Monthly Archives: August 2012

Overland 207

Jeff Sparrow (editor), Overland 207, Winter 2012

The winter issue of Overland arrived here while I was summering in Turkey, and it was still in its plastic wrapper when spring arrived with a burst of grevillea flowers and the thud of issue 208 on the front step. The spring arrival looks great – it includes a comic – but it will have to wait. Winter is enough for now.

Fat people are oppressed, says Jennifer Lee in ‘A Big Fat Fight‘, and they’re organising on many fronts. It’s a pugnacious article, which seems to anticipate a hostile response, and indeed I found myself wanting to argue with it. Anwen Crawford responds in issue 208, and addresses the things I was uneasy about much better than I could. I recommend the articles as a diptych. It doesn’t help your argument to tell readers that if they disagree with you it’s a knee jerk reaction.

Porn and the misogyny emergency‘ is a debate between Gail Dines and Sharon Smith, which I’m happy to report doesn’t descend into name-calling, as feminist debates on this subject have been known to – as in a twitter storm around Gail Dines at a recent Sydney Writers Festival.

Jessica Whyte’s ‘“Intervene, I said”‘ addresses the vexed subject of how talk of human rights is used to rationalise imperialist aggression and other nastiness. It strikes me as a sober discussion, not looking for villains or getting lost in its own rhetoric as sometimes happens when mainstream discourses are being critiqued. I didn’t know that Médecins Sans Frontières, undoubtedly good guys in my book, played a major role in popularising the so-called ‘right to intervene’ on humanitarian grounds, which was used to justify the invasion of Iraq and other dubious military ventures.

Matthew Clayfield’s ‘Waiting on the Arriaga-Ixtepec‘ is a first-hand observer’s account of the ordeals of undocumented immigrants to the US from South and Central America. It’s powerful stuff. I could have done without the occasional literary flourish, especially the opening reference to Casablanca with its use of the manglish ‘torturous’ instead of the original’s perfectly sound ‘tortuous’.

Louis Proyect, in ‘Republican Democrats‘, offers an analysis of Obama’s policies that is a bracing contrast to what wishful thinking would have us believe. He argues that the time may soon be at hand when the USA’s rigid two party system yields to something closer to real democracy. In the meantime, he seems to be suggesting that African-Americans are mistaken to support Obama. Having just read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s brilliant ‘Fear of a Black President‘ in The Atlantic (if you haven’t read that article stop wasting your time here and click on the link now), I found Proyect’s argument thin and unconvincing on this point.

There are three pieces identified as fiction, though the most immediately touching of them, 19 year old Stephen Pham’s ‘Holiday in little Saigon‘, isn’t fiction at all, but a meditation on the changes he has seen in his suburb, Cabramatta, in the last ten years, as it has transformed from heroin capital of Australia to tourist destination.

Sequestered up the back on different colored paper is the poetry. I particularly liked Andy Quan’s ‘Islands‘, a cool despatch from a grieving family; Mark O’Flynn’s ‘Corydalis‘, a poignant glimpse of someone else’s homesickness; Fiona Yardley’s ‘Your Bath‘, an unlikely celebration of a long lived love, perhaps an elegy; and Alan Wearne’s ‘Also Starring …‘ poem as parlor game or vice versa, in which actors arecast as dozens of Australian poets living and dead, and a couple of politicians. The pairings that I recognised in that last poem ranged from the wittily spot on, through cheerfully insulting, to gloriously inspired. My favourite is George C. Scott as Francis Webb. It’s a poem that invites reader participation: I’d add Robert Morley as Les Murray and Katharine Hepburn as J S Harry.

Undoubtedly the serious reflections in this issue on all that’s amiss in the world and the possibilities for change will have lasting impact on how I am in the world, but right now my vote for the best thing in it goes to Alan Wearne’s utterly frivolous poem.

The latest from Scar

The first screening of Scar is months away but thanks to the wonders of the internet you can go to Vimeo, or click on the video here, for an update for the funding crowd, some behind the scenes shots and a moment from the movie:

As you’d expect a week or so after the shoot finished, the sound track for the tiny scene is incomplete. In fact, at this point of the film, a key narrative development is carried by sound that isn’t there yet. But doesn’t it look fine?

Last weekend

A quick update on last weekend:

1. Hungry for Art went very well. Hundreds of people attended the Open Day and DrawFest at The Gallery School. Here’s evidence:

Feeding the hunger. Photo by Kate Scott

2. The rushes for the film are looking good:

Photo by Jiao Chen, from

I wasn’t there for either event, and nor was the Industrial Designer. We’d both contributed, but were each busy with other, less bloggable, uncancellable things. All round, it was an excellent weekend for our family.

Busy busy busy

It’s all go chez Me Fail just now. Here’s a brief despatch from the fronts.

Shooting the movie soon to be known as the movie previously known as Scar finished yesterday. I managed to visit the location on Wednesday for a couple of hours. Contrary to all the stuff I’ve read about writers being without honour in the film industry, I found I was very welcome on set. More than one person congratulated me. This was a sweet reminder: because I’d been out of the country for a month during the pre-production period, I’d come to think of myself as Interested Party, Supportive Parent, and Believer in the Project, and effectively forgotten I was Part of It All. This in spite of the FM’s having scrupulously consulted me over proposed changes.

What I saw of the movie looks great, the wrap party is today, and I may have a chance to drop in – in spite of being roughly twice the average age of crew and cast (more than 30 of them, not counting the cow), I’m told I’ll be welcome.

Meanwhile the Art Student is up to pussy’s bow in Hungry for Art – a festival that centres on The Gallery School (as the art department of Meadowbank TAFE is known). Last night there was a pop-up art event at the Top Ryde City mall: people were invited to break out of the lockstep shopping experience to take in a huge video screening of Todd Fuller’s Summer’s End and three pieces of Will Coles‘s street-friendly sculpture (familiar to Newtown but new to Ryde), and many did. There was also a little theatre, some beatbox and an oil painting created before shoppers’ very eyes. The big events – DrawFest and Open Day at the Gallery School tomorrow and an Art Trail through the Ryde suburbs on Sunday – are yet to come. And the Art Student is in the thick of it – organising volunteers, making signs, standing guard over sculptures under threat from sugar-high young people. I’m off elsewhere for the weekend, but if you’re in the neighbourhood, drop in. There’s more, but time is short.

PS: When I went looking for links, I realised that I have a photo of one of Will Coles’s works, taken a couple of months back. The work, ‘Laissez-faire‘, had been overwritten by graffiti, to extraordinary effect. No wonder he was so calm last night when the speedy children were doing their best to damage his ‘Finite’.

Masculinities at Penrith

We drove out to Emu Plains yesterday to visit the Penrith Regional Gallery – the Art Student had had a lecture on Gerald Lewers and Margo Lewers, the sculptor and painter whose bequest formed the basis of the gallery, and as our friend Steven Vella was part of a show there, we decided to make the trek (all of 53 minutes, it turned out).

Curiouser & Curiouser, which includes work by James Blackwell and Peter Williamson as well as Steven Vella, is on display in the gallery that was the Lewers’ home. These three artists may not constitute a movement, but their work sits beautifully together. They all take objects from the natural world – feathers, seeds, leaves, twigs, bird bones, inflorescences – and make art from them. Peter Williamson has raised basket weaving to a high art. James Blackwell’s delicate, fragile lattices seem completely artificial until you look closely. And Steven Vella’s headdresses and bowls suggest ritual uses, and even though some have a funereal edge, they’re extraordinarily exuberant. The catalogue describes the work collectively as ‘detailed organic assemblages of remarkable beauty’.

That would have been worth the trip. But there was more. A Lego corner for young patrons featured a substantial mural created by students from a nearby public school, a version of a photograph in the main gallery (both pics taken on my phone – but you get some idea):







The fabulous image on the right is William Booth’s photograph of Manu Vatuvei, a New Zealand Rugby League player, dressed as a traditional warrior from his native Tonga. It’s part of Body on the Line, photographs of 13 League players of Pacific Island heritage as cultural warriors. This, and Heads Up in the next room, ten huge close-ups of Penrith Panthers players and fans taken by Craig Walsh and Josh Raymond within minutes of losing a major match, bruised and gutted, gave me a new respect for the qualities of elite sportsmen.

Nowhere does the gallery try to draw a connection between the meticulous, fine-tuned contemplative aesthetic in the old house and the heroic muscularity of the main gallery, but I’d love to see the various makers and their subjects chatting over canapes at a joint opening.

Laura Tingle’s Great Expectations

Laura Tingle, Great expectations: Government, entitlement and an angry nation (Quarterly Essay Issue 46, 2112)

In 1965, my classmates and I helped to fight the terrible Chatsbury/Bungonia bushfire in the Southern Tablelands of New South Wales. I vividly remember a woman whose house had been burned down crying out in rage and distress, ‘I’ll never vote Labor again!’

It’s easy to mock such blame-the-guvmint mentality, and we did. We weren’t without compassion, but we were 18 years old and not very forgiving.

But these days – I grow old, I grow old – the misogyny, anti-science and book-burning that characterise our blame-the-guvmint discourse feel too serious for mockery. In this riveting Quarterly Essay, not a cheap shot in sight, Laura Tingle brings decades of experience as a political journalist to bear and argues that they are the symptoms of a deep, longstanding and unfaced confusion over what we can expect from the government, a confusion that has been pushed to something like crisis point by the economic rationalist reforms introduced by Hawke and Keating, extended and exploited by Howard, and maintained, with some ineffectual backtracking, by Rudd and now Gillard.

To diagnose the confusion, she goes back to the autocratic/paternalistic beginnings of the colony of New South Wales and the development of its democratic institutions, drawing on historian John Hirst – Convict Society and its Enemies and The Strange Birth of Colonial Democracy. The glimpses she gives of his books make them seem like ideal contrapuntal readings for the late Robert Hughes’s The Fatal Shore: the vicious brutality Hughes describes was far from being the whole story – for many if not most convicts the colony provided much greater opportunity than they would have if they had not been transported. For example, the children of convicts had access to public education well before children of similar class background in Britain.

The history is interesting. The essay’s thesis is lucidly argued. As we come closer to the present time, the narrative takes on an authoritative feel – Tingle never says it in so many words, but there’s an ‘I know this, I was there’ edge, especially to her account of Howard’s and Rudd’s prime ministerships. Her conclusion:

Australians will be forced in the next decade to consider what level of government intervention we really want and what form it should take. That will require us to forge a much more explicit new settlement, a much clearer social contract than the one we have had to date. We must assess what level of government intervention works in an open economy and how best to deliver it. We will have to go back to the idea that government assistance is on a needs – not an entitlements basis [a change brought about largely by Howard’s strategy of bribing the electorate] and work out which needs we are prepared to support. Our politicians will have to face up to the question of what governments can realistically promise – and what they can no longer pledge to provide – and change their messages accordingly.

I’m looking forward, as always to the correspondence about this essay. It would be good to see a Marxist response, though on past showings there’s unlikely to be one. My own grasp of Marxism is pretty crude and old fashioned, but it seemed to me that what Laura Tingle calls variously ‘the world’ or ‘an open economy’ or ‘market forces’ is actually international capitalism – driven by profit to the exclusion of other considerations. What she calls government paternalism is the role of government in restraining capitalism, protecting people from its ruthlessness. She traces the process by which we have been misinformed and bribed into accepting the dismantling of structures that served the common interest and replacing them with for-profit structures. People’s anger, then, comes not so much from an unreasonable sense of entitlement, as from an intuition that behind the confusing smokescreen of economic techno-talk, and in spite of the many handouts of the Howard era, something valuable has been lost.

Two Rare Objects and a Stray Dog

Christopher (Kit) Kelen, Green Thought – Green Shade: A Sabbatical Set (Vagabond Press, Rare Object No 79, 2012)
Adrian Wiggins, Chooks (Vagabond Press, Rare Object No 81, 2012)
J S Harry, Sun Shadow, Moon Shadow (Vagabond Press, Stray Dog Editions No 3, 2000)

I bought these three books last weekend at the Gleebooks launch of half a dozen chapbooks from Vagabond Press. A chapbook is a small collection of poetry – usually cheaply produced and inexpensive to buy. The Rare Object series, now numbering more than 80, small (16 pages), saddlestitched and without ISBNs, with a print run of 100 copies each, are at the deluxe end of the chap spectrum: they have swanky, translucent fly leaves, and a small printed image glued on the front cover, and each numbered copy is signed by the author.

At the launch there was some uneasy joking about the presence of non-poets. Like sceptics at a seance or woman reporters in a male football team’s change room, we were kind of welcome but unsettling. (Although I’ve had a handful poems published, as a reader I’m definitely a non-poet.) Pam Brown’s launching remarks, an edited version of which is up at the Rochford Street Review site, had none of that uneasiness. She was generous and straightforward, made all six books sound desirable, and modelled in an unfussy way the kind of work needed to read these compressed, allusive and/or oblique contemporary poems. (Besides the books by Kit Kelen and Adrian Wiggins, the others being launched were by Niobe Syme, S. K. (Steve) Kelen, James Stuart and Nicolette Stasko.)

Kit Kelen’s book is a set of poems written while home on sabbatical in country New South Wales. For a prosaic reader like me, it helps to know that before you start, and to know that he mainly lives in Macau, and is a painter as well as a poet. You may also need to be warned that you’re entering a punctuation free zone, so a little extra decoding work will be needed. Given all that, the poems speak very directly, with a sweet sense of place, and a whiff of Chinese or Japanese sensibility. From ‘Iona’:

mosquito the size of a small bus
comes and passes and is gone

Kelen has made some interesting remarks about how these poems relate to the pastoral tradition and to the problematic nature of non-Indigenous land ownership in Australia. ‘The challenge,’ he says, ‘is to have fun while you problematise (otherwise please don’t write a poem).’ The elegance, humour and directness of the poems mean the problematic elements slide into the reader’s mind without a bump.

Chooks is Adrian Wiggins’s second book of poetry – it’s 18 years since the first. I understand the title to be presenting these poems as a yard full of chooks, each going in its own direction, scratching, pecking, clucking, fussing over chickens, and generally filling the yard with life. I can’t say I follow them all, or even most of them. For example, ‘The Astronaut’s Lovesong‘, which mixes cosmic imagery with images of bondage, might have been impenetrable to me without Pam Brown’s gloss: ‘Yes, it’s about the wildly jealous astronaut Lisa Nowack who tried to kidnap a female airforce captain who was involved with an astronaut on whom Lisa had a big crush.’ I suspect there’s a lot of play with poetic conventions and politics in the book, some of which I get: I find the idea of John Forbes cosplay (in ‘New Season’) irresistibly funny, but there are almost certainly people who would be driven to Google by both ‘John Forbes’ and ‘cosplay’. One person’s esoterica are another person’s commonplaces, and if the prose meaning eludes me I still enjoy the ride – in some ways it’s like being a child reader again.

For the fun of it, I scribbled all over the first poem in the book, ‘Galah’ (a photocopy – I wouldn’t dream of defacing this beautiful rare object), just to have a visual take on where the poem took me. It’s not a particularly obscure poem, but it does fly off in many directions:

It’s a measure of how much I enjoyed the poem that my inner proofreader didn’t spot the misspelling of ‘plane’, deliberate or otherwise, until I was quite a way into the annotating.

For me (Mr Prosaic Reader), apart from ‘Galah’ the prize fowl is ‘Macquarie River swimming’, a sharply rendered piece of nostalgia for youthful days when the poet and his friends, swinging on ‘a straggly rope tied to a river-gum’,

________________________let rip
with an imitation aerialist’s flip, a shout,
and fell through the day, new bullets

through old rifling, laughing from the noon’s
blue meridian to a cold, dark hole midstream.

J S Harry’s Not Finding Wittgenstein (2007) featured the adventures of Peter Henry Lepus, a rabbit who goes to Iraq and other places and knocks around with philosophers. I was intrigued by this odd character, and tantalised by the few poems about him I’d read. I thought Sun Shadow, Moon Shadow from 2000, not much bigger than the Rare Objects (though big enough for an ISBN) – might be a way to ease myself into his world. Alas, there was no easing to be had, no Origin Story, just a rabbit who has been provoked into trying to think. He’s a strange creation, and the poems are strange too, peppered with erratic spacing and capitalisation and font changes. But definitely alive, and wide ranging. Peter tries without much success to understand the poetry scene. He encounters a literary critic in a poem that might be more fun for readers who know or are willing to find out who Altieri is. In ‘They‘, Peter tries to explain to ‘the flowerbed rabbit / who lives deep in dark leaves’ what humans (‘they’) mean by the ‘pronoun called I’. In ‘A Sunlit Morning, Labor Day, Late Twentieth Century’, he sees and does not understand the death of a magpie friend. He’s clearly a device for looking freshly at the world, for exploring philosophical questions and any number of things, but he is also a character in his own right. His meeting with the cat Chairman Miaow (a different Chinese whiff from Kit Kelen’s) in “Moonlight Becomes You?” may be an enigmatic meditation on art, but it’s also a scary confrontation with a predator. After his conversation with the flowerbed rabbit about the pronoun called I, he realises he has lost an opportunity to

follow the white
bobs of her tail
into the scarlet flowers.

I guess I’ve now got Not Finding Wittgenstein on my To Be Read list.

Stephen Greenblatt’s Swerve

Stephen Greenblatt, The Swerve: How the world became modern (Norton 2011)

This book tells of the rediscovery in 1417 of a copy of Lucretius’ poem De rerum natura (Of the nature of Things) as a key moment in the transformation of European culture – in the Renaissance. The preface begins promisingly with a moving account of the author’s own first encounter with the poem as an impressionable young man, but my antennae started twitching when, describing the contents of the poem, it said:

All things … have evolved over vast stretches of time. The evolution is random, though in the case of living organisms it involves a principle of natural selection. That is, species that are suited to survive and to reproduce successfully endure, at least for a time; those that are not so well suited die off quickly.

Hmm, I’ll bet London to a brick that the phrase ‘natural selection’ wasn’t around long before Darwin: even Alfred Russel Wallace, co-discoverer of the mechanism, didn’t use the term. And that paragraph manages to suggest the very Darwinian ‘survival of the fittest’. It looks awfully as if Mr Greenblatt is a bit over-keen to claim modernity for the poem, and to read the past through an excluding modern lens. A passing reference two pages later to ‘Robert Burton’s encyclopaedic account of mental illness’ (melancholy=mental illness? Really?) confirmed my distrust.

Sure enough, the book’s thesis, that the discovery of De rerum natura changed everything, comes across as a marketing hook rather than a serious argument. But then if you’re writing about something as dry as an ancient Roman philosophical poem, the temptation to play up any conflict or drama (mediaeval monks stupid and repressed / Renaissance humanists bold and clever) and to gloss over inconvenient complexities must be so great as to seem a necessity. In a deeply unsympathetic account of the early development of Christian theology, for example, Greenblatt comes close to saying the theology was formulated as a way of fighting off challenges from Epicureanism in general and Lucretius’s poem in particular, an implausibly narrow claim I would have thought. For the mediaeval Christian church, he tells us in other examples, curiosity was a mortal sin, and the silence during monastic meals was imposed for the purpose of preventing discussion. These assertions probably aren’t flat-out wrong, but it took five seconds with Google to find Thomas Aquinas going on about ‘the vice of curiosity’ in a nuanced way that makes it clear that the phrase has been taken out of context, and I’d like to see a debate about mediaeval monasteries and literacy between Greenblatt and Thomas Cahill, author of How the Irish Saved Civilization.

The book tells a good story. It gives a lively, heart-rending account of the destruction of the vast body of written work built up during Greek and Roman antiquity, and brings home with great force the way it was sheer chance that De rerum natura and many other works survived and were recovered – sheer chance plus the prepared mind of book-hunter Poggio Bracciolini, who knew what he’d found when he saw it on the shelves of a monastery somewhere in Germany. Poggio was fairly famous in his own time as a humanist writer and discoverer of ancient texts. Greenblatt has done us a service in giving us a lively portrait of him.

I’d just written that last paragraph when a link turned up in my Feedly reader to a review by Morgan Meis in n+1. As opposed to this blog post, it’s a proper review which gives a good account of The Swerve‘s argument and then gets stuck into its slipperiness from a better informed position than mine. I recommend the review as a whole, but here’s a quote for those who won’t click through to it:

The end of all Lucretius’s observation and wonder is to reach ataraxia, the point at which we look with indifference at the natural world. We realize we have no control over it and that it doesn’t matter what happens to us anyway. […]

A tremendous amount of desire is expressed in The Swerve. It is the desire, first and foremost, to present the modern age as a definitive solution to the human problem. Greenblatt wants Lucretius to be telling us it is OK to love the world and to be engaged with one another in the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. There is immense joy to be found in that pursuit, Greenblatt thinks, and it is one that human beings have foolishly denied themselves again and again. Greenblatt finds great satisfaction in the fact that a two thousand-year-old poem expresses, in his view, this exact desire. Coming back to Lucretius is thus coming back to ourselves.

But Greenblatt can only make this argument by ignoring ataraxia, the whole point and purpose of Epicurean philosophy.

In other words, someone who knows quite a bit more about the subject than I do has confirmed my sense that the book should be treated warily. Greenblatt is a scholar writing for the masses, and he simplifies, which sometimes leads to distortion. He’s a secularist Jew writing in a US where self-righteous fundamentalist Christians are increasingly prominent in public life, and he goes in to bat for a different point of view, which sometimes leads to significant omissions and distortion. He’s witty, has an eye for the telling anecdote, paints a convincing picture of  life among the humanists employed in the courts of the more or less corrupt popes of the late 14th and early 15th centuries, reminds us that the renaissance didn’t just happen but had to be fought for, and above all whets the appetite for reading Lucretius (whose name, I now remember, was often on the lips of my high school Latin teacher).

Added much later: There’s a heartfelt smackdown of this book by Jim Hinch in the Los Angeles Review of Books of 1 December 2012.

The indefatigable Art Student

The Art Student has been busy since we arrived home from splendidly warm northern places. Currently at the Balmain Watch House there’s an exhibition of prints, nominally by the graduating third year printmaking students from The Gallery School, Meadowbank, but actually including work by a large number of professional artists. You can catch it this Saturday and Sunday between 10 and 4. (Information at the Balmain Association web page: click on the link and scroll down to ‘Printeresting’.)

The Art Student is one of the third year students. We’ve been living with her big piece – ‘The details’ – for months, but it only came together last week, with help from our clever industrial designer son. In case you can’t tell from the photo, it’s like a giant version of one of those sliding puzzles, inspired in large part by Heather Goodall’s Invasion to Embassy: Land in Aboriginal Politics in New South Wales, 1770-1992, which lays out in some detail the way Aboriginal people in this state have been dispossessed, driven off their land repeatedly. You may be able to read some of the small text if you click through. And no, the pieces of the puzzle don’t move. Even if they did, there’s no obvious solution. [Added after the AS saw this post: The blue in some of the internal borders isn’t there in the actual work – it’s the black acrylic backing reflecting the flash.]

Not satisfied with making art, the AS has been busy with FAIM (Fine Arts Incorporated Meadowbank), an organisation started by students and alumnae of The Gallery School with the aim, among other things, of raising the profile of the school’s See Street Gallery. Coming up is their first fabulous major initiative, the Hungry for Art Festival, which is going to be bigger than Ben Hur, with exhibitions, competitions, an Art Trail through the Ryde Municipality, you name it. From the web site:

  • DrawFest & Open Day, 18 August – The Sydney Gallery School … present a full day’s program of art exhibitions, talks, workshops, drawing and sculpture activities, art market, performance, music, food and more.
  • Art Trail, 19 August – The suburbs come alive with the first ever Art Trail. Local artists open their doors, providing a rare opportunity to see inside their studios. Galleries and visual art businesses will participate revealing a region rich in creative activity.

There’s a Mobile Phone Photo Competition that closes this Friday, open to anyone who lives, works or plays in Ryde Municipality – and who has never played in Ryde? Go on, how often do you get a chance to have one of your photos hung in a white-wall gallery?