Australian Poetry Journal 5.2 and 6.1

Michael Sharkey (editor),  Australian Poetry Journal, Volume 5, Issue 2 (2015)
———,  Australian Poetry Journal, Volume 6, Issue 1 (2016)

Australian Poetry Journal is the nearest thing we have to a community newsletter for Australian poets and poetry-readers. It is delivered twice a year to paid-up  members of Australian Poetry Ltd. My copy tends to wait until I’ve got a book on the go that’s too bulky to read while walking. Thanks to a couple of hefty books, I’ve recently caught up on two issues, as well as last year’s anthology (also covered by the cost of membership). In case you’re interested, the joys of these journals aren’t restricted to members: anyone can buy copies, and the entire contents of issue 5:2 are up online. I’ve included links.

APJ-5-2.jpg Issue 5:2 leads with a wonderful profile (here) by Dan Disney, Un Gyung Yi and Daye Jeon of some contemporary Korean poets, including octogenarian Ko Un, whom Allen Ginsberg called ‘a demon-driven Bodhisattva’. In other articles, Nicolette Stasko farewells JS Harry, who died last year, quoting generously from her work (here); there’s a knowledgable article about Stuart Cooke (here) and a number of reviews, including a piece on US poet and activist Denise Levertov by Felicity Plunkett (here); Adrian Caesar tells the story of David Musgrave’s Puncher & Wattmann (here).

I can’t resist mentioning that Adrian Caesar, who is enthusiastic about most of P&W’s publications, has misgivings about some of the criticism they publish. After quoting a paragraph of dense academic writing from a recent book, he lets fly:

In its determined promulgation of specialised language, its astonishing lack of wit or irony … and its pervading sense of high-minded seriousness, it made me wonder if the writers were not like adherents of some gnostic sect seeking to articulate their search for the numinous through their ‘belief’ in literary theory.

Shades of the Dunciad Minor.

Then there are the poems, roughly 50 of them. I turned down the corners of too many pages to talk about all the poems I responded to, so I’ll just list some of the raisins from the pudding.

Susan Hawthorne interrogates a photograph of her grandmother in ‘unknowing‘. Jennifer Compton’s ‘Two Women‘ explores the difficulty of the ‘inconstant narrative of bewilderment’ created by, well, is it dementia or just habitual white-lying? Ivy Alvarez, in ‘N‘ riffs on ‘n’ words chosen as if at random from the dictionary:

noctambulist:
_______I once walked out a sleeping house
_______to see the moon
_______trees tethered their shadows
_______and I was the only one that moved

Kit Kelen’s ‘In my incunabula‘ reminisces about technologies past, beginning:

TV was eternity.
There was always the promise of snow

Tom Morton’s ‘November‘ is a very Sydney poem, sweet to read on a cold July day:

The days get longer, a sudden heatwave
And the outrageous heavy sweetness
Of the jacarandas on the river path
Jiggles the deadlocks on
Whole rooms of me
I’ve not been in, this long winter

Jordie Albiston rings in the 2015 New Year in ‘strontium‘. Vanessa Proctor celebrates  a plant in ‘Bathroom Orchid‘. Ron Heard tackles birdsong in ‘currawongs‘. John Stokes offers an oblique love lyric in ‘She feels him at a seaside motel‘ (‘The curves of his buttock / and the moon / are the same’). There’s Andy Kissane, Eileen Chong, Ron Pretty … Michael Sharkey has put together a feast that has something for everyone.

APJ-6-1.jpgHe does it again in issue 6:1, which has a focus on women poets and their concerns: a lively article by Carol Jenkins brings an epidemiological approach to gender and age distribution in Australian poetry anthologies; Heather Taylor Johnson profiles Susan Hawthorne, poet–founder of feminist Spinifex Press; Tegan Schetrumpf argues that writing groups offer an alternative to the patriarchal lone-genius-poet paradigm. Off-theme, but who would complain, is a fine tribute by Helen Nickas to Dmitris Tsaloumis, Greek Australian poet who died in February aged 94; and reviews of work by πO and Lesbia Harford, among others.

And there are another 50 or so poems. I got tears in my eyes (though I defy anyone to guess at which poem), I smiled, I gasped, I felt moments of my own experience vibrate into new life.

‘Old haunts’, a haibun by Sam Wagan Watson, evokes childhood terrors at the sounds of the night. J. Richard Quigley’s ‘Fondue’ utters the thought one dare not speak when offered that cheesy dish. Heather Taylor Johnson’s ‘They Say’ makes poetry that transcends its ‘kids say the darnedest things’ source material. Rod Usher has serious fun with Italian verbs in ‘The imperfect’. My own peculiar edginess about kitchen knives is echoed uncannily in Claire Rosslyn Wilson’s ‘Cooking for Two’, and the precise language of ‘Stories from the kampong’, Mindy Gill’s narrative about a chicken-coop-raiding python, captured my own childhood memory of a similar incident (a significant difference being that, though we talked about the possibility, we didn’t eat the snake or the chickens it had eaten). Rozanna Lilley’s ‘Early onset’ touches on the pain of having someone close affected by dementia.The first poem of Brendan Doyle’s that I read began, from memory, ‘Sittin on the gasbox, / waitin for me dad’; in ‘The Wooden Gate’ here, his father ‘dead these sixteen years’ pays a reproachful visit in a dream. ‘Hearts and Minds’ by Stephen Edgar, master of rhyme, bounces beautifully off an artwork currently being created by the Emerging Artist. Dick Alderson’s ‘nail holes’ reminds me of my youthful fascination with the way holes in an iron shed ‘throw circles / on the floor / like soft pennies’.

There’s history: Virginia Jealous visits Edward ‘Weary’ Dunlop’s war diaries in ‘Weary’s Birds’; and Judith Beveridge’s ‘Ode to Ambergris’ does what it says on the lid, with lovely light musicality. There are elegiac moments, as in Pam Schindler’s ‘Like someone who is leaving’. In the twelve delicate short lines of ‘Jumhoori’, Hessom Razavi describes a cat and laments the state of his native Iran.

Paradoxically, given that I get no sense at all that these poems are competing with each other, there is a prize fort he best poem published in the journal each year.This issue includes 2015’s winner, Andy Kissane’s ‘Alone Again’, reprinted here with commentary from Andy.

I expect if you were asked to make a list of stand-out poems from these journals  your list would be different from mine, but I’m pretty confident you’d find something here to nourish you and give you pleasure.

Hanya Yanagihara’s Little Life with the Book Group

Hanya Yanagihara, A Little Life (Picador 2015)

We keep deciding we’re not going to pick big books for the Book Group, and then we keep picking them. A Little Life runs to 720 pages.

Before the meeting: I’d been warned this was a gruelling read, and I’ll add my own warning: do not read this book if you’re set off by accounts of cruelty, sexual abuse or self-harm.

The ‘little life’ of the title is that of Jude St Francis. His story, which emerges piecemeal throughout the novel, involves systematic sex abuse and physical violence from a very young age until his mid teens. His life turns around, and he finds deep companionship and love, professional success as a lawyer, a family such as he wouldn’t have dreamed  of. But the horrors of the past have left him with serious physical difficulties and a deep sense of his own worthlessness, even grotesquerie. He believes he must hide ‘what he is’ from the people he loves. In his 30s he has his first sexual encounter since the abuse of his childhood, and it leads to unbelievable brutality. From then on, there is a struggle between the demons of the past and the angels of the present, between his belief that somehow he deserves terrible things and the evidence all around him that he is cherished by his friends and adoptive family.

Some readers have seen the book as a kind of suffering porn, particularly in the graphic accounts of self-harm. (The harm inflicted by other people, including sexual harm deliberate and otherwise, is mostly told at a level of abstraction, with an almost fairytale quality.) I know what they mean, but I see it differently. Phrases like ‘mental health’, ‘sex abuse’ and even ‘child sex abuse’ are used a lot these days, and overuse can drain them of some of their meaning. For instance, when discussing the Australian government’s policy on people seeking asylum, leaders of both major parties can discount evidence that the policy results in ‘mental health problems’ and ‘sexual abuse’ for children. The words become political catch-cries, and their human meaning fades. The great strength of A Little Life is that it remorselessly, repetitively, unflinchingly but not (for my money) preachily pounds home the deep damage done to the human spirit by sustained abuse.

I don’t find the stories of abuse completely plausible, and I find the love story/stories saccharine at times. The financial and creative success of all the major characters and their upper-class New York lifestyles may irritate. But it’s a very powerful book. It would be hard to read it thoughtfully and ever again tell someone who had been severely abused to ‘get over it’, or think that there was some easy chemical or behavioural solution. There are moments in the narrative when there seems to be a breakthrough, but again and again we have been misled by hope. I don’t think the book preaches despair [though Hanya Yanigahara sometimes sounds as if that’s what she intends – as in the podcast linked to below], but it does urge us to remember that suffering is a long way from over when its cause is removed, that in some ways the worst that happens to a person isn’t the worst – the worst is not finding a way to recover from it.

A minor point: I’ll sometimes turn to the last page of a book looking for reassurance that things are going to turn out all right. I don’t know if Hanya Yanagihara had people like me in mind, but I can tell you, I hope without giving anything away, that the last paragraph of this book is completely misleading.

When the meeting was postponed because it clashed with the second State of Origin match: One of the chaps flagged that for him the book raises questions of ‘what and why we read’. I listened to the podcast of Hanya Yanigahara’s closing address to the Sydney Writers’ Festival. It’s a brilliant exegesis of her intentions in this novel, but I found myself retrospectively turning against the novel when she said things like:

For anyone who has turned away from a book because it is unbearable I would argue that there is a danger in forsaking a piece of art only because it is unpleasant, because it is destructive. The impulse to do so is human of course, and understandable, but the best that one human can do for another sometimes, the ultimate human act, is to witness, to open our eyes wider and look at what we would rather not, to regard what we think we cannot endure. When we give up seeing, we give up something greater. Once we start limiting what we can tolerate in literature, in art, we also start limiting our ability to see our fellow humans.

This reminded me reactively of the old comedian’s line, delivered in tones of high moral outrage: ‘I don’t want to see violence, incest, torture in films. I get enough of that sort of thing at home.’ That is to say, being a witness for another human being is a very different thing to being a witness for a made-up person.

Then, in another podcast from the festival, Charlotte Wood commented about her novel The Natural Way of Things (currently on my TBR pile):

You couldn’t live in this book as a reader for longer than it is. It’s a short book … It’s important not to leave people in that world for too long. I know there are some big books around at the moment that are very harrowing … and I think, ‘I don’t want to go there as a reader, I don’t want to put people through that.’

The reference to A Little Life was only half-serious, and the audience laughed, but she had a point.

At the meeting: Eventually we met, and it was one of the group’s more intense discussions.

Not everyone had finished the book. There’s nothing unusual about that, but this time the non-finishers all had reasons other than lack of time: one gave up after a mere hundred pages because none of the characters had enough individuality to claim his interest; two gave up close to the two-thirds mark because they realised that they didn’t have to stay trapped in the horrible imaginings of Hanya Yanagihara, and they reported that their lives improved when they closed the book.

Most of us acknowledged the power of the writing, though one said that he remained unmoved (except to anger at being manipulated) even by the graphic descriptions of self harm. Most of us felt that if the book was attempting a portrayal of male friendships, it failed. Shockingly, we realised that we never saw why the other men – friends and adoptive father – were drawn to withholding, self-effacing Jude: surely there was more to it than his beauty?

The most articulate disliker described his sense of being given no room for his own responses: at every turn he was being told how to feel about what he was being shown, and he was being shown only those parts of the characters’ lives that fitted the author’s agenda. Where were the jokes, the casual intimacies, the teasing? And as for sex, in this book it’s about men sticking a sex organ into someone else’s orifice, something you either do or don’t do with (to?) someone, with nothing between those two options, and no place for mutuality or negotiation. Sigh! (We noticed in passing the almost complete absence of women, unless one reads the main characters as really women with a communication disability.)

In short, the book had no passionate defender, but it made a deep impression on most of us.

A D Hope’s Dunciad Minor

A D Hope, Dunciad Minor: An heroick poem (Melbourne University Press 1970)

dunciad.jpgThis book is an oddity which had its origins in a private joke between A D Hope and his friend and fellow literary critic A A Phillips. In 1950, Phillips gave a radio talk in which he attacked Alexander Pope, a poet much admired by Hope. The attack was exaggerated and at least partly tongue in cheek, but it got Hope’s dander up, and he wrote a Pope-like mock-heroic satire in which the goddess of dullness elevates Phillips to be king of dunces. He sent the poem to Phillips and that would have been the end of it, except that photocopies circulated in Australian literary circles, and the work acquired a kind of underground classic status. Twenty years later, Hope decided to re-establish authorly control and agreed to have it published in a lavish edition by Melbourne University Press. He used the occasion expand the poem and broaden the target of its satire by adding two sections.

At the time it was written, Dunciad Minor, a long poem in rhyming couplets, bristling with references to Ancient Greek mythologies and 18th century English literature, was already an anachronism. Even the sections added in 1970, which referred mainly to literary criticism written between 1930 and 1950, were out of time: who now has heard of Blackmur, or Henn, or Christopher Caudwell? And now, though maybe it’s a case of Too Late Too Soon, the whole thing is like a piece of rusty artillery from an almost forgotten war, covered in weeds and forgotten in a cow paddock. And insofar as we remember the war, most people nowadays would think of Hope as having been on the wrong side. (For instance, Pope and his friends in heavcen look at a piece of 20th century poetry::

Verse without number, statement void of sense,
Flat verbiage and verbal flatulence,
Called Four Quartets, it kept no time or tune.
Pope thought it a political lampoon
Writ by some parson much bemused in beer)

But I did remember the poem, and reread it today on a bus ride, and enjoyed it. A long work in rhyming couplets runs the risk of monotony. This one avoids that thanks to a) Hope’s technical virtuosity and b) the joyful malice of his satire. It speaks volumes that it was probably Phillips, whom it maligns mercilessly, who put copies into circulation.

On the back endpapers I found two little poems in my own handwriting. Perhaps I’m only blogging about this book so I can share them:

Alec Derwent Hope
should have his mouth washed out with soap
for writing nothing Striner
than the Dunciad Minor.

and

A poet named Alec D Hope
was in love with another called Pope
When Phillips on air
to Pope was unfair
Hope took six books to call him a dope.

But let Hope have the last word. In his 1970 Preface he suggests that the poem is ‘the protest of a poet against the arrogance of the professor who shares his body’. The two sections added in 1970, in which critics of many stripes compete for who can produce the most stultifying machine, take that protest to extremes. Here’s one little bit, featuring US poet and critic Allen Tate:

His poems are golden but his prose is lead;
In Labyrinthine coils it crowds and squirms
With knotted syntax and entangled terms,
Strangles each poem, as the serpents once
Laocoön and his unhappy sons,
Enfolds and squeezes, crushes and extracts
Small crumbs of meaning and vast files of facts;
The poet crumbles and the reader nods
Yet on and on and on and on he plods
The tulips streaks are numbered, all admit,
But is the poem illumined? Not a whit;
For all his purpose is to demonstrate
The sensibilities of Allen Tate.

I can’t help but wonder what Hope would have done with the academic prose of these days of Theory.

James Brown’s Firing Line

James Brown, Quarterly Essay 62: Firing Line: Australia’s path to war (Black Inc 2016)

qe62.jpgThis Quarterly Essay could easily be read as an grim expansion on David Kilkullen’s quote from Trotsky in QE No 59: ‘You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.’ James Brown, former Australian Army officer who has been on duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, laments the lack of serious attention in Australia to possible scenarios for war, writing that we have been seriously unwilling to learn the lessons of the invasion of Iraq and so are very likely to make the same mistakes again:

Our military colleges are not yet universities for the study of war and our universities still view war as a morally tainted activity. (p 57)

But, I hear you cry (or is that just me?), war is of its nature a morally tainted activity. It involves the systematic killing of large numbers of people, and in our times those people inevitably include noncombatants. There’s nothing much more morally tainted than killing lots of children. To be fair to the author, it may be the study of war rather than war itself whose moral taint he questions: a few pages later he says, ‘to fight the cancer of war, we must know it, discuss it, think the malady through to its worst outcomes, understand and chart the darkest of possibilities’. The main burden of the essay is that this is not happening:

Australia’s oversight of national security is underdone and weak: one joint standing committee covers foreign affairs, defence and trade in toto. …  It is extraordinary that so little infrastructure is dedicated to parsing the issues of war. The national Disability Insurance Scheme, on which the government spends $15 billion each year, has an entire committee dedicated to its oversight. The national security apparatus, which accounts for more than 100 000 commonwealth employees and will soon absorb more than $45 billion each year, is entirely underscrutinised, and it shows. (p 57)

What this means, among other things:

The danger of the current system is that the main checks on the power of the prime minister to take Australia to war are his or her own intellect and character. (p 49)

Mercifully, that word ‘main’ carries a lot of weight here. Without even hinting that Tony Abbott is lacking in intellect and character, Brown lists a number of cases where Abbott was gung-ho for military action but was talked down by military advisers and others. But the essay argues convincingly for the establishment of a formal national security adviser. Without it, we will continue to respond to threats and challenges in a reactive way, or simply follow the US lead into war (Brown is too young for Harold Holt’s formulation ‘All the way with LBJ’ to spring to his typing fingers – I’m not).

Meanwhile, in the absence of scrutiny or study, or public debate in this country, tensions between China and the US are building. The probability of war is small, but it exists and, Brown argues, its implications should be thought through. Instead, a string of governments have taken initiatives – the US forces stationed in Darwin, the expanded submarine fleet – without any serious attempt to tell the rest of us what broader strategic thinking, if any, underpins them.

In the halls of the defence headquarters clustered by Canberra’s lake Burley Griffin, on bases spread from Perth to Puckapunyal, amid the Gold Coast hinterland, in shipyards and on the high seas, and in the clean rooms of advanced factories in northern Adelaide, a new ADF [Australian Defence Force] is being built. Across the Commonwealth the effort is consuming the attentions of more than 100 000 employees; it is exercising Australia’s diplomatic corps, stretching the decision-making capabilities of the federal government, vexing the most senior leaders in Canberra …

The build-up of the Australian Defence Force is well under way; the government has backed up its judgment that war could be a possibility within the next two decades with many billions of dollars. But Australians have barely begun to think through the consequences of all this, nor thought seriously about the circumstances that might bring our nation to the point of conflict. [pp 40, 44]

I expect the essay will be confronting to most readers – those like me who marched against the invasion of Iraq (OK, so Howard didn’t lie, but he didn’t interrogate what many people thought at the time was dodgy intelligence); those who are  gung-ho for military adventure; and plenty in between.

Poetry May 2016

Robert Adamson (guest editor), Poetry, May 2016 (Poetry Foundation, Chicago)

This special Australian Poets edition of Poetry magazine was launched at the Sydney Writers’ Festival this year by the regular editor Don Share. Guest editor Robert Adamson spoke and a number of the featured poets, including several who were coopted from the audience, read to us. Who could resist buying a copy?

The magazine contains 28 poems by 20 poets, along with 18 beautiful photo portraits by Juno Gemes and two survey essays by Jaya Savige and Bronwyn Lea, plus a charming note on Robert Adamson by US poet Devan Johnston.

Where the articles, particularly Bronwyn Lea’s ‘Australian Poetry Now‘, struggle with the impossible task of giving the readership, presumably mainly from the US, an overview of the state of Australian poetry, the selection does something different: it’s personal, making no claims to be representative or definitive. It includes a wonderful variety in forms and concerns: narrative, lyric, prose poems, formal experimentation. The landscape and geography are well represented. There are cultural references – both to settler and Aboriginal motifs – that will set non-Australians frantically googling, but at last as much Biblical and classical reference.

It’s hard to generalise about a collection like this, and equally hard to single out individual poems. But here goes with a few:

  • Ali Cobby Eckermann has two strong, plain-speaking poems, ‘Black Deaths in Custody‘ and ‘Thunder raining poison‘, the latter an incantatory response to a work of art about the effects of atomic tests on traditional lands at Maralinga.
  • Samuel Wagan Watson’s prose poems ‘Booranga Wire Songs‘ and ‘A one ended boomerang‘ really sing.
  • The first poem in magazine, Bonny Cassidy’s ‘Axe Derby‘, which plays tantalisingly on the image of a woodchopping competition
  • Anthony Lawrence’s ‘My darling turns to poetry at night‘ is a richly complex villanelle, whose title doesn’t mean what you expect.
  • Jaya Savige has fun with mangoes and anagrams in ‘Magnifera‘.

(The whole magazine is up on the Poetry Foundation’s website, so you can read it all on screen. All the links are to that website.)

Mary Beard’s SPQR

Mary Beard, SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome (Profile 2015)

spqr.jpgThe story of Mary Beard and the troll is a fable for our times about the power of generous intelligence. Its dissemination resulted in this ancient history scholar’s work being discovered by a whole new readership. That readership includes me.

This hefty book’s cover announces clearly enough that it’s a history of Ancient Rome. Its 536 pages (plus 70 pages of notes and suggestions for further reading) give us just that: a history of Rome’s first millennium, from 753 BCE, the traditional date of Rome’s beginnings, to 212 CE, when Emperor Caracalla extended full Roman citizenship to all free inhabitants of the empire and ushered in the very different second millennium, which Mary Beard says is ‘a story for another time, another book – and another writer’. This book, this writer tell the story that starts with the mythical Romulus and Remus, continues through the hardly less mythical early kings and the development of the republic, to Julius Caesar, Caesar Augustus and the subsequent  emperors, tracing through it all the growth and changing character of the Roman Empire.

SPQR is beautifully written, balancing colourful anecdote with a stern commitment to unearthing what probably happened in the real world, and never disappearing down the wormhole of a specialist’s fascination with her own topic. The historian’s job changes as the centuries roll by: in the earlier parts, the author sets out, as she says, ‘to squeeze every single piece of surviving evidence for all it can tell us’; by the first century CE, at the height of the Republic, there is plenty of documentation, so the question is how to select the most telling pieces of evidence.

I’ve never studied ancient history as such. My mental picture of ancient Rome is a jumble of names and incidents gleaned from Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopaedia, Shakespeare, Hollywood movies, a book called We who are about to die salute you I read when I was 12, the odd bit of Latin that turns up in public life (Kennedy saying ‘Civis Romanus sum’, for example), five years studying Latin (I studied Book V of Livy’s history in high school, but couldn’t tell you anything about the content), museum notations, and so on. I know the Romans built straight roads through a lot of Europe, that they copied Greek art, that they included among their number the poets Virgil, Ovid, Horace, Martial, Catullus and others, who inspire modern poets from Seamus Heaney and David Malouf to Laurie Duggan.

One of Mary Beard’s strengths is that she seamlessly folds references to elements of this jumble into her narrative: Dalton Trumbo’s screenplay for Spartacus may have made that slave revolt famous, but it’s hardly reliable history, while David Franzoni’s for the Russell Crowe vehicle Gladiator was largely accurate.

In the final pages, Beard says she no longer believes, as she did early in her 50 years exploring their history, that we have anything to learn directly from the Romans, but there is much to be gained from a dialogue with them. A little serendipity of my own is a case in point. I read most of this book while holidaying in my native north Queensland. On a visit to the local historical society, I read an account of how one sugar farmer had a number of Aboriginal people and Islanders working for him, ‘who were always treated as members of the family’ – which I’m pretty sure the writer meant to imply a completely benign relationship. In the light of what little I know of what the Protection Acts meant for Aboriginal people in Queensland well into the 1960s, this description made me uneasy. That night I read this on page 330 of SPQR:

Slaves and free in many contexts worked closely together. In the ordinary workshop, slaves might be friends and confidants as well as human chattel. And they were part of the Roman family; the Latin word familia always included the non-free and the free members of the household.

Being members of the ‘family’, in our recent past as much as in antiquity, isn’t incompatible with vast inequality and exploitation. (I’m not suggesting an equivalence between ancient slavery and the systematic restricting of the lives of Aboriginal people in Australia, just that the ancient past can shed light on the present.)

They did do things very differently back then, though. The journalists who report events in parliament in terms of knifings and assassinations would do well to remember how Roman politics was conducted, how or ethnic prejudice played out. Here’s Mary Beard’s description of a disturbance at Ascilum in 91 BCE that is not untypical of life in the Republic:

An eager audience, a mixture of Romans and locals, was enjoying some shows in the town theatre when the drama moved offstage. The  Roman part of the crowd had not liked the anti-Roman stance of one comic performer and attacked him so fiercely that they left the hapless actor dead. The next comedian on the bill was a travelling player of Latin origin and a great favourite with Roman audiences for his jokes and mimicry. Terrified that the other side of the audience would now turn on him, he had no option but to walk on to the stage where the other man had just been killed and to talk and joke his way out of trouble. ‘I’m not a Roman either,’ he said to the spectators. ‘I travel throughout Italy searching for favours by making people laugh and giving pleasure. So spare the swallow, which the gods allow to nest safely in all your houses!’ This touched them, and they sat back to watch the rest of the show. But it was only a brief comic interlude: soon after, all the Romans in the town were killed.

 

Australian Poetry Anthology 4

Sarah Holland-Batt and Brook Emery (editors), Australian Poetry Anthology Nº 4 (Australian Poetry Ltd 2015)

APA4.jpg

Paradoxically, the thing I like best about this anthology is the absence of stars. Think of three famous Australian poets, and I’ll bet you none of them is here. The starlessness isn’t a sign of mediocrity: many of these poems have been published in reputable places, and quite a few have been on shortlists or won awards. But there’s a sense of the book as a conversation rather than, say, a competition or a performance, or even a showcase. Poems bounce off each other, or not, tackling similar themes or taking similar forms, but each doing something different, individual.

Australian Poetry Ltd was formed four or five years ago, as an amalgamation of the Poets’ Unions in a number of states. It describes itself as ‘the national body for poetry in Australia, with a charter to promote and support Australian poets and poetry locally, regionally, nationally and internationally’. Among other ways of filling this charter, the underfunded, understaffed organisation produces a twice yearly journal which includes articles as well as poetry, and an annual members’ anthology, of which this is the fourth. Almost every page has pleasures to offer.

There’s the pleasure of meeting someone familiar. John Upton ‘ Unawares’ is a kind of aftershock to the poems of loss in Embracing the Razor:

Pulling an old dictionary from the shelf
I open it, see her signaure, and myself
back twenty years momentarily: intense
surprise, like pausing suddenly on stairs
to stop a fall.

There’s serendipity. Our cumquats were ripening as I read Pamela Schindler’s ‘Cumquats, Hobart’:

These little orange globes –
lanterns that floated
in the tree at dusk

There’s plenty of topical poetry. Jillian Kellie’s ‘the bus to baghdad 1966’ is a then-and-now poem – the bus trip of the title in which her family travelled with a Canadian journalist, alternating with grim dispatches from the present – that leaves you feeling you’ve learned something about Iraq:

held up for hours at the syrian border
a problem with canada’s passport and visa
dad speaks in arabic to chain-smoking soldiers
extolling the honour of his new journo friend
i owe you a scotch when we get to baghdad
i don’t drink my dad says

Unconfirmed video and pictures of the photojournalist’s heartbreaking final moments emerged this morning via Twitter accounts claiming to be associated with the Islamic State

There’s plenty of narrative, some explicit, some implied as in Cary Hamlin’s ‘Scraping the Night’, whose opening lines evoke a romantic assignation in a car:

Moonlight leers through the car window
etching the valley of your cheek
in razor-sharp shadow

fingering the crescents of your eyes
fondly and crooning its siren song

And there’s lots of fine descriptive writing. I love Anne Elvey’s observation of pelicans in ‘This flesh that you know is all that you have’:

————–Their synchronous glide was broken

by one pair of wings, and then another, that worked
the air, not quite in time, and over again they wheeled.

Brett Dionysius’ ‘Brigalow: an extinct pastoral’ is a powerful evocation of a landscape being ravaged post World War Two, recalling newsreel footage that was meant to celebrate progress but even then struck a chill into young hearts like mine and, I assume, Brett’s:

—————-They strung a necklace of iron pearls
between two dozers; manacled violence, like nineteenth
century convicts kept under guard. The machines clawed
through six million acres, rubbing against bark, leaving
a scent trail of oil & diesel, as though they were some
type of ancient megafauna revisited; extinct, buttery-
furred thylacoleo, carnivorous in their vast appetite.

I can’t tell if any Indigenous poets get a guernsey, but a number of poets who I assume are white reflect on Aboriginal matters. Jill Gientzotis, for example, in ‘Each Morning, Every Day’, draws on her experience living and working in remote communities:

Anangu knew we were coming for a long, long time.
Whitefellas, ghost people. They knew we were coming.

We were coming. Our horses and cattle churned up the land,
water got sick, the animals fled. They heard about our killing.

You get the idea: there’s so much to enjoy. The anthology will probably be read mainly by Australian Poetry members – those who didn’t make it as much as those who did. But I think there’s a much wider pool of readers who would enjoy it. You can buy a copy from Aust Poetry Inc.

Southerly 75/3

Elizabeth McMahon and David Brooks (editors), Southerly Vol 75 No 3 2015: War and Peace (The Journal of the English Association, Sydney, Brandl & Schlesinger 2016)

Southerly75.3.jpg

In last May’s Quarterly Essay, Blood Year, David Kilkullen quoted Trotsky: ‘You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.’

The only war to take an active interest in me (so far) was the US war in Vietnam. I attended fiery Front Lawn meetings at uni, marched in Moratorium rallies, was punched in the head by a policeman and beaten up, incompetently, by a neo-Nazi. My birthdate came up in the conscription lottery, I went to court and was granted conscientious objector status. On Anzac Day this year, I commemorated those times by wearing a white feather along with a sprig of rosemary.

So I’m glad to see that this War and Peace themed issue of Southerly includes a voice from the resistance part of the war story, in ‘Wanted for War’, a short memoir of the 1960s by Michael Hamel-Green. (Hamel-Green is one of many men and women interviewed for Hell No! We Won’t Go, a documentary about draft resistance during the Vietnam War currently being made by Brisbane filmmaker Larry Zetlin. The project has a facebook group. Excerpts from Hamel-Green’s interview are here, here and here.)

Eloquent voices from other perspectives are also represented: ‘Eye into Eye’, a short story by Peter Dickison, formerly an officer in ‘various Special Forces units of the Australian Army’ is a convincing evocation of a terrible incident in Afghanistan and its long aftermath; ‘Iran–Iraq War: Diplomats on the Ground’, a memoir by former Ambassador to Iraq Rory Steele, captures the strangely removed world of diplomats in a time of war; Tessa Lunney’s short story ‘V’ consists of five linked monologues from survivors of World War Two – two Russian soldiers, a woman from Berlin, a British officer, and a Jewish survivor of a death camp; Beth Spencer’s poem ‘The Nine Principles of Breema’ imagines its way into one of Australia’s inhumane and illegal offshore detention camps.

There’s cultural history:

  • Robin Gerster’s ‘Our Ground Zero: Future Wars and the Imagined Destruction of Australia’s Cities’ extends his work about Australia and the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in his wonderful book Travels in Atomic Sunshine and in a previous Southerly, this time writing about Australian novels about nuclear devastation in the decades since 1945.
  • Moreno Giovannoni’s ‘When the War Came to San Ginese’ is an excerpt from his forthcoming Tales from San Ginese. It’s at least the second excerpt to appear in Southerly, and I look forward to the book itself.
  • ‘Aileen Palmer: Political Activist and “poet of conscience”‘ is part of Sylvia Martin’s project to salvage the reputation of this heroic woman, up until now known mainly as the ‘tragic daughter’ of Vance and Nettie Palmer. Here she emerges as a rare literary person who actually volunteered to be part of the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War, to work as nurse and translator. Martin’s biography of Palmer, Ink in her Veins, was published earlier this year. If this essay is any indication, it’s well worth reading.
  • Two articles revisit the story of Anzac. In ‘Writing the Anzac legend: The Moods of Ginger Mick’ Philip Butterss explores CJ Dennis’s role in creating that legend. Ffion Murphy and Richard Nile’s ‘The Naked Anzac: Exposure and Concealment in AB Facey’s A Fortunate Life’ hold that much-loved book up against the historical documents, and discover that Facey misrepresented his childhood suffering and war experience. Neither of these essays is the kind of academic nit-picking those descriptions might suggest: taken together, they deftly challenge what we are being urged to take as a national foundation myth. In particular, Facey’s apparent evasions of the fact that much of the damage he suffered in the trenches was mental and emotional rather than physical are discussed respectfully as an unsuccessful attempt to deal with that damage.

Not all the poems are on theme. Of those that are, apart from Beth Spencer’s poem that I’ve already mentioned, the most telling are Brook Emery’s ‘The Brown Current’, which counterposes scenes from peaceful Bondi with events from conflict zones, Lorraine McGuigan’s ‘Questions’, a lament for a ten-year-old girl suicide bomber, and Anne M Carson’s ‘Of the 2,700: one voice’, which visits the Nazi murders. Off topic, Jordie Albiston’s ‘Δ4’ is a 10-syllables-to-a line joy.

There’s more, including 21 ages of reviews, and a number of scholarly essays. All in all, this is a fabulous issue.
—–
A little note that might not matter to anyone but me: I’ve been puzzled by some of Southerly‘s house style decisions. Why US spelling and punctuation sometimes but not always, for example? This issue has put an end to my puzzlement: a character’s name in one story is spelled ‘Deidre’ 7 times and ‘Deirdre’ 13 times, often the two versions within a single paragraph. So it seems clear that the editorial team regards consistency in such matters as the hobgoblin of little minds. Mind you, the town Grañén is consistently misspelled with an acute accent over the first n, and elsewhere someone makes a ‘complementary’ remark, so perhaps the problem isn’t just disregard for consistency.

Overland 222

Jacinda Woodhead (editor), Overland 222 (Spring 2015)

overland222.jpgLike most issues of Overland this one includes:

the results of at least one literary competition: Peter Minter asks in his judge’s report on the 2015 Overland Judith Wright Poetry Prize, ‘Isn’t nurturing the penniless avant-garde something we should all embrace?’ As well as the poetry prize, this issue announces the Neilma Sidney Short Story Prize.

the regular columnists: I always enjoy Alison Croggon, who here takes issue with the idea of art as therapy, and Giovanni Tiso, who airs his ambivalence about his preference for old books. Natalie Harkin, a Narungga woman, poet and academic, makes her debut, reflecting on the importance of sharing personal narratives.

at least one intelligently provocative article: Stephanie Convery in Get your hands off my sister sounds a forceful warning against ‘activism centred on an unshakeable faith in women’s accusations of sexual assault’. The whole essay is worth reading, but I was struck by her point that harsher penalties for sexual assault don’t prevent it, but move it to a different location, ie, especially in the USA, to prisons.

• an excerpt from a work in progress: This is usually my least favourite thing in a magazine, especially when not clearly labelled, because the reader tends to be left hanging. Maxine Beneba Clarke’s The current inhabitants of the island is an exception. It’s a sharp stand-alone story of encountering racism in her childhood that make me look forward to her memoir, The Hate Race, later this year.

high level journalism: Antony Loewenstein’s After independence throws light on the state of South Sudan four years after gaining its independence. Loewenstein had been living in Juba, the capital, for most of the year before the anniversary, and what he reports isn’t pretty.

• a literature report: Ben Brooker’s article on vegetarianism and the left cites sources from Marx to Anna Krien, including books with titles like Brutal: Manhood and the Exploitation of Animals and The Sexual Politics of Meat, on the links between vegetarianism and progressive social movements (Marx wasn’t convinced). I met the term ‘carnism’ here for the first time, and learned that vegetarian scholarship is a thing. Incidentally, he mentions Hitler, but not that Hitler was vegetarian.

cultural studies. Dean Brandum and Andrew Nette give a workmanlike account of the Crawfords dramas HomicideDivision 4 and Matlock Police, with emphasis on their function as at times ‘a kind of entertainment auxiliary in the fight against crime’. It’s oddly comforting to see the TV shows one deliberately didn’t watch in one’s 20s become the stuff of cultural history.

debate: Well, not exactly a debate this issue, but Four perspectives on race & racism in Australian poetry by AJ Carruthers, Lia Incognita, Samuel Wagan Watson and Elena Gomez presents four strikingly different takes on their given subject and they do strike some sparks off each other. Racism and neo-orientalism run deep in Australian culture in general and Australian poetry in particular, but it depends where you look. Spoken word, conceptual poetry, radically experimental writing are thriving sites for non-white poets. The ‘narrowly expressive “I-poem”‘ may or may not be part of the problem. Sam Wagan Watson has the best single sentence: ‘There is no clinical evidence to suggest that racism is a by-product of mental illness, although I’ve heard many try to argue the fact.’

fiction: five short stories in this issue, including the Neilma Sidney Prize winner. It’s a grim lot, featuring anti-Muslim nastiness in the suburbs (the prize-winner, by Lauren Foley), a refugee school teacher who (not really a spoiler) kills himself (Ashleigh Synnott), a young, possibly Aboriginal woman entering a situation of sexual exploitation (Jack Latimore), a dystopian future where birds and insects are mechanical (Elizabeth Tan), and a woman who remains painfully silent when her boyfriend jokes about violence against women (Jo Langdon). All good stories, but not a lot of laughs and no real twists in the tail.

poetry: Toby Fitch takes over from Peter Minter as poetry editor with this issue. They judged the poetry prize together, and the three place-getters are the full poetry content, making this in effect a hand-over issue. Apart from writing his own poetry, Toby runs the poetry nights at Sappho’s in Glebe and is poetry reviews editor on Southerly. I look forward to his Overland regime.

Always a good read, usually cover-to-cover.

Eileen Chong’s Painting Red Orchids

Eileen Chong, Painting Red Orchids (Pitt Street Poetry 2016)

I’m an increasingly unabashed Eileen Chong fan, and I love Painting Red Orchids.

As in her previous books, these poems refer back to the poet’s childhood in Singapore, to the China of her forebears, and also to her present home in Australia; much food is prepared and eaten; there is conversation with other poets living and dead, Chinese and Western; and there are travel poems, this time to suburban Sydney and rural Australia as well as Singapore and Hong Kong.

All of this is given us with generosity and lucidity, and an occasional revelatory jolt. The restraint of classic Chinese poetry is never far away, and a number of poems are explicitly dedicated to great poets of the past.

There are love poems – heartbreak as well as new love. Someone (it might have been Margaret Mahy or Diana Wynn Jones) said that food is the sex of children’s literature. Food doesn’t quite equal sex in Eileen Chong’s poetry, but it comes close and may be even better, more intimate, as in ‘Xiao Long Bao (Little Dragon Dumplings)’, which describes the making of these dumplings and then the look on her lover’s face when he tastes them, and even more so in ‘A Winter’s Night’, in which the speaker, presumed to be of Chinese heritage, prepares Scotch broth for her Scottish-born partner:

This, here, made from my hands,
his memories – we consume spoon after spoon
of history and desire and laugh about the future.

A strand of deep melancholy runs through the book: there’s dementia, death, a relationship break-up, and this (I need to quote the whole poem):

Child
And if he had lived – grown
to fruition in my mother’s womb,
pressing against her bladder
so she would have needed to have emptied
it every hour – I would have been the middle
child. I would have had an older brother
and a younger; I, the singular female.
Instead, there are just the two of us,
brother and sister, circling like moons,
gripped by the gravity of disappointment.

My father would come home and pretend
he’d brought us a puppy. Once, the bag
even barked: but it was only a toy dog.
My mother named this dead brother.
She imagines he might have lived if she
had done this, or had not done that. If
he had lived, I might not have left home
so soon in search of my own arc and orbit.
If my own two had lived, what then? But the dead
remain dead, and I am the last child to arrive.

I love the way this edges up on its real subject. Not that the impact of the speaker’s mother’s miscarriage on their family – the siblings’ enduring sense of someone missing, the mother’s what-ifs, possibly the speaker’s leaving – wasn’t real. And the three lines  about her father’s teasing with pretend dog-gifts could have expanded into poem in its own right. But ‘If my own two had lived’ turns the poem inside out, and we realise that its emotional charge comes from the speaker’s own loss: she can speak of her mother’s bladder and mental processes, not from the perspective of her remembered childhood, but from her own experience as a woman; the barking of the toy dog is freighted with deep grief; the image of circling without a centre is conjured up by the much later loss. The final line, which at first reading I took to answer the question whether the lost brother was older or younger, does do that, but also laments the speaker’s childlessness – not just the last child in that family, but the last in the family line. So much is conveyed, so little said out loud. I think of James McAuley’s ‘Pietà, ‘I cannot tell, / I cannot understand / A thing so dark and deep, / So physical a loss’.

Eileen is currently blogging on the Southerly site. Her interview with herself at that link is well worth reading. Here’s an excerpt:

Do you consider yourself an Australian poet?
This is a question about hybridity. Am I a Singaporean poet? An Asian-Australian poet? An Australian poet? An interesting woman poet? A Chinese poet? A confessional poet? A food poet? I think I might be all of the above, sometimes all at the same time.

AWW2016Painting Red Orchids is the fifth book I’ve read as part of the 2016 Australian Women Writers Challenge.