Monthly Archives: August 2017

Overland 226

Jacinda Woodhead (editor), Overland 226 (Autumn 2017)

226 cover.inddI’m an issue behind in my Overland reading, but I’m glad I resisted the temptation to skip this one.

Over the dinner table last night, someone complained that the left is obsessed with identity politics. Well, that may true of the left as understood in the mainstream media, but Overland is probably as close as we’ve got to an official organ of the left in Australia, and I can report that identity politics are a long way from dominating this issue. Article after article sheds light and brings precision to areas that are too often discussed in dim and befuddled terms.

All worlds die’ by Angus Reoch is the stand-out piece for me. Responding to what the article’s subtitle calls ‘the politics of despair’, he argues:

Chomsky was correct when he argued that climate change is an unprecedented crisis and that mankind’s potential for destruction is unmatched. Yet culturally, the twenty-first century does not have the luxury of claiming ‘the end of world’ as a unique historical moment. We have no other choice than to fight climate change, but we are not unique in human history to be living in an apocalyptic predicament. Many societies have seen ‘the end of history’. The First World War was only the final gut-wrenching body blow to the old world, upon the corpse of which the Second World War was fought, and the new world order erected. Many of the great writers before these events, from Leo Tolstoy to Natsume Sōseki, directly grappled with the realisation of a passing era, and the decline not only of aristocracy but of the old world itself. These writers were highly aware of the passing of their era and realised that in the modern age of European hegemony there was no choice but to adapt. […]

I recommend the whole article. Here’s the second last paragraph:

Perhaps we should not celebrate the demise of this world, for we do face the very real spectre of barbarism, but we should recognise the brutal and limiting nature of the world in which our societies have flourished. The fall of the neoliberal era is a necessary condition of a more peaceful and prosperous world.

There are at least four other articles that would have justified the price of the journal. And they’re all available on line for free).

In ‘It is still the Balanda way‘, Amy Thomas argues that while some Aboriginal languages such as Wiradjuri and Marra are being retrieved, this does not mean that Aboriginal languages are generally being respected and resourced. On the contrary, living languages are threatened with extinction by Northern Territory government educational policies and the continuing Intervention (aka Stronger Futures).

It is important not to overstate the way that language shapes our worldview. We create language, rather than the other way around. Yet what is lost when a language dies is more than just a linguistic curiosity; a community’s history and ways of viewing the world are lost with it. Losing your mother tongue through the forced imposition of a dominant language is disempowering, at least partly because it is an attempt to reshape your identity to suit someone other than yourself.

C J Chanco, a Filipino/a living in Toronto, addresses the phenomenon of Duterte in ‘Law and order’, in particular the question of how his murderous ‘drug war’ command such widespread support, not just from the churches and the far right, but also from the general population and until recently from the Communist Party of the Philippines.

The quest for primordial whiteness’ by Ramon Glazov exposes the weird theoretical underpinnings of contemporary white supremacist ‘thinking’, beginning with Arthur de Gobineau’s 1853 opus, An Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races, which now reads as outright deranged. Sadly events since this Overland was published have increased this article’s relevance:

How should we respond to the spread of ‘race realist’ arguments? Moral condemnation is not enough; it does not faze alt-righters to be called ‘racist’. Their ideology already assumes that racism is true, so accusing them of it is like accusing a Trot of being unpatriotic. What is more likely to give the ‘redpilled’ pause is the suggestion that they are being naïve, that their newfound politics is just as gullible as the liberal ‘cuck programming’ they have allegedly shed, that race realism is not a suppressed Grand Theory of Everything but a useless red herring

To be a queer teacher’ by Elizabeth Sutherland lays out the enormous burden placed on the shoulders of LGBTQ+ teachers. I guess this could be called ‘identity politics’, but I read it as bringing much-needed specific experience to current debates (though the marriage equality debate was still on a distant horizon when the essay was written).

The regular columnists all shine: Giovanni Tiso laments the way social media mean we can never escape ‘the unbearable closeness of others’; Alison Croggon writes a personal tribute to the late great John Berger; Mel Campbell talks about wanting to be liked as a writer, particularly a female writer; Natalie Harkin offers a dense reflection on kinds of responsibility and accountability at play for Indigenous writers, and – citing Kerry Reed-Gilbert – she  challenges non-Indigenous readers to understand multiple ways of belonging; to act and engage in the political struggle with Indigenous Australians.

Then there’s the literary / creative content, a strong feature of Overland from its beginning.

Each issue these days showcases the work of a different guest artist. The striking cover and all the internal artwork of Nº 226, including title pages for each of the fiction pieces, are by comics artist, illustrator and bag designer Nicky Minus (link is to Minus’s website). It’s a pleasure to be introduced to this artist’s work.

Overland sequesters poetry and fiction in separate sections rather than having them punctuate the rest of the journal, and they usually incorporate the results of at least one competition. The ten-page poetry section in #226 features the winner and runners-up of the Judith Wright Poetry Prize, with a judges’ report from Toby Fitch and Jill Jones that’s a bit of a lesson in how to read poetry; and there are some startlingly erotic poems by Omar Sakr. The 22 pages of fiction comprise five short stories, including the winner of the Neilma Sidney Short Story Prize, Katy Warner’s ‘The Trip‘, a which deals with family relations in a way that made me want to cower under the bedcovers, in a good way (the runnersup are online). The other story that stands out for me is Afopefoluwa Ojo’s ‘A consequence of things’, a tale of teenage pregnancy told in Nigerian English, with a twist where what looks like an awkward metaphor becomes a literal reality.

Then at the very end of the journal, as if it’s an afterthought, there’s ‘Through the eyes of a humanist’ by Subhash Jaireth, a discussion of the work of 2015 Nobel Literature Laureate Svetlana Alexievich. Someone in my book club recently proposed that we read one of her books. If I had read this article, I would have been an enthusiastic seconder. Jaireth says:

It can be hard to imagine a book or work of art helping to topple a dictator, stop a war or shield a person from a bullet. But I (perhaps naively) believe that the strong moral imperative driving Alexievich’s work, and the chorus of voices given space to bear witness to human-made tragedy, create what are, effectively, works against war, brutality and tyranny – if only we seize the moment to listen.

Jenny Blackford’s Loyalty of Chickens

Jenny Blackford, The Loyalty of Chickens (Pitt Street Poets 2017)

chickensLike Jenny Blackford’s earlier book, The Duties of a Cat, this is beautifully presented collection of poetry. This one’s bigger – there are more pages and more poems, and it has a broader scope of subject matter and tone.

As in the earlier book, there are sweet celebrations of pet cats (‘All that he asked / was total control’) and a range of animals wild and domestic, including the chickens, which, according to the title poem,

show no loyalty. It seems that any girl
who’ll delve a scoop of free-range mix
is She Who Brings the Grain,
or close enough for these
red-feathered hens
to worship her.

Jenny Blackford’s biography mentions that her work is published regularly in The School Magazine. One of the attractive features of this book is the way poems that are eminently suitable for children are mixed in with poems of mature sensibility, with no sense of incongruity. The lovely imagistic ‘sweeping’ (‘the wind is sweeping / the tide out to sea’), is followed by ‘South Steyne’, which recalls childhood events from an amused adult perspective (‘The South Steyne ferry was heaven / for me, though doubtless hell for parents’), and then by ‘Some slight redemption’, a meditation on Coventry Cathedral as a monument ‘not to war / nor even peace / but to forgiveness’.

It seems inevitable that any collection of poems by a person of a certain age that touches on domestic life will at some point touch on dementia. This collection manages the subject with tenderness and humour in ‘Dipping into that Lake’: ‘There are fairies at the bottom of Mum’s garden now / and butterflies, and owls.’

The poet lets slip at one point that she graduated in Classics from Cambridge, and classical references are scattered through the book, but the erudition is lightly worn. A personal favourite of mine (for reasons that you can easily guess) happens to be an example of this. There’s the whole poem:

Earth-shaker, bed-shaker

According to inscriptions
in a lost Poseidon temple
soon to be discovered
somewhere in southern Greece
Poseidon Earth-shaker is patron
and protector of snoring men.
Without his godly nasal power,
so many men of twenty, forty, sixty
would be discovered (in soft morning silence)
smothered by bed-pillows,
domestic earthquakes
permanently stilled.

The temple vaults hold tributes
from his snoring worshippers:
gilt effigies of elephants,
yellowed tusks of snorting walruses,
and woolly mammoths’ freeze-dried trunks
as fat as anacondas,
all given to the god
by grateful bed-shakers.

I would happily have the poem end there but of course it goes on:

In Aphrodite’s nearby temple of love,
ears of silver, gold and clay
are mounted on the walls
or heaped in shelly stacks,
donated by the snoring men’s
sleep-deprived bedfellows.
May the merciful goddess
muffle our night-time senses
forever and ever. Amen

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The Loyalty of Chickens is the eighth book I’ve read for the 2017 Australian Women Writers Challenge. My copy was a gift from Pitt Street Poets and the author, whose work I first met, and published, when I was editor of The School Magazine.

Alan Wearne’s Things Are Real

Alan Wearne, These Things Are Real (Giramondo 2017)

things (1)

Despite the increasing frequency of narrative poems, the work of Alan Wearne is unmatched. Nobody has even begun to approach the complexity of his portraits of life in post-war Australia.

That’s Martin Duwell in 2013 reviewing Alan Wearne’s Prepare the Cabin for Landing. He could have been introducing the five narrative poems that make up the first 70 pages of These Things Are Real. The book’s title doesn’t so much make a claim of non-fiction status for these narratives, as insist that the kinds of stories they tell, stories that don’t make the headlines, and that are unlikely to make it into the history books or best-selling novels, are nevertheless poignantly human.

A widow renews her friendship with a friend from her youth, but they drift apart after some years when she rejects the overtures of her friend’s husband, all in Menzies-voting suburbia. A Ceb (which, as the poem had to spell out for me, is argot for a member of the Church of England Boys Society) tells the story of his multiple coming-out. A young woman, single mother, has a relationship with a musician who turns out to be abusive. A school teacher, a ‘happy-go-usey’ drug addict, struggles with his moral compromises and worse, including an involvement with squalid and murderous criminality. A ‘recently retired femocrat’ recalls the contradictions of her middle-class radical youth.

These are five complex yarns, told in irregular verse that occasionally breaks out into rhyme. There’s a strong sense of an idiosyncratic speaking voice, rough around the edges and often assuming shared knowledge that isn’t always there (not necessarily a problem when Google is at hand). The narratives don’t offer easy resolutions to the uneases and tensions they raise. In fact, mostly they don’t offer resolutions at all. Maybe that’s another meaning of the book’s title – in the real world things stay complex and unresolved.

Just a taste of how the language works, from ‘Anger Management: a South Coast Tale”

His screaming’s recommenced. The kids are home.
And you are bruised, walking-into-a-door bruised,
like you’ve seen enough before except
now it’s his, his bruise and possible fracture.
You saw the good man (if nobody else did)
the one who rolled you your White Ox,
the one who actually wrote songs,
the man you were loving who disguised
so much (no doubt from himself).
Well, it is all out now with a sort of noise
that’s heading to your kid’s guts
to stay for decades. But it’s when
he starts up, ‘Don’t you get it, I love kids,
I love them!’ you grab yours and lock away
the three of you, three hearts deranged
with thumping, with him outside the toilet
howling, whilst you phone your girlfriends.

The remaining 50 pages of poems are grouped under the general heading, ‘The Sarsaparilla Writers Centre’. They range from throwaway couplets (an unkind ‘Elegiac Proposal’ for Cardinal George Pell, a note on being a runner up to Lily Brett in the 1987 Victorian Premier’s Prize, a gleeful skewering of an error in something written by Les Murray), through several songs of praise to AFL personalities and others who remain mysteries to me, to longer rhyming poems about Australian politics, religion and, in particular, poetry: ‘For Chris Wallace-Crabbe at Eighty’, ‘The Ballad of 68 or I Was Dransfield’s Dealer’ and ‘Ode for Johanna Featherstone & Fiona Wright’.

My copy of These Things Are Real was a gift from Giramondo Publishing.

Madeleine Thien and the Book Group Do Not Say We Have Nothing

Madeleine Thien, Do Not Say We Have Nothing (Granta 2016)

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Before the meeting: This book tells a story of three generations of a Chinese family in the 20th century. It includes a graphic evocation of the horrors of the Cultural Revolution and the purge of ‘Rightists’ that preceded it, and an equally graphic account of the events surrounding Tiananmen Square in 1989, as gleaned by a young woman of the Chinese diaspora who was born and brought up in Canada.

I found the first 50 pages hard going, as the different time periods were introduced, with no clear indication of how they were related. But once the several stories were up and running, I was engrossed.

Of the vast amount that has been written about this period in China, I’ve read Han Suyin’s Wind in the Tower, in which the Cultural Revolution is seen as a brilliant strategy to save the revolution from living death, and William Hinton’s Fanshen (1966) and Shenfan (1984), brilliant accounts of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural revolution as they played out in a single village (I saw David Hare’s play of the former at the Pram Factory in Melbourne and then at Belvoir in Sydney). I haven’t read any of the famous memoirs such as Li Cunxin’s Mao’s Last Dancer and Jung Chang’s Wild Swans, so I can’t say how this novel compares to them, but I can say that it makes Han Suyin look like a PR spin merchant, and gets horrifyingly deep under the skin of the kind of events William Hinton describes.

It doesn’t come across as anti Communist propaganda; it’s more a terrible tale of a dream betrayed. Even as people’s lives are being destroyed they stay firm in their belief in the revolution. Partly this is a survival mechanism – if you can say the correct slogans with sincerity your chances are greatly improved. Partly, though, it’s also a result of the power of the Maoist dream. The shattering of that dream as the People’s Army turns on the people in 1989 is among the most heartbreaking writing I’ve ever read.

Like any powerful novel, this one doesn’t let the reader imagine that the events it portrays are safely of another time and place. Call-out culture on the internet these days may not be as savage as the criticism sessions in the Cultural Revolution, but it shares some of its structure of feeling. The power of slogans to block complexity is having devastating effects on lives in Australia – or more precisely offshore from Australia – as I write this. The term ‘climate change’ is being expunged from Donald Trump’s US agencies as surely as ‘counter-revolutionary’ knowledge was erased under Mao. [Added next day: not to mention ‘fire and fury and – frankly – power’.]

I cried a lot.

After the meeting: The conversation stayed with the book for most of the evening, and even when it departed it was still tangentially related.

Not everyone loved the book as much as I did, but I came away from the evening with an enriched appreciation for its complexity. I think it’s true to say that everyone had at least one scene or character that had struck them. A couple of us said we found the descriptions of music didn’t work; someone said that these descriptions were clearly important to the characters, but not really to the reader. One chap said he had got out his recording of Glen Gould playing the Goldberg Variations – the same recording as features in the narrative – and put it on it while he read, and that this had worked brilliantly.

So not only is this a terrific novel to read, but judging by our experience it’s also a terrific book club title.

 

 

A fortnight in verse 4

The first stanza is a true travel story. The second just went where it wanted to go.

A fortnight away (part four)
We found it still warm from its owner’s bum
in Monkey Forest Road, a wallet–phone
with cards ID and cash. Good luck! His name
was not John Smith. We tracked him down
on Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram,
mailed his office, messaged, left no stone
unturned. He tweeted back. The lost was found.
We met – old friends, it felt – he bought a round.

What do tourists really want? Why would you
leave your land, your home, your friends, your kin?
For taksi, transport, massage, drink or food? You
must want more. The waft against your skin
of other gods? Ganesha’s charm has wooed you?
Some ads say ‘paradise’; some hint at sin.
Could you be here for Violet DNA,
the cure for everything? Or eat, love, pray?

Jennifer Maiden’s Complicity

Jennifer Maiden, Play With Knives: Two: Complicity (Quemar Press 2016)

complicity

This is a sequel to Jennifer Maiden’s Play With Knives (Allen & Unwin 1990), taking up the action maybe ten years later. The manuscript has been circulating  for decades, and excerpts and commentary have appeared in literary journals, but it seemed destined to remain unpublished. Then Quemar Press made a PDF available as a free download last year.

The main characters of the Play With Knives novels (there are two more after Complicity) are George Jeffreys and Clare Collins, who have featured powerfully in at least fifteen of Maiden’s poems in her last half dozen books. The first novel begins with George, the narrator, as a probation officer assigned to Clare’s case, having to decide whether to recommend her release from prison, where she has served time for murdering her siblings when she was a young girl. There’s a plot involving a serial killer in western Sydney, but the heart of the novel is in their developing intimacy, and their almost obsessive questioning of what it means for both of them to live in the long shadow of Clare’s act.

In Complicity they have both moved on. George begins the novel working for an NGO (Prisoners of Conscience) monitoring dubious legal proceedings in third world countries; Clare is living with a journalist and runs a small business. George returns to western Sydney and their mutual probing recommences, along with a couple of lovingly detailed sexual encounters. As before, there are thriller elements: people are dying from poisoned benzodiazapines, and someone assaults Clare a number of times with escalating violence. As before, these elements are secondary to the ebbs and flows of relationships, and to George-as-narrator’s ruminations. The characters return again and again to  Clare’s childhood crime and to the climax of the first novel, analysing their meanings and their emotional impacts – much as real people might, rather than like characters in a TV thriller.

Lynda La Plante this isn’t. (I love at least some of Lynda La Plante’s TV shows, but one novel was enough.)

In six books over more than a decade now, Maiden’s George and Clare have been materialising in political hotspots all over the world, encountering characters ranging from Somali pirates to resurrected ancient Chinese nobility, with George W Bush and more recently Donald Trump somewhere in between. In those poems, George and Clare have their own adventures, but they are mainly interesting as lenses through which Jennifer Maiden can look at the wide world. In this book, though George Bush Senior’s Gulf War is a significant backdrop, George and Clare’s relationship is the focus. But we come to understand, perhaps even more than in the first novel, what it is about them that makes them such a useful lens. We see them grappling intensely and honestly with Maiden’s version of ‘the problem of evil’: how people who are not monsters can perpetrate atrocities, and how to live honestly with that reality.

aww2017.jpgComplicity is the seventh book I’ve read for the 2017 Australian Women Writers Challenge. I obtained it, as you can, as a free download from Quemar Press.

A fortnight in verse 3

It’s raining, so I get to add to my holiday verses. Part of the second stanza paraphrases a quote recalled from Michelle De Kretser’s The Hamilton Case:

The coloniser returns as a tourist, you see. And he is mad for difference. That is the luxury commodity we now supply, as we once kept him in cinnamon and sapphires.

The first stanza is the only example I witnessed of a tourist behaving really badly. Here goes:

A fortnight away (part three)
‘I’m not paying,’ he said, ‘for my beef
rendang. It came lukewarm. I took it out
and asked the cook to heat it up. Good grief!
“Cook it yourself,” he said. I didn’t shout,
but I was firm: “No, you. I’m not the chef!”
I think he might have pissed in it, the lout.
I didn’t eat it. He was rude to me.
So I won’t pay.’ Three-fifty AUD.

As colonisers first we came for spice
and now we’re back as tourists keen to see
your difference commodified. So nice
the offerings, incense, ‘selamat pagi‘,
the off-leash dogs, the terraced fields of rice
(your photogenic toil), your artistry
in wood and stone and ink and cloth and food.
We bring our cash. Forgive us when we’re rude.