Monthly Archives: February 2014

Clive’s Dante’s Hell

Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, Book One: Hell, translated by Clive James (Picador 2013)

1447244214My rudimentary Italian isn’t up to reading the Divine Comedy in the original. I have started out on a couple of translations, Dorothy Sayers’ being the one I remember, but each time after a couple of pages it started to feel pointless: I mean, he’s in a wood, when a leopard blocks his path, or maybe it’s a wolf, a lion and a leopard, and the evening star rises, then Virgil appears – as they say on the Internet, WTF! Apart from my ignorance of 13th Century Italian terms of reference, it was clear the prose translations were missing something crucial. I haven’t had any more joy with verse translations, in spite of having been fascinated by terza rima, the Divine Comedy‘s verse form, since I read John Manifold’s ‘The Tomb of Lt John Learmonth, AIF’ as a teenager. So it’s no small thing when I say that Clive James’s version, in rhyming quatrains, is readable. The narrative hums along, the action is mostly clear, and even some of the references are glossed (that leopard, for example, seems much less arbitrary thanks to a little parenthesis: ‘was this the leopard, Lechery?’).

One other thing helped me approach the book as something other than an exhibit in the Travelling Museum of Great Literature. I’d heard the late Peter Porter in one of his turbo-charged radio conversations with Clive James describe Dante’s Inferno as repellent because of its mean-spirited punitiveness. ‘Oh,’ I thought, ‘so I don’t have to read it on bended knee.’ That and the romantic circumstances of the translation: Clive James’s wife is a leading Dante scholar; he has terminal cancer and they are estranged; it’s hard not to see this huge labour as a deathbed love offering.

So, the book itself? Dante is having a midlife crisis when the Roman poet Virgil appears and takes him on a tour of the mediaeval Christian afterlife (for reasons that remain obscure to me, but that’s just quibbling). The tour takes 100 cantos, of which the set-up takes one and Hell, Purgatory and Heaven in that order take 33 each. I intend to read the whole work, but I expect I’ll have different responses to each of the books, so Hell has its own blog entry.

As I said, the narrative hums along, with so much ingenious, graphically-described hideous suffering it’s surprising a video game hasn’t been made of it. There are lots of allusions, to Classical mythology, to the politics of Dante’s time and place, to Italian history, to Arthurian legend, to scandals in the Papacy. No doubt if you knew your Guelphs from your Ghibellines and your Boniface from your Celestine you’d get more out of the poem than I did, and I can see how someone could devote their professional life to studying it. But for instance, I’ve read Virgil’s epic, the Aeneid, and know that Dante’s journey into hell refers to the section where Aeneas, like Odysseus in the Odyssey, visits the Underworld and has the shades of the dead speak to him. But knowing this doesn’t make all that much difference to how the story works.

Deeper levels of meaning resonate, of course. I dare to disagree with Peter Porter. Rather than being mean-spirited and punitive, I read Dante as challenging the orthodox doctrine of eternal damnation: over and again, his character feels pity for the suffering souls he encounters, which creates an undertow of implication that God is less compassionate than humans. I have no idea of course if such a challenge was in Dante’s mind, but there’s definitely a tension between an emerging humanist sensibility and a mediaeval doctrinal view. The mixture of classical and Christian references is another marker of that tension.

Less portentously, there’s a strong element of crowd-pleasing satire. Public figures who lied or murdered or allowed evil to triumph by standing by and doing nothing are all punished in gruesomely appropriate ways (and forget what I just said about compassion). Splitters are split; muckrakers drown permanently in muck; and so on. The idea of eternal damnation may be abhorrent to a modern sensibility – I remember fondly the Marist Brother who said to us in 1969, ‘I believe in hell because it is a dogma of the church, but I don’t have to believe that any human has ever been sent there by a merciful God’. Even in my traditional Catholic childhood we were told that none of us could know if any individual had been damned: even Judas may have repented as the rope tightened around his neck. But as I read Dante via James, atavistic vengeful impulses surfaced: I wondered what punishment should be meted out to those Labor Party MPs who undermined Julia Gillard’s Prime Ministership and so gave the government of Australia to the current ruthless gang, and I wondered about the immortal souls of ostentatiously Christian political leaders who equivocate and plunder and gloss over deaths that happen on their watch. Satirists these days can do little more than mock and reproach: Dante could threaten the objects of his rage with eternal suffering.

Now, having passed through the knot at the centre of the earth and climbed back up to see the stars again, it’s time to move on. I’ll write again after Purgatory

Alexis Wright’s Swan Book

Alexis Wright, The Swan Book (Giramondo 2013)

1sbA friend of mine, an activist whom I admire hugely, says that when he can’t sleep at night he generally does one of three things: he plays a computer game, reads a novel, or does some work. None of the three is satisfactory, he says, but at least if he does work, then his sleeplessness has been productive. If he spends an hour or two doing either of the others, nothing has changed at the end of that time.

I’m fairly sure that when he speaks so lightly of novels he’s not thinking of The Swan Book or books like it (if there are any). It would be hard to read this book and not feel that something had changed.

As my blogging time is severely limited these days, I give you a heroic attempt at describing the set-up, lifted from an impeccable source – thanks, Will:

Wright’s opening chapter chronicles a post-apocalyptic world where climate change has sent everything mad, where people have been driven from their homelands, forced to seek refuge without knowing a destination, carrying along with them, as they mass upon the oceans seeking a new home, the history of the world’s cultures. That history becomes layered and overlapped, interpenetrating, elements commingled. Wagner jostles the Bible in a radioactive landscape of water and ice, monkeys and swans. Aunty Bella Donna of the Champions, leading this exodus from a drowned world, comes to Australia.

There is a marshy swamp, where she settles, in and amidst the rusted hulls of naval vessels cast up to rot in Army-run camps of an intervention, under a sky filled with swans, sometimes. Sometimes, instead, there are helicopters shining searchlights onto the jetsam of Aboriginal people confined there. There, Aunty Bella Donna takes under her wing the girl Oblivia. Oblivion Ethylene, to credit her fully, is a sly spry spink spank sprint of a thing (a characterization I’ve taken not from Wright, but from Finnegans Wake) pulled out from the depths of a eucalyptus tree where she hid after being raped by a pack of petrol sniffers.

That, as Will goes on to say, is just the beginning. There’s the Harbour Master, who is probably Aboriginal and may or may not be a ghost for most of the book, along with his well-dressed monkey. And there’s Warren Finch, a kind of Aboriginal Barack Obama cranked up to eleven, and brolgas, and owls, and rats, and a weird building full of fountains and cats. Oblivia becomes the First Lady of whatnot, she becomes the swan lady, she takes part in a great exodus from a dying city (Sydney perhaps) across a land devastated by climate change.

The book doesn’t lend itself to a quick synopsis. It moves like a dream: the identities of places, people and other living things are unstable. For instance, Oblivia, who has married Warren Finch, sees herself on television accompanying him on state occasions. Since we know, or think we know, that she hasn’t left the house where he dumped her immediately after the wedding, we assume she is seeing an imposter, or perhaps a robotic creation of some kind – it is after all the future. But Oblivia doesn’t share that assumption: as far as she is concerned she must have been there. Are we to read this as Oblivia having a tenuous grasp on reality? Perhaps. Or perhaps we’re the ones who don’t understand how this world works. The narrator doesn’t really care one way or another.

The narrative voice is merciless to the reader’s desire for certainty. In other ways, too, it’s constantly unsettling. As a recovering proofreader, I bristled at a couple of glaring errors: someone etched out a living, graffiti was sprawled on a rusted keel. But by the time I came to a character reigning in an impulse, I realised that in all likelihood the author had staved off any editorial intervention: these occasional errors, along with the frequent grammatical slippages, mangled cliches and apparently random quotes featuring swans, aren’t a bug, but a feature. Likewise the occasional impossibility, such as the tiny Oblivia picking up an adult swan and carrying it some distance tucked under one arm. The reader isn’t so much being told a story as being drawn into a vast dream. And dreams don’t care about proofreading or footnotes or logical consistency.

It’s an almost incredibly rich book. There’s satire (‘closing the gap’ is still a slogan, but its meaning has changed to sinister effect),  astute observation (the scene where Oblivia meets a white family is a deeply uncomfortable lesson about cultural sensitivity), erudition (lots of science and history to do with black and white swans), science fiction (a grim dystopian future), and at its heart a devastating non-love story.

awwbadge_2014The Swan Book is the third book I’ve read as part of the 2014 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Dorothy Porter’s Bee Hut

Dorothy Porter, The Bee Hut (Black Inc 2009)


I found it hard when reading this book to separate the poetry out from the circumstances in which it was written, but I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. The doctrine that the author’s biography is irrelevant to an understanding of her work may be useful in the classroom but not so much anywhere else.

Most of the poems collected here were written when Dorothy Porter was dealing with cancer – diagnosis, surgery, chemotherapy, remission, recurrence and the expectation of imminent death. The poetry is permeated by a sense of mortality and – as with the last poems of Dorothy Hewett and any number of other poets – the knowledge of the real-life situation adds tremendous poignancy for the reader.

Some of the poems address the cancer story directly – as in ‘The Ninth Hour’ (‘it’s your shriveling / flesh / that has the whip hand’), or ‘Not the Same’ (‘When you climb / out a black well / you are not the same’), or ‘View from 437’, written days before her death (‘Something in me / despite everything / can’t believe my luck’). Others, possibly most of the poems in the book, might otherwise seem elegant meditations or slender lyrics, but in this context read as heroic moments of facing reality. I particularly like ‘Numbers’, otherwise a slight, self-derogatory reflection, for the way it is transformed by knowledge of the circumstances of its creation:

I get magic
 sometimes I get more
 than I bargain for

but I don't get

Numbers do worse
 than humiliate
 or elude me

they don't add up.

I am no algebra tart
 by the meretricious music
 of the spheres.

My eyes and nose
 never streamed
 with incontinent ecstasy
 through geometry classes
 as my disastrous triangles
 collapsed in a cacophony
 around me.

Perhaps it's a failing
 to grasp
 or even want
 the utterly perfect number
 burning through my retina
 like the utterly perfect morning.

Instead I peer
 with nauseating vertigo
 into the deep dark pitch
 of numbers
 like an exhausted mammoth
 dangerously tottering
 on the edge
 of a bottomless mystery.

I may be playing a version of that game where you add ‘in bed’ to the quotes on a desk calendar, and almost without exception the quotes still make sense, usually quite a different sense from the original. But is it too far-fetched to read ‘Numbers’ as responding obliquely to all the calculation of percentages and probabilities that accompanies cancer diagnosis and treatment? Or is it just that, as I’m sure someone has said, all true art deals with mortality?

This isn’t a gloomy or single-minded book. There are traveller’s tales, some of them recalling moments from the poet’s variously brash, optimistic and judgmental youth; love poems; lyrics commissioned for performance; responses to other poets, including Byron, Blake, Bruce Beaver, Baudelaire, some that don’t start with B, and a possibly ironic lament for not having read enough Rimbaud (or more accurately not having read Rimbaud enough); and more.

My previous acquaintance with Dorothy Porter’s work has been through the forgettable movie made from her verse novel The Monkey’s Paw, and her verse novel What a Piece of Work, which I hated for its vilely misogynistic Francis Webb figure. I’m glad I decided to have another go at reading her work.


The Bee Hut is the second book I’ve read as part of the 2014 Australian Women Writers Challenge. (Evidently I was one of the two most prolific reviewers of poetry for last year’s challenge. I confess to feeling like a fraud, since a number of the poetry books I reviewed had fewer than 20 pages.)

Blogging from New Caledonia 3

The heavy rain we were staring out last time I wrote was part of something that could have turned into a cyclone. The whole of southern New Caledonia was on orange alert on Tuesday and Wednesday, which meant we were advised to stay under shelter and batten down any available hatches, even though in the still of the night we could see stars. Cyclone Edna didn’t materialise, so we got up early this morning and cleaned our borrowed residence thoroughly, hoping that the proposed trip to the Rivière Bleue park would be on. But the park was closed anyhow, so no trip.

We went to town, bought some little gifts, visited the bookshop to buy some more, made an attempt to go to the Maritime Museum but decided we were happy just strolling by the water. We caught the bus home, then a shuttle out here to spend the night at the Tontoutel Hotel, just across the road from the Tontouta airport, ready for an early departure tomorrow. For the record, the hotel is quite pleasant, a little down at heel perhaps, like an old country hotel in New South Wales, but nowhere near as dire as some indignant TripAdviser reviews would make out. The swimming pool is dry, but the air is full of birdsong, the outdoor chairs are comfortable, the reggae from the bar is unobtrusive, passing children call out ‘Bonjour!’ What do people want?

Despite our plans and attempts to get out of Nouméa having generally come to nothing, we’ve had a good holiday here, spending time in a place where English isn’t the dominant language, where a very large minority of the people are not white, where the trees play a game of ‘Am I what you think I am?’ We’ve had time to read and chat and (me) blog and (the Art Student) paint and draw. We’ve met some lovely people and had our sense of the world expanded.

There have been small moments of drama. On our first night, at the tourist beach of Anse Vata, as we were passing the taxi-hire hut, we heard a dog yelping and a man shouting in French, then some thuds. On the other side of a bamboo fence, we saw a white man kick a dog repeatedly, hard, then pick it up by the scruff of the neck. At this stage we saw the dog – a black Labrador, yelping in great distress. That all took just a few seconds, and the man and the dog were both gone, leaving us and two Melanesian men as the stunned witnesses. We had been planning to hire a water taxi the next day to see the open-air sculpture exhibition on the nearby Ile aux Canards, but there was no way we would give our custom to that establishment, whatever crime the dog had committed. (Alas, the exhibition was over by the time we realised there was another water-taxi hire place a little to the north.) That was our only glimpse of the dark thread of violence that I suppose is inevitable in colonial/postcolonial societies. Other dogs, I should note, seemed happy and pampered, and even an alarmingly diseased looking creature we met on the road out here in la brousse seemed curious rather than frightened or aggressive.

The other small drama was much more benign. At the Baie des Citrons yesterday afternoon, some women were exclaiming and laughing loudly as we strolled past. A beautiful striped sea snake was in the grass near them, and a big, competent-looking man was making moves to deal with it. These snakes are shy, but their venom is very poisonous, so there was good reason to pay attention, though no one was really freaking out. It was a young woman who saved the day by finding a branch long enough to pick the snake up and hold it at a safe, non-striking distance. This is just what she did, before handing the branch to the man, who then flung the snake the 10 metres or so into the lagoon. We all watched in silence for a few moments until the snake, which had been limp until then, began to swim languidly away from the beach.

One final note: apart from being out of the country when Jennifer Maiden won the Victorian Premier’s Literature Prize, we’ve also been away when a Preatures video directed by our firstborn son won Rolling Stone’s 2013 music video of the year. The report on the awards is here. There are only two photos at that URL, and he who is known as the Film Director on this blog is in the lower one: he’s the chap on the end looking very happy and every inch not a rock star. We’re the absolute cliché of proud parents. You can watch the video on YouTube.

Blogging from New Caledonia 2

Today we were meant to be going on a tour of the Parc Provinciale de la Rivière Bleue, which was declared a World Heritage Site just two days ago. As most of our attempts to organise ourselves onto tours have been thwarted, we were both looking forward to the day, despite or perhaps partly because of advice to wear dark clothes because the day involved contact with a lot of dirt.

But it was not to be. The rain came bucketing down in the night and was still bucketing when we were due to be setting off. The Man at Caledonia Tours (MCT, who incidentally speaks excellent English and has a sense of humour that communicates across the language divide) didn’t hold out a lot of hope, but the tour may yet happen before we leave for home on Friday.

In a lull in the downpour this morning, I went for a stroll around the neighbourhood, enjoying the vegetation that is so reminiscent of Queensland, stickybeaking at the houses, trying to remember which way to look when crossing the streets, and getting a stupid amount of enjoyment from the street names: Verlaine ran into Rimbaud; Baudelaire isn’t far from Jules Verne; Mallarmé, where we’re staying, crosses du Bellay and Heredia; and so on. My enjoyment was all the greater because when I had phoned to organise the tour that hasn’t happened, MCT asked where we were so he could pick us up, but said street names were no use because no one in New Caledonia knows them. As it was useless to invoke Symbolist and Renaissance poets, I had to give him the Majestic corner shop and the statue of the petite vierge (Our Lady of the Pacific) to steer by.

Luckily, Sunday was a spectacularly beautiful day. Just as well, because we’d paid a spectacularly large sum to go on a day cruise to the Ilôt Amédée ‘Where the weather is always nicer’, and where the first iron lighthouse to be constructed in France now stands. The weather was indeed very nice, the lighthouse was remarkable (though we didn’t climb it), the all-you-can-eat lunch was delicious. We cringed just a little at the traditional Polynesian dance performance. We saw turtles, a striped snake, large number of charming sea-birds about half the size of seagulls (so much more interesting than the unhappy caged birds at the Parc Forestier). We swam, lay about, people-watched, read our books. The Art Student drew and did watercolours. We met some people who were even nicer than the weather, and who invited us to dinner chez eux last night.

Although our hosts were European – a young Frenchwoman who has been here for two or three years and her Belgian mother and aunt over for a six-month visit – they had explored the local cuisine and treated us to nuts from the Solomon Islands, poingo bananas, and other delicacies, and were able to satisfy our curiosity about much of what we’d seen and heard, and about the political landscape as a vote on independence approaches over the next couple of years. It was fun navigating the language divide, though bilingual skills were much stronger on their side. They confirmed my impression that people here generally tutoient each other – that is, they use the tu form of address that was reserved for children, social inferiors and people you want to insult in the French I learned at school. ‘They’re not being insulting,’ our host said. ‘It’s kind of nice. But I don’t do it.’ They gave us some plump mangoes and drove us the significant distance home. It was such a pleasure to receive such warm hospitality – it’s not as if we’d been finding New Caledonia unwelcoming up to that point, but we now feel that we have been very cordially welcomed.

Now we’re cooped up, staring out at the rain, wondering if it will be possible to go out to dinner, and hoping that tomorrow we’ll visit the Blue River and perhaps see New Caledonia’s distinctive native bird, the kagu, in the wild.

Joshua Santospirito’s Craig San Roque’s Long Weekend in Alice Springs

Craig San Roque, The Long Weekend in Alice Springs, adapted and drawn by Joshua Santospirito (San Kessto Publications 2013)

1lwas In 2004, an essay by Alice Springs psychologist Craig San Roque appeared in the formidably titled volume, The Cultural Complex: Contemporary Jungian Perspectives on Psyche and Society, edited by Thomas Singer and Samuel L. Kimbles and published by The Psychology Press in the UK. According to an author’s note, the 16-page essay, ‘A long weekend: Alice Springs, Central Australia

suggests that ancient, habitual, mythically reinforced psychic structures may be repeating themselves autonomously from a basic pattern, rather like a DNA system. Such patterns may be encoded into legends or hieratic dramas associated with specific sites and can be detected by analysing mythologised stories embedded in cultural sites, by analysing how a culture developed (and perverted) the use of primal tools and by noting what cultural groups do with human bodies, death, justice and sexual coupling.

Esoteric stuff, you might think, the kind of thing Jungians write for each other but that the uninitiated tend to see as elaborately, solemnly, eruditely fantastical. (I speak as someone who in his mid 20s read quite a bit of Jung’s writing about alchemy.)

A couple of years later a young psych nurse named Josh Santospirito worked with La Roque in ‘remote mental health in Aboriginal communities’. This was demanding, frustrating and confusing work at a place where ‘mainsteam’ Australian culture and Central Australian Aboriginal cultures meet at best uncomfortably. He articulated the central problem he faced in his work like this: ‘How can you begin to address mental health issues when Aboriginal cultural structure is so undermined?’ San Roque gave him his ‘Long Weekend’ essay, and though the essay offers no straightforward solution to that problem, Santospirito found it useful in his attempts to come to terms with his experience.

Among other things, Santospirito happened to be a once and future comics artist. (His web site is here.) As he meditated on the essay, he began drawing, and the drawings led in time to this book, which he published himself, and so made San Roque’s specialised writing both accessible and available to a general readership. Not that the book is an illustrated version of the essay, or a pictorial representation for illiterate readers. It’s an adaptation from one medium, the academic essay, to another, sequential art (aka comic book, or if that sounds juvenile to your ears you could call it a graphic novel, even though this is not a novel). To judge by the little I’ve read of the essay, it’s a very faithful adaptation.

At the heart of the book is a search for something beyond individual aberration to account for so-called mental illnesses such as psychosis, substance abuse, violence and depression among Central Australian Aboriginal people. In crude, non-psychological terms, there’s a plain enough answer: they have largely been dispossessed and are on the receiving end of continuing dispossession – San Roque calls this cannibalism, which leads to one of Santospirito’s most compelling pages (especially the last two frames):


The book is interested in what happens in people’s minds. ‘The tragedy here,’ according to the captions accompanying images of beer bottles,

is not about massive conflicts and brutal bloody invasion. The tragedy is about experiencing self-decomposition through the erosion of access to loving bonds with family, country and integrity of cultural practice.

All of this is lucidly articulated and graphically realised. At one point, San Roque speaks of the need ‘to analyse [his] own culture … to give up trying to understand Indigenous culture.’ ‘It isn’t my business,’ he says. ‘But the area of overlap between my culture and Aboriginal is indeed my affair. I live in it.’

That overlap manifests in a range of encounters over a long weekend: the Warlpiri people who come to town and meet in his yard, a young woman with a psychotic reaction to cannabis, a man who has killed his mother-in-law, mistaking her for his wife (‘What is in alcohol which makes me murder?’ ‘What is in your mind that lets you murder? And in such a manner?’ ‘What is in our brains that allows us to take axes to our sleeping women?’), a hunting expedition with some women and children, and so on.

Then comes the Jungian theorising. First, in looking to his own culture, San Roque goes to the epic of Gilgamesh and the descent into the underworld of the Sumerian goddess Innana. Not where most non-Indigenous Australians would look, I submit. But it’s a great story, and has the advantages of being unfamiliar to most readers (me included) and lending itself to some spectacular images. And there’s the speculation foreshadowed in the author’s note to the essay: that some places somehow contain certain dramas that the people who live there will inevitably play out over and over – the endless struggles in Iraq, for example, or the permanently brewing fights in Alice Springs, whose dreaming story involves a dogfight. It seems to me that having acknowledged that a ‘web of disordering complexes has evolved as a consequence of the psychopathologies of colonialism’, it’s odd to go looking for further explanation in mystical notions like this. Not only odd, but counterpoductive: if young men die in Lebanon because of something the air there, or people are forever scrapping in Alice Springs because they are bound to reenact the Dreaming story of the place, then there’s nothing to be done about it – and I don’t believe either of the authors of this book would agree with that conclusion.

With that misgiving, this is a beautiful, passionate, doubly intelligent book. It has become something of a self-publishing success story, and it deserves all the success it finds.

Blogging from New Caledonia 1a

This is really just footnotes to yesterday’s sonnet. If you’re looking for excellent writing about Nouméa from the perspective of a USer who lives here and engages intelligently with the place and people, I recommend Julie Harris’s blog, New Caledonia Today. If you just want just one post, try this one, which shines an interesting and uncomfortable light on relations between Kanaks and European New Caledonians.

But back to my footnoting, largely by way of pics.

The corner of our street – where Mallarmé’s languid faun is about as appropriate as the Lindsay satyr in Sydney’s Botanic Gardens:


Our nearest bus stop, named with similar incongruity for renaissance man Joachim du Bellay:

du Bellay

The tricouleur, not as ubiquitous as the Stars and Stripes in the US, but enough to let you know you’re in France. And some people find it galling to have the Union Jack in the corner of their flag!


It’s not quite true that the tricouleur is the only flag here. Nouméa has its own city flag, of course, but there is also the Kanak national flag. The link above to the New Caledonia Today blog gives an idea of just how contentious this flag is. Here’s the only one we saw, planted on a rock in the bush across the road from a rather grand statue of Notre Dame du Pacifique. There’s supposed to be a referendum on independence some time this year. Interesting times ahead.

kanak flag

The writing on this bin says, ‘Le tri, c’est pour toi aussi’ – ‘Tri is for you too.’ It’s tri meaning sorting as in triage rather than three as in tricouleur, but the coincidence was too good to pass up.


The women of colour, in both senses, are everywhere:

20140131-184410.jpgPhoto by Penny Ryan

20140131-184736.jpgPhoto by Penny Ryan

You can read about the separatist hostage-taking and subsequent deaths in the late 1980s here.