compared poetry to ironing, and mentioned that David likes to iron: “I’m an ironing kind of guy”, he tells us. On his many travels I am sure that pleat marches with pleat, and that all his creases properly rhyme. But I have also seen David in a more expansive mood, in which a hidden penchant for extremely loud dinner jackets reveals itself, and these highly colourful items more closely resemble abstract expressionist paintings – or, in literary terms, projectivist compositions by field – rather than lyrical poems. So if there is a fascination with order in David’s work – is that why he is so attracted to Japan and to Japanese culture? – there is, running alongside it, a spirit of play and of wild extravagance. In this regard it’s worth nothing that, outside of references to Japanese poets such as Basho, the dominant literary allusions of Pachinko Sunset are to the Metaphysical poets of the seventeenth century: poets known for their fondness for unlikely and abstruse metaphors or “conceits”. Thus, in the first of a set of “Slam Scripts”, David manages – tongue firmly in cheek, I suspect – to invoke both Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” and Donne’s “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” in support of his argument that the lyrics of Swedish pop singer Mans Zemerlöw’s winning entry in the 2015 Eurovision Song Contest, a confection called “Heroes”, is genuine poetry. The melodious Zemerlöw

Wizards his words, magics his music
croons his metaphysical conceit:
“I make the worms turn into butterflies”

David calls this “Eurovision’s Metaphysical Embrace”. No doubt that last line is best embraced in Swedish.

David Gilbey with Pachinko Sunset. Photograph Lachlan Brown

David Gilbey with Pachinko Sunset. Photograph Lachlan Brown

I spoke before about Pachinko Sunset’s interest in mistranslation and mis/indirection, and it is evident that these are generators of poetry for David, as evidenced by “the shy duck-mouth otter” – or perhaps even “I make the worms turn into butterflies”. The American critic Harold Bloom famously believes that all allegedly strong poets “misread” their poetic forebears, and in that misreading remake the Western canon according to their own lights. Like a lot of literary theory, Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence can seem a form of Higher Bullshit (not least for its Freudianism), but there’s something to be said for the notion that a poet, and poetry itself, characteristically misses or misreads obvious or assumed meanings and takes our minds into other directions: the pathways of the duck-mouth otter. “Tell all the truth but tell it slant”, wrote Emily Dickinson, “Success in Circuit lies”.

Two of the many outstanding poems in Pachinko Sunset dramatise happy experiences of misdirection; of eventually finding yourself in the right place in the very process of getting lost. In one of these, “Cancer Ward: Octet for Jim”, the poet initially goes to the wrong Japanese hospital to see a friend: “they treat Alzheimers, not cancer”. Waiting to be redirected, he watches elderly patients who are now genuinely lost, “tottering, frail, already other-worldly”, but is distracted by TV game shows “where, like life, two mixed teams/answer questions, give opinions, banter and flirt”. Happy redirection is what this sequence of poems is all about because – as we discover when David eventually finds the right hospital – cancer itself isn’t necessarily a one-way street, and Jim ultimately returns to the land of the living. But in the finale David is characteristically lost once again:

On the way back, you get Jim’s instructions wrong again,
are rescued by a cheerful, patient Japanese couple
who give you a lift, in the other direction,
to the station.

“Cancer Ward: Octet for Jim” is about being rescued by the surprising, unexpected directions that life can take, and the ways in which other people can lead us there.

In another of poem of misdirection, “Arashyama Nocturne”, David’s friend Keiji is taking him to what must be a quite special sushi restaurant, only the pair get so carried away talking about poetry that they board the wrong subway train. “Forgive me, I often make this mistake”, says Keiji. At the end of the poem, however, a different order is achieved “above a [humble] tourist centre” as the pair sit down to a meal which is laid out like a poem: “a stanza of delicacies”, as David calls it:

slices of sashimi haiku,
tanka with beans, potatoes, burdock root,
pickles, fresh water bream and, to my surprise,
a wild strawberry with black and white sesame tofu,
topped with a curlicue of sea urchin.

Sometimes the wrong subway is the right subway.

Pachinko Sunset is not only about Japan. There are poems about David’s hometown of Wagga, and others that range more widely over his life and times. Even so, it’s fair to say that the transcultural connection with Sendai is the book’s dominant motif. This is in line with a growing, indeed inevitable trend in Australian poetry towards closer engagement with Asia. In this connection I note in passing that in August 1899 a Sydney poet, Robert Crawford, published an English haiku in the Bulletin, home of “The Man from Snowy River”:

Flannel-flowers dancing
To the Dawn on the hill-tops…
The Vision of Spring!

This appeared a decade before Ezra Pound and the Imagists expressed interest in Asian poetics. The Far East is in fact our Deep North, and Pachinko Sunset offers a number of broad and narrow roads into it. In that sense, it makes a welcome contribution to Australia’s re-Orientation.

That Japan is by now a familiar exotic for Australian readers is perhaps implied by David’s title. Pachinko – a popular Japanese arcade game played by dropping steel balls into a kind of vertical maze – is at once commonplace (pachinko gambling parlours are everywhere in Japan) and, to Western eyes, exotic. For me, Pachinko Sunset also carries echoes of the kind of mass-produced Sampans in the Sunset paintings that hung in long-ago dentists’ surgeries. Whatever the case, the essence of the game of pachinko is misdirection. Steel balls tumble through pins and traps which produce unexpected trajectories. The point is not that the balls ultimately descend through the machine, it’s the circuitous routes they take to get there: that’s where fun and profit reside. “Success in Circuit lies”.

Buy Pachinko Sunset, follow its poetic misdirections, get lost in it, and re-Orient yourself. And may all your worms turn into butterflies.

 – Peter Kirkpatrick


Peter Kirkpatrick teaches Australian Literature in the Department of English at Sydney University. His research interests include poetry and popular culture, Australian modernism, and the literature of Sydney. His publications include The Sea Coast of Bohemia: Literary Life in Sydney’s Roaring Twenties (2nd ed. 2007); Serious Frolic: Essays on Australian Humour, with Fran de Groen (2009); and Republics of Letters: Literary Communities in Australia, with Robert Dixon (2012).

Pachinko Sunset will be launched in Melbourne, along with the other 2016 Island Press titles  at the The Dan O Connel Hotel on 19 March at 2PM  https://www.facebook.com/events/914712998643164/

Pachinko Sunset is available from http://islandpress.tripod.com/ISLAND.htm or you can order by PayPal or Credit Card from https://rochfordstreetreview.com/about-rochford-street-review/island-press-book-launch/

Island Press' 2016 Poets will be at the The Dan O Connel Hotel Melbourne at 2pm on 19th March 2016

Island Press’ 2016 Poets will be at the
The Dan O Connel Hotel
Melbourne at 2pm on 19th March 2016

Murray’s Eclectic World of Musings: Patrick McCauley Reviews ‘Waiting for the Past’ by Les Murray

Waiting for the Past by Les Murray Black Inc, 2015

waitingforthepastIf one were to wish that our great creative minds, could assume the ancient art of prophesy, we might hope that we could ‘remember the future’ – even if we might find ourselves ‘waiting for the past’. Yet through our surrender to ‘waiting for the past’, we suddenly find ourselves ‘remembering the future’… and this slim handsome hard backed volume, which Stephen Edgar notes has a “Tardis -like quality of being larger on the inside” than it is on the outside, becomes another piece of ordinary magic by the inimitable Les Murray.

The book is dedicated to “the glory of God” with no preamble, preface, or afterword. It just goes straight into the deep – with the four quatrains of the opening poem leading the reader through the geological process of making coal – in shrunken time – “ all afternoon”. Then we are traveling in Australia, a thousand miles or so to Hahndorf – for ‘boiled lamb hock’ and to Hindmarsh Island without even mentioning the women’s business:-

Saw careers from the climbing bridge,
the steel houses it threw
all over Hindmarsh Island,

‘The Canonization’ (of Mary Mackillop) may wish to “heal the education of poor children” but is more a private votive which may have been included to throw off the easily distracted. Murray is at his best as witness to natural phenomenon, such as in “Nuclear Family Bees” where he describes the little native bees which mate in pairs rather than hives and make “gold skinfulls of water” In the poem “I wrote a Little Haiku” we get an idea of the Tardis-like quality of the poem and the vision of the poet’s imagination, as he describes the lead bullets from the American civil war which may even now dribble out of burnt wood and farmyard timbers:-

might still re-melt and pour
out runs of silvery ichor
the size of wasted semen
it had annulled before.

In “Raising an Only Child” Murray enters one of his common themes of childhood and solitude – describing himself in the second person “…you tell stories of yourself to the hills” and you hear the great lifelong solitude of this poet, which may be something that is needed by any poet, but is particularly strong in Murray’s work, and describes a deep genius of childhood ( and adulthood) that can isolate a human being from the tenderness of love. The poem arrives at the line “ and I, the only true human” … after which I can be in no doubt about the level of separation required.

There are many thoughts which pass through the mind of a reader as he passes through Murray’s eclectic world of musings. The reader is taken through about eight poems about food, together with historical reconstructions, natural world re-descriptions and psycho social observations. He describes the making of two roads with crow bars and shovels during the depression. Hard yakka is hard to write, yet he builds a poem around the narrative and finds a line we would have never heard from Manning Clarke:-

None of the cutters joined a union
or talked of freedom. Independent, was the word

murrayThe sepia portrait of Murray on the back cover of the book shows us the man himself. A laughing Buddah with the thick wrists of inherited hard physical work (which he was mostly spared), dressed in country best with polished boots. The bald headed, wide toothed, laughing Buddah of Bunyah may not be the image of Australian poetry that the progressive literarti had imagined. Yet this man and this mind, with all its gentle genius, is the poet that we have somehow formed – which talks to all the world – perhaps to Ireland and England, Europe, more than the United States of America.

Murray elicits difficult ideas from a distance through compressing time. In “Persistence of the Reformation” he likens the leaf matter lining the floor of a creek bed to “saucepans of wet money”. And “four hundred years of ship-spread jihad” seems to merge with “the Christian civil war” and then the “bitter chews of an old plug/ from Ireland and England” – arrives finally at “the local dead /still mostly lie in ranks/ assigned them by denominations” The poem itself without one stick of punctuation apart from the six line stanzas, a capital letter at the start and a full stop at the end of the seventh stanza which has nine lines. Yet, somehow after reading the poem I seem to know that the term ‘reformation’ persists as a continuing thing, as a ‘form’ … and must continue to persist on the brutal path to enlightenment. I hear the words of Geoffrey Lehmann declaring the sonnet dead, yet somehow, here is one slightly re designed.

This is a gem of a little book which no library of Australian literature can be complete without. It contains a traintrip of highly compressed poems using syntax, sound and cadence, in tercets and quatrains, even sonnets, to produce what Clive James claims on the jacket cover as “Seeing the shape or hearing the sound of one thing in another, he finds forms”

Perhaps “Forms” as Plato saw the meaning of the word as much as in its ordinary sense. I think Murray knows the shape and ‘form’ of Australia and whatever it means to be ‘Australian’, more than any other poet writing in contemporary Australia today. Because he dares to be human he elicits compassion. Yet Murray is often (and openly) vilified by an urban progressive Australian literarti. He is authentic rural working class who does not fix what is not broken. One claimed recently that he was not worthy of the Nobel prize because he had not suffered enough. Hows that?

 – Patrick McCauley


Patrick McCauley writes poems and essays, grows tomatoes and goes fishing around Clunes Victoria.

Waiting for the Past is available from http://www.blackincbooks.com/books/waiting-past


Teasing Threads – Sundry Film and Literary Criticism: ‘Super Sad True Love Story’ by Gary Shteyngart

Chris Palazzolo rereads Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story, Random House 2010.

super sadThere is nothing super sad about the love story in Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story. In fact it seems so slight, flim flam and narcissistic it barely qualifies as a story at all. It’s curious that a tryst so uncompelling is expected to pull us through a full length novel about the decline of the United States, but that is exactly what its function is; an ephemeral love affair set against a backdrop of (future) historical events; the liquidation of the US financial system and the takeover of the US economy by Chinese capital, and the military repression of a popular uprising in New York.

Super Sad True Love Story is an epistolary novel, told entirely in diary entries and email and Facebook type exchanges. The story is this – Lenny Abramov, the son of Russian immigrants, now resident New Yorker falls in love with Eunice Park, a Korean/American girl 20 years his junior; they date, they cheat, they split up. And that’s it; the two have nothing in common and passion is little more than aching ambivalence. The age gap between the lovers, as well as the Russianness of the author, can lead one to think that the story is a kind of post-modern Lolita. But as Eunice is 22 years old, the relationship, while questionable on the grounds of taste, is not illegal, and hardly transgressive.

It’s left to the vividly realised, satirical details of the near future New York to pull us through, and it is here perhaps where comparisons with Nabokov actually make sense. There are the same preoccupations: the haute bourgeois tastes of the European emigré reduced to a barely tolerated private vice; the pervy pleasure in the pornified naiveté of American youth culture and the pathetic infatuation for a young girl. There are the same tropes: expressionistic clouds of pop; in Nabokov’s case, neon, television and jukebox rock ‘n roll; in Shteyngart’s, a sci-fi extrapolation of mobile phones, ipads and twitter, all collapsed into a personalised virtual cloud device called an äppäärät where personal and civic identity is stored.

In Nabokov’s America, the distinction between classes of people and the status of cultures that he regarded as Europe’s most precious heritage barely existed, levelled by popular culture and democratic blandishments (D.H. Lawrence complained extensively about this mediocratising levelling in his book about Australia, Kangaroo). The shock of Lolita was meant to be instructive. Intellectuals were supposed to safeguard this distinction between high and low. So when the academic Humbert Humbert is seduced by US teeny bopper sexiness he invites the harshest and most ruinous judgement on himself, not because he’s a paedophile, but because he threatens the subsidence of distinction. In Shteyngart’s America, Abramov’s education and cultural tastes have no value whatsoever. He works for a company that offers life extension services to High Net Worth Individuals, in effect a combination of online streaming youth simulations and plastic surgery. Abramov himself, a Low Net Worth Individual, exists only in his smelly aging body and nothing is at stake if he stuffs up. Even democracy has been abandoned by a politically inert youth culture so degraded books are seen as smelly anti-social things that, if you wish to remain socially connected, employed, and unmolested by government agents, you dare not possess them.

Super Sad True Love Story has none of the anguish of Lolita. Humbert Humbert loses everything. Lenny Abramov only loses Eunice Park, which is really not a loss at all. The city crashes into civil war and much of what was detailed in the novel is lost, but that’s hardly a loss too. Perhaps what’s most interesting about this book, and certainly its most abiding impression for me, is its contention that the extent of senescence of a culture is the degree to which it fetishises youth. The unhappy bubble-headed young people whose beautiful bodies wallpaper this text, their pudenda pornographically exposed and framed by world consuming personalised media are nothing more than handmaidens to an invisible class of geriatric billionaires and technocrats who have no solution to the nation’s dwindling supplies of food and air.

 – Chris Palazzolo


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

Super Sad True Love Story has it’s own website: http://supersadtruelovestory.com/