Monthly Archives: April 2015

Richard Powers’ Orfeo

Richard Powers, Orfeo (Atlantic Books 2014)


Margaret Atwood, no less, is quoted on the cover of this book as saying, ‘If Powers were an American writer of the nineteenth century he’d probably be the Herman Melville of Moby-Dick. His picture is that big.’ That’s probably taken out of context, and it’s a wee bit over the top, but, you know, only a wee bit. If Melville had been writing about the music scene rather than the whaling industry, he might have written this book. The digressions are just about as long as the ones in Moby-Dick, and for my money at least as interesting; the quest at the centre of the story is as doomed and self-destructive; the frame of reference as global.

Peter Els, a 70 year old composer who has had very little popular or critical success, calls 911 when his dog dies. The police who come to his door have their security-threat detectors set off when they see that he is a DIY biochemist, and soon he is on the run with the full might of Homeland Security behind him. The story of his flight, which becomes a kind of Thelma-and-Louise flavoured 12-steps amends-making pilgrimage, is told in counterpoint with his back story. Folded into one story is the world of Homeland Security vigilance about real and imagined terrorist threats, media panics and the surveillance state; and into the other the history of 20th century US cutting-edge music in its broader world political context.

It’s a gauge of how well Powers writes that just as Els’s flight is reaching a critical moment, he stops off to give a lecture in an old people’s residence, and everything stops while we are told the story of the composition and first performance of Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time – and it’s so interesting that 17 pages later, when we return to the main narrative (‘That was the story Els told his eleventh-hour pupils … ) we do so as if waking up from a vivid, satisfying dream. There are other, shorter digressions, in which Els listens to a piece of music, and we are taken through it moment by moment: this is a book to be read, not just with Google on hand to chase up interesting references, but with access to a music library to listen along with Els to Mahler, George Rochberg, John Cage, Harry Partch, and on and on. And yet it has the pace and suspense of a thriller.

I scored (no pun) Orfeo at my book-swappng club. Since I’d had Powers’ Galatea 2.2 on my TBR pile for some years, I decided to read it first. If the creative and life crises depicted in the earlier book when author and character, both called Richard Powers and in their mid 30s, were based in reality, it seems that they passed. Six novels and 19 years later, I don’t know that Orfeo is any more cheerful than Galatea 2.2 but if Galatea 2.2 contemplated the abyss, then Orfeo is gloriously, operatically, romantically over the cliff.

NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Shortlist announced

A bit late for anyone who wants to read the whole short list before the winners are announced next month, but the (very long) short list for the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards has been announced. You can see the full list with judges’ comments on a pdf press release from the State Library.

Here’s most of it – all except the translator – with links to my blog posts on the few I’ve read, all of which have me nodding my head in agreement with the judges. (Maybe it will take grandchildren to bring me back up to date on children’s lit.)

Christina Stead Prize for Fiction
Only the Animals, Ceridwen Dovey (Penguin Australia)
In Certain Circles, Elizabeth Harrower (Text Publishing)
Golden Boys, Sonya Hartnett (Penguin Australia)
The Snow Kimono, Mark Henshaw (Text Publishing)
The Golden Age, Joan London (Random House Australia)
A Million Windows, Gerald Murnane (Giramondo Publishing)

UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing
The Tribe, Michael Mohammed Ahmad (Giramondo Publishing)
Foreign Soil, Maxine Beneba Clarke (Hachette Australia)
The Strays, Emily Bitto (Affirm Press)
An Elegant Young Man, Luke Carman (Giramondo Publishing)
Here Come the Dogs, Omar Musa (Penguin Australia)
Heat and Light, Ellen van Neerven (University of Queensland Press)

Douglas Stewart Prize for Non‐fiction
The Europeans in Australia, Alan Atkinson (NewSouth)
Citizen Emperor: Napoleon in Power 1799‐1815, Philip Dwyer (Bloomsbury)
This House of Grief, Helen Garner (Text Publishing)
The Reef: A Passionate History, Iain McCalman (Penguin Books Australia)
In My Mother’s Hands, Biff Ward (Allen & Unwin)
The Bush, Don Watson (Penguin Books Australia)

Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry
A Vicious Example, Michael Aiken (Grand Parade)
Devadetta’s Poems, Judith Beveridge (Giramondo)
Kin, Anne Elvey (Five Islands Press)
Wild, Libby Hart (Pitt Street Poetry)
Unbelievers, or The Moor, John Mateer (Giramondo)
Earth Hour, David Malouf (University of Queensland Press)

Patricia Wrightson Prize for Children’s Literature
The First Voyage, Allan Baillie (Puffin Books)
Rivertime, Trace Balla (Allen & Unwin)
Figgy in the World, Tamsin Janu (Omnibus/Scholastic Australia)
The Duck and the Darklings, Glenda Millard & Stephen Michael King (Allen & Unwin)
Crossing, Catherine Norton (Omnibus/Scholastic Australia)
The Adventures of Sir Roderick the Not‐Very Brave, James O’Loghlin (Pan Macmillan Australia)

Ethel Turner Prize for Young Adult’s Literature
Book of Days, K.A. Barker (Pan Macmillan Australian)
The Road to Gundagai, Jackie French (HarperCollins Publishers)
Are You Seeing Me? Darren Groth (Random House Australia)
Razorhurst, Justine Larbalestier (Allen & Unwin)
The Cracks in the Kingdom, Jaclyn Moriarty (Pan Macmillan Australia)
Cracked, Clare Strahan (Allen & Unwin)

Betty Roland Prize for Scriptwriting
The Code Episode 1, Shelley Birse (Playmaker Media)
Upper Middle Bogan Season 1, Episode 8: The Nationals, Robyn Butler and Wayne Hope (Gristmill)
The Babadook, Jennifer Kent (Causeway)
Fell, Natasha Pincus Story by Kasimir Burgess and Natasha Pincus. (Felix Media)
Please Like Me Season 2, Episode 7: Scroggin, Josh Thomas
Once My Mother, Sophia Turkiewicz (Change Focus Media)

Nick Enright Prize for Playwriting
Brothers Wreck, Jada Alberts (Currency Press)
The Sublime, Brendan Cowell (Melbourne Theatre Company)
Jasper Jones, Kate Mulvany (adapted from a novel by Craig Silvey) (Barking Gecko Theatre Company)
The Trouble with Harry, Lachlan Philpott (TheatreofplucK Belfast/MKA New Writing Theatre)
Kryptonite, Sue Smith (The Sydney Theatre Company)
Black Diggers, Tom Wright (Queensland Theatre Company)

Community Relations Commission for Multicultural NSW
Jump for Jordan, Donna Abela (Griffin Theatre Company)
Black and Proud: The story of an AFL photo, Matthew Klugman and Gary Osmond (NewSouth Publishing)
Refugees, Jane McAdam and Fiona Chong (UNSW Press)
I, Migrant: A Comedian’s Journey from Karachi to the Outback, Sami Shah (Allen & Unwin)
The Tainted Trial of Farah Jama, Julie Szego (Wild Dingo Press)
Once My Mother, Sophia Turkiewicz (Change Focus Media)

Congratulations and good luck to all of them, and may the judges’ eyes and brains enjoy a rest.

Omar Musa’s Parang

Omar Musa, Parang (©2013, Penguin 2014)


Omar Musa is a bit of a phenomenon: rapper, poetry slam champ  (see below), TEDxSydney talker, he has produced a number of CDs and featured in a number of YouTube videos. Parang, first published by Blast! Publishing, an entity so small I couldn’t find it on the www, includes some poems that here make the transition from the stage to the page, and others that are definitely starting life as page poems.

The range of subject matter is wide. Asylum seekers, violence against women, alienated suburban life, the possibility of humanity’s disappearance, street lie, all rendered with exuberant rhetorical flourish of a public performance. In ‘My Generation’, there’s even a homage to Allen Ginsberg:

My generation
was populated by boozehounds and pillheads
crude clowns and bedspreads
stained with the neon dreams of cocaine fiends.
I mean,
the diamond-flooded visions of sex kittens
who sweat bullets, glitter and Chanel.

The most interesting poems are in the first section, ‘Parang’. Mostly shorter and more contained, perhaps more carefully shaped, these engage with Musa’s Malaysian heritage. Where Seamus Heaney famously compared his pen to a gun and a spade, and chose the tool over the weapon, Omar Musa takes the parang, the distinctive Malay machete, which can be either, as an emblem of what he is attempting in his poetry:

______guardian angel of gangsters and pirates,
______headhunters and thieves.
______patron saint of mob rule and blood bath,
______of the man who runs amok through the village.
______guiding spirit of the housebuilder, the tool carver,
______the opener of paths.

In ‘The Parang and the Keris’, he contrasts the parang to the keris, the wavy-bladed, highly wrought dagger of heroic tales:

This parang is not heaven forged,
______blade five-waved,
smelted from meteoric iron, divine.

But it is mine.

The poetry has the spirit of humble making that this image claims for it: a hard poem about his father, a celebration of his grandmother, a piece on the inevitable disappointment and also joy of discovering the real place behind family stories of heritage (‘A Homeland’). The poetry also has the edge of danger implied in the parang image, particularly in ‘FELDA’ and ‘sunyi’, both of which demonstrate that Musa’s rage for social justice and environmental is not limited to a western context.

Musa is an electrifying performer. You can see him here in top form with a fabulous audience at Bankstown Poetry Slam. It’s nine minutes or so, and well worth the time. In case you need some of the noise explained, at slam poetry the audience is encouraged to express enthusiasm by clicking fingers and stamping feet.

Martin Harrison’s Wild Bees

Martin Harrison, Wild Bees (UWAP 2008)

1wild_beesWhen 11 year old Luke Shambrook had been missing for four days over the Easter weekend, Acting Sergeant Brad Pascoe spotted him from his helicopter. ‘Out of the corner of my eye,’ he said, ‘I just caught a little flash of something. It wasn’t much but it was enough to make me get the guys to turn the aircraft around and go back and have a look.’

It’s not so obviously a matter of life and death, but compare that to the silvereye in Martin Harrison’s ‘A Word’:

caught on the edge of vision,
forgotten in a glance
where nothing is anchored

The pages of this book are full of attention to tiny things and brief moments that are nevertheless enough to make the poet get us to turn around and go back and have a look. Something happens ‘out there, in dwindling light, / upon the edge, half-seen, a mere detail’ (from ‘Red Marine’). Something ‘catches my eye, half catches it, (tricking it, blinding it)’ (from ‘Winter Solstice’). In ‘Lizards’:

_____________ This
moment, they’re not here,
or are merely playing
at being silhouettes, quite still.

In ‘Tasmanian Tiger’:

ungraspable fineness of dark she-oak needles, ungraspable, I think, because so fine,
a thing merely visual, only meant in passing
to an observer perplexed by see-through shadowiness

Examples multiply.

The poetry does many different things with these ephemera and minutiae, usually at some length. Sometimes it’s like reading a gloriously fleshed-out haiku: ‘Watching Pelicans, Mallacoota’ spends the first 24 lines on a she-oak needle, and the remaining 19 on the pelicans of the title. More often, the poems are like essays, not always easy to follow, as the poet articulates thoughts or feelings that are as easy to miss as the objects or living things that give rise to them. One thing you don’t get is easy generalisations.

I saw Martin Harrison read a number of times. He was a witty, warm, impressive figure. He died in September 2014.  The November issue of Cordite Poetry Review published a piece by Adam Aitken, which included an interview, in which Harrison says, among many other interesting things:

I am trying to write poetry that lives in the same world as watching TV, listening to radio and watching movies. … I’m interested in the kind of detail that the camera can provide that the writer can be intimate with. If you take a room or a scene or a person there is something about the way those images cover the object, and something about the lingering attention you can give to what’s produced there. It defines a contemporary sensibility. I like that kind of attentiveness.

Wild Bees was published by the University of Western Australia Press.  I received a review copy from Giramondo Press.

Richard Powers’ Galatea 2.2

Richard Powers, Galatea 2.2 (©1995, Harper Perennial 1996)

0060976926The narrator of Galatea 2.2 is a 35 year old ‘humanist in residence’ at a massive, cutting-edge scientific research centre somewhere in the USA. Recently returned from years in The Netherlands, he is still hurting from the end of his first great love relationship. When an odd, misanthropic scientist invites him to collaborate in a project to develop an artificial entity capable of producing literary commentary that will pass for human, he accepts the challenge. They are doing it for a bet, and start out thinking of it as an elaborate scam. The novel’s reference to the story of Pygmalion, the sculptor who fell in love with his statue Galatea, which then came to life, sets up clear enough expectations.

A complicating factor is that the narrator’s name is Richard Powers, and as he tells the story of his past in a second, retrospective narrative strand, a good bit of that story (Powers’ previous four novels, the places he lived, a passing mention of time spent in south-east Asia as a child) is verifiably the same as that of the author Richard Powers. This narrative tells of Richard’s falling in love and the gradual deterioration of the relationship even as his career as a novelist flourishes: the love story may or not be drawn from life.

It’s a teasing mixture of memoir and speculative fiction. Add to the mix extended accounts of cognitive science and artificial intelligence debates, and a sometimes overwhelmingly dense play of literary allusion (Powers is educating the machine in the great canon of literature in English, and he and some of the other human characters can quote great slabs from that canon from memory), and you’ve got a very rich mix. Here’s a relatively straightforward literary bit when the machine, now called Helen, is well advanced in its/her ‘education’:

She wanted to know whether a person could die by spontaneous combustion. The odds against a letter slipped under the door slipping under the carpet as well. Ishmael’s real name. Who this ‘Reader’ was and why he rated knowing who married whom. Whether single men with fortunes really needed wives. what home would be without Plumtree’s Potted Meats. How long would it take to compile a key to all mythologies. What the son of a fish looked like. Where Uncle Toby was wounded. Why anyone wanted to imagine unquiet slumbers for sleepers in quiet earth. Whether Conrad was a racist. Why Huck Finn was taken out of libraries. Which end of an egg to break. Why people read. Why they stopped reading. What it meant to be ‘only a novel’. What use half a locket was to anyone. Why it would be a mistake not to live all you can.

I get quite a few of those references, and I expect you do too. It’s a Trivial Pursuit kind of  fun. You can imagine someone reading the novel with one hand and holding a googling machine in the other.

The scientific palaver offers a different kind of pleasure:

It struck me. Every neuron formed a middle term in a continuous, elaborate, brain-wide pun. With a rash of dendrite inputs and handfuls of axon cuts, each cell served as enharmonic point in countless constellations, shifting configurations of light, each circuit standing in for some new sense. To fire or not meant different things, depending on how the registers aligned at a given instant and which other alignments read the standing sum. Each node was an entire computer, a comprehensive comparison. And the way they fit together was a cupola itself.
Those weird parallaxes of framing must be why the mind opened out on meaning at all.

I leave it to cognitive scientist readers to decided whether this is Doctor Who-ish ‘timey-wimey stuff’ or something more substantial. Either way, it – and many passages like it – serves to impress on us how complicated the science is. And, though the going becomes tough at times for readers like me who don’t like to skip the technical paragraphs, a believable narrative emerges of a machine capable of increasingly complex responses.

The love story isn’t completely convincing, and some minor characters tend to fall just short of being prompts for reflection on the nature of intelligence: one character has a wife with advanced dementia, another has a son with Down syndrome, and a postgrad literature student for whom Richard conceives an infatuation is conveniently imbued with Theory. Oddly enough, the parts of the book that I found most convincing were the descriptions of life in a Dutch village, in which the author’s love of the Netherlands is almost palpable, and the narrator’s ups and downs as he learns Dutch ring completely, joyously true.

Dr Karl regrets

In case you missed it, Karl Kruszelnicki has gone public with his views of the Intergenerational Report: ‘It should have acknowledged that climate change is real, and that we cause it, and that it’s going to be messy.’

Emily Bitto’s Strays

Emily Bitto, The Strays (Affirm Press 2014)

1straysThis is a novel about a fictional artist’s colony in Victoria in the 1930s. Though the colony bears some resemblance to the Heide group, and a couple of historical figures, notably Bert Evatt, are mentioned or make brief appearances, it would be a mistake to read it as a roman à clef. At least, I hope so – if not, Heide was quite a bit nastier than I’ve heard.

The narrator, Lily, looks back in middle age to her girlhood friendship with Eva, whose father, Evan Trentham, is a modernist painter and a towering figure in the Australian art scene, and to the years in which she became a virtual member of Eva’s family – one of a number of ‘strays’, of whom the others were young modernist artists. From a deeply conventional family herself, young Lily is fascinated by the bohemian life of the Trentham household: adults who are so engaged in their own pursuits that they leave children to fend for themselves, earnest talk, ‘reefer’ and opium seeds, erotic art, casual nudity, and the smells and sights of a group of working artists and their models.

Of course, all is not well in Bohemia. Eva and Lily, friends since they were eight, drift apart in their early teenage years in ways neither of them can acknowledge, and when calamity strikes the household, it brings the death of their intense intimacy as well.

The book is beautifully written. The characters are vividly realised: Evan the alpha male; Helena his wife and presiding goddess of the household; their three daughters – Bea the responsible eldest, bold Eva and deeply resentful Heloise; and the young adult members of the colony – including Jerome, the young artist who will eclipse his mentor and whose transgressions undo the community.

For all its manifest virtues, though, I couldn’t get excited about the book. It’s not that I was bored, and there are some wonderful things: there are moments when the intensely physical intertwining of young Lily and Eva comes brilliantly alive, so that the distance between them when they meet again as adults is devastating. But over all I couldn’t tell why any of it should matter to me, or actually why it mattered to the author. Interestingly, it’s as if the novel knows that concern needs to be addressed. In the over-long, loose-thread-tying section in which the main events of the novel are in the distant past, Lily tells Helena and Eva that she is thinking of writing a memoir about her days with the family. Helena asks the question that had been playing in my mind for 200 pages: why write it? The question leads in the short term to a tense exchange of blame and counter-blame. But later, Lily reflects (omitting spoilers):

The events of the Trenthams and their strays have long since been recorded in the pages of art history.  … Always, … the artist himself was at the centre, with Helena, Eva, Heloise at the distant peripheries. They were cast as ‘events’ that accounted for the prevalence of particular themes, detailed in the same manner as the influence of the war on Jerome. Heloise’s life a footnote explaining Jerome’s brilliant work.

So the narrator’s motive for writing is clear – it’s a feminist redress of the dominant patriarchal narrative. And we can extrapolate that as the novelist’s motive as well. But any passion behind that motivation didn’t make it to the page, or at least didn’t communicate from the page to me. Perhaps the book’s beginnings as part of a PhD left a subliminal sense that it was being written for an examiner’s eye. Perhaps it’s that I read The Strays after the Biff Ward’s grimly real In My Mother’s Hands, and was unconvinced by Emily Bitto’s inventions. Or maybe I’ve finally reached the predicted old-man condition of not liking fiction much any more. Certainly my lukewarmness seems to be a minority response.

aww-badge-2015This is the seventh book I’ve read for the 2015 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Biff Ward’s In My Mother’s Hands

Biff Ward, In My Mother’s Hands (Allen & Unwin 2014)

1743319118When my Book Group were picking our next book, someone asked about In My Mother’s Hands, which was on my teetering to-be-read pile. ‘It’s a misery memoir,’ I said, and we moved on to other possibilities

I was wrong. There’s misery in it, but there’s a lot else. Biff Ward, born in the early 1940s. gives us a lovingly detailed portrait of family life in suburban, regional and Canberran Australia. Early in the book, she describes how her mother would wash her hair when she was little:

She began by folding a towel around my neck in an efficient, nurse-like manner to stop drips and breakaway runnels creeping down in my neck. The water was a delicious, perfect temperature and it streamed over me. She believed in rubbing the scalp with her strong fingers, making sure not even a tiny spot was missed. I closed my eyes, I gave myself to the warm wetting, the soaping, the rubbing, the rinsing, the divine sense of clean. Next she flopped the towel on my head and scrubbed vigorously before saying, Bend over.
She then wrapped the towel around my head, tight at the neck behind, a turban twist on top like a woman in a magazine, the way I still do today. I walked or sat carefully for five minutes until my hair was dry enough for the towel to come off. Sometimes, she then sat beside me saying, I’ll just give it a bit of a squiggle to get the curls going.

Not a lot of misery in that! I don’t want to give a false impression, though. This benign intimacy is a long way from representative of the mother–daughter relationship at the heart of the book: in fact, it’s a memory that might never have been recalled if it hadn’t been triggered by a companion washing the writer’s hair in her 30s. The passage does illustrate the book’s loving attention to detail, an attention that is shot through not just with the need to tell (a defining feature of misery memoirs?), but also with the need to know, to understand, to deepen the writer’s grasp of things and to take the reader with her.

This could be a beautifully written memoir of any child’s family life from that time and place, except for two major differences. First, this child’s father is Russel Ward, eminent historian, best known for The Australian Legend, a one-time member of the Communist Party, a man of the word. This means that Biff Ward’s recollections and those of the friends and family she interviewed are supplemented by a formidable archive, including numerous public statements made by and about her father, and also his extensive personal correspondence – including agonised letters to his parents about his wife’s condition. Which is the second major difference: her mother, Margaret, was  delusional and self-harming, and Biff and her younger brother ‘breathed it in, the irrational in her, the grief in him and the unpredictability all around’.

The book’s title deftly signals a double concern of the book. First, it tells what it was like to grow up in the care – in the hands – of someone who spent most of her time withdrawn into a private world of suffering and delusion, whose behaviour was often bizarre and sometimes deeply alarming, and who may well have drowned her first baby in the bath. Second, it seeks to fathom the story of someone who continually gouges at her hands with sharp implements and keeps the damage hidden by wearing gloves. It’s a book of deep compassion, not just for the mother, but also for the father who, far from faultless, struggles heroically to provide a stable life for his children, while protecting his wife as long as possible from the depredations of the psychiatric profession.

The children felt that the were living with a huge, terrible secret. Perhaps the biggest surprise of the story is the writer’s discovery much later that there was a whole circle of friends who knew the situation, and tried to help in the inarticulate and largely ineffectual way of the time. A fellow academic even wrote a short story based on the Ward family.

This is a truly marvellous book. I ought to say that I have met Biff Ward a couple of times, and have been close to some people who appear in these pages. But the books makes a substantial contribution to our understanding of  families, of Australian intellectual history, and of the horrifying ordeal known in the medial profession as mental illness.

aww-badge-2015This is the sixth book I’ve read for the 2015 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

John Upton’s Embracing the Razor

John Upton, Embracing the Razor (Puncher & Wattmann)

Embracing_The_RazorA long-ago episode of the TV soap Neighbours featured two much-loved little dogs, named something like Stella and Pooch. When one of the dogs escaped to the dangerous street, the distraught dog-minder ran out his front door and fell to his knees in his driveway. As the camera pulled back and up he put his hands to the side of his head and cried out in Brando-esque anguish, ‘Stellaaaa!’  (Just in case a reader needs it, here’s a link to the cinematic moment being parodied.)

John Upton wrote a more than 130 episodes of Neighbours between 1985 and 2006, and I like to think he was the one who poked that hole in the soap wall for a silly shining moment (Added years later: I was wrong. That episode was written by Megan Herbert). He’s written a lot else, for television and the stage, but this is his first book of poetry.

The book is in four sections: ‘Grief’, a narrative sequence about death and bereavement, which the back cover tells us is on the death of Upton’s wife; ‘Embracing the Razor’, which is largely about the ills of old age – including various kinds of surgery, Alzheimer’s, bereavement; ‘Destinations’, fourteen poems of travel; and ‘Rhymes and Rhizomes’, a miscellany.

It’s the first section that has drawn me back for several readings. Even without the back cover note, it’s clear that these eleven poems are rooted in direct experience; and the discipline of decades of crafting story for TV means the character development and narrative elements are confidently, effortlessly there, allowing the poetry to do its work. A hospital car park as ‘a desert of panic nosed / into dutiful bays’. And how’s this for capturing the feel of visiting a hospital:

At the lift, two people. Polite smiles. ‘It takes a while,’
he says. I offer, ‘Yes.’ In this desperate place
somehow we need to touch.
‘It’s on the seventh,’ she adds, feeling foolish.
They don’t seem to be together.
We watch the numbered light ascending.
Like a saint, I think. I’m not religious.
‘The other one’s coming down,’ he mutters. Steel jaws
wide enough to gulp a bed and nurses
creep open horizontally. I press Intensive Care.
They don’t say anything.

The book is full of neat similes and deft observations of this sort, but, especially in the first sequence, they serve a deeper purpose – the poems tell of grief, but to use Emily Dickinson’s phrase, they tell it slant, in verse that is marvellously disciplined, courteously aware of the reader. One poem begins, ‘Cat shit in the bath again,’  another deals with lost paperwork for the memorial garden. Even the moment of death is relayed, in ‘Morphine Around Midnight’ with extraordinary restraint:

I ask the nurse,
‘How long?’ ‘Not long.’
One hour, five minutes.

A decade ago, we thought my partner – now known in these pages as the Art Student – was dying of advanced pancreatic cancer. It turned out that she had had an extraordinarily improbable series of false positives, and abdominal surgery revealed perfectly healthy internal organs. But we had a couple of intense weeks facing the prospect of imminent death. The early part of this sequence comes the closest of anything I’ve read to capturing the feel of that experience. I’m sorry John Upton had to go ahead and write the rest, but I’m in awe that he did it so well.

My copy of Embracing the Razor is a kind gift from Puncher and Wattmann.

Melinda Smith’s Drag down to unlock or place an emergency call

Melinda Smith, Drag down to unlock or place an emergency call (Pitt Street Poets 2014)

melinda-smithThe most striking feature of this poetry collection is its wild variation in tone.

Take the ten poems in the book’s first section, ‘Uploads’. First comes ‘Passengers are reminded‘ (this and other links are to the poems on the poet’s website, Melinda Smith’s Mull and Fiddle): the speaker, on the way to a funeral, is held up by a delayed train, and her emotional state is evoked obliquely but powerfully. This is followed by a number of direct evocations of grief and loss, though the milieu becomes more literary (one poem is an address to Janet Frame) and the verse more formal (a fine villanelle, ‘Roadside Memorials‘, a pantoum and two syllable-counting haiku). Then the subject switches to divorce, and  the the tone changes abruptly: ‘Decree Nisi’ is pure verbal display, comprising 30 anagrams of its title, and the section’s final poem, ‘bittertweet’, is a cleverly vindictive, multilayered tweet-joke. It feels as if a rug has been pulled out from under the reader. But each poem in the section works in its own right, so all is well.

In the second section, it feels as if war has broken out. There are a number of powerful poems about pregnancy, miscarriage, labour, birth, postnatal depression, motherhood. Take this, from ‘Woman’s Work’:

A new body heaves from her into the light.
Exhaustion melts her. The women pass her the child;
the singers chant again:
Praise her, she has endured the great trial and renewed the life of the world.

Or take ‘Given‘, a response to Francis Webb’s great ‘Five Days Old’. Without detracting from Webb’s wonder as the miracle of a baby is given into his hands, it reminds us of the woman’s experience that has produced and sustains the miracle. ‘Untitled’, addressed to a baby lost at 11 weeks of pregnancy, tears at the heart.

Then – wham! – there are poems that mock or belittle those huge emotions. ‘A birth’, for example, ends, ‘Serenity explodes. I need a beer.’ And  the jaunty ‘Song of the anti-depressant’ in this context reads as an enactment of the great Australian embarrassment that compulsively attacks any show of emotion with a joke.

The mood swings continue in the remaining three sections: ‘News’, ‘Sport’ and ‘Weather’, though the self-deprecatory comic comes more to the fore so that heartfelt love lyrics, serious reflections or, say, ‘Laura to Petrarch’ (in which the beloved writes back – and comes close to calling Petrarch a stalker), are undermined by generally unfunny comic pieces about infidelity, the internet, the weather, and especially an ‘eat drink and be merry’ response to climate change that left a very sour taste in this reader’s mouth.

This book won the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for poetry last year, not one of the controversial winners. I bought my copy on the strength of the award, but while I’m confident it would be a pleasure to attend a poetry reading that included Melinda Smith, I won’t be rushing out to buy the next book given a gong by that set of judges.


This is the fifth book I’ve read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2015.