Jennifer Maiden’s Metronome

Jennifer Maiden, The Metronome (ebook, Quemar Press 2016)

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Jennifer Maiden’s poetry inhabits the news cycle the way another poet’s might a particular landscape. Kevin Rudd’s pursed lips, George W Bush’s nose, Tanya Plibersek’s smile, Tony Abbott’s hurt look – all have been sharply observed and made meaningful in her poems. In The Metronome, Hillary Clinton’s ‘crazy campaign smile’ joins the list, along with

the movements of a little-marching-girl, the
drilled expansive gestures.

In many Maiden poems of the last half-dozen collections, someone – a historical or fictional personage – wakes up and engages with a contemporary political figure or another fictional character. Ten of the 15 poems in The Metronome are of this sort. I tend to read these poems naively. That is, I just enjoy the conversations: what do Eleanor Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln have to say to Hillary Clinton; what do Jeremy Corbyn and Constance Markiewicz discuss as they stride out on the moors; and who wouldn’t want to eavesdrop on Tanya Plibersek and Jane Austen? In other poems too, whether they’re picking a fight with a critic (only one in this book, in ‘Jennifer Maiden Woke Up outside the Fourth Wall’), or reflecting on the uses of Rodin’s The Kiss or Catalonia (these two add to a substantial list of ‘uses of’ poems), the conversational mode draws one in: one reads for the argument (in this book, a recurring subject is economic austerity), the wit, the odd twists of mind and unexpected digressions. Sometimes, as in the adventures of Clare Collins and George Jeffreys, characters from her three Play with Knives novels, one reads for the story.

Like any good conversation, these poems tend to touch, glancingly or attentively, on a wide range of subjects. I found myself reading with my phone near at hand: I watched Vladimir Miller singing Veniamin Basner’s ‘Leningrad Metronome’ on YouTube (for the poem ‘Metronome’); I checked to see if Malcolm Turnbull’s middle name really is ‘Bligh’ and William Bligh really was a water-colourist (for ‘Temper’); I satisfied my curiosity about the unnamed critic; I read Wikipedia on Constance Markiewicz (for ‘The gazelle’), Dick Whittington (for ‘‘Turn Again, Whittington’’) and the brumby cull in the Australian Alps (for ‘George Jeffreys 19: George Jeffreys Woke Up in Thredbo’). I found some lovely intertextual serendipity: Clare – in ‘Clare and Nauru’ – mentions that the Nauruan government invested a lot of money in a West End Musical about Leonardo Da Vinci. A little after reading that, I heard the This American Life episode ‘In the Middle of Nowhere‘ in which, at about the 15 minute mark, a couple of lines from that musical are sung. This American Life‘s description of the Nauru landscape echoes Clare’s:

She herself had wondered: was it flammable?
The wide stripped-bare belly of the island
with its lorn coral peaks clawing up
where the pasty soil had been? One
could not plant crops here now. The lagoon
of freshwater near here shone toxic. There
generations ago young saltwater fish
had been trapped by the tribal families,
and adapted to freshwater, kept to grow
for food, like the family pigs.

All that is pleasurable (not the devastation of Nauru, but the interplay of texts), and there’s pleasure in the way the words sit on the page. I notice, though, that when I try to read a passage to a long-suffering companion, I have trouble: I can see that the lines are musical but I can’t read them aloud musically. I mention this here, because in another piece of serendipity I read Clive James’s Poetry Notebooks in rough tandem with The Metronome. I doubt if these poems are to James’s taste. They certainly lack the thing he seems to prize above all else: rigorous adherence to an established metric form which plays against the rhythms of normal speech. But nor are they the formless self expression he despises.

I want to mention two things related to that. First, Maiden’s use of enjambment: often a line ends with the first word or two of a new phrase – three of the ten lines from ‘Clare and Nauru’ above, for example – or a line break falls after a preposition or between an adjective and the noun it refers to. Something in the poetry plays against the conversational rhythms after all. It’s nothing as orderly as James’s classical model, but it keeps the reader on her/his toes.

Second, she uses rhyme a lot, though not always obviously. I was shocked to realise, for example, that all but two of the 34 lines of ‘George Jeffreys 19’ rhyme with either ‘so’ or ‘cull’. Here’s the start:

George Jeffreys woke up depressed in Thredbo.
It was too early for autumn snow.
Clare was at a meeting to organise local
resistance to the planned brumby cull
of ninety per cent of the wild horses, no
great hope to prevent it, although
she would ghost herself trying. So,
he thought, the death aura of Thredbo
– there for years after decades ago
an avalanche caused by a kill
of non-native trees crushed all
asleep in a hillside building – now
would return like the hooves of dead foals
along an icy grassy overflow.

Maybe there’s even an iambic tetrameter lurking there. Whatever, I enjoy and am challenged by my first, naive read, and then find more on each further read. As I think I’ve said before, I’m a fan.

The Metronome was published by Quemar Press as an ebook (available on the Press’s website for $5) on the night of the US presidential election – quite a feat given that in its final poem, ‘George Jeffreys 20: George Jeffreys Woke up in Washington’, Donald Trump’s ‘soft voice sounded infinitely defeated’ when he told George over the phone that he’d won the election. The publication in paper form by Giramondo is scheduled for February.

Quemar Press has reissued Maiden’s novel Play with Knives and published for the first time its sequel, Complicity, which has been around in manuscript for decades. Recently it has also published a third novel, George and Clare and the Grey Hat Hacker. All three novels are available for free from the press’s website.

aww2017.jpgEven though I started reading The Metronome last year, I think it’s legitimate to count it as the first book I’ve read for the 2017 Australian Women Writers Challenge. It’s a great start to a year’s reading.

Brian K Vaughan’s Paper Girls Books 1 and 2

Brian K Vaughan and Cliff Chiang, Paper Girls, Volume 1 and Volume 2 (Image 2016)

Yet another comic series from the brilliant and prolific Brian K Vaughan, co-creator of Y: The Last Man and Saga. This time, working with an all-male team (Cliff Chiang on pencils, Matt Wilson colorist and Jared K Fletcher as distinctive letterer), he gives us lead characters who are all female: twelve-year-old girls who deliver newspapers in a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio.

No sooner are the four bike-riding heroines introduced, doing their rounds early on the morning after Halloween in 1988, than weird, deadly dangerous things start to happen. It’s like a female Goonies or Stranger Things, only even more incident-packed and – at least at first – explanation-light. The word that came to mind as the first volume’s action progresses, complete with weird time-machines (note the plural) and pterodactyl-riding robots (I think), is ‘bonkers’, but in a good way. The second volume’s carnivorous grubs the size of four-story buildings don’t do much to restore equilibrium.

1632158957By the end of the second volume, most of the weirdness has at least a broadbrush explanation, but I have no idea what will happen next, or why these four girls are so important to the participants in the massive multi-generational multi-time-period battle that rages around them.

Any confusion doesn’t come from muddle in the artwork, which is wonderfully clear,  or for that matter in the story-telling. The teasing is deliberate. The girls are caught up in a hugely complex conflict. We are ahead of them in a couple of details – we recognise the Apple logo on an artefact dropped by an ‘alien’, for instance, and likewise a ‘Hillary for President’ poster seen on their visit to 2016 – but mostly we’re plunged into the action with hardly any more perspective than they have. For them of course it’s life and death. For us it’s fun.

Clive James’s Poetry Notebook

Clive James, Poetry Notebook 2006–2014 (Picador 2014)

1447269128.jpgI bought this book because I felt slightly grubby after reading Play All, Clive James’s book about television. Play All brings James’s wit, clowning, extraordinary recall, clarity of judgement and contrarianism to bear on the object of an addiction – the relatively harmless one to television; this book puts those qualities, minus the clowning, at the service of a passion – his lifelong passion for poetry. The result is much more wholesome. 

The book is a series of short, free-ranging pieces written for the US journal Poetry, linked by very short ‘Interludes’, and bulked out by  equally short pieces published in sources ranging from Quadrant to the Times Literary Supplement, all between 2006 and 2014. The collection is free-ranging, but it’s not directionless. James’s mind has been concentrated wonderfully by being diagnosed with a terminal illness, and though he writes in his introduction that a lifetime of thinking about poetry has not left him with an aesthetic system to convey, in fact a pretty coherent view does emerge. James could almost have been describing this book when he wrote of  a book of Michael Donaghy’s criticism (page 138):

Many of these pieces, undertaken as journeywork at the time but always lavished with the wealth of his knowledge and the best of his judgement, are collected in this book, and it is remarkable how they coalesce into the most articulate possible expression of a unified critical vision.

James’s main thrust is to defend traditional English verse, particularly verse in rhyming stanzas  in iambic pentameter, to defend it and to explain it to an age that he fears has forgotten how to read it. 

You do have to get past his contrarianism. He’s not crude enough to say that the only poetry worth reading is the kind he favours, but sometimes he comes close. There are too many cheap cracks at the influential US poet John Ashbery or at journalists en masse, and a number of characterisations of the whole of Australia as given over to  the orthodoxy that ‘an apprehensible form is thought to be a repressive hangover from the old imperialism’. He says something vaguely positive about Francis Webb, then adds, ‘but Webb was a mental patient.’  He proclaims that Judith Wright wrote only one or two decent poems. And there are one or two breathtakingly ignorant comments on non-poetic matters, probably intended as curmudgeonly rejections of ‘political correctness’.

But once you’ve thrown the book across the room once or twice, there’s a lot to enjoy and learn from. I read it with my phone beside me, and read for the first time many of the poems referred to, from Robert Frost’s ‘The Silken Tent‘ and Louis MacNeice’s ‘Meeting Point‘ to UiAiFanthorpe’s ‘Not My Best Side‘. This might not be a positive quality for readers who are better read or less interested than I am, but for the ignorant but interested it’s terrific. And it’s worth noting that his harsh judgements aren’t limited to ‘informal’ contemporary or near-contemporary poets: he gets stuck into Milton and Alexander Pope, and Ezra Pound emerges as pretty much a grandiloquent phoney.

You wouldn’t go to Clive James for illuminating comment on, say, Jennifer Maiden, Rhyll McMaster or Pam Brown. But he does a brilliant detailed exposition of a poem by Stephen Edgar, and he illuminates with a passion many other poems that he loves, or include a phrase, a line, or a passage he loves. One never doubts that Gerard Manly Hopkins, James McAuley, and a myriad others have won his love, sometimes by a complete poem but often by a single phrase or line. 

He’s concerned, as implied by the US subtitle ‘Reflections on the Intensity of Language’, with the way poetry uses language intensely: with phrases, lines, stanzas, and occasionally whole poems. Writing poetry is all very well, but to write a poem is an achievement. In among his sharp judgements, there is a deep humility about poetry itself: ‘I’m still trying to figure out just how the propulsive energy that drives a line of poetry joins up with the binding energy that holds a poem together.’

As my regular readers will know, I sometimes turn my hand to versifying. I found his discussions of the fruitful tension between metrical forms and conversational rhythms enormously instructive. Uncharacteristically, his prose in these passages becomes a little clogged with technical terms, but I for one was glad of that. And here too his gift for epigram shines through: ‘The only way to hide the tensions of a set form is to perfect it.’

Through it all, there’s a thread of farewell. In this book, James says  things he doesn’t want to die leaving unsaid. But it’s not grim or gloomy. He refers to himself as a beginner as a poet. The book’s final exclamation, ostensibly about how to write as ‘innocently’ as Shakespeare, cries out to be extracted from its immediate context to serve as a description of the book’s project:

Better to think back on all the poems you have ever loved, and to realise what they have in common: the life you soon must lose.

Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark

The time when you don’t need hope is when your hopes have been fulfilled. Hope is for when you don’t have what you need and for when things are not OK. It is the belief that liberation might be possible that motivates you to make it more possible, and pursuing hope even when it doesn’t lead to the ultimate goal can generate changes that matter along the way, including in yourself.
Another, more beautiful America is rising. Trump will be resisted‘, The Guardian, 30 December 2016

Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities (2004; this revised edition Haymarket Books 2016)

solnit.jpg The paragraph quoted above from Rebecca Solnit’s article on the election of Donald Trump is also a reasonable summary of Hope in the Dark‘s central argument.

First published in 2004 by Nation Books, a small publisher whose motto is ‘Challenging power, one book at a time’, this book challenged the power of the bleak sense of defeat and despair that threatened to overwhelm many progressives after the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq. In three subsequent editions new chapters have been added, but the book is essentially rooted in its time – the millennium was new, the invasion of Iraq was fresh, the younger Bush had been elected twice. There was almost as much reason for gloom then as there is now, when the results of that invasion are still laying waste to thousands of lives, and a man who inherited vast wealth and who has never held political office is about to be inaugurated as president of the United States.

Any number of inspirational quotes could be extracted from this book and pinned to the fridge door. For example, on page 20:

There are those who think that turning the official version inside out is enough. To say that the emperor has no clothes is a nice antiauthoritarian gesture, but to say that everything without exception is going straight to hell is not an alternative vision but only an inverted version of the mainstream’s ‘everything’s fine’.

On page 24:

Political awareness without activism means looking at the devastation, your face turned toward the centre of things. Activism itself can generate hope because it already constitutes an alternative and turns away from the corruption at the centre to face the wild possibilities and the heroes at the edges or at your side.

and page 24 again:

Joy doesn’t betray but sustains activism. And when you face a politics that aspires to make you fearful, alienated and isolated, joy is a fine initial act of insurrection.

or, just to show that the quotes aren’t limited to the early pages, from page 80:

Paradise is not the place in which you arrive but the journey toward it.

But it would misrepresent the book to leave it at that. Solnit is more than a crafter of superior inspirational quotes.  She’s also a long-term activist and a historian. She has an argument: it’s a mistake to take any defeat as final, because the future is inherently dark, in the sense of unknowable; it’s a mistake to take any defeat as complete, because you can never know the effect of any action you take – tiny actions lay the groundwork for future victories, and indeed all victories build on myriad earlier actions that met with defeat at the time. The stories we tell make a difference to our possibilities. It’s a mistake to swallow whole the mainstream version of history – if you ‘pay attention to what they tell you to forget’ (to quote Muriel Rukeyser, another great US writer and activist) things look a lot less grim. The middle part of the book considers recent US political history and finds cause for hope (that is to say, not certainty of better things to come, but the possibility of them if one acts) in the new, joyful, animated forms of resistance that were developing in the US around the millennium. The note added in 2016 adds quite a lot to this list.

It’s a short book. I recommend it for anyone who finds themselves transfixed by the latest Trumpism in the US or Duttonism / Turnbullism in Australia.

 

Clive James’s Play All

Clive James, Play All: A bingewatcher’s notebook (2016)

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‘Television, the drug of a nation, breeding ignorance and feeding radiation.’ If the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy were right, then boxed sets and streaming services are drugs on a drip. If you spend too much time on that drip, then you won’t add very much to your burden of guilt by reading this short book by Clive James, a hyper-articulate addict whose habit only intensified a couple of years ago when he believed death was imminent.

James is intelligent, extremely well-read and screen-literate, witty and opinionated, qualities that shine forth in this book about long-form television series.

Formal scholarly writing about these television series needs to be done, he writes, but

it will be done best if contact is not lost with the tone of common speech in which habitual consumers discuss the product; a tone not all that far from the voluble congeniality with which they pass the popcorn.

So his notes on these shows – The Sopranos, The West WingMad Men, Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, Band of Brothers, The Wire, House of Cards (he prefers the US version), Homeland (he doesn’t mention the Israeli original) and more – include the names of the daughters (and sometimes wife) with whom he watched them and the days of the week on which they had their binges. They also have something of the feel of conversations that people might have during a binge and in the following days.

When he tells us he found Treme boring because it lacked a villain, he adds that his daughter had a different response and kept nudging him awake. And perhaps the moments of climate change denial are best understood misjudged fatherly provocations.

The spirit of popcorn is never far away as Clive the Entertainer gives us clever phrase-making, snarky putdowns, flashy displays of erudition, and fanboy talk about recurring actors. His lascivious comments on women’s appearance are probably intended to be a kind of clowning – Clive as the helpless puppet on Hollywood’s seductive strings.

It’s probably a matter of taste, but I prefer Clive the Critic – at least I do when he’s not just delivering one-line dismissals of films I quite like. This Clive has interesting things to say about, for example, The Good Wife or the career of Dennis Franz (Andy Sipowicz in NYPD Blue). He is at his best in two chapters, ‘Game of Depths’ on Game of Thrones and ‘The Way We Weren’t’ on Mad Men. He doesn’t make me want to watch either show, bingeing or otherwise, but he develops interesting theses. He argues that the only indispensable character in Game of Thrones is the dwarf Tyrion played by Peter Dinklage:

Tyrion is the embodiment, in a small body, of the show’s prepolitical psychological range. A perpetual victim of injustice, he has a sense of justice: circumstances can’t destroy his inner certainty that there are such things as fairness, love and truth. Those circumstances might lead him to despair, but he takes their measure by his instincts. This to raise, for an uninstructed audience, the question of what comes first, a civilised society or an instinctive wish for civilisation, can’t be a bad effect for an entertainment to have; although we might have to be part of an instructed audience ourselves in order to find that effect good, and we had better be protected by police and an army from anyone who finds it trivial.

I don’t know what an (un)instructed audience is, but this is a respectful and respectable argument for taking the show seriously.

Mad Men seems to have struck a nerve. In it, he writes,

the corporate world never questions its right to manipulate a captive audience. The truth of the matter was very different. …  [The real advertising men of those times] were much more conscious of what they were involved in than the show makes them out to have been. They would have talked about it among themselves. … There would have been disputes, and, these being intelligent people, they would have been intelligent disputes about ethical purpose and legitimate method.

And that would have been the truly interesting conflict in the mind of Don Draper. In the show he spends a lot of time questioning himself, but hardly any of it questioning his job. But questioning his job would have been part of his job, because one of the ways that advertising developed was by becoming more self-aware.

From my little acquaintance  with Mad Men, this seems spot on. But whereas my unarticulated dissatisfaction made me decide not to persevere with the show, Clive James can love it, watch it more than once from beginning to end, and still bring a clear critical head to bear on it. Moments like this, and there are many of them, are an adequate compensation for the aforementioned climate denialism, the occasional nastiness (‘very few of [Frank] O’Hara’s poems get far beyond the condition of not being prose’) and one or two passages so dense with references to old movies as to be incomprehensible.

The book was a gift from a friend who knows I watch too much television. It’s a fun read, and part of the fun is hating some bits of it.

Year’s end

In Melbourne where the
jacarandas still flower
at December’s end

a pub in Carlton
promises European
yum cha on Sundays

With an afternoon to spare in Melbourne the Emerging Artist and I have drawn up our Best of 2016 lists.

Movies

Feature films (I saw 36, the EA slightly fewer)

The Emerging Artist’s top three: 

Paterson (Jim Jarmusch 2016): ‘A wonderful portrait of someone with a rich internal life integrated with normal functioning.’

Spotlight (Tom McCarthy 2015): ‘This was taut as a thriller and had new things to show about how the story of child sex abuse in the Boston Catholic Church was brought to light. A reflection on institutional power.’

Hunt for the Wilderpeople (Taika Waititi 2016): ‘Made me laugh.’

My top 3:

I, Daniel Blake (Ken Loach 2016): Some people have described this as relentlessly grim. I know what they mean, but what that description leaves out is its tremendous warmth.

One-eyed Jacks (Marlon Brando 1961): I saw this with my big brother more than five decades ago and didn’t understand his reverential tone. Seeing it again at this year’s Sydney Film Festival was a joy.

Rams (Grímur Hákonarson 2015): So bleak and bitter cold, and so full of humanity.

Documentaries (we saw 13):

The Emerging Artist’s top three: 

Constance on the Edge (Belinda Mason 2016): ‘Constance is a wonderful character. The film shows the trauma of war and its after effects, especially for women, once you’ve settled somewhere peaceful. The loss of cultural identity in the process of becoming a refugee and how hard to create a new one. Also, how the CWA is changing.’

Sonita (Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami 2015, seen at the Sydney Film Festival): ‘A most amazing film. Where did this young woman emerge from that she had the confidence to hold out against so many cultural taboos against singing, let alone rapping. She was exuberant and full of life.’

Where to Invade Next (Michael Moore 2015): ‘This is one of the best of MM’s films. It reminded me how much we’ve lost in Australia. It’s good to get a perspective on how other places do things differently from what we take for granted.’

My top three:

The Beatles: Eight Days a Week (Ron Howard 2016): I was in a monastery during the Beatles’ touring years; for me this was a surprisingly moving and explanatory visit to my contemporaries’ teenage years.

Weiner (Josh Kriegman & Elyse Steinberg 2016): Funny, tragic story about the devastating effects of a sexual compulsion.

Wide Open Sky (Lisa Nicol 2016): Michelle Leonard teaches music to children in remote and isolated northwest New South Wales. The movie follows four young people from audition to performance in her choir, and we learn an awful lot about music education, about being different in a small community, about discipline and expectations, about many kinds of big-heartedness.

Worst film of the year:

The Emerging Artist: Sunset Song (Terence Davies 2015, seen at the Sydney Film Festival): ‘It was just so bad. I don’t know where to begin. Where were the other women in the main character’s life? The lingering drone shot over the corpses was so terribly done with that shocking music behind it.’

Me: Up for Love / Un homme à la hauteur (Laurent Tirard 2016). I didn’t understand what many people in the audience were laughing at. Maybe it lost a lot in translation, or the idea of a very short man is irresistibly funny to some people, or (a kinder hypothesis) they were fans of the lead actor and were constantly amused by the trickery used to make him look short.

Theatre

DroversWife.jpgWe both picked The Drover’s Wife (written by Leah Purcell, directed by Leticia Cáceres at Belvoir Street): ‘Completely riveting, powerful theatre that worked on so many different levels, and Leah Purcell in the title role was stunning.’ I’d add that it worked beautiful variations on the Henry Lawson story of the same name, and played wonderfully with audience expectations by having an Aboriginal actor playing a character who has always been assumed to be non-Indigenous.

Books

Fiction:

The Emerging Artist’s top three:

The Signature of All Things (Elizabeth Gilbert 2014): ‘Having hated Eat, Pray, Love, I picked this up with low expectations, but found myself enthralled by a story of mosses, scientific discovery and a woman out of her own time.’

Purity (Jonathan Franzen 2015): ‘Nothing much to say beyond that I really loved this.’

The Museum of Modern Love (Heather Rose 2016): ‘A fabulous find. An Australian author who is very daring: she approaches Marina Abramovic’s The Artist is Present from many point of view, and gets to the heart of what was happening in the piece both for the artist and for the people who sat with her. Equally interesting for people who know nothing abut Abramovic’s work.’

My top three (links are to my blog posts about them):

A Brief History of Seven Killings (Marlon James 2015)
Fables Books 6–10 (Bill Willingham and others 2005–2008)
The Natural Way of Things (Charlotte Wood 2015)

Non-Fiction

The Emerging Artist’s top three: 

The Unravelling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq (Emma Sky 2015): ‘I heard Emma Sky at the Sydney Writers’ Festival. The book is a detailed picture of life on the ground in Iraq after the invasion, and helps to make sense of the news stories.’

The Art of Time Travel (Tom Griffiths 2016): ‘This is a beautifully written story of how Australian history is still being discovered and is so different to what I was taught in school. It has inspired me to go on and read the historians he talks about, including Grace Karsken’s The Colony.’

Hope in the Dark (Rebecca Solnit 2004, 2016): ‘I’ve read this book maybe five times this year and each time it’s like getting another vaccination against bleakness.’

My top three:
Talking to My Country (Stan Grant 2016), especially as followed up by his Quarterly Essay, The Australian Dream
Missing Up
(Pam Brown 2016)
The Art of Time Travel (Tom Griffiths 2016)

I feel obliged to say that such ‘best of’ lists are pretty arbitrary. No sooner had I drawn up these lists than I was aware of so much joy and enlightenment that had been left off them.

Happy New Year, dear reader. May 2017 be filled with good things and victories against the forces of darkness, some perhaps decisive.

Jason Aaron & Jason Latour’s Southern Bastards

Jason Aaron & Jason Latour, Southern Bastards: Volume 1: Here Was a Man (2014) and Volume 2: Gridiron (2015)

1632150166_b.jpg163215269X.jpgThe first two volumes of this Eisner winning series are a gift from a son who has been an excellent gift-giver since he was very young.

Without detract from the excellence of the gift, or indeed of the series, I have to say they’re not my cup of tea. They tell interlocking hyper-macho stories of sons dealing with violent legacies from their  fathers in a small southern US town, one a hyper-violent sheriff, the other a no less violent fringe-dwelling criminal.

The art is powerful, but generally murky – and though there is one poorly registered image the murkiness isn’t something that can be laid at the printer’s door. In the frequent passages of violence, everything turns red, as in the covers above, a deeply unpleasant effect, and the drawing style, appropriate though it is to the subject, is crude and, well, repellent.

The first volume (issues 1–8 of the original comic) has a story line very like the movie The Judge: a son returns to Southern home after long absence and is reconciled with his father  – though in this case the father is long dead, and the reconciliation takes the form of the son becoming a spectacularly violent vigilante. The second is like the vicious underbelly of Saturday Night Lights: the murderous college football coach is held in very high esteem so long as the team keeps winning.

In forewords to the first volume, the creators (Jason Aaron writer and Jason Latour artist, I think) acknowledge their Southern roots, and their love–hate–fear relationships with the South. The hate and fear are a lot more apparent than the love. The foreword to the second volume is written by a US football player and is largely incomprehensible to me.

The final images of the second volume hold out hopes that things will be different in Volume 3. A young African-American woman soldier is returning home from Afghanistan. Does this prefigure a departure from the ugly-masculine mode of the first two volumes? Or will the violence continue, now with added boobs? I don’t plan on finding out.

Australian Poetry Journal 6:2

Michael Sharkey (editor),  Australian Poetry Journal, Volume 6, Issue 2 (2016)

APJ62.jpgThis is Michael Sharkey’s sixth and final issue as editor of Australian Poetry Journal. I’m missing him already.

The whole journal – a wonderful variety of poems, four articles, two reviews and a handful of photographs – is a pleasure.

It feels almost mean to single any poems out, but I will. In Jane Williams’s ‘Show and Tell’ a sea eagle’s appearance quells a group of tourists’ ‘compulsion to frame / the endless, abridged version of us’. Carol Jenkins’s seven-poem sequence ‘A History of Zero’ revels in the metaphorical possibilities of  paradox that the invention of the zero – of nothing – had vast consequences. Les Murray’s ‘The Scores’ is a characteristically abrasive account of Australian social history, beginning with 2001, then skipping ahead 20 years in each of the remaining five stanzas. Ron Pretty’s ‘Parks & Wildlife’ is a country pub conversation full of sly puns and genial observation. There are a couple of villanelles (and who doesn’t love a villanelle) of which Sarah Day’s ‘Sea Ice’ is seriously splendid. Jules Leigh Koch’s ‘Monastery’ describes a monastery somewhere in Asia, the kitchen full of backpackers about to head off to distant places,

while outside a monk walks along
The Path
chanting a mantra
journeying from one end if his world
to the other

As in previous issues, there are articles on small-scale publishers of poetry and translation, two each.

The presses are Ralph Wessman’s Walleah Press (article by Chris Ringrose) and Kent MacCarter’s Cordite Books (article by Greg McLaren). Reading about these enterprises, I’m impressed all over again by the generosity of spirit and financial daring of these cultural stalwarts. The big surprise for me is Ralph Wessman’s reply when asked how many copies he prints for the first run of a volume of poetry. ‘As few as necessary,’ he says, andgoes on to say that that usually  means 150 copies. That’s not much bigger than my self-published glorified Christmas cards!

The essays on translation are both excellent introductions to the poets being translated: Carol Hayes on the contemporary Japanese poets Hiromi Itō, Toshiko Hirata and Takako Arai, and Zeina Issa on on the Kurdish poet Khalid Kaki. They both quote generously from the translated poet and give fascinating insights into the specifics of translation from Japanese and Arabic respectively.

The next issue will be edited by fabulous  Aboriginal poets Aly Cobby Eckermann and Ellen van Neerven. That makes the missing of Michael Sharkey a lot easier to bear.

Membership of Australian Poetry Ltd gets you a subscription to the journal, and individual issues can be bought via the web site.

Stan Grant’s Australian Dream

Stan Grant, The Australian Dream: Blood, history and belonging (Quarterly Essay 64)

qe64.jpgThis Quarterly Essay topped the poll when Brisbane’s Avid Reader Bookshop asked customers what Malcolm Turnbull should read this summer. I hope he and every member of his cabinet do read it, including Peter Dutton, who famously shunned Kevin Rudd’s Stolen Generations apology. It might spark something in even those hearts. (You can read the bookshop’s letter accompanying the copy they sent to the Prime Minister here.)

The essay is framed as a commentary on a speech Stan Grant gave a little over a year ago, at an Intelligence Squared (IQ2) debate staged by Sydney’s Ethics Centre. The speech was unrehearsed and unscripted because, Grant says, he wanted ‘to look the audience in the eye and hold them’ when he talked about Aboriginal exclusion from ‘the Australian dream’. Surprising no one except Grant himself, it went viral. (If you’ve missed it, here’s the video).

Beginning with the text of the speech, which he tells us he hadn’t previously seen written down, Grant observes that commentators tended to focus on the parts of the speech that fit the litany-of-horrors version of Aboriginal history. He refers us to a dozen writers – historians, novelists, song writers – who have told the horror stories of continuing dispossession, exclusion and brutality, and takes as his subject the contributions that Aboriginal people have made to Australia society, the prospects for a better world. He doesn’t disown the horror stories – far from it – but he sets out to tell ‘a more complete story of the dynamism and potential of Australia and its first peoples’.

For him the most important line in the speech was the last:

And one day, I want to stand here and be able to say as proudly and sing as loudly as anyone else in the room, Australians all let us rejoice.

The essay turns on the hinge of that sentence: while acknowledging the devastation that has been wrought on Aboriginal peoples and the continuing bleakness of many Aboriginal lives, it argues that substantial change is happening and the future could be bright. It doesn’t quote William Gibson, ‘The future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed,’ but it could have.

Grant takes issue with W E H Stanner’s view that Aboriginal culture – the Dreaming – is essentially unchanging and timeless, so cannot survive contact with the market. He backs his argument with beautifully told stories of his great-great-grandfather, great-grandfather, grandfather and father, each of whom responded to devastating invasion and continuing dispossession with creativity, resourcefulness, courage and wisdom, and each of whom made significant contribution to the broader Australian community – as workers, soldiers, teachers, family men, communicators.

Taken out of context, some passages read as shockingly Pollyanna-ish – like this, from the section titled ‘The Boys of Don Dale’:

The Indigenous experience bends and shifts with the growth of the country. In the midst of catastrophe, Aboriginal people were adapting to this utterly foreign intrusion. The survival and resilience of the descendants of the people of the Australian frontier should be seen as part of the pioneer mythology of this country. At Federation the Indigenous people were assumed to be dying out and would not be counted among the numbers of the Commonwealth. Now Australian law acknowledges native title, Indigenous people sit in our parliaments, and Indigenous art, music and dance have a unique, treasured place in our national culture. We may have rubbed uncomfortably against each other, but together we have enlarged the idea of Australia.

‘We may have rubbed uncomfortably against each other’ must be a contender for all-time world champion understatement. But Grant knows what he’s doing. He insists that the monstrous treatment of the young men in detention in the Northern Territory should not be treated as emblematic of a homogeneous Aboriginal experience. Without denying the bad stuff (‘those tyrants who reduced talk of genocide to a whisper in Europe find their equivalent in those who deny atrocity here’), he argues that to narrowly identify Aboriginality with victimhood plays into the oppression: he calls this the ‘identity trap’. He rejects ‘reliance on a narrative of historical grievance and exclusion’.

It’s a nuanced, passionate, courageous essay. Like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Stan Grant writes about the danger of a single story. He would agree with Rebecca Solnit (whose Hope in the Dark I’m now reading), that despair can be unrealistic, that hope and the recognition of change are necessary and realistic.

I won’t try to summarise the argument any further, but note that Grant doesn’t present himself as a lone voice. On almost every page he is in dialogue, usually amicable and always respectful, with other Aboriginal writers as well as a number of non-Aboriginal ones. Here’s a partial list:

Aboriginal writers in order of appearance (with some links): Noel Pearson • Jack Patten • Charles Perkins • Gary Foley • Chicka Dixon • Marcia Langton • Jackie Huggins • Michael Mansell • Amy McQuire • Ellen van Neerven • Anita Heiss • Kim Scott • Alexis Wright • Bruce Pascoe • Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu • Frank Yamma • Archie Roach • Gavin Andrews • William Cooper • Cecil Grant (Stan’s paternal grandfather) • academic Maria Lane • Yin Paradies • Kerryn Pholi (who publicly renounced her ‘Aboriginal identity’) • Bronwyn Carlson (The Politics of Identity) • Kevin Gilbert • Warwick Thornton • Bess Nungarrayi Price • Larissa Behrendt • Dr Sana Nakata

Writers who aren’t Aboriginal, also in order of appearance: Czesław Miłosz • W E H Stanner • Vietnamese writer Viet Thanh Nguyen • Henry Reynolds (maybe in the wrong list) • Lyndall Ryan • Rosalind Kidd • David Rieff (In Praise of Forgetting) • Charles Rowley • George Megalogenis • Robert Manne • Gaynor Macdonald • Bain Atwood • Robert Ellis • Peter Kabaila (Survival Legacies) • economist Christopher Lloyd • anthropologist Ruth Fink • political scientist Terry Moore • Tony Judt • Jacques Le Goff • Amartya Sen • Geoffrey Blainey • economist Jon Altman • Nicolas Peterson • Michel de Certeau • Julie Lahn

I look forward to reading what some of the people on those lists have to say in the correspondence section of Quarterly Essay 65.
—–
The correspondence up the back of this issue deals with Don Watson’s The Enemy Within. It went to press before the US presidential election, and bristles with assumptions that Hilary Clinton would win. It’s interesting reading all the same.
——
Added later: Lisa Hill has an excellent review at her blog ANZ LitLover’s LitBlog, which quotes liberally.

AWW 2016 challenge completed

AWW2016 This is my mandatory round-up post about the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge 2016. I undertook to read 10 books by Australian women writers. I read 14, which ranged from revelatory and richly entertaining to definitely meant for readers who aren’t me. Here they are. I’ve tried to be clever with the lay-out. My apologies if it shows up on your screen as a jumble.

Poetry:

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Pam Brown
Missing Up

x

x

x

x

x

x

x

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Antigone Kefala
Fragments

x

x

x

x

x

x

x

Novels:

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Margo Lanagan
Sea Hearts

x

x

x

x

x

x

x

x

x

x

x

x

x

x

Short Fiction:

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Michelle Cahill
Letter to Pessoa

x

x

x

x

x

x

x

Memoirs:

njb&w

Lesley and Tammy Williams
Not Just Black and White

x

x

x

x

x

x

x

A comic (that’s a graphic novel to those who think ‘comics’ means superheroes or Disney):

alli

Lee Whitmore
Ada Louise

 

x

x

x

x

x

x

Essays:

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Laura Tingle
Political Amnesia

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Helen Garner Everywhere I Look

 

x

x

x

x

x

x

I’m signing up for the 2017 challenge.

My general gender stats: This year I read 39 books by men and 31 by women.This includes at least five (the Y: The Last Man series) that were jointly written by a man and a woman.