Monthly Archives: January 2018

Kim Scott’s Taboo at the Book Group

Kim Scott, Taboo (Macmillan Australia 2017)

taboo.jpegBefore the meeting: Regretfully, I’m short of time to write about Taboo. It’s a very different book from Kim Scott’s That Deadman Dance. That earlier novel engages with the early history of Western Australian colonisation with almost superhuman breadth of sympathy and already has classic status. This one is set in the twenty-first century, and follows a group of Noongar people who are returning to the site of a massacre with the hope of making things right – reestablishing contact with the old people, and with culture and language, and making some kid of reconciliation with the descendants of the perpetrators.

Taboo is based squarely in Kim Scott’s experience as an activist in language reclamation in Western Australia. I’ve just watched a video of a talk he gave on the subject at Melbourne University in 2012, in which he speaks about ‘the responsibility and obligations of being a descendant of the people who first created human society in this part of the world and keep that sense of society alive’. He speaks with modesty, charm, humour, and great power. It is a revelatory 50 minutes. I doubt if he had even started writing Taboo at the time of the talk, but he tells a number of stories that are clearly the inspiration for key episodes in the novel.

The novel doesn’t romanticise its Noongar characters: they have been scarred and in some cases corrupted by their history. They struggle with drug and alcohol issues. But awkwardly, shambolically, two-steps-forward-one-step-back, they find hope in what they can piece together of their heritage. The central character, fifteen year old Tilly, has reconnected with her Noongar father only as a teenager, and in the course of the novel is welcomed into her extended family, who see her as important to their project of returning to the massacre site (she was fostered by the farming family of the place when she was a baby). Her claustrophobic response to their embrace is vividly realised.

Maybe it’s just me (I’ll find out at the meeting), but while the novel has vastly expanded my sense of the world, it’s no masterpiece. There are elements of something like magical realism that are weirdly unsatisfactory, many narrative threads that are started up and never resolved, and an ending that feels like a desperate but unsuccessful attempt to make it all come together.

After the meeting, just a hasty note before I go to bed, because time is a bit short just now: This book sustained conversation like few others, and everyone who had read it had something interesting to say about it.

One man said that it wasn’t like a feature film, but more like the beginning of a television series: we were left wondering what would happen next for just about every character. Another said it was about the importance of stories, that it told many stories that didn’t necessarily connect. As readers we are left in an unsettled state of never really knowing the full story. I don’t think he used the word ‘unsettled’, but we did notice that we are all white men of a certain age, and the way the book made us feel had a lot to do with that. Without really leaving the book, we talked about the prospect of a treaty, about the relative value of symbolic acts, about the different meaning of a sense of place for Indigenous and non-Indigenous persons.

Another said that he thought the book was about loss, scarring, grief, dislocation, that there was hope, but built on a fragile and fragmented base. Someone disagreed that it was about loss – that it was more about the power of community in the face of loss.

No one else seemed to find the magic realism elements unsatisfactory, and I was in a minority in disliking the ending. One man said he thought it was the best novel written in Australia so far – precisely because its lack of resolution was a true representation of how things stand in the relationship between Aboriginal people and mainstream Australia.

It was our first meeting for the year. Our host prepared a meal that set the bar high. The book led us to focus our minds on things that matter. We enjoyed each other, laughed a lot, and I think I can say we all came out into the night very glad for the gift that Kim Scott has given us in this book.

B R Dionysius’ Curious Noise

B R Dionysius, Wagtail 108: The Curious Noise of History and other poems (Picaro Press 2011)

noiseI first heard of the Wagtail series a couple of years ago when a member of my book group told us he subscribed: chapbooks, tiny publications each featuring work by a single poet, one arriving in his mailbox eleven times a year. They didn’t cost much, so if you didn’t hit it off with a particular poet you hadn’t wasted a fortune, and if a chord was struck you could go searching for more. More than 120 issues of the series were published by Rob Riel of Picaro Press in Warners Bay, New South Wales, before it finally folded last year. You can see a full list, unnumbered, here (it’s the Ginanderra site – Picaro is hard to find on the web), and an incomplete list with numbers, prices and availability here (at Gleebooks). The best account of the series I could find was this article by Warwick Wynne in Famous Reporter in 2004.

I came to Wagtails more than a day late and a dollar short when I spotted Book 108 among the economics textbooks and salvation tracts in an Erskineville Street Library. B R (Brett) Dionysius is a much published poet. A quick look at his web site, Bitter as the Cud, shows him to be a mover and, especially recently, shaker in the Queensland poetry scene. I’ve previously read poems by him in journals and anthologies and online, most memorably a sonnet sequence about the Brisbane floods, but never a whole book. Taking this 16-pager home seemed like a good step forward, even though it doesn’t send any money his way.

The Curious Noise of History is full of assured poems, mostly about violent or overbearing men, mostly a father who may be drawn from Dionysius’ own life. Possibly all of them appeared in his first book, Fatherlands. In ‘Crossing‘, the poem I want to single out, the man in question is the poem’s speaker. I’m drawn to talk about it because a) it’s probably the simplest poem in the book, and b) it reminds me of the mortification and joy of being a parent to young children.

IMG_2132.jpg

(In case you can’t read it here, it’s on Dionysius’ web site at this link: you need to scroll down quite a way.)

I remember turning into that ogre myself more than once.

The narrative is straightforward, but there’s plenty to linger over. For example, what is ‘it’ in the first line? At first blush, it’s punching the pedestrian button. But the poem is about a different kind of hurting. The man is in a rage for an unspecified reason (what he says to his daughter isn’t necessarily the truth), and aims that rage at his little daughter. The ridiculously hyperbolic image of fairytale monsters captures, with just enough irony, the horror a raging parent feels at his (or possibly her) behaviour. But in this case the child takes a stand – she may be twisting her ring because internally she is terrified, but her words brings perspective to the emotional storm with the mundane adjective ‘grumpy’. So perhaps the first line also refers to the dissipation of the speaker’s rage; the daughter wasn’t hurt by the rage, and her calling him on his poor behaviour didn’t hurt either.

His wrist starts to throb. They hold hands. There is no more talk of monstrous ogres, but it a little man turning from red to green.

The poem is sweet enough, but taken in the context of the other poems in the collection – in which, for example, a father plays a game involving a stock whip and his children’s toes – it is also powerful. In those other poems, Dionysius looks at male domination from the perspective of one who has suffered it. Here, the perspective is that of the man swept up in the compulsion to voice, and one feels a rush of gratitude to that little girl.

Fiona Wright’s Domestic Interior

Fiona Wright, Domestic Interior (Giramondo 2017)

Domestic.jpgOne of my New Year resolves for the blog is not to attempt to review every book of poetry I read. I’ll still blog about them, but for each book I’ll focus on one or possibly two poems that resonate with me in some way.

Domestic Interior tests that resolve, because an awful lot of its poems speak to me loud and clear.

I haven’t read Fiona Wright’s first book of poetry, Knuckled (2011), or her collection of essays, Small Acts of Disappearance  (2015), both published by Giramondo, but somehow I’d picked up an expectation that her work would bristle with introspective misery. That expectation, even though endorsed by the back cover’s reference to ‘highly charged moments of emotional extremity’, turned out to be wide of the mark. Even the section titled ‘A Crack on the Skin: On Illness’, there’s much lightness, grace, good humour and a pervasive celebration of friendship. And always, especially for Sydney readers, there’s plenty of recognisable life as we know it or, in a number of poems, as we overhear it.

I caught a glimpse of Fiona Wright at a funeral when I was still part way through my first reading of the book, reason enough to choose to blog about ‘Camperdown, St Stephen’s’:

StStephens

For the benefit of non-Sydneysiders: St Stephen’s Anglican Church is the site of the historic Camperdown Cemetery. The Moreton Bay fig that grows there featured in Nadia Wheatley and Donna Rawlins’s classic and totally not-morbid picture book, My Place. It’s a beautiful and almost intimate setting, where it’s not terribly weird or morbid to eat a sandwich leaning against a headstone, so it may take a while for the force of that image to sink for a local reader. Rookwood is a suburb in Sydney’s west whose name is enough to evoke thoughts of mortality in most of Sydney and well beyond: it is home to what Wikipedia calls the ‘largest necropolis in the southern hemisphere’, now facing problems of overcrowding.

From the opening image, in which a stark memento mori lurks beneath a pleasantly mundane lunchtime scene, the poem plays first with the idea of hunger, associated with the sandwiches: the moss is like rice, the speaker is greedy for sun, and the sun for the earth. (It must be autumn, warm enough to have lunch outdoors, but cool enough that patches of sunlight are tepid.) Then, in a neat couple of almost rhyming short lines (‘I don’t want / a monument’), the headstone comes to the fore.

Which leads to Rookwood – yes, it stands in for death on a grand scale, but the lines are rooted in this specific time and place: there really are debates about how to deal with the vast numbers of bodies needing to be buried. Camperdown Cemetery is comfortably historical; Rookwood is today’s news. The dead are named for the first time, slyly rhyming with ‘read’ (maybe she’s reading news on her phone while eating her sandwiches).

Then she thinks of her friend’s photos (received on the same phone?). Roses lie against headstones, just as the poet does in the first stanza. Only now it’s many poets and they are the dead.  No sun no pleasant sandwiches there: the roses laid in homage don’t carry much force – images of litter and bedbugs come to mind, and from this distance perhaps the roses are reduced to something like little bursts of blood on hostel sheets.

‘My bones are cold’: she now identifies with the dead poets. And in the last three lines, the chill of that identification goes deeper: she is heading North, to that Europe littered with dead poets, and she fears that she is about to join them.

Maybe it’s just me, but I laughed. I don’t think the poem or I are trivialising death or the fear of dying. But the poet’s fear here is not the kind that strikes with a diagnosis of stage 4 pancreatic cancer. There’s something fancifully neurotic about it, an edge of mockery that doesn’t trivialise the fear but allows us to breathe around it, to approach it playfully: after all, how seriously can you take the the graves of poets when they are presented as littering Europe like bedbugs in a hostel?

My writing of this blog post was interrupted by an expedition to Manly. After visiting North Head Project at the Manly Art Gallery (open until 18 February and worth the ferry ride), we went up to North Head itself and wandered in one of the three cemeteries connected to the Quarantine Station there. Walking among the graves of mostly young people, I thought of this poem, and realised that for all its lightness of touch, its rootedness in 21st century Sydney and a particular friendship network, it sits squarely in a tradition: ‘and I’m afraid’ echoes the refrain, ‘Timor mortis conturbat me (The fear of death confounds me)’, common in mediaeval European poetry. I went hunting and realised I knew it from William Dunbar’s ‘Lament for the Makers‘. That 16th century poem, of which every stanza ends in the Latin refrain, includes a kind of honour roll of poets who have died, beginning with ‘noble Chaucer’ and continuing with names now long forgotten. Rereading ‘Camperdown, St Stephen’s’ in that context, I like it even more, but you don’t have to have read Dunbar or visited North Head for the poem to work for you.

Domestic Interiors is the second book I’ve read for the 2018 Australian Women Writers Challenge. I received a complimentary copy from Giramondo, for which I am grateful.

Ed Brubaker’s Fatale

Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, colours by Dave Stewart, Fatale Book 1: Death Chases Me (Image 2012)
—- colours by Dave Stewart,  Book 2: The Devil’s Business (Image 2012)
—- 
colours by Elizabeth Breitweiser and Dave Stewart, Book 3: West of Hell (Image 2013)
—- colours by Elizabeth Breitweiser, Book 4: Pray for Rain (Image 2014)
—- colours by Elizabeth Breitweiser, Book 5: Curse the Demon (Image 2012)

9781607065630.jpg

I read the Book 1 of Fatale a while back, and was unimpressed. When my son recently offered to lend me all five volumes, I decided to give it another go. I reread Book 1 to refresh my memory, and am embarrassed to say that I had almost no memory of the first reading, and this time I enjoyed it a lot. My blog post from back then describes it pretty accurately:

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 atrocities remain unseen by the reader.

This time I read on.

fatale2

As you’d guess from the covers, the Fatale of the title is preceded by a silent Femme. The central character, Jo (or sometimes Josephine, and in one context Jane) has irresistible power over men. Some she simply bends to her will, others she infatuates so that they not only desire her and forsake all others, but devote their lives to protecting her, killing or dying in the attempt.

fatale3

But not all men. It turns out that her powers have something to do with a cult whose members dress in weird monkish robes and commit ritual mass murders. The leader of the cult, sometimes known as the Bishop, wants Jo for vile purposes of his own and hunts her implacably through the decades (or maybe centuries).

fatale4

Did I say it was a detective yarn? Well, yes, that’s true of the first book. But Jo, or perhaps other women who have been cursed like her with fatal charm and at least partial immortality, has been around for a long time, so she also features in tales of mediaeval witch-hunt, a Nazi interlude, a Bonnie and Clyde yarn, and more.

fatale5

The story-telling is strong, and the art is compelling, but by the end I’d decided that horror isn’t for me. When the Bishop lays out his world view in Book 5, articulating the story’s dark metaphysics (the ‘reality’ behind the world that most people think is real), I was revolted, as I was meant to be, but I also wondered if there was any real pleasure or gain to be had from immersing oneself in someone else’s confected nightmare, however well done.

Jennifer Maiden’s Appalachian Fall

Jennifer Maiden, Appalachian Fall: Poems about Poverty in Power (Quemar Press 2017)

appalachian.pngQuemar Press published the ebook of Jennifer Maiden’s  Metronome the day after the 2017 US presidential election. In its last poem, Maiden’s fictional alter egos George Jeffreys and Clare Collins watch the election results on TV, and chat to Donald Trump on the phone. One insistent strand of Appalachian Fall is a continuation of the Trump theme.

Jimmy Carter chats with his re-awakened distant cousin Sara Carter Bayes at Trump’s inauguration. Jane Austen comments on his rivalry with Kim Jong-Un. Eleanor Roosevelt and Hillary Clinton chat about him.  Trump himself appears with George Jeffreys, with his mother, Mary Anne Macleod, and solo.

Maiden’s lively, questioning intelligence worries away at the double mystery of Trump: who is he and what happened to make him President? The book’s subtitle, ‘Poems of Poverty in Power’, gestures towards her answer to the second question: Jimmy Carter, reflecting on Sara’s music, articulates it:

thought: we knew ourselves when we heard it:
the low gut scream of hunger,
for some food, some pride, for any sort of
civilising action, answered passion, and if all
these people were Trump voters, maybe that in fact
was why he couldn’t despise their desperation.

Maiden addresses the first question –’who is he?’– with something approaching compassion, or at least an attempt to understand the human being, which is a kind of poetic heroism. Just as, years ago, she made poetry from her observations of George W Bush’s nose and Kevin Rudd’s pursed lips, in ‘Wind-rock’ she makes us see Donald Trump’s characteristic walk, and so the man himself, with fresh eyes:

 brace and blend into a finish. Trump’s erratic pace
wind-rocked staggers stubborn with its hunching
at growth and gust in air and no escape.

There’s a lot more than Trump here, but I won’t attempt a proper review. I’ve spent far too long on this blog post already, partly because I keep rereading the poetry – I love the sound of Jennifer Maiden’s voice, even when, occasionally, I don’t get what she’s saying or think she’s way off the mark. And partly because, well, see the next paragraph. For an excellent review, I recommend Magdalena Ball’s at Compulsive Reader.

So this is what took me too much time. There’s an extraordinary wealth of reference in Maiden’s poetry: to the Australian poetry scene past and present, poetry in general, politics in Australia, the US, the UK and Catalonia, art, music, the publishing industry, TV shows, movies, famous and little-known political and cultural figures. I thought it would be interesting to put together a visual representation of the intricate web of associations and connections created in this book, and produced the slide show below, which is still not exhaustive).

Enjoy. And then read the book. Quite a lot of it is up on Quemar’s website as a PDF.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Though I read Appalachian Fall last year I’m counting it as my first book  for the 2018 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko

Min Jin Lee, Pachinko (Head of Zeus 2017)

pachinko.jpegThis novel tells the story of four generations of a Korean family, mainly in Japan, from 1934 to 1989. It’s a painless, pleasurable history lesson. Painless for the reader, that is. The writing is beautifully accessible, the characters eminently ‘relatable’ (even the seducer of the young virgin who sets things going is good at heart), the plot – though predictable in its general shape as family sagas tend to be – furnished with enough interesting twists.

What I’ve taken away from the book is a fleshed-out sense of what it means to be Korean in Japan. You don’t become a Japanese citizen just by being born in Japan. Even if you come from several generations born in Japan, if your parents, grandparents, or further back, came from Korea, you must register as Korean (and choose whether North or South) on your fourteenth birthday. You can be naturalised, but very few manage it. And anti-Korean myths and stereotypes abound. Min Jin Lee explains in a note that the book was thirty years in the making, that she started out with a sense of the Koreans in Japan as ‘historical victims’, but when she had a chance to live in Tokyo for a time (she herself is US born),  she found that the reality was much deeper and more complex. The depth and complexity of the identities and experiences of Korean–Japanese are beautifully and instructively rendered in the novel.