Anna Goldsworthy, Unfinished Business: Sex, Freedom and Misogyny (Quarterly Essay N° 50)
Evidently some people with tin ears believe that the USA entered a post-racial era with the election of Barack Obama. I don’t think anyone except some commentators at The Australian believes that Julia Gillard’s Prime Ministership marks a definitive victory in the struggle against sexism in Australia. But if they were, this Quarterly Essay would give them pause.
Anna Goldsworthy takes as her starting point Julia Gillard’s now famous misogyny speech (the link is in case you’ve been on another planet since last October), and broadens out to a catalogue of sexist horrors. Evidently the essay went to press before the most recent Bad Week for Women – with news from the defence forces, Liberal Party fundraising dinners, elite football players and so on. She wasn’t able to include Lieutenant General David Morrison’s stunning speech or what’s just a light-hearted joke for some Brisbane Liberals. But she has plenty of examples to back her argument that there is abroad in our culture a general permission to treat a woman in public life (and by implication elsewhere) as if she has no right to speak simply because of her gender: argument is not met with argument but with gender-based insult and possibly threats of violence. According to Goldsworthy, misogyny comes with a ‘remarkably consistent platform’ repeatedly expressed in online comments sections in its bluntest form: Shut up, you fat c*** (SUYFC)! That is to say: you have a female body and that’s enough reason for me to demand that you have no voice. Sometimes there is the added explicit threat, or I’ll hurt you.
Julia Gillard is not the only one: the fat-shaming of Gina Rinehardt on Q&A in May last year, the British tabloid press’s recent mauling of Hilary Mantel, A. A. Gill’s SUYFC to classicist Mary Beard all get an airing. So do gonzo porn, Fifty Shades of Gray, Lena Dunham’s Girls, Slutwalks, Lady Gaga, the way facebook has turned young women into their own paparazze, the ‘I’m not a feminist but …’ and ‘You’re not a proper feminist because …’ phenomena. All of these relate to the central notion that there is a pressure abroad in the culture to reduce women to their bodies, to make them ashamed of their bodies, to silence them.
The essay is very timely. It covers appalling terrain, and singles out some glimmers of hope. It’s beautifully written, judicious, nuanced and passionate. I look forward to the correspondence in N° 51, which I hope will include some expansion of her theme to Indigenous and other non-white women, and to examples of sexism that result in so many women living in poverty.
And then up the back there’s correspondence about the previous Quarterly Essay, Mark Latham’s Not Dead Yet. I didn’t read the essay itself, but Latham’s response to his respondents here is a pleasure to read.
When we googled “My Struggle” at the Book Group last month, the top result was Hitler’s Mein Kampf. We were mildly amused by what we took to be a google oddity. But the Norwegian title of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six-volume novel is Min Kamp – a similarity that could hardly be accidental. At the Sydney Writers’ Festival, the man himself told us that the sixth and final volume is a 400 page essay about Adolf Hitler. One has to wonder: if A Death in the Family is point A, how does he get from point A to point Way Off the Chart?
But since only two of the books are available in English so far, that’s a question for later.
Before the meeting: I finished reading A Death in the Family a couple of weeks ago, just after hearing Karl Ove speak at the SWF. I would have moved straight on to the second volume, A Man in Love, if I hadn’t had other more pressing demands on my imaginative faculties. The appeal, for me, is to do with shoe leather.
In the movie business shoe leather is the term for precious screen time wasted on actors walking from place to place. Knausgaard has elevated its written equivalent to a high art. It seems no one ever just gets in a car and drives somewhere: they always turn on the indicator, check the rear-vision mirror and pull out into the traffic, then follow a series of carefully named streets until they arrive at their destination. When a character cleans a book case, it goes like this:
I sprayed the glass door of the bookcase, crumpled up the newspaper and rubbed it over the runny liquid a few times until the glass was dry and shiny. Looked around for more to do while I had the spray in my hand, but saw nothing apart from the windows, which I had determined to save until later. Instead, I went on with the bookcase, tidied everything, starting with its contents.
That man be unremarkable, but so much of the book is taken up with similar attention to detail that how a reader responds to it will have a huge influence on their response to the book as a whole. Early on, there’s a passage about growing up that helps explain what’s happening, as I understand it:
As your perspective of the world increases not only is the pain it inflicts on you less but also its meaning. Understanding the world requires you to keep a certain distance from it. Things that are too small to see with the naked eye, such as molecules and atoms, we magnify. Things that are too large, such as cloud formations, river deltas, constellations, we reduce. At length we bring it within the scope of our senses and we stabilise it with fixer. When it has been fixed we call it knowledge. Throughout our childhood and teenage years we strive to attain the correct distance from objects and phenomena. We read, we learn, we experience, we make adjustments. Then one day we reach the point where all the necessary distances have been set, all the necessary systems have been put in place. That is when time begins to pick up speed. It no longer meets any obstacles, everything is set, time races through our lives, the days pass by in a flash and before we know what is happening we are forty, fifty, sixty.
I read the narrative’s wealth of undifferentiated detail as an attempt to reverse that process: to give priority to specific observations and experiences over any abstraction, to go for immediately apprehended ‘meaning’ over calm, generalisable ‘knowledge’, to avoid our habitual exclusion of some things from consideration. As well as the tiny acts, the brand names, the hyper-specifics, we are given the narrator’s play of mind, apparently unfiltered – memories and meditations that are jogged by the brand names on cleaning products, say, his adolescent worries about the shape of his penis when erect, or the strange feeling he had as a boy about the gravel on the floor of the family garage. And, because nothing is being left out, he tells us things that are just not talked about: how he shakes his little girl when she irritates him, the extraordinarily squalid circumstances of his father’s death, his grandmother’s incontinence. These last things don’t feel deliberately shocking – more like the inevitable result of a decision made at the beginning to put everything in.
Karl Ove has said that the overwhelming emotion he had while writing the novel was shame. He couldn’t believe anyone would read it, and now he is embarrassed to realise that roughly half a million people know all about his failures as a parent and his sexual inadequacies (those are yet to come, perhaps in the second book).
After the meeting: This book provoked as much sustained conversation as any we’ve discussed in the group. One man who spent his childhood in Britain was most deeply struck by the way the weather was evoked: the grimness of the winter and the way spring came as a great relief. This struck a chord with others who had lived in northern Europe for any length of time. Another man, following his daughter’s lead, had been watching a lot of Simon Amstell‘s recent melancholy stand-up and found a striking resonance with this book. Another man was struck by the book’s failure to make him empathise with the narrator – at one stage he thought it might all be total fiction, that Knausgaard the author might be no more Karl Ove the character than Mark Haddon is Christopher in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time – and in that case it’s a brilliant creation. I don’t know that anyone liked it as much as I did.
As always, the conversation ranged widely, from the sexist bile being showered on Julia Gillard to details of our lives, all to the tune of excellent pasta, grilled zucchini and fennel and tomato salad.
If you had told me 15 years ago when my Elder Brilliant Offspring was 20 years old that he and I would write a short film together that he would go on to direct, and that the film would be a finalist in the Dendy Awards … Well, you wouldn’t have.
Having Ngurrumbang screened at two sold out sessions at the Sydney Film Festival has been thrilling, but it’s been a joy beyond words to have worked on this project with him. I’ve learned a huge amount from the collaboration, and from his leadership of the crew, myself included.
I’m typing this on the phone during the opening speeches of the last night of the Festival. Maybe we’ll win something. Now I’m going to pay attention. I’ll tell you if we win or lose on the comments in a couple of hours.
The title of this issue of Southerly, ‘Islands and Archipelagos’, refers to its subject matter, but it could just as easily refer to its form: a literary magazine, archipelago-like, is a gathering of diverse entities, each with its own integrity but all having something in common, whether a theme as in this case or something less tangible, like a tone, or an ethos, or a presiding personality.
I enjoyed my island hopping. My favourite moment is the bravura opening sentence of ‘Outcast of the Islands: Malinowski Amongst the Modernists’ by David Brooks :
If there could ever be such a thing as a True History of Modern Thought, at least one chapter would have to trace that set of strange, neglected, yet teasingly-almost-direct lines between a heterogeneous crew of squatters, graziers, country postmasters, district magistrates, missionaries, and employees of the Overland Telegraph recording details of Indigenous Australian life and culture in the mid- and late- nineteenth century and the desks of Edward Tyler at Oxford, James George Frazer at Cambridge and Emile Durkheim in Paris, and, through them, and a number of other significant late-nineteenth-century anthropologists, to the likes of T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Sigmund Freud (see, for example, the first half of Totem and Taboo), Marcel Mauss (Essay on the Gift) and so many other key figures in early twentieth-century thought and aesthetics that one wonders whether the Simpson Desert or the Trobriand Islands should be given a place – a quite significant place – amongst the generating landscapes of Modernism.
Michael Sharkey’s poem ‘First Eleven’, eleven stanzas consisting of phrases that evoke an Australian baby-boomer childhood, presumably to the age of 11. Much of it might be inscrutable to people of other generations and other places, but I was born in 1947, a year after Sharkey, and his deft hand worked nostalgic wonders in me, even in the minority of phrases that didn’t touch directly on my own experience:
The Royal Visit. Easter Show.
My sherbet packet. Liquorice stick.
My shop-bought pie. My Iced Vo-Vo.
My Cracker Night. My Jumping Jack.
My father’s gas mask. Old blue tunic.
My small sister in the clinic.
My six-stitcher. My first duck.
The choko vine. The dunny truck.
Michael Jacklin’s ‘Islands of Multilingual Literature: Community Magazines and Australia’s Many Languages’, which prises open the subject of Australian literature in languages other than English. I’ve always felt odd about the portrayal of 1950s Australia as monocultural and monolingual: Italian and other southern European languages were part of the soundscape of my 1950s north Queensland childhood; one of my best friends in primary school was Chinese; my farmer father played poker with a Greek, a Korean and a Yugoslav; in the 30s and 40s my magistrate grandfather spoke to Italians who appeared before him in their own language. This essay discusses evidence, including a journal from Brisbane in the 1930s, that there has long been lively, linguistically diverse literature in the Australian context, much of it invisible to the mainstream literary establishment.
a new poem by Jennifer Maiden, always a thrill. ‘Diary Poem: Uses of Ethiopia’ is in part a polemical essay, taking issue with some feminists who are ‘well in favour / of ethical security’. I’m not sure what ethical security is (Google is no help): it’s related to rigid ideological narrowness, I think, and may have elements of self-serving moralism. Feminist ‘fandom for Gillard’ is a symptom. My regular readers know that I often feel like an outsider with contemporary poetry (and by the way I think that’s more about me as a north Queensland boy than about the poetry). With this poem, I probably get the references more than most readers: not the Ethiopian art or the story of Sylvia Pankhurst, which are central to the poem and beautifully fleshed out, but the passing allusions – to Julia Gillard’s misogyny speech, and her cutting of the supporting parents’ benefit on the same day; to the earlier poem ‘A Useful Fan’, neatly encapsulated here as ‘trying to inhabit Abbott interestedly’; to a set-to on the Overland web site described as her ‘daughter the fire tiger’ (itself a reference to an earlier poem, ‘The Year of the Ox’) defending her ‘on a hostile magazine site now given / to ethical self-security’. Paradoxically, familiarity with the references predisposes me to foreground the detail of poem’s polemics (I want to argue about her view of Overland, for example, and I’m not sure about the connection she seems to be making between some feminists and abortion), rather than the poem’s central thrust, which I read as captured in the description of doves in Ethiopian art as
aware of complex peripheries,
well-mannered with watchfulness, —————————————-still.
As well as these pieces that topped my pops, there are learned essays on issues facing real islands and islanders, on Andrew McGahan, Randolph Stow, Drusilla Modjeska, and the rock band the Drones. There are short stories (especially Sandra Potter’s ‘“an empty ship in these latitudes is no joke”’, a lightly annotated list of things taken to and from Antarctica, and Terri Janke’s ‘Turtle Island’, a not-quite-ghost-story, not-quite-love-story, not-quite-war-story set in the Torres Strait in World War Two). There are other excellent poems and nearly 70 pages of reviews, plus the overflow in The Long Paddock, which includes a fine review by Sarah Holland-Batt of Ali Cobby Eckermann’s Ruby Moonlight.
A final note: the spectacularly beautiful cover, reproduced above, is described on the contents page as Sue Kneebone’s Continental Drift, but it’s actually a detail from that work, which I recommend you have a look at on Sue Kneebone’s web site.
Adam Aitken, November Already (Vagabond Press Rare Objects Series No 86, 2013) Martin Harrison, Living Things: Five Poems (Vagabond Press Rare Objects Series No 87, 2013) David Malouf, Sky News (Vagabond Press Rare Objects Series No 88, 2013) Robert Adamson, Empty Your Eyes (Vagabond Press Rare Objects Series No 89, 2013)
I bought this quartet of chapbooks at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, where all four poets read brilliantly. At $15 each, this is poetry at just over a dollar a page, which isn’t a lot of bang for your buck if you measure it by the yard, but – speaking as someone who has ploughed through a number of Collected volumes in the hope of getting a feel for their authors’ work – I’d say these tiny, beautifully presented books are great value for money. The poems have room to breathe. [The list above is in order of publication, my random comments below are in order of my reading.]
It’s common wisdom that learning poetry by heart is a good thing, because – besides being able to surprise and delight your friends – it’s a way of making the poetry your own, inscribing it on yourself (as Dan Beachy-Quick said memorably, here). Reading David Malouf’s Sky News, I realised that, memorised or not, I haven’t really read a poem until I’ve heard it in my own voice, at least internally. I’ve loved hearing David read his poetry ever since he made sunlight glint off milk churns and today blaze from a lapel in his 70s imitations of Horace. But there’s a different pleasure in taking the poems into oneself.
The poems in Sky News are like piano pieces: there’s a right hand with lots of trills and arpeggios, images and alliterative wordplay, and a slower, deeper, meditative left hand. As I got to know each poem, I found myself looking for my own balance between the two, between being charmed by the right hand, as in this evocation of a quiet night in ‘At Clerici’:
Crickets strike up a riff on the razzle-dazzle of starlight, then stop.
and being moved by the left hand, which doesn’t lend itself to quotation because it’s often there by implication or comes into the foreground only in the final moments of a poem.
In ‘A Parting Word’, a rendering of Heinrich Heine’s ‘Der Scheidende’, Malouf the translator engages in a similar balancing act. I can’t read German, but compared to what looks like a close translation of the original, it’s evident that Malouf’s poem is a lot livelier: ‘Estorben ist in meiner Brust / Jedwede weltlich eitle Lust’ (‘It has died in me, as it must, / Every idle, earthly lust’) becomes the playfully alliterative ‘All’s dashed in me, all’s dished and done’, and this playfulness keeps up all the way to the final lines, where ‘Der Schattenfürst in der Unterwelt’ (‘The shadow prince in the Underworld’) becomes
__________________First in rank of the resident zombies. Top dog in this dog-house, Hades.
In Heine’s poem, the speaker moves from a cheerless contemplation of his approaching death to a grim acknowledgement that the most vulgar of the living are better off than the noblest dead, so in the end by implication what does art matter? In Malouf’s, the mood is less gloomy – it’s still a poem about age and mortality, but the scales tip towards a celebration of life – it’s not that art is futile, but life is the thing.
The current submission guidelines for Going Down Swinging warn prospective contributors not to send ‘poems involving birds, wings, feathers or flight’. Luckily for Robert Adamson and his readers this prohibition doesn’t prevail everywhere. Henry Thoreau said an abode without birds was like meat without seasoning – Adamson without birds is unimaginable. From traffic casualties in the prose poem / flash fiction ‘A Proper Burial’ to birds that ‘call and call the light’ in ‘Michael Dransfield in Tasmania’, there are plenty of birds in Empty Your Eyes. Poets are here in plenty too: Adamson’s compadres like Dransfield and Charles Buckmaster, but also an assortment of Catholic convert poets – James McAuley, Pierre Reverdy and Francis Thompson (the only poet my mother ever quoted – ‘I fled him down the labyrinthine ways / Of my own mind; … and under running laughter’). Adamson’s poetry is steeped in the Hawkesbury River, in the world of poetry and poets, and increasingly in a kind of questing mysticism:
'The Hound of Heaven'
by a river in new South Wales:
There was a black chuckle
before the 'running laughter' –
Attention shifts, revelation grips.
Perhaps even more than Adamson’s, Adam Aitken’s cool, postmodern, intercultural poems abound in allusions – not in an arrogant bugger-off-if-you-haven’t-read-Rimbaud way, but more in a let’s-have-some-dislocating-and-provocative-fun way. I went googling quite a bit as I read November Already: John Clare (hardly an esoteric reference, but I hadn’t read anything by him), Rimbaud (I couldn’t find the arachnid referred to in ‘Rimbaud’s Spider’, so I don’t know what I’m missing, but enjoyed the poem anyhow), Ezra Pound (who wrote a travel diary, A Walking Tour in Southern France), Raymond Roussel (I found a note on Adam’s blog that helped hugely in reading the poem ‘Rousselesque’).
There’s a lot of France in these poems: Paris and the tiny village of Mareuil, the Resistance and the Revolution, Roman relics and Australian expats. From what I’ve read of Aitken’s work, I have a sense that he generally writes as if he’s not quite at home, always with a dislocated, interrogative feel. So when a poem about a deserted railway line is entitled ‘On the Chemin du Fer’, it doesn’t read as a mistyping of chemin de fer, but as a marker of the speaker’s outsider status. In the poem, this outsider is on a disused length of railway surrounded by blossoming almond trees, ‘tougher, more industrial’ than cherry blossom, and in these beautifully evoked surroundings, before evoking the Terror by a mention of Saint-Just, asks:
Was that old man "Europe" so often so hard, so cruel a one-stop shop for the soul?
Likewise, I think of Aitken as an urban poet, so when he misspells ‘chicken coop’, it doesn’t read as a mistake, deliberate or otherwise, but as the equivalent of a visitor from the city wearing shiny shoes in a cow paddock, adding to the edgy feel of the poem.
Martin Harrison’s poems, by contrast, feel completely at home in their mostly Australian landscapes. This may be especially true of the first poem in Living Things: Five Poems, ‘Wallabies’, a long, breathless (and sparsely punctuated) celebration of western New South Wales landscapes:
nothing is dead here the spaces between them are
inhabited leaves twigs debris fallen white-anted trunks
slopes rocks grass parrots galahs floating down
in pink streamers again the grey lack of edge
around sprays cream waterfalls of turpentines flowering
in high irrigated air-blue reaches she-oaks aspirant
with their million fingers and amber seed-flowers
spotted gums mottled as grandmothers but with contrasts
of grey brown white and silver as if dressed for a ball
He does more than describe natural phenomena, of course. A recurring theme here is ‘how events change time’s flow beneath perception’: a ‘small thump from somewhere’ (‘White-Tailed Deer’), thrips that are ‘quite possibly meaningless, quite possibly / microbes of non-significance’ (‘Cloud’), a frog you can hear ‘miles away, / long before you thought you could’ (‘The Frog’). Even the eponymous wallabies would be easy to miss if you didn’t read carefully. Some lines from ‘Blue Wren Poem’ suggest something of what’s going on:
detail can be lost – bobbins, birds, refuge, storm –
when innocence starts holding out against the tide,
when radiance blurs the future.
Michael Brennan of Vagabond Press says this series will come to an end at 100 titles. That means there are 11 to go, and the distinctive design, with pasted-on cover art by Kay Orchison, will sadly be no more.
My son Liam Ryan and his collaborators Frank Maguire and Jason McDermott, have had installations in Vivid Sydney for three years now. This year they go international: Wellington Lux has invited them to bring their 2011 creation, Social Firefly, across the Tasman. It will be part of the Urban Alive exhibition in Wellington 21–24 June, and they will be speaking at a Symposium on Sunday 23 June. My Kiwi reader, if there is one, has now been given advance notice.