The last line of Andrew Huntley’s ‘An Essay on Criticism’ comes to mind as I gather my thoughts about The Beating Heart’: ‘Poem can be way to make friend.’ (You can read Andrew’s poem in full at this link.)
Anne Casey’s introduction to this slim volume speaks of the poet’s ‘keen powers of observation’, of ‘an elegant interplay of evocative forays between [the poet’s] internal and external worlds’, of conjured enchantment. All this is true, but my overwhelming response to these poems wasn’t to be enchanted or impressed, but something much closer to home: it was the pleasure of meeting someone new. There’s art here, and technique, but it’s art that conceals art and feels like a natural voice speaking directly, warmly and openly.
The back cover tells us:
Born and raised in Rome, Denise O’Hagan lived in London before emigrating to Sydney, where she lives with her husband and sons. She has a background in commercial book publishing, [and] works as an editor with independent authors.
Many of the poems put flesh on the bones on that biographical note. To an extent, in fact, the book could be subtitled ‘Scenes from an Autobiography’: family holiday visit to Switzerland in ‘And the nuns wore lipstick’; a child’s perspective on the Brigate Rosse‘s kidnapping and murder of Aldo Moro in Rome in 1978 in ‘Fifty-five days’; Proustian, unbidden memories in ‘A stain in the shape of Italy’:
That these milestones of our lives
(Laboriously recounted, photographed,
Or documented in countless other forms)
Are glued together by such details
We scarcely realise until later
When they emerge with doubled force
From the backrooms of our memory
There’s adolescent anguish (‘Mary, Mary, quite contrary’), young adulthood in London (‘Bedsitter’, ‘Lost in Transition’ – the titles tell you a lot), a wonderful series of poems about early motherhood and her son’s hospitalisation for a rare condition, the death of parents, and then – a progression I recognise from my own experience – the discovery of a grandparent’s story. ‘The quiet assimilators’ canvasses the ambivalence of an assimilated immigrant. There’s even a poem about being an editor, which I love:
For we editors are tailors
(Seamstresses of old
Working in the back rooms of history
Heads bowed, diligently, invisibly),
We cut and paste and nip and tuck,
Sewing it all together
Until the point is clear
There’s much more than these autobiographical glimpses, but they lay a solid ground so the reader can recognise the voice in the other poems.
Rather than discuss one of the poems in detail, which is my usual practice, I’ve been prompted to write one of my own in response. I started with the quote from Andrew Huntley above and then went where the lines took me. I can justify the opening words of Dante’s Inferno because Denise quotes them in an epigraph to one of her poems, but the rest – sadly – couldn’t be further from Denise O’Hagan’s loose, informal, uncontrived openness.
Responding to Denise O'Hagan's The Beating Heart
'A poem can be way to making
friend,' my friend wrote years ago,
not something only for painstaking
exegesis, judgement – no,
instead an open invitation:
read, let's have a conversation –
silences, yours and mine,
word by word, line by line,
meet, we listen to each other.
When lost nel mezzo del cammindi nostra vita, each has seen
a thing or two. Dear sister, brother,
semblable or not, you write, I read,
together smile, together bleed.
The Beating Heart is the 15th book I’ve read for the 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge. I received a complimentary copy from the author.
I hadn’t read the Psalms, or any book from the Bible, since my seven years in a Catholic religious order in the 60s and early 70s. I used to love belting them out in the chapel several times a day, especially the complaining bits, the bloodthirsty bits and the bits that celebrate the natural world. They were choral spoken-word poetry of my late teenage years, a place where I could put words to feelings I hardly knew I had.
When this book turned up on offer at our Book-swapping Club, I liked the idea of revisiting that experience.
Alas, Robert Alter didn’t do his translating with me in mind. His version is concerned with precision of meaning, and not at all interested in rendering the poetry, the music of the language. These Psalms were barely recognisable.
A recent YouTube experience illustrates what I mean about Alter’s translation. Sister Nicole Trahan, talking on camera about racism in the US Catholic Church (link here), starts brilliantly with Psalm 55 verses 13–15:
If an enemy had reviled me,
that I could bear.
If my foe had viewed me with contempt,
from that I could hide.
But it was you, my other self,
my comrade and friend,
you whose company I enjoyed
at whose side I walked in the house of God.
Here’s how Robert Alter translates those verses:
No enemy insults me, that I might bear it,
no foe boasts against me, that I might hide from him.
But you, a man to my measure,
my companion and my familiar,
with whom together we shared good counsel
in the house of our God in elation we walked.
They both are clearly translating the same text, yet the meaning of Sister Nicole’s version is clear, it has a musical flow and it packs an emotional punch, while Alter’s version is dry and needs a footnote to clarify its meaning:*
Were it a known enemy showing hostility, the speaker would have found a way to bear the insult, but it is his intimate friend who has turned against him.
I eventually realised that Alter is not even trying to render the Psalms into memorable (or prayable) English. This is a book for the scholars and exegetes, not for poetry readers or, I imagine, the devout. Neither a scholar nor an exegete, I gave up on it.
But my appetite for revisiting the Psalms had been whetted. I dug out my tattered, dusty copy of the Jerusalem Bible (1966), which employed a ‘team of collaborators in translation and literary revision’ that included J R R Tolkien, James McAuley and Robert Speight. From here on my quotes are from that version unless I say otherwise.
The first thing I want to say is that pundits who cherry-pick the Holy Qur’an for quotes advocating violence should read the Psalms and chill.
Again and again, especially in the early Psalms, the speaker calls on God to destroy his enemies, as if his God is not much more than a secret super-weapon. I guess that’s where a bit of historical imagination comes in handy: you can read this book as a record of the developing notion of what ‘God’ is. Early on, it’s as if every tribe has its own god or gods, and Yahweh is the one belonging to the Hebrews. Gradually, the emphasis changes from, ‘God, smite my enemies,’ to ‘God defend me,’ and ‘God, let my enemies come to see your greatness.’ Morality comes into it: “God, I will obey your law,’ ‘I beg your forgiveness for my wrongdoing.’ They never give up bathing a just person’s feet in the blood of the unjust (58:11), or celebrating the way God heaps up corpses (110:5) but there’s an increasingly clear assertion of an incllusive monotheism: other gods are just lumps of wood or metal, but Yahweh is the creator of the universe. There’s history, wisdom, complaint, repentance, celebration: it’s a rich collection.
The Psalms are full of quotations: ‘The Lord is my shepherd,’ ‘Out of the depths I cry to you O Lord,’ ‘A mighty fortress is my God.’ So there’s a lot that’s reassuringly familiar in them. But reading all 150 from start to finish, whether in Alter’s dryness version, the Jerusalem Bible’s lyricism, or the King James sonority, confronted me not only with their violent us-and-them-ism, but also with the absence of any sense of God in my own mind.
I’ve got a lot of sympathy for people of faith, and when I participate in religious observances I usually find a pragmatic way of paying more than lip service. I can be grateful for my blessings, repent my failings, commit to the things that matter, wonder at the splendours of the universe, acknowledge precarity and interdependence, make acts of faith, hope and love. I can rejoice in the story of the escape from Egypt, love the story of heroic, imperfect, pious King David and lament the destruction of the temple. I can do all that without a need for a supreme being. I can take part in a Mass or a Seder or a sundown prayer without feeling any need to assert my non-belief. But reading the Psalms, I find it hard to get past my outsider status.
My custom with books of poetry is to talk about one poem in some detail. I’m picking number 137, because Boney M:
The song, which I can listen to on hard rotation, was written by T. Mcnaughton, George Reyam, Frank Farian and Brent Dowe, and draws on Psalm 137 verses 1–4 and Psalm 19 verse 14. It absolutely captures the power of the first four verses of this Psalm. Spoiler alert: the Psalm has 9 verses and takes some dark turns after verse 4.
PSALM 137 **
Ballad of the exiles
Beside the streams of Babylon
we sat and wept
at the memory of Zion,
leaving our harps
hanging on the poplars there.
For we had been asked
to sing to our captors,
to entertain those who had carried us off:
‘Sing,’ they said,
‘some hymns of Zion.’
How could we sing
one of Yahweh’s hymns
in a pagan country?
The heading, ‘Ballad of the exiles’ is a little gloss by the translators. In the first half of the 6th century BCE a large number of people were taken captive from Judaea and taken to Babylon, for an exile that lasted half a century. This was a key event in the history of the Jewish people, and played an important part in the development of Judaism. This Psalm is framed as a song from that time. Its pining for home has struck a chord in the hearts of exiled people for millennia. It makes one think of African-heritage people enslaved in the USA being expected to entertain their oppressors. Or, since I’ve recently read Grace Karsken’s The Colony, ceremony and payback conducted by Eora people in what is now Sydney’s Hyde Park being treated as entertainment by the early colonisers. And it’s open to rich metaphorical reading about commodification of culture: how can I make authentic art for a marketplace?
Jerusalem, if I forget you,
may my right hand wither!
May I never speak again,
if I forget you!
If I do not count Jerusalem
the greatest of my joys!
Moving beyond the verses used in the Rastafarian song, these lines are framed as a kind of self-curse, but behind the curse there’s a feeling that if the speaker were to lose all connection to their home, their spiritual and cultural base, they would lose their ability to function in some crucial way. This is something like what many First Nations people say about the importance of country: on country you can feel a wholeness, a peace, a strength that you can’t feel anywhere else. So far, this is a powerfully resonant song/poem about the pain of exile
what the Sons of Edom did
on the day of Jerusalem,
how they said,
‘Down with her!
Raze her to the ground!’
Then, a sudden change of tone. The captors have asked for an entertaining bit of exotica. Here is the song of Zion that the singer can actually sing. As I write this it occurs to me that to imagine it being sung in response to the captors’ command, but in a language the captors don’t understand, so there’s an element of subversive joy in this as well as heartfelt cry to Yahweh. The singer recalls the harm that has been done to their people, and then ups the ante:
Destructive Daughter of Babel,
a blessing on the man who treats you
as you have treated us,
a blessing on him who takes and dashes
your babies against the rock!
This is directly addressed to the captors. This may once have been meant literally, and if so it’s just monstrous: other people’s violence is wicked, but baby-murder is fine if I or my allies do it. And when I started writing about this Psalm that’s how I read it. But you know, now I think it’s funny: ‘You want me to sing you one of my cute songs. OK, here’s one about the temple and a little baby.’ Then a cheerful tune is struck up. Maybe the Babylonians recognise the word for blessing that occurs twice towards the end. At the last line the performers and Hebrew listeners smile broadly, and their Babylonian listeners follow their cue and also smile broadly.
There’s no way the end of this poem can be read as a pious, morally improving text. Alter’s note says it’s morally unjustifiable, but we should take the terrible circumstances into account. Maybe, though, if you assume that the Psalmist had a sense of humour, the moral unjustifiability is the whole point: this is deliberately outrageous, wicked humour. In the unlikely, er, inconceivable, event that I had to give a sermon based on it, I’d talk about how when we say we want to hear the voices of oppressed people, we need to be prepared to hear things we really don’t like.
I’m not saying that all the psalms can be read as edgy comedy. Sadly, far from it. But I happen to have lit on one that makes me, and possibly you, remember that these songs/poems/hymn were written by people with complex minds – some for liturgical purposes, some to teach history and morality, some to allow the expression of emotion, some as theatre.
* Not to flog a dead horse, but here are a couple of other translations of those same verses from the Bibles on my bookshelves, each with its own clarity, grace and power. First the King James Version: For it was not an enemy that reproached me; then I could have borne it: neither was it he that hated me that did magnify himself against me; then I would have hid myself from him: But it was thou, a man mine equal, and mine acquaintance. We took sweet counsel together, and walked unto the house of God in company.
The Jerusalem Bible: Were it an enemy who insulted me, I could put up with that; had a rival got the better of me, I could hide from him. But you, a man of my own rank, a colleague and a friend, to whom sweet conversation bound me in the house of God!
** If you’re really interested in comparative translations, here are two other translations. First the King James Version: By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion. How shall we sing the LORD’S song in a strange land? If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy. Remember, O LORD, the children of Edom in the day of Jerusalem; who said, Rase it, rase it, even to the foundation thereof. O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.
Robert Alter: By Babylon’s streams there we sat, oh we wept, when we recalled Zion. On the poplars there we hung up our lyres. For there our captors had asked of us words of song, and our plunderers – rejoicing: ‘Sing us from Zion’s songs.’ How can we sing a song of the LORD on foreign soil? Should I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand wither. May my tongue cleave to my palate if I do not recall you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my chief joy. Recall, O LORD, the Edomites, on the day of Jerusalem, saying: ‘Raze it, raze it, to its foundation!’ Daughter of Babylon the Despoiler happy who pays you back in kind, for what you did to us. Happy who seizes and smashes your infants against the rock.
Usually the Sydney Writers’ Festival lasts for two weeks. Usually I blog about the dozen or so sessions I attend live, and don’t feel the need to tell you about any podcasts. This year I seem to have made a decision to listen to them all and blog about every one. Here are sessions 35 to 40: journalism, memoir, First Nations voices, the world of high tech, terrorism, violence against women.
I know Trent Dalton’s writing from his novel Boy Swallows Universe, which I loved (blog post at this link). It turns out he has also been writing ‘long form journalism’ for The Australian for years. For even more years, Jane Cadzow has been doing likewise for Good Weekend, the magazine published on Saturdays with The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. Katrina Strickland is editor of Good Weekend.
This is an inside look at feature-article writing in Australia. There are lots of anecdotes about the biz, insights into the process (taping allows a journalist to take notes about things other than what is being said), and how ‘long form’ is seen by the ‘hard news’ journalists. As audience, I felt that I was listening in on a chat among people who knew each other well and moved in the same journalistic circles, rather than people who were discovering things along with us. The emphasis seemed to be on profiles of celebrities and others rather than stories from war zones or issues-based articles. But it’s a fun listen.
My last batch of SWF sessions featured two white liberal male authors in conversation. This session features two white left-wing males. Jeff Sparrow, former editor of Overland, has written Fascists Among Us: Online Hate and the Christchurch Massacre. Here he talks to Antony Loewenstein, whose My Israel Question is terrific – and he’s written a lot since.
Starting with the Christchurch massacre, the conversation range widely over contemporary politics and media. The perpetrator (Sparrow doesn’t use his name and the discussion of his reasons is interesting) was not a ‘mentally-disturbed individual’ but a convinced Fascist, whose main inspiration was Oswald Mosley. Donald Trump is not a Fascist, but has created a sea in which Fascists can swim. Social media platforms have some responsibility for enabling Fascists to flourish. Here’s Jeff Sparrow:
Genuine Fascists were some of the early adopters of the internet, precisely because they realised the internet allowed them to mobilise and organise in a way that they couldn’t do in real life. The far right in Australia tended to be recruiting people from the outsides of big cities or small countries towns. How do you organise those people in the real world? It’s very difficult. Australis is a big country. How do you bring them all together? If you have a website, it’s much easier, and the most recent attempts to organise Fascist movements in Australia were for that very reason closely associated with platforms like Facebook, because here is a mainstream form of the internet, everyone uses it, everyone in a country town can get on Facebook, there’s this one group you can set up. It’s very well suited to the structure of Fascist organisations because it’s participatory but not democratic. You can set up a Facebook, everyone can be involved but there’s a leader at the top who runs everything. In a sense it replicates the structure of a traditional Fascist organisations. That’s one of the reasons the far right has done much better on line than the left has.
We need to try to find some way to take the anti-Fascist principles that have worked in the real world into the online space. That’s easier said than done, and I don’t have a particular answer as to how that might occur, but it’s going to be a real issue from here on in, because the internet is gong to be central to whatever far right groupings emerge.
In normal times, Sparrow says towards the end of the conversation, the perpetrator’s eco-Fascist notion of mass murder as a solution to the climate emergency would be absolutely unattractive to absolutely anyone. In the context where the world seems to be breaking down, that may be changing. He concludes on what Loewenstein calls the ‘mildly optimistic note’ that it’s not enough to fight back against Fascism: we have to offer some genuine hope for a better world.
As in the session on long-form journalism, here three journalists who work in similar fields compare notes and discover how much they have in common. But this trio are Indigenous, and until recently it was rare for Indigenous journalists to be have major platforms. The participants are Warlpiri woman and co-host of NITV’s The Point Rachael Hocking; Anishinaabe and Polish Canadian journalist Tanya Talaga; and Kamilaroi/Dunghutti founder of the Tiddas4Tiddas podcast Marlee Silva.
Like the earlier session featuring Tanya Talaga, this one discusses strikingly similar experiences of First Nations peoples in Australia and Canada.
This is another podcast in the Stories Worth Telling series created by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas and Sydney Writers’ Festival.
Uncanny Valley is US journalist Anna Wiener’s first book, a memoir of her time working in the high-tech industry. Here she talks about it with Rae Johnston, NITV’s Science and Technology Editor. The conversation covers many familiar topics: the rise of surveillance, the exploitation of workers in the tech industry and by companies like Uber, the steady thrum of sexism in Silicon Valley.
There’s an interesting discussion of Wiener’s decision to name no companies and very few people in the book – for instance, there’s a company she calls ‘the social media platform that everyone hates’ and there’s no prize for guessing what that is. Another highlight was the explanation of ‘Down for the Cause’, unofficial motto of a start-up that calls on employees’ devotion above and beyond their official duty, and well beyond what they are paid for. But though both speakers mention several times that the book is very personal, the conversation generally stays at an abstract, journalistic level. Here’s Anna Wiener:
I just wanted to write about the way that it feels to look for meaning in work, to think you’ve found it and then to be totally disillusioned not just by your personal experiences but by the narrative and fantasies of an entire industry … I didn’t write the book as an instrument of social change. That was never my intention. I really wrote it hoping that people might see themselves in it in some way, people might see the world a little differently. I wanted to articulate the experience of being a fairly low level employee at tech companies in the 2010s in part because I just felt that was not a perspective that I was reading much about.
I would have liked to hear her read from the book, to hear something specific about those personal experiences and those fantasies. But the conversation was a good reminder that those unnamed/nicknamed companies aren’t necessarily our friends.
A small note about entertaining differences in pronunciation: Anna Wiener spoke of the importance of higher keys and buyer says, and it took me a moment in each case to realise she meant organisations with rising levels of power and prejudices.
Lucia Osborne-Crowley’s I Choose Elena and Ellena Savage’s Blueberries are both the debut books, the former a memoir and the latter a collection of essays. They both deal with personal experience of sexual assault, and its long, hideous tail.
Maeve Marsden, theatre person and curator of the ‘national storytelling project’ Queerstories, does a lovely job of facilitating the conversation – I particularly appreciated her for having both writers read from their books at the beginning, so we got to hear their deeply considered and carefully deployed words before hearing the back and forth of conversation. In that conversation one of the writers mentioned her PhD a couple of times and spoke in academically-inflected language a little too much for easy communication, but that’s a minor grumble from a relatively uneducated listener-in, who nonetheless benefited from the conversation.
The next batch of podcasts promises to include some story-telling. And maybe there’ll be some poetry …
Marco Lopez, Desiree Rodriguez, Hazel Newlevant, Derek Ruiz and Neil Schwartz (editors), Puerto Rico Strong(2018)
This is a comics anthology supporting Puerto Rico disaster relief and recovery in the wake of Hurricane María in September 2017.
I confess that before reading this book my main source of information about Puerto Rico and its relationship to the USA was West Side Story. The book has given me a lightning introduction to 500 years of the island’s history, from the original Taino inhabitants, through brutal Spanish colonisation to the current US imperial presence. Puerto Ricans were made US citizens – who don’t have the vote – in 1917, and a couple of weeks later the men were called up to fight for the US in World War One. As many as 1500 Puerto Rican women were involved in trials of the contraceptive pill in the 1950s, without real informed consent. And so on.
Among the 40 short pieces, as well as the history lessons, there are childhood stories, fantasies of dystopian futures and mythic pasts, explorations of the complex identities involved in being Puerto Rican, tales of friendship and creative enterprise, all in a dazzling range of art styles. Most of the writers and artists are Puertoriqueños. Donald Trump’s insulting paper-towel-throwing stunt and subsequent blocking of aid after the hurricane is mentioned, but his presence is restricted to less than a handful of pages. Attention goes instead an exhilarating assertion of pride in Boricuan identity and the proud history of resistance. (Borikén was the name of the island before the Spanish colonisers renamed it.)
I’m in awe of the work of the editors bringing this vast array of writers and artists together in a work that has many overlaps but never feels muddlingly repetitive. My copy was a gift for my birthday in March. I waited too long to read it.
Andrew Huntley died in June this year. In lieu of attending his funeral I broke my personal ban on Amazon and bought a copy of From Tradition, which he self-published in 2014. I’m sorry it was too late for my purchase to boost his finances or his morale.
We were friends in the early 1970s when we were both in our 20s. He was witty, warm and exuberant, a recent convert to Catholicism of the pre-Vatican-Two variety, and a keen astrologer. We liked each other. And I loved his poetry.
Lyrical Ballast was one of three slender, stapled books of poetry published by the Sydney University Arts Society in 1970. (The other two were Martin Johnston’s shadowmass and Terry Larsen’s Tar Flowers.) It’s largely nonsense poetry, and though it mostly hasn’t aged well its general benign silliness is charming, and disarming.
Two poems in this collection still give me pleasure. ‘A Paean: Australia’s Praise in Honour of the Makers of Sweat Poesy’ offers a deeply ironic picture of an Australia where poets have ultra-celebrity status that still rings true:
'Sing Huzzah for the poet!'
Cries each Australian Son,
As a poet passes down the street
'Huzzah!' cries everyone.
‘An Essay on Criticism’ (which I’ve uploaded elsewhere in this blog – link here) was Andrew’s contribution to the website commemorating the 30th anniversary of Martin Johnston’s death (link here). It’s a tragicomic love story and a celebration of non-academic approaches to poetry, which begins:
Maisie were a critical
Severe she wore her bun
She lecturing on literature was grim.
Arnold he be engineer
He's reading just for fun –
Maisie meaning all the world to him.
And it ends:
A poem can be way to make a friend.
Between Lyrical Ballast and From Tradition, Andrew published three other books: Lalai – Dreamtime, the script for Mike Edols’s 1972 short film of that name, a poetic rendering of a story ‘recounted by Sam Woolagoodjah, Elder of the Worora people, north-west Australia’ (the description is form the AustLit website); Minor Pageant (Island Press 1977); and The Stone Serpent Dreaming (Hale and Iremonger 1983). And he had a number of poems published over the years, mainly in politically conservative journals such as Quadrant and in conservative Catholic publications.
From Tradition is a beautifully produced hardback, containing 33 short poems, mostly sonnets that adhere rigorously to the demanding Petrarchan rhyme scheme (in case you’re interested, that’s abba abab cde cde), and one longer poem in blank verse. Almost every short poem asserts a traditional-to-reactionary Catholic position – on sex, feminism, grief, the afterlife, writing back to Yeats, Pound, Emily Brontë, Phillip Adams. The long poem, ‘The Plough & the Cross’, is a narrative telling of the poet’s conversion to Catholicism. The exuberant silliness of Andrew’s early poetry has evaporated, and the tone is generally combative – the speaker in most of the poems is fighting against modernity and holding fast to his commitment to the One True Church, and to God the Creator and, especially, Judge.
While I admire Andrew’s technical skill and his erudition, and respect his embattled integrity, I found the book uncongenial. I think that’s how he meant someone like me to find it.
Every now and then, the poetry allows a glimpse of a suffering human being under the carapace of Faith. Here’s an example:
Chasing Tolkien'And Rose drew him in, and set him
in his chair, and put little Elanor upon his lap.
He drew a deep breath. "Well, I'm back," he said.'
The Return of the King, J R R Tolkien
My time seemed flowing there – re-burgeoning –
I never knew how strongly years might stay:
Once more the final pages, – I could say
With Samwise, well, I'm back. Yet in my spring
There was no loving Rosie – none to bring
Her promise that all years would glide away,
Bearing a couple on their wedding day
That death alone could part .... come anything!
My Middle-earth, little but breaking's been,
And scattered flowerings of sadness sown;
With autumn silent now in loneliness:
Where haven has withdrawn from every scene,
And (on and on) mere roads to madness shown –
And time is past; and only God may bless.
As an evocation of misery finding comfort or hope in God, it’s a long way from George Herbert of Gerard Manly Hopkins, but it does pull at the heart.
This is my thirteenth blog post about À la recherche du temps perdu: 1723 pages read and 677 to go! I’m bearing up much better than my copy of the book, as seen on the left. I mostly read my three pages in bed in the morning, so the damage has been caused by ordinary wear and tear, not by any gross mistreatment.
A lot happens in this month’s reading. Here are some highlights, not necessarily in order. The violinist Morel continues to be an opportunistic scoundrel. Marcel (as the narrator has now been named, twice) listens to the sounds of the street in the early morning (those are lovely pages). He contemplates sending a dairymaid on an errand but changes his mind. He watches Albertine as she sleeps, and creepily drapes her unconscious arm around his neck. He watches her wake up. He takes us through his own process of waking up from a dream. He ruminates on the relationship between love, obsession (not his word) and jealousy. He talks Albertine out of going somewhere where he fears she might meet other Lesbians, and then realises that he has let her go to a performance by a notorious Lesbian. He plays the piano. He opens Albertine’s chemise and looks at her naked body:
Les deux petits seins haut remontés étaient si ronds qu’ils avaient moins l’air de faire partie intégrante de son corps que d’y avoir mûri comme deux fruits ; et son ventre (dissimulant la place qui chez l’homme s’enlaidit comme du crampon resté fiché dans une statue descellée) se refermait, à la jonction des cuisses, par deux valves d’une courbe aussi assoupie, aussi reposante, aussi claustrale que celle de l’horizon quand le soleil a disparu.
This is about as erotic as La recherche gets. But wait, I asked, wasn’t Proust Gay, or at least bisexual? What weirdness is this about men’s bodies? I looked up Scott Moncrieff’s translation. And there it is:
Her two little upstanding breasts were so round that they seemed not so much to be an integral part of her body as to have ripened there like two pieces of fruit; and her belly (concealing the place where a man’s is marred as though by an iron clamp left sticking in a statue that has been taken down from its niche) was closed, at the junction of her thighs, by two valves of a curve as hushed, as reposeful, as cloistral as that of the horizon after the sun has set.
This translation even softens the meaning a bit – I would have thought s’enlaidit was ‘becomes ugly’ rather than ‘is marred’.
Increasingly I understand why, at the end of fifteen years, when Clive James had finished reading this work in French, he needed to read an English translation so he’d know what he’d read.
Having been given the first three books in this series for my birthday in March (blog post here), I’ve reciprocated by buying this as a late Father’s Day gift for my comic supplying son, who is also a father. Of course I had to read it first, even though it’s horror and not my cup of tea.
Because I am so much in alien territory, here’s a quote from a Goodreads review by an English Professor at the University of Illinois, who I assume is a knowledgeable fan of this kind of thing (link to the whole excellent and spoilerish review here):
It’s clear from my glance at the reviews that 1) everyone is intrigued enough to keep reading and 2) loves the art, but 3) doesn’t know what the Hell (pun intended) is going on. I find little hints in the text itself that seem to indicate writer Jeff Lemire acknowledges he feels our pain.
The artwork is extraordinary, I agree. I agree there’s a pun if you say ‘what the Hell’. I’m not sure everyone is intrigued enough to keep reading.
The story telling is assured, so assured that even as the action shifts in time and place from page to page, you can generally follow with a little increase in focus. But look, the blurb says that in this volume the mechanics of the Pentoculus are explained. Well, yes, but the explanation certainly left me not knowing what was going on. The Bishop from earlier volumes, who I was sure was evil, is probably a good guy. Other key characters have their identities change before our eyes – and theirs. I have to keep reminding myself that I’m supposed to find it weird that the young hero, if that’s what he is, wears a Covid-type mask. And the piles of bloody corpses continue to mount …
Before the meeting: It was my turn to choose the book. I was tossing up between Truganini, about which I’d heard a terrific podcast from the Sydney Writers’ Festival (here’s a link to my blog post), and See what You Made Me Do, the Stella Prize winner. When I put it to the group there was an overwhelming preference for Truganini’s journey through the apocalypse over Jess Hill’s exploration of abusive men. If we thought this would be less gruelling we were probably wrong.
Truganini is known to non-Indigenous Australian popular history as ‘the last Tasmanian’. That’s rubbish of course. There are still many Indigenous Tasmanians alive and kicking. But Truganini’s life is better documented than any of the survivors of genocide in Tasmania, and she has become, as Cassandra Pybus says in her Preface, ‘an international icon for extinction’. The mythologising began almost as soon as she died, and she has been seen ‘through the prism of colonial imperative: a rueful backward glance at the last tragic victim of an inexorable historical process’. In this book, Pybus sets out ‘to redirect the lens to find the woman behind the myth’.
Pybus’s main historical source is the writings of George Augustus Robinson. To quote the Preface again, ‘Truganini and her companions are only available to us through the gaze of pompous, partisan, acquisitive, self-aggrandising men who controlled and directed the context of what they described’. I’m grateful that Cassandra Pybus did the hard yakka of extracting a story line from such sources, reading them so we don’t have to.
In the 1820s, the Aboriginal clans of south-east Tasmania (Van Diemens Land as it then was) were all but wiped out by massacre and disease. Truganini belonged to the Nuenonne clan, whose country included Bruny Island. When George Augustus Robinson, fired by missionary fervour and ambition to be seen as a man of significance, set out to rescue the surviving First Nations people from the violence of the colony, Truganini, her father and some friends accepted his protection and became his guides and later his agents in persuading people from other clans to come under his protection.
For five years the band trudged through forests, over mountains, across streams. Truganini had terribly swollen legs, possibly as a result of syphilis she had contracted from sealers who had abducted her early in life, but she was an adept diver for seafood, and she and the other women in the group were the only ones who could swim, so were often called on to pull rafts across icy rivers. For the most part, Pybus tells the story straight without commenting, for instance, on the moral dilemmas involved in persuading resisting warriors to surrender to Robinson rather than face deadly violence elsewhere, as at the hands of John Batman, who emerges from these pages as a ruthless, brutal slaver.
The result of all these rounding-up missions is that, whatever promises Robinson might have made, people were sent to virtual island prisons, mainly on Flinders Island in the Bass Strait, where the death toll were horrifying. what started out as a ‘friendly mission’ became the coup de grâce of a genocidal program.
After being taken to Port Phillip on the mainland where Robinson hoped they might again play an intermediary role, Truganini and her companions were conclusively dumped by Robinson. He simply turned away from them and never mentioned them in his journals again.
Truganini and her companionos, including a husband and a close woman friend, were settled in Oyster Cover on the east coast of Tasmania, from where they would go on hunting excursions to Bruny Island and elsewhere. One by one, her companions died. With extraordinary restraint, Pybus simply tells us that their deaths were unrecorded. She doesn’t have to spell out the callous disregard of the colonial establishment. Truganini, the sole survivor, spent her last years in the care of John Dandridge and his wife (unnamed) in Hobart. Dandridge would take her across to Bruny Island, so that she could still walk in her own country. To the end, she cared for country, and slept on the floor rather than the coloniser’s bed.
For all the horrors that were inflicted on this extraordinary woman and her people, the one that comes across with most poignancy in this narrative comes right at the end. As people die, the scientific establishment waits like vultures for their skeletons. Graves are dug up, newly dead bodies are decapitated, collections of skulls are sent to England. Truganini herself expressed her terror at having this done to her own remains, and asked Dandridge to scatter her ashes in the channel between Bruny Island and the main island of Tasmania. But he died before her, and her body was buried, dug up and later exhibited in the Tasmanian Museum – until 1947! After a long legal battle by Tasmanian Aborigines, the Museum allowed the skeleton to be cremated, and her ashes were scattered according to her wishes on 30 April 1976, a few days short of the centenary of her death.
And then there are the illustrations. Truganini, her warrior husband Wooredy, the great leader Mannalargenna and others challenge our gaze in portraits painted by Thomas Bock in 1835. There are photographs too, perhaps taken with ethnographic intentions, but when Truganini looks at you from a photo taken by Charles Woolley in 1866 (here’s a link), she isn’t offering herself as an object. At the Sydney Writers’ Festival, Jakelin Troy said, referring to the fact that Truganini walked about Bruny Island in old age:
I’m sure she was making the point that this was still her country and that she’s there, and even if they didn’t think deeply about the fact that it was her family’s country, I think that in reality you can’t avoid that that’s what it is.
It’s hard to look at Truganini in these portraits and not feel that she’s making a similar point: she is still herself, and even if the photographer, the curators, the scientists, the colonial historians don’t think deeply about the fact, she challenges us to acknowledge that she is a human being. As she tells us in a final chapter, Cassandra Pybus has reasons to take that challenge personally: her ancestor received a grant to part of Truganini’s country, and in her childhood she heard stories of the old Aboriginal woman who walked about the family’s property. This book is a powerful, humble and devastating response to the challenge.
After the meeting: We’re still meeting on zoom, probably not for the last time. This book generated a very interesting discussion among us white middle-aged and older men. Some were less enthusiastic about it than others. The negatives first.
One man had studied George Augustus Robinson on the 1980s, particularly the collection of his papers published in 1966, The Friendly Mission. He had approached this book with high hopes, but found that it didn’t add much by way of new perspectives or insights – despite its intention of focusing on Truganini, it largely stayed with Robinson.
Another, who read this just after Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light (my blog post here), was disappointed that neither Truganini nor Robinson, or really any of the other characters, emerged as fully rounded characters. There was precious little exploration of motivations or emotional responses. Maybe, he said, you can’t expect that of history: this might be excellent history but it’s not much chop as literature.
Someone who agreed with that latter point said that the question for him was, if that is so, then how come the book held his attention the whole time, when he usually gave up on history books after 15 pages? Someone said that the subject commands our attention, as this is a story that cuts through to our souls as settler Australians. I think that’s true, but I also think the book is well written, and the failure to flesh out the characters is a strength: Pybus doesn’t speculate or invent, but largely leaves us to join the dots. As someone said, it’s fairly clear that for Truganini and her companions, Robinson’s offer of protection was their best bet for survival.
Challenging the notion that the writing was generally flat and factual, someone read a short passage about Truganini’s father, Manganerer who had encountered convict mutineers:
These men abducted his wife and sailed away with her to New Zealand, then on to Japan and China. Hastily constructing a sturdy ocean-going canoe, Manganerer had attempted to follow them but had been blown far out into the Southern Ocean. His son had died and he himself was half dead from dehydration when he was found by a whaling ship.
The tragedy was almost too much for this proud man to bear. He had endured the murder of his first wife and the abduction of his two older daughters by the intruders, and now they had taken his second wife. His only son was dead and his remaining daughter had abandoned him for the whaling station. His distress was compounded when he discovered that in his absence almost all of his clan had succumbed to disease, as had all but one of the people visiting from Port Davey, who were under his protection.
There was a moment’s silence on the zoom space. With such a litany of horrors – and this is early in the book, the worst devastation comes towards the end – there’s not a lot of need for further authorial commentary.
One man took up the cudgels on Robinson’s behalf. He said he felt protective of him. Yes, he took on the role of ‘Protector of Aborigines’ out of a kind of opportunism, and yes, his ventures finished off the ‘extirpation’ that the notorious Black Line failed to achieve. But he had a huge inner struggle. At some level he recognised and respected the humanity and the cultural strength of the people in his care (there are scenes n the book where he eats and sings and dances with them). But he was blinded by his belief system and could only at rare moments acknowledge what he was actually doing. And – I think I’m quoting correctly – isn’t that blindness something that we all have?
I don’t think it’s much of an exaggeration that the book had us staring into the abyss of our nation’s foundation story. Today, someone is offering to send us all bumper stickers in support of the Uluru Statement from the Heart.
The Colony won the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for non-fiction in 2010. You can read the judges’ comments at this link.
The book is nothing less than a rewriting of the origin story of New South Wales.
It’s been on my TBR shelf ever since I read Tom Griffiths’ account of it in The Art of Time Travel (my review here) four years ago. The delay is probably due to the sense instilled by my primary-school education that Australian history is either boring or hard to face, but if a similar whiff hangs around Australian history for you, I encourage you to plunge through it. The book is a marvel and a delicious treat for the mind. It will probably speak most directly to Sydney dwellers, as it bring to life the rich history of Warrane / Port Jackson / Sydney and the hinterland, but the tale it tells of colonisation and the wars of resistance is a powerful rewriting of received versions that will resonate much more widely.
The book engages with other infuential writers about the beginning of the Sydney colony. In his hugely popular The Fatal Shore, Robert Hughes failed to recognise that many of his sources were written as polemic, exaggerating and inventing for political purposes, and took them at face value. Inga Clendinnen’s Dancing with Strangers downplays the figure of an armed soldier standing amid the early scenes of apparently friendly dancing. Kate Grenville’s The Secret River cherry picks incidents from different times and places and as a result distorts the historical reality. Keith Windschuttle: well, anyone who accepts official records as the only source of information about the past just isn’t a historian.
A number of the basic, emblematic ‘facts’ of my early education disappear here like a magician’s coins. For example, everyone now knows that Blaxland, Lawson and Wentworth (remembered by the mnemonic LBW) weren’t the first to cross the Blue Mountains as we were taught. They followed the tracks made by First Nations people. But it turns out they weren’t even the first settlers to do it. That honour actually belongs to an ‘extraordinary convict explorer’, John Wilson/Bunboee, who lived with Aboriginal people for a couple of years, underwent ritual scarifying, and later – but 14 years before the LBW team – went on a journey over the mountains and reported back in detail to Governor Hunter. The orgy on the arrival of the second fleet just didn’t happen. The holey dollar, which we loved as nine-year-olds, barely rates a mention; instead, there’s a brief discussion of the consequences of an early decision to have no money in the colony. The Rum Rebellion likewise fades into the background. James Ruse, touted as the colony’s first farmer, is demoted to a minor opportunist. Lachlan and Elizabeth Macquarie emerge as effective self-promoters, and so on. Instead, we have a portrait of a town where naked First Peoples know everyone’s business and actively negotiate the terms of co-existence; where nowie, the tiny fishing craft of Eora women, dot the harbour for decades after the First fleet’s arrival; where what is now Hyde Park is the site of frequent ‘contests’ among Aboriginal men, probably payback sessions, treated as a spectator sport by settlers; where convicts live in neat cottages from which many ply a trade or conduct a business.
The big difference from the history I was taught is in the account of the First Nations people. Their dispossession and resistance replaces the ‘savage yoke’ borne by the convicts at the centre of the story. Like Inga Clendinnen, Karskens reads settler documents with an eye to what can be divined of Aboriginal perspectives. Her account of the violence and bloodshed on the Cumberland Plain doesn’t shy away from the word war, and she quotes contemporary documents using that word. This book leaves its readers in no doubt that at its heart the settlement of New South Wales was a genocidal project, acknowledged as such at the time in all but the actual word.
A number of Aboriginal men and women emerge from the pages as individuals, not least visually, in portraits that sit in counterpoint to the images meant to meet the needs of the curiosity-seekers back in England. Partly because I had a small hand in a children’s graphic novel in which he played a part (link here), I was struck by the representation of Bungaree. In the block of colour prints between pages 338 and 339, there’s Augustus Earle’s famous portrait showing him dressed in borrowed military gear, doffing his cap as he welcomes new arrivals to the settlement – an assertion of custodianship of the land that was tolerated because it was seen as vaguely comic (and Bungaree was by many accounts an accomplished comedian and mimic):
This is often paired with a later painting of him in a similar pose, but surrounded by evidence of his descent into alcoholism and misery. Instead of that painting, Grace Karskens gives us this, painted by a visitor who had less vested interest in the British colonisers’ point of view:
This is not a man who can be treated as an ethnographic curio. If he came onto your ship, even barefoot and wearing military cast-offs, and said, as he did regularly, ‘This is my shore,’ it would carry weight.
My copy of the book is bristling with Post-its, but I’ll leave it at that. If you live in Sydney, read it. It will change your sense of the place. I’ll give Grace Karskens the last word. This is from her Acknowledgements:
I hope this book will also be a gateway to the wider world of Sydney writing: it is in part a tribute, a celebration of the restless, exciting spirit of inquiry, the tireless work that Sydney scholars of all stripes and inclinations do, and the joys of discovery and of telling new stories as well as old ones.
The 2020 Sydney Writers’ Festival continues. I’ve just read that Michaela Maguire’s successor has been appointed. It’s Michael Williams, formerly of the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne, and the excellent facilitator of a number of sessions in this and previous years’ SWFs. He has big shoes to fill, but – to continue with an unfortunate metaphor – he has big feet.
So here are my notes on another five sessions from this years SWF, just less than a month from being current.
The main pleasure of this session is being read to – no doubt it would have been more pleasurable in person, but it’s still a joy as a podcast.
Laura Jean McKay starts out ‘perhaps controversially’ by reading a passage from near the end of her novel, The Animals in That Country, which features a viral infection (did I hear her say zoo flu?) that enables people to understand the language of animals.
Jo Lennan reads from her collection of short stories In the Time of Foxes featuring – you guessed it – foxes.
Veronica Sullivan from the Wheeler Centre then wrangles a conversation about the makings of their two very different books.
On Friday 15 March 2019, an Australian-born white supremacist entered two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand and massacred 51 Muslims peacefully conducting their sacred Friday prayers.
In this podcast, four Muslim writers describe their responses to the massacre at the time and discuss what it means in terms of white supremacy and Islamophobia in Australia and Aotearoa/New Zealand.
Osman Faruqi, a journalist who currently hosts Schwartz Media’s 7am podcast, does a beautiful job in the chair. In his introduction he makes it personal: the anniversary would normally be a time for communal events that enable a degree of healing, but because of Covid-19 this is the first time he has had a opportunity for anything like a public coming-together on this terrible subject.
The other participants are a politician, a novelist and literary activist, a journalist, and an emerging fiction writer: Golriz Ghahraman, New Zealand Greens MP and author of a memoir, Know Your Place; Michael Mohammed Ahmad, who wrote The Tribe (my blog post here) and The Lebs; Ruby Hamad, author of White Tears/Brown Scars; and Naima Ibrahim, whose work has appeared in Sweatshop Women: Volume One.
None of the panellists were surprised by the Christchurch massacre. Perhaps Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s response was most striking. He said his first reaction was an intense sense of failure. In September 2001 he was 13 years old and made a decision to spend his life trying to make the Muslim community safe. When he heard the news from Christchurch, he wept long and hard. And none of them were persuaded that progress had been made against white supremacy and Islamophobia in the year since Christchurch.
Osman Faruqi brought the conversation back to the panellists’ writings. Someone quoted Edward Said’s observation in an interview that the whole long, glorious history of Arabic culture is generally rendered invisible in the education of young people in the West. Without that invisibility, the murderous Islamophobia we are seeing could never have flourished. Many artists from Muslim / Arab countries and cultures – including the ones on this panel – are working hard to remedy that situation by creating works that show Arabs / Muslims as complex, fully rounded human beings. The writers and some publishers are doing their work: we readers need to ours.
Tanya Talaga is an Anishinaabe and Polish Canadian journalist whose book, All Our Relations: Indigenous Trauma in the Shadow of Colonialism is the subject of this conversation with Kamilaroi woman and Sydney Morning Herald Indigenous affairs reporter Ella Archibald-Binge.
The book looks at the high youth suicide rates in Indigenous communities all over the world, and finds common elements in those communities. In the podcast, you can hear how the Canadian and Australian experiences echo each other with extraordinary precision. I expect it’s largely familiar territory for Indigenous listeners, but very much alive and challenging for non-Indigenous listeners like me.
Towards the end, Talaga quotes Martin Luther King Jr’s notion that there are two Americas, one full of innocence and joy where the children are happy and do well, and the other, the America of Indigenous and African-heritage people, where people live in poverty. He said then that legislation would make no difference ‘if the will of the majority doesn’t get behind it’. On the importance of education, Talaga said:
In Canada we have a culture of looking away. I’m gonna say it’s probably quite similar in Australia. Non-Indigenous Canada will say, ‘Oh that’s not our problem, that’s an Indigenous problem …’ We have two Canadas. We have a Canada for Indigenous people, and we have a Canada for non-Indigenous people, and that has to change, that whole thinking has to change. We have to find a way to bring that down and move forward together, and part of that is making sure we have an education system that teaches the true history of this country,
Asked if she felt hopeful, she echoed some of the parting words from the previous session:
I feel hopeful every time somebody reads a book by a First Nations author anywhere, anytime that somebody comes out to listen to a play or to see art or to listen to me speak, that is progress and that is hope, because people are learning, and people are changing, and people are waking up to ‘You know what? This isn’t the country of our parents. We can do better than they did, and we have to do better for all of our sakes, for all of our kids.’
Sophie McNeill is one of the many strong women journalists who have recently been lost to ABC listeners, though she resigned before the resent wave of sackings to work for Human Rights Watch. She has written a memoir, We Can’t Say We Didn’t Know, which as she says in this conversation isn’t so much a look behind the scenes at the life of a foreign correspondent as a report on the kinds of human reality that don’t make it into the news. In this session, she talks to Australia Director at Human Rights Watch Elaine Pearson who keeps responding ‘absolutely’ to Sophie’s observations about international injustices – which inadvertently creates the impression that she thinks Sophie is singing from the organisation’s songbook. In fact, she’s definitely singing her own song: the conversation is very personal and mercifully free of abstract preachifying.
Here’s a little taste, in an aside from tales of terrible suffering and extraordinary heroism:
People would always ask me, ‘How do you go from these countries that are war-torn, or where things are really tragic …’ I met my partner in Margaret River in Australia at a barbecue in 2007, and I spent quite a few years going back and forth between the Middle East and Australia, Margaret River even. People would ask, ‘How do you adjust between these different worlds?’ But what I find amazing is that everyone is actually the same everywhere I went. I never found it that different, whether I was at a barbecue in Margaret River or I was hanging out with Palestinian friends in Gaza or I was documenting the lives of Syrian refugees in a tent in a camp in Jordan. People are the same everywhere. When you spend time in these places that’s the main thing that comes to you: the similarities, not the differences.
This is a terrific conversation between two white liberal male writers.
George Packer describes himself as a failed novelist. He is an acclaimed essayist who writes regularly for The New Yorker and The Atlantic. His book that received most attention in this conversation is The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America (2013), which he says is sometimes described as predicting the Trump phenomenon. He demurs, saying that like most pundits he thought Hillary Clinton would win the 2016 election, but the book did describe the state of affairs that made the Trump presidency possible.
His partner in this session, Don Watson, is himself no slouch as an essayist, and has clearly engaged with Packer’s writing over decades. In his opening remarks, he sets a context for the discussion by mentioning among others Tolstoy, Nabokov, Svetlana Alexievich, John McPhee (links are to my blog posts), and describes the USA as a nation where the written word has played a key role in its creation. He mentions the reverence for the writings of the Founding Fathers, and says, ‘You can still hear Milton in the cadences of the public language.’
George Packer takes the bait. Yes, that’s probably true, but there has always been a strong tradition of anti intellectualism in US culture. Donald Trump didn’t come out of the blue.
What follows is hugely listenable. Though they didn’t frame it like this, they go on to talk about a third strand of US cultural life, what Packer calls identity politics and ‘wokeness’, which has been part of the left ‘turning on itself just when power is in its grasp’. He speaks of writers who now spend most of their writing time on Twitter being performative rather than exploratory or reflective. Trump isn’t the whole problem. If he goes the temperature won’t come down immediately.
Here’s a taste:
The aesthetics of wokeness have not been explored enough, but I don’t think we’re going to look back and say that the woke aesthetic was a great moment in American art because the mindset and the values that animate it undermine the conditions for writing good work, for doing good work. Being true to oneself, being willing to stand alone, to go against the group, to go against the current of the times, being willing to use words that tell the truth but can also make people uncomfortable, being as vivid and clear and concrete as possible, for me these are the building blocks of good writing. They’re not everyone’s and there’s good writing that doesn’t necessarily follow those rules, but I worry that we’re going to trade goodness for beauty or beauty for goodness and maybe end up with neither one,
‘All Our Relations’ and ‘The Art of the Story’ are part of a series, Stories Worth Telling, a joint creation of the SWF and the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas. There are at least two more instalments in the series yet to be listened to and blogged, along with some novelists, journalists, essayists, possibly some wokeness, definitely plenty to think about, and additions to the TBR shelf.
A brilliant Polish movie starring Bartosz Belienia as a young man released from juvenile detention who through a combination of desire and accident finds himself acting as parish priest in a village, and winning the respect of the parishioners. It turns out he's a Christ figure, though no resurrection in sight.