Monthly Archives: September 2019

Keri Glastonbury’s Newcastle Sonnets

Keri Glastonbury, Newcastle Sonnets (Giramondo 2018)

Keri Glastonbury was interviewed by Jim Kellar in the Newcastle Herald in August. There’s much talk in the interview (you can read it all here) about the Newcastle-ness of the book – the local sights, snippets of lore, the city’s history and its present. Then, as if Keri Glastonbury is worried by the non-academic tenor of the conversation, she warns, ‘I don’t want people to think it’s accessible.’ Readers, she says, ‘will be confronted with experimental poetics.’

So there you go.

I assume that most of my regular readers are, like me, not up to speed with experimental poetics. (I’m one of the few non-academics and non-poets who writes in public about contemporary Australian poetry: I’ve never been terribly afraid of looking stupid in public, and I’m deeply grateful for the tolerance and good humour of poets who have responded to my blog posts in the comments section or in person.) If you’re fully poetry-phobic, this isn’t a book for you. But if you enjoy the outsider’s pleasure of being largely mystified and then having moments of clarity and even delight, you might want to give it a go.

The poems, as it suggests on the lid, almost all refer to Newcastle (that’s upon-Hunter not upon-Tyne), to the life of an academic working at Newcastle University who is a member of the LGBQTI+ community. There’s a wealth of academic reference/injokes, gossip from the poetry world, Newcastle detail that will be obscure probably even to some Novocastrians, snippets of pop culture from the last 30 or so years, internet memes and moments (I’m guessing) from the poet’s personal life – none of it spelled out or explained, much of it in unexpected juxtapositions. I doubt if any individual – except perhaps Glastonbury herself – could read the whole thing and get all the allusions. So if one feels like an outsider, it’s not because there’s a clique of insiders somewhere but because any reader is, as it were, eavesdropping.

Here are the first eight lines of a three-sonnet poem from early in the book, ‘What Would I Say’:

Dispersing a lyric via leaf blower
& other 80s cult songs like '88 Lines About 44 Women'
– what if John Forbes had lived
to live tweet during Q&A?
It's all lost generation stuff & the malls
were unindicted co-conspirators. Who knew?
Meaghan Morris/Maitland.
Joanie loves Chachi vs Date Academics in AU.

Here’s my take these lines. Your mileage will vary:

  • Line 1: We don’t know who’s doing the ‘dispersing’. Perhaps the noise of a leaf blower disrupts the concentration needed to create or respond to a lyric – lyrical words or sentiments are like so many dead leaves to be blown away by the unremitting noise of our lives these days. (A bit like many of Donald Trump’s chats to journalists – ‘dispersing information via helicopter blades’)
  • Line 2: The ampersand throws back to the first line, suggesting that it stands for a particular kind of 80s cult song. So the song named in this line (and others like it) do that kind of dispersing. I didn’t listen to much pop music in the 80s, but I looked this up and found that it’s a jolly list of women, two lines each, probably women that the writer/singer is claiming to have had sex with. Not very lyrical, or perhaps romance on an industrial scale?
  • Lines 3 and 4: These references aren’t obscure to me, but they may be to some readers. John Forbes was about my age, a witty, some would say smart-arse, poet who died young, who appears to be remembered with affection in contemporary Australian poetry; Q&A is an irritating current affairs TV show that runs tweets across the bottom of the screen. Forbes live-tweeting is a terrific notion. The dash at the start of line 3 implies some connection with what has gone before – Forbes was writing in the 80s (and the 70s and the 90s), so perhaps he is offered as contrast to the leaf blower songs.
  • Line 5: ‘Lost generation’ usually refers to people born during World War One, but if ‘It’ at the start of the line refers back to the previous four lines – which is what the syntax suggests – maybe there’s a hint of another lost generation who came of age in the 80s (would that be Gen X? (Forbes was a Boomer) …
  • Line 5 and 6: … and somehow without anyone being aware of it the existence of shopping malls was partly responsible.
  • Line 7: I once shared a flat with Meaghan Morris, which is probably beside the point. She is a Cultural Studies scholar who hails from Maitland – ah, the Newcastle connection! Maybe she has written about the effects of malls on the 80s generation (she’s certainly written abut Centrepoint Tower, and motel signs). Maybe this line is answering the question from previous line – ‘Who knew?’
  • Line 8: Joanie Loves Chachi was a US sitcom in the early 1980s (I looked it up), a pretty unsuccessful spin-off from Happy Days (I don’t know why it wasn’t printed in italics as the names of books are later i the same poem). Date Academics sounds like a dating app, and at first I thought AU referred to the internet domain code for Australia, but if this is about the 80s, then AU is more likely to be Adelaide University and Date Academics may be a pre-internet means of hooking up. So maybe the line evokes a moment when an academic living in Adelaide had to make a choice between watching junk on TV and looking for love, again in a fairly non-romantic way.

I didn’t mean to spend so long on those lines, but I guess that gives some idea of the work I have to do to engage with these poems. Not only the work of figuring out the references (6 diverse named cultural references in 8 lines), but also trying to grasp how, or even if, the lines , images and references relate to each other. My hypothesis that the 80s are the common thread falls by the wayside in the following lines with references to books published in the 70s and the 2000s, to ‘blended learning’, surely a more recent jargon term among educators, to Sandilands (I’m assuming it’s Kyle the radio broadcaster, who’s surely a phenomenon of the 90s and later), and so on. I fall back on reading line by line, and not worrying too much about the poem as a whole. Maybe the poem, and these poems in general, work, not so much by yoking things together by violence (as Someone said of John Donne and Co) as by piling up bits of stuff from all over the place, and any apparent logical flow is a red herring.

I know this reads as if I’m complaining, and I would be, but the language feels very alive in every moment, and from the myriad details emerges a cumulative picture of a life, a sensibility, a place, a community. Occasionally there’s a brilliant image, like this from ‘City of Moi-Meme‘:

From below the bridge the neon reflections could be koi

or this from’Everybody Loves (Raymond Terrace)’:

____that James Turrell moment,
where I realise that we've been sitting in the dark
staring at a hole in the wall, productively.

Or this, from ‘Two Dog Nights’, my favourite lines from the book:

The Islington figs release the bats & the sky
blacks out like an erasure poem.

My favourite single word: ‘anthroposcenester’ from ‘Who Killed Bambi?’ (Though I would have spelled it ‘anthropocenester’.)

If you want to read a review by someone who isn’t parading their own obtuseness, I recommend ‘Anne Buchanan-Stuart reviews Newcastle Sonnets by Keri Glastonbury‘ in Plumwood Mountain.

Newcastle Sonnets is the thirty-third book I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers’ Challenge. I received a complimentary copy from Giramondo Publishing. I’m grateful for the opportunity to move out of my comfort zone..

Sam Shepard’s Rolling Thunder Logbook

Sam Shepard, Rolling Thunder Logbook (Penguin 1978)

Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue – 57 concerts in 1975 and 1976 with a huge line-up of talent on and off stage – was a big deal at the time for the Dylan fandom diaspora (you can read the Wikipedian version here).

When a friend who was culling his bookshelves offered me Sam Shepard’s ‘logbook’, I was delighted. I’m a fan of both Dylan and Shepard. (Shepard’s Tooth of Crime at Sydney’s Nimrod Theatre in 1973, directed by John Bell and starring Reg Livermore is a treasured theatrical memory, as is hearing his Oh Calcutta! sketch read aloud at an anti-censorship porn fest a couple of years earlier. Imara Savage’s version of Fool for Love at Belvoir in 2010 was fabulous.) And Martin Scorsese’s ‘documentary’ Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story, which I saw at this year’s Sydney Film Festival, had revived my old fannish interest .

Sam Shepard was hired to go on the tour as a screenwriter (he’d previously had something to do with the screenplay of Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point). Dylan’s plan was for a film – part Les enfants du paradis, part Tirez sur le pianiste – to be made in the course of the tour, with Shepard on board to help with the writing. It’s not a spoiler to say that that film never emerged. Dylan has the sole writing credit on the abysmal Renaldo and Clara (1978), of which I suffered through the two-hour version that reached these shores, and which bears no relation to either of those two great French movies.. But Shepard did write this wonderful fragmented account of the tour, including the frustrated attempts of the film crew to capture chaotic scenes improvised by the musicians.

There are wonderful sketches of Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell (though nothing to compare to her moment in the Scorsese movie), and Allen Ginsburg, a benign presence on the tour even though his planned recitations never made it onto the stage, and brilliant descriptions of Dylan and others in performance. Dylan’s underlying idea – forget about the film for now – was to take his music to small venues, to reconnect with his audiences. A concert would happen in a city, then the performers would be whisked away in a convoy to a small motel 60 or so miles away, where they would generally go stir crazy cut off from the rest of the world, and with more than ample supply of alcohol and other recreational drugs.

Shepard brings his playwright’s eye and ear to the locations they visit. Though the tour continued into Canada and then in its second leg to the south and south-west, Shepard and this book stay with it only in the New England leg, and then for one evening for the benefit performance in New York in aid of Rubin Carter, subject of Dylan’s song ‘Hurricane’.

It’s a quick read, with a generous supply of photographs. My favourite photo has to be the spread featuring Dylan and Muhammad Ali sitting near each other on a bench, Dylan laughing at something we can’s see and Ali contemplating something in his hand that could be an apple core. (It’s online here.)

My favourite moment in the narrative occurs when Shepard and two members of the film crew visit a Shaker village to scope it out as a possible location. Three bedraggled, anarchic and very stoned children of the seventies are made welcome by calm, disciplined dwellers in a virtuous past:

‘Well, what we’d like to do, if this meets with your approval, is to have Joan and Bob come down with just a few of the others and just sort of look the place over. Just to see if it fits into Bob’s idea of the film.’ The Shaker senior is nodding and smiling and rocking back on his heels as though inwardly laughing his ass off. ‘That’s fine with us. We’d be glad to have them.’ The woman chimes in that she’s like to fix the stars a special home-cooked Shaker meal in exchange for Joan singing a few of her songs.

A visit from Joan Baez and that weird little guy – yes please!

So much happens. Dylan’s mother joins them for a while. Shepard maintains a civil distance and doesn’t offer any physical description. He does observe that she seems to like being there, even when some of the team are behave pretty indecorously.

The book is a great supplement to the Scorsese movie. In its final section, a coda really, we are back in Sam Shepard’s world, at the Manhattan opening of his play Geography of a Horse Dreamer. Dylan attends as a guest, and, having been mostly silent or monosyllabic when not on stage, starts yelling during the climactic moments of the play. The audience, mostly critics, have been deathly silent for most of the play, come to life. ‘It’s a perfect ending,’ Shepard writes. ‘An explosion on the audience to match the one on stage. Shotgun wadding, bursting blood, and Dylan over the edge.’

Children’s Crusade?

On Sydney’s Palm Sunday rally in 2017, I passed a man leaning against a piece of street furniture, who said, more in melancholy than in rancour, but with clearly hostile intention, ‘It’s just like the Children’s Crusade.’

Because, like many people these days, I tend to associate mainly with like-minded people, I stopped to ask him what he meant.

‘There was a mediaeval belief that because children in their ignorance of the world were pure of heart they would prevail against the heathens in the Holy Land,’ he explained. ‘And thousands of children marched to their deaths.’

I’ll spare you the rest. My mother always said I liked to argue, and she didn’t mean it as a virtue. Certainly in this case my compulsion to argue didn’t lead anywhere useful.

This was before Greta Thunberg started her lone protest outside the Swedish parliament, before school students all over the planet went on strike, hoping to prevail on political leaders to address the issue of climate change.

But his initial comment has lingered in my mind. In the Children’s Crusade of 1212, which almost certainly didn’t actually happen, two boys claiming to have seen Jesus in visions led tens of thousands of children from Germany and France aiming to reach Jerusalem and peacefully convert the Muslims there to Christianity. The project failed: the children either drowned or were sold into slavery, depending on who’s telling the story. (Wikipedia discusses the probably historical sources here.)

No doubt, if he is still with us, that gentleman sees the current students’ strikes as pure folly, but I like to think he was being prescient: whatever his opinion of its efficacy, he was seeing that, the way things were going, children were going to rise up, and this time they would take us with them in our thousands – tens of thousands today in Sydney alone.

My favourite placard from today’s rally in the Domain: ‘What Greta Said.’

Erik Jensen’s Prosperity Gospel

Erik Jensen, The Prosperity Gospe: How Scott Morrison Won and Bill Shorten Lost (Quarterly Essay 74), plus correspondence from QE 75

I approached this Quarterly Essay with reluctance. Did I really need another inside-baseball, after-the-event reading of the tea-leaves about the May federal election? That’s how I felt when the essay came out, and my already-faint enthusiasm has only waned since. But I did read it, three months after the event as has become my custom..

It’s mercifully short. It consists mainly of finely crafted snapshots, mainly of the party leaders in action, from both sides of the election campaign with occasional snippets of commentary, and no sustained argument as such. An essay for the distractible perhaps. Or one that met an impossible deadline, to be published within weeks of the events it deals with. That’s not to say it lacks insight (‘Bill Shorten’s gamble is that you can replace popularity with policy’). But it’s impressionistic rather than discursive, and narrative rather than analytical. It was written on the campaign trail. Bill Shorten gave a generous interview; Scott Morrison refused to be interviewed. There’s no doubt which of the two men emerges as the more likeable, but he is the one who is accorded the most devastating summing-up:

The great truth of Bill Shorten is that he doesn’t know himself. He hasn’t settled his character.

Morrison on the other hand, though his religious belief and his deep commitment to his family are noted, is described in the essay’s final words as ‘a hardman who says everything is simple and some of you will be okay’. Both those summations are beautifully concise, and they’re far from stupid, but neither is justified by the essay that precedes them.

It’s a strange essay, reading sometimes like diary notes from the campaign trail: along with the oft-seen moments like Morrison’s Easter observance, speeches are summarised, mostly without comment; we’re told what books people carry in their luggage; there’s a scattering of off-the-cuff witticisms from staffers; the behaviour of the wives of both candidates is described; sometimes unrelated passers-by are mentioned.

Much of the narrative simply sits on the page, without resonance or further implication that I could discern. An outstanding example is in the account of Morrison emerging from a Healthy Harold igloo (part of a program of health education for children):

Morrison rolls his shoulders when he stands. The tail of his tie not quite to his sternum. He has taken off his jacket: his paunch is oversatisfied and his nipples are erect

(page 48)

This reminded me of a piece by Mungo MacCallum in the Nation Review some time in the early 1970s. Describing Gough Whitlam emerging from a swimming pool, he commented that the honourable gentleman appeared to be very well endowed. That was funny in a transgressively adolescent way, and it chimed with the writer’s clear view that Gough was an attractive big man in other ways as well. Here, the point of mentioning the state of Morrison’s nipples, if there is one, seems to be to tell us that the writer was very close to the action and noticing details, however meaningless. The length of his tie doesn’t even have that, and what does the personification of Morrison’s paunch even mean?

In fact, as a guide to understanding what happened in the election, the essay is eclipsed by the 25 pages of correspondence about the previous Quarterly Essay, Rebecca Huntley’s Australia Fair (my blog post here), which offer a number of interesting and plausible hypotheses about how the progressive-leaning population described so convincingly by Huntley could have delivered the result when it acted as an electorate.

And now perhaps the existence of Jensen’s essay is justified by what turns out to be an excellent correspondence about it at the back of QE 75 (Annabel Crabb’s Men at Work, which I look forward to reading in three months’ time).

Shorten’s speech writer, James Newton, gives an unrepentant insider’s account of Shorten’s campaign, including his now-near-forgotten town hall meetings. Journalist David Marr and scholar Judith Brett offer their analyses. Barry Jones offers the perspective of a grand old man of the ALP. Elizabeth Flux tells us what she learned from being ’employed as a subeditor with a focus on Australian politics’ throughout the campaign, Kristina Keneally writes interestingly about the possible role of religious background. Patrick Mullins & Matthew Ricketson offer historians’ insights. Lawyer Russell Marks gestures towards ‘the deep structures operating through Australia’s political and electoral systems’.

These contributions mostly include evidence that they have read Jensen’s essay. Some of them actually grapple with it, as distinct from using it as a launching pad for their own commentary. Here are some quotes to balance my own underwhelmed response:

James Newton: ‘Instead of wasting words on pseudo-psephology, Erik Jensen gives us telling sketches of the two major-party leaders, their campaigns and the choices Australians faced and made.’

David Marr: ‘The drift of the press is to cut everything short. This guts argument. … The great pleasure of The Prosperity Gospel is to be immersed in the language of the campaign and reconsider the state of politics in this country knowing that what was dismissed as blather in those weeks worked so well on election day.’

Elizabeth Flux: ‘The Prosperity Gospel helped me understand why I found the election result so difficult to come to grips with. It wasn’t that “my team” didn’t win. Or that I liked Shorten more. It’s because it wasn’t a case of one side’s policies winning over the other’s. People were happy to vote for no policies at all, because we’d rather have a strong man selling nothing than a quiet one trying to make changes which he truly believed were for the better.’

Kristina Keneally actually engages critically with the essay, finding it unsatisfying in three areas: ‘First, while Jensen introduces the distinctly different religious foundations for each leader’s policy and political approach, he does not wrestle with what it means that Australia voted for one over the other. … Second, Jensen’s profiles of Morrison and Shorten are incomplete, or at least unbalanced. … Third, he could have explored the role religious affiliation and identity played in the election.’

Patrick Mullins & Matthew Ricketson wonder on paper if people will still go to this essay for insight in the future, say in the lead-up to the 2019 election. They argue (unconvincingly in my opinion) that they should.

Russell Marks laments that while the essay’s subtitle promises an explanation for the election result, ‘Jensen never really expands beyond what is mostly a literary answer.’ He goes on to speak, not quite disparagingly, of political journalists making ‘literary attempts to match leaders’ characters to the nation’s and to find in the intersections why publics endorse one leader and not another’, and then speaks quite disparagingly of ‘armchair psychoanalysis’, though he doesn’t accuse Jensen directly of that.

Tellingly, Jensen’s ‘Response to Correspondents’ ignores them all and makes some observations on what has happened in the months since the election.

If you hear us …

Yesterday afternoon I was planning to spend an hour or so at our nearest railway station handing out leaflets for Friday’s Global Climate Strike, but the weather was terrible and I’m trying to shake off a virus so I stayed warm and dry instead.

Please accept this terrific video, words by the Peace Poets, in lieu of a leaflet, and consider responding to the students’ invitation.

The Sydney strike is at midday at the Domain. It’s politely out of the way and non-disruptive but the students are hoping to fill the vast space with people trying to inspire out governments to face reality. Details are at schoolstrike4climate.com/sept20.

Journal Blitz 3

Here are some notes from a third journal catch-up binge. One more blitz and I’ll be temporarily up to date.

Jill Jones and Bella Li (editors), Australian Poetry Anthology Volume 6 (2018)

This is Australian Poetry Inc’s sixth annual anthology of member’s poetry. The editors’ foreword begins with the question, ‘What could Australian poetry look like at the moment?’ and goes on to suggest that this anthology could be one way it looks. I love that refusal to be definitive. And I don’t envy the editors the task of selecting what turned out to be 64 poems from nearly a thousand that were submitted. Hard enough for me as a mere blogger to name poems that meant something to me.

I turned down page corners as I went (yes, I read – and mutilated – the hard copy, leaving the digital version unsullied on my desktop). Here are the poems with dog-ears:

  • Kevin Gillam, ‘call it that’: 34 lines of three one-syllable words that capture the deep relief of ‘fat rain / call it that’ after a long dry
  • Rachael Mead, ‘Catastrophic Fire Danger: level 6’, which is painfully topical just now – ‘I scan the blue for smoke. Plants, words, thoughts /all crackle to dust in this catastrophic light.’
  • Toby Fitch, ‘Cultivate a New Foot’: tantalisingly almost coherent, rich wordplay – ‘incredibly the gossiping planet / will still be there on the weekend / no madder how many selfies weaken the collective / labour / bargaining agreement’
  • Gareth Jenkins, ‘Dream sequence’: I probably noted this because Gareth Jenkins read beautifully at the recent Francis Webb reading. It’s 10 very short (one to three lines) poems that have the uncanniness of dream.
  • Brenda Saunders, ‘Figures in a landscape’: a First Nations voice speaks back to a colonial painting of Sydney Harbour – ‘I am not in this picture. Invisible, I fall / easily into shadow, watch the ladies walk / float white as sails on water.’
  • Jordie Albiston, ‘gasp’: previously unpublished, this feels as if it’s from a longer sequence – some great upheaval in the ocean and ‘our strange & / elusive beast of the deep flipped & flopped / in an agony of light & without / any sound drowned in a great flood of air’
  • Tyson Yunkaporta, ‘No Cure for Colour Blind’: I haven’t understood this poem yet, but there’s a lot in it about traditional knowledge (‘You can’t hear that story boy’) and Indigenous perspectives.
  • Elanna Herbert, ‘SIEV221 File Note: to mothers waiting’: A Christmas Island landscape, sneaks up on the subject of deaths at sea announced in its title – ‘If this was a different page / in the novel of Christmas Island / this would be the postcard beach.’
  • Zenobia Frost, ‘Taming the Shrew’: a sweet poem about a key moment in a young woman’s life that had the perhaps unintended consequence of making me want to see the movie 10 Things I Hate About You
  • Tricia Dearborn, ‘Therapist, dreamt’:a kind of love poem to a therapist, the kind that probably wouldn’t pose ethical issues for said therapist
  • Jeff Guess, ‘Transgression of the Trees’: a lament for ancient trees cut down for roadworks, which, though it was published a year ago, could be a poignant response to current violence against sacred trees in Victoria
  • Alison Flett, ‘Vessel’: An almost Proustian moment in which a child begins to understand something – ‘a first meme / which will repost versions of itself again / and again in her brain

As with previous AP anthologies there are no stars, but much excellence. There’s a huge variety of forms, and I hope I’ve given you a sense of the range of subjects.


Jacinda Woodhead (editor), Overland 233 (Summer 2018)

This issue of Overland kicks off with ‘26 January – or thereabouts‘ by the venerable Marxist historian Humphrey McQueen, a brief history of the Australia Day holiday that takes effective potshots in passing at any number commonly believed fallacies. Here are some fabulous factoids from the article:

  • It’s not just the left and First Nations peoples calling for a change of date. Conservative historian Geoffrey Blainey and Hugh Morgan, mining magnate, have each pitched for a different day.
  • In the early 20th century Irish Catholics (my lot) celebrated ‘Australia Day’ on the Feast of Our Lady Help of Christians (24 May). The Red Cross instituted ‘Australia Day’ on 30 June 1915 and 1916.
  • Though Victoria and South Australia pride themselves as having been established as ‘free colonies’, the South Australia Company actually ‘floated on chattel-slavery’ (a phrase McQueen, sadly, doesn’t unpack) and ex-convict John Pascoe Fawkner may have a greater claim to be founder the Victorian colony than land thief Batman.
  • ‘Invasion Day’, a term now reviled as a Marxist invention, is anything but: ‘Invasion’ was the word used by small-l liberal (Sir) Keith Hancock in 1930, and even more tellingly by the right-wing historian Sir Archibald Grenfell Price in White Settlers and Native People (1949). Marxist McQueen sinks the boot into soft-left Labor Party figures by pointing out that ‘the academic convention of using “invasion” did not stop Queensland ALP premier Wayne Goss from erasing the term from the school curriculum’.
  • Terra nullius is ‘a doctrine formed only in the late nineteenth century in relation to the status of the polar regions. That the High Court accepted terra nullius in Mabo confirms the venerable legal doctrine of Judicial Ignorance.’ I knew this from reading Heather Goodall’s Invasion to Embassy (my blog post is here), but the furphy that it was there from 1788 is so well established I’d forgotten the reality.

That’s not the whole article: McQueen comes up with some positive though hardly serious suggestions for alternative dates, but I’ll leave you to read them for yourself.

Of the regular columnists, Alison Croggon’s , ‘On the #MeToo movement‘, written before the Geoffrey Rush court case was concluded, is complex as ever. Tony Birch’s column, ‘On bullshit‘ is a fabulous rant against university bureaucracy. Giovanni Tiso ruminates on the wistful belief that we can learn things from tapes under the pillow while sleeping, in On learning French while you sleep.

Of the other articles, ‘The eleven best Australian essays of the past 3,533 days‘ by Dean Biron is a spectacularly self-indulgent piece that manages to convince me that the eleven essays he singles out are worth looking up; ‘Hand on heart‘ by Elfie Shiosaki draws a line connecting letters written to the WA ‘Protector of Aborigines’ by Aboriginal parents a century go and the 2018 twitter hashtag #IndigenousDads; ‘Power ballet by Kirsten Krauth speaks from within women’s wrestling fandom.

Jennifer Mills, Overland‘s fiction editor for many years, writes in defence of utopian/eutopian and dystopian fiction in ‘Against realism‘ and then serves up a quartet of short fictions of decidedly dystopian bent, of which ‘Noplace‘ by Claire G Coleman and ‘Idle hands‘ by Wayne Macauley grabbed and held me.

The poetry section (yes, the poetry is gathered in one place – all the easier for poetryphobes to ignore, you might say) is filled with riches. My favourite single poem is ‘Blessed be this sadness‘ by Omar Sakr, a meditation on suffering that has Les Murray’s ‘A Perfectly Ordinary Rainbow’, acknowledged, in the background. My favourite lines are from ‘Learning‘ by Allison Gallagher:

I am learning to live inside a broken thing
when I call this body a wreckage in the middle of the night
you ask me not to speak about your home that way

Overland always features the results of a literary competition. In this issue it’s the Fair Australia Prize, an annual competition supported and funded by the National Union of Workers, and is made up of five general prizes worth $3000 each and three prizes for union members worth $1000 each. All the prize winners are worth reading, especially Laura Elvery’s short story ‘Your cart is empty‘ which raises chilling prospects and then chills from another, unexpected direction, and Miriam Jones’s winning essay ‘Care and cooperativism in early childhood‘, which argues that early childhood workers are ideally placed to take on the project of finding alternatives to capitalist ways of organising work.

As I write this, I’ve been reading news of Jacinda Woodhead’s departure as editor. I guess I have a couple more of her issues left to read. I’ll miss her.


Michelle Hamadache (guest editor), Southerly Vol 78 No 1 2018: Festschrift David Brooks

David Brooks has retired as editor of Southerly after two decades in the chair. In this issue, Southerly‘s community of writers and scholars celebrates his contribution, his work and his person.

The only festschrift I’d read before this was one I copy-edited decades ago. It honoured a distinguished psychology professor on his retirement and consisted of a number of learned papers about his contributions to his field. David Brooks, and Southerly itself, being concerned with literature, this festschrift isn’t that straightforward. Some pieces are very personal, even intimate, replete with private jokes and tales of shared meals; others, especially the poems, have no easily discernible connection to Brooks. Only by the contents page could I tell whether some pieces were part of the festschrift or belonged in the ‘Unthemed’ category, and in the end I decided it didn’t matter. What counts is that Brooks and the Southerly community can see the connection – the overarching effect of this issue is to demonstrate the existence of that community as warm, sometimes passionate, and far-reaching.

There are poems, short stories, and articles discussing Brooks’s writing that range from a sober overview from Judith Beveridge to ecstatically personal, which is as it should be. There is frequent reference to his veganism and advocacy for ‘non-human animals’, including the rescue sheep who share his life in the Blue Mountains. Two letters address him personally – from fellow-vegan poet John Kinsella and Greek scholar Vrasidas Karalis. Brooks himself speaks in a poem, a short story and a long interview with Andrew Burke.

It’s a good read over all, and full of excellence. I just want to single out three surprises.

In ‘Letter to David Brooks from a Certain Greek Friend’, Vrasidas Karalis seizes the moment to expound about Australian literary life, reaching a kind of climax of idiosyncrasy in this paragraph:

As a privileged outsider, I felt that the sacrificial act that established the new covenant of Australian poetry was the suicide of Adam Lindsay Gordon, renewed periodically by Francis Webb’s madness and Michael Dransfield’s drug-induced death. There is always something odd and tormented in Australian poetry, despite Les Murray’s efforts to make everything cosy, tamed and over-poetical.

(page 89)

Linking Lindsay Gordon, Webb and Dransfield as Christ-figures is pretty wild, though interesting, but I’m in total awe of a world-view that sees truculent Les Murray as trying to make everything cosy.

The second surprise is a piece of serendipity. I read the Southerly after quoting those lines from Allison Gallagher in the Overland. I was brought up short, then, when I read, also in Vrasidas Karalis’ wide-ranging letter:

I never understood why many writers are so tormented by the idea of home: there is one home only – our body (or on some rare occasions someone else’s body)

(pag 91)

Third surprise is the short poem that ends the journal: ‘Ballad’, eight previously unpublished lines by Bruce Beaver, which begin:

I'm off to Hullaboola, where the climate's never cooler
than a ringside seat in Hell, they're growing corn there
That pops the while it's growing, and the reason why I'm going
Is because I hate the name and wasn't born there.

This is listed as part of the festschrift but as Beaver (I’ve blogged about his poetry here) died in 2004 he can’t have written it with this publication in mind. On the one occasion when I met David Brooks he expressed great admiration of Beaver, so I guess that’s why these lines are here. It’s also somehow fitting that they are bouncily metrical and have lots of conventional rhyme, completely untypical of Bruce Beaver or of David Brooks, so after quite a lot of seriousness it’s a lovely bit of cheek to end on.

Proust Progress Report 1: Getting started

Marcel Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu (1913, text established under the direction of Jean-Yves Tadié ©1987–1992): Du côté de chez Swann, première partie, ‘Combray’

Someone on Christopher Lydon’s Open Source podcast recently was talking about À la recherche du temps perdu aka In Search of Lost Time or Remembrance of Things Past. It was one conversation too many: I decided I had to bite the bullet and read the bloody thing. (My late friend Will Owen almost pushed me over the line in 2014 by writing – here – about his experience with it over several decades. The pressure to read it has been building.)

So I bought a copy of the Gallimard quarto edition, all seven novels in one huge, heavy volume, small print and thin paper, 2401 pages, a bargain at just under $90. If I read 200 pages a month I could get through the whole thing in less than two years. So that’s what I decided to do. Rather than review the books as I finish them, I’ll aim to give a monthly update.

I read the opening words – Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure – about a month ago, and was immediately glad of my decision to read the books in French and not to labour over translation. It’s hard to pin down the meaning of that sentence, and I imagine even harder to reproduce that un-pin-down-ability in English. The commonest version – ‘For a long time I used to go to bed early’ – is clear enough, but the verb’s tense is all wrong: if Proust had meant ‘I used to go to bed’ he would have written ‘je me couchais’. But the more or less literal translation, ‘A long time ago I have gone to bed early’, sounds odd. Maybe it does in the original French, and maybe the translators know that if they write something odd in English the readers will grow suspicious of them … Anyhow, if I even notice such fine points as I read I’m not labouring over them. Nor am I looking up unfamiliar words – and mercifully my years of studying French forty years ago seem to have left me with a fairly adequate passive vocabulary. I do need to reread many of Proust’s famously convoluted sentences, and that, it turns out, is one of the pleasures – to sort out how the parts of what at first looks impossibly complex fit together as in a well-constructed machine.

So I’ve now read ‘Combray’, the first of three parts of the first of the seven novels, Du côté de chez Swann / Swann’s Way. I feel like leaving at that, not because it’s been hard going, but because these 150 or so pages turn out to have been, well, fabulous, and I don’t feel any need to continue. (I will, though.)

After 30 pages in which the narrator (so far we don’t have a name for him) remembers going to bed early as a child and suffering terrible anguish because his mother doesn’t come to give him a goodnight kiss despite a number of ploys to trick her into doing it, he is overwhelmed with memories of his childhood triggered by the smell of a shell-like biscuit dunked in herbal tea. The memories are centred on the summers he and his family spent with an invalid aunt in the village of Combray (A fictional village when he wrote about it, but the village of Illiers, believed to be its model, recently changed its name to Illiers-Combray), and are structured according to the two paths that lead from the aunt’s house to the village church.

That’s it.

And it’s fascinating. A friend told me she’d given up on reading Proust because he’s such a wanker; I said, ‘Yes, but in the original French he’s such an over-the-top wanker that it’s brilliant.’

At least twice I laughed out loud. The first was at a description of asparagus. For me, having to work for each word, there’s a wonderful process of struggling through a thicket of extravagant language describing the extraordinarily subtle colours and imagining the asparagus spears as delightful creatures who had metamorphosed into vegetables to come at the end of the sentence to a relatively plainspoken reference to how asparagus affects bodily functions: ‘changer mon pot de chambre en un vase de parfum‘ / ‘change my chamber pot into a perfumed vase’. (You can read a translation here, though it tones down the early extravagance and then misses the joke by continuing with the elevated language – ‘transforming’ for ‘changer’ and ‘bower of aromatic perfume’ for ‘vase fe parfum’ – until the very end.)

The other laugh-out-loud moment had a similar sense of coming out into the light after struggling through a thicket. The narrator remembers his fascination as a child with water plants swinging back and forth in a current. He likens them to people who wake up each morning resolved to change their lives but always revert to their established self-defeating habits. He ups the ante, invoking Dante’s fascination with the sufferings of the damned, saying that Dante would have liked to have gone on at greater length about those sufferings if Virgil, striding ahead, hadn’t made him catch up, comme moi mes parents / ‘As my parents did me’.

Both these are examples of how fabulously the writing works at a sentence level. I didn’t really worry that it seemed to be going nowhere. I dread to think what a film adaptation would look like. I guess it would have to play up the chaste lesbian frolic the boy accidentally eavesdrops on one evening, or his visit to a beloved uncle and innocently reporting back to his parents about the nice lady who seemed to be living with him, or the comedy about his antisemitic grandfather. But those elements aren’t central. In the last couple of pages of this section he brings it all together. What he has been showing us is a place, and the people in it, that are deeply embedded in his mind, even formed his mind (sans le savoir / ‘without knowing it’), so that he responds to people or places now because, whether he’s aware of it or not, they stir some yearning for that place. ‘The flowers that I am shown for the first time nowadays don’t seem real flowers to me.’

And suddenly it’s profoundly moving. His narrator talks about a future when the paths he describes will be overgrown and the people he saw there will have died, when all that will remain of them will be what he has remembered of what that child saw, and smelled, and thought. I find myself thinking how, of the billions of humans who have ever lived or are living now, every one of them has had their individual rich deep connection to the earth, awarely or otherwise. Few people could articulate it as fully as Proust, even if they wanted to, even if they had the time, but he’s bringing to the foreground something that’s inevitably there for everyone. And then I think about climate change and how, optimistically, we’ve got 12 years to make big changes if the earth, the air and the water are to keep sustaining us. Thank you for listening to my TED Talk.

Added later: I can’t believe I didn’t talk about all the very funny stuff about his family: his aunt who never leaves her room, and won’t let anyone visit her who tries to jolly her into going out, but likewise bans anyone who believes that she is very sick; the maid; M Swann, the neighbour who made an unfortunate match; Swann’s daughter Gilberte, whom the narrator glimpses just once as a vision of loveliness who gives him a vulgar signal, etc. I expect there will be more of that in the coming sections (though probably not of the aunt, whose death has come as a shock because I had come to believe that absolutely nothing was going to happen).

Ruby Reads (15) plus round-faced Bowie

One of the persistent joys of grandfatherhood is the chance to read aloud, and reread, some excellent books. This post continues my notes on this pleasure.

Matt Shanks (illustrator), Row Row Row Your Boat (Scholastic Australia 2016)

What a joy for Ruby to discover this book. It combines three of her major sources of delight: a kookaburra, a crocodile and the song ‘Row row row your boat’. The uncredited author has added verses to the song that introduce a koala, a platypus, a bandicoot and a kookaburra as well as the crocodile that was already there (‘If you see a crocodile don’t forget to scream’).

I don’t care terribly for the illustrations, but they do a great job with the target audience.

Pamela Allen, Alexander’s Outing (Viking 1992)

We bought this from the shop at Sydney’s Royal Botanic Gardens, which is the setting for its story of a family of ducks. A song that Ruby requests interminably is ‘Five little ducks went out one day’. The Emerging Artist, in this context known as Nana, does some wonderfully dramatic quacks in that song, and this is a book that offers great scope for more – plus there’s a silly story about a little creature lost and then recovered, thanks to kindness and cooperation. Pamela Allen is fabulous.

Bill Martin Jr and Eric Carle, Brown Bear Brown Bear What Did You See? (1967)

This was read to us at Rhyme Time at the library – a total classic that takes us through a range of colours, each attached to an animal. It’s fascinating to read this after I Went Walking (Julie Vivas and Sue Williams 1996), which follows its format closely but does something quite different with the images and has a child observing the animals and in the end having what my mother would have called a love-up with them.

Matt Cosgrove, Macca the Alpaca (Koala Books 2018)

Macca is a sweet, kind, cute creature who meets a big, tough, bullying llama named Harmer, a very different creature from llama-llama-red-pyjama llama who all the same claims the affection, or at least the fascinated attention of our young reader. The bully gets his come-uppance, the skills of the smaller, more agile creature are established, and there is an implausibly sweet reconciliation at the end. As with ‘Row Row Row Your Boat’, Ruby likes this a lot more than I do.

Isabel Sanchez Vegara, David Bowie (Little People, Big Dreams) (Lincoln Children’s Books 2019)

Not really a Ruby Read, this one. The EA and I recently spent an interesting evening with a five-year-old boy while his mother was out. We listened to ‘Old Town Road‘ at least ten times and then on the way to sleep I read to him – his choice – an encyclopaedia entry about volcanoes, and this book. It’s the story of David Bowie’s life as a fable about a boy who felt he didn’t belong becoming very successful and widely loved through, in part, embracing his difference. (Also, I didn’t know what happened to his eye.) The round-faced images are slightly jarring, but it’s a lovely framing of Bowie’s story.


Alexander’s Outing is the thirty-second book I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge. (Pamela Allen now lives in New Zealand, where she was born, but she lived and created books in Australia for many years. For a time she illustrated for that most Australian of institutions, the New South Wales Department of Education’s School Magazine.)

The 2019 Francis Webb Poetry Reading

For nine years now, Toby Davidson has been organising an annual celebration of Francis Webb’s poetry. Toby edited Webb’s Collected Poems (1911) – my blog post here. Though I’ve been enamoured of Webb’s poetry for 50 years now, this is the first time I’ve managed to attend the event (or the second, if the reading at the 1911 Sydney Writers’ Festival counts – my blog post here).

We met in a large room – the ‘Creator Room’ – at Chatswood Library, in the region where Webb spent his childhood. The library has inherited Webb’s collection of paintings – all or most of them bought with funds Webb received as a government grant, funds spent of art rather than, say, food – and his library of books. The paintings and some of his books were on display, along with other fascinating realia, including a photocopy of the handwritten draft of his final poem.

Toby Davidson was an unabashedly enthusiastic MC for an audience that was an interesting mixture of ancient fans (like me), current students (including some from Davidson’s classes) and satisfyingly motley others. The readers:

  • Robert Adamson, poet (blogged about by me here and here among other places): told us of his awe-struck meeting with Webb in Callan Park Psychiatric Hospital, and read three poems – ‘End of the Picnic’ (an imagining of the arrival of Cook’s ship in 1770 as a spiritual disaster), ‘Morgan’s Country’ and ‘Wild Honey’ (probably my favourite Webb poem, read in a way that had tears on my cheeks). A hard act to follow, but followed it was.
  • Michael Griffith (author of God’s Fool, his 1991 biography of Webb): quoted Shakespeare’s Sonnet 65 ‘How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea / Whose action is no stronger than a flower?’ as emblematic of key themes in Webb (and his own life), and read us two poems with props – the first part of ‘In Memoriam Antony Sandys, 1806–1883’ with the painting that the poem describes on an easel beside him; and ‘On first Hearing a Cuckoo’ preceded by part of Delius’ ‘On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring’.
  • Judith Crispin, poet and photographer, whose work, according to her web site, ‘includes themes of displacement and identity loss, a reflection of [her] own lost Aboriginal ancestry’: read the dingo’s second speech from ‘The Ghost of the Cock’, and commentred on the extraordinary way it embodied what webb could not have known, the polarity of moon and dingo in an Arnhem Land foundation story; and two other poems, ‘Episode’ and ‘Toward the Land of the Composer’.
  • Gareth Jenkins, poet, spoke among other things of the sonic, rhythmic quality of Webb’s work, his mastery of long lines, and read, beautifully, ‘The Yellowhammer’.
  • Richard Miller, self-described as a long-time Webb fan and former musician in, I think, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, in a complete change of mood, delivered a brilliantly theatrical, over the top rendition of ‘Introduction in a Waxworks’ from ‘Leichhardt Pantomime’.
  • Two school students whose names I didn’t catch, one from each of the nearby schools that Webb attended: one read the eminently accessible ‘Australian Night’, which Toby Davidson told us Webb wrote between ages of 7 and 10; the other read ‘Compliments of the Audience’, a sardonic take on a poetry reading, thereby concluding the reading part os the afternoon.

Before we broke for an afternoon snack, we were treated to Oliver Miller’s short film Electric, based on Webb’s radio play of the same name about the first use of ECG on a human subject.

I had a great time. Some of the poems I could just about mouth the words as they were read. Others came from the bits of the work that I have pretty much skimmed. Every reader showed some new aspect of the poetry – and of themselves. Michael Griffiths told us that he had been discouraged from writing his PhD thesis on Webb because, the then Professor of Australian Literature at Sydney University said, ‘He’s mad’. And he’s been dismissed by more than one cultural arbiter. But it was a joy to be in a room full of people who are touched, challenged and invigorated by his poetry.