Monthly Archives: May 2019

Fiona Wright’s World Was Whole

Fiona Wright, The World Was Whole (Giramondo 2018)

[Added later: If you read only one article on this book, I recommend Ashley Kalagian Blunt’s brilliant essay ‘Comfortable and Comforted: The World Was Whole by Fiona Wright’ in Sydney Review of Books (click here) rather than mine. Of course, I’d be happy for you to read both.]

This is Fiona Wright’s second book of personal essays. At the Sydney Writers’ Festival earlier this year, she said the first book, Small Acts of Disappearance, was about extremes, particularly those brought on by her severe health issues, and this book is about the ordinary, and how the ordinary must be negotiated by someone whose health is (still) fragile. It’s a very good description.

The essays are beautifully written, combining personal detail, literary reference and information about the social and historical contexts. They revolve around three main things.

First is the experience of chronic illness. Fiona Wright lives with a rare and complex digestive disorder, which gave rise to behavioural difficulties. Dealings with dietitians, psychologists, hospitals and the mental health system feature prominently, and there’s a revelatory quality to her recounting of the micro-moments she has to negotiate as a person for whom eating is always problematic. One example at random: in ‘Back to Cronulla’ she has a meal with her family to celebrate her parents’ wedding anniversary, course after course of beautifully plated dishes’:

I was beautiful food, truly and terribly wonderful – because for once I actually felt like I was missing out. I was cautious with my meal, aware than any of these dishes might make me throw up, and eventually something did. I left the three-hour-long lunch feeling hungry, and wound tight with anxiety and disappointment. My oldest niece, bored at one point with the meal, had asked her mother, why are we eating so much food for lunch? and all the adults had chuckled, out of the mouths of babes! But oh, I wanted to say, I know exactly what you mean.

(page 41)

The second recurring subject is home, as housing and as locality, home that is never the stable, warm reliable nest of stereotype, but home that is uncomfortable, and sometimes precarious. Born and raised in Sydney Western suburbs, Wright now lives in the Inner West, and one of the beauties of the book is the way these places, and others such as Cronulla, come alive on the page. In particular, even while she makes it very clear that she doesn’t feel completely at home in her current suburb of Newtow, any more than she did in her childhood suburb, her love for it is tangible, and never more so than in this account of the Newtown Festival:

The street itself was thronged and milling. A beautiful young woman with a shaved head and silver glitter pressed onto her eyelids placed a sticker in the shape of a heart onto my chest. I ran into one of my housemates in the park, an old colleague and then the girlfriend of a womanI used to live with; a little further on, I saw one of the nurses from the hospital, although it took me a moment to place her properly, dressed in denim and wearing jewellery, rather than navy-blue scrubs and a duress alarm.

Later, I met a friend in a café on King Street, and the barista said, we haven’t seen you for a while, and reached for the skim milk before I’d even had a chance to speak. I used to bristle when this happened, when a waiter or bartender asked if (or assumed that) I wanted my usual, it used to embarrass me acutely, because I didn’t want anybody else to recognise how predictable, habitual, routine I could not help but be. It seemed to be a failing and a fault, but in this afternoon, all afternoon, I felt it as a recognition of my place, of my home and my inextricability, almost, within it.

(‘Relaxed, Even Resigned’)

There’s a lot about the joys and tribulations of shared rented houses. ‘Perhaps This One Will Be My Last Share House’ – the title says it all – casts a cool eye on the process of being evicted, finding new housemates and searching for a new house. It’s personal, but it’s worth a hundred newspaper articles about the housing problems facing young people in Sydney (and many other cities).

The third thing, not so much a theme or a subject as a practice, is attention to moments. In the Correspondence section of the current Quarterly Essay, responding to Sebastian Smee’s Net Loss, Fiona Wright has a piece that pretty much starts out:

I am a millennial, and this response will probably seem solipsistic, and it will be fragmentary. It’s not that I can’t help it. It’s not my attention span, my inherent narcissism. I’m just making a point.

A number of the essays here are fragmentary – congeries (a word my high school Latin teacher used to love throwing at us) of moments, observations, eavesdrops, beautifully chosen quotations from other writers. Only an inattentive reader would think they were solipsistic or narcissistic. And they do have a point, though not one that is argued for as if in a debate.

A woman about my age sits at the next café table with someone I take to be her mother, slung beneath a bag as enormous and as orange as a pumpkin. The older woman says to the waitress, I’ve quit sugar so I’ll just have a chocolate croissant.

(‘What It Means for Spring to Come’)

I catch a train into the city, in the late afternoon, and hear a young woman’s voice somewhere behind me: it smells of seaweed in here.

(”The everyday Injuries’)

There are two marvellous travel pieces – Iceland in ‘A Regular Choreography’ and China in ‘Little Heart’ – which combine all three of those features. By its nature, travel imposes extra stress on vulnerable bodies and minds, raises issues of home and belonging, and is disjointed and fragmentary.

The collection’s title, and the title of one of the essays – ‘The world was whole always’ – come from the poem ‘Aubade’ by US poet Louise Glück (click here for the whole poem):

A room with a chair, a window.
A small window, filled with the patterns light makes.
In its emptiness the world 

was whole always, not
a chip of something, with
the self at the centre. 

I stumbled across another of Glück’s poems, ‘Formaggio’ (on a pdf file here), which includes the book’s title, though without the ‘always’ of the essay. It begins:

The world
was whole because
it shattered. When it shattered,
then we knew what it was.

These lines could have served as an epigraph to the whole book. One way or another, the essays are about being shattered, or its aftermath: precarious housing, chronic illness, life away from the security and predictability of the family of origin. The writing is a way of understanding, of knowing what it is.

The book hit a number of personal spots for me: I live on the edge of Newtown and recognise many of the places mentioned; it’s a while ago but I’ve lived in a number of share houses; there’s a little discussion of one of the few Chinese poems I’ve tried to engage with intimately (here if you’re interested); and I’ve recently become aware that though the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned that we have 12 years to prevent irreversible and calamitous damage, yet I go on pretty much as before, so I was struck by this:

So much of our lives we cannot control, especially in an environment of unspecified global threat, imminent global disaster, increasing workplace uncertainty, but within the boundaries of a home (four brick walls, a fence) we can fixate on the little things, and we can fix them.

This is also exactly how anorexia works.

(‘To Run Away from Home’)

Oh!

The World Was Whole is the twenty-second book I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge. I am grateful to Giramondo for my copy.

Andy Kissane’s Tomb of the Unknown Artist

Andy Kissane, The Tomb of the Unknown Artist (Puncher & Wattmann 2019)

Here I go, blogging about a third book of poetry in a row. But, Dear Poetryphobe Reader, there’s nothing to fear. This one, like the last two I blogged about, is really good. Andy Kissane writes the kind of poetry that allows you to focus happily on the content and leave the poetic stuff to do its work while you’re distracted (like T S Eliot’s burglar tossing meat to the dog*). I think of him as a poet committed to bearing witness.

The book is in four unnamed sections, each with an epigraph suggesting its organising principle.

The first section’s epigraph is from Sharon Olds’s poem about her father’s death, ‘The Race’: ‘all night / I watched him breathe.’ The poems that follow deal with death and loss, and with being alive, though they’re not as abstract as that makes them sound. The poet contemplates his own death. He farewells his father:

------------------------- -----------Somewhere 
in my own marrow lies the moment
when you fathered me, that unacknowledged
gift.
('The Last Quarter')

He has a polite encounter with an old lover, and celebrates quiet moments of domesticity and parenthood. Among these poems, almost as if warning the reader not to read the others as directly autobiographical, there are two dramatic monologues, ‘Marriage Material’, spoken by a 19th century bride, and ‘Dressed’, spoken by a young woman of now (‘Desire is pure, as clear as water, and shame – / well, you just don’t feel any’).

The second section is heralded by a quote from Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: ‘One man will always be left alive to tell the story.’ Arendt was talking about the impossibility of ‘oblivion’: everything will be remembered by someone. As I read it, the central thread of this section is the idea of witness: to a concert or a movie, to plagiarism, to some of the great horrors of our time including Australia’s offshore prisons, and, closer to home, to a Sydney storm and schoolyard bullying (of which more later).

The third section is a sequence of ten poems set in the US–Vietnam War, all in the voice of an Australian (or possibly US) soldier, introduced by a quote from Tim O’Brien’s 1990 short fiction ‘How to Tell a True War Story’: ‘You can tell a true war story by the way it never seems to end.’ The sequence doesn’t tell a single straightforward story, but a narrative shape emerges from individual scenes involving the narrator and his comrades Dave, Des, Johnno, and Boffa.

Des appears beside you, his thumb
hauling you in the direction of safety.
You hoist your pack & crabwalk
after him, before a monsoon
of mortar shells drop right there –
on the piece of dirt where you were
lying ...
(from 'The Firefight')

It’s in the lineage of The Red Badge of Courage, has all the power and none of the insidious cinematic glamour of many ‘anti-war’ movies. I read somewhere that these poems are part of a verse novel in progress. If so, I’m looking forward to the novel, but this sequence doesn’t leave me with any of the cheated feeling that comes from reading an excerpt. The final poem, the sonnet ‘Back Home’, rounds the sequence off, not with an ending, but as an agonised cry about the lack of comprehension from even sympathetic non-combatants. Perhaps because I went to court as a conscientious objector for the US–Vietnam War, I needed a long walk after reading these poems.

The final section, ushered in with a quote from Michelangelo – ‘I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free’ – deals with visual art and sculpture, referring to work by Cressida Campbell, Grayson Perry (the title poem is a response to Perry’s The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman, 2011), Degas (spoken in the collective voice of his nudes), Cézanne, Jan Senbergs, and Kissane himself imagined as a painter.

It’s not easy to choose just one poem to discuss from this marvellously varied collection, but my mind keeps going back to ‘Shooting Footage’, from Section 2. It’s longish, but it’s got a story (click on the image to see it in a separate tab, then you may have to click again to see it big):

The Acknowledgements section gives no extra information about this poem, so it’s anyone’s guess whether the incident it describes is a fiction or taken from life. It would be a mistake, either way, to just assume that the speaker is the poet. There’s plenty to make me think that it’s not so, although he may be the poet at one remove – working with images rather than words. (For the sake of discussion, I’m going to assume that he’s male, even though a woman filming in a school playground would generally arouse less suspicion than a man.) It’s a beautifully executed dramatic monologue.

We learn about the narrator through unobtrusive details. We’re not told how he knows Joshua, but he may have given a talk to his class, to be quizzed by him, and he may know him through his daughter who plays hopscotch in stanza 6. He rides on the same bus as the students at the end of the day, but he’s not a teacher.

Having introduced Joshua in cinematic close-up in the first stanza, the poem devotes three stanzas to his being bullied on the bus, showing not telling in best movie style: what his hair looks like, what his classmates say and do. The first authorial comment is almost admiring: ‘It is truly amazing / how far some boys can spit.’ The fourth stanza returns to close-up, this time showing Joshua’s pain, and with the narrator explicitly holding a camera. We don’t know if this is the first the narrator knows of the bullying or if he’s filming because he’s been told about it previously, but in this kind of economic story-telling such specifics don’t matter.

The fifth to seventh stanzas give us a naturalistic narrative: the practicalities (enough of them at least) of how the narrator gets to be in the schoolyard at lunchtime filming, and then the painful specifics of what he sees, with just the one moment of expressed emotion (‘My anger smoulders // like white-hot coals. I can barely contain it.’) Then there’s a curious departure from the narrator’s carefully established point of view in an echo of the earlier close-ups: ‘Joshua’s glasses fog up / so he can’t see.’

Without breaking the narrative surface, the first lines of the eighth stanza comes as a revelation: ‘”Let him eat bacon sandwiches,” / one of them says as they run off’. This isn’t just generalised nerd-persecution. Joshua’s name, his shiny black hair, the steam from the bathroom and the pulling down of his shorts make a pattern. It’s antisemitism. The scene of schoolyard cruelty resonates out into some of the darkest episodes of human history. But here the horror is near at hand, potentially within the narrator’s power to influence.

I film it all in one long take. It's the hardest
thing I've ever had to do, to film this and not
intervene.

The poem is still a narrative about schoolyard bullying. But it’s also a reflection on the role of art: in this case, to record, to show, to bear witness. It’s not that it would have been wrong to intervene, but it might not have been as effective.

The final triplet expresses a hope, in this context well founded, that the work of art, in this case the film, will make a decisive difference. Without making a big point of it, the very last line and a half execute a subtle shift:

----------                     --------And a silence I will end soon – 
walls of brick and barbed wire, tumbling, tumbling down.

These lines are no longer talking about film, but about speech, no longer about the schoolyard, but about prisons. I’m tempted to read them as a mini-manifesto: a promise to speak truth about hard things, things that authorities like the Principal deny, with the aim of human liberation.

In an inspired piece of ordering that’s typical of the book, ‘Shooting Footage’ is followed by ‘Beached Dreams’, about the treatment of people who come to Australia by boat seeking asylum.

[Added later: Andy Kissane has emailed me some background on ‘Shooting Footage, which I quote here with his permission:

Its genesis began in a US film, The Bully Project but I don’t think I watched the whole film, just a bit of it. The spitting comes from my own experience of catching the bus to  a Christian Brothers school in the 1970s, but the rest is made up. Joshua and the biblical reference at the end comes from a Liz Frencham song I like, ‘Jericho’, but it’s a love song and has nothing to do  with bullying really, just gave me the idea for the ending. So essentially it is all made up,  riffing off the above sources. I have read it aloud once at Albury and it was a very hard poem to read.]

Embarrassingly, the Biblical reference to Joshua and the walls of Jericho went right past me until I listened to Liz Frencham’s song on YouTube (here).]

This is the fourth book of Andy Kissane’s poetry I’ve read. My blog posts about the others are here (Every Night They Dance, Five Islands Press 2000), here (Out to Lunch, Puncher & Wattman 2009) and here (Radiance, Puncher & Wattmann 2014).

I am grateful to the poet and Puncher & Wattmann for my copy.


*The chief use of the ‘meaning’ of a poem, in the ordinary sense, may be (for here I am speaking of some kinds of poetry and not all) to satisfy one habit of the reader, to keep his mind diverted and quiet, while the poem does its work upon him: much as the imaginary burglar is always provided with a nice bit of meat for the house-dog. (TS Eliot, The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism, 1933).

Tricia Dearborn’s Autobiochemistry

Tricia Dearborn, Autobiochemistry (UWA Publishing 2019)

The Emerging Artist warned me that I would lose readers if I blogged about two books of poetry in a row. So, dear Reader, please take that as a challenge and stick around. Also, tl;dr: I love this book. You might too. It’s very accessible, scientific and sexy.

Tricia Dearborn was brought up Catholic, has worked as a biochemist and as an editor, is a member of the GLBTQI community, has done psychotherapy, and has made poetry out of all that. This is her third book of poetry*. My blog posts about the first two are here (Frankenstein’s bathtub, Interactive Press 2001) and here (The ringing world, Puncher & Wattmann 2012). It’s been a long time between drinks, but worth the wait.

Autobiochemistry begins with ‘A chalk outline of the soul’ (online at the Rochford Street Review at this link – you need to scroll down). You don’t have to have had a Catholic education in a certain era to love this account of an early lesson in metaphysics and of the child-speaker’s attention quietly turning elsewhere. It had me, who belong squarely in that demographic, eating out of its hand. This quiet turning away from religious doctrine is a perfect introduction to the book: there’s no talk of souls (no auto-bio-metaphysics) in what follows, and though devotional images and a gruesome line from a hymn do turn up, they belong unequivocally to memories of childhood. Instead of religion, the poems have glorious, deliciously nerdy materiality.

The title section consists of 22 poems, each named for a chemical element, and all suffused with what you’d have to call love for the elements, their properties (‘Carbon’s multivalence, its / chemical conviviality’), their roles in human life, specifically the poet’s (‘Manganese’ – ‘tea is not high in essential nutrients / except for manganese, a “dietary mineral”’), and – sometimes – their potential for metaphor.

The title of the second section, ‘Covalent bonds’, invokes chemistry as a metaphor for relationships. The poems themselves don’t muck around with that kind of metaphor. They are variously erotic, intimate, passionate, neighbourly, elegiac.

Then there’s a suite of poems with a psychotherapy theme: ‘Elephant poems’, as in the elephant in the room. ‘Virginia Woolf’s memoirs’ includes eight short poems about Virginia Woolf, each with an epigraph from her letters or diaries. The fifth and final section, ‘The change: some notes from the field’, has nine poems with ‘Perimenopause’ in the title, my favourite being ‘Perimenopause as a chance to get a few things off my mother’s chest’.

I love this book. I love its love of the material world, its ease with bodies and bodily functions (though I would blush to read aloud some lines in the love poems). I love the way it explores the poet’s personal history with humour and seriousness and the opposite of narcissism. Most of all, I love its championing of connectedness.

Currently when I blog about a book of poetry, I try to write about just one poem in some detail. Here it has to be one from the title sequence. I’m drawn to ‘Manganese’, a fabulously multifaceted look at tea. But ‘Sodium’ has got my favourite line in the book. Here it is (you can click on the image to see it large):

There’s nothing obscure in this poem (or indeed in the whole book): no cryptic wordplay and no need for a search engine to decipher a reference. The first five triplets set the scene; the next six play; and the final three bring the poem home. It’s like a sonnet, though in place of 14 lines it has 14 triplets – 5, 6, 3.

As in the other element poems, the element is real, acknowledged in its own right with an elegant, matter-of-fact account of its properties. The poem can afford to be matter-of-fact because sodium is so wonderful. These lines take me back to the joys of high school chemistry: the word ‘tossed’ recalls for me the dramatic moment when asthmatic Brother Foley showed us the sodium–water reaction by doing just that – tossing a small chunk into a filled sink, from a safe distance.

Then the poem turns. It could have gone on to musings about table salt and blood pressure, or the difference between swimming in the ocean, creeks and backyard pools. A backyard pool does appear in ‘Chlorine’, but when the poet’s mind reacts with sodium, a metaphor results:

I wanted to be the pure metal
solely myself, self-sufficient
swaddled in the safety

of needing no one

But in taking the behaviour of sodium as a springboard to musing about the speaker’s personal history, the poem doesn’t turn away from science. Instead, it invokes neuroscience. A mirror neuron, according to Wikipedia, is ‘a neuron that fires both when an animal acts and when the animal observes the same action performed by another’. Like sodium, humans (the poem has moved unobtrusively from the singular ‘I wanted’ to the species-general ‘we see’) are in constant interaction with the environment. She doesn’t have to spell out that wanting to be self-sufficient is wanting a very limited existence, the equivalent of sodium being ‘stored under kerosene, under oil’.

Then, the killer lines:

I grew up in a house of liars
a houseful of people
pretending to be separate

but humans are never
found free in nature
it's how we're designed

I just love this. It’s not that it’s a new insight. I think of D W Winnicott’s much quoted ‘There’s no such thing as a baby, there’s only a baby and someone’. And Raimond Gaita riffing on the song ‘Falling in Love Again’, reading ‘I was made that way / Auf Liebe eingestellt’ to say that humans are configured for love. Or Forster’s ‘Only connect’. It’s not new to say that humans are made for connection, however unremitting the messages to the contrary from the neoliberal environment (and the currently dominant side of politics). But ‘I grew up in a house of liars’, which looks at first glance like a condemnation of the speaker’s early family, has a deep compassion just beneath the surface. They were liars, but they were the ones who suffered from the lie, and anyhow they can hardly be blamed for inventing it.

-------------------------------connection

as vital as oxygen
intermingled, impure
we shine

The poem has done a neat trick with its main metaphor/analogy, twisting it into its exact opposite. Sodium in air is still dull, but the analogous grey dullness is what makes humans shine. It wasn’t until I retyped those lines that I realised that ‘Sodium’ can be read as a response to ‘A chalk outline of the soul’: in Sister Pascal’s chalk drawing, God’s sanctifying grace removes all smutchy traces of sin to leave the individual soul pure and shining, here – and in the book in general – it is our smutchy impurity that shines.

Autobiochemistry is the twenty-first book  I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers’ Challenge. My copy is inscribed to a friend who bought it at a launch, so I’ll have to return it to her. I plan to buy a copy for myself.


* She has also written at least one book of science experiments for children, which you can find if you know how to use Duck Duck Go (or search engines that abuse your privacy).

Richard James Allen’s Short Story of You and I

Richard James Allen, The short story of you and I (UWA Publishing)

Richard James Allen is a mover and shaker in Australian poetry and beyond. He has been Artistic Director of the Poets Union Inc and director of the inaugural Australian Poetry Festival. He has edited – among other things – an anthology of Australian performance texts published by my old employer, Currency Press. He’s also a filmmaker, dancer and choreographer with the Physical TV Company. The short story of you and I is his tenth book of poetry, and my introduction to his work.

Within the first couple of pages of this book I had read a number of poems out to the Emerging Artist – something I rarely do. She didn’t tell me to go away, which, given her generally low tolerance of poetry, is high praise. One of the poems I read to her was ‘Closing time for Melancholy’. Here’s the whole thing:

Bring your adult ears
and your childish hearts –
life is short,
desire is long,
and what the universe wants
the universe gets.

There’s a voice in these early poems that’s attractive, charming, even seductive, even while saying grim or gloomy things, the voice of a lively mind that is drawn to melancholy. Speaking of the word ‘melancholy’, the poem of that name says:

It must be that no other bloom
creates the decadent, fin-de-siècle atmosphere I experience in my soul.

And while there’s a lot of melancholy in the book, there’s also metaphysics, love, lust, loss, illness, art, Buddhism, and pleasure for the reader on pretty much every page. Only when I’d read it all for the first time did it occur to me, what a smarter person might have been on the lookout for, given the book’s title, that there’s an overarching narrative. The speaker is in a despondent state, a ‘maelstrom of gravitational torpor’ (‘The Resurrection and the Life’). There’s a relationship, and there are some wonderful poems about the early stages of physical and emotional rapture – the title of one of them, ‘In the 24-hour glow’, is almost a poem in itself. It’s never spelled out, but it seems the relationship ends after only a short time – there are many poems in which the beloved ‘you’ is a ghost or a memory, and the second last poem, ‘The Captain of the Men of Death’, actually an eighteen-page sequence, is about serious and possibly terminal illness – a note explains that the poem takes its title from an early 20th century nickname for pneumonia. The time line isn’t clear. Perhaps, reading for the narrative, you would take it that the relationship, the love story, is already in the past when the book begins.

But here’s the thing. Even though I’m usually happiest when there’s a narrative line for me to follow, in this case I’m glad I didn’t read looking for a narrative – that would have tied the poems down to a particular context rather than letting them resonate out to who-knows-where. Take the first lines of ‘The Wedding Dress’:

---------------------------Why am I so angry
-------------------------------------at this wedding dress?

It floats through space
like an abandoned satellite,
gliding without sound or friction

Reading these lines, I took it that the poem was a response to an art work. More precisely, I thought of Rosemary Laing’s Bulletproof Glass series of photographs which I had misremembered as featuring a wedding dress exactly as beautifully described here (but Laing’s flying dress is inhabited by a woman who has been shot, a whole other story). I’m pretty sure that the poem is a response – not to Rosemary Laing’s photo, but to an image like it. (You can read the whole poem here. It’s quite long.)

The opening question is asked eight times, each time followed by a number of lines groping for an answer: like the monolith in 2001, the dress ‘stands at the limits, the frontiers of our knowing’; it’s a memento, like ‘golden calves raised to the banality of our happiness’; it’s emblematic of the institution of marriage, which the speaker is at best ambivalent about, and of the deep human impulse that gives rise to the institution.

The fifth time the question is asked, the poem takes a personal turn: ‘I had been dreaming about you.’ If one was reading for the narrative, this is where one would start paying attention, but so much has already happened and the narrative is frustratingly elusive:

I had been dreaming about you.
After a rocky start, I was happy to report that
we had been beginning to get along again.

The next two ‘answers’ stay at the personal level. At the end of the sixth, the relationship between the memory/dream of past love and the image of the flying empty dress in the present can be condensed into two short lines:

I was drowning in love
I am drowning in fury

The seventh answer actually answers the question:

And so now the dress remains.
Not the memories of the lives lived in it.
Not the excitement of the first fitting.
Not the moment when all eyes were turned
because they had to
and then because they wanted to.
Not those early hours
when it was peeled off in tenderness
to reveal, under its skin of beauty,
the skin of love.

Now the dress remains,
with only the air inside it.
The same air I breathe.

It’s still a response to that image, but it has moved decisively from general connotations to intensely personal. The final time the question is asked, the reply is:

for the first time in a long time perhaps I am not

and the question is transformed (including a subtle move to less self-important lower case for the first person pronoun):

---------------------------Why am i so in love
-------------------------------------with this wedding dress?

And the final lines move away from the wedding dress altogether – it has done its work – to address the remembered lover: ‘i started dreaming of you again tonight’. In the exultant final lines, he has found renewed joy in dreaming and remembering, and the poem takes up and transforms the opening image of floating through space:

--------the unspoken sharing of 
-----------------------our own private
parallel universe

--------which i feel
----------------i am out there in

---------------orbiting
------------------------------------some blazing star
--------with you

----------------------tonight

I read somewhere that ekphrastic is a wanky word. But I want to use it anyhow: an ekphrastic poem is one that relates to a work of art. And though the work of art this poem relates to may not actually exist, I read this as an ekphrastic poem: spending time with the opening image allows the speaker to move from grim anger at loss to joy in what he once had. (How’s that for a reductive paraphrase? Sorry, Richard.)

You might think from my description that this poem was a turning point in the overarching narrative. But I don’t think so. The poem works in its own terms, enacts its own drama in its own five pages. I don’t think there really is a narrative in the way a novel or a movie has a narrative, with clear structural beats. This is one moment in a long process of grieving, and the book contains many such moments. There’s a lot more besides, but that’s what struck me the hardest.

But then, I’m back to my first reading of the book as a whole: the ‘you’ of the title isn’t just one person, the one who has died and is being remembered and grieved for. It’s also, in other poems and sometimes in the same poem, the reader, which means potentially any other human being:

 As much as we have to begin
we have to end

As much as we are magic
we are dust
('An Aria, before the Requiem')

Now I want to go on quoting. You can take it that that means I recommend the book.

My copy of The Short Story of You and I was a gift from the author.

Ruby Reads (9): Emus, tigers and ducks and love

The grandparental discovery and rediscovery of books I enjoy, or that Ruby enjoys and I don’t hate, continues.

Sue Williams & Julie Vivas, I went walking (HMH Books for Young People 1996)

This lovely little book has been read to us twice at Rhyme Time at Leichhardt Library. Who wouldn’t love Julie Vivas’s images? ‘I went walking and what did I see? I saw a [xx] looking at me.’ The parents can join in the recitative, as the librarian takes us through a series of charming animals. Until the end, where all the animals and the child are frolicking together. There’s an art to writing text for picture books, and Sue Williams makes it look effortless.

Sheena Knowles & Rod Clements, Edwina the Emu (Harper Collins 1997)

This is the sequel to Edwin the Emu, which I remember from the distant past. It was read to us in the marvellous Kidspace in the Australian Museum. (An actual emu egg was accidentally smashed by one of the young scientists soon after the reading.) I think it went right over Ruby’s head, being a story of how, Edwina having laid ten eggs, Edwin stays home to look after them while she goes out to get a job. No one will hire her because, well, she’s an emu. It’s total nonsense, and Rod Clements’ illustrations are supremely silly.

Melanie Joyce & Dean Gray, Follow that Tiger: Catch Him If You Can (Igloo Books 2016)

Some books are just right for a 17-month-old reader, for reasons that would have been hard to predict. In this one the jungle animals are all concerned about the tiger. Ruby generally wants to stop with the crocodile, who appears on the first spread. The tiger is mildly interesting, because after all he growls, but who cares about the monkey, the parrot (clearly not a kookaburra) or the rest? It speaks wonders for the writing and illustration that we have got past the first spread more than once.

Sophie Beer, Love Makes a Family (Dial Books 2018)

This was another Rhyme Time read. It’s exactly what it says in the lid, showing lots of combinations of adults and small children dong things that families do together. It was read to us without any heavy-handed pointing out that the families included people of different skin colours, that on same spreads there were two adults of the same gender, and so on. That is to say, it’s a book that might make some culture warriors cranky, but it’s a sweet mirror held up to our times.

Jennifer Cossins, 101 Collective Nouns (Lothian Children’s Books)

We bought this stunningly beautiful book at the National Folk Festival. You know, a murder of crows, an exaltation of larks, a troop of kangaroos, and especially, given that we bought this for Ruby, a riot of kookaburras. The kookaburra page isn’t the only one we’re allowed to look a but we are required to return to it often and supply sound effects. Ruby’s own kookaburra impersonation is impressive.

I Went Walking, Edwina the Emu, and Love Makes a Family are the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth books I’ve read for the Australian women Writers’ Challenge. I haven’t included 101 Collective Nouns because, perhaps arbitrarily, I’ve decided it’s a book of art rather than of writing.

John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley and the Book Group

John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley n Search of America (Penguin 1962)

Before the meeting: Neither of the two libraries I belong to had a copy of this, and my local bricks-and-mortar bookshop took a couple of weeks to get it in. But my impression that it was an obscure enthusiasm of this month’s Book Chooser was modified when a young woman behind the counter, seeing it in my hands, said cheerfully, ‘I’ve got a red poodle.’ I realised the Charley of the book’s title must be a dog, so I smiled, and she went on, ‘His name is Steinbeck.’

The book was published in 1962, the year Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize for Literature. It’s an account of a road trip he took in late 1960, in a truck with an odd little house on its back that he named Rocinante after Don Quixote’s horse. He describes the countryside he drives through and devotes very little ink to the cities. He recounts conversations and draws conclusions, but if one was looking for a coherent journalistic ‘narrative’ one would look in vain.

The election that made John F Kennedy president happened during the course of his travels, and is mentioned in passing, mainly to say that people generally aren’t talking about it. The Cold War is raging and there’s a pervasive anxiety about nuclear weapons. The US War in Vietnam has not yet happened. State troops haven’t killed university students. Richard Nixon hasn’t disgraced the presidency. Oral contraceptives have arrived but not so you’d notice, and the sexual revolution is over the horizon. The women’s liberation movement may be fermenting, but the news hasn’t reached Steinbeck: for the most part he converses with men, women are either relatives or monsters of one kind or another, and his version of masculinity is unreconstructed US warrior-macho. The Civil Rights Movement is in full swing in the southern states, but until he reaches New Orleans in the second last section, there’s no African American voice. That section turns out to be brilliant, rising to visceral disgust and rage in its account of the Cheerleaders, the women who led the harassment of small children in the desegregation of schools in the south, and its account of his brief encounter with a young man who supported them.

Until that chapter, the book felt to me like a museum piece, its humour quaint rather than funny (Charley ceremoniously salutes a lot of trees), its charm decidedly of a bygone era. For my taste, it was a case of too late, too soon: too late to be current, too soon to be historical. The Book Chooser this month is an actor, and there’s a splendid encounter with an actor in North Dakota, one of the very few people who are accorded a reasonably rounded portrait.

Having recently read Martin Langford’s Neat Snakes, I had an eye out for embedded aphorisms. Here are a couple I noted:

It is the nature of a man as he grows older, a small bridge in time, to protest against change, particularly change for the better.

(page 83)

Montana seems to me to be what a small boy would think Texas is like from hearing Texans.

(page 121)

It is strange and perhaps fortunate that when one’s time comes nearer one’s interest in it flags as death becomes a fact rather than a pageantry.

(page 157)

The edition I read has an Introduction by Jay Parisi and notes for further reading. What with the Sydney Writers’ Festival and other distractions, I didn’t get a chance to read them.

After the meeting: Over an excellent dinner of pea soup cooked to an Ottolenghi recipe using fresh peas and spaghetti vongole with some prawns tossed in, followed by Messina gelato, we had a terrific evening, even though two people hadn’t managed to get hold of the book.

My impression is that others enjoyed it much more than I did, and by the end of the evening I thought more highly of it than I had, Someone read out a passage about small towns becoming antique-shop strips and what had seemed laboured humour was revealed as beautifully crafted sentences foreshadowing the whole fake heritage thing that afflicts many small country towns these days. Other readers enjoyed the dog much more than I did, and his account of waste and environmental degradation had impressed. It turned out to be a book full of interesting bits that give pleasure when recalled in conversation: the description of Montana, a hilarious encounter with bureaucracy at the Canadian border, the Cheerleaders of course, and the list goes on. There was some disagreement over the personality of Steinbeck as projected in the book: a preening boaster about his masculinity or a decent, serious man? Others had read the introduction, and were able to place the book in the context of the rest of Steinbeck’s life: there’s palaver at the beginning of the book about how he felt removed from the America he was writing about and this was an attempt to reconnect, which was more serious than I ha rad it to be – contemporary critics were saying that his writing at that time of his life lacked the power of his earlier stuff, written when he was living geographically close to the people he wrote about. A number of guys had gone to visit places from last month’s book.

Someone else had loved The Chaperone, which I thought was basically a telemovie. Someone had been in New York (in this group it seems that every meeting someone has been to New York) and bought their copy of the book at the fabled Stand Bookstore in Manhattan. I seem to be the only one who had made it to the Sydney Writers’ Festival, which happened about 200 metre from where we met. Excellent books and forthcoming theatre productions were promoted. We had an impassioned conversation abut Israel – Folau, not the state – and resolved the issue of hate speech, freedom of speech, workplace responsibilities and the status of Australian Rugby Union when compared to New Zealand’s.

SWF 2019 Sunday Part Two

Here are the last three sessions I attended at this year’s Festival.

3 pm: Jenny Erpenbeck: Memory and Forgetting, Home and Exile

I had heard Jenny Erpenbeck speak at the first session I attended this year. I was happy to have a chance to hear her at more length.

The session began inauspiciously. Whereas in almost every other session all the participants walked onto the stage together and sat down to welcoming applause, this time a tall, slightly ungainly man was standing centre front and had started talking before we could acknowledge him, He didn’t introduce himself, so I’ll return the compliment here. Like all the other facilitators, he acknowledged the Gadigal people as traditional custodians of the land where we were meeting, though he didn’t mention elders and somehow made it about himself: he appreciated that Gadigal people had been telling stories here for millennia and was grateful that he could tell stories here. Maybe I’m being picky here, but I think he’d lost sight of the function of the acknowledgement of country: in the absence of someone from the traditional owners to welcome us all, someone acknowledges the custodians and elders on behalf of the assembled people – it’s not about that person as an individual.

And the session continued as it had begun. Though the interlocutor professed to be a huge admirer of Jenny Erpenbeck’s work, he didn’t seem to know how to give her room to shine: he would comment on some aspect of her work, then ask whether he had got it right, and often enough she would struggle to make an intelligible response. The difficulty was no doubt compounded by her limited English and the terrible noise coming from other parts of the cavernous hall.

Nevertheless, starting with the story of her grandmother who had been a Communist in 1930s Germany, gone to the USSR to avoid the Nazis, and never trusted the Germans again when she returned after World War Two, she painted a poignant picture of the East German experience when the Berlin wall came down in 1989 and almost overnight everything changed.

My most vivid memory of the session is her graciousness in responding to borderline offensive questions from the floor. Asked if, given the current resurgence of fascism in the east of Germany, does that mean that east Germans have a deep-seated yearning for totalitarianism, she quietly demurred. First, she said, it’s not only in the east. And second, rather than asking if the questioner had been listening when she talked about the marginalisation of people from the old East Germany and their consequent sense that the political system did not represent them, she said that though she thought about the question a lot, she didn’t know what led to this resurgence. Perhaps it was … and here she repeated her earlier analysis as if it was a new thought in this conversation.

Then, when someone who was sitting very near the first questioner pointed out that the audience was mainly grey-haired (a comment that prompted noisy protest from a good part of the audience), and asked if her books were reaching young people at all. Smiling warmly, JE said she quite liked grey-haired people, and added that one of her books – perhaps Go, Went, Gone, which deals with refugees and people who have been forced to migrate – has been set for study in some localities. She doesn’t know if the book will change the minds of any of the young people, but perhaps it will, and they may have an influence when they have grey hair.


4.30 pm Ece Temelkuran: How to Lose a Country

This session was the one that was most affected by the terrible acoustics. And evidently it was worse for the people on stage than for us: evidently the background noise fed into their ear-phones so that they could barely hear themselves each other. Making a virtue of it, Ece Temelkurian, the Turkish writer I’ve seen twice before, said she would use her Big Voice, and Sally Warhoft, A Melburnian whom I think of mainly as previous editor of The Monthly, said likewise – and both these women, it turns ut have big voices, big ideas, big connection of minds.

Ece’s book How to Lose a Country is not about her native Turkey. It uses the Turkish experience as a warning to the rest of the world about the process by which liberal democracy can be turned into dictatorship. Right-wing populism, which smooths the transition, is the monstrous child of neoliberalism. (She is a terrific phrase-maker.)

She is critical of easy analogies with the rise of Nazism and fascism. what is happening now is much more like the industrial revolution. It’s not about the populist leader – get rid of one and another will take his (usually they’re male) and another will take his place. It’s a change beyond party politics. And culture is over-rated. (As she clarified in question time, this is not to say we should ignore cultural specifics, but she is talking about a general process. It’s misguided to say that there’s something about Turkish or Philippine culture that makes dictatorship more likely, that it could never happen here, wherever here happens to be.) Neoliberalism has broken communities, got into our minds so we think of ourselves mainly as participants in a market rather than a society. The public concept of truth has changed, and public figures are no longer ashamed when caught in a lie.

When Sally quoted John w Howard’s pivotal assertion, ‘We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come,’ Ece said this was a classic piece of what she is talking about: it’s a piece of nonsense, because of course you can’t control who comes to your country. But once you draw a circle like that, with someone on the ooutside who is defined as not belonging, there is no way of stopping that circle from narrowing.

Things that don’t work in response to the rise of right-wing populist leaders:

  • fact checking: they lie and distort, but have undermined the institutions that would be used to expose them – the press, scientific bodies
  • judicial processes: they have sowed distrust of the courts or stacked them with partisans
  • opposition parties and the electoral process – I think it was Sally who said she had read that some serious people are saying it’s possible, even likely, that if Trump is voted out in 2020 he will refuse to leave the White House (mostly Ece avoided takig explicitly about Trump, but he was certainly in my mind along with Scott Morrison all through the session).

We have to be prepared for a new kind of conversation. For example:

A: The world is flat.
B: Look at this photo taken from space. The world is clearly round like a ball.
A: But I don't believe that. I believe the world is flat.

How do you deal with that? she asked. How do you prove that seeing trumps belief, that evidence matters? That’s the question we’re up against. She had no answer.

Neoliberal values to the same thing to our minds as terrorism does. Recognising that Sydney hasn’t hasn’t experienced terrorism, she explained that when a terrorist attack occurs in your country, most people’s first response is to be relieved that it wasn’t in their town. If it’s in your town, you’re relieved it wasn’t in your suburb. If in your suburb, that it wasn’t in your street. It’s always somewhere else, happening to someone else, so not your problem. That’s how neoliberalism works too: Manus Island and Nauru, it’s only a couple of hundred people. It’s a vicious diminishing of our sense of humanity.

Having said to Benjamin Law the other night that she thinks the important thing is to think about all this, not to focus on how one feels about it, at this session she warned about laughter. The problem with mockery of the right-wing populous leader is that it allows the mockers and the laughers to feel superior to the subject of their mockery, and perhaps unwittingly assume they are safe. Dont’s laug, she said. It’s dangerous.

We have to remember that we are political subjects. We are living in challenging times that call for hard thinking and collective action. This is a joyful thing.

Whew!


And then there was the Closing Address delivered by Fatima Bhutto.

Before introducing the main act, Michaela McGuire, artistic Director of the Festival, took the mic for a moment to thank the tireless workers and volunteers, and to do an elegant round-up, quoting enough stand-out moments to make everyone in the room realise they’d seen only a fraction of what went on. My favourite was novelist Trent Dalton approaching the q=women queueing after his sold-out talk to thank them for their interest, only to have fellow Queenslander Matthew Condon tap him on the shoulder, ‘Mate, that’s the queue for the Ladies.’

Ms Bhutto spoke eloquently about the distortion of reality that sees Islam and Muslims as the main source of violence in the world. She listed the many barbarous acts of violence in the 20th century and since committed in the name of Christianity or (she whispered) by atheists, and called on us to reach for our common humanity in these dangerous times.

She saved her sharpest language for the Four Horsemen, by whom she meant Sam harris, Richard Dawkins and two others who in the name of militant atheism are especially hostile to Islam and to the Holy Qur’an, even though, she said, none of them have read it. (incidentally, outside the Town Hall on Friday night, a couple of men were offering copies of the Qur’an to people in the queue. I said I already had a copy next to my bed. ‘Have you read it?’ ‘ Not yet’ Read it. It’s a revelation.’)

It was great that the festival finished on such a challenging, even militant note rather than warm, self-congratulatory rhetoric about the power of the imagination.


It turned out that a clear theme emerged in my personal festival this year. In session after session people groped for definitions of home. In An Irrevocable Condition the consensus was that home is where you have your community of friends and family. In Home Truths both writers were ambivalent about being identified with their place of origin, and if I remember correctly at least one of them said she found a home in literature – writing, reading, being part of that community. Story Club was all about family – early parenthood and a vast clan reunion. In Lie to Me at the Town Hall, Patricia Cornelius’s monologue dealt with what amounted to a creepy and devastating home invasion. Simon Schama spoke of Jews as having a provisional sense of belonging: ‘If you’re a Jew, it’s natural to be cosmopolitan, on the move. The non-provisional part is observance and immersion in the Torah or for more advanced people the Talmud. In some sense, the Torah is your home.’


One last comment. I love attending the Festival in person. You get to talk to strangers about things they love, and that you also love if you’re lucky. You get to meet up with friends in a different context. You have a chance to meet in person people who have been intimately important to you, though I’ve been too shy to do too much of that. You get to notice the poets’ shoes and the heroic journalists’ hair. But these days it’s possible to enjoy a lot of this festival at a very small remove.

Some sessions are broadcast live on the ABC: SWF episodes of The Bookshelf and Conversations are are already available as podcasts – click the underlined words for links. Some sessions are live streamed, and some remote viewers have already blogged about those accounts. You can read about ‘Boys to Men‘, ‘Andrew Sean Greer: Less‘ and ‘”I do not want to see this in print“‘ on the Canberra-based blog Whispering Gums. If that wasn’t enough, the Festival has its own podcast which, if the past is any guide, will upload a huge number of sessions from this Festival over the next year.

SWF 2019 Sunday, Part One

I managed four sessions at the Festival on Sunday. Time is at a premium just now, so I’ll split it into two posts.

At 10 in the morning we went to A Dangerous Time to Tell the Truth in which, as the Festival web site say, ‘In conversation with ABC’s Sophie McNeill, three uniquely placed foreign writers and journalists share[d] their perspectives on the struggles and costs of reporting the truth and exposing lies under corrupt and oppressive governments.’ The three writers were Mexican Anabel Hernández (author of Narcos, about the far and deep reach of Mexican drug cartels), Iraqi-American Dunya Mikhail and Turkish Ece Temelkuran (author of How to Lose a Country).

I’d seen Dunya Mikhail in a more intimate session where she was wearing her poet hat, and this was the second of three sessions on my schedule featuring Ece Temelkuran. There was some repetition but I didn’t find any of it tedious.

We hear a lot about the noble calling of journalism these days, often from journalists whose work is deeply compromised. But from my seat in the stalls I felt something like awe, thinking that the three women on the stage were heroes of our time, exposing corruption and naming tyranny in the face of threats to their safety and even their lives. ‘Why are you here?’ Ece asked, as if having read my mind. ‘Do you want to see three martyrs? Do you want to learn about the realities of journalism?’

Quite apart from anything they said, the passion of all three women was deeply impressive. Anabel Hernández in particular delivered what was practically an aria on the importance of the truth, and the attempt to find and communicate it. In Mexico, where the institutions of society have pretty much failed, she said, journalists are currently called on to do the work of governments, investigators, prosecutors, even therapists. I think it was she (though it might have been Ece) who said, responding to a question from Sophie about the difficulty of persuading people to speak out, and picking up on the therapist tag, that people want to be heard: it takes two people to remember; if just one person has the memory it comes to feel like fantasy; an important part of the journalist’s job is to listen, even sometimes when you know that you will never be able to publish what you hear.

There was some dark humour. ‘Protect your journalists even if you hate them. We are not nice people.’ ‘Journalism is not a profession. it is a sickness in the head.’

On Julian Assange: He is not a pleasant person, but he has changed history. The impact of social media is huge, changing how we experience ourselves as human beings, and he is part of that much larger story. Social media are controlled by large companies for whom they make huge profits, and democracies are no longer strong enough to leash them.

In question time, someone asked what we could do to support good journalism. Ece gave the expected answer: Buy newspapers. Anabel picked up the baton: ‘Everything is connect,’ she said. When you take drugs in Sydney you become part of the problem for Mexico. Neoliberalism has penetrated deep into our minds to make us believe we are isolated individuals who are primarily consumers, but in reality we are all connected, and our actions have far reaching effects.

This is the first session I attended that had remote attendance. I expect it will turn up on the Festival’s podcast over the coming months. I’ll happily listen to it again.


At half past one, I joined an unexpectedly long queue (seats are allocated, so why queue?) for Simon Shama in conversation with Paul Holdengräber in Belonging: The Story of the Jews. This was the only session I attended that was all men, or even a majority of men, on stage. Simon and Paul gave the impression that they were old friends, though they had never appeared together in public before. I gleaned from the Festival program that Paul does a lot of conversing with famous people in public, and lives in the USA. He seems to be a kind of US Richard Fidler rather than a Kerry O’Brien.

Simon Shama’s recent book is the second in his intended trilogy, The Story of the Jews. This volume, Belonging, spans the period 492–1900 of the Current Era. I have had the first volume, Finding the Words 1000BCE – 492CE, beside my bed for some time, and have cracked it open since Sunday. I expect I’ll blog about it in time.

This was a remarkably entertaining, free-ranging chat, starting with Paul announcing that Simon had just told him he loved meeting and signing books for men, women, children and dogs, and would do so after the session. The very mild laughter had barely died down when he followed up with a passage from the last pages of Finding the Words, a contemporary Christian monk’s account of the sufferings and courage of Jews fleeing Spain in 1492, and we were away: two hugely intelligent, warm and mutually appreciative Jewish men going where the subject and the moment took them, interrupting each other (especially Paul interrupting Simon), telling little bits of their life stories, swatting a fly and accusing it of being anti-Semitic, telling jokes that were only marginally relevant, but funny. When asked if he was Jewish, Jonathan Miller said, ‘Well, Jew-ish‘. This joke was relevant because Simon Shama was describing himself as more a Jewish historian than a historian of the Jews (or possibly the other way round – I didn’t take notes).

They talked about the Jews who faced the choice between fleeing Spain in 1492, converting to Christianity or pretending to convert – and how neither converting or pretending to convert was any protection from the Inquisition that came soon after. They spoke of Moses Mendelssohn, 18th century intellectual who believed that the Enlightenment promised a degree of safety for the Jewish people, and how his hopes were largely dashed.

Simon said he was dreading writing the third book in the series. Asked why, he said that writing about the Holocaust is a huge challenge. So much written on it, especially fiction, is meretricious. The third volume will have to come right up to the present, given the new wave of anti-semitism sweeping Europe and elsewhere.

I came away determined to read the first volume, which covers 1500 year in 169 pages, and then this one, if the world and I last that long: just 500 years but something like 800 pages. These guys may have seemed a bit chaotic, but they knew how to whet their audience’s appetites.

Simon Griffin’s Fucking Apostrophes

Simon Griffin, Fucking Apostrophes: A guide to show you where you can stick them (Icon Books 2016)

The inside blurb describes this as ‘the perfect gift for any pedant’, which may explain why a young friend gave it to me as a gift with a knowing look on his face.

I don’t know that I’d recommend it to pedants, but it’s a short, clear, and for my money accurate guide to the use of apostrophes in English. It doesn’t waste space by arguing that apostrophes are doomed to extinction, or telling anecdotes about guerrilla apostrophisers attacking grocers’ shops. It allows for cases where a number of possibilities are correct. In order to lighten the mood, that is, to avoid sounding like a primary school classroom, it inserts the word ‘fucking’ regularly. In fact the word ‘apostrophe’ hardly occurs in this book without that adjective attached.

It was a thoughtful gift. I learned the difference between possessive and attributive nouns – the latter are in effect adjectives and so don’t need a [fucking] apostrophe. So a farmer’s market is a market belonging to a farmer; a farmers’ market is one that belongs to more than one market; a farmers market is a market for farmers, not one that’s owned by them.

There’s a charming dedication at the end:

For Matilda and Maurice

Please remember that swearing’s

not big or clever.

The book isn’t big, but it is clever – and sweary.

SWF 2019 Saturday

My second day at the festival turned out to be fairly light on – just two events.

We had double booked for the 11.30 am session, and reluctantly chose to pass on to friends our tickets to Akala‘s sold-out session (the Festival has a no-refunds and virtually no exchanges policy). The Emerging Artist then went to The Kingdom and the Power: Saudi Arabia, and I went to:


Poetic Justice. This was in ‘Track 12’, a small theatre space that was only about a fifth full, but soundproff. Dunya Mikhail, Iraqi journalist and poet now living in the USA exile was in conversation with US poet Michael Kelleher.

Dunya Mikhail’s most recent work is a non-fiction prose work, The Beekeeper of Sinjar, but for the sake of this session she was a poet. Unusually, I turned up with a question in mind. Having learned from an excellent issue of Southerly edited by Laetitia Nanquette and Ali Alizadeh that poetry occupies a central and honoured place in Iranian culture, I wondered if the same was true of Iraq. The question was given added point by the apparent discontinuation of the lively strand of poetry events that has previously been a major attraction of the festival for me, and by Fiona Wright’s admittedly facetious defensiveness about her poet identity on Friday.

My question was answered resoundingly in the positive. Actually, it was implicitly answered in Dunya Mikhail’s whole demeanour and way of speaking. Michael Kelleher asked her to the title poem from her first collection, The War Works Hard, which manages to be both slyly witty and devastating, and then invited her to talk about her first 15 years, the only years of her life when there has not been war in Iraq. She painted a marvellous picture: children in Baghdad lived their lives on the roofs or the streets. It’s a big city, but if a child wandered too far from home, someone would always bring them back.

She spoke of the ancient Mesopotamian practice of burying people with food and water to sustain their bodies on the journey of the dead, and poetry to nourish their souls. And it is still the practice in Iraq to have poetry recited at funerals – bad poetry at her father’s funeral, she said. There is a strong oral poetry tradition of which the funeral poems are a part, and poetry is held in high esteem: when she was about to go into exile, a friend was concerned, not whether she would be able to continue working as a journalist (she hasn’t really) but whether she would sill be recognised as a poet (she has been).

Though was brought up Catholic, religious, ethnic, or linguistic differences weren’t used as pretexts for mistreatment in her childhood, she said: the oppressive regime was pretty even handed on those matters. And the Qur’an has a surah about poets.

Asked if the 1001 Nights had been an influence, she said not directly: she had heard many of those stories, and others, from her grandmother, and they had found their way into her poetry.

Poetry, she said, has literally saved her life: she put ‘Poet’ on her passport when she thought she was going to travel to the US as a young woman; that fell through, but much later when she was fleeing the country because it had become seriously dangerous to be a journalist, the official at the airport noted that she was a ‘Poet’, and waved her through.

She spoke interestingly about translation. Poetry, she realised when she started writing poetry in the US, was her true homeland. Now, she writes her poems in Arabic and translates them herself. She prefers to do this because she has more freedom than a translator who is not her. In effect, she produces two distinct poems.

I don’t think I mentioned that yesterday, talking about mental illness, Fiona Wright and Luke Carman agreed that writing didn’t work terribly well as therapy. Dunya Mikhail echoed their sentiment in response to a question about the role of poetry in terrible situations such as Saddam’s Iraq or the decades of war since his overthrow. ‘My poetry,’ she said, ‘will not save. Poetry doesn’t heal a wound, but it is a way to see it and understand it.’

Michael Kelleher was an exemplary interlocutor – self effacing, well-informed, flexible, and asking questions that opened doors.


We went home for lunch etcetera, then I caught the bus back intending to go to the 3 o’clock session, Blak Brow: Blak Women Take Control, with Evelyn Araluen and other first Nations women poets. But it was a free session and I’d forgotten about the SWF queues. I arrived at 2.45 to see a queue of about 30 people, who turned out to be the ones who were left over once the room was full. So I went home and finished blogging about Friday.


After an early dinner we went downtown for Lie to Me: An Evening of Storytelling at Sydney Town Hall. Our tickets were for General Admission in the stalls, so we arrived with more than half an hour to spare. The queue must have been at least thousand people long, but we eventually got decent seats, and the readers/performers all appeared on a huge screen as well as in their tiny persons, so all was well.

I hadn’t looked closely at the program, and was half expecting a fun evening along the lines of that British TV show where you have to guess whether a panellist is telling an outrageous lie or an even more outrageous truth. That’s not what I got.

Benjamin Law, warm, suave and revealing his naked ankles, did a great job as host. Each of six story-tellers delivered their piece, and then had a brief chat with him.

Patricia Cornelius, whose plays I’m ashamed to say I’ve not seen any of, read the powerful opening monologue from a new play, Julia, which turned out to be about child sexual abuse and the Catholic church, and added something I didn’t understand about Julian Assange. Chatting with Benjamin, she said she didn’t care for naturalistic drama, and often wrote dialogue in a very poetic move, but no one seemed to notice.

Turkish journalist Ece Temelkuran’s opening gambit was to say that though she knew we expected her to talk about politics, she was going to tell some long concealed truths about herself. ‘I was a concubine in Saudi Arabia for ten years,’ she said, and before we could even gasp, she went on, ‘It was fun.’ She then reeled off a string of sordid, deeply cynical and increasingly improbable confessions. All these things had been written about her, she said, and not by Twitter trolls but by prominent journalists. She went on to talk about the absence of shame about lying in public life under neo-liberalism, and not only in Turkey. The idea of freedom, she said, has been corrupted so that it now applies only to consumption and sex.

Tim Soutphommasane, former Race Discrimination Commissioner, spoke soberly of the foundational stories of Australia, about our fabled egalitarianism and commitment to the fair go, which he argued don’t stand up to scrutiny.

Nayuka Gorrie, a Gunai/Kurnai, Gunditjmara, Wiradjuri and Yorta Yorta writer, warmed us up by chatting about the Harry Potter movie where Harry is accused of lying when he has told an uncomfortable truth, and his punished includes ‘I must not tell lies’ being magically carved into the sin of his arm. Then they spoke powerfully about the lies that colonisation depended on – White lies about Black truths, repeated in currucilums, in literature, in speeches, until they become accepted as truths.

Oyinkan Braithwaite gave a deceptively modest talk. She began with assertions young women make to each other. ‘All men are cheats,’ for example. And she talked about things she learned about the oppression of women in Nigeria when she challenged these assertions.

Scott Ludlam was the only one in my festival who spoke about climate change. Memorably, he said that the Antarctic ice shelfs haven’t even heard of Tony Abbott.

And the evening finished with a song by Megan Washington: I’m probably showing my age here, but I wish they’d managed to get Tim Minchin.