Monthly Archives: May 2013

Julie Chevalier’s Linen Tough as History

Julie Chevalier, Linen Tough as History (Puncher & Wattmann 2012)

1lthI just couldn’t get on this book’s wavelength. I appreciate the cleverness of many of the poems, but very few of them speak to me personally. I’m glad I read it to the end, because the poems I most respond to occurred in the final section: ‘crease’, about enduring tensions between mother and daughter; ‘fifteen kinds of infidelity’, which is what it says on the tin; ‘the moon and the stars were our chandelier’, which lives up to its excellent title.

A number of the poems are self-described ‘responses’ to other poems or works of art. ‘Corner of Glebe Point Road and Broadway’ and ‘the day we almost hung’, for example, play with Gwen Harwood’s ‘Suburban Sonnet’ and Frank O’Hara’s ‘The Day Lady Died’ respectively, each line (with one exception in each case) ending with the same word as that line in the earlier poem. It’s clever, and fun, but the effect each time was to send me back to the earlier poem, in whose light the present poem seemed a pallid, arbitrary thing. Similarly, when I read the poems responding to work by Ron Muecke, Diane Arbus, Cy Twombly, Hans Bellmer and Giorgio Morandi, I went to those works, either in memory or by Google, and felt no particular urge to come back. Maybe that’s a problem inherent to ekphrastic poetry, or – more likely – there’s something I’m not getting.

awwbadge_2013 This is the sixth book I’ve read as part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2013, but I won’t add this post to the website, as it’s not really a review – more a note that I’ve read the book.

Morphic Mirror at the Vivid Festival

Winter’s coming on in Sydney, with fog and bitter chills (bitter by Sydney standards – probably balmy if you’re from Saskatchewan). The Writers’ Festival is over and the Film Festival is more than a week away. But there’s Vivid to light up our nights.

The Opera House, Customs House and the MCA become screens for brilliant animation at 6 o’clock every night from last Friday to Monday week. I don’t think any of the three is up to the standard set in the last two years, but it’s still worth joining the crowds at Circular Quay each night for the spectacle. There are luminous spectacles along Macquarie Street, in Luna Park, and in Darling Harbour as well – I haven’t seen them yet, but the photos on the Vivid site are very promising.

Those are the big items. But the walk from the Opera House to the Rocks and down to Walsh Bay involves, I don’t know, hundreds of smaller scale light sculptures and installations. There’s an electric graffiti wall in a lane in the Rocks that has butterflies flying through rainforest – but all the foliage wilts and dies when anyone walks too close. There are myriad mirror balls in a Walsh Bay breezeway. There are enough interactive light-projecting set-ups to keep a family happy for hours.

And again this year, my brilliant son Liam and friends are part of it, with their creation, the Morphic Mirror. It’s a responsive funhouse mirror: hold your arms wide and the surface of the mirror contorts so that  your reflection broadens; wave your hands in the air, cross your arms over your body, and your image morphs in response. Like the Social Fireflies and Screaming Rapture of previous years, the Morphic Mirror has an intimate, human-sized feel, and as this video demonstrates is a real crowd pleaser, one person at a time.

Morphic Mirror is created by Frank Maguire, Jason McDermott and Liam Ryan.

There’s more to Vivid than the lights. Evidently there’s music and ideas as well. The lights will do me.

Sydney Writers’ Festival: My Weekend

The best laid plans etc. I was going to blog about the SWF daily, but it turned out that though I only got to one event on Saturday I still had no time to write about it then or on Monday or Tuesday, so here are my days 3 and 4 all mooshed up.

Saturday returned to the cloudless sky that’s traditional for the festival. The average age of the punters dropped by about 20 years, but the crowds at Walsh Bay didn’t seem to be any worse.

My day started with the half past two session, Shami Chakrabarti: WOW at Sydney Writers’ Festival Lecture. WOW, ‘Women of the World’, is a big feminist festival held annually at London’s Southbank Centre. There were a number of WOW events at this festival, a kind of taster-festival within the festival, and a friend I met at quarter past two or thereabouts had been wowed at one of them in which a number of women spoke for ten minutes each (there’s a nice blog post about that one on Guys Read Gals).

The 2.30 session was a tepid affair. Jude Kelly, Artistic Director of the Southbank Centre and founder of WOW, gave a long and  promising introduction – introducing herself as a very senior arts administrator, WOW as a feminist festival unlike any other in the world, and Shami Chakrabarti as her friend and a foremost human rights activist in the UK. ‘Why Women of the World rather than Feminists United?’ she asked, and I honestly thought she was going to say, ‘Because Wow! is so much more attractive than Eff you!’ Sadly no: she explained that it was because the word feminist had such a bad rep and they wanted to attract as many people as possible. This explanation enraged one of my companions, who also bridled at Jude’s admittedly eccentric suggestion that the men in the audience should consider themselves to be women for the occasion. Neither of those things particularly distressed me, but I could understand.

Then Shami Chakrabarti spoke. The same friend told me later that Ms Chakrabarti is a brilliant and heroic activist, who often appears on British TV and is completely formidable, someone you are very glad to have on your side. That wasn’t evident from this speech. She started off saying that in her view gender rights is the most important human rights issue in the world today – she hadn’t always thought so, but she now does. But instead of giving the reasons for her change of mind – arguing, for example, that no other human rights abuse can be adequately addressed unless women’s issues are also addressed – she just repeated the assertion, listed off a number of appalling statistics and atrocities, gave us a timeline of the gaining of important rights by women in Australia and the UK respectively (a part of her talk that someone said afterwards sounded like notes she had taken in preparation for visiting Australia, failing to realise that a Sydney audience might already know, for example, that women had the vote here 20 something years before Britain). Towards the end, she said, ‘It’s not my place to tell you what you should be doing in this country …’, and it struck me that that may have been the problem: as a citizen of London she was trying so hard not to be condescending to us ex-colonials that she ended up not saying anything much. Or maybe she was just jet-lagged.

Whatever, I think I picked the wrong WOW event. I do wonder if at I’m a Feminist – Can I Vajazzle? Jude Kelly invited the men in the audience to consider themselves as women.

I tried to get into the 4 o’clock Marathon Poetry Reading, but if the room holds 100 people, I was 102 in line. I tried to sit in the sun and listen: the ear was willing but the bum was sore and I got a cramp. So I went and sat and read until I could meet up with my companions who had gone to hear Bob Brown on the Future of Activism, where the reciprocal passion so absent from the WOW talk was by all accounts there in spades – even though he kept pointing an accusing finger at his audience and telling them that come September they were about to vote against their own interests and the interests of their children.

Sunday was another brilliant day – I speak mainly of the weather and the way it was possible to strike up an interesting conversation with compete strangers.

We started with Sylvia Nasar: Is the West Over and What Would Keynes say? at 10 o’clock, probably my most worthily motivated event of the festival. As is often the case, the conversation bore very little relation to the title of the session. It was mainly a promotion of Sylvia Nasar’s book, Grand Pursuit: The Story of Economic Genius, which tells the history of economics through the lives of its key practitioners, and argues that economics is responsible for transforming the possibilities for human wellbeing. As one of my companions remarked afterwards, if the book is as facile as this session, it’s a good one to skip. Her responses to two questions at the end are indicative of that facileness.

A young woman, after a courteous squee about having a woman discuss economics, asked how Ms Nasar’s account of the vast benefits brought to humanity by economics related to the imminent threat from global warming. Ms Nasar said that many problems had been solved in the past and there was plenty of time so she was optimistic that economics would solve this one too. She probably didn’t mean that we should just place our faith in neoliberalism, but she could have meant that, and evidently didn’t see any need to dissociate herself from that view. Then someone asked what she saw as the importance of Amartya Sen. This question might well have been a chance to distance herself from the neoliberal world view, and perhaps come at last to the advertised theme of the session; instead she told us how she had followed ‘Amartya’ around in India for weeks when writing the book, and been struck by the way his photo appeared constantly on the front page of newspapers there – that in India economists could be treated as rockstars are in her native USA. End of reply.

Sylvia Nasar wrote A Beautiful Mind, the book about economist John Nash that was made into the excellent movie with Russell Crowe, so she’s clearly done better than this. Maybe she was jet-lagged too.

I dashed to the scene of my unsuccessful queuing on Saturday, and this time I was among the last five people admitted – to stand at the back of the room for Research and Writing. This session turned out to be a lot of fun. The panel was the winner and two shortlisted authors for the 2012 Nib Waverley Library Award for Literature: Jane Gleeson-White (Double Entry: How the merchants of Venice shaped the modern world – and how their invention could make or break the planet), Robin de Crespigny (The People Smuggler: The true story of Ali Al Jenabi, the ‘Oscar Schindler of Asia’) and Fiona Harari (A Tragedy in Two Acts: Marcus Einfeld & Teresa Brennan). They were billed as talking about their approaches to research, and that’s what they did.

If there was a common thread, it is that each of their books began with the discovery of an interesting person, and none of them knew when they started what the book was going to be about. Jane Gleeson-White (who incidentally had just done a fine job as Sylvia Nasar’s amiably sceptical interlocutor) started out writing about the Viennese Monk Luca Bartolomes Pacioli, intimate of Leonardo and teacher of Dürer, and had to be told by her editor that she had actually written a history of accountancy. Robin de Crespigny set out to make a film about people smuggling, but was so captivated by Ali Al Jenabi that it had to be a book and, evidently, an enduring friendship. Fiona Harari began with questions about Marcus Einfeld, the eminent former judge who perjured himself over a speeding offence and ended up disgraced and in gaol, intending to devote just one chapter to Teresa Brennan, the deceased person he had claimed was the speeding driver, but expecting hostility from Einfeld’s friends and family she decided to write the Brennan part first, only to discover a whole rich story there. The panellists enjoyed themselves and each other, and a good time was had by all.

Fiona Harari said that Teresa Brennan was famous for telling outrageous lies for the fun of it – she had convinced Sir Gustav Nossal that she was planning to become a nun. As I’d relayed on this blog something I was told by Teresa when I met her in 1976, I used question time to ask if I’d been sold a pup: but no, it’s on record that, among many other improbabilities, she had indeed been a publicist for Barry Humphries and it was quite plausible that she had written jokes for Edna.

My final event was Karl Ove Knausgaard in conversation with Sarah Kanowski. I’d nearly finished the first book in his six volume novel My Struggle, A Death in the Family, which we’ll be discussing at my Book Group, and which I’ll write about here after the meeting. So this session was like homework. All homework should be so mesmerisingly interesting.

Sarah Kanowski seemed to have read everything Karl Ove had written, some of it at least twice. She pronounced his name as if she had been speaking Norwegian all her life, and was right up there with Ramona Koval in establishing a warm rapport with her interviewee. Karl Ove said that shame is the dominant emotion in Norwegian culture and these books set out to name things that are simply not talked about: drunkenness and incontinence, but also mistreatment of children and sexual matters. When he was writing the novel he couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to read it, and now he is alarmed to think there are more than 500 thousand people who know all about his sexual inadequacies. He claimed that when he finished speaking to us he would go off by himself and vomit with shame. Was it just me, or would everyone in the room have been willing to hold him by the shoulders while he vomited?

I hadn’t been sure I would read on past the first book, even though I was exhilarated by it. Now it looks as if I won’t be able to resist reading the whole 2000+ pages. Evidently the final book is a 400-page essay about Adolf Hitler. Can you believe I’m looking forward to it?

So that was my festival. We didn’t get to the Big Read, a highlight of previous festivals, because its new time slot was in working hours. I’ve subscribed to the podcast of  ABC Radio National’s pale shadow of the Book Show so as to hear some of the sessions I missed. I’ll happily advise people devising sessions to think in terms of readings and conversations rather than delivery of papers or rambling discourse. I recommend anyone travelling to Sydney to time it so you can attend, especially if it continues to overlap in time and location with the Vivid Festival (about which I’ll blog a little tomorrow).

Sydney Writers’ Festival: My Day 2

Friday began wet and grim but cleared up to a spectacular harbourside brilliance, only to pelt down as darkness fell. But that was only he weather.

I only managed two events.

As a common or garden blogger and minimally published writer, I would have felt remiss if I didn’t attend Writers Who Blog. The four panellists came at blogging from quite different perspectives.

Mark Forsyth writes a short blog entry every day, always about some peculiarity of the English language (while here he met the word yakka for the first time). He admitted that he had started his blog The Inky Fool in the hope that it would lead to a book contract, and it did, to two books in fact.

Tara Moss already had a number of books published when she stumbled into blogging – she did a gig as guest blogger for the SWF a couple of years ago and wrote 21,000 words in a week. The appeal of writing and publishing without a moderator was irresistible, and as she has done more over the years, breaking all the standard rules about length, range, language level and frequency, her sense of herself as a writer has transformed.

Lorraine Elliott blogs full time at Note Quite Nigella, a blog about food. For her, blogging was a way out of the advertising world, which is ‘all about money’. I didn’t quite get how she does it full time, that is, whether it generates an income, but she told lovely stories of ow her blogging has created a bridge in her relationship with her mother.

Angela Meyer, of Literary Minded, was a participating chair who necessarily focused on chairing and made it look effortless. I would have liked to hear more about her own blogging experience, which she described in her intro as being in part about tracking her own trajectory as an emerging writer.

All four panellists seemed to count their hits in the hundreds of thousand. My biggest day scored 228. My impression is that questions at the end came mainly from bloggers on my scale. I got to ask the first question, and resisted the temptation to be one of those grey-haired gentlemen who seizes the opportunity to tell his life story. I asked about difficulties with comments. Mark had a ready, sensible answer: ‘Don’t start an argument on the Internet.’ Tara took the microphone: ‘My advice is, Start arguments on the Internet.’ They were both right, of course. I liked Tara’s final note: ‘When you do get into an argument, don’t say anything you wouldn’t want to see quoted in the newspaper.’

One key observation – I don’t remember by whom – chimed with Robert Green’s reflections on creativity the day before: blogging is still very new, and there are no hard and fast rules about how it should be done, and each of the panellists said that the rules as formulated so far as guides for beginning bloggers didn’t really apply. Come back in 50 years and we might have a set of clear rules like the ones that govern journalism now, but for the time being the field is wide open for creativity and discovery.

At half past two I had to choose among Beyond Climate Denial on a Neoliberal Planet with Jeff Sparrow, Robert Manne and others, Dermot Healy in conversation with Luke Davies , and Turning the Tide with Lionel Fogarty, Melissa Lucashenko and others. Would I opt for anxiety, pleasure or pain? It was a toss-up, and in the end I went for anxiety and climate change: I admire Jeff Sparrow’s writing and editing – I was interested to hear him and Robert Manne in conversation; I had read the article on climate change and neoliberalism in the current Overland by Philip Mirowski, Jeremy Walker and Antoinette Abboud, of whom the last two were also on the panel, and would love to hear its implications teased out in discussion.

It was probably a wrong decision. There was no conversation. Jeff Sparrow was a non-participating chair. Each of the three panellists delivered a paper, they didn’t address each other’s points except to complain that the session was too short, and as far as I could tell none of the presentations added anything substantial to what had been said in the previously published articles. ‘As far as I could tell’, because Jeremy Walker read so fast and assumed so much prior knowledge of (I think) economics that I was completely at a loss to know what he was saying. In short, Robert Manne thinks there’s little reason not to despair. Antoinette Abboud warned us not to be seduced by the neoliberal three-step strategy of denialism, carbon trading and geo-engineering. Jeremy Walker said something very complex and possibly profound.

The first person to speak in question time said we should all pay attention to Bill McKibben, and all panellists seemed to agree. ‘Why aren’t we out in the streets screaming about this?’ the same man asked when instructed by the chair to get to the question. Robert Manne had a ready answer: ‘Because we’re consuming.’

The problems of the world weren’t solved, and if Robert Manne is right they never will be. But change is never linear, and hope, the thing with feathers that perches in the breast, lives on.

Sydney Writers’ Festival: My Day 1

The Sydney Writers’ Festival has been going for days now, but my festival started yesterday, on a bleak, wet, grey Thursday.

I began with a 10 o’clock launch of four chapbooks in Vagabond Press’s Rare Objects series. Chapbooks are books of poetry so small they don’t even rate an ISBN. But where some chapbooks have a cheap and cheerful feel, the Rare Objects are beautifully crafted, a hundred numbered and signed copies of each title. The books being launched were by the stellar line-up of David Malouf, Robert Adamson, Martin Harrison and Adam Aitken.

Luke Davies gave one of the best launch speeches I’ve heard. He paid tribute to Michael Brennan of Vagabond Press and to the four poets in warmly personal terms, as people and as creators. The mutual respect and affection among the five people on the dais was something wonderful: completely the opposite of the internecine strife for which poets are supposedly famous. Each of the four launchees read: Adam Aitken from November Already, Robert Adamson from Empty your Eyes, Martin Harrison from Living Things)and David Malouf from Sky News (which my deafness heard Luke Davies announce, improbably, as Sky Nudist, but that would be a different chapbook). We the audience were very restrained, applauding politely after each reader – my guess is that we were too busy processing the complex pleasures we were being given to be too demonstrative. It really was a brilliant reading: a stunning prose poem from Adamson, crisp imagery from Malouf, Aitken taking the New York School to a tiny French village (not really, but that’s a mangled form of his own joke), Harrison in fine rhapsodic form. I loved Martin Harrison’s account of the genesis of his ‘Wallabies’: witnessing two young Australians in full xenophobic flight in a Parisian Internet cafe (and he described them to us with great relish), he took notes intending to write a satirical poem, but realised when he sat to write that what he really wanted to do was to celebrate the part is Australia they came from.

I couldn’t have asked for a better start. I bought all four of the Rare Objects, found a spot out of the rain and sat and read, did email things on my iPad, and chatted. (One of the striking things about the SWF is how easy it is to strike up a conversation with complete strangers.) Then it was time for the 1 o’clock session:Harbour City Poets: Some People You May Know, my first event in the Bangarra Mezzanine, which I think of as the poets’ space at the Festival. Again it was a pleasure to be read to, this time by a quintet of poets – Margaret Bradstock, John Carey, David Musgrave, Louise Wakeling and Les Wicks. The poems were about people, real, and imagined. Margaret Bradstock’s pieces about colonial characters made me want more. And there was some witty and elegant light satire. It may be because someone had told me just before the session about the man being hacked to death in London, but I found myself thinking that light satire, especially when performed giving broad Austealian accents to its objects, is a dangerous mode in which the satirist can all too easily come off as smug, class-bound, narrow-minded, bien-pensant and otherwise unappealing.

I rushed home (bus–train–bus), walked and fed the dog and was back, just a few minutes late for Robert Green: On Creativity at 4 oclock. This session wasn’t on my schedule, but a friend had a ticket she couldn’t use, and the Festival program promised ‘exercises to help rid [me] of blocks and unleash thinking that is more fluid and creative’. Given that I’m feeling out of my depth with a writing project just now, it was a case of what the hell archie, and I’d taken the tickets off her hands. It was turned out to be pretty much a motivational talk. The ‘exercises’ were three broadbrush strategies: embrace the blank page; think like an outsider; subvert your patterns of thinking. I enjoyed the talk, not least for the wealth of anecdote and Robert Green’s manifest passion for his message that every human brain is capable of brilliance, that mastery is possible. I especially liked the first question and response at the end. In summary, a white-bearded man suggested that next time a journalist asks him if he can seriously believe the stuff he says, he should try thinking like a mushroom; this was evidently meant as a witticism, but Green was completely nonplussed; after a bit of back and forth in which the point of excuse tin remained obscure, he agreed that he would give it a try.

More bus, more train, dinner at a pub in Chippendale then to the Carriageworks for Stories Then & Now. I’m a big fan of William Yang’s slide-show story telling, especially his exploration of his Chinese and north Queensland heritages over the years. For this show, along with Annette Shum Wah, he has mentored six mainly younger Asian-heritage people to tell the stories of their families (‘then’) and their personal stories (‘now’). Each story-teller had two turns alone on stage with a microphone in front of hem and two screens showing a series of photographs behind them. Ien Ang, Jenevieve Chang, Michael C. S. Park, Sheila Pham, Paul van Reyk and Willa Zheng were each completely engaging, and the combined effect of heir six presentations was extraordinarily rich. The Cultural Revolution, the Korean War, the American War in Vietnam, Indonesian independence, the White Australia Policy; a hilariously failed attempt at an arranged marriage, a weirdly romantic tale of serial fatherhood by sperm donation, a successful Internet match, intergenerational tension and conflict fled, faced and reconciled. We came out into the night exhilarated.

To the Desert with Sturt

Daniel George Brock, To the Desert with Sturt (edited by Kenneth Peake-Jones, Royal Geographical Society of Australia, SA Branch 1975)

1dwsAfter reading Noel Beddoe’s Yalda Crossing, I realised that Charles Sturt had been through the novel’s main location at about the time of the main characters’ arrival. I wouldn’t be surprised if Noel Beddoe had drawn on Sturt’s journal of that expedition for one or two scenes.

I wasn’t impelled to re-read Sturt’s Journal. I read both of his published narratives four decades ago, and from memory he’s a fairly dry writer. But I was reluctant to leave pre-gold-rush Australia, and I remembered that this book, the journal kept by Daniel George Brock, a minor member of a later expedition, and not published until 1975, was somewhere on my bookshelves. I’d bought it hot off the press, but been put off reading it by a review that described Brock as a self-righteous whinger. This time, I decided to give it a go.

Let me say right off that the review was right: Brock has plenty of self-righteous, self-pitying moments. He records petty slights and grievances, and constantly finds Sturt and the rest of the leadership lacking, all the while keeping to the high moral ground, insisting that he doesn’t join in the general grumbling. He’s a snob and s prig and when things get desperate he’s a bit of a holy Joe, writing pages of Methodist piety. But he’s much more than that – he’s resourceful, has a romantic steak, and can spin a comic yarn. The book is fabulous. Where Sturt wrote for public consumption, Brock wrote for his mother: on his return to Adelaide, he bundled up the pages of his journal and posted them off home to England. And what you write to impress your mum and gain her sympathy is of course very different from what you write to convey your importance to the public, potential employers and posterity.

The most interesting thing about the journal, apart from the revelation that intrepid explorers can be as mean-spirited, disorganised, cliqueish and grasping as anyone else, is its string of encounters with Aboriginal people. There’s a sequence early on that unfolds like a scripted narrative: the party hear that ‘natives’ have attacked a travelling party somewhere to their north, and as a result they are in fear of being attacked themselves, but as they come closer to the place where the attack is said to have happened they learn that the factual basis for the rumour was a brutal, infanticidal attack on an Aboriginal family by members of Mitchell’s party of explorers. Brock isn’t writing with a possible courtroom and judge in mind, so he can describe this horror unguardedly.

No doubt he glosses over unsavoury aspects of his own encounters, but they do come across as genuine encounters. He notices, for example, when one man in a group of three has different scarring and deduces he is from a different place; one old man is excited to see Sturt and manages to communicate that they have met years earlier and many miles distant, on the banks of the Murrumbidgee. On more than one occasion sexual favours are offered and rejected. I can’t tell if Brock’s sense of European superiority was modified by any of these encounters, but he has a lively interest in cultural difference. Since I’m fairly sure you won’t be reading this book (whoever you are), I hope you’ll allow me a long quote. Brock and ‘the Doctor’ (John Harris Brown) are away from the main party and unexpectedly come across ‘numerous bodies of waterfowl’ on a waterhole. The Doctor shoots into the middle of the birds:

The report not only frightened the ducks, but also two native women, which were encamped in a bend of the creek, unaware of our approach. One of the women began to scream and bellow, the other crawled under a skin dragging a child with her. Being afraid to run, they made a virtue of necessity.

The Doctor was of course rather surprised at the scream, but having made himself familar (sic), and sitting down at their fire, the women became less afraid, and began to talk. No one can tell the pleasure I felt in again looking upon a strange human face, it being so long since any but our own party having come under my notice. …

We encamped, and Flood having shot a bird, I speedily secured it, saving the fat for the natives, with which they grease themselves. As the day was closing in, two men with more women and children joined us, and we all together were quite at home. The ducks, and other birds which we had, we gave them; this with the roots they had brought would be a first rate meal for them.

Sitting down as we were all together, the various parts of our dress came under notice. Among other parts, our boots were very wonderful, the mysterious lace – one chap was turning over my foot when I drew up my trowsers and shewed him my leg, and the effect of my thus exposing the color of my unexposed limb, which was tolerably fair, upon one of the females was really laughable – every lineament of her face was marked with horror.

Shewing them how the lace was unfastened, the fellow who was dandling my foot as if it was a little baby, at once began and drew the lace from every hole. I then made signs to him how it could be pulled off, which with my assistance he did; then came another poser – the sock – did it belong to my veritable body? On pulling it off, my foot being almost white, this  set the woman (who had been eagerly watching every transition, from boot to sock, from sock to foot) to a most fearful scratching of her head, and at the same time crying a lament over me, for it is possible the color which takes place in any of their dead, is not dissimilar to the color which was now presented. The man too for a moment in deep wonder, and as he looked he too scratched his poll, and gave two very decent grunts, he then began to pull the sock on again, but could not manage it.

It getting dark, and being no doubt anxious to get their evening meal, for they were pointing to their birds and at the same time patting their bellies, they were presented with a blanket and knife of which they were highly pleased; not but what they had first rate skins, some of the best I have ever seen, so large and so well prepared.

We retired from their fire, and soon were coded in our blankets, where we had not been long before four of the ladies came and sat themselves down at the Doctor’s and Captain’s feet. Their visit was obvious, and on being sent away they were sorely displeased.

One small unexpected pleasure was the word ‘mumchancing’ meaning ‘remaining silent’, which is new to me. This time, Brock is out collecting bird specimens with one of the men, Sullivan:

The heat was very great, not a bird was to be seen, and Sullivan and I were glad to coil under a gum tree in the creek for shelter; while thus, Lewis, being out looking for seeds, came to water, but he took up his rest under another tree, for Sullivan and him having words before we left the camp, it was a case of sulks with them, Lewis had nothing but a little bread with him, and a bit of sugar, gathering mint when he wanted a pot of tea (which by the way we did alternate meals). We having some bacon, on his passing us to get a pot of water I had just frizzled some and asked him if he would share; he took part in his hand and passed up to his own fire. I could not help smiling to see him, seated on his haunches, regularly mumchancing it, he at one fire, we at another. I endeavored to reconcile them, but it was a case of no go.

I like that use of ‘coil’ too, which he uses a lot, and note in passing that his spelling follows what would now be seen as North American usage.

NSWPLA Dinner: I wasn’t there

Just in case anyone was wondering after my post deliberating whether to shell out $150 for the pleasure of attending and blogging the presentation dinner for the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards: I didn’t shell out.

I thought I might storify the event from afar, and went so far as to register on the storify site and explore how to do it. But apart from a couple of images of the fabulously lit-up Mitchell Library reading room, and the relaying of this solitary comment by a winner

the tweeters confined themselves pretty much to telling us who won what. I couldn’t even tell if David Ireland, recipient of the special award, was there.*

Today’s newspapers didn’t give us much colour and movement either. The Sydney Morning Herald printed an abridged and edited version of Kathryn Heyman’s address, and a piece by Susan Wyndham listing the winners, with some detail about the Book of the Year, Ali Cobby Eckermann’s Ruby Moonlight. (That’s the only one of the prize-winners I’ve read. It’s a brilliant book.) Stephen Romei in the Australian focused on David Ireland, who it turns out wasn’t there, but wrote a ‘typically idiosyncratic acceptance speech’ which was read out by his agent.

Did George Souris keep up tradition by mispronouncing at least one person’s name? Did any prize-winner except Tim Soutphommasane say anything memorable? What was idiosyncratic about David Ireland’s speech? Was the food OK? Did everyone behave themselves? We may never know.

* But if you’re interested, the State Library of NSW did storify the event, here.

Julie Chevalier: her Darger: his girls

Julie Chevalier, Darger: his girls (Puncher & Wattmann 2012)

1dhgThe Art Student, who professes to hate poetry, recently went to a talk by Julie Chevalier about this book, and was so fascinated by the subject of Henry Darger she bought me a copy.

Darger is a fascinating man. He has a Wikipedia page. There’s a movie. John Ashbery wrote a long poem inspired by his work. Very briefly, he was a reclusive eccentric who lived in poverty and imagined a vast epic in which little girls take on armies and interplanetary beings. Shortly before his death his landlord discovered the bulky volumes of handwritten manuscript, along with the copious illustrations, and recognised a work of weird genius.

This book is an impassioned introduction to his story, or rather Julie Chevalier’s poetic record of her encounter with him. A six page introduction tells Darger’s story, defends him against hypotheses that he was a potential or actual child murderer, and argues that it’s incorrect to think of him as an Outsider Artist. The introduction is exactly the kind of courtesy I often yearn for in poetry books – but paradoxically the prosaic information was so interesting that I sometimes had trouble telling what the poetry was doing beyond reiterating it. Paradoxically again, the single poem that I found most satisfying is ‘an unusual child’, a prose poem made up entirely of phrases taken from Darger’s writing. It’s full of cliché, but generates an enormous emotional, quasi-erotic force:

she seemed for a moment to remind him of his own guardian angel in disguise _ she was smiling up again into his face _ hardened with the desperate struggle he was just then having with himself __ you resemble a guardian angel to me _ when I should be grown _ a man should protect a child _ how come you protect me _ the truth surging over him like the waves of a stormy sea _ breaking down the breakwater upon which he was seeking refuge _ a force mightier than his own will _ a voice in his soul crying out the truth _ that above all else he wanted to reach out his arms to the glorious creature

and so on.

awwbadge_2013 This is the fifth book I’ve read as part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2013.

Noel Beddoe’s Yalda Crossing

Noel Beddoe, The Yalda Crossing (UQP 2012)

0702249394 As Noel Beddoe says in an Author’s Note, this book is fiction, but adheres closely to the history of white settlement near what is now the township of Narrandera, including the Second Wiradjuri War and the massacre on Murdering Island. That’s the same massacre that lies in the background of our short film Ngurrumbang and Andy Kissane’s poem ‘The Station Owner’s Daughter, Narrandera’ that inspired us. It’s my great good fortune that the book wasn’t published until the screenplay was complete and pre-production was well under way – the first I heard of it was a comment from Jim Kable on my blog entry inviting people to donate via pozible. If I’d known of the book any sooner,  I would probably have been scared right off.

It’s a formidable achievement. Told from the point of view of Young James Beckett, as a teenager in the 1830s and as an old man in Sydney decades later, it is deeply embedded in its historical moments, and has a powerful sense of place. We care about the characters and come to appreciate their secrets and mysteries, not all of which are revealed, and some not until the last pages. The unfolding narrative gives us neither the ‘dun-dreary naturalism’ that Patrick White hated in Australian fiction, nor the black armband breastbeating that John w Howard claimed to discern and despise among Australian literati, nor again a ripping yarn of the frontier (though unless I’m very confused, Young James mentions reading some James Fenimore Cooper, whose novels must have been hot off the press). The tensions of the colonial society are there – English vs Irish, convicts vs free,  authority vs opportunism, women as a tiny, vulnerable minority – but they are embodied in recognisable individuals, facing particular dilemmas. I started this blog entry with the massacre, and most of the publicity for the book has centred around it, but the social, economic and moral world of the settlers is thoroughly fleshed out in its own right well before the prospect of massacre appears on the horizon.

Unlike other fictional treatments of atrocities against Aboriginal people, The Yalda Crossing lays the ground so that we understand how good people can deliberately commit abominable acts, not without reluctance, revulsion and remorse, but with a terrible sense of necessity. The good people who set the tone of the community aren’t drawn into the vortex of violence created by people less grammatically correct than they: when push comes to shove, they are the ones who orchestrate the terrible acts. Launching the book at the Sydney Institute last July, Linda Burney said that as a Wiradjuri woman, descendant of the victims, she had to skip the chapter where the massacre happens and come back to it later. Noel Beddoe, descendant of the perpetrators, doesn’t blink, and invites us, his semblables, to face our heritage with similarly unflinching gaze.

Linda Burney quoted a moment just before the massacre when a white man refuses to take part because he would lose his soul, which is more important to him than gaining the land. (Incidentally, it’s a gauge of the strength of Noel Beddoe’s writing that only when I typed it like that did I recognise the Biblical reference there.) For me, one of the devastatingly true things in the book is how that man, in spite of his genuine refusal to take part, is nonetheless in the end completely implicated.

Every bit as good, I think as Thea Astley’s A Kindness Cup or Kate Grenville’s The Secret River. (Links are to my blog entries, though the one on Kate Grenville’s book is very brief.)

Pam Brown’s Home by Dark

Pam Brown, Home by Dark (Shearsman 2013)

1848612885The launch of this book last weekend (link is to a facebook photo gallery) was a convivial affair in an Erskineville pub. Unusually for a literary event, the football played silently on a large colour TV screen throughout, and a warm buzz of conversation echoed from the bar in the next room. Later, I saw myself in one of the facebook photos with a hand cupped behind one ear and a pained expression on my face. The pained look was, of course, nothing to do with the poetry or the company but was the result of my straining against the combined effect of Pam Brown’s quiet delivery, my deafness and the ambient noise.

On the day, Pam commented that the setting was appropriate, given the digressions and distractions of the poetry. As I was reading the book during the week, an alternative metaphor, even a fullblown analogy, occurred to me. For quietness, there’s the poems’ elliptical, almost throwaway quality – no assertive rhyme schemes, often no clear prose syntax, mostly no through narrative line; for deafness, there’s my ignorance of contemporary poetry – of the twenty or so poets mentioned in the acknowledgements or in the poems themselves, the only one I can honestly say I’ve read is Keats*, and L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poetry and Oulipo (also mentioned) are pretty much closed books to me; for noises off, there’s PB’s daunting reputation as a poet’s poet, possibly even an academic poets’ poet – she’s the kind of person whose cover blurbs speak of precarity and sprezzatura. I realised I was approaching the page with a painful intensity, a virtual hand cupped behind my inner ear.

Well, of course scowling and squinting and feeling stupid is no way to read poetry. So I stopped it – the scowling etc – and read on regardless, going with the flow. And had a much better time. Of course, there are some poems I just didn’t get. There are some I kind of got but didn’t care about. And then there’s a lot that’s funny, thoughtful, sad, memorable … revisitable. I even read bits out to the Art Student, self proclaimed hater of poetry, and she wanted to steal them.

I think what appeals to me most is the sense in a lot of this poetry that it more or less fell out of Pam Brown’s head straight onto the page. (I know that’s an illusion, because I accidentally found an earlier version of one poem online, and got to see some of the careful reworking that went into creating that casual, uncrafted feel.) A number of the poems read as observations made while travelling – whether around town or across the planet, they display the same apparent randomness, the same self-deprecating wit, the same eye for the telling detail, the same play of mind.

From ‘Worldless’:

at the bus stop
_____long haired boys –
regenerate fashion,
_____arrive & go by
_______really quickly –
I had to live through
_________the entire decades!


From ‘Leaving the World’ (I had to look up Jean Tinguely, but I’m glad I did):

along the LA freeway
black derricks
trundle up and down
Jean Tinguely sculptures
& witless
in a waterless world

The line that the Art Student wants to steal, the opening of ‘Haywire Here’:

who prepared this future?

and later in the same poem some lines where I enjoyed making my own sense (that may be quite different from Pam Brown’s):

and the barmaid’s
__never heard of sarsaparilla

(worse for me
_______& you)

Sarsaparilla was the favourite softdrink of my childhood, but it can be hard to find these days, so a barmaid who has never heard of it is a young woman with no sense of history. Worse, for us literary types, she hasn’t heard of Patrick White’s Season at Sarsaparilla, so we’re left feeling doubly invisible. Heh!

I recently came across a quote from 1935 letter by Wallace Stephens (of whose poetry I’ve read almost none and understood less): ‘As soon as people are perfectly sure of a poem they are just as likely as not to have no further interest in it; it loses whatever potency it had.’ And just before that, ‘As a rule, people very much prefer to take the solemn views of poetry.’ I think deciding not to scowl as I was reading this book was going against the preference for the solemn, and opening up to the potency of things I can’t be perfectly sure of.

awwbadge_2013 This is the fourth book I’ve read as part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2013.

* I did recognise a couple of lines from Bob Dylan, though he wasn’t acknowledged.