Monthly Archives: September 2012

Tricia Dearborn’s Ringing World

Tricia Dearborn, The Ringing World (Puncher & Wattman 2012)

When I blogged about Tricia Dearborn’s first book, Frankenstein’s Bathtub, I said I responded to the poems as if meeting an old friend for the first time. This is her second book, 11 years later, and I find myself weirdly reluctant to blog about it. It’s not that I haven’t enjoyed it. I think it’s because it feels as if commenting on the poems would be like reporting on a late-night conversation among friends – one of those conversations where guards can come down and people talk easily and openly, crying a little and laughing a lot, about a first kiss (‘The changes’), about the moment when you realise your mother is a vulnerable being (‘Mother seen from below’, especially part iii, ‘Shard’) and other childhood memories (I particularly like ‘The smiley spoon’), about the death of a baby niece (‘The quiet house’), about tinnitus (‘The ringing world’), about your creepy empathy for someone who volunteers to be eaten (‘Eat my secrets’), about proofreading (‘Galley slaves’), about those fanciful moments when it feels that the world is sending you a message (‘Memo’) or you’re caught off guard coolly contemplating your own death (‘Gravity’ and ‘The waiting earth’), about dramatic (‘Projectile’) or sweetly romantic (‘Anniversary’) moments in a long-term relationship. It’s not the intimacy of the confessional, the therapy room or the pillow, but it is intimate.  And tactful – never Too Much Information, which is quite an achievement given that one or two poems (especially ‘Come in, lie down’) are pretty explicit about sex, and one (‘You are my perfect’) is a poignant avowal of love.

I read these poems, more than once, while out walking. Reading poetry while walking is something I recommend: often the rhythm of walking and the rhythm of a poem play nicely off each other, and the poems and the world can speak to each other in unexpected ways. In this book ‘Gravity’ made me notice what my feet were up to. Here is its last six lines:

Earth’s substance draws us, yet
stops us plummeting to her core.

But see how we, through the rhythmic
daily greetings of our feet

the transmitted pressure of our bodies at rest
eventually get under her skin.

‘The rhythmic daily greetings of our feet’ – isn’t that fine? It’s an example of another main joy I found in these poems – the way they unapologetically sing within a western scientific, materialist view of the world.

Tricia Dearborn’s work, including a number of the poems from this book, featured in Jim Bennett’s Caught in the Net 79.

Ali Cobby Eckermann

Ali Cobby Eckermann, Kami (Rare Object No 54, Vagabond Press 2010)
——-, Ruby Moonlight (Magabala Books 2012)

Like other Rare Objects chapbooks, Kami is beautifully crafted. A hundred copies were printed, signed by the author, with a small, square, torn-edge print of an Australian desert landscape glued to the cover. I mean no criticism when I say it reminds me of a tasteful bijou hotel, each guest/poem with a room/page to itself. Ali Cobby Eckermann is a Yankunytjatjara woman, and the guests, it turns out, aren’t as genteel as that analogy might suggest. They don’t trash the rooms or anything of that sort, but they raise their voices any way they want. There’s throwaway surrealist satire (‘Pauline Hanson’, about a giant carrot), poignant domestic vignettes that shed light on the stolen generations (‘Comical’ and ‘Sink’), astringent comment on the intersection of sexism and racism (‘Intervention Allies‘), a sweet-sad love song (‘Kami‘ – at the link it’s the first of five ‘Yankunytjatjara Love Poems’), C&W dramatic monologue (‘I Tell Ya True‘ – click to hear Joe Dolce sing his own musical version), and so on. It’s a wonderfully diverse set of poems.

If any one poem out has special resonance for me it’s ‘Wild Flowers‘. It reminds me of Douglas Stewart’s ‘Glencoe‘, one of the few poems I remember from school days. I’ve thought a lot about ‘Glencoe’ over the years: it’s fascinating that an Australian nationalistic poet wrote this lament for the victims of a massacre that took place centuries ago on the other side of the planet (‘Terrible things were done / long, long ago’), as if that’s as close as he could get to acknowledging the terrible reality of our own colonising history, but was impelled to make at least that much. Cobby Eckermann’s poem includes similar imagery of children’s bones, but she can name the event as very much of this place and not safely consigned to the past. An additional, idiosyncratic resonance – you’ll have to take my word for his – comes from the way the poem’s opening lines almost be describing a moment from our short movie, Scar:

Mallets pound fence posts
in tune with the rifles
to mask massacre sites

There’s a massacre in Ruby Moonlight too, though most of the book is about what happens next for the sole survivor. Subtitled ‘a novel of the impact of colonisation in mid-north South Australia around 1880’, the book is a lot slimmer than you’d expect of a novel, just 80 pages all up, and you’ll look in vain for the lecture that subtitle might suggest. This is spare, restrained story-telling. If it wasn’t for the power generated by the flash of imagery, it would feel like notes for a novel rather than the thing itself. It’s a story of ill-starred love. A young Aboriginal woman survives the murder of her community and after wandering for some time with just nature and an ancestor spirit for company, she finds companionship and intimacy with an isolated Irish fur trapper. Their idyll, forbidden by both their cultures, can’t last. You might think you know this story before you open the book. You don’t.

In an interview with Michael Brennan on the Poetry International Website, Ali Cobby Eckermann has some very interesting things to say about her work, including this:

I want to use my poetry to educate Australians, to overcome their innate fear of Aboriginal people. Most Australians have never met an Aboriginal person outside school, sport or work. I want to highlight the benefits that Aboriginal people can provide through friendship and equality, and highlight the dangers of racism and judgmentalism. I have been happy with the heartfelt responses from festival audiences, and the new friendships shown to me and my family.

MB: Do you see your work in terms of literary traditions and/or broader cultural or political movements?

Ali Cobby Eckermann: I think it is impossible to be an Aboriginal writer, and be free from a political view. I always use cultural ethics in my writings. Some of my poetry has a unique style, due to my life between my adopted German Lutheran family and my traditional Yankunytjatjara family, who have also adopted the Lutheran religion. I hope my sense of truth becomes my literary tradition!

Doctor Who and Lindalee

Decades ago someone did a study of three different audience’s responses to an episode of Doctor Who. From memory, the focus groups were made up respectively of four-year olds, 13 year olds and PhD students respectively. All three groups loved the show. The first saw it as very funny because the Doctor was tricky. The second enjoyed the action–suspense. The third just loved the references to Buddhist cosmology.

Here’s a very young person recapping the first episode of the new season – be warned it’s full of spoilers, but be prepared to be delighted by a completely coherent reading. (Thanks to Stubby the Rocket at

David vs Tony

David Marr, Political Animal (Quarterly Essay N° 47)

20120914-221620.jpg When David Marr writes an essay about Tony Abbott there’s no point asking if it will be a hatchet job. The question is how well the hatchet job will be done. Abbott is the preserver of John Howard’s legacy; Marr wrote and edited a number of books laying bare Howard’s duplicitous and anti-democratic politics. Abbott is a high-identifier with old-style Catholicism; Marr has been consistently critical of the Catholic Church. Abbott is, well, not comfortable about Gay liberation issues; Marr is, well, cheerfully out as a Gay man.

Marr’s Quarterly Essay on Kevin Rudd drew a fairly long bow – on the strength of Rudd losing his temper with an arguably impertinent journalist, Marr concluded that anger was Rudd’s ‘juice in the machine’. There’s no equivalent stretch here. In fact, he paints a picture completely congruent with a clerihew I wrote some time ago:

Anthony John Abbott
has a habit
when playing for high stakes
of saying whatever it takes.

He does raise a question that could be paraphrased in another clerihew:

Tony Abbott
is making a stab at
becoming prime minister
possibly concealing intentions that are sinister.

Most discussion of the book in the mainstream media has been about an incident that Marr relates from more than 30 years ago when Abbott was a student politician. This looks to me like a clever ploy on the part of Abbott and his journalist allies, giving those who haven’t read the essay the impression that it’s mostly he-said-she-said allegations about ancient history. It’s actually much more substantial, responsible and entertaining than that.

Janette Turner Hospital’s Forecast: Turbulence

Janette Turner Hospital, Forecast: Turbulence (Fourth Estate 2011)

This collection of nine short stories and a memoir has been shortlisted for a number of awards and it may have won some. Sentence by sentence it’s very well written. It is populated by a range of eccentrics, outsiders and non-neurotypicals and should have been interesting. But as far as I was concerned it didn’t touch the sides. I didn’t believe a word of it, even the memoir, which I know is truthful. Newspaper reviewers seem to have loved it, though I’m not convinced they’ve all actually read it.

That is all.

Hungry for Art indeed

In case you haven’t heard, the New South Wales government is in the process of a vigorous attack on education in this state. Judith Ridge has posted passionately and lucidly on the subject at Misrule (full disclosure: she says some nice things about me at the link, in the middle of much else). If you haven’t been noticing the headlines, you can catch up here.

Amid the carnage:

On September 11 the NSW government announced that it would stop funding art education in TAFE, leaving 4000 students without access to finishing their courses in 2013. TAFE Art courses are the main provider of art education in NSW, with many prominent artists getting their first ‘hands on’ training in TAFE. The withdrawal of funding will mean that only the wealthy will be able to afford private art education and NSW will suddenly find it no longer has emerging artists with skills coming through.

That’s right, art education in TAFE will no longer be funded as of 1 January next year. No transition – just a short sharp shock. It’s anyone’s guess what that will mean for people who started a year or two ago confident that the NSW government would honour its implied contract, let alone the hundreds of artists who survive thanks to part time or casual teaching. TAFE is of course the poor relation in art education: when the National Art School boasts of its many illustrious alumni, for example, it rarely mentions that most of them attended when the NAS was actually East Sydney Tech, part of the TAFE system. So art is vulnerable because of course the contribution that artists make to society is routinely rendered invisible, and art teaching at TAFE is double vulnerable because it doesn’t have prestige at the big end of town.

There’s an online petition at CommunityRun, which is the source of the quote above. Do have a look and, if you agree with its gist, sign it. Students at a number of TAFEs are organising, including St George, Nepean, Goulburn, Moss Vale, Meadowbank and Wollongong so far.

The Hungry for Art Festival has hardly finished attracting hundreds of people to  The Gallery School at Meadowbank than the government announces it’s in effect closing the school down. (Because where will they find alternative funding in three months, and will the school still be public, affordable and accessible if they do?) The facebook page of FAIM (Fine Arts Inc Meadowbank) is humming.

As you might guess, the Art Student is in the thick of the campaign against the cuts. Among many other initiatives, it is the subject of the final printmaking project in her Advanced Diploma.

The project is inspired by the petition sent to the Pope by the House of Lords in 1530 pleading for the annulment of Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon. That petition was displayed in Lux in Arcana, the exhibition of material from the Vatican Archives that we were lucky enough to see in July. As well as signatures, the petition boasted the seals of about a hundred lords and bishops hanging on leather thongs. The effect is impressive, but also beautiful.

The Art Student hopes to attract a similar number of artists to sign a petition (wording similar to the one at CommunityRun) and carve a small soapstone block with a symbol representing themselves that can be printed in sealing wax and hung from the petition.  The art student will supply the soapstone, and the artists are welcome to keep the carving once the imprint has been made..

If you know any artists who might be interested, send them this way. My email is jonathan at shawryan dot id dot au.

Lionel Fogarty’s 1995 selection

Lionel Fogarty, New and Selected Poems – Munaldjali, Mutuerjaraera (Hyland House 1995)

Lionel Fogarty is described on the Australian Poetry Library (APL) website as ‘a poet who has opened up the new space of black Australian post-surrealist writing and done much to reformulate our understanding of poetic discourse and its roles in both black and white communities’.

I bought this book years ago and it has been intimidating me from the to-be-read pile ever since. Now that I’ve finally read it I’m not so much intimidated as baffled, which, come to think of it, isn’t so unusual for me around poetry: I remember feeling that many of Frank O’Hara‘s poems might as well have been written in Icelandic for all I could make of them. But you know, even if straightforward poems aren’t all alike, every difficult poem is difficult in its own way. I experience Lionel Fogarty’s poetry as difficult in a number of interesting ways, some of them suggested by the APL quote above.

First, he writes in a version of Aboriginal English, and uses words from Aboriginal languages. The book’s glossary is some help with the vocabulary, but the syntax isn’t always easy to follow on the page, and Fogarty doesn’t go out of his way to ease the task for white readers. He writes in his introduction, ‘White man will never really fully interpret what a black man is thinking when he is writing.’ Fogarty writes as an Aboriginal man, heir to a genocidal history and survivor of continuing genocidal policies and practices; I am reading as a beneficiary of the same history and still with a world view largely conditioned by white privilege. That probably sounds dreadfully pious, but the fact is he can quite reasonably expect me to put in some work.

In a fascinating 1995 interview with Philip Mead published in the online poetry magazine Jacket, Fogarty responded to a question about his use of language:

I think what people should do is read my poetry, in an Aboriginal way, take the Aboriginal side of my language, and then reflect back on the English side. That’s the only way you’re going to get a balance of understanding. I think my most important thing, like I always say, is to revitalise or to get a full language into practice of the detribalised areas, of the urbanised, so-called, Aborigines. That’s my main thing.

I don’t know if it’s a separate thing, but there’s also what the APL calls his post-surrealism. I take this to refer to the hallucinatory element of some poems and something that’s happening in the language that isn’t just about Aboriginal English. From that same interview:

What I like to get into people’s minds, when they read my things, is that they get a picture, they get a painting from it and that’s the only way they can really understand all the mosaic, the patterns of the words I put down on paper. At the same time they can hear my voice coming through quite clearly, then they can really understand the poet.

I need to spend a lot more time with this poetry before I can do much more than struggle with it. But so as not to completely chicken out of saying something, here are the relatively unproblematic opening lines of ‘Farewell Reverberated Vault of Detentions’, a poem that imagines a day of freedom from oppression:

Today up home my people are
indeedly beautifully smiling
for the devil's sweeten words are
Today my people are quenching
the waters of rivers without grog
Today my people are eating delicious
rare food of long ago.

This isn’t difficult, if difficult means hard to understand. However, I do have difficulty with it. I don’t know if indeedly is Aboriginal English. In any other context I would have read it as a Ned Flandersism. Likewise, sweeten used as an adjective, quenching as something done to waters rather than by them, apparently erratic use of full stops and capitalisation: my copy-editor reflexes go wild. I don’t think that Fogarty has written these lines with an intention of discombobulating white pedants. This writing just doesn’t care about my concerns. It’s talking to someone else altogether, and if I want to keep up I have to let go. But then I’m at sea. I am as much at a loss to pick up on the nuances of this language as I am when I’m reading French or Italian – which is very at a loss.

It’s true, in the couple of videos I found of Fogarty reading, the poetry communicates much more effectively than when I read it for myself and hear it, inevitably, in my own white, middle-class, linear-syntax-conscious voice. This TEDxSydney 2010 video is fabulous, for example:

The Book Group reads Chekhov short stories

Anton Chekhov, The Lady with the Little Dog and other stories, 1896–1904 (translated by Ronald Wilks, Penguin 2002)

I was enthralled by The Brothers Karamazov when I was 16 – the Grand Inquisitor raised the hairs on the back of my Catholic neck – but have so far managed to read very little of other 19th century Russian writers. The Book Group made me read Anna Karenina a while back, and now it’s Chekhov.

Before the meeting:
Knowing that Chekhov is one of the masters of the short story, I was vaguely expecting a display of virtuosity – cleverly constructed mechanisms with twists in the tail, perhaps, like O Henry’s ‘The Gift of the Magi’ only profound. The stories in this late collection aren’t like that at all. (I don’t know about his earlier stories, and it would probably have been better to start with some of them.)

To generalise, the stories are studies in Russian provincial life at the turn of the twentieth century. It’s hard if not impossible to read them now without an awareness that the Communist revolution was on the horizon. Chekhov’s picture of the oppression of the peasants, the hand-wringing of liberal land-owners and the viciousness of others, the flailing about of the intellectuals, and the way the economic and social system stifles and corrupts everyone, clearly reflects a world ripe for revolution. Not that he calls for revolution, but he does lay out the inadequacy of anything else on offer. These are stories, not tracts. They contain a lot of argument, but they don’t push a line – or if they do, it’s in terms that have become impenetrable to this casual reader a century and a hemisphere away.

In ‘The House with the Mezzanine’, when a socially responsible woman chides the artist–narrator for having no interest in such matters as the creation of a clinic for peasants, he replies that on the contrary the question interests him a great deal, and in his opinion the peasants do not need a clinic:

‘To my mind, with things as they are, clinic, schools, libraries, dispensaries only serve to enslave people. The peasants are weighted down by a great chain and instead of breaking this chain you’re only adding new links … What matters is not Anna dying in childbirth, but that all these peasant Annas, Mavras and Pelageyas toil away from dawn to dusk and that this unremitting labour makes them ill. All their lives they go in fear and trembling for their sick and hungry children. … You come to their aid with hospitals and schools, but this doesn’t free them from their shackles.’

And he goes on. Up to the point where he starts talking about spirituality, he could be a hardline lefty of a couple of decades ago railing against reformism. In the story, the dilemma is not resolved. At the end the peasants are still suffering and the narrator, without explanation and perhaps symbolically, fails to find true love. (A while after I’d written that, I came across this quote from Chekhov’s correspondence:: ‘You … are confusing two concepts: the solution of a problem and the correct formulation of a problem. Only the second is required of the artist.’)

Or take this rant in ‘Gooseberries’, in which a character is talking about his brother, who chose to live a contented life on a small farm. It could be 21st century polemic against the self-help industry:

It’s obvious that the happy man feels contented only because the unhappy ones bear their burden without saying a word: if it weren’t for their silence, happiness would be quite impossible. It’s a kind of mass hypnosis. Someone ought to stand with a hammer at the door of every happy contented man, continually banging on it to remind him that there are unhappy people around and that however happy he may be at the time, sooner or later life will show him its claws and disaster will overtake him in the form of illness, poverty, bereavement and there will be no one to hear or see him. But there isn’t anyone holding a hammer, so our happy man goes his own sweet way and is only gently ruffled by life’s trivial cares, as an aspen is ruffled by the breeze. All’s well as far as he’s concerned.

There’s a lot of grim humour. The wedding celebration in ‘In the Ravine’ could have been the inspiration for Jack Hibberd’s Dimboola – but audiences laugh at the latter, while any laughs at the former are tinged with despair and disgust. And the stakes are raised by the peasants outside, one of whom shouts, ‘You’ve sucked us dry, you rotten bastards. You can all go to hell!’ That moment, of course, quickly passes as the peasants too join the celebratory mood. But the reader has been warned.

Chekhov isn’t one of those writers who ties everything up in a neat little bow. In ‘In the Ravine’ when a baby is murdered, his mother is blamed and the murderer goes free – but we are given no explanation for the mother’s failure to defend herself or other people’s silence about the cruel injustice. ‘The Lady with the Little Dog’ is a love story. Instead of ‘happily ever after’, it ends, ‘ And both of them clearly realised that the end was far, far away and that the most complicated and difficult part was only just beginning.’ Which is my sense of what all the stories are saying, about everything.

I’ve seen Eudora Welty quoted on the Internet as saying, ‘Reading Chekhov was just like the angels singing to me.’ That transforms my sense of what an angel can be.

The meeting: This meeting was postponed a number of times because I was hosting it and I was down with a heavy cold. As a result, most people’s recollection of the stories wasn’t very precise, but we’d had time to absorb them – in particular I had read some new Australian short stories (about which I’ll post separately), and my appreciation of the Chekhov had grown with the comparison. A big impediment to our discussion was that, as it turned out, we’d read different books: three of us had read The Lady with the Little Dog and other stories, 1896–1904. Others had read Lady with Lapdog and other stories, translated by David Magarshack, which contains a different set of stories (damn you, Penguin, for giving different books almost identical names!). The only stories in both books are ‘The House with an Attic’ aka ‘The House with the Mezzanine’, ‘Ionych’, and ‘Lady with Lapdog’ aka ‘The Lady with the Little Dog’.

We had a lively discussion. I think Chekhov was a bit of a surprise for everyone – not enough story for one chap (who thought the title of ‘A Boring Story’ said everything that needed to be said about it), a bit on the grim side for another, surprisingly modern in his discontinuities and sexual morality, surprisingly not, or not always, about the sufferings of the peasants.  At one stage, for the benefit of someone who hadn’t read it, I gave a synopsis of ‘The House with the Mezzanine’. It seemed a bit on the incoherent side, and then someone realised that I’d thrown in a key scene from another story altogether. Will I ever be trusted again?

Since the meeting, I found ‘A Dreary Story‘ on the internet in Constance Garnett’s translation (I think). There’s a wonderful passage near the beginning that could have been about me:

 I write poorly. That bit of my brain which presides over the faculty of authorship refuses to work. My memory has grown weak; there is a lack of sequence in my ideas, and when I put them on paper it always seems to me that I have lost the instinct for their organic connection; my construction is monotonous; my language is poor and timid. Often I write what I do not mean; I have forgotten the beginning when I am writing the end. Often I forget ordinary words, and I always have to waste a great deal of energy in avoiding superfluous phrases and unnecessary parentheses in my letters, both unmistakable proofs of a decline in mental activity. And it is noteworthy that the simpler the letter the more painful the effort to write it.

Jennifer Maiden in the SMH

With some notable exceptions, the Art Student hates poetry. So this conversation that happened as I was cooking breakfast on Saturday morning was a moment to be savoured.

Art Student: There’s a poem by Jennifer Maiden in the Spectrum. [That’s a supplement to the Sydney Morning Herald.]
Me: Really! Read it to me.
Art Student: You know I can’t read poetry.
Me: (wheedlingly) Go on, please …

And she did. She read ‘My heart has an Embassy’. Beautifully. Whether it was the short lines, the brevity of the poem, or the way it makes metaphor out of a situation from the headlines – Julian Assange’s seeking asylum in the Ecuadoran Embassy in London – the poem slipped effortlessly past the poetry-hating guards.

I couldn’t find ‘My heart has an Embassy’ online. Sorry!

[Added later: In a Me Fail? I Fly! exclusive, Jennifer Maiden’s daughter Katharine has posted the poem in a comment!]

Fairy tales can come to U T S

My friend Sarah Gibson has asked me to mention this, and I’m happy to oblige:


Fairy Tales Re-imagined: Enchantment, Beastly Tales and Dark Mothers

A symposium to be held on 13 October, at UTS, Sydney, exploring fairy tales and the cultural imagination. Writers, artists and academics speak about their fascination with fairy tales, their motifs, themes and layers of meaning. They discuss how old stories inspire and inhabit new forms.

Of the speakers listed, in my ignorance i only know three: Sarah, who is a bit of a fairy tale polymath, and Kate Forsyth and Margo Lanagan, both billed as novelists, though I passionately hope Margo hasn’t forsaken what some see as her true calling as a writer of short stories.

The symposium has been initiated by media artist Sarah Gibson, whose interactive online project ‘Re-enchantment’ can be found at (link opens external site).

It sounds like a fun way to spend a windy October Saturday in Sydney. If you’re interested you can find information and register at tale-symposium.html, or email Sarah.