Monthly Archives: January 2013

On the air again

My poem ‘Pronunciation Lesson’ was broadcast on Saturday in the repeat of ABC’s Poetica’s episode Hearing. You can listen online.

Toby Davidson’s Beast Language

Toby Davidson, Beast Language (Five Islands Press 2012)

Beast LanguageIn a recent post on the Southerly blog, Judith Beveridge quotes the Irish poet Michael Longley: ‘The poet makes the most complex and concentrated response that can be made with words to the total experience of living.’ That struck me as a reasonable description of what the poems in this book aspire to. She also writes, turning the spotlight away from the book and onto the reader:

What every poet wants I suppose are readers who are not necessarily other poets, who are not critics, who are not scholars, who are not dabblers, but people who are able to immerse themselves in reading so earnestly, so longingly that their experience of books is one of the best parts of their experience of life.

Well, I’m not necessarily another poet, a critic or a scholar, but as my regular readers would agree I’m prone to dabbling. I do know about earnest, longing immersion in the experience of reading: that’s how I used to read everything – Enid Blyton’s Finder-Outers in bed by light from the next room at 10, Agatha Christie when I was supposed to be studying for the Queensland Scholarship exam at 13, The Brothers Karamazov to challenge my faith as a pious Catholic 17 year old, Francis Webb as I was losing religion in my mid 20s. I could go on.

I still read a lot, but for whatever reason I’m less willing to commit myself these days. A writer – poet or otherwise – has to earn my earnest attention, and I’m more likely to approach a new writer with wariness than with longing. Something has to snag me before I can become, fitfully and imperfectly, that ideal reader.

As a dabbler, I enjoyed Beast Language. The language is alive and challengingly sharp, there’s plenty of wit and complex wordplay, and some brilliant images. Some elements, though, threatened to keep me at dabbler level: a lot of allusions (inevitably) left me mystified; some poems are compressed to the point of compaction; and I often found myself skimming without understanding (though not without enjoyment), starting with the very first poem, ‘Indian Ocean Dedication’, which begins ‘She has the genius of an ear / splitting hairs with either mind’ (I’m a lazy reader, but my couple of attempts at unpacking that have come up with nothing).

On the other hand, there’s a lot that makes me want to spend time with these poems. 1: I was predisposed to like them because Toby Davidson has done such a lovely job of editing Francis Webb’s Collected Poems and putting a spotlight on Webb more generally. 2: There’s a pervasive, attractive sense of seriousness, and of playfulness. 3. Where the poetry does communicate to me, I’m engaged. The second poem, ‘Genesis 1.2’, undoes the negative influence of the first with a sweet evocation of the effect of a cool breeze in a beach suburb. ‘Three Months Old’ inevitably invites comparison with Francis Webb’s ‘Five Days Old’, but shrugs it off: this is its own poem, a different person facing in his own way the experience of looking into a baby’s face: ‘Your eyes open mine like a sun strikes a planet / as planet eyes sun, our replete double-bond.’ And there’s much more.

So, the book is divided into three sections, ‘Juvenescence’, ‘Reproduction’ and ‘Hibernation’ – dealing roughly with childhood and youth, sex and art, and illness and death respectively. Starting with a child’s birthday party, an Australia Day punch-up, a zucchini, computer games, and especially, fabulously, car trips, the poems take us to unexpected, horizon-expanding places.

‘On Being a Toby’ is a poem I like a lot. Though it’s not particularly difficult, it’s a good example of the kinds of difficulty and pleasures I have found in this poetry. Here’s the whole poem, which I’ll assume is OK with Five Islands Press. Some bits are in bold because I can’t get WordPress to unitalicise words in quotes.

On Being a Toby

Triangular hat, jug of ale and a dog,
little brown mouse of children’s tv,
Hamlet’s cri de coeur incarnate;
all of my life it will be
———————me or not me.

What’s in a name? Put that to a stem cell
conjugating the infinitive root;
not yet splitting, earthing, bonding
micro-pilgrims to our next
———————gnarled suit.

Cut to lump we live with what we have,
no one asks any more. Bearers of the question
of my name have twisted from the rack
and melted through the chimes of passing
———————to a lower floor.

In what’s name? Ask hats, jugs, dogs,
mice, princes, star-crossed lovers and stem cells.
Ask them what it is to be
and they will say don’t play the Dane
———————but understudy artfully:

for just as poems are understudies to Poems
your name is the understudy to a Name.

The first stanza starts out playing with associations on the poet’s name and progresses to wordplay referring to Hamlet that I’m embarrassed to say I initially found inscrutable, but I won’t insult you by spelling it out.

In the second stanza the plot thickens. It’s the kind of thing it’s easy to glide over when in dabbling mode. But when I reach it I’m feeling pleased with myself for having got the ‘to be or not to be’ reference, so I’m willing to do a bit of wrestling. Having invoked Hamlet‘s most famous line the poem now quotes the most famous line from Romeo and Juliet. (If you didn’t know anything about Shakespeare, this transition would still work, of course, but would give less pleasure.) Toby’s answer to the question couldn’t be further from Romeo’s. A name, he suggests, has something in common with a stem cell, whose development is described in a kind of metaphor mash-up of linguistics and embryology: stem cells act like etymological roots, and they develop as verbs are conjugated; cells and infinitives split, and the infinitive, now that it’s been mentioned, suggests something of the mystery of coming into being, from the infinite to the particular. A name is an abstract thing, all potential, as a stem cell is unspecialised, until complexity and experience give some shape, a gnarledness. (Skip that ‘suit’ for now. It stands out oddly, but sometimes skipping isn’t laziness, but negative capability.)

The next stanza isn’t easy either. Cut to lump? At first, looking for complication, I thought this might allude to the oafish character in She Stoops to Conquer. But no, Google tells me his name is Tony, not Toby, Lumpkin. I decided to read the phrase as a direction to the reader: cut from the image of delicate micro-pilgrims to the lumpish complete human. And of course there’s a hint of ‘Like it or lump it’. With ‘Bearers of the question / of my name’ we realise that the whole poem depends on getting the Hamlet reference. If you missed it back there, this phrase is pretty much a handful of nonsense. But what is this rack of which it speaks? The torture of indecision? And if so, what are the chimes? (Dylan’s ‘Chimes of Freedom’? Nah.) I take ‘a lower floor’ as my key: the poem has leapt to a department store (a leap, I now realise, that was foreshadowed by that ‘suit’ earlier), where some suits have twisted from their clothing rack and taken the lift (which chimes on arrival) downwards. I first read this as suggesting a descent into hell – suicide or failure to function, perhaps – but I think that’s a dead end: the lower floor is closer to the ground, so their movement is a continuation of the ‘earthing’ movement of the ‘micro-pilgrims’, from abstraction to the particular. (I wonder momentarily if ‘Cut to lump’ is a tailoring term, which would make the transition from microbiology to department store less abrupt, but as far as I know it’s not.)

‘In what’s name?’ At this point, extraneous information comes into play in my reading. I know that Toby Davidson has a book coming out this year entitled Born of Fire, Possessed by Darkness: Mysticism and Australian Poetry. So maybe we’re moving into mystical territory. The question seems to assume some deeper reality, perhaps a Platonic realm. But whereas the earlier question was to be asked of a stem cell, this one is to be put to the whole array of things, people and imagined entities evoked in the poem so far (including Romeo and Juliet but not off-the-rack suits). And they all line up behind Uncle Monty in Withnail and I (no I didn’t have the reference in my head, but the phrase ‘play the Dane’ rang a bell, and I found this online):

It is the most shattering experience of a young man’s life, when one morning he awakes and quite reasonably says to himself, ‘I will never play the Dane.’ When that moment comes, one’s ambition ceases.

Just as the poem gives a different answer to Romeo’s question, this means something different from Uncle Monty: as I read it, the ‘hats, dogs, jugs’, fictional creations and scientific knowledge, all are invitations to engage with the world – ‘don’t play the Dane’ means something like ‘don’t get lost in metaphysical introspection’.

And then the last two lines reassert the metaphysical world view that the chorus of hats etc has just rejected. I don’t actually know what’s being said here beyond a general sense that the lines are urging an attractive modesty, and I realise that that’s quite enough for me. When I was studying George Herbert in an earlier life, I was shocked by a distinguished scholar’s reading of ‘The Flower‘ that silently ignored that wonderful poem’s last stanza, in which the poet addresses God – clearly unnecessary to the scholar’s humanist sensibility. Maybe I’m doing that to this poem, but, well, at least I’m not being silent about it. I ought to point out, as an afterthought, that one of my favourite lines in the whole book could be read as expressing a spiritual / mystical / transcendental yearning, but whether it does or not it embodies a similar, though definitely less cheerful reconciliation to the actual world as ‘On Being a Toby’. After describing a drunken punch-up on Australia Day, the poem ‘Skyshow’ ends:

__________To summarise: we are a noble people, unable to bear
ourselves without booze, if we can’t blow things up we just fight
for the hell of it, our national day is a crucible of destruction,
and I want to go home, I just want to go home, but this is where I live.

So there you are. I’ve barely given any kind of sense of the book as a whole, but that’s all my blogging time used up.

(I ought to mention that Five Islands Press gave me a free copy of this book. I would have bought one anyhow.)

Metro Screen Breaks Program Screening

Last night the Art Student and I and both our sons went to Metro Screen’s 2012 Breaks Program Cast and Crew Screening.

The big theatre at the Chauvel Cinema was packed out with people who’d been involved in making 12 short films funded through the Breaks Program. For all but two of the directors, it was their first film up on the big screen – the buzz in the foyer before and after the show was better than a Vietnamese fish market, and the applause after each film was clearly heartfelt, most emphatically so in a different sector of the theatre each time.

I had a great time. Some of the films were rough around the edges, some were rough in the middle, some seemed to assume that the complicated sex lives of young people are more interesting than perhaps they actually are, but every one of them had a personal stamp.

Of the First Break films (you can see a complete list  here), Destiny in the Dirt, directed by Ella Bancroft (with sublime picture book creator Bronwyn Bancroft, possibly a close relative, as Executive Producer) won my heart with its delicate play on the familiar art vs sport theme, and a plot that played completely fair but worked a sweet sleight of hand. I enjoyed, if that’s the right word, the grunge of Bjorn Stewart’s I’m Gunna Make It, in which the main character will have to clean up his act if he is ever actually gunna. Kiss Me, Deadly, directed by Colin Kinchela, treads a fine line on the edge of cheesy in its story of blind dates, and ends with a most satisfactory cross-cultural kiss. Katie Wall’s Scene 16 is a gem in which an actor figures out how to play a scene in a soap at considerable personal cost.

The other two films were ‘Breakout’ films – for filmmakers in their early careers. The first was Gimme Shelter, a tight piece about an extraterrestrial invasion directed by Tobias Andersson and starring Geoff Morell (the link is to its pozible page – the filmmakers found necessary extra funds through crowd-sourcing). It’s not quite finished – there’s a scene near the end that I expect will involve a massive shattering of plate glass, which just wasn’t there, but wasn’t hard to imagine. I hope it gets selected for Festivals.

Then, of course, there was the film we had turned out to see, Ngurrumbang, the film formerly known as  Scar, directed by Alex Ryan and written by him with his blogging father. This was the first time I’d seen the final cut, the first time anyone had seen it on a big screen. All three actors (Amanda Woodhams, Cameron Stewart and Jesse Guivarra) are compelling, the cinematography (Adam Howden) is stunning, the music (Robert Clark) and sound design (Mia Stewart) are just beautiful. I think I’m right in saying that it got sustained applause from all over the cinema. If you’re one of the many people who donated through (yes, we did it too), I think you’ll feel your money was well spent. Jiao Chen, the producer, is organising a screening for friends of the production, including everyone who gave money, some time in February, and it’s being submitted to Film Festivals all over the joint.

So it was a big night. Congratulations all round – to the funders, the filmmakers, their families and all.

My two sons and friends

Have a look at this music video, directed by my elder son, featuring the Screaming Rapture of which my younger son is co-creator, music by a friend of them both.

If you saw the Screaming Rapture at last year’s Vivid Festival, you probably would have had no idea it was capable of the kind of complex responsiveness it shows here.

(If the embedding doesn’t work, you can see the clip on YouTube.)

A parthian shot

The campaign to persuade the O’Farrell government to change its mind about precipitately withdrawing funding from fine art education in NSW TAFE has met with stony silence (if you don’t count the occasional statements by the premier about how he values art). When I saw the fact sheets on the coming changes to the TAFE system, I couldn’t resist:

art killed001


Australian Women Writers’ Challenge

awwbadge_2013For the last couple of years I’ve been keeping track of the gender statistics of my reading, and (surprise! surprise!) have realised I read many more books by men than by women. I’ve just discovered the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge and signed up for the Miles level of the challenge, which means I undertake to read six books by Australian women and review four of them (though as I normally review every book I read, defining ‘review’ very loosely, that’s not a big deal). The challenge webpage suggests that I tell you the six books I plan to read, but I’m going to leave it vague. The first one will probably be Favel Parrett’s Past the Shallows, but who knows what might happen before I pick it up.

Asia Literary Review 25

Martin Alexander (editor) Asia Literary Review 25, [Northern] Autumn 2012

Chinese artist and filmmaker Zhang Bingjiang has an ongoing project entitled Hall of Fame: a series of portraits of officials convicted of corruption, each painted in the colours of the 100-yuan note. No mainland gallery has agreed to exhibit the paintings, of which there are so far more than 1600. Journalist Audra Ang explores the story behind food contamination scandals in China. He Jiahong, a crime novelist (whose ‘Hanging Devils’ is reviewed elsewhere in the issue) and former high-up official in a Chinese anti-corruption agency, outlines a basic, probably over-optimistic proposal for curbing corruption in the People’s Republic.

This issue of Asia Literary Review is dedicated to crime and corruption, and as those three articles indicate, it comes at the subject from many angles.

The Philippines get a double guernsey: Luis H. Francia reports on Give Up Tomorrow, a film by Marty Syjuco and Michael Collins about a blatant miscarriage of justice in which seven young men were found guilty of rape and murder in a case whose every aspect was shaky, including the identity of the victim. Carla Camille L. Mendoza reminds us with lyrical sarcasm of the spectacularly corrupt times of Imelda Marcos and her husband ‘Ferdie’.

Jang Jin-sung, a defector from North Korea, paints a grim picture of endemic corruption in his country resulting from a failed economy in an authoritarian state. Veteran journalist Farrukh Saleem describes systemic corruption in Pakistan. Mumbai resident Dilip D’Souza does the same for India, but undermines any easy self-righteous indignation by relating the large-scale political corruption to the almost universal disregard for the law by ordinary Mumbai residents: on his daily five-kilometre drive to his son’s school, ‘Nobody, and I mean nobody, stops for a red light.’

Still in India, Shashi Warrier, a thriller writer, interviews a rural worker whose brother is probably a member of a violent Maoist group. These groups are evidently a bigger threat to Indian security than the Pakistani-backed Kashmiri secessionists, and it’s clear that endemic government corruption is as effective a breeding ground for Maoists in India as it is for lethal fly-by-night food operations in China.

There’s fiction too, of which three stories stand out for me. Prosper Anyalechi’s ‘I’m Praising Him Right Now‘, translated (from Japanese? Igbo) by Dreux Richard, is a wonderfully animated story of Nigerian immigrants living by their wits on the edges of the law in Tokyo. John Burdett’s ‘A Day in the Life of Curly Jones, Lawyer‘ brings a similar relish to Western expat lawyers wheeling and dealing with dubious legality in Hong Kong. Tew Bunnag’s Eyes of Karma, which begins with a monk meditating in a Thai monastery, turns out to be non-comic version of Sister Act.

I do have a complaint: a number of the fiction pieces are excerpts from longer works, but there’s no warning of this except the end of each one. I’m a primitive reader – I read for the story. So after being left hanging once, I checked each story and skipped the ones that said they were extracts. I made an exception for the extract from Ali Baba: The Forty Thieves Reloaded by Poulomi Mukherjee and Amit Tayal, a comic book which may be worth seeking out in its entirety.

And there’s poetry. I’m not sure what to do with poems written by people with Western names lamenting how hard life is in a North Korean prison camp (without evidence, who’s to know if it’s US propaganda or someone speaking of what he knows?), or those that are hard to distinguish from touristic observations. And my familiar sense of being an outsider looking in when reading poetry is given a little boost by opaque cultural difference in a number of the poems here. I did, however, enjoy encountering all of them. I particularly liked Sivakami Velliangiri’s ‘Silent Cooking and Noisy Munching‘, which describes ‘old women with gagged mouths / cooking for the gods, in silence’, and discovers in their discipline and grace a metaphor for her art, and Changming Yuan’s ‘A Concise History of China in English‘, a witty piece made from little more than a list of Chinese words that have had vogues in the West over the centuries.

In short, a good read.

Marrickville’s phantom mattress poet(s)

Old mattresses are notoriously hard to recycle – the charities won’t take them because it’s illegal to resell them, and who wants to inherit someone else’s lumpy, stained discarded bedding? Recently a number of these items have been turning up on Marrickville kerbs, bearing inscriptions. Here’s one that I’ve had the presence of mind to preserve for posterity, or at least for the internet. Appropriately enough, it’s leaning against the Shepherd Street fence of Marrickville Public School:


In case you can’t see the image, the words on the mattress are:

1 owner
54 cycles
6 lovers
and a baby boy

As I was taking the photo, a young man stopped and said, ‘There’s only one possible response: If you were single I’d take you home with me.’

Overland 209

Jeff Sparrow (editor), Overland 209, Summer 2012

overland209There’s an interesting self-referential moment in this issue of Overland when Rjurik Davidson takes issue with the mainstream notion that writers engage ‘in an ongoing discourse among equals that takes place in the public sphere’, a notion that ‘presumes a single culture, a realm of enlightened discussion and the free play of ideas’. He argues for

a conception of the radical writer belonging to a counter-public (or more accurately, counter-hegemonic) sphere, a sphere that includes its own publications and institutions, its own periodicals and clubs and networks of power. It’s a quite different notion of the writer, one that recognises that polite liberal discourse excludes certain things from being said and that, within the public sphere, comments that strike at the heart of things and books that ask fundamental questions tend to sound shrill or unhinged.

Overland, as a periodical belonging to such a counter-hegemonic sphere, does have its unhinged-sounding moments: in this issue, ‘The pessimism of time: The paradoxes facing the Left‘ by Nina Power, calls on ‘the Left’ to abolish time, or at least to create ‘a life in which nobody seeks to make time measurable at all, for all time’. (Given that ‘Frank O’Hara’s Animals‘ by Tara Cartland, a short story further on in this issue, is a fantasy about a girl who really can make time stop, I haven’t entirely given up hope that Power’s argument is a poker-faced satire, or that its inclusion is an editorial prank, designed to make readers appreciate the sensibleness of the rest of the issue.)

Elsewhere there’s plenty of anti-hegemonic goodness that doesn’t come close to shrillness and stays on its hinges. In a characteristically elegant column, Alison Croggon skewers the commodification of writers and writing implied in the idea that a writer must be a ‘brand’. David Carlin gives a warts and all account of life in a successful anti-hegemonic theatre institution, Adelaide’s Red Shed Company. Everett True’s essay on Pussy Riot contextualises and actively embraces their music and their politics, both of which tend to be seen as shrill and unhinged in the mainstream media. Isabelle Skaburskis and Elizabeth O’Shea rely on their experience as activists to go beyond the familiar media narratives on human trafficking (sorry, no link) and the indefinite detention of asylum seekers respectively. Sophie Cunningham challenges the received version of what happened in Darwin after Cyclone Tracy, having found evidence of, among other things, including looting by NSW police (again, no link: they can’t give us everything for free). Don’t expect to see any of those articles reprinted in the mainstream media.

Among such riches, the stand-out piece for me is Lisa Farrance’s article, ‘Living the life within: The benefits of sport‘. It’s fairly common when people are bewailing the lack of funding to the arts that an arts–sport dichotomy is invoked. You know the line: more Australians visit an art gallery or take part in another cultural event on any given weekend than attend a sporting match, yet sports receive disproportionately more help from the public purse. So it’s refreshing to read an article in a literary journal that celebrates sport as a means to ‘find ourselves whole again’, to challenge sexism and the alienation we experience under capitalism, to enact progressive politics: not just exercise to keep fit, but sport to become whole. And not only that, but Ms Farrance’s exemplars of sports with radical potential are two that are easily dismissed with a shudder in ‘polite liberal discourse’: boxing and roller derby.

There’s a fiction section comprising the three winners of the inaugural Overland Victoria University Short Story Prize for New and Emerging Writers: ‘Killing Floor‘ by John Turner, ‘The day the world stayed the same‘ by Melissa Fagan and ‘Frank O’Hara’s Animals‘ by Tara Cartland. All three stories make me look forward to their authors’ continuing emergence.

And tucked away up the back on tinted paper, as if in a kind of quarantine, ten pages of poems. The little I’ve read of Michael Farrell’s work until now I’ve found shiny but inaccessible – something for hardcore poetry readers. His poem here, ‘Making Love (to a man)‘, makes me reconsider: it’s funny and sexy and warm and friendly. The same is true – with less of the ‘sexy’ – of Fiona Wright’s ‘Obit‘, whose 24 lines, like a conversation at a wake, evoke a sense of loss through cool, anecdotal reminiscence.

I know the Overland subscriberthon is over, so if you subscribe now you won’t win any prizes (like the block of chocolate and free sub I won in November), but you would get your money’s worth.

Enter the Duck

Whatever the ghost of Rembrandt might think about the state of Dutch art in the early 21st century the arrival of Florentijn Hofman’s magnum opus in Darling Harbour today was a hit, even after the seeming endless and mostly lame concert and tumbling act that preceded it. The figures beneath the yellow banners up on the Pyrmont Bridge are taiko drummers. They were splendid.


And so the 2013 Festival of Sydney begins. No first night celebration in which the city becomes a giant concert venue, but a giant rubber ducky isn’t too poor a substitute.