Monthly Archives: July 2016

Colleen Z Burke’s Waves Turn

Colleen Z Burke, The Waves Turn: A memoir (Feakle Press 2016; for availability see here)

waves turn.JPG

Colleen Z Burke is a Sydney poet whose work, as David Brooks says in his introduction to her Home Brewed and Lethal (1997), ‘has not received the attention and awards it’s deserved’. She is a poet of place, particularly inner-city Sydney and the Blue Mountains; a poet of domestic life, feminist and fiercely maternal; a historical poet, exploring the stories of working class Australians  and her Irish heritage. I’ve blogged about a couple of her books (here and here) and our paths have crossed in a number of contexts. The word that comes to mind is ‘staunch’. The Waves Turn tells the story of her first three decades.

Colleen was born in the early 1940s into a tight working-class Irish Catholic community in Bondi, not a hundred miles or many years from the world of Ruth Park’s The Harp in the South. She was educated by the Sisters of St Joseph, whose treatment of their young charges in Colleen’s day would not have helped the cause of their founder Mary MacKillop’s canonisation half a century later. Leaving school at 15 to help with the family finances, she landed a public service job, but was already snatching moments to write poems and read widely. With a friend she dared to venture into Sydney’s bohemian milieu, but remained enough her mother’s daughter not to plunge into their pre-feminist sex and drugs lifestyle. From there it was small dramatic step into the thriving folk music scene, where she was courted by singer Declan Affley, whom she eventually married, and began to discover her deep connections to Ireland.

Declan’s personality dominates the second two thirds of the memoir, as they negotiate their relationship, travel together to North Queensland, to Melbourne and to Ireland and England, struggling to earn enough money to live on (mostly it’s Colleen who earns while Declan’s work as a musician is paid pathetically), joining causes, and making music. In an extraordinary range of contexts, almost in the shadows, Colleen finds a place for her typewriter and works away at her poetry. This was before the days of creative writing courses, and it was a lonely enterprise, requiring a heroic determination to hold to her own course against all expectations – from bohemians and folkies as much as from Catholics – that she would make a man the centre of her life.

In 1975, which is as far as the book takes us, Colleen was in her early 30s. She had finally gained a university degree, the first in her family to do so. Her mother had died, her first book, Go Down Singing, had been published in the feminist Khasmik Poets Series, and half a dozen of her poems were included in Kate Jennings’s landmark anthology of Australian women poets, Mother I’m Rooted. We know from occasional mentions that she will have children, and from her poetry that Declan will die young and unexpectedly, that there will be more hardship, so it feels as if the book just stops rather than coming to an end point. The final sentence reads:

And as waves turn I’m unsure what the future holds but look forward with anticipation.

Where some memoirs read like novels that claim to be factual, The Waves Turn is more like a careful accumulation of facts in which a story can be discerned. The image of an archaeological dig comes to mind: Colleen Z Burke has delved patiently into the layers of memory, brushed the dirt from the innumerable artefacts she found there, labelled them and arranged them chronologically. Sometimes, in talking about the folk scene for example, memory has almost certainly been helped by festival programs or similar documentation.

There were places where I found the accumulation of detail fascinating, such as the points of similarity between Colleen’s childhood and my North Queensland Catholic childhood half a decade later: the same bottles of milk curdling in the sun at school (why?), the same ‘worms’ made by Vegemite in biscuits with holes (which I read just the other day will soon cease to exist), the same songs of Irish nostalgia. In my 20s, I followed in some of Colleen’s paths: to the edges of the Push and the folk music scene, to protest against the US and Australian war in Vietnam, to the ferment of women’s liberation, to the stacks of Fisher Library at Sydney University (though in that case I was there half a decade before her) … the list goes on. There’s pleasure in recognising the names of people, streets and buildings, in being reminded of forgotten rituals (Oh, that’s right, on Friday nights people would ask, ‘Where’s the party?’). I don’t know how it would be for someone who hadn’t been there. They might do a lot of head-scratching (as with the passing reference to some Catholics not buying Sanitarium breakfast cereals) and skipping (as with the list of performers at numerous folk-music events).

An edition of the book that included footnotes on all the musicians and big personalities mentioned would be spectacular. I recognised only a handful, but if the ones I didn’t recognise were as interesting as that handful, each list of names in this book is a flag pointing to a trove of stories.

We do get the stories of Colleen and Declan, or rather many of their stories.

For example, Declan Affley is perhaps the only good thing in Tony Richardson’s 1970 movie Ned Kelly. (In a nostalgic moment, I recently downloaded ‘The Wild Colonial Boy‘ from the soundtrack – Mick Jagger reduces it to passionless rinkydink, but Affley’s tin whistle fights to give the song heart, and wins.) The book takes us behind the scenes, not to juicy celebrity gossip, but to how the film gave economic relief to Affley and Colleen, and how, having the rarity of a decent amount of money, they splurged on luxuries.

More than fifty poems are scattered through the book, many of them dealing with events or places that have just been described in prose. So, not just in general but very specifically, the memoir gives a valuable insight into the relationship of the poetry to the life, into things that can only be said in poetry. For example, towards the end of the book, Colleen is employed on a survey to assess the health and welfare needs of people in the suburb of Glebe. In prose:

The health/welfare survey had its limitations, all surveys do, but talking to people in the open-ended section, I gleaned interesting information about their lives. The diverse community included students, transients, pensioners, professionals and more affluent residents in wealthier parts of Glebe Point. We interviewed people from the Glebe Estate in houses owned by the Catholic Church. The Glebe Estate wasn’t bought by the Federal Labor government’s Department of Urban and Regional Affairs, under the radical leadership of Tom Uren, until late 1974.

And so on. In typing that out, I’m reminded of something that nagged at me, though it might be of no significance to most readers. Feakle Press clearly operates on a shoestring, with little money for professional copy-editing, and my blue-pencil finger twitches to fact-check and clarify. In this paragraph, for example: the Glebe Estate was owned by the Anglicans, not the Catholics; will readers from elsewhere understand the reference to Glebe Point (perhaps ‘more affluent residents who lived close to the water at Glebe Point’ would cover it)? is the government purchase relevant, or a distracting complication? But these editorial questions are beside the point here. Colleen then gives us her poem, ‘The questionnaire’, which I hope she won’t mind me reproducing in full:

The questionnaire

walking through Glebe
these summery days
of nearly autumn
of nearly autumnI move
through street shadows
of paperthin _ March trees
________to arrive
_____________ anywhere.
Knock on doors
___________opened
by young people
____________eager
as spring to answer
____________ _anything.
But older rustier men
__mostly nod their heads
like old clocks
__listening somewhere else
and pensioners
___________warm as sunlight
___________caught in old brick walls
look at my papers
____________ my well-chosen words
then shut their doors kindly.
And clutching empty questions
I run home
through thin pools
of March trees
__________ singing

And we’re there.

AWW2016The Waves Turn is the sixth book I’ve read as part of the 2016 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Australian Poetry Journal 5.2 and 6.1

Michael Sharkey (editor),  Australian Poetry Journal, Volume 5, Issue 2 (2015)
———,  Australian Poetry Journal, Volume 6, Issue 1 (2016)

Australian Poetry Journal is the nearest thing we have to a community newsletter for Australian poets and poetry-readers. It is delivered twice a year to paid-up  members of Australian Poetry Ltd. My copy tends to wait until I’ve got a book on the go that’s too bulky to read while walking. Thanks to a couple of hefty books, I’ve recently caught up on two issues, as well as last year’s anthology (also covered by the cost of membership). In case you’re interested, the joys of these journals aren’t restricted to members: anyone can buy copies, and the entire contents of issue 5:2 are up online. I’ve included links.

APJ-5-2.jpg Issue 5:2 leads with a wonderful profile (here) by Dan Disney, Un Gyung Yi and Daye Jeon of some contemporary Korean poets, including octogenarian Ko Un, whom Allen Ginsberg called ‘a demon-driven Bodhisattva’. In other articles, Nicolette Stasko farewells JS Harry, who died last year, quoting generously from her work (here); there’s a knowledgable article about Stuart Cooke (here) and a number of reviews, including a piece on US poet and activist Denise Levertov by Felicity Plunkett (here); Adrian Caesar tells the story of David Musgrave’s Puncher & Wattmann (here).

I can’t resist mentioning that Adrian Caesar, who is enthusiastic about most of P&W’s publications, has misgivings about some of the criticism they publish. After quoting a paragraph of dense academic writing from a recent book, he lets fly:

In its determined promulgation of specialised language, its astonishing lack of wit or irony … and its pervading sense of high-minded seriousness, it made me wonder if the writers were not like adherents of some gnostic sect seeking to articulate their search for the numinous through their ‘belief’ in literary theory.

Shades of the Dunciad Minor.

Then there are the poems, roughly 50 of them. I turned down the corners of too many pages to talk about all the poems I responded to, so I’ll just list some of the raisins from the pudding.

Susan Hawthorne interrogates a photograph of her grandmother in ‘unknowing‘. Jennifer Compton’s ‘Two Women‘ explores the difficulty of the ‘inconstant narrative of bewilderment’ created by, well, is it dementia or just habitual white-lying? Ivy Alvarez, in ‘N‘ riffs on ‘n’ words chosen as if at random from the dictionary:

noctambulist:
_______I once walked out a sleeping house
_______to see the moon
_______trees tethered their shadows
_______and I was the only one that moved

Kit Kelen’s ‘In my incunabula‘ reminisces about technologies past, beginning:

TV was eternity.
There was always the promise of snow

Tom Morton’s ‘November‘ is a very Sydney poem, sweet to read on a cold July day:

The days get longer, a sudden heatwave
And the outrageous heavy sweetness
Of the jacarandas on the river path
Jiggles the deadlocks on
Whole rooms of me
I’ve not been in, this long winter

Jordie Albiston rings in the 2015 New Year in ‘strontium‘. Vanessa Proctor celebrates  a plant in ‘Bathroom Orchid‘. Ron Heard tackles birdsong in ‘currawongs‘. John Stokes offers an oblique love lyric in ‘She feels him at a seaside motel‘ (‘The curves of his buttock / and the moon / are the same’). There’s Andy Kissane, Eileen Chong, Ron Pretty … Michael Sharkey has put together a feast that has something for everyone.

APJ-6-1.jpgHe does it again in issue 6:1, which has a focus on women poets and their concerns: a lively article by Carol Jenkins brings an epidemiological approach to gender and age distribution in Australian poetry anthologies; Heather Taylor Johnson profiles Susan Hawthorne, poet–founder of feminist Spinifex Press; Tegan Schetrumpf argues that writing groups offer an alternative to the patriarchal lone-genius-poet paradigm. Off-theme, but who would complain, is a fine tribute by Helen Nickas to Dmitris Tsaloumis, Greek Australian poet who died in February aged 94; and reviews of work by πO and Lesbia Harford, among others.

And there are another 50 or so poems. I got tears in my eyes (though I defy anyone to guess at which poem), I smiled, I gasped, I felt moments of my own experience vibrate into new life.

‘Old haunts’, a haibun by Sam Wagan Watson, evokes childhood terrors at the sounds of the night. J. Richard Quigley’s ‘Fondue’ utters the thought one dare not speak when offered that cheesy dish. Heather Taylor Johnson’s ‘They Say’ makes poetry that transcends its ‘kids say the darnedest things’ source material. Rod Usher has serious fun with Italian verbs in ‘The imperfect’. My own peculiar edginess about kitchen knives is echoed uncannily in Claire Rosslyn Wilson’s ‘Cooking for Two’, and the precise language of ‘Stories from the kampong’, Mindy Gill’s narrative about a chicken-coop-raiding python, captured my own childhood memory of a similar incident (a significant difference being that, though we talked about the possibility, we didn’t eat the snake or the chickens it had eaten). Rozanna Lilley’s ‘Early onset’ touches on the pain of having someone close affected by dementia.The first poem of Brendan Doyle’s that I read began, from memory, ‘Sittin on the gasbox, / waitin for me dad’; in ‘The Wooden Gate’ here, his father ‘dead these sixteen years’ pays a reproachful visit in a dream. ‘Hearts and Minds’ by Stephen Edgar, master of rhyme, bounces beautifully off an artwork currently being created by the Emerging Artist. Dick Alderson’s ‘nail holes’ reminds me of my youthful fascination with the way holes in an iron shed ‘throw circles / on the floor / like soft pennies’.

There’s history: Virginia Jealous visits Edward ‘Weary’ Dunlop’s war diaries in ‘Weary’s Birds’; and Judith Beveridge’s ‘Ode to Ambergris’ does what it says on the lid, with lovely light musicality. There are elegiac moments, as in Pam Schindler’s ‘Like someone who is leaving’. In the twelve delicate short lines of ‘Jumhoori’, Hessom Razavi describes a cat and laments the state of his native Iran.

Paradoxically, given that I get no sense at all that these poems are competing with each other, there is a prize fort he best poem published in the journal each year.This issue includes 2015’s winner, Andy Kissane’s ‘Alone Again’, reprinted here with commentary from Andy.

I expect if you were asked to make a list of stand-out poems from these journals  your list would be different from mine, but I’m pretty confident you’d find something here to nourish you and give you pleasure.

Hanya Yanagihara’s Little Life with the Book Group

Hanya Yanagihara, A Little Life (Picador 2015)

We keep deciding we’re not going to pick big books for the Book Group, and then we keep picking them. A Little Life runs to 720 pages.

Before the meeting: I’d been warned this was a gruelling read, and I’ll add my own warning: do not read this book if you’re set off by accounts of cruelty, sexual abuse or self-harm.

The ‘little life’ of the title is that of Jude St Francis. His story, which emerges piecemeal throughout the novel, involves systematic sex abuse and physical violence from a very young age until his mid teens. His life turns around, and he finds deep companionship and love, professional success as a lawyer, a family such as he wouldn’t have dreamed  of. But the horrors of the past have left him with serious physical difficulties and a deep sense of his own worthlessness, even grotesquerie. He believes he must hide ‘what he is’ from the people he loves. In his 30s he has his first sexual encounter since the abuse of his childhood, and it leads to unbelievable brutality. From then on, there is a struggle between the demons of the past and the angels of the present, between his belief that somehow he deserves terrible things and the evidence all around him that he is cherished by his friends and adoptive family.

Some readers have seen the book as a kind of suffering porn, particularly in the graphic accounts of self-harm. (The harm inflicted by other people, including sexual harm deliberate and otherwise, is mostly told at a level of abstraction, with an almost fairytale quality.) I know what they mean, but I see it differently. Phrases like ‘mental health’, ‘sex abuse’ and even ‘child sex abuse’ are used a lot these days, and overuse can drain them of some of their meaning. For instance, when discussing the Australian government’s policy on people seeking asylum, leaders of both major parties can discount evidence that the policy results in ‘mental health problems’ and ‘sexual abuse’ for children. The words become political catch-cries, and their human meaning fades. The great strength of A Little Life is that it remorselessly, repetitively, unflinchingly but not (for my money) preachily pounds home the deep damage done to the human spirit by sustained abuse.

I don’t find the stories of abuse completely plausible, and I find the love story/stories saccharine at times. The financial and creative success of all the major characters and their upper-class New York lifestyles may irritate. But it’s a very powerful book. It would be hard to read it thoughtfully and ever again tell someone who had been severely abused to ‘get over it’, or think that there was some easy chemical or behavioural solution. There are moments in the narrative when there seems to be a breakthrough, but again and again we have been misled by hope. I don’t think the book preaches despair [though Hanya Yanigahara sometimes sounds as if that’s what she intends – as in the podcast linked to below], but it does urge us to remember that suffering is a long way from over when its cause is removed, that in some ways the worst that happens to a person isn’t the worst – the worst is not finding a way to recover from it.

A minor point: I’ll sometimes turn to the last page of a book looking for reassurance that things are going to turn out all right. I don’t know if Hanya Yanagihara had people like me in mind, but I can tell you, I hope without giving anything away, that the last paragraph of this book is completely misleading.

When the meeting was postponed because it clashed with the second State of Origin match: One of the chaps flagged that for him the book raises questions of ‘what and why we read’. I listened to the podcast of Hanya Yanigahara’s closing address to the Sydney Writers’ Festival. It’s a brilliant exegesis of her intentions in this novel, but I found myself retrospectively turning against the novel when she said things like:

For anyone who has turned away from a book because it is unbearable I would argue that there is a danger in forsaking a piece of art only because it is unpleasant, because it is destructive. The impulse to do so is human of course, and understandable, but the best that one human can do for another sometimes, the ultimate human act, is to witness, to open our eyes wider and look at what we would rather not, to regard what we think we cannot endure. When we give up seeing, we give up something greater. Once we start limiting what we can tolerate in literature, in art, we also start limiting our ability to see our fellow humans.

This reminded me reactively of the old comedian’s line, delivered in tones of high moral outrage: ‘I don’t want to see violence, incest, torture in films. I get enough of that sort of thing at home.’ That is to say, being a witness for another human being is a very different thing to being a witness for a made-up person.

Then, in another podcast from the festival, Charlotte Wood commented about her novel The Natural Way of Things (currently on my TBR pile):

You couldn’t live in this book as a reader for longer than it is. It’s a short book … It’s important not to leave people in that world for too long. I know there are some big books around at the moment that are very harrowing … and I think, ‘I don’t want to go there as a reader, I don’t want to put people through that.’

The reference to A Little Life was only half-serious, and the audience laughed, but she had a point.

At the meeting: Eventually we met, and it was one of the group’s more intense discussions.

Not everyone had finished the book. There’s nothing unusual about that, but this time the non-finishers all had reasons other than lack of time: one gave up after a mere hundred pages because none of the characters had enough individuality to claim his interest; two gave up close to the two-thirds mark because they realised that they didn’t have to stay trapped in the horrible imaginings of Hanya Yanagihara, and they reported that their lives improved when they closed the book.

Most of us acknowledged the power of the writing, though one said that he remained unmoved (except to anger at being manipulated) even by the graphic descriptions of self harm. Most of us felt that if the book was attempting a portrayal of male friendships, it failed. Shockingly, we realised that we never saw why the other men – friends and adoptive father – were drawn to withholding, self-effacing Jude: surely there was more to it than his beauty?

The most articulate disliker described his sense of being given no room for his own responses: at every turn he was being told how to feel about what he was being shown, and he was being shown only those parts of the characters’ lives that fitted the author’s agenda. Where were the jokes, the casual intimacies, the teasing? And as for sex, in this book it’s about men sticking a sex organ into someone else’s orifice, something you either do or don’t do with (to?) someone, with nothing between those two options, and no place for mutuality or negotiation. Sigh! (We noticed in passing the almost complete absence of women, unless one reads the main characters as really women with a communication disability.)

In short, the book had no passionate defender, but it made a deep impression on most of us.

A D Hope’s Dunciad Minor

A D Hope, Dunciad Minor: An heroick poem (Melbourne University Press 1970)

dunciad.jpgThis book is an oddity which had its origins in a private joke between A D Hope and his friend and fellow literary critic A A Phillips. In 1950, Phillips gave a radio talk in which he attacked Alexander Pope, a poet much admired by Hope. The attack was exaggerated and at least partly tongue in cheek, but it got Hope’s dander up, and he wrote a Pope-like mock-heroic satire in which the goddess of dullness elevates Phillips to be king of dunces. He sent the poem to Phillips and that would have been the end of it, except that photocopies circulated in Australian literary circles, and the work acquired a kind of underground classic status. Twenty years later, Hope decided to re-establish authorly control and agreed to have it published in a lavish edition by Melbourne University Press. He used the occasion expand the poem and broaden the target of its satire by adding two sections.

At the time it was written, Dunciad Minor, a long poem in rhyming couplets, bristling with references to Ancient Greek mythologies and 18th century English literature, was already an anachronism. Even the sections added in 1970, which referred mainly to literary criticism written between 1930 and 1950, were out of time: who now has heard of Blackmur, or Henn, or Christopher Caudwell? And now, though maybe it’s a case of Too Late Too Soon, the whole thing is like a piece of rusty artillery from an almost forgotten war, covered in weeds and forgotten in a cow paddock. And insofar as we remember the war, most people nowadays would think of Hope as having been on the wrong side. (For instance, Pope and his friends in heavcen look at a piece of 20th century poetry::

Verse without number, statement void of sense,
Flat verbiage and verbal flatulence,
Called Four Quartets, it kept no time or tune.
Pope thought it a political lampoon
Writ by some parson much bemused in beer)

But I did remember the poem, and reread it today on a bus ride, and enjoyed it. A long work in rhyming couplets runs the risk of monotony. This one avoids that thanks to a) Hope’s technical virtuosity and b) the joyful malice of his satire. It speaks volumes that it was probably Phillips, whom it maligns mercilessly, who put copies into circulation.

On the back endpapers I found two little poems in my own handwriting. Perhaps I’m only blogging about this book so I can share them:

Alec Derwent Hope
should have his mouth washed out with soap
for writing nothing Striner
than the Dunciad Minor.

and

A poet named Alec D Hope
was in love with another called Pope
When Phillips on air
to Pope was unfair
Hope took six books to call him a dope.

But let Hope have the last word. In his 1970 Preface he suggests that the poem is ‘the protest of a poet against the arrogance of the professor who shares his body’. The two sections added in 1970, in which critics of many stripes compete for who can produce the most stultifying machine, take that protest to extremes. Here’s one little bit, featuring US poet and critic Allen Tate:

His poems are golden but his prose is lead;
In Labyrinthine coils it crowds and squirms
With knotted syntax and entangled terms,
Strangles each poem, as the serpents once
Laocoön and his unhappy sons,
Enfolds and squeezes, crushes and extracts
Small crumbs of meaning and vast files of facts;
The poet crumbles and the reader nods
Yet on and on and on and on he plods
The tulips streaks are numbered, all admit,
But is the poem illumined? Not a whit;
For all his purpose is to demonstrate
The sensibilities of Allen Tate.

I can’t help but wonder what Hope would have done with the academic prose of these days of Theory.

James Brown’s Firing Line

James Brown, Quarterly Essay 62: Firing Line: Australia’s path to war (Black Inc 2016)

qe62.jpgThis Quarterly Essay could easily be read as an grim expansion on David Kilkullen’s quote from Trotsky in QE No 59: ‘You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.’ James Brown, former Australian Army officer who has been on duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, laments the lack of serious attention in Australia to possible scenarios for war, writing that we have been seriously unwilling to learn the lessons of the invasion of Iraq and so are very likely to make the same mistakes again:

Our military colleges are not yet universities for the study of war and our universities still view war as a morally tainted activity. (p 57)

But, I hear you cry (or is that just me?), war is of its nature a morally tainted activity. It involves the systematic killing of large numbers of people, and in our times those people inevitably include noncombatants. There’s nothing much more morally tainted than killing lots of children. To be fair to the author, it may be the study of war rather than war itself whose moral taint he questions: a few pages later he says, ‘to fight the cancer of war, we must know it, discuss it, think the malady through to its worst outcomes, understand and chart the darkest of possibilities’. The main burden of the essay is that this is not happening:

Australia’s oversight of national security is underdone and weak: one joint standing committee covers foreign affairs, defence and trade in toto. …  It is extraordinary that so little infrastructure is dedicated to parsing the issues of war. The national Disability Insurance Scheme, on which the government spends $15 billion each year, has an entire committee dedicated to its oversight. The national security apparatus, which accounts for more than 100 000 commonwealth employees and will soon absorb more than $45 billion each year, is entirely underscrutinised, and it shows. (p 57)

What this means, among other things:

The danger of the current system is that the main checks on the power of the prime minister to take Australia to war are his or her own intellect and character. (p 49)

Mercifully, that word ‘main’ carries a lot of weight here. Without even hinting that Tony Abbott is lacking in intellect and character, Brown lists a number of cases where Abbott was gung-ho for military action but was talked down by military advisers and others. But the essay argues convincingly for the establishment of a formal national security adviser. Without it, we will continue to respond to threats and challenges in a reactive way, or simply follow the US lead into war (Brown is too young for Harold Holt’s formulation ‘All the way with LBJ’ to spring to his typing fingers – I’m not).

Meanwhile, in the absence of scrutiny or study, or public debate in this country, tensions between China and the US are building. The probability of war is small, but it exists and, Brown argues, its implications should be thought through. Instead, a string of governments have taken initiatives – the US forces stationed in Darwin, the expanded submarine fleet – without any serious attempt to tell the rest of us what broader strategic thinking, if any, underpins them.

In the halls of the defence headquarters clustered by Canberra’s lake Burley Griffin, on bases spread from Perth to Puckapunyal, amid the Gold Coast hinterland, in shipyards and on the high seas, and in the clean rooms of advanced factories in northern Adelaide, a new ADF [Australian Defence Force] is being built. Across the Commonwealth the effort is consuming the attentions of more than 100 000 employees; it is exercising Australia’s diplomatic corps, stretching the decision-making capabilities of the federal government, vexing the most senior leaders in Canberra …

The build-up of the Australian Defence Force is well under way; the government has backed up its judgment that war could be a possibility within the next two decades with many billions of dollars. But Australians have barely begun to think through the consequences of all this, nor thought seriously about the circumstances that might bring our nation to the point of conflict. [pp 40, 44]

I expect the essay will be confronting to most readers – those like me who marched against the invasion of Iraq (OK, so Howard didn’t lie, but he didn’t interrogate what many people thought at the time was dodgy intelligence); those who are  gung-ho for military adventure; and plenty in between.

Poetry May 2016

Robert Adamson (guest editor), Poetry, May 2016 (Poetry Foundation, Chicago)

This special Australian Poets edition of Poetry magazine was launched at the Sydney Writers’ Festival this year by the regular editor Don Share. Guest editor Robert Adamson spoke and a number of the featured poets, including several who were coopted from the audience, read to us. Who could resist buying a copy?

The magazine contains 28 poems by 20 poets, along with 18 beautiful photo portraits by Juno Gemes and two survey essays by Jaya Savige and Bronwyn Lea, plus a charming note on Robert Adamson by US poet Devan Johnston.

Where the articles, particularly Bronwyn Lea’s ‘Australian Poetry Now‘, struggle with the impossible task of giving the readership, presumably mainly from the US, an overview of the state of Australian poetry, the selection does something different: it’s personal, making no claims to be representative or definitive. It includes a wonderful variety in forms and concerns: narrative, lyric, prose poems, formal experimentation. The landscape and geography are well represented. There are cultural references – both to settler and Aboriginal motifs – that will set non-Australians frantically googling, but at last as much Biblical and classical reference.

It’s hard to generalise about a collection like this, and equally hard to single out individual poems. But here goes with a few:

  • Ali Cobby Eckermann has two strong, plain-speaking poems, ‘Black Deaths in Custody‘ and ‘Thunder raining poison‘, the latter an incantatory response to a work of art about the effects of atomic tests on traditional lands at Maralinga.
  • Samuel Wagan Watson’s prose poems ‘Booranga Wire Songs‘ and ‘A one ended boomerang‘ really sing.
  • The first poem in magazine, Bonny Cassidy’s ‘Axe Derby‘, which plays tantalisingly on the image of a woodchopping competition
  • Anthony Lawrence’s ‘My darling turns to poetry at night‘ is a richly complex villanelle, whose title doesn’t mean what you expect.
  • Jaya Savige has fun with mangoes and anagrams in ‘Magnifera‘.

(The whole magazine is up on the Poetry Foundation’s website, so you can read it all on screen. All the links are to that website.)

Mary Beard’s SPQR

Mary Beard, SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome (Profile 2015)

spqr.jpgThe story of Mary Beard and the troll is a fable for our times about the power of generous intelligence. Its dissemination resulted in this ancient history scholar’s work being discovered by a whole new readership. That readership includes me.

This hefty book’s cover announces clearly enough that it’s a history of Ancient Rome. Its 536 pages (plus 70 pages of notes and suggestions for further reading) give us just that: a history of Rome’s first millennium, from 753 BCE, the traditional date of Rome’s beginnings, to 212 CE, when Emperor Caracalla extended full Roman citizenship to all free inhabitants of the empire and ushered in the very different second millennium, which Mary Beard says is ‘a story for another time, another book – and another writer’. This book, this writer tell the story that starts with the mythical Romulus and Remus, continues through the hardly less mythical early kings and the development of the republic, to Julius Caesar, Caesar Augustus and the subsequent  emperors, tracing through it all the growth and changing character of the Roman Empire.

SPQR is beautifully written, balancing colourful anecdote with a stern commitment to unearthing what probably happened in the real world, and never disappearing down the wormhole of a specialist’s fascination with her own topic. The historian’s job changes as the centuries roll by: in the earlier parts, the author sets out, as she says, ‘to squeeze every single piece of surviving evidence for all it can tell us’; by the first century CE, at the height of the Republic, there is plenty of documentation, so the question is how to select the most telling pieces of evidence.

I’ve never studied ancient history as such. My mental picture of ancient Rome is a jumble of names and incidents gleaned from Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopaedia, Shakespeare, Hollywood movies, a book called We who are about to die salute you I read when I was 12, the odd bit of Latin that turns up in public life (Kennedy saying ‘Civis Romanus sum’, for example), five years studying Latin (I studied Book V of Livy’s history in high school, but couldn’t tell you anything about the content), museum notations, and so on. I know the Romans built straight roads through a lot of Europe, that they copied Greek art, that they included among their number the poets Virgil, Ovid, Horace, Martial, Catullus and others, who inspire modern poets from Seamus Heaney and David Malouf to Laurie Duggan.

One of Mary Beard’s strengths is that she seamlessly folds references to elements of this jumble into her narrative: Dalton Trumbo’s screenplay for Spartacus may have made that slave revolt famous, but it’s hardly reliable history, while David Franzoni’s for the Russell Crowe vehicle Gladiator was largely accurate.

In the final pages, Beard says she no longer believes, as she did early in her 50 years exploring their history, that we have anything to learn directly from the Romans, but there is much to be gained from a dialogue with them. A little serendipity of my own is a case in point. I read most of this book while holidaying in my native north Queensland. On a visit to the local historical society, I read an account of how one sugar farmer had a number of Aboriginal people and Islanders working for him, ‘who were always treated as members of the family’ – which I’m pretty sure the writer meant to imply a completely benign relationship. In the light of what little I know of what the Protection Acts meant for Aboriginal people in Queensland well into the 1960s, this description made me uneasy. That night I read this on page 330 of SPQR:

Slaves and free in many contexts worked closely together. In the ordinary workshop, slaves might be friends and confidants as well as human chattel. And they were part of the Roman family; the Latin word familia always included the non-free and the free members of the household.

Being members of the ‘family’, in our recent past as much as in antiquity, isn’t incompatible with vast inequality and exploitation. (I’m not suggesting an equivalence between ancient slavery and the systematic restricting of the lives of Aboriginal people in Australia, just that the ancient past can shed light on the present.)

They did do things very differently back then, though. The journalists who report events in parliament in terms of knifings and assassinations would do well to remember how Roman politics was conducted, how or ethnic prejudice played out. Here’s Mary Beard’s description of a disturbance at Ascilum in 91 BCE that is not untypical of life in the Republic:

An eager audience, a mixture of Romans and locals, was enjoying some shows in the town theatre when the drama moved offstage. The  Roman part of the crowd had not liked the anti-Roman stance of one comic performer and attacked him so fiercely that they left the hapless actor dead. The next comedian on the bill was a travelling player of Latin origin and a great favourite with Roman audiences for his jokes and mimicry. Terrified that the other side of the audience would now turn on him, he had no option but to walk on to the stage where the other man had just been killed and to talk and joke his way out of trouble. ‘I’m not a Roman either,’ he said to the spectators. ‘I travel throughout Italy searching for favours by making people laugh and giving pleasure. So spare the swallow, which the gods allow to nest safely in all your houses!’ This touched them, and they sat back to watch the rest of the show. But it was only a brief comic interlude: soon after, all the Romans in the town were killed.

 

Australian Poetry Anthology 4

Sarah Holland-Batt and Brook Emery (editors), Australian Poetry Anthology Nº 4 (Australian Poetry Ltd 2015)

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Paradoxically, the thing I like best about this anthology is the absence of stars. Think of three famous Australian poets, and I’ll bet you none of them is here. The starlessness isn’t a sign of mediocrity: many of these poems have been published in reputable places, and quite a few have been on shortlists or won awards. But there’s a sense of the book as a conversation rather than, say, a competition or a performance, or even a showcase. Poems bounce off each other, or not, tackling similar themes or taking similar forms, but each doing something different, individual.

Australian Poetry Ltd was formed four or five years ago, as an amalgamation of the Poets’ Unions in a number of states. It describes itself as ‘the national body for poetry in Australia, with a charter to promote and support Australian poets and poetry locally, regionally, nationally and internationally’. Among other ways of filling this charter, the underfunded, understaffed organisation produces a twice yearly journal which includes articles as well as poetry, and an annual members’ anthology, of which this is the fourth. Almost every page has pleasures to offer.

There’s the pleasure of meeting someone familiar. John Upton ‘ Unawares’ is a kind of aftershock to the poems of loss in Embracing the Razor:

Pulling an old dictionary from the shelf
I open it, see her signaure, and myself
back twenty years momentarily: intense
surprise, like pausing suddenly on stairs
to stop a fall.

There’s serendipity. Our cumquats were ripening as I read Pamela Schindler’s ‘Cumquats, Hobart’:

These little orange globes –
lanterns that floated
in the tree at dusk

There’s plenty of topical poetry. Jillian Kellie’s ‘the bus to baghdad 1966’ is a then-and-now poem – the bus trip of the title in which her family travelled with a Canadian journalist, alternating with grim dispatches from the present – that leaves you feeling you’ve learned something about Iraq:

held up for hours at the syrian border
a problem with canada’s passport and visa
dad speaks in arabic to chain-smoking soldiers
extolling the honour of his new journo friend
i owe you a scotch when we get to baghdad
i don’t drink my dad says

Unconfirmed video and pictures of the photojournalist’s heartbreaking final moments emerged this morning via Twitter accounts claiming to be associated with the Islamic State

There’s plenty of narrative, some explicit, some implied as in Cary Hamlin’s ‘Scraping the Night’, whose opening lines evoke a romantic assignation in a car:

Moonlight leers through the car window
etching the valley of your cheek
in razor-sharp shadow

fingering the crescents of your eyes
fondly and crooning its siren song

And there’s lots of fine descriptive writing. I love Anne Elvey’s observation of pelicans in ‘This flesh that you know is all that you have’:

————–Their synchronous glide was broken

by one pair of wings, and then another, that worked
the air, not quite in time, and over again they wheeled.

Brett Dionysius’ ‘Brigalow: an extinct pastoral’ is a powerful evocation of a landscape being ravaged post World War Two, recalling newsreel footage that was meant to celebrate progress but even then struck a chill into young hearts like mine and, I assume, Brett’s:

—————-They strung a necklace of iron pearls
between two dozers; manacled violence, like nineteenth
century convicts kept under guard. The machines clawed
through six million acres, rubbing against bark, leaving
a scent trail of oil & diesel, as though they were some
type of ancient megafauna revisited; extinct, buttery-
furred thylacoleo, carnivorous in their vast appetite.

I can’t tell if any Indigenous poets get a guernsey, but a number of poets who I assume are white reflect on Aboriginal matters. Jill Gientzotis, for example, in ‘Each Morning, Every Day’, draws on her experience living and working in remote communities:

Anangu knew we were coming for a long, long time.
Whitefellas, ghost people. They knew we were coming.

We were coming. Our horses and cattle churned up the land,
water got sick, the animals fled. They heard about our killing.

You get the idea: there’s so much to enjoy. The anthology will probably be read mainly by Australian Poetry members – those who didn’t make it as much as those who did. But I think there’s a much wider pool of readers who would enjoy it. You can buy a copy from Aust Poetry Inc.