David Brooks and Elizabeth McMahon (editors), Southerly Vol 74 No 2 2014: Australian Dreams 1
When Dorothea Mackellar was living in England a little over a century ago, she dreamed – and versified – about a sunburnt country, rugged mountain ranges and sweeping plains. Times have changed. When David Brooks sent out an invitation for an issue of Southerly on Australian dreams, he wrote of ‘a mounting dismay and shame at seeing the cruel place we’ve become’, and though in his editorial he protests that he doesn’t want to deliver a jeremiad, that editorial will do the job until an actual jeremiad comes along.
So there’s not a lot of singing about the wide brown land here.
Rowena Lennox’s ‘Timor Dreaming’, about a friend who was killed in the East Timor massacre of 1976, pokes at the open wound of the Australian government’s silence then and its bullying more recently. JH Crone’s three-part ‘Elegy to Giants’ mourns Australians killed in the Bali bombing while ambivalently celebrating their ‘binge Bintang, root, vomit’ lifestyle (and in the third part, a jarringly unrhymed parody of CJ Dennis identifies them as descendants of Dennis’s Ginger Mick).
Jim Everett, a plangermairreener man of the First Nations of north-east Tasmania, refuses to identify as an Australian citizen in a fiercely polemical article, ‘Savage Nation: First Nations’ Philosophy and Sovereignty’. Mudrooroo Nyoongah, citizen of the world, faces old age, illness and the prospect of death in two powerful lyrics, ‘Wisps of Delightful Desire’ and ‘Old Fella Poem’.
Joshua Mostafa’s ‘Against Progress: Dreams, Nightmares, and the Meaning of Abbott’ probes the state of the Australian political culture (don’t be put off by its citing of a contemporary French philosopher, which often foreshadows pages of heavily academic prose, but not here): crudely summarised, he argues that public debate is too often limited to a contest between those who play on people’s fears and those who play on the fear of having one’s fears played on.
A number of the poems could have been written in direct response to David Brooks’ Claytons-jeremiad, touching on asylum seekers’ deaths at sea, environmental degradation and the parlous state of currently existing democracy. The poems that resonated with me most strongly, though, didn’t have an obvious connection to the theme: travellers’ tales from Laurie Duggan – ‘A short history of France’ and ‘New York Notes’ (not the only travellers’ tales by any means); a snowy expatriate winter from Kevin Hart – ‘February’; and a long piece by Sian Ellett, ‘Chopin & Friedric’, in which the top part of each page has a slam poem by a teenager with multiple sclerosis while at the bottom his mother gives her point of view.
The closest thing to a good old-fashioned bush yarn is Frank Moorhouse’s ‘I, initiation’, which starts out, ‘At the age of eight as a cub scout, with a never before experienced delight, I cooked and ate my first lamb chop barbecued on a green forked stick at my first camp fire in the bush,’ and goes on to talk about his regular eight-day solitary sojourns in the bush. But we are taken way out of our – and his – comfort zone with the story of an accident involving his scrotum and the years of psychoanalysis that followed. The closest thing to a good old Aussie family story, and the piece if fiction that most wrung my withers, is Cecelia Harris’s ‘All That is Left Behind’, a father–daughter story that is full of snow rather than sunburn.
Michelle Borzi’s ‘David Malouf, Earth Hour‘ provides what I’m always hoping for when I read literary criticism. She quotes generously, and helps us see the poetry with fresh eyes.
There are signs that some items were written – and edited – in haste. It’s hard to take seriously an article about Gough Whitlam that misspells Malcolm Fraser’s surname and the name of the Labor Party (especially given that Southerly follows US spelling conventions elsewhere). A reference in one article led to a critical response to the piece it was supposed to refer me to. One story ends so abruptly that one wonders if a couple of pages have dropped off or, more likely, it’s an undeclared excerpt from a longer work. And, fascinating though it is, I do wonder if Frank Moorhouse mightn’t have put his memoir through another draft to take some of the awkwardness out of his discussion of Aboriginal initiation ceremonies and the TMI discussion of his therapy.
Evidently a further Australian Dreams issue is in the pipeline. Good!
Ruby Todd has an excellent review of this Southerly in text journal.