Monthly Archives: November 2020

November Verse 9 & Proust Progress Report 15

November verse 9: Paraphrasing Proust
To dump or not to dump, or rather
when to dump my Albertine.
How boring is our life together
when I'm not jealous? Yet how keen
my pain when jealousy arouses.
Time has come to cut my losses.
The memory I want to keep
is of a parting moment's deep
and sweet vibration. Dramas
aren't the way to say we're done.
So do it sweet, but do it soon.
No repeat of when my mama
left me there, alone in bed
without a kiss to soothe my dread.

This was prompted by a passage* from:

Marcel Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu (text established under the direction of Jean-Yves Tadié ©1987–1992): La prisonnière (1919), p 1817 to the end (page 1915).

So much has happened in this month’s three-pages-of-Proust-a-day. The bourgeois Mme Verdurin wreaked her revenge on the Baron de Charlus by warning his beloved protégé Charlie that he had to cut the baron loose or his career would be ruined. There are huge all-night quarrels between the narrator and Albertine: he’s still obsessed with keeping her away from other women, especially but not exclusively from known Lesbians, and has decided to call an end to the relationship – but with characteristically convoluted reasoning, he’s going to wait until things are going well, so that he’ll be left feeling good about it all, rather than having a sour aftertaste. Among other twists and turns, he pretends to call it off, as a way of manipulating her to recommit to the relationship. It’s excruciating, and also – when you can remember to keep some perspective – hilarious.

There are, of course, moments that may or may not contribute to the story arc. The narrator gives Albertine a lecture about pervasive themes in the works of, among others, Dostoyevsky. They go on a day trip to Versailles where a very tall waitress rudely ignores Albertine. He ruminates on whether it’s right to think of Albertine as a work of art he has created – thankfully, he decides it isn’t. He acknowledges his double standard: he himself looks with lust at other women, while going to extraordinary lengths to stop Albertine from doing the same.

In the last few pages he wakes up one morning feeling at peace with the world and wanting to go off on adventures. The time is ripe to kick Albertine out. He rings for the servant Françoise, who (not really a spoiler, since the next book is Albertine disparue – literally Albertine the disappeared, and the Moncrieff English translation of this chapter has a spoilertastic chapter heading, ‘Flight of Albertine’) tells him that she has packed her bags and left that morning. He is astonished at his own distraught reaction to the news.

The wonderful Tegan Bennett Daylight was talking about something completely different on the ABC recently, when she mentioned that she had recently read Proust, and loved the way there is so much detail. She may be the first person I’ve heard talk about Proust while I’ve been reading him who seems to have read the same books as I am reading.


* Je sentais que ma vie avec Albertine n’était, pour une part, quand je n’étais pas jaloux, qu’ennui, pour l’autre part, quand j’étais jaloux, que souffrance. À supposer qu’il y eût du bonheur, il ne pouvait durer. … Seulement, maintenant encore, je m’imaginais que le souvenir que je garderais d’elle serait comme une sorte de vibration, prolongée par une pédale, de la dernière minute de notre séparation. Aussi je tenais à choisir une minute douce, afin que ce fût elle qui continuât à vibrer en moi. Il ne fallait pas être trop difficile, attendre trop, il fallait être sage. Et pourtant, ayant tant attendu, ce serait folie de ne pas attendre quelques jours de plus, jusqu’à ce qu’une minute acceptable se présentât, plutôt que de risquer de la voir partir avec cette même révolte que j’avais autrefois quand maman s’éloignait de mon lit sans me redire bonsoir …
(page 1899)

November verse 8: From conversations with a person who is almost three

November verse 8: 
From conversations with a person who is nearly three

Help! A dinosaur's behind us.
Hurry! Let's walk very fast!
The big bad wolf will try to find us.
Shut the door! We're safe at last.
I can do it by myself now,
walk down stairs without your help now.
One two three eight seven nine.
Sing Elsa, Let the storm rage on.
Bush wee! Whirl me! Baby's dummy!
Off to work now. Say bye bye!
No, not like that, you have to cry.
You have to say, I want my mummy.
This toy is mine, not yours. Say please,
and then I'll share. I want some cheese.

As I seem to have had an increase in hits from the USA recently, I should note that a dummy would be called a pacifier in the USA . I probably don’t need to say that a mummy would be called a mommy in the USA

November verse 7 & Jeanette Winterson’s Weight

November verse 7: Pick your myth
Trump's confidence is his Achilles'
heel? He's sulking in his tent.
Freud's Oedipus was doomed to kill his
dad. Camus' Sysiphe was meant
to be heureux. And Jeanette Winter-
son: will Atlas represent her?
Did those old poets know us all,
no life too big, no fate too small?
I dip into the well of fable,
ornament of childhood days,
and find Perseus in the maze.
With Ariadne's thread, he's able
to find his way. But I'm not sure
I'm ready for a minotaur.

This verse was prompted by a piece of US political commentary and by:

Jeanette Winterson, Weight (©2005, Canongate 2018)

Weight is Jeanette Winterson’s contribution to Canongate’s series The Myths. Other titles in the series include Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad, Philip Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus, the Scoundrel Christ and Ali Smith’s Girl Meets Boy.

Weight is a lively retelling of the Greek myth of Atlas, the Titan who was condemned to hold the heavens on his shoulders for eternity. This being Jeanette Winterson, there’s quite a lot of rhapsodic testifying as to the myth’s deeper meanings and its personal significance for the writer.

The retelling focuses on Atlas’s relationship with Heracles, who briefly relieves him of his burden. There’s a bit of rough humour at Heracles’ expense and reflections on their different kinds of strength: Atlas can hold still and Heracles is a man of action. Heracles comes close to stealing the limelight as the narrative follows him to his marriage to Deianeira and his horrible death in the burning shirt of Nessus. But Atlas has his quiet surprises as well, such as when Laika, the astronaut dog, comes into his life.

I confess I didn’t quite follow a lot of the meditation on the myth’s meaning. Something about boundaries and desire, fate and decision. It becomes personal. Jeanette Winterson finds in Atlas an echo of her own adoption story, her ignorance about her birthparents (this was written before Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal, where she writes about her birth mother), and her rejection by her adopted mother:

Having no one to carry me, I learned to carry myself.
My girlfriend says I have an Atlas complex.

The task she took on, first as a rejected child and then as a writer, was to create a world of the imagination, a world that she has had to carry as a great weight.

I generally read Jeanette Winterson’s writing with a mixture of irritation and exhilaration. This book was no different. I’m irritated by the (presumably deliberate) false version of the myth that Atlas held up whole the world, when it was the heavens that he had to hold up in the original story. I’m irritated by the crude dick humour around Heracles (though maybe it’s not meant as humour but, even more irritatingly, as a version of male sexuality). I’m irritated by the way the prose sometimes feels like revivalist preaching, whether the subject is scientific cosmology or the pain of not know who your parents are. I’m irritated by occasional lapses of logic. But – and this is why I kept reading and am glad I did – I’m exhilarated by the way the book yokes together a scientific understanding of the universe with images from Ancient Greek myth (Laika nestling in Atlas’ shoulder, for example) and, in the final pages, I’m exhilarated at the notion of Atlas (and so possibly Jeanette) laying down his (and possibly her) burden.

November verse 6: While they’re counting

November verse 6: While they're counting

The BOM predicted wind and drizzle
but today dawned clear and still.
In bed we did our daily puzzle,
read the news, then took our pills,
had juice, poached eggs on toast (with pepper).
I showered, shaved and, feeling dapper
went out shopping while you made
a marinade and ironed and laid
the table for tonight's four dinner
guests. I vacuumed, rehung art.
You whipped up a sweet lime tart.
Refresh, refresh, there's still no winner.
Downstairs hung their washing out.
Refresh, refresh, it's still in doubt.

November Verse 5 and Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous

November verse 5: Letter to my Mother

Dear Mum, I won't write you a novel.
Barely fourteen rhyming lines
I'll manage. No space to unravel
the half a century that twined
our lives. Perhaps I know you better
now than when your weekly letters
filled me in on family news.
I wish that you could know me too,
that you could look down from some heaven,
hear the words I wish I'd said,
see the tears I should have shed
back then, take thanks for all you've given.
The grave is deaf and blind and still.
What we didn't say, we never will.

This is prompted by a marvellous book, a very different letter to a very different mother:

Ocean Vuong, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous (Jonathan Cape 2019)

The protagonist narrator of this novel, known to his intimates as Little Dog, is a Vietnamese-American Gay man, and this is his portrait of the artist as a very young man. The text is cast as a letter addressed to his mother. He tells her the story of his childhood, including quite a bit of abuse he suffered at her hands and his understanding that that abuse was part of the aftermath of the US-Vietnam war. He tells of his relationship with his grandmother, her mother, and what he knows of her love story with a US serviceman. And he relates his teenage experiences of sex. Given the sometimes excruciating detail about young gay male sex (excruciating both physically and in its turbulent emotional ambivalence), clearly this is not a letter he really expects his mother to read.

Ocean Vuong has won big prizes for his poetry, and parts of this book read as prose poetry. I don’t mean that some parts of it defy any attempt to extract a simple prose meaning, though there are a couple of moments like that. I mean, among other things, some images, as of buffalo running over a cliff or monarch butterflies making their vast annual journeys or Tiger Woods putting in an appearance, do a lot of work. And there are rhapsodic sections that don’t bother with conventional sentence structures, but take the reader with them in not bothering. For example, there are six pages in which Little Dog, sings (that’s the only word for it) about Trevor, the first object of his troubled but reciprocated desire. Here’s a little of it:

Trevor going fifty through his daddy’s wheatfield. Who jams all his fries into a Whopper and chews with both feet on the gas. Your eyes closed, riding shotgun, the wheat a yellow confetti.

Three freckles on his nose.

Three periods to a boy-sentence.

Trevor Burger King over McDonald’s ’cause the smell of smoke on beef makes it real.

The Vietnam War, growing up Gay and Vietnamese in working-class Hartford, Connecticut, the ravages of the OxyContin epidemic, dementia: the book deals with difficult and sometimes tragic lives. But the writing is sharp and rich and, in the end, celebratory.

My favourite scene is the one where Little Dog comes out to his mother in a Dunkin’ Donuts: ‘I don’t like girls.’ The conversation that follows is not astonishingly original (‘Are you going to wear a dress now?’ ‘They’ll kill you, you know that.’ ‘When did all this start. I gave birth to a healthy, normal boy.’ But then:

When I thought it was over, that I’d done my unloading, you said, pushing your coffee aside, ‘Now I have something to tell you.’

My jaw clenched. This was not supposed to be an equal exchange, not a trade. I nodded as you spoke, feigning willingness.

‘You have an older brother.’ You swept your hair out of your eyes, unblinking. ‘But he’s dead.’

And a whole terrible part of his mother’s life is revealed to him. So I need to modify my description of the book as a portrait of the artist as a young man: it’s a portrait that includes an extraordinary openness to the generations that gave rise to the young man.

November verse 4: Midnight over there

November verse 4: Midnight Tuesday over there
(4 in the afternoon Wednesday here)

Two hundred million odd decisions.
Aggregate them, that's our fate:
a fresh start, maybe some solutions,
else the planet on a plate.
It's midnight last night where they're voting,
now all over bar much shouting,
counting, claim and counter claim
and – who knows – civil war's the game?
Here, next day, the sun is shining,
noisy miners bash the air
the magpies don't pretend to care,
and clouds are mostly silver lining.
'Six million Frenchmen can't be wrong' –
whoever said that is a nong.

Apologies to the French. ‘American’s didn’t fit the metre. And now I’ll go and look at the news.

November Verse 3

It’s only the 3rd of November and here’s my third stanza. Maybe I can keep this up, or maybe all hell will break loose when the 3rd of November hits the USA, and I’ll never write another verse.

November Verse 3: Joseph

Prompted by the episode of ABC Radio's Conversations 
in which Annabel Bower talks to Sarah Kanowski about 
the experience of stillbirth.

I don't know when I knew my mother
had a son who died at birth,
that I had one more older brother
one who never walked the earth.
I don't know when she told my sister
Joseph was his name. A whispered
revelation of old grief
kept locked away from time, the thief?
I know that when at seven, unknowing,
I chose Joseph as my saint
I saw no clue, however faint,
that that old wound had started glowing,
or maybe gave some ghostly joy
by channelling the other boy.

November Verse 2 & Judith Brett’s Coal Curse

November verse 2: 
First a paddock, now a quarry.
Ride on sheepback, ride in coal-cart
all the way to– Well I'm sorry,
who knows where? It takes a cold heart
not to quake when science gives notice
not to quail when Trump is POTUS,
not to dump Adani's deal,
not to see shit just got real.
Impervious to rhyme and reason,
evidence and sound advice,
our governments have, for a price –
praise be, and Kyrie eleison –
bent the knee to fossil fuels
like autogenocidal tools.

Which is a response to:


Judith Brett, The Coal Curse: Resources, climate and Australia’s future (Quarterly Essay Nº 78, 2020) – and correspondence in Quarterly Essay 79

Judith Brett’s The Coal Curse is in part an update of Guy Pearse’s Quarterly Essay Nº 33, Quarry Vision (here’s a link to my recently-retrieved blog post about that). Much has changed in the decade between the two essays: the climate emergency has become more obviously pressing, community and business support for renewable energy has increased hugely, there’s much more scepticism about the future role of coal and gas in Australia’s economy in business circles (except, of course in the coal and gas industry). Dispiritingly, little has changed in the federal government’s hand in glove relationship with the fossil fuel industry, and the issue has become even more politicised, more enmeshed in culture wars.

This essay, Judith Brett writes in the introductory section, ‘is about the history of Australia as a commodity-exporting nation and its political consequences’:

Economic history is unfashionable nowadays. Economists focus on the modelling and management of the present and historians are more interested in stories and experience, and in uncovering diversity and neglected voices. Economic history is dry and hard to narrativise. But how a country makes its living can explain a lot.

(Page 8)

I didn’t find this essay dry at all. Judith Brett writes with wonderful clarity. Every now and then she throws in a wry aside, an amusing factoid or a startling anecdote, but you’re never at risk of getting lost in a welter of detail or a barrage of polemic.

Here’s her argument in brief:

  1. Australia is a trading nation. We have a small population, so exporting enables our companies to grow by reaching larger markets.
  2. There has always been a divide between the export of commodities – wool until the 1950s, minerals since then – and manufactured goods. The first makes a lot more profit but employs many fewer people.
  3. Because minerals export, especially coal and gas recently, is so profitable, it draws resources away from other exports and manufacturing.
  4. With the minerals boom, our manufacturing sector has pretty much collapsed.
  5. World markets for coal are decreasing dramatically as the rest of the world addresses climate change. Australian governments have been successfully captured by the fossil fuels lobby, and have not responded to the challenges of reality, as opposed to many in business and overwhelming public opinion.
  6. Paraphrasing wildly now, if something doesn’t change dramatically soon, we’d better kiss our backsides goodbye.

Actually, Brett isn’t as pessimistic as that. But when she quotes an LNP Senator from Queensland saying what an honour it has been ‘to represent the Australian mining sector’ (page 62), she leaves the reader in no doubt that some politicians forget that they are, as she puts it, ‘our risk managers of last resort’.


As we expect in the Quarterly Essay, the correspondence on The Coal Curse in QE 79 is civil, nuanced and challenging. Andy Lloyd, who worked for Rio Tinto for 23 years, offers the equivalent of a ‘not all men’ argument, which blurs some of the edges of Judith Brett’s argument but makes no substantial difference. The other correspondents tend to emphasise the hopeful elements of the essay, pointing to promising activist strategies, actual developments in the business sector that indicate fossil fuels are heading for oblivion and the Australian government are likely to be left floundering behind the main game.

Stephen Bell, professor of political economy at the University of Queensland, articulates a key question that always lurks behind discussions of this sort:

Who reads this kind of history? Mostly, people already agree that coal is causing environmental devastation and the coal lobby is far too powerful. And almost certainly not those who have drunk the Coal-Aid, unless their aim is to lampoon it and its author, as the Murdoch stable is wont to do. This is the crisis of Australia’s intellectual life: the apparent impossibility of generating a constructive rational dialogue about anything in general, and about coal in particular.

(QE 79 page 128)

Martin Luther King Junior said, ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.’ We’d better hope the arc isn’t too long.


The Coal Curse is the 19th book I’ve read for the 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

November verse 1

Since 2010, inspired by National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), I’ve had a project of writing fourteen 14-line stanzas each November. Mistakenly believing my favourite stanza form was a sonnet, I called this project LoSoRhyMo – Local Sonnet Rhyming Month. It turns out that my form isn’t a sonnet but an Onegin stanza, but I’m keeping the label anyhow.

If you want to read past Novembers’ verses you can click on the LoSoRhyMo tag at the bottom of this blog post. Or you could go to my Publications page and buy one of the four little books made up from these and others of my adventures in verse.

Here goes for November 2020, a fresh start:

Verse 1: Unprecedented again

You can only be unprecedented once 
(Michelle Goldman, Asthma Australia, 
on ABC News, 31 October 2020)

A cataclysmic bushfire season
should be no surprise next time.
We've raked the ashes, learned the lessons,
know just how to lift our game.
Unprecedented 2020 –
fire, flood, plague and Rio Tinto –
warns us that we won't be spared
in days to come. Best be prepared!
Yet here's our precedented morning –
juice and coffee, jam and toast  
the fifteen-thousandth time at least.
Each microsecond freshly dawning,
despite our habit-blinkered view,
is absolutely, freshly new.