Monthly Archives: July 2011

Sappho & Penguin play rough

Two literary events with the Art Student in the last week: Robert Adamson and Devin Johnson at Sappho’s on Tuesday night, and Tom Cho and others at Penguin Plays Rough on Saturday.

I’ve been to one previous poetry reading at Sappho’s, in May this year. On that occasion Rhyll McMaster and the open-mikers read from just inside the shop, to an audience spread comfortably on the verandah and courtyard in the balmy evening, enjoying warm drinks and tapas. Tuesday night was a bit different, bitterly cold (by Sydney standards) with rain pelting down. We arrived early enough to claim the sole remaining indoor table, opting for dryness and comparative comfort behind the microphone rather than huddling in the chilly and dripping plastic-roofed and -sided balcony with good sight lines. The courtyard was completely out of the question. When the Talent arrived, they were given tables in the semi-exposed area, tables that we had rejected because they were awash.

It speaks volumes for the pulling power of these poets that the space, though small, was crowded. Adamson and Johnson were an excellent double bill, lots of river water and birds from two continents. The two stand-out poems for me were Johnson’s ‘Marco Polo‘ (the link, which needs Flash, has DJ reading this poem and two others) and Adamson’s ‘The Kingfisher’s Soul‘ (this also needs Flash), which he told us he’d written in response to his wife asking why he never wrote any love poems: it is indeed an achingly personal love poem.

Adamson, Johnson and their small entourage departed – presumably to a warmer, drier, better fed place – before the open mic, along with enough others to create the impression that all who were left were the open mikers and their pals: ‘And now, ladies and gentlemen, the Dregs of the Evening’. But we soldiered on, reading one poem each. There was a long piece in terza rima that I couldn’t quite hear, a pantoum, a sharp witty observation on cockatoos, a tribute to Francis Webb, and to conclude the evening next month’s featured poet Eileen Chong gave us Mary Wollstoncraft addressing her unborn daughter, praying that one day her fingers would close around a pen. And somewhere in there I read a sonnet about snoring. To polite applause. Come to think of it, even the most excellent poems of the evening received only polite applause. Given the weather, that was about all that could be expected.

The red chair, the lamp, and the Art Student (who managed to grab the last seat)

Penguin Plays Rough had a very different feel. It was my second time there as well, but my first at the new venue. The front section of an old warehouse has been curtained off from what I assume is the living space further back. The heavy red curtains lend a suitably theatrical atmosphere to the chequered lino floor, cosily ill-assorted couches and armchairs around the walls, and wooden podium with iconic red chair and standard lamp. By the time we arrived all but one of the sears were taken, and no mercy was shown to our elder status. We found a place on the lino. (At the first break in proceedings when we stood up to stretch our legs, I was shocked to discover a pack of young people moving in to claim the space we were relinquishing – behind us, in the tiny space between the front door and the first heavy curtain, they had been standing three deep, envying us our vantage point.)

We were physically uncomfortable, but we were warm, and we were part of a cheerful crowd. Many people were drinking mulled wine. Those in the know – and they seemed to be many – had brought their own mugs. Pip Smith, who edited and published The Penguin Plays Rough Book Of Short Stories, was a brilliant MC, using words like ‘awesome’ and generally exuding a mi casa es su casa aura. With one possible exception (he said humbly), the readings were terrific. The advertised readers were Emma Dallas (a character sketch of an inner west personality), Ryan O’Neil (a piece about depression that would have been scary if it wasn’t so brilliantly playful), Sam Twyford-Moore (a tale of travel, crosscultural romance and writerly rivalry), Jess Bellamy (letters to celebrities whose dysfunction feeds the tabloids, which became retrospectively more substantial with news of Amy Winehouse’s death yesterday), and the star of the evening Tom Cho. Tom read from ‘The Attributes of God’, a story that will be in a book he describes as being about the meaning of life. I wouldn’t have minded the physical discomfort of the evening anyway, but hearing this story would have been worth even more suffering. ‘God is love’ has taken on new meaning for me. He ended with a YouTube clip of otters that, far from being gratuitously cute, was a perfect accompaniment to his story.

Penguin Plays Rough doesn’t have an open mic. They do have ‘wild cards’: anyone can sign up at the door to read, and a selection of those who sign up are interspersed between the advertised readers. On Saturday we had an essay on relationships between the genders with a focus on schoolyard handball, a piece that Pip Smith described as a theatre review written by James Joyce … and me.

Yes, I put my name in the ring again, which I wouldn’t have done if I’d realised that PPR is actually a short story event and I only had a couple of sonnets and a dog poem in my pocket, and even more definitely not if I’d known I was going to be at the end of the evening – after Tom Cho and the otters. Astonishingly, the whole audience stayed put and even seemed to enjoy what I had to offer.

These are the first two times I’ve ventured to read in public. It’s not so bad.

Added later: I forgot to mention that I met Adrian Wiggins there, the mover behind the Sydney Poetry web site. He has uploaded some wonderfully atmospheric photos to facebook. Mercifully he had to leave before Tom Cho’s and my moments in the chair, so we don’t appear, except in the background of one of the shots.

Byron Bay

See if this doesn’t make you want to have a holiday in Byron Bay, especially if you’re in wet wet cold cold Sydney just now:

 

Asia Literary Review 19 & 20

Stephen McCarty (editor), Asia Literary Review Nº 19 ([northern] Spring 2011) and 20 (Summer 2011)

The cover image of Aung San Suu Kyi and the accompanying line ‘The Lady in Waiting’ announce that Asia Literary Review No 19 has a focus on Burma. The halo behind her head may seem to suggest a cheerful postmodern irony, but none of the irony, and very little cheerfulness, penetrates beyond the cover. The only appearance of Aung San Suu Kyi is an interview, effectively an extended sidebar to ‘The Generals’ Celestial Mandate‘, a grim account by Bertil Lintner of the world’s oldest continuous military dictatorship. The lady in waiting’s statement that there is great hope because so many young people are joining the democratic movement is like a tiny ember glowing in the horrendous darkness of state murder, incarceration, torture, and corruption. The Burma theme is continued in a number of pieces. Jack Picone’s ‘Planet Pariah‘ is a photo essay on life on the Thai-Burma border, where refugees, mostly Karen, live perilous and sometimes heroic lives. Incidentally, it brought home to me what an inspired piece of television SBS’s Go Back to Where You Came From was – having seen the reality TV version of refugees struggling to survive in a country that hasn’t signed on to the UN Convention, I found it easier to absorb information presented here in a more traditional mode. ‘Surveillance‘, a short story by Devan Schwartz in which the protagonist is broken in as an agent of the military, reads as a compassionate commentary on the former Burmese intelligence agent currently in the news in Australia (‘Maybe they kill 100 or 150 because I order them to do that. It’s not their fault, my fault. If they didn’t kill, they get killed too‘). There are poems by a political prisoner known only as Jimmy and by Ma Thida, a writer now practising medicine in Rangoon who has previously spent six years in prison.

Things don’t get any more frivolous when the journal moves away from Burma. In the photo essay ‘Qi Lihe’, Stephen J. B. Kelly explores the plight of impoverished Muslims driven from the increasingly arid countryside of northwest China to a scarcely less bleak life on the outskirts of Lanzhou. John Evans’s ‘Blood Money‘ is an ebullient but desperate tale about professional kick-boxers in Korea. In Meira Chand’s story ‘The Return‘ a young man comes home in disgrace from employment in Hong Kong that had been his family’s hope of financial salvation. These pieces contain a lot that’s rich, but it’s a grim world they inhabit.

Hsu-ming Teo’s ‘Fables of a Fractured City‘ departs from the pervasive grimness. The city of the title is, delightfully, Sydney, ‘the most Asian of Australian cities’. The fractures of the title are the four points of the compass, but also the disjunction between mainstream and Asian perceptions of the city: is the south to be represented by Cronulla, notorious for the 2005 riots, or by the fabulously multicultural ‘temple-land’ of the south-west?

Just as I’d finally got around to reading issue 19, issue 20 arrived in my letterbox. Having made the former wait, the least I could do was move the latter to the top of my teetering bedside pile. The image of a broken Godzilla toy lying amid debris with the line ‘Tales from Japan’ gives an accurate account of its content. All but roughly 20 of roughly 200 pages are related in some way to Japan.

Perhaps the most interesting items are those that deal with the March earthquake, tsunami and nuclear threat. Jake Adelstein’s ‘The First Responders‘ is a fascinating account of the role the yakuza played in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, and the history behind their surprising (to me) civic responsibility. While government agencies were locked in bureaucratic straitjackets the criminal organisations moved swiftly and efficiently to bring aid and maintain order in shelters where there were reports of violence and sexual assault (a yakuza organisation sent 960 ‘peace-keeping’ members across the nation, while the National Police Agency managed 30 officers). Masaru Tamamoto analyses the government’s failure to respond flexibly and effectively in ‘Conformity, Deference, Risk Aversion: Parsing Japan’s CDR Complex)’. In ‘Reaction to Disaster‘, a manga-like comic by Sean Michael Wilson and Michiru Morikawa, a British resident of Southern Japan tells his story.

There are two short stories set in the aftermath of  the earthquake – by authors described at the back of the book as a ‘Singapore-born American novelist’ and a US expat who has ‘lived most of his life in Japan and Thailand’. I felt uneasy about them, as if it might be too early for fiction-writers to exploit these terrible events without disrespect being part of the package.

Other stories and poems move away from the recent news: a crosscultural relationship blooms and dies beneath the cherry blossoms and the fires of Obon; the great poet Basho has an inconclusive encounter with a young woman, also as the cherry blossoms fall; a man is slated for ‘voluntary’ euthanasia in a dystopian future; a depressed and overworked nashi farmer falls in love with a bird.

As this is an English-language journal, it’s probably not surprising that very few of the writers are Japanese – just Masaru Tamamoto, the poet Akiko Yosano (1878–1942), whose ‘Four Poems from the Kanto Earthquake of 1923‘ are perhaps the high point of the journal, and the poet Gina Barnard, who may not be the only mixed heritage Japanese writer here, but she is the only one who makes it her subject, which she does powerfully. Most of the other writers are from elsewhere in Asia or are North American or British writers who are living in Japan or have lived there. (Featured artists and photographers, on the other hand, are mostly Japanese, not the least of them being manga artist Michiru Morikawa.) The best known presence in the journal is novelist David Mitchell, author of Cloud Atlas, who is interviewed by James Kidd. The interview addresses possible unease about this preponderance of outside voices:

Having set many of his stories in Asia, from Japan to Korea, China to Mongolia, Mitchell is understandably sensitive to charges of Orientalism. I ask whether he has ever had any reservations, political or aesthetic, about writing in English about Asian culture. ‘I worry now,’ he replies. ‘At the beginning of my career I was too young and ignorant. I read Said’s Orientalism in my early 30s. I remember thinking, “Jesus, this guy would hate me and my books.” But still.’
Today, however, he improvises a response to Said’s hypothetical objections by posing a succession of counter-questions about his ‘right’ to imagine cultures other than his own. ‘Why do you have to be Asian to write about Japan? Why can’t I have a protagonist who’s my age but Japanese? Isn’t there a reverse racism if I say, “I’m white, therefore I have no business writing about non-white people”? By the same rather crap logic, no novelist from India or Pakistan or Africa or even South America has any business writing about the British – an untenable argument leading to a mutually uncomprehending world, right?’

It’s an issue that Asia Literary Review can be seen to grapple with constantly. With the temporary demise of Heat, though, it stands out as a publication in our region that has a deep platform of cultural diversity. I feel my horizons expanding with every page.

Another corner shop

Having lived through the excitement of the coming of Revolver to Annandale Street a couple of years back, this blog is having flashbacks as another corner shop is in the process of being transformed just down the road. When we moved here five months or so ago, the shop on the corner of Edgeware Road and Alice Street was boarded up. We heard rumours that it was to be a coffee shop, but the For Sale sign with its annotation Offer Under Consideration made the rumours seem insubstantial. In recent weeks, all that has changed.

It’s still a construction site and the old milk bar signage is still there, but things are happening. Unlike Revolver, which stayed nameless almost until the opening day, this establishment has announced its new identity: The Wolf & Honeybee Cafe Gallery. Unlike Rod and Chie of Revolver, who kept the neighbours informed on progress with a series of charming bulletins on  the old shop’s boarded up windows, the Wolf & Honeybee’s Conal is silent on the street but has a stylish web presence: a web site, an Eatability listing (which is where I got Conal’s name), and a facebook presence that includes photos of the site being cleaned up and, Art Student take note, intimations that they will soon be calling for submissions of artwork. Unlike the northern end of Annandale, this area is well endowed with coffee places: there’s Petty Cash, the Bourke Street Bakery in Mitchell Street, Kellerman’s at the pool, the Bell Jar on Alice Street and any number of chains in the Metro around the corner. Still, it seems there’s always room for more. I’m looking forward to the opening, which they hope will be at the end of the month.

The book group go to Bleak House

Charles Dickens, Bleak House (1852, Project Gutenberg version, prepared by Donald Lainsman with revision and corrections by Thomas Berger and Joseph E Loewenstein)

Unless you count comics or movie and TV adaptations, just about anything by Dickens is likely to win me a game of Humiliation (rules at the link). When someone suggested him for our next Book Group title I was happy, and even happier when we settled on Bleak House: Neil Gaiman has been going on about it on his blog recently, and my friend Cassandra Golds says it is a huge presence in two of her recent novels.

Before the meeting:
This is the first book I’ve read on iPhone and iPad, and it was a good experience. The iPad is more satisfyingly book sized, but I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the sense of continual progress that comes with the iPhone. One of the book’s 8041 screens had to be ‘turned’ every couple of seconds – so many words, but in such tiny portions!

I was probably out of harmony with the spirit of the book, not so much because of the electronic devices as because I read it in just a few weeks. It was originally published as a serial over 20 months: if you read one of its 67 chapters a week you would have kept pace. I doubt if anyone much reads at such a leisurely pace any more, and we’re probably the poorer for it. Anyhow, it’s a truly wonderful book which I recommend for when you’re in the mood for sustained, leisurely reading.

I’m confident I have nothing at all original to say about the book itself, so I’ll presume on a little of your time by ruminating on translation issues. Every now and then someone writes an article saying that each generation needs its own translation of [insert name of classic work here]. The idea is that we need to have ancient Latin or Renaissance Spanish served up in contemporary language. By this logic, Italian or Spanish readers need a fresh translation of Dickens every 50 years or so. If so, doesn’t it follow that we need an updating in English just as regularly? After all, the language has changed in the last 150 years, and early 21st century English speakers have a very different, and more diverse, take on the world than their mid-19th century equivalents. Where Dickens could assume that literate English speakers shared a vast set of references – the Hebrew and Christian Bibles, Shakespeare and classical mythology come to mind, and there’s plenty of each in Bleak House – we can no longer do that. Just for the heck of it, I thought I’d see how a hypothetical translator might tackle the opening:

London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill.

I thought ‘translating’ this would be a straightforward bit of fun, but by the second word I was in trouble. When I was at university we had three terms, Lent, Trinity and Michaelmas, but surely Dickens isn’t talking about university here? Did the English courts have terms? (Do they still?) What is Lincoln’s Inn Hall, and who is the Lord Chancellor again? And so on. None of this worried me at all when I read the book, but a translator might feel obliged to do something like:

London. The year coming to an end, and the nation’s most eminent judge, the Lord Chancellor, hearing cases in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the Flood had just withdrawn from the face of the earth, and it would not be surprising to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling up Holborn Hill.

There, now that’s more accessible, isn’t it? (No need to gloss the Megalosaurus for 21st century readers, I thought, but the edgy play on biblical and palaeontological versions of prehistory does need clarifying.) It’s not quite Dickens, but then what translation is? Interestingly enough, even being facetious I couldn’t bear to touch what comes next:

Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes – gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another’s umbrellas in a general infection of ill temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if this day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.

In short, I found the novel irresistible, especially for the way it wallows in language. And Cassandra is right – it’s full of echoes of Clair de Lune and The Museum of Mary Child.

After the meeting:
It’s winter in Sydney, and half of us were away, either home sick or visiting warmer climes. Of the five who showed, three had read the whole book, one was a hundred or so pages from the end, and the last confessed up front that he’d picked up a copy in a bookshop, and then thought, ‘Nah!’, though it turned out he had read it 20 or so years ago.

It was a good book to discuss. We talked about Mr Guppy’s withdrawal of his proposal, the death of Little Jo, the use of catchphrases (‘Discipline must be maintained!’), the pleasure of reading bits aloud. Someone knew that the appalling Mrs Jellyby was based on Caroline Chisolm, and the execrable Skimpole on an actual person. We wondered about the politics, the anti-Jewish nastiness (‘Smallweed is a Jew’), the depiction of industrialisation. Someone had thought about this book in comparison to the other Great Works we’ve read, Anna Karenina and The Tree of Man, and found it suffered from the comparison. I don’t know what I think of that. I know I enjoyed it at least as much as the Tolstoy and quite a lot more than the White, but I suppose enjoyment isn’t everything.

I haven’t been deliberately secretive about this blog and its reports on the group, but nor have I deliberately drawn people’s attention to it. If anyone from the group does drop in, welcome! Please add a comment.

Antony Beevor’s Stalingrad

Antony Beevor, Stalingrad (2004, Penguin 2008)

Antony Beevor visited Sydney for the Writers’ Festival in 2007. His talk was interesting, and it evoked high-quality audience questions that came from a whole world of War History geekiness previously unknown to me. Although he’d recently published a book about the Spanish Civil War, it was Stalingrad that generated the serious senior fanboy passion. We bought the book not much later, but didn’t start reading it until July 2008. Now here we are, in mid 2011 and it’s done!

Notice I said ‘we’. The reason I took longer to read the book than Anthony Beevor took to write it is that I read it exclusively on long car rides, aloud to my regular driver, usually known on this blog as The Art Student. Apart from the reading being disrupted by our lamentable failure to do much travelling by car in the last three years (two return trips to Canberra, perhaps one southward, and just now north to Red Rock and surrounds), it was an excellent way to read this book.

As with Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, another car-journey book, the flow would be interrupted frequently by one or other of us exclaiming, querying, drawing parallels or pronouncing judgements. Once or twice, we had to stop the car so the driver–listener could peruse a map. After a certain point I stopped reading out the full name of every military unit, and occasionally I would give up the struggle to pronounce a German or Russian name in full. But such bumpy moments in no way detracted from the book’s holding power. It manages to move, apparently without effort, from close-up accounts of human cruelty, brutality and suffering to a broader strategic narrative; from the obsessions and denials of Hitler and Stalin, to the petty rivalries, quirks and duck-shovings of the officers on both sides, to the German troops’ sentimental yearning for family or the Russians’ pursuit of alcohol.

The wonderful Barbara Ehrenreich said on her blog recently, ‘War has been, and we still expect it to be, the most massive collective project human beings undertake.’ Having just read about the sheer logistics of attack and counter-attack, siege and counter-siege at Stalingrad, I can only say, ‘True, that!’ ‘But,’ Barbara Ehrenreich continued, ‘it has been evolving quickly in a very different direction, one in which human beings have a much smaller role to play.’ If that’s so, we can only be glad of it. The human participants in Stalingrad endured almost unbelievable extremes of cold and hunger: men literally dropped dead from hunger, wounded soldiers froze to death by the cartload. They performed acts of understandable but almost unimaginable cruelty and callousness: Russian prisoners-of war starved in scenes that foreshadowed the images of Jewish prisoners at the end of the war; German prisoners were shot at random by their Soviet guards. There was plenty of heroism as well, of course, and an extraordinary episode of contact between individuals from both sides.

I turned down two page corners. The first was to mark the account of Hitler’s speech on 30 January 1943, the 10th anniversary of his accession to power, when the German army at Stalingrad was surrounded, starving, under-equipped, low on ammunition and facing almost certain defeat (Hitler expected them to fight on and the generals to commit suicide). The speech, delivered for some reason by Goebbels, made just one mention of Stalingrad:

The heroic struggle of our soldiers on the Volga should be an exhortation to everyone to do his maximum in the struggle for Germany’s freedom and our nation’s future, and in a wider sense for the preservation of the whole of Europe.

Of course there’s no comparison with the circumstances of Australian troops in Afghanistan, but doesn’t that rhetoric sound awfully familiar, and isn’t it equally hollow?

My other turned-down corner marks that contact between individuals I mentioned. In early January, when things were already obviously hopeless for the Germans, the Russians sent envoys under a white flag to offer a truce. The whole episode, drawing on an unpublished manuscript by Nikolay Dmitrevich Dyatlenko, one of the envoys, is marvellously told, full of poignant detail, but one moment grabbed my imagination.The envoys approach the German lines. They call out that they have a message for the German commander-in-chief.

‘Come here then,’ [a warrant officer] said. Several more heads popped up and guns were levelled at them. Dyatlenko refused to advance until officers were called. Both sides became nervous during the long wait. Eventually, the warrant officer set off towards the rear to fetch his company commander. As soon as he had left, German soldiers stood up and started to banter. ‘Rus! Komm, komm!’ they called. One soldier, a short man, bundled in many rags, clambered up on to the parapet of the trench and began to play the fool. He pointed to himself in an operatic parody. ‘Ich bin Offizier,’ he sang.
_____‘I can see what sort of an officer you are,’ Dyatlenko retorted, and the German soldiers laughed. The joker’s companions grabbed his ankles and dragged him back into the trench. Smyslov and Siderov [the other envoys] were laughing too.

And then back to the serious business of war, of the truce being offered and refused as per Hitler’s orders, and thousands more deaths being decided by the event. But in the middle of all that, with the stakes so high and the conditions already so desperate, that short man, bundled against the terrible cold, could stand tall and mock the whole catastrophe.

On the Carbon Price etc

The mining industry and their pals and puppets (I especially like the Popeye puppet) have already started their billion-dollar disinformation campaign about the Carbon Package unveiled yesterday. Thank god for GetUp! I’m about to send them some money. Here’s their modest but very clear video:

Overland 203

Jeff Sparrow (editor), Overland 203, Winter 2011

This is another excellent issue of Overland. Rodney Croome puts the current debate over who’s allowed to marry whom into an Australian historical context where restriction of marriage rights has been significant for convicts and until shockingly recently for Aboriginal people. Benjamin Law tells how Twitter kept him connected with his home city, Brisbane, when he was in India during the floods. Phillip Deery gives three alarming case histories from the bad old days (we hope) of ASIO. There’s a swag of poems, of which the ones that spoke most to me are by Ali Alizadeh (a poem dedicated to the Bard of the Hawkesbury Bob Adamson that begins cheekily, ‘Rivers are all the same. Dirty water / if you’re lucky, smelly mud and silt / increasingly the case.’) and Thomas Denton (an energetic vernacular narrative that shared with Judy Durrant the 2010 Overland Judith Wright Poetry Prize).

Fiona Wright has an excellent, optimistic piece on the Death and Rebirth of Heat. This is the first in the Meanland series of essays about the changing world of publishing that I’ve been able to engage with, and anyone who misses Heat as it was ought to read it. The essay took an unexpectedly personal turn for me. After noting the paucity of metropolitan newspaper reviews of Heat and other Giramondo publications, it goes on:

We’ve had much more support from bloggers, many of whom have given the magazine – and the books – consistent coverage and space. They’ve often written about HEAT with a level of thought and understanding that we should have expected, but didn’t. (One blogger in particular has always taken great pains to point out any typos we missed. But you can’t expect in-depth without a few ripples.)

Oh my god, she’s talking about me! Though perhaps not, because I didn’t so much point out typos as complain bitterly, some would say churlishly, about errors that either confused or, probably more often if I’m honest, amused me: ‘gauge’ instead of ‘gage’ really did stop me in my tracks, whereas ‘vesper’ for ‘Vespa’ was to smile. It would be nice to think I have been ‘instrumental in generating and spreading word of mouth’ for Giramondo’s publications, as she says bloggers often are, because of course I love their work.

A final word, because now I have a reputation to maintain: Thomas Nelson’s poem ‘The Pirouette’, set in a ‘beach joint’ in New Zealand, includes the line, ‘New Zealanders call this kind of house a Batch’. Well, not really. That’s not a typo, it’s a spelling mistake. What New Zealanders call that kind of house sounds like ‘batch’, but it’s generally spelled ‘bach’ (as in bachelor, I think). The mistake in this case may be attributed to the poem’s narrator, of course, but this is a piece of New Zealand English, like ‘pottle’ (what yoghurt comes in) and ‘section’ (allotment) and ‘dairy’ (milk bar) that can trip up unwary Australian editors.

Ah, the fourth estate

I recently saw Jon Stewart in conversation with someone on the US Fox network. His interlocutor claimed to see an equivalence between Fox’s reactionary agenda and the liberal agenda of, for example, the New York Times. Stewart conceded that the Times had a liberal bent, but, he said, it wasn’t an agenda like Fox’s. The problem he saw in the mainstream press was not ideological blinkeredness, but laziness and sensationalism. I thought of that exchange when I saw this little trio of posters outside the newsagents in Woolgoolga.

20110705-073800.jpg

But I suppose ‘We don’t know how serious the hendra outbreak is’, ‘Solar industry spokesperson overstates case’ and ‘Muslim community generally approves legislation on burqa’ just don’t get the adrenaline running or serve anyone’s interests apart from the public’s.

Andy Kissane’s Every night they dance

Andy Kissane, Every Night They Dance (Five Islands Press 2000)

Someone I’ve never met emailed me to say they’d stumbled upon my blog post about Andy Kissane’s recent book, Out to Lunch, and told me among other things that the one remaining copy of his previous book was on the shelves at Gleebooks in Dulwich Hill. Well, what is one to do in response to such individualised marketing? I caught the 428 to Dulwich Hill that afternoon.

I probably would have bought this book if I’d picked it up by pure chance and opened it at the table of contents. It’s got ‘The Ghosts of Marrickville Metro’ – the ‘Tro is now my local shopping centre. It’s got ‘Jean Devanny Writes’ – Jean Devanny wrote Sugar Heaven, the socialist realist novel set in my town of origin. And it’s got ‘The Separation Sonnets’, a title that could have been designed as bait for me, sucker for the sonnet that I am.

The book is in two parts. The contents of the first could be described as public poems in one way or another. There are historical pieces, some of them monologues, like the Marrickville Metro poems or ‘The Station Owner’s Daughter, Narrandera’ (an elliptical account of a massacre). Other monologues are vehicles for meditation on art and artists: Arthur Streeton, John Brack, Jean Devanny (though that one is a letter – to ‘Miles’ – rather than strictly a monologue). And there’s a longish narrative, ‘Tristan and Isolde’, that has genuine emotional force, but somehow feels public, like a reflection on modern relationships rather than a cry from the thick of it.

The second part gets personal. Narrative is still the dominant mode, but mostly it feels as if the voice of the poems is close to being Andy Kissane’s. Even an obvious exception, ‘Fanny Burney’s Mastectomy, 1811’, takes on a very intimate feel from being part of ‘Breast Triptych’, in the other two poems of which the poet tells of his mother’s breast cancer. There are poems about the vicissitudes of renting, the joys of sex (‘Beyond Metaphor’), the awkwardness of a father-son relationship. The 12 unrhymed ‘Separation Sonnets’ tell a story that may be just as much a fiction as ‘Tristan and Isolde’, but it’s much more rooted in a sense of real life and cuts much closer to the bone.

And then there are the poems about reproduction – ‘Miscarriages’, ‘Nineteen Weeks’, ‘Christmas Tree’ and ‘Birth’. All of these are wonderful, wonderful. I don’t remember reading anything by a man on these subjects, certainly nothing as unaffectedly heartfelt. The middle two in particular, dealing with a late-stage abortion, are finely poised, tender, undefensive, generous, heartbreaking.

Thanks, Andy.