Featured Writer Owen Bullock: Seven Poems and Three Untitled Prose Poems

Three untitled prose poems

Yeah. Yeah, that it’s bro. He had a skinful. Yeah. I couldn’t tell, just had this feeling, you know. Back of me head. No, I never been there before. But I knew that’s where the horse would go.

People say, I’ve looked a hundred times – usually in the same places. So I look where they don’t think it could possibly be, and there it is.

*

He hid inside a ball, the juggler found it. Mill’s Mess made him dizzy; the Shower lashed boredom. He made a new game: keeping arms and feet splayed wide, sprung off the wall rap rap rapidly. He was starshaped. Hands and feet wore down, limbs shivered and cracked, spun about, shaved to stunted. Shrunk to a ball. He fit. In.

*

The fool’s cap was full of sheets of paper. When I reached my hand in, something bit me, skin torn from bone. The fool laughed, offered a salve. The hand healed quickly. I followed him, took money as he performed on the streets, watched as he milked the wealthy for attention, courted favour for position in the senate. I offered a man my own hat full of sheets of paper. When it bit him he slapped me.

 

Coaching tips

The first thing we did with the new coach was learn how to juggle. Fucking stupid. But keeping three balls in the air gives you a lot of confidence when you drop back to one. We all had to kick with both feet. The forwards as well as the backs did half-back drills. He made us agree there was no point carrying flab; we got rid of it. We gave up beer. Stopped talking about luck. Finally, we beat the All Blacks.

 

paper

in the sheet
.                   Martin’s absence
Martin’s travelling

light in the room
.                           contains days
he walked beside the canal
.                                           looking for birds

shadows on windows

life
.      not an exercise

you walk away
.                        find yourself
at the edge of a lake
which precedes
.                         white paper

 

binary

.          to Barthes

I don’t know
what a red-letter day is

understanding male and female
demanding

like theorists
coming to an empty room

perfectly appointed
on the side of a mountain

inside, a table set for dinner
and no food

you can sit
as long as you like

 

Meditations on Švankmajer

stone drop
this me
in another life

.                                  rage
.                                  at the man
.                                  let the guinea pig go free

changing
places
with the beast

.                                  without him
.                                  we have a picnic
.                                  & don’t even know
.                                  what we are

housecrack
beating faster
the story crumbles

.                                  objects
.                                  torment him

voyeur –
feathers win
for a while

 

lips

(i)

her lips
without opening
in a twist of defiance
the struggle to find
food
wood for the fire
worry the roof might
teeter

(ii)

her lips
in tight lines
the mannered nature
of words, careful
to say the
precise things

(iii)

his lips
with a little
bleak humour
falling off his bike

 

free-ass (paroles)

Saussure, sausage
bake in a
rin-tin-tin, Bakhtin
with the exciting adventures of
Kristeva Christabel

birds answer stars
a blush of light
between clouds

a blurb of light
a typo, the Bibel
a rustic joke
(or primitive instrument)

chattering
kind wakefulness

what’s the password.                          [clues
.                                                           which can be
is being dyslexic.                                taken out]
any kind of advantage?

 

Mother referenced multitudes:
to be Pacific, dear

*

the stool wobbles

euphemism
for what’s hard to say

.           I didn’t have the muscle tone
.           to cut it off

early morning
a knotted handkerchief
at the end of a stick

he steps onto the drive
the journey ends

*

disarrayed
thoughts cross easily

a bridge
between sign
and wilderness

*

met him
a simple metonym

what!
homonym Watt

shuffling bags
towards the exit

left out a personal pronoun
took the bus instead

he was also
whistling-osis

a thrush he remembered
on the fence post

singing

 

tea

after the first sip
settle to reading Bakhtin
.           the charm in knowing
.           the cup is ready

something catches your attention
an idea odours the room
wash it down
with sips

Bakhtin’s second page
the word ‘neutral’
in the quote by Zirminsky
the phrase ‘linguistic descriptions’
applied to novels

someone is talking
raise the cup
I’ve learnt the word ‘variform’

a wash
the cup empty
‘the higher unity of the work as a whole’

-Owen Bullock

____________________________________________________________________________________________

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Owen Bullock

Owen Bullock’s publications include River’s Edge (Recent Work Press, 2016), A Cornish Story (Palores, 2010), and sometimes the sky isn’t big enough (Steele Roberts, 2010). He has two new collections forthcoming in 2017: semi (Puncher & Wattmann) and Work & Play (Recent Work Press). He won the Canberra Critics’ Circle Award for Poetry for his performance of urban haiku for Poetry at the Gods in September 2015. Owen has edited several journals and anthologies, including Poetry New Zealand. He recently completed a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Canberra. He tweets @OwenTrail

Biographical Note

River’s Edge, 5678, and Urban Haiku are available from Recent Work Press

 

A Small But Explosive Book: Moya Costello Launches ‘Cactus’ by Stevi-Lee Alver

Cactus, by Stevi-Lee Alver (Rochford Street Press 2016), was launched by Moya Costello at the Bangalow Heritage Museum & Tea Rooms on 30 April 2016

steve 2

Stevi-Lee Alver at the launch of Cactus

Thank you Nancy, for the welcome to country (Bundjalung nation). I do feel a great sense that this country has made and is making Stevi-Lee. The Mirning and Wirangu nations border the Great Australia Bight: Cactus mentions both the Koonalda cave, in Mirning country, and, of course, Cactus Beach in Wirangu.

This launch, this setting of this book into the world, is an exciting moment for the Writing Program of Southern Cross University (SCU), and we are very, very proud of Stevi-Lee. And it’s also a moment when I think teaching is a privilege.

I’m just going to give you a little bit of history. But being history, Stevi-Lee most probably has a different version of it.

I remember, distinctly, teaching Stevi-Lee in the equivalent of Writing 101 at SCU. And I remember saying to her, when she handed in her first creative-writing assignment, something like: ‘No, you can’t write like this; this writing won’t work’. And she looked at me, unforgettably, with a mixture of utter confusion and suppressed anger.

But in my version of history, that happened only once. And from then on, I never read anything from her that wasn’t astounding and outstanding. She understood what to do immediately – though she was studying other subjects, of course – and reading and reading and reading.

Another important thing to point out about Stevi-Lee is that she has an entrepreneurial spirit, a pro-activeness and self-actualisation that you need as a writer, or, indeed, for being any form of artist. She pursues, or takes up, opportunities I suggest to her. And she’s finding her own now and sharing them with others.

For example, according to my version of history, I suggested Rochford Street Review to her for reviewing books. It’s not a highly paid gig, but these kinds of gigs are important for emerging writers to build up their CVs, gather skills, and get their name out.

Rochford Street Review is Australian poet Mark Roberts’ project. Mark, of course, is the publisher of Rochford Street Press and has published Cactus.

I think I also introduced Stevi to Spineless Wonders which is another small, independent Sydney press who have been publishing anthologies of prose poems and micro fiction for some years. Stevi responded to a call for their anthology Writing to the Edge, and she and I and another local writer, Byron Bay’s Nick Couldwell, had pieces in it. Subsequently, Stevi and I co-organised a reading of our work from that anthology at Uncle Peter’s Books in Clunes. In Writing to the Edge, Stevi had a piece inspired by Gertrude Stein, that she wrote in the SCU experimental writing subject, Writing from the Edge. Mark Roberts was in that anthology too, and he asked to see more of Stevi’s work, or if she had a collection together. And, hence, Cactus came about.

So Stevi has had a short, so far, but extraordinary history in writing, including winning a number of prizes – the Class of 1940 Creative Writing Award for poetry from the University of Massachusetts while she was on a student exchange there (a difficult thing to do, given the varying language rhythms of nations); a 2014 Questions Writing Prize for a short-story; and the 2015 Southern Cross University award for Excellence in the Arts. Her story about her writing journey, including Cactus, is recorded in the SCU Lismore Campus Soundtrail. And I recommend her blog, under her own name, for reading her work.

I think we are going to see Stevi’s name develop and take a place in Australian literature, either as a poet, or short-story writer, or in what other form she takes on.

Significantly, Cactus is an interlinked series of prose poems, perhaps the way Frank Moorhouse used to write interlinked series of short fiction, called discontinuous narrative, and I know Stevi is a Moorhouse reader.

The prose poem is the most adorable of genres. Because it’s a hybrid, a mixture of the prose sentence and the aesthetics of poetry, and therefore impure, the Sydney academic Anan Gibbs has lovingly called it a form of literary detritus¹. And the Sydney poet joanne burns, who has had an award named after her by Spineless Wonders, has memorably said of the prose poem that it is humble: that it ‘knows the potential, the freedom of not being too obvious. The prose poem says find me’.

The prose poem is not obvious, large, brash or quick-smart. It is small and subtle and works relatively slowly via resonance. It is a quiet revolutionary of the hybrid, working with narrative balanced by lyricism, making leaps of association, with implications of drama, and developed by small sequences and accretions. It’s a minor literature in the Deleuze and Guattari sense. It’s a small intensity.

Because of its brevity, it can easily be dismissed, abandoned as something of little value, hidden in its self-effacement. But James Ley², the Australian essayist and literary critic, has said of hybrid texts that they:

place demands on the reader in excess of most forms of entertainment. They require not just reading, but re-reading. Their aesthetic is one of complexity, indeterminacy, slow philosophical reflection. As such, they run counter to the contemporary idea of entertainment, offering instead more esoteric and cerebral pleasures.

But I must say, and as evidenced by Stevi-Lee’s work, that they offer emotional or affective pleasures too, indeed sensual ones.

CactusCactus is, of course, a plant surviving desert dryness. Another incarnation of ‘cactus’ is as a colloquial Australian term meaning not in working order, something gone very wrong, a mess. And several things go awry: food and water are difficult to access; the climate is hot and windy but cold at night; young men invade the camp site of the two women whose narrative the book is; the two women’s relationship is unsettled; and sharks have taken surfers off the beach in the past. Cactus is also a surfing beach off the desert of the Great Australian Bight.

So Cactus could be a ‘surfie chick’ narrative, a fine, radical reworking of that twentieth-century Australian female surfing memoir, Puberty Blues³.

The striking thing about Cactus is how finely judged, how well-balanced the writing is in its choice of vocabulary and image, its movement through a narrative, its conception of the ecological and of love.

This sequence is a song. It’s a song that’s deeply moving, deeply affecting, about women, Australia, Australia’s Indigenous peoples, surfing, ecology.

Publisher and poet Mark Roberts, in his own fine judgement, saw something in Stevi’s work. And all praise to him. Mark has been a literary activist, one might say warrior, for decades. He was and is part of the independent, small-press movement of poets, literary magazine productions and readings from around the 1970s and 1980s onwards. His generosity and energy, and acute judgement and appreciation of poetry are themselves extraordinary. He has nurtured and is nurturing several present and former SCU students through Rochford Street Review and Press. This year, Mark has had his own admirable, striking and deeply moving collection of poetry – Concrete Flamingos – out with another historical Australian, small, independent press, Island Press.

So I recommend the purchase of this small but explosive book, Cactus, that shines and resounds with love, that acknowledges the sacred, that has a warm and exemplary appreciation of the more-then-human and the Australian landscape and its ancient and present history.

I want to repeat that Stevi-Lee Alver will be a name we’ll keep seeing in Australian literature.

**…..**…..**

¹Gibbs, Anna 1997, ‘Bodies of words: feminism and fictocriticism: explanation and demonstration’, Text, vol. 1, no. 2.

²Ley, James 2005, ‘The tyranny of the literal’, Australian Book Review, April.

³Carey, Gabriel and Lette, Kathy 1979, Puberty Blues, Carlton, Vic. :McPhee Gribble.

 –  Moya Costello


Moya Costello is a Writing lecturer in the School of Arts and Social Sciences, Southern Cross University. She has been awarded writer’s grants, a residency, fellowships, guest spots at several writers’ festivals, and judged several writing prizes. Her books are two collections of short creative prose, and two novellas, the most recent being Harriet Chandler described by Nicholas Jose, in the Sydney Review of Books, as a ‘beautiful, brilliant book’. Short creative works have most recently been in TEXT, AAWP 2015 proceedings and Spineless Wonders anthologies.

Cactus is available from https://rochfordstreetpress.wordpress.com/rochford-street-press-titles/

New Shoots Poetry Prize banner 2

‘… i’m never just myself …’ : Sarah St Vincent Welch reviews ‘Elegant’ by Ania Walwicz

Elegant by Annia Walwicz, Vagabond Press 2013

WalwiczCover_grandeA block of text, lower case i’s, patterns of repetition and rhymes and rhythms, self, selves, always teetering on the edges of possible narratives – usual definitions and descriptions just don’t work well when trying to review Ania Walwicz’s writing. This is also the case with Walwicz’s Elegant, in the ‘Rare Object’ series from Vagabond Press. As a physical object it is fine papered, slim, pleasing to hold and touch, beautiful, elegant indeed, and rare.

Within, within … an energy breaks, cracks, shifts, re-forms, hammers and sings, darts and dares, and the mechanisms of seeming and how to seem are explored with such lovely and exciting dissonance in this text.

Elegant, like all of Walwicz’s writing, has little punctuation, and so foregrounds the act of reading in the reader’s mind. The reader makes the reading, intuiting each pause, finding breath, a flow, a stop, and traces connections. Elegant demands engagement, to understand, to glean meaning, this text overtly asks the reader to make it (as do all texts) but the reader is very, very aware that they are doing just that.

The reader imagines themselves at the top of the text … and then they fall. Dive. Find. Grab. The experience of the text demands to be inside it in a way that is just so Walwicz. And in truth, it is an adventure, but a gorgeous one, a privilege. If part of the pleasure of reading is to experience other states, and other experiences, Elegant does this well.

Elegant is –

Vital and funny –

i’ll just roll a broom to clean up my head the will you get up
off the floor she wanted to be so l’élégant but now she wears a
dressing gown some one to identify then who is speaking

 

Playful and absurd –

long hair i will twirl around on top of a hat the head then the
house on top of a hill i will stretch and build a hair house
then all piled on top of a roll in a roll beginning with a

 

Mutable and oblique –

show i am looking mirrors again but what do i see the body
get so strange when i’m too all alone fingers the tabernacles
tentacles of an oyster then the fingers are octopus weaving

 

Shifting and multiple –

will change into a different person when you put on new
clothes you will change into another then i will change and i

 

Textual and odd –

was mine i sometimes think all lived out is all out of books
i’m just a fictitious girl making myself up bit by bit how
would you do they say how come i just know so much even

 

Corporeal and philosophical –

the senses open up up you open up my nose then life is never
enough and enough it’s not fair to only have one body at a
time then or my body gets shorter no legs and arms i’ll sit on

 

Performative and reflexive –

oh please but i’m sick of her who does she think she is the
writer is unimportant it’s the actress i am brushing my hair
and brushing i have a cat in my hair stroking sparky i am

 

Elegant and percussive –

is the maker of the slip string word dress me then all up i am
all done up the make the most elegant then heyday of the

 

Elegant examines the awkwardness of social experience and aspirations and how we manage them. The tension between the elegant object that is the book itself, and the exuberant, elliptical play of language within it, makes a startling adventure in reading.

– Sarah St Vincent Welch

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Elegant is available from http://vagabondpress.net/collections/rare-object-series/products/ania-walwicz-elegant

Sarah St Vincent Welch grew up swimming in Middle Harbour and now loves walking on Mt Majura. She teaches creative writing in the community. She co-edited The Pearly Griffin – the story of the old Griffin Centre with Lizz Murphy, and two short story anthologies – The Circulatory System and Time Pieces with Craig Cormick. She also co-edited FIRST: Surrender with Francesca Rendle-Short in 2007 (a student anthology at the University of Canberra). Her short fiction (or long poetry), has been anthologised, and published in independent magazines. Her chapbook Open will be published by  Rochford Street Press in 2015. She blogs about reading and writing and time and space at sarahtvincentwelch.com

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Spineless Wonder announces the The joanne burns Award

joanne burns - Photo by Juno Gemes

joanne burns – Photo by Juno Gemes

It is pleasing to note that  short/micro/nano/flash fiction publisher Spineless Wonder has named a new award in honour of renowned experimental poet/writer joanne burns. Spineless Wonder has described the award int the following terms:

The precise form that The joanne burns Award will take each year may change. For the past two years, for instance, the Spineless Wonders prose poem/microfiction competition has called for submissions with a maximum of 800 word limit. In future years, The joanne burns Award may be for other brief forms, such as nanofiction or for blended, genre-bending prose poem or poetic prose forms yet to be developed.

The theme of each year’s joanne burns Award will also vary. Some years the theme may be open whilst in others, such as in the 2012 Australian icons competition, the theme will be specified.

As in previous years, the competition will be blind judged according to the criteria set out in the Terms and Conditions. The joanne burns Award judge for each year, along with the competition parameters, will be announced in the first half of each year.

The joanne burns Award will carry a monetary reward as well as an offer of publication for those pieces judged to be the highest quality entries in our annual competitive cull.

The 2013 award is will be judged by Shady Cosgrove and opens on 1 June. It is un-themed, which I think means that you don’t have to worry about incorporating a particular topic in your writing, and the word length is limited to 800 words. Micro fiction and prose poems submissions are invited.

More information about the award can be found here: http://shortaustralianstories.com.au/the-joanne-burns-award/ and submission guidelines at http://shortaustralianstories.com.au/submissions/prose-poetrymicrofiction/.

It is fitting that Spineless Wonder have chosen to name this award after joanne burns. As I wrote in a review of burn’s last collection, amphora, “Burns has been writing and publishing for almost four decades, her first collection Snatch being published in 1972. Over the years she has established a reputation for pushing poetic boundaries and for blurring the distinction between poetry and prose with her published work consisting of a combination of poetry, prose poems and prose sequences”. Her work has been, perhaps, the most consistently experimental  poetry/prose produced in Australia over the last 3 to 4 decades and she shows no sign of compromise now. I hope that those submitting work to this award are inspired by burns’ work and are prepared to push and crash through the barriers that guide so much creative writing in Australia today.

– Mark Roberts

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Mark Roberts is a Sydney based writer and critic. He currently edits Rochford Street Review. He is currently working a collection of poetry.

The review of amphora can be found at https://rochfordstreetreview.com/2013/03/19/pushing-boundaries-mark-roberts-reviews-amphora-by-joanne-burns/

Spineless Wonder can be found at http://shortaustralianstories.com.au/

A selection of joanne burns’ work can be found at http://www.poetrylibrary.edu.au/poets/burns-joanne

Pushing Boundaries: Mark Roberts reviews amphora by joanne burns

amphora by joanne burns. Giramondo 2011.

burns-cover-final-215x300Burns has been writing and publishing for almost four decades, her first collection Snatch being published in 1972. Over the years she has established a reputation for pushing poetic boundaries and for blurring the distinction between poetry and prose with her published work consisting of a combination of poetry,  prose poems and prose sequences.

Much of burns’ earliest work from the 1970’s was, in fact, poetry – though it was very much the experimental poetry that the ‘new poets’ were working with at the time. ‘carve her name with pride’, from her second collection Ratz, is perhaps sounding a warning to those of us who attempt to categorise and label her work:

the critics are coming
they’re here, they’re here

perception ‘n logic, linguistic deception
the cutlery’s laid, the dishes prepared

metaphors marinate, mashed metaphysics
roasted rhetoric phonetically fried
coffee dichotomy, Jane Austen cheese

…..sing a song of critics
…..bellies growing high
…..first class honours theses
…..hang the bones to dry

There is a playfulness in this poem, though very much tongue in check. It is interesting to consider that these days, particular after the publication of amphora, the critics have indeed been coming – in most cases to praise!

Burns very quickly, however, moved towards the short prose, or prose poem sequence and, in collections such as Correspondences (with Pam Brown, Red Press 1979) and Ventriloquy (Sea Crusie Books 1981), we find her at ease with the short prose genre – what might be called today ‘micro fiction’, but which was then very much prose poetry. In some ways the prose poem, and particularly the way burns approached them in the late 70’s and 80’s, could be seen as a political statement, something Moya Costello alludes to when she refers to the rise of the prose poem/micro fiction among Australian feminist writers during this period:  “I was trained in the art of short fiction in the early 1980s by being a member of the Sydney Women Writers Workshop who, to put it crudely, favoured experimental short prose over the novel, which was seen as colonised by patriarchy”.(http://reviews.media-culture.org.au/modules.php?name=News&file=article&sid=1785#FNT6).

In part It is this background that makes burns such a fascinating writer. Boundaries have indeed been pushed (and in some cases broken completely), but her work has continued to developed and to suprise. Her latest collection, amphora, is further evidence of this development. It is a major work, complex and at times dense, but burns has remained true to her roots – amphora is also surprising and unexpected and difficult to tie down, just like much of her work stretching back to the 1970’s.

For example, while there are some very fine prose poems in amphora, I was also pleasantly surprised by the strength of the work that falls, for the most part, under the more traditional ‘poetry’ tag, especially those in the first section of the collection ‘ichoria’.

Even here, however, burns can’t help slipping back into the prose poem from time to time. In the opening poem, for example, we see her moving easily from a conversational poetic form:

i know an angel poem can be a cliché
but every poet’s got an angel somewhere
cruising through their work even if they don’t
admit it; ruffle the leaves of any old anthology
and you’ll hear angels speaking through the dust

to a lines that start leaning towards a more prose like structure:

my kind of angel comes like a flash of light a silver
wink  in the  dark a stroke  of  thought  behind the
brow down the  nape of the neck so slow it’s really
fast.it could remind you that you’re about to die if
you don’t move your arse

‘pitch’

In some respects this change from the ragged line breaks of the first section to the prose like justification of the second is almost like a gear change. It forces the reader to read in a slightly different way, by breaking up both the rhythm of the poem and the way the lines form across the page. In this poem, however, it also allows burns to insert a personal experience into a more general discussion. In the prose/poem section we read of how the poet narrowly avoided death when a speeding car heads straight towards her:

……………………………………..i felt too vague. in that
slow step to the right the prod of an instant angel
surely reached across to save my life

In reality the entire poem revolves around this central prose section. The personal experience in the centre lends weight to the more poetic discussion around dusty angels speaking from old anthologies or the fallen angel “who descended from a star then lost its light.” that take place at the beginning and end of the poem.

Burns uses the same combination of poetry and prose in ‘rung’ which is one of the most impressive pieces in this collection. The first section of this piece uses poetry, the second section starts using poetry and then slowly changes into prose. The rest of this piece then moves between poetry and prose. This actually works very well and creates a structure which allows burns to explore some complex notions of memory.

The ‘rung’ of the poem refers to the rungs of a ladder and it is the dusty of rung of her father’s ladder which opens the poem. This simple domestic object:

covered in dust, draped in
an ancient sarong, its rungs
to hang disoriented clothes,

Becomes a symbol  of the martyrdom of St Perpetua, an early Christian female saint who, in a vision while in prison, saw a narrow golden ladder reaching up to heaven.

But if the opening section of the collection is full to overflowing with catholic icons, burns’ angels aren’t the angels of spiritual belief, rather they are the angels of childhood memories – the result of a traditional Catholic upbringing.  In ‘Rung’ burns highlights the conflicting symbolic uses of the ladder. While for St Perpetua the ladder is the golden ladder stretching to heaven which the faithful must climb, for burns:

this ladder has no fine points sticking up towards
heaven.  i feel no drowse. No golden dream….

Rather burns questions the need to go up ladders, rejecting the

…………..…medieval images of sinners falling down
the ladder to hell and the lascivious instruments of
satan’s torturers…

for burns the ladder represents a chance to “…climb down the ladder / of memory”. The strength of this poem lies in the conflict between the images (relics) of a Catholic childhood, the stories of the martyrdom of the saints, their ‘visions’ of the climb into heaven and burns’ desire to move beyond these images to the recollections and memories which has driven much of her work over years:

……………………..…………………….not the tongue stretching
Up for the dry sticky host of a first communion gravitas
But arms reaching out for that first swim in deep water

While there is plethora of angels and saints in the first few sections of amphora, it is the consistency of the work through the entire collection which is its major strength. At 135 pages it is almost as long as some Selected or Collected poems going around and, indeed I have read selected works with a greater variation of ‘quality’ – the poems in amphora retain their intensity throughout the collection. After the ‘surprise’ of the intense catholic iconography in the early section of her book, it was the more conventional   work in the middle and later sections of amphora suggest that this will one of burn’s major collections. All in all amphora deserves to become one the ‘must read’ collections of Australian poetry. In it joanne burns has drawn on her work over the last 30 years or so to create a work that threatens to become a classic.

– Mark Roberts

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Mark Roberts is a Sydney based writer and critic. He currently edits Rochford Street Review.

amphora is available from Giramondo http://www.giramondopublishing.com/category/author/joanne-burns-author

An Uneven Debut – Lucas Smith reviews The Rattler and other stories by A.S. Patrić. Spineless Wonders 2011.

A.S. Patrić has done the rounds of our little magazines and even co-edits an online little mag, Verity LA. He has paid his dues and The Rattler, his first book, is the uneven result. Short, abortive prose poems full of imprecise syntax and breathless gushing sit alongside thoughtful, subtle and carefully nuanced writing.

“Movement and Noise” portrays the death of a young girl but then retreats to the inner life of a boy who lives on her street. The ending returns to the death with astonishing power. Some much needed silliness, which after all is the source of seriousness, is provided by Anais Nin and June Miller bickering in Melbourne suburbia in “Ducks”

“Baby Shoes” is a subtle, very brief story about the inspiration behind Hemingway’s famous six word short story, (“For sale, baby shoes, never worn”). Hemingway is referred to only as ‘the Yankee’ and the implications of the story are allowed to hit the reader gradually. The aunt and uncle of Santiago, who will become the old fisherman in The Old Man and the Sea. Here, Patric’s literary meta-referencing shines. The Yankee tells the couple that he has found what he needed for his story and then leaves. The story ends and we are left with exactly what we needed and no more.

The apex of the collection is “Some Kind of Blues”, a reflection on ethnic origins that manages to avoid clichés of migration and generational culture clash. “The question was still being asked among the children at my school. What are you?…Those massacres and rapes were who I was, because the television informed me that the Serbs were responsible for all the evils of those wars and I was a Serb.” I assume by his name that Patrić has Serbian ancestry. If so he is admirably honest, if not he has a penetrating imagination.

But too many stories are marred by forced profundity, an unfortunate byproduct of this powerful imagination. “The Frame” provides an example: “Greeks gaze into empty coffee cups and look into the smudge of chaos like scientists who stare through their microscopes at a smear of cells—but they’re the same stains. Accidents of birth, followed by accidents of life, then accidents of death.” Tell me something I don’t know.

Inexact grammar frequently halts the reader’s rhythm. Here is one of numerous examples: “he had a smile on his face. And an erection.” On his face? It doesn’t seem likely but that’s what those words say. Replace the full stop with a comma and the ambiguity is removed. To paraphrase Clive James, writers should never demand that their readers do most of the heavy thinking. Sentences like the above do not ingratiate a writer to his readers.

As one character says, “he knew every raindrop by its name. Did he think that’s smart like he thought I am sometimes, or is it as stupid as it sounds to me. You can’t be sure. Can’t be sure of anything.” This holds true for literature. Is this grammar artistic or just bad? Is this sentence, because said in a character’s voice, meant to be a non sequitur? Is the author cleverly playing off the notion of set in stone definitions or does he not know what words mean? You just can’t be sure.

The title story (and by far the longest) is the flat, undercooked tale of Atticus, a retired tram driver and aspiring writer. Patrić tries to wring meaning out of it and unite the collection by alluding to previous stories (Anais Nin and June Miller get a run), but the idea feels forced rather than organic. His literary ambition is limitless and his anger is on a hair-trigger but Atticus never quite feels like a real person. Which is fine, but he never quite feels like an overtly symbolic character either.

“Atticus was standing in the Writing Reference section in the bookstore. Atticus already had every book on the shelf worth owning. Not that he’d read every one of those at home, but he’d started them all and had an idea of what they all contained. That imparted an immense feeling of poised potential.”

“The Rattler” does not seem to be in the least autobiographical, but ‘poised potential,’ besides being a redundancy, is exactly what A.S. Patrić has.

Spineless Wonders, the publisher of The Rattler is a new NT-based press and they deserve praise for taking a punt on the short story form but I have one cheap shot to throw at them. The book features a blurb from “Les Murray, poet and editor, Quadrant”. Is Spineless Wonders trying to distinguish our greatest living poet from the soccer commentator of the same name or do they think their target audience needs a primer? Sorry.

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Lucas Smith is a writer living in Melbourne. He has been published in The Australian Book Review, New Matilda, Eureka Street and The Lifted Brow.