Monthly Archives: August 2019

Edna O’Brien’s Little Red Chairs

Edna O’Brien, The Little Red Chairs (Faber & Faber 2015)

This book’s title, supplemented by a note explaining it before the title page, warns us what to expect. In 2012, the note says, an installation of 11,541 red chairs was set up in Sarajevo to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the start of the siege of that city by Bosnian Serb forces: one empty chair for every Sarajevan killed during the siege, and of them 643 little red chairs to represent children. Somehow, we are being warned, the horrors of that siege will feature in what we are about to read.

Yet the novel starts out in a tiny community in the west of Ireland that could almost be Ballykissangel revisited – or an Irish version of Doc Martin‘s Port Wenn or Hamish Macbeth’s Lochdubh, with a pub, a policeman, a nun, a refurbished castle. A tall stranger in a long dark coat comes to town, bringing with him a whiff of the exotic, some intrigue, some sexiness. He’s a practitioner of alternative medicines. All set for a cosy comedy except, even if you’re smart enough to have avoided the terrible spoiler on the back cover, you’ve been warned.

The stranger gives a new lease of life to Sister Bonaventure, and his healing hands and herbs do wonders for many of the villagers, especially the women. Fidelma O’Brien, whose older husband can’t give her children, and whose shop selling imported finery has gone bust because a new expressway has meant most of her customers can go to the nearest city, decides she wants to get pregnant by him.

Not unexpectedly, things go terribly wrong. Then, at about the midpoint of the book, when Fidelma is pregnant, the stranger’s past has caught up with him, and the reader is wondering where on earth the story can go now, there is a moment of extreme sexual violence which I for one didn’t see coming even one paragraph before it happened, followed by a deeply distressing, and equally unexpected by me, moment of moral violence. Suddenly, it is a completely different kind of book. It becomes, in effect, Edna O’Brien’s equivalent of a red chairs installation.

The novel moves away from the tiny village, to return only briefly towards the end, and its narrative through line almost disappears in a harrowing series of tales of abuse, dislocation, and refuge. It’s as if the small story of the first half was split open and the whole suffering world was allowed to flow in through the cracks. Edna O’brien is a masterful writer, and she takes the reader with her to some very dark places, to reach a resolution that is a long way from restoring the comfort of the beginning.

joanne burns, apparently

joanne burns, apparently (Giramondo 2019)

apparently is the sixteenth book of poetry by joanne burns (who prefers her name and work to be written without capitalisation). It’s in four sections: ‘planchettes’, ‘apparently’. ‘dial’ and ‘the random couch’. I enjoyed all four very different parts, perhaps especially ‘dial’, which plays merrily and nastily with contemporary social and political language. But in this blog post I want to say a bit about ‘planchettes’ – partly because I think of my regular readers as wary of contemporary poetry, and my ruminations may cast some light on parts of that forbidding terrain.

People who are perplexed by contemporary poetry sometimes complain that they don’t like poems that are like cryptic crosswords. ‘planchettes’ might have been written in response to that complaint. According to a helpful note on the book’s back cover, the section’s ten poems ‘spring-board from the clues and solutions to crossword puzzles’. I’m not exactly an expert on contemporary poetry (sometimes I approach it with the fearful fascination of a toddler offering a long-stemmed leaf to a beautiful but sharp-pecking rooster). However, I’m a cryptic crossword aficionado, and that helped me to enjoy these poems. I’ll try to communicate something of the underpinning of that joy in three parts.

First: about cryptic crosswords. A recent Guardian cryptic crossword included this clue: ‘Person catching extremists in Ferrari with tank. (9)’ (See it in context here.) The successful solver pays scant attention to its literal meaning, and instead deconstructs it, after any number of false starts, as follows: F and I are the extremes of ‘Ferrari’; sherman is a kind of tank; put F+I with Sherman and you have a 9-letter word meaning ‘person catching’ FIsherman. Perform similar processes 20 or 30 times and the grid is filled. Only subliminally does one notice the often surreal or absurd images or micro-fictions conjured up by a clue’s surface. In this case: Who are the extremists, and why a Ferrari? who is the person in the tank, and is a weirdly asymmetrical chase scene implied, with an unlikely outcome? Is it a case of wealthy terrorists versus the power of the state? and so on. A solver may only notice the surfaces subliminally, but they are what make some crosswords richly pleasurable, while others offer only the dubious pleasure of pitting one’s wits against the setter (DA of the Sydney Morning Herald, I’m looking at you).

Second: about some poems. There’s a whole kind of poem – academics may have a word for it – that takes language from a particular, perhaps technical context, and puts it on display stripped of context. I was once at a poetry reading where someone read, at length and apparently without any alteration, an editor–proofreader’s marginal comments on a draft engineering manual. As an editor, I was bored by that experience, but I understood (or thought I did) that the poem was a verbal equivalent of a piece of readymade art – as in the urinal displayed as Fountain by Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven (and claimed by Marcel Duchamp, but that’s another story). That’s not exactly what joanne burns is doing in ‘plaanchettes’ (and has done in the past with language from the world of finance), though it’s related. She hasn’t just typed out string of crossword clues. As I understand it, she uses the clues and answers as a kind of restraint. Which brings me to my third part.

Third: restraint. This is a useful concept when talking about poetry in general. (Remember, I’m not an academic, and this is mainly stuff I’ve figured out myself or picked up along the way, and I could be wide of the mark.) Rhyme and metre are familiar forms of restraint: if you want to make up a limerick about Scott Morrison you have to find words that rhyme with one or other part of his name, or maybe his self-chosen nickname, and then see what you can do with them.* Limiting a poem to language found in crossword clues is a more drastic restraint than rhyme or metric form, but the underling principle is the same. Closer to these poems is the cento, where every line of your poem must come from another poem; or erasure, created by erasing most of a text, the poem being what’s left. In these forms, perhaps in all poetry, the result can be as surprising to the poet as to the reader. If you know exactly what you want to say at the start, better write the dullest kind of prose.

Now on to ‘planchettes’. A planchette, as you probably know and I had to look up, is that little piece of wood on wheels used in séances to spell out messages from who knows where – the spirit world or the jumble and chaos of the combined unconscious minds of the people wielding the wood. I don’t know anything about joanne burns’s process, but the title suggests that the crossword clues and answers are like the letters on a ouija board, and the poet’s mind moves over them, randomly at first and then with closer focus until something emerges that’s coherent, or somehow resolved. The weirdness of crossword clues remains, but not their solvability. Here’s an example, ‘Calypsonic’ from page 5:

do you feel like a
tangible sailor your
hair chocka with
permanent waves, or
an insect posing as
a water nymph in
search of a new nickname –

nothing beats finding a location
with the best overall view the day
before you are born     a twelve
month commitment is sought
for this role    you must have a
capacity to yearn –

I suppose one could scour the world of crosswords looking for the clues and answers that this poem has mined (starting, I imagine with calypsonic as an answer), but to what end? The words on the page are what we have. If you imagine them as having emerged from something like a spiritualist’s trance, not asking them to speak directly, but allowing meanings to swim before our eyes, you have to swim with them for a while and let something emerge – as I imagine they emerged for the poet.

‘Calypsonic’ isn’t in the dictionaries I have easy access to, but I read it as a variant of ‘calypsonian’, meaning ‘to do with the nymph Calypso’. At the start of the Odyssey, Odysseus has been a prisoner in Calypso’s cave for seven years. She offers him immortality if he will stay with her, but he wants to be on the move, to return to his wife, Penelope, and so the story begins.

The first seven lines ask ‘you’ if you ‘feel like’ an Odysseus or a Calypso – choose your archetype. A lot of wordplay swirls around that central question, perhaps clinging to it like detritus from the source material, but also complicating it – the ‘permanent waves’ pun suggests that the sailor’s voyaging will never end, at the same time as evoking the landlocked world of a presumed reader, who may very well have visited a hairdresser; Calypso is a nymph, but nymph also signifies a stage in an insect’s life cycle.

In the Calypso–Odysseus scene, she is at home and he wants to move on. Here, though, the word ‘permanent’ is attached to the Odysseus side of the equation, and ‘chocka’ also suggests fulness. Even ‘tangible’ suggests solidity. Here the sailor is paradoxical an archetype of stability. It’s the Calypso figure who is unstable – the nymph is an immature insect, still growing, and it’s casting about for a new identity (‘in / search of a new nickname’).

In the second part, the struggle between a settled existence and restlessness comes to the fore. The reference to the view reminds me that this is a Sydney poem, at the same time keeping the ancient story in mind. (I probably picked this poem to blog about because I recently visited what is reputed to be Calypso’s cave on the island of Gozo. It has a brilliant view of the Mediterranean.) But no sooner is the location found than ‘before you were born’ suggests that major change is about to happen. Then there’s ‘a twelve / month commitment’ versus ‘a / capacity to yearn’. And the final punctuation, not a full stop but a dash, leaves the whole thing up in the air, undecided.

The question arises: who is ‘you’ in this poem? It could be the poet as well as any reader who steps into the frame. After all, the person wielding the planchette is receiving a message rather than creating it.

Reading the poem – and any of these poems – isn’t a labour of explication as those paragraphs might suggest. Some of joanne burns poems remain partly or completely opaque to me, which I guess is inevitable with poems that involve so much compression and indirection, but others, like this one, hit a spark. I can’t account for it, but quite apart from everything else I’ve said about it, it made me laugh.

apparently is the 31st book I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge. I gratefully acknowledge that I received a complimentary copy from Giramondo Publishing.


* Having raise the possibility, I had to have a go:
Our smiling prime minister Morrison
let cameras film him at orison.
His 'How good's Australia'
snatched victory from failure
and now we're the ones he piles horrors on.

Roger Hallam, The Time is Now

Here’s a wonderful video, Roger Hallam, co-founder of Britain’s Extinction Rebellion talks to a hall full of people in Penzance:

The Book Group disagrees about Julia Phillips’s Disappearing Earth

Julia Phillips, Disappearing Earth (Scribner 2019)

Before the meeting: This month’s Book Selector happened to be at a dinner party with Kate Evans of the ABC’s Bookshelf when he was casting about for a book for us to read. She recommended Disappearing Earth, and I’m grateful, both to our name-dropping Book Selector and to Kate Evans. I loved the book.

The book is set in Kamchatka, a peninsula in the far east of Russia, that juts down into the Pacific Ocean north-east of Japan. The author’s acknowledgements mention that she visited Kamchatka twice while researching and writing the book. I would have been astonished to learn otherwise, because the locality is beautifully realised, from the southern city of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky with its majority ethnic-Russian population to the tiny villages in the north and their Indigenous peoples.

The story is told in thirteen chapters, one for each month of the year from August to July, with a short one in the middle for New Year’s. In August two little girls are abducted from the seaside of the city. We follow them until we know that they are being taken north, and then, with the end of the chapter, we lose sight of them. In the following chapters, the abduction is mentioned, sometimes as a barely remembered newspaper story, always as an unsolved mystery that creates unease, especially in women and the parents of young children. There is no way off the peninsula except by sea, and in spite of the evidence of a woman who witnessed the abduction (who has a chapter of her own), the investigating police pretty much decide that the girls drowned and the case is closed. What the reader knows, and most of the civilian characters fear, that the girls have been abducted and have probably been murdered, hangs over the many fragments of narrative like stormclouds.

As the book progresses, each chapter focuses on a new situation, so that it’s not even clear if there is a through narrative line. Perhaps we are reading a loosely linked collection of short stories, forming a over-arching portrait of a place, its seasonal changes, the tensions between Russians and ethnic minorities (another girl, a teenager from an Indigenous family in the north, disappeared some time earlier and the authorities and press have paid very little attention, as compared to the fuss over these two Russian girls). There’s also a kaleidoscope of women’s relationships, beginning with the two little girls at the start – the older one resents having to look after her little sister, but when trouble strikes she is completely committed to protecting her – and going on to motherhood/daughterhood, childhood friendships, widowhood and a range of unrealised sexual desire. At the two-thirds point I realised I didn’t know what kind of book I was reading: a mystery to be solved, a portrait of a community, or a collection of short stories about women’s lives.

This is not a complaint. I still wanted the mystery to be solved, but if that was not to be I was prepared to accept it in the name of realism. I knew who had done the abducting by about the three-quarter mark, but didn’t know if the characters would ever find out. Even at the climactic moment when the two mothers – the distraught Russian journalist and the bitterly resigned woman who runs an Indigenous cultural centre – meet in the north during a traditional festival to bring back the summer, I still didn’t know, and solving the mystery seemed almost beside the point. At the same time, the suspense was huge.

Usually, the emails organising food etc for the group include some rumblings about the book. Not this time. The most we got was an apology from our host for not having a sauna we could meet in – thus proving that he had read at least as far as New Year’s Eve.

After the meeting: Well, not everyone was as keen on the book as I was. Given that much of the joy in it for me was not knowing what kind of book it was or how it was going to be resolved, there’s some difficulty in describing our differences. But here goes:

  • I thought the ending was completely unambiguous. At least one chap had a diametrically opposite reading from mine: one reading is filled with horror, the other of sweetness and light.
  • One man said he felt it as a book written by a young woman for young women readers. He read it all the way through but came away feeling there was nothing in it for him. (See my comments above about women’s relationships.)
  • Another who reads most books twice because of an occupational hazard – as a former Second Director for television, he compulsively reads the first time with an eye out for locations; he has to read a second time to get the story and characters – couldn’t be bothered reading this one a second time. Contrary to the cover blurb from Publishers Weekly which speaks of masterful landscape descriptions, he could never tell where he was. While I agree that the blurb is weirdly wrong – there’s hardly any description as such – I love the sense of place. Paradoxically, at least two of us felt compelled to go back and reread some sections.
  • One man enjoyed the mosaic of relationships and then was disappointed when elements of what he saw as formulaic genre fiction came to the fore; another wanted it to be a policier and found the mosaic of relationships irritatingly beside the point.

We had barely laid out our range of initial responses when someone, perhaps bored with talking about books in general or just this one, asked, ‘What do we all think about Andrew Hastie’s intervention then?’, and we were embroiled in an animated conversation about China, Australia’s foreign policy, the politics of transgender, the vast unexplored terrain of what it means to be a man, and on to solve the problems of the world like twenty-somethings. Some grandfather talk was had, a house sale was announced, travel plans were tabled, the dressing on a removed melanoma was displayed, an excellent cauliflower and potato soup with fresh grated truffle was demolished.

Colleen Z Burke’s Sculpting a Landscape

Colleen Z Burke, Sculpting a Landscape (Feakle Press 2019)

This is Colleen Z Burke’s twelfth poetry collection, published like many of the others by her own Feakle Press. When I blogged about her 2013 collection, Splicing Air (blog post here), I wrote:

Many of the poems in Splicing Air capture moments with her grandchildren … Many others, in what I think of as her signature style, are short, impressionistic pieces about landscape or, especially, skyscape in and over Newtown and surrounds, or bushland.

The same is true of Sculpting a Landscape. Many of its short poems are like verbal snapshots of a moment observed around the inner city, or of a moment of insight, or something learned in travels or seen on the news, or something one of the grandchildren said. These poems create an impression of artlessness, as if they were jotted down in the moment.

That impression isn’t necessarily accurate – there’s often a subtle play of imagery, an unexpected word or a stinging implication. The title poem is a good example:

Sculpting a Landscape

In a small clearing
amidst a huddle
of skeletal
gumtrees
a rusted
burnt out ute
fuses into the
eroded earth
sculpting a
definitive
Aussie landscape.

At first this looks like a slightly sentimental, familiar image of rural Australia. I’m typing this beside a Carol Ruff painting of a red desert landscape that has a rusted vehicle as a detail among stunted vegetation and scattered rocks: the land has outlived and assimilated the incursion of settler technology. By contrast, if you sit with this poem for a little while, you realise that something different is happening here. It’s a small clearing, so the vehicle is a larger presence. The trees huddle, and are skeletal: to my mind, but the only gumtrees that look skeletal are dead ones. And the earth is eroded. This is not a cosy picture: ‘Aussie’, the affectionate diminutive for Australian settler culture, is definitively attached to an image of death and destruction.

Most of the ‘snapshot’ poems aren’t as harshly unsettling as this, but there is often something just a little off kilter: an ibis is seen ‘meandering’ across an empty street, ‘gum / trees lilt air’, coastal limestone is ‘spliced with / slivers of pink / and white’, mountain skies are tetchy, ‘raindrops / savour summer’s intensity’, trees ‘pierce / luminous / clouds’.

The conversations with grandchildren are less compelling than in previous books. Perhaps this is because the children are older. (I recently heard David Malouf say that three-year-olds are the most interesting people he knows, and Colleen Burke’s four grandsons, beautifully photographed by the poet at the front of the book, are substantially older than that.) But the opening to ‘Running free’ is irresistible:

I want to go to the cemetery
and dance on graves, said Emmett,
my eight year old grandson.

There are speeches put into the mouths of women in harsh situations: ‘My Country’s Embrace’ in memory of Palestinian poet Fadwa Tugan (1917–2003), ‘Agnes’s story, Malawi’, ‘One less mouth’, about a young woman in an unnamed third world country. There are poems about mistreatment of animals – the slow loris, the pangolin, a kangaroo in a Chinese zoo. Re-reading my earlier posts about Colleen Z Burke’s poetry, I see recurring descriptions like ‘straightforward’, ‘unadorned’, ‘No traditional forms, no high rhetoric, no decorative figures’. So yes, this is plain-speaking poetry, filled with a sense of place, that place being just up the road from where I live, and with a concern for the underprivileged.

Sculpting a Landscape is the 30th book I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Mark Brandi’s Rip

Mark Brandi, The Rip (Hachette Australia 2019)

I’m on holiday, and this was a birthday present. I knew from the start that it wasn’t my cup of tea. The cover is clever. Jock Serong’s back cover blurb makes me ashamed. He says:

What held me close in this novel was not the idea of a hidden population of drifters and addicts, but the writer’s reassurance that dignity and small kindnesses have a place in that world.

It makes me ashamed because I just didn’t believe in the drifters and addicts, and found the dignity and small acts of kindness as unconvincing as the rest. The narrator is a homeless young woman addict who has grown up in foster homes, at least some of them sites of sexual abuse. She has a good friend and protector in an older man, who doesn’t exploit her sexually and tries to find ways for her to avoid turning tricks for cash. They fall in with a very unpleasant character and it goes seriously downhill for both of them. There are no surprises in the plot,and the characterisation is minimal.

The narrator is not stupid, though she is extraordinarily obtuse at key moments, but she’s uneducated and very limited in her experiences. And very often in the writing, one has a sense of the writer pushing against her ignorance and limitations to say something that’s beyond her. Sometimes she quotes her friend (using the word ‘osmosis’, for example) and says she doesn’t understand what it means. Other times, it just feels as if she has become pretty much a ventriloquist’s doll for the author. Here’s a taste, from a passage early on where she’s describing what it’s like to use heroin:

I don’t want to make it sound romantic. Except it is romantic. And it’s just about the most wonderful thing there is. I love it. And it’s something I’ll always love, probably as long as I live. I suppose it’s a bit like smokers – maybe that’s a good way for people to think about it. Smokers might quit smoking because of all the other shit that goes with it, but the actual smoking part is something they enjoy – something they might always love. But they just make a rational decision, I suppose, that the downside isn’t worth it.

But for me, the downside is worth it. Because downside is pretty much all I’ve ever known. Getting high is my only glimpse of the upside, if that makes sense.

(Page 16)

To be fair, the unadorned narrative has an occasional meta touch that works well, if the reader is feeling forgiving): the main pair occasionally sneak into movies, and their tastes run to art-house features like Dogville and Pan’s Labyrinth. The narrator pours scorn on Hollywood’s need for happy endings, and there’s some discussion of whether the ending of Pan’s Labyrinth is meant to be real or just the girl’s fantasy. So when we come to the book’s ending (not to be too spoilerish), there’s a big doubt cast over what is actually happening. And in a clever postmodern way, the opening pages only make sense if read after the ending.

That said, it may be that it was a mistake to read The Rip so soon after two superb books: Trent Dalton’s Boy Swallows Universe, which treats the world of ‘drifters and addicts’ with so much passion and complexity, and Elie Wiesel’s Twilight, which never tells the reader what to think and is never predictable. Whatever, it didn’t really touch the sides for me.