Monthly Archives: April 2016

Dimity Figner

Dimity Figner, feminist, artist and generally lovely person died on Thursday in a nursing home in Nowra. She had been sick for some time, and some of her many friends were with her at the end.

There was a retrospective exhibition of Dimity’s art in Nowra earlier this year, and she was active in the Older Women’s Network until recently (at that link is a photo of Dimity and 13 other rambunctious older women celebrating the publication of a history of Nowra OWN). In the 1970s she designed a beautiful Women’s Liberation symbol that has been widely used on badges and publications in Australia. She briefly illustrated for The School Magazine in the early 1980s. Back when I used to run into her regularly I could count on her to say she liked my hair just about a day before my official grooming consultant told me it was time to visit the barber.

One of our most cherished art acquisitions is this wonderful little bust, her creation:

Many people will miss Dimity. I’m one of them.

Added on 6 May: I don’t think many people will be aware of Dimity’s work with The School Magazine. Here’s a scan we managed to get of a 1981 cover by her (difficult if not impossible to get a perfect scan, as the bound volumes don’t flatten out without damage):

Martin Harrison’s Happiness

Martin Harrison, Happiness (UWA Publishing 2015)

1742586864.jpgI’d pretty much finished writing this blog post when I discovered the special issue of Plumwood Mountain, an ‘Australian journal of ecopoetry and ecopoetics’, dedicated to the memory of Martin Harrison who died in 2014 while Happiness was being prepared for the press. I won’t be offended if you click over to that and don’t bother with the rest of my post. But here it is anyhow:

An email is doing the rounds with the subject line ‘Poetry Experiment’. It asks you to do two things: 1) send a poem – any poem – to the first on a list of two people; and 2) alter the email by moving the second person on that list to the top and adding yourself in second place, then Bcc the altered email to 20 friends. If everyone follows instructions, 400 poems will soon arrive in your inbox.

I did as instructed, and received 4 poems: four famous lines from William Blake, a prose quote from Mahatma Gandhi, Emily Dickinson’s ‘He ate and drank the precious words‘, and a Leunig verse. The person at the top of my list sent me copies of the poems she received. There were five from my friends: some lines from Auden, Shakespeare, and Rumi, and whole poems by Judith Wright and (again) Emily Dickinson.

Tentative conclusions: the vast majority of people don’t take to poetry, or at least to a combination of chain letters and poetry; people are generally more willing to share poetry than to ask other people to do so; and we’re more likely to share favourite lines than whole poems.

Which brings me to Happiness. There are any number of excerpts that would do perfectly for the poetry experiment. For example, this lovely evocation of a landscape in ‘Summer Rain Front, North Coast’:

the mountain mirrored in the instant’s stillness
of the calm sea flooding into the bay
the mountain photoing its image on the waters
over the grounds where dolphins track    and then its scarves
hanging high in the air like drifted parachutes
white against blue

But probably none of its poems is chain-letter material in its entirety – they’re too long, and mostly proceed like conversation rather than performance. That is, the pleasure of reading them doesn’t come so much from brilliant turns of phrase or striking metaphors as from the sense that one is being invited to join the poet in his experience of the world, his loving embrace of it, including that part of it he addresses as ‘you’, which at least sometimes is his lover Nizat Bouheni, to whom the book is dedicated, and who died in 2010. There are love poems, poems filled with meticulous, immersive observations of nature, forty-five pages of elegies. There are a couple of awkward but trenchant poems on the politics of climate change, and an ‘experimental’ poem that an author’s note (kindly) informs us is ‘made up of responses to a randomly sorted set of instructions repeated four times’. And there’s one satirical description of some US Americans abroad.

One of my favourite moments in the book, which is in some ways representative, is in ‘Wallabies’. After three pages of  two-line stanzas evoking the sights and sounds of a particular Australian landscape with something approaching ecstatic fervour (the absence of punctuation may make this hard to decipher at first, but patience pays off):

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

and much more, there’s this:

that twenty mile shadow across the claypan’s a fence

which as dusk comes is a lightning-quick snake
momentarily distracting the way they appear

as if from nowhere like sentinels weathered stone
camping in that stubble sunset-toned no like mushrooms

wallabies two of them and then three over there then more
pale half-red underfur letting them melt into late light

alert as the slanting hour’s alert to earth cool as wine
then the shriek as they scatter

I love how the poem enacts the way you often become aware of the presence of wallabies in a landscape rather than see them arrive: they’ve been in the poem for three lines before they are named. They may be the subject of the poem, but they are part of a much bigger field. Harrison’s poetry often seeks out and celebrates the tiny or the evanescent – a blue wren nesting under the eaves on a sweltering day, a moment in a changing skyscape, a half-heard sound in the upstate New York woods. These lines from ‘A Music’, which is the second part of ‘Two for You’, an elegy for Nizar Bouhemi, could be describing much of Harrison’s poetry:

________The singleness
of each event in

its own swerve and
sharpness, drawing

attention and attentiveness
making it seem as if anyone

could just see it, grasp it,
wait to understand

what no one understands

Martin Harrison’s death of a heart attack in 2014 makes this book’s attention to the fleeting and its grappling with the realities of death incredibly poignant


The Book Group & Salman Rushdie’s Two Years Eight Months & Twenty-Eight Nights

Salman Rushdie, Two Years Eight Months & Twenty-Eight Nights (Jonathan Cape 2015)

2yrs.jpgSadly (or not – you be the judge), I missed the book group meeting on Wednesday night. Unusually, though, there was a lot of email discussion of the book in the lead-up to the date. Here are annotated excerpts from the emails, with names changed and identifying detail removed:

3 March 1:35 pm, Alphonse:
Salman Rushdie, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights: ‘From one of the greatest writers of our time: the most spellbinding, entertaining, wildly imaginative novel of his great career, which blends history and myth with tremendous philosophical depth. A masterful, mesmerising modern tale about worlds dangerously colliding, the monsters that are unleashed when reason recedes, and a beautiful testament to the power of love and humanity in chaotic times.’
NEXT DATE: Wednesday 20 April / 7pm
NEXT VENUE: Bill … we voted last night that the next meeting would be at your place. Hope that’s OK with you and that you are able to join us.

That was all until:

15 Apr 2016 2:45 pm, me:
Hi all
I’m assuming our next meeting is confirmed for Wednesday 20th at Bill’s place, as in Alphonse’s last email.
Sadly I won’t be able to make it. I’m about three-quarters through the book, and mostly enjoying it. (I love the description of Obama on p 127.) I’ve read a number of children’s books dealing with similar subject matter and I’m not sure that this is any more engaging than the best of them. If you’re interested you could have a look for the Bartimaeus Sequence by Jonathan Stroud.

Having now finished Rushdie’s book, I would name Sophie Masson’s Snow, Fire, Sword as a more relevant children’s book: Sophie has supernatural beings from Arabic lore wreak havoc in Indonesia, with an implied parallel to real-world Wahhabism – a scenario not a million miles from Rushdie’s book. Here’s the Obama description I mentioned:

… the president of the United States was an unusually intelligent man, eloquent, thoughtful, subtle, measured in word and deed, a good dancer (though not as good as his wife), slow to anger, quick to smile, a religious man who thought of himself as a man of reasoned action, handsome (if a little jug-eared), at ease in his own body like a reborn Sinatra (though reluctant to croon) and colour-blind.

The prospective roll-call began:

15 Apr 4:02 pm, Chrysostom:
Apologies from me too. Am in the bush

15 Apr 5:18 pm, Dionysus:
I’ll be there

And then the opinions started:

15 Apr 10:37 pm, Errol wrote:
I’ll be there, but as a complete bludger I’m afraid. I couldn’t get traction with the book. I tried three times but then I put it down and just couldn’t pick it up again.
Looking forward to other opinions
PS. What’s the address?

17 Apr 8:52 am, Ferdinand:

17 Apr 10:49 am, Dionysus being a little more forthcoming:
Glad to hear I’m not alone.

That’s three people who couldn’t get past the first few pages. I’m guessing that’s because there’s a lot in those pages about 12th century philosophical debates between Ibn Rushd (known to the West until recently as Averroes, and surely not coincidentally sounding a bit like ‘Rushdie’) and Ghazali (said to be the most influential Islamic scholar since Mohammad), mixed in with a lot of lore about jinn, plus some unconvincing sex. For a book that’s going to feature fairies and magic and levitation and comic book monsters, this beginning is perhaps just a little anxious to establish that the author has a serious underlying theme. Surely Salman could hear his readers muttering, ‘Get on with it!’

Back to the correspondence.

17 Apr 4:52 pm, Graham:
Just back this morning from overseas. So far I am enjoying the book but not finished yet. Has Bill said it’s on for Wed?
I am keen to come but may need to cancel at the last minute.
Keen to hear what people thought of the book

Hmm, enjoying it, but not going to move heaven and earth to talk about it with the comrades. And still no word from Bill.

18 Apr 8:17 am, Harald:
I’m on, got half way so far, with a similar lack of interest. Too much jinnying, to too little purpose.

Was ever a book so unenthusiastically greeted?

For my part, the place where I nearly put the book aside was page 107, well before the halfway mark:

… in Times Square … for a period of time variously described by different witnesses as ‘a few seconds’ and ‘several minutes’, the clothes worn by every man in the square disappeared, leaving them shockingly naked, while the contents of their pockets – cellphones, pens, keys, credit cards, currency, condoms, sexual insecurities, inflatable egos, women’s underwear, guns, knives, the phone numbers of unhappily married women, hip flasks, masks, cologne, photographs of angry daughters, photographs of sullen teenage boys, breath-freshening strips, plastic baggies containing white powder, spliffs, lies, harmonicas, spectacles, bullets, and broken, forgotten hopes – tumbled down to the ground. A few seconds (and maybe minutes) later the clothes reappeared but the nakedness of the men’s revealed possessions, weaknesses and indiscretions unleashed a storm of contradictory emotions, including shame, anger and fear. women ran screaming while the men scrambled for their secrets, which could be put back into their revenant pockets but which, having been revealed, could no longer be concealed.

That’s clever, it’s funny in a number of ways, and nicely written, with a touch of surreal silliness (when did you last see a sexual insecurity lying on the footpath?). But I was overwhelmed with a sense that life is short and Two Years, Eight Months & Twenty-Eight Nights is long. Too much jinnying indeed, and if this is part of what the book calls the War of the Worlds, there’s a serious gap between what the book seems to be claiming to be and what it actually is. Oh Salman, Salman, the readers are still muttering. Still, I went in mildly to bat:

18 Apr 8:42 am, me:
I’ll be interested to know if people think his account of the ‘purpose’ towards the end makes up for all the jinnying.

And then things got all organisational.

18 Apr 09:12 am, Alphonse:
So we have:
*   4 apologies
*   3 yes (2 of whom haven’t got far with the book)
*   3 no reply
*   no confirmed venue
Do we reschedule to a new venue next week ?

18 Apr 1:16 pm, Errol (who, remember, hadn’t got past the first couple of pages):
The way I see it, it’s not our fault that Salman Rushdie is a stuffed shirt with funny ideas and a strange way of saying them.
What if we ignore him? How about those of us that are available just go out for a meal on Wednesday night and hang out?

Bill (who hadn’t read the book) finally surfaced from his heavy other commitments to say that his place wasn’t possible this week, and with a little back and forth it was decided to go ahead, in a restaurant, last night. Harald (of the ‘too much jinnying’ comment) said he’d try to finish the book in time, and Jamahl chimed in:

18 Apr 4:40 pm, Jamahl:
I’ve read the book and enjoyed it.
See you at the restaurant.

By now, I was spoiling for a conversation:

19 Apr 11:22 am, me: 
I’m sorry I can’t be there. Apart from the always excellent company, I would have enjoyed advocating for the book. It’s not as if I enjoyed it hugely. I struggled with the start and was tempted to give up at about page 100 (where the jinnery was getting tedious). Also, the sense that Rushdie was doing stuff that many children’s books had been doing for decades made me kind of resentful by proxy
in the end I was drawn in by the way he expects us to treat Arabic scholars with the same respect as we would western mediaeval ones; and the way he seduces us into seeing the ‘fairy’ world of northern Africa as central, with various more familiar Indian and Greek gods as manifestations of them. There’s a tiny bit where two characters are married at the Auribondo ashram in Pondicherry, by ‘Mother herself’ – an Indian email friend of mine has told me about Mother, who was a huge influence in my friend’s life. I wondered how many other references there were that non-Westerners would pick up on that just float by me. And yet, the book is definitely a novel in the western tradition, even if closer to children’s books and graphic novels than to Bleak House.
That’s my two bits.

Which drew Jamahl out with a perfect counterbalance to my over-seriousness. The book is after all a lot of fun, with goth-girls hurling lightning from their fingers and elderly gardeners floating a couple of millimetres above the ground, and terrible things happening to people’s skin if they tell lies in the presence of a magical baby:

19 Apr 5:06 pm, Jamahl: 
What a fantastic BUT.
Despite the river of references flowing by unnoticed while I read I still enjoyed the book. While I read I would suspend disbelief and wallow in the plasticity of time. There are also moments of ‘couldn’t give a fuck to consequence’ that I wholeheartedly supported.
While as a retiree you may be familiar with these freedoms this book allowed me to drift and swim in them.

No report from the dinner yet.

NSW Premier’s Literary Awards 2016 Shortlist

I love the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. As a country boy at heart, I’ve had the best time when I’ve attended the awards dinner, just gawking at the Writers, including the ones I can claim as friends or – once – a relation. This year’s short list was announced this week. You can see the full list with judges’ comments on a pdf press release from the State Library, and you can click through to notes on the list on the State Library’s website here.

In case you missed it in the press (as I did), here it is, not as a dreaded PDF or requiring you to click back and forth, but with added links to my blog posts on the shamefully few I’ve read (or seen).

Christina Stead Prize for Fiction ($40,000)
Ghost River, Tony Birch (University of Queensland Press)
Locust Girl, A Lovesong, Merlinda Bobis (Spinifex Press)
Clade, James Bradley (Penguin Random House)
The Life of Houses, Lisa Gorton (Giramondo)
A Guide to Berlin, Gail Jones (Penguin Random House)
The World Without Us, Mireille Juchau (Bloomsbury)

UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing ($5,000)
Fever of Animals, Miles Allinson (Scribe Publications)
An Astronaut’s Life, Sonja Dechian (Text Publishing)
Relativity, Antonia Hayes (Penguin Random House)
In the Quiet, Eliza Henry-Jones (HarperCollins Publisher)
When There’s Nowhere Else to Run, Murray Middleton (Allen & Unwin)
Hot Little Hands, Abigail Ulman (Penguin Random House)

Douglas Stewart Prize for Non-fiction ($40,000)
The Nashos’ War: Australia’s National Servicemen and Vietnam, Mark Dapin (Penguin Random House)
One Life: My Mother’s Story, Kate Grenville (Text Publishing)
Across the Seas: Australia’s Response to Refugees: A History, Klaus Neumann (Black Inc.)
Reckoning: A Memoir, Magda Szubanski (Text Publishing)
Island Home, Tim Winton (Penguin Random House)
Small Acts of Disappearance, Fiona Wright (Giramondo)

Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry ($30,000)
Brush, Joanne Burns (Giramondo)
Eelahroo (Long Ago) Nyah (Looking) Möbö-Möbö (Future), Lionel G. Fogarty (Vagabond Press)
The Hazards, Sarah Holland-Batt (University of Queensland Press)
Fainting with Freedom, Ouyang Yu (Five Islands Press)
Terra Bravura, Meredith Wattison (Puncher & Wattmann)
Not Fox Nor Axe, Chloe Wilson (Hunter Publishers

Patricia Wrightson Prize for Children’s Literature ($30,000)
Tea and Sugar Christmas, Jane Jolly & Robert Ingpen (National Library of Australia)
A Single Stone, Meg McKinlay (Walker Books Australia)
Molly and Pim and the Millions of Stars, Martine Murray (Text Publishing)
The Greatest Gatsby: A Visual Book of Grammar, Tohby Riddle (Penguin Random House
Teacup, Rebecca Young & Matt Ottley (Scholastic Australia)
Flight, Nadia Wheatley & Armin Greder (Windy Hollow Books)

Ethel Turner Prize for Young Adult’s Literature ($30,000)
Battlesaurus: Rampage at Waterloo, Brian Falkner (Pan Macmillan)
Freedom Ride, Sue Lawson (Black Dog Books)
Laurinda, Alice Pung (Black Inc.)
Welcome to Orphancorp, Marlee Jane Ward (Seizure)
The Peony Lantern, Frances Watts (HarperCollins Publisher)
The Guy, the Girl, the Artist and his Ex, Gabrielle Williams (Allen & Unwin)

2016 Nick Enright Prize for Playwriting ($30,000)
Boys Will Be Boys, Melissa Bubnic (Sydney Theatre Company)
Broken, Mary Anne Butler (Currency Press)
The Bleeding Tree, Angus Cerini (Currency Press in association with Griffin Theatre Company)
Battle of Waterloo, Kylie Coolwell (Sydney Theatre Company)
Hello, Goodbye & Happy Birthday, Roslyn Oades (Malthouse Theatre)

Betty Roland Prize for Scriptwriting ($30,000)
Last Cab to Darwin, Reg Cribb & Jeremy Sims (Last Cab Productions)
Deadline Gallipoli, Episode 1, Jacquelin Perske (Matchbox Pictures)
The Secret River, Part 2, Jan Sardi & Mac Gudgeon (Ruby Entertainment)
Deadline Gallipoli, Episode 4: “The Letter”, Cate Shortland (Matchbox Pictures)
House of Hancock, Katherine Thomson (Cordell Jigsaw Zapruder)

Multicultural NSW Award ($20,000)
Shining: The Story of a Lucky Man, Abdi Aden & Robert Hillman (HarperCollins Publisher)
The Other Side of the World, Stephanie Bishop (Hachette Australia)
The Principal, Episode 1, Kristen Dunphy (Essential Media and Entertainment)
Good Muslim Boy, Osamah Sami (Hardie Grant Books)
We Are Here, Cat, Thao Nguyen (Allen & Unwin)
Vera: My Story, Vera Wasowski & Robert Hillman (Black Inc.)

Indigenous Writer’s Prize (New Award) ($30,000)
Ghost River, Tony Birch (University of Queensland Press)
Inside My Mother, Ali Cobby Eckermann (Giramondo)
Dirty Words, Natalie Harkin (Cordite Publishing Inc.)
Dark Emu, Bruce Pascoe (Magabala Books)
Heat and Light, Ellen van Neerven (University of Queensland Press)
Not Just Black and White, Lesley Williams and Tammy Williams (University of Queensland Press)

The awards are announced on 16 May, no longer at a dinner but at an exclusive cocktail event, at the start of the Sydney Writers’ Festival. I’m hoping to have read a couple more by then. It’s a big list.

Ed Brubaker’s Fatale

Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, with colours by Dave Stewart, Fatale Book 1: Death Chases Me (Image 2012)

9781607065630.jpgI enjoyed Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’ The Fade Out immensely, so when I saw that this book of theirs was part of the ridiculously expensive pile of comics that one of my sons gave me as a birthday present (not so ridiculous, of course, when you realise that he would read them after me), I was pleased.

It’s a detective yarn combined with a Lovecraftian horror story. The telling is satisfyingly complex, shifting back and forth between two time periods and only gradually revealing the nature of the dilemmas facing the the lead characters, but laying out enough hints that when things take a turn for the bizarre there’s a sense of continuity. The artwork is consistently dramatic and serves the story well. Sex scenes are relatively tactful. Gore is over the top without being too realistic and the worst atrocity remains unseen by the reader. This is the first of five volumes (consisting of the first 5 of 24 comics), and does a great job of setting up the story, rounding out its own arc, and signalling a number of clear questions yet to be answered.

But my response was pretty meh. I guess horror’s just not my thing. The poet Martin Johnston once said that Lovecraft was a terrible writer but he gave you great nightmares. Sadly, I don’t expect even the nightmares from this.

Marlon James’s Brief History of Seven Killings

Marlon James, A Brief History of Seven Killings (OneWorld 2015)

1780746350.jpgI was reading A Brief History of Seven Killings in a cafe when I noticed that the young man at the next table was reading Oliver Twist, and the horrible thought occurred to me that Marlon James’s work might one day, like Dickens’s, be required reading in schools and universities. Assuming that its spectacular obscenity, violence and graphic sex won’t protect it from such a fate, I offer here, in lieu of a blog post, some possible essay questions:

  • ‘The book’s epigraph, “If it no go so, it go near so” implies a claim to historical truth. While the central event of the narrative, the attempted assassination of Bob Marley on 3 December 1976, is verifiable, the novel relies more on the tropes of US drugs-and-violence cinema and television than on historical research.’ Discuss.
  • James says in his acknowledgements: ‘I had a novel, and it was right in front of me all that time. Half-formed and fully formed characters, scenes out of place, hundreds of pages that needed sequence and purpose. A novel that would be driven only by voice.’ Is that an accurate description of the novel as it finally appeared? (Suggested answer: Far too modest, but kind of.)
  • ‘The novel is narrated by 12 different voices. Although most of them are Jamaican gunmen, they are brilliantly differentiated. At times, especially in the third of the book’s five sections, the sheer virtuosity of it becomes the point of the writing, and the narrative slows almost to a halt.’ Is this fair?  (Suggested answer: Yes, but the writing really is fabulous.)
  • What is the function of the many references to US popular culture? Does it differ with different characters? For example, a main gunman’s nom de guerre is Josey Wales and there are many other references to Clint Eastwood movies, while the only woman narrator refers several times to US television as a guide to how she is expected to behave. Is it necessary to be familiar with Dynasty and T. J. Hooker [whatever that is] to understand the novel?
  • Given that the book runs to nearly 700 pages, to what extent is the title ironic? Given that vastly more than seven people are killed, which are the seven referred to in the title?
  • The character known only as the Singer is definitely Bob Marley. Does the book make you want to (re)listen to all his music and read about his life? [Recommended answer: Yes]
  • Nina Burgess says in page 157: ‘The problem with a book is that you never know what it’s planning to do to you until you’re too far into it.’ Did this book tease the reader with other meta moments such as this? Were the many jibes at white men who think they know about Jamaica meant to prompt white readers of the book to check themselves for voyeuristic tendencies [or was that just me?]
  • We have become accustomed to some Hollywood movies’ preoccupation with penis size and certain sexual activities as easy metaphors for domination. Most of the characters here fall back on that rhetoric is a way that would be deadening if not for the Jamaican ‘bad chat’ elements. Does the one scene of tender sexual intimacy counterbalance this, or is it a token nod to alternative takes on sexuality?

There, that should do it.

Oh, another thing: One reason I read this book was that I had so enjoyed Andrea Levy’s Small Island, and wanted to read more from the Caribbean. Apart from the sheer exhilarating joy of the language in both, I can’t say they have much in common. But that could be the basis for one more essay question: compare and contrast.