If you go to my Publications page, you’ll see a new book of poetry has been added to my list of publications. It’s None of Us Alone, featuring a cover photo of one of the thousands of ceramic hearts created as part of the Emerging Artist’s Connecting Hearts Project.
Unlike my previous books, this one is not self-published. It’s part of Ginninderra Press’s Picaro Poets series edited by Brenda Eldridge. It’s a thing of beauty, a chapbook, containing just 24 poems.
You can buy a copy for just $6 inclusive of postage and handling – just click the button:
Alternatively you can buy a copy direct from Ginninderra Press website, at this link (and you can browse the rest of the series while you’re there). Buyers from outside Australia can’t purchase from Ginninderra Press.
When the current lockdown is over, perhaps I’ll manage a launch event of some sort, and invite you all.
Now that I’ve finished reading À la recherche du temps perdu, there’s an odd gap in my mornings. (I am aware of the irony of having Proust as part of a daily habit, given how much he had to say about the opposition between habit and full consciousness, but reading a couple of pages of his work was a habit all the same.) I want to take on something else.
A conversation last week with a 40ish friend helped me to think about criteria for the next reading project. My friend was raised without religious instruction and, realising that this had left a huge gap in his cultural knowledge, he had decided to read the Bible. Most of the way through Genesis he was disappointed, not only by the tedious begats, but by what he felt was poor storytelling. He singled out the story of Abraham’s interrupted sacrifice of Isaac as particularly nonsensical. I realised that those stories – Adam and Eve; Noah; Lot’s wife; Abraham, Sara and the angel; Isaac, Leah and Rachel; David dancing naked before the Ark of the Covenant – would seem very different if read cursorily for the first time rather than received with the force of canonicality (if that’s a word) behind them. I want to spend a couple of minutes each morning engaging with a substantial work of literature, not rushing it, not studying it, but letting each small portion settle for a day before I take on the next one.
Homer came to mind: I know people who have spent years reading the Iliad and the Odyssey as a group project. Or James Joyce: all those Bloomsday celebrations can’t be for nothing, and Finnegan’s Wake is at least as daunting as À la recherche. Byron’s Don Juan. The Epic of Gilgamesh. The Aeneid (though I did that, 20 lines a day, in my mid 20s, so it would be a repeat). Middlemarch (another repeat, but why not take it slow?).The Divina Commedia in Italian. Das Kapital (but not in German). It’s a long list of contenders.
Don’t ask me why because I don’t know, but I’ve decided to read Wordsworth’s ‘The Prelude’. In my time at Sydney University, the emphasis was on close reading. I’m grateful for what I learned in that way, but it meant that we got to read an excerpt from this long poem without being told anything about the poem itself, or encouraged to find out about it for ourselves. In fact, I didn’t know until I looked up the Wikipedia entry just now that Wordsworth began working on it in his late 20s and continued to do so all his life; that it was intended as the introduction to an epic, The Recluse, which he never finished. I believe that the version I’m about to read was published posthumously in 1850, the year Wordsworth died. I don’t expect references to it to crop up in movies, other poems, newspaper articles, the way references to Proust have in the last 22 months, and I’m not ruling out the possibility of abandoning ship, but I’ll start tomorrow morning, a page of blank verse a day, and I’ll blog about how it’s going in a month.
See this post for a brief description of my 500 People challenge.
As I mentioned last week, I hadn’t been paying attention, so this week starts with an encounter that rightfully belongs in last Saturday’s post. It also includes a slantwise account of an event that could have been the subject of its own blog post.
Wednesday 16 June, near the new section of Marrickville Metro shopping centre, we passed a young man standing on a windy corner holding up a sign advertising a major supermarket chain. As we waited for the light to change, I said hello, and then asked how long he was standing there. Emboldened by his readiness to answer that question, I asked how much he was paid. He told me an hourly rate that removed any remaining misgiving I have about what I charge for proofreading.
Sunday 20 June, walking in Sydney Park in the morning, I was amused by the behaviour of a young dog, I asked one of its human companions what breed it was, venturing my guess that it was a border collie–blue cattle dog cross. She was an Australian shepherd and its owners were unashamedly besotted with her.
Sunday afternoon, I attended a small gathering and walkto honour Martin Johnston, an Australian poet who died at this time of year 31 years ago (photos of the event below). The event was organised by Nadia Wheatley, Martin’s literary executor, and Vivienne Lathem, his step-daughter and copyright holder, at the Garden Lounge Creative Space in Newtown. It was a lovely occasion and I hope it becomes an annual tradition. Unusually for a poetry reading, I had warm encounters with a number of people who are new to me. First, the long term partner of an old friend: he is a retired English and History teacher, and we bonded over the joys of travel in retirement, among other things.
Sunday, our host at the Creative Lounge provided hot drinks. A woman who arrived in company of a friend of mine said something about having a hot chocolate, and announced more or less to everyone that she had discovered the joys of chocolate with added chilli. My ears pricked up. We were introduced a little later, but our brief exchange about the joys of chilli and chocolate is what has stayed with me.
Sunday, at the same event, I had the honour of reading one of Martin’s poems (‘Drinking Sappho Brand Ouzo’, the twelfth poem at this link). I asked a Greek-speaking audience member for help with the pronunciation of a Greek word. I did this because, though I did need the help, it made room for him to volunteer that the word – rododaktulos, evidently brododactulos in Lesbos – was from Homer, thereby saving me from providing that possibly redundant information to the audience. Later, I apologised for exploiting his presence in that way, but he didn’t seem to feel it was exploitative.
Sunday, a little later, as we strolled through locations from Martin’s novel, Cicada Gambit, I chatted to a man in a baseball cap who had been staying quietly in the background. He knew Martin after I did, and I asked if perhaps he knew him at SBS, where he worked for many years. No, he said, Martin had ‘succeeded [him] in the affections of X—’. He had a number of colourful anecdotes, and we grieved lightly over Martin’s early death and the role alcohol played in it.
Sunday, as most of the other people were settling down to snacks and drinks in the Bank Hotel and I was taking my leave, among the people I said hello-goodbye to was Julian Neylan, the Joycean enthusiast behind Bloomsday Sydney. He had read beautifully from Martin’s novel. We had a pleasant chat.
Monday morning early I went to the local shop to buy milk for breakfast, and forgot to take a mask – they were made mandatory indoors in our local government area on Sunday evening. I apologised at the check-out. The young woman there said, ‘I don’t like masks anyway.’ I did my bit for the common good, saying, ‘Me neither, but we need to do it.’
Tuesday, back to my regular sauna after a couple of weeks’ absence, and sure enough there were some sweet encounters. Well, two. A young man – I’d guess in his late 20s – came in and commented that reading a book was a good thing to do in the sauna. I said some people thought differently (see previous post, paragraph 2). Then…
(Tuesday) … his friend joined us moaning performatively. It turned out he had a terrible hangover. I tuned out for the conversation about drinking and its aftermath that followed, but a little later they were talking about money. One of them said he was being paid $9.50 an hour. The other said, ‘How can they do that?’ I re-entered the conversation: ‘Because they can.’ Then I trotted out a boomer reminiscence: ‘My first full time job I was paid $60 a week. Then I joined a union and was paid an award wage of $120.’ (To be honest I don’t know if that second figure is accurate, but I do remember feeling guilty about taking the increased amount from my small-business employer.) ‘I spent that much on beer last night.’ ‘Yes, but I remember at that time being shocked when I was charged a dollar for a beer in a flash club, and’ – this is the one that really got their attention – ‘I could buy a packet of cigarettes for 42 cents.’
Wednesday, walking back from buying bread in Marrickville, I met a man who was rubbing his back against a street sign. As anyone would, I smiled as I passed. He explained that his back was itching terribly after a session in the gym. I told him he reminded me of cows from my childhood, rubbing their backs on low branches.
Friday in the sauna, or rather in the dressing room after my sauna, to avoid having my wet bathers drip allover the floor and bench while I was changing, I left them on a hook near the shower. Once back in street clothes, I was about to go get them when a chap emerged from the shower area and told me I’d left them there. I have no idea how he knew they were mine … I guess we all do a lot more observing of each other than we make obvious.
Saturday morning, after a substantial shopping trip to the local behemoth supermarket, I went back for a quic visit to the ATM, and forgot my mask. This time, there was a young woman on the door blocking access to the maskless. I pleaded that I was going about 10 metres into the centre for less than two minutes. She relented and let me through, but warned me that the centre was full of police cracking down on the mask-noncompliant. I waved to her cheerily two minutes later as I left.
Saturday at about 3.30, I went back to buy wine for the Emerging Artist. (I don’t drink alcohol, but I’m the fetch-and-carry person.) Our suburb was about to join the rest of greater Sydney in lockdown in a couple of hours, and not only were shelves of toilet paper bare, but the red wine shelves were looking pretty sparse, though there were plenty of bottles of the $4 merlot. On my way out with bottles of stuff I suspected the EA would turn her nose up at – not the aforementioned $4 merlot – I spent a little moment chatting to the masked woman who rang up my purchase. The alcohol shop, she said, had been very busy all day.
Running total is now 184. Now that we’re in lockdown, I expect there will be slim pickings next week.
Before the meeting: When I was about half way through this book, the following exchange happened on WhatsApp:
The Trick Is to Keep Breathing is a possibly-brilliant novel that I, for one, hated.
It’s a first person narration by Joy, a woman who has tipped over the edge into extreme depression and mental disorder when her married lover drowns on a holiday in Spain. At first I thought that my copy of the book, in a Penguin Vintage Classics edition, had been poorly reproduced from old film: the type is mostly dark and slightly blurred, though occasionally, apparently at random, a sentence or two is lighter and clear. There are odd blank spaces as if several lines are missing. And every now and then the margin boasts a word or a column of words, perhaps partly obscured by the gutter or running off the edge of the page. It took a while to realise all this was deliberate, a way of physicalising the state of Joy’s mind, on a continuum with the way the width of the column changes every now and then when Joy relays to us a horoscope or an advertisement from a magazine, or the type switches to italics as, bit by bit, the traumatic event in Spain is revealed.
It must be this typographic play that led the New York Times reviewer quoted on the back cover to write: ‘Resembles Tristram Shandy as rewritten by Sylvia Plath.’ I haven’t read Sylvia Plath’s novel, The Bell Jar, but a bit of unconventional typesetting doesn’t make a Tristram Shandy.
The portrayal of Joy’s unrelenting descent into darkness, starvation and disorder must be what led the judges to award it the MIND/Allen Lane Book of the Year for 1990. According to the website of ‘mental health charity’ MIND, ‘this well-established literary prize celebrates writing that heightens understanding of mental health issues in all their forms’. Elsewhere, Fay Weldon, a frequent judge, acknowledges that it is a little-known prize, and that ‘”literature” is not what concerns us here, but effectiveness, accessibility, honesty, optimism and helpfulness’. She wrote that in 2011. The judges’ desires were different in 1990, or they read the book differently from me, because I found very little optimism or helpfulness in it, and while Joy’s experience is vividly realised, I don’t think my understanding of anything is heightened.
The novel is a nightmare account of an experience of grief, anguish, disordered thinking, despair, self-starvation. The men in Joy’s life are generally sexually exploitative and/or clueless about her mental state. Her one woman friend has gone to the USA, and that friend’s well-disposed mother offers baked goods as an optimistic panacea. The doctors she encounters are unable to help, and in some cases, callously, don’t even try. If her account of her time in a mental institution is even half accurate, then the system needed to be burned to the ground: but it’s more of a darkly satirical fantasy, almost certainly with some truth but not something you’d trust as an account of anyone’s actual lived experience. For me, and I may be completely idiosyncratic here, the book came across as a kind of mental-illness porn.
At least one member of the group has signalled in advance that he loved the book. I’m open to persuasion, but only by a crack. I expect there will be discussion of the ending, which may be ambiguous, though I’m fairly clear about how I read it. I’m looking forward to the conversation.
After the meeting: Covid–19 brought restrictions to Sydney again on Wednesday, and though we were only six people and could have met legally in someone’s home, we decided to meet online.
Once we got settled in – ‘Hi, I like your beard’ ‘How did the test turn out?’ ‘Are people wearing masks in your part of town?’ – we moved on to a terrific discussion of the book.
Why it was terrific is that two completely incompatible readings of the book were aired, and the proponents of each could see that the other was coherent and justifiable from the text. It was all in how you read the tone. I guess I was at one extreme, reading the tone as something like that of Truffaut’s movie The Story of Adèle H, unremitting misery: Joy is sunk in grief and depression, goes through the motions of daily life and relationships, keeping up appearances but unable to show anyone – friends, former lovers, current sexual predators, co-workers, doctors – the depth of her despair. The chap putting forward the other extreme read it as grimly comic: through her terrible grief, Joy never loses her sense of herself, holding onto what she can of relationships and keeping with her routines as a way of staying in the world, vulnerable to predators but keeping her core self shielded from them, bantering defiantly with the useless doctors. Others were in different points along a spectrum between the two readings. No one else had read the ending as grimly as I had, and when I read the final paragraph to make my point, my opponent offered a completely valid alternative reading. I say ‘opponent’, and at one stage someone thought we were being a bit intolerant of each other, but I really don’t think that was happening: certainly I was delighted by the difference, and my respect for the book ballooned, give that it could sustain such different readings.
There was some talk about the terrible weather in Glasgow, and how what someone from tropical North Queensland (that is, me) might see as unrelentingly grim, might be seen by others (including possibly Janice Galloway) as dourly amusing. We’re reading another Scottish book for our next meeting to put that theory to the test.
Having read a little of À la recherche du temps perdu first thing most mornings for the last 22 months, I’ve reached the end. My copy of the book has suffered: not only has the print on its covers worn way as in the image to the left, but the back cover has broken free, taking the last four pages with it.
I probably should have something brilliantly perceptive to say, but nah! I’m enjoying Patrick Alexander’s translation of the whole work one tweet at a time at @ProustTweet, and seeing how much I missed by reading it with my inadequate French; and I’ll probably read Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life sometime soon, but if my life has been changed I can’t tell (yet).
In the final 70 pages, Marcel continues his detailed account and analysis of the currents and undercurrents of high society, of the toll taken by time on his A-listers as seen at his last matinée. When he meets Gilberte’s daughter, he realises that this young woman is like a place in a forest where many roads meet (‘les «étoiles» des carrefours‘) – so many threads of his life, so many relationships converge in her person, and through her he is able to see how different parts of his story interconnect.
But then, with hardly so much as a paragraph break, he moves on to contemplating the huge project he is about to embark on – namely this book. There are wonderful passages about his plans and expectations. Having long since lost his fear of death, he now fears it again, but now he fears it for the sake of his work, not for himself. He will write all through the night, perhaps for a thousand nights, but cannot know whether his destiny will, like Scheherazade’s sultan, allow him to live another day in order to hear the rest of a story:
Et je vivrais dans l’anxiété de ne pas savoir si le Maître de ma destinée, moins indulgent que le sultan Sheriar, le matin quand j’interromprais mon récit, voudrait bien surseoir à mon arrêt de mort et me permettrait de reprendre la suite le prochain soir.
And there’s this, about what it would mean to take on the project:
[L’écrivain] devrait préparer son livre, minutieusement, avec de perpétuels regroupements de forces, comme une offensive, le supporter comme une fatigue, l’accepter comme une règle, le construire comme une église, le suivre comme un régime, le vaincre comme un obstacle, le conquérir comme une amitié, le suralimenter comme un enfant, le créer comme un monde sans laisser de côté ces mystères qui n’ont probablement leur explication que dans d’autres mondes et dont le pressentiment est ce qui nous émeut le plus dans la vie et dans l’art.
[The writer] would have to prepare his book with meticulous care, perpetually regrouping his forces as for an offensive, to bear it as a load, to accept it as a discipline, to build it like a church, to follow it like a fitness routine, to overcome it like an obstacle, to win it like a friendship, to feed it like a child, to create it like a world, bearing in mind those mysteries which probably only have their explanation in other worlds, the sense of which is what moves us the most in life and in art.
Later, typically, he undercuts this heroic tone, saying that the project is less like building a cathedral and more like sewing a dress. He says that Françoise, his barely literate housekeeper, understands the nature of the work better than many educated, literary people.
The prospect of death hangs over the closing pages, and the knowledge that his anxiety was well founded – this volume and the preceding one were published after Proust died – intensifies the poignancy. Having lived with this book for nearly two years, if only for a couple of minutes a day, I’m now surprised to find I have an urge to start all over again. Here’s the last sentence:
Aussi, si elle m’était laissée assez longtemps pour accomplir mon œuvre, ne manquerais-je pas d’abord d’y décrire les hommes, cela dût-il les faire ressembler à des êtres monstrueux, comme occupant une place si considérable, à côté de celle si restreinte qui leur est réservée dans l’espace, une place au contraire prolongée sans mesure puisqu’ils touchent simultanément, comme des géants plongés dans les années à des époques, vécues par eux si distantes, entre lesquelles tant de jours sont venus se placer – dans le Temps.
I had serious trouble translating that, and when I looked up Stephen Hudson’s translation (here) I got the impression that he had trouble too. Here’s his (the ‘…’ in the first bit marks the omission of several phrases that aren’t in the edition I’m reading):
If at least, time enough were allotted to me to accomplish my work, I would not fail to … therein describe men, if need be, as monsters occupying a place in Time infinitely more important than the restricted one reserved for them in space, a place, on the contrary, prolonged immeasurably since, simultaneously touching widely separated years and the distant periods they have lived through—between which so many days have ranged themselves—they stand like giants immersed in Time.
I don’t think mine’s any better, but here it is:
So, if a long enough time was left to me to accomplish my work, first of all I would not fail to describe men in it, making them resemble monstrous beings that occupy a place so much more substantial than the restricted one reserved for them in space – a place, rather, that extends immeasurably because, like giants immersed in the years, they simultaneously touch all the distant periods they have lived through, between which so many days have been placed – a place in Time.
That ‘longtemps‘ at the start of this sentence reaches all the way back to the first sentence of the first novel:
See this post for a brief description of my 500 People challenge.
Slim pickings this week. It’s not so much that I haven’t had casual contact with strangers as that I’ve been preoccupied with other things and not made mental notes. Here’s what I’ve got.
Sunday 14 June, driving back to Sydney from Brisbane, we stopped at a motel in Port Macquarie. It turned out that when I’d made the booking online I’d left out the final digit of my phone number. Our host made a point of telling us this, because usually she sends a confirming text. She was clearly relieved that together we’d managed to get us booked into the last remaining room with no drama. So were we.
Monday afternoon, having had a sore throat that was getting progressively worse, I drove to our local COVID–19 testing site, where, unusually, I had to wait – there were two cars ahead of me. A man in PPE came to my window, introduced himself as Doctor ––, and gave me a form and a pen. My impression was he came out just for the human contact.
Monday, a little later, a woman in mask and PPE came and took the completed form from me. We made polite smalltalk and then she swabbed my inside cheek and my preferred nostril. [The text message advising me of the negative result arrived at half past 6 next morning, and my throat and other symptoms cleared up by the end of Wednesday.]
Wednesday evening, in the flash new extension of the Marrickville Metro, I went looking in vain for our preferred brand of green curry paste. At the checkout of the Asian supermarket, I asked the woman on checkout how she liked the new shop. Unlike an old pal at checkout elsewhere in the new Behemoth, she didn’t moan about the changed conditions, but said simply, ‘It’s a lot bigger.’
Thursday midday, the Emerging Artist, granddaughter and I visited Kelly Wallwerk, an artist-friend of the EA who is painting a mural on a water tank beside the oval in Petersham Park. The mural will show a woman in whites bowling, and we had a long chat about the process of creating it. (Photo in the slide show below.)
Friday, filling prescriptions at the chemist’s, I couldn’t help but notice that the woman behind the counter looked weary. I ventured a comment: ‘You look tired.’ She didn’t hear and asked me to repeat it. When I did, instead of a smiling denial or similarly smiling agreement, she just looked even more weary, and said, ‘Yes.’ When the woman on the second cash register said she’d stay there for a while, my woman said, partly to me, ‘Thank God.’ I didn’t get the impression she was complaining. She was just bone-tired.
Friday late afternoon, walking beside the water in Blackwattle Bay, we noticed some odd behaviour in a flock of seagulls near retaining wall. The birds would hover just above the water, perhaps even letting their feet go under, then dip their beaks just beneath the surface, all the time flapping vigorously so as not to move forward. Each bird would then fly away in a tight circle and repeat the process. A man was sitting on a bench nearby with a camera on his lap, looking off into the distance. I asked him, ‘Have you seen what the seagulls are doing?’ ‘Yes,’ he said. That’s why I stopped here. We then speculated together about what they might be up to. He thought they were feasting on a school of whitebait, and I couldn’t think of a better explanation.
Saturday, at breakfast, in Leura where we went for the day, we asked for pepper for our eggs. The waiter brought us the grinder and left it on the table rather than doing the grinding herself and taking it away, which left me in a state of moderate to high alert in case the pepper was needed elsewhere. Sure enough, soon after omelette and poached eggs were delivered to the table nearest to us (a safe 1.5 metres away), the man on that table was trying to catch the waiter’s eye. I held up ‘our’ pepper and asked if it was what he wanted. It was. He was effusively grateful.
Saturday afternoon, we’d been told there was to be music at the Carrington Hotel in Katoomba. We logged in at the Carrington’s courtyard. where there was a great mass of men, women and children in yellow, many of them sporting elaborate yellow floral headgear and other ornaments, many looking as if they meant business with drums, and all seeming remarkably cheerful in the face of the bitter wind that swept through the space. I stopped a young man, who had a delicate yellow chain attached to an earring, and asked him what was going on. He was only too happy to explain that Katoomba’s celebration of the solstice, which usually takes over the whole town for the weekend closest to the actual date, had been Covid-cancelled, but some community groups had decided to put on a show anyhow, and the Carrington had made the space available. What we were seeing was the group Hands Heart Feet, who were second on the program. [Not strictly part of this narrative, but they were fabulous, as were the belly dancers who opened the show.]
The Emerging Artist has been urging this terrific book on everyone who will listen (it was her insistence that made it jump my To Be Read queue). It’s a novel that manages to include mini-essays about politics, economics, religion, cancel culture and the art of war while telling a deeply personal story about an immigrant Pakistani Muslim family in the USA, particularly after the 11 September attacks and during the Trump era. The author has described it as literary reality TV, by which I think he means that while it follows the author’s life closely and is populated by recognisable characters from his real story, and so reads like memoir, it’s actually carefully structured fiction. The epigraph, from Alison Bechdel, gives fair warning:
I only make things up about things that have already happened …
Ayad Akhtar is a Pulitzer winning dramatist. His play Disgraced was put on by the Sydney Theatre Company in 2016, so some of my readers may know his work, but this book is my introduction. It has made me a fan.
Like Philip Roth’s The Human Stain, Homeland Elegies starts with current presidential scandals – for Roth it was Clinton’s sexual misdemeanours, for Akhtar it’s Trump’s all-round egregiousness. But where Roth forgot about Clinton and moved on to his protagonist’s own misdemeanours, Akhtar stays with Trump, or at least with his (or the narrator’s) father’s infatuation with him, and Trump remains at least an ominous background presence for the duration. In the end, the book is an exploration of the state of the US nation under Trump. I read it as a kind of elegy for the USA that has been ailing for decades and been given what may be its death blow by Trumpism (it was published before the 2020 election, but hasn’t been defanged by Biden’s election). It also includes an earlier immigrant generation’s lament for a lost homeland – hence the plural elegies of the title.
In the first pages, in a section named ‘Overture: To America’, the narrator’s university mentor remarks ‘almost offhandedly’, long before the advent of Trump or even the Tea Party, that
America had begun as a colony and that a colony it remained, that is, a place still defined by its plunder, where enrichment is paramount and civil order an afterthought. The fatherland in whose name – and for whose benefit – the predation continued was no longer a physical fatherland but a spiritual one: the American Self.
The rest of the book can be read as the narrator’s process of discovering what that means.
I may be making it sound dull and programmatic. It’s anything but. Its arguments are complex and compelling, and given to Proust-like reversals. Its characters, especially the narrator’s father, leap off the page. At the sentence level it’s alive and engaging. Take this brilliant passage about the early part of Trump’s ascendancy:
The national mood was Hobbesian: nasty, brutish, nihilistic – and no one embodied all this better than Donald Trump. Trump was no aberration or idiosyncrasy, as Mike saw it, but a reflection, a human mirror image in which to see all we’d allowed ourselves to become. Sure, you could read the man for metaphors – an unapologetically racist real estate magnate embodying the rise of white property rights; a self-absorbed idiot epitomising the rampant social self-obsession and narcissism that was making us all stupider by the day; greed and corruption so naked and endemic it could only be made sense of as the outsize expression of our own deepest desires – yes, you could read the man as if he were a symbol to be deciphered, but Mike thought it was much simpler than all that. Trump had just felt the national mood, and his particular genius was a need for attention so craven, so unrelenting, he was willing to don any and every shade of our moment’s ugliness, consequences be damned.
‘What oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed.’ That is, the characterisation of Donald J Trump may not be startlingly original, but this is beautifully put, and there’s a lot more of it in context. No sooner have you stopped cheering (if you’re me) for this passionate statement of a vital truth, than the narrator takes us into the sleepless night that his friend Mike’s tirade has brought on. And just in case the reader wants to cheer for Mike, it turns out that Mike makes a logical – or at least logical to him – leap to arguing that it makes sense to vote Republican. This is a book that never falls in love with its own rhetorical power. It avoids cheap shots and easy answers. In a short final section, the narrator is to give a talk at a university. At first the Muslim student organisation calls for his invitation to be rescinded because his work is ‘offensive and demeaning’, but then when someone puts up posters accusing him of being pro-terrorist, the Muslims rally to back him. He’s not implying the bogus argument, ‘I’m being attacked from both sides, so I must be right,’ but holding out for complexity, for thoughtful reading. The book as a whole repays thoughtful reading in spades.
See this post for a brief description of my 500 People challenge.
I’ve been travelling this week, visiting family in Brisbane. Surprisingly, I’ve had fewer opportunities for new connections while away from home – so much time spent in the travel bubble with the EA, working out timetables and routes. Conversations with AirBnB hosts, though invariably pleasant, don’t count. But the following hit-and-run encounters do.
Monday 7 June, having arrived in Brisbane, and found what we thought was a safe parking spot (it wasn’t, we copped a $100 fine) we passed Red Hill Cinemas, a building that was once a skating rink, on our way back to our flat, and decided to go to a movie. We asked the young man who sold us our tickets if there was somewhere we could eat. He directed us to the Colle Rosso (get it?) pizza place, but it and another that we found through Apple Maps were both closed. We went back to the cinema and asked the front-of-house man if we could get a refund on our tickets as we needed to eat and wouldn’t make it back in time. He went and asked his manager then, having failed to get through, told us that the cinema provided food. Gratefully we ordered toasties, and twenty minutes later, just as the movie was about to start, he brought our meals to Row F.
Monday, on our search for Colle Rosso, we asked for directions at a bottle shop, which was the only sign of mercantile life nearby. The chap there was kind, pointed us in the right direction, and said he’d be surprised if it was open on a Monday night. Mildly distressed at the prospect of us going hungry, he said, ‘I’d make you a pizza myself, but I haven’t got an oven here.’
Tuesday, at the Queensland Art Gallery’s wonderful William Yang retrospective, Seeing and Being Seen, there’s a series of photographs related to a North Queensland murder case in the early 1920s. The Emerging Artist asked if the magistrate who made an egregious verdict in that case was my grandfather. I had a close look at the photos and text, and said to a woman who happened to be looking at the same work, ‘That magistrate was my grandfather!’ She was suitably impressed, or perhaps horrified. (For the record, I was wrong – the case was heard four years before my grandfather got the job.)
Wednesday, I was visiting an old friend who is living in a kind of home for aged Marist Brothers. He introduced me to a number of men in their 80s and in various states of frailty and apparent aphasia. The one I want to single out here was someone I had known reasonably well 55 years ago. He is the man who introduced me to the writing of John Henry Newman, Raissa Maritain and, you won’t be expecting this name, William Burroughs Jnr. When I introduced myself and offered some memory prompts, the only response I got was a blank watery gaze, and a limp handshake.
Thursday morning, in the QUT campus at Gardens Point we were looking for the swimming pool. We approached a young man in a tracksuit that seemed to be made from African material with bold geometric design in dazzling orange and green. He knew where the pool was, and he was heading that way. A few seconds later he pointed to the pool, but said he had no idea how to get to it. The EA complimented him on his gorgeous outfit at the same moment as I, going for something less obvious, was saying how I liked his lavender hair. ‘Thank you,’ he said to both of us, in a tone that could have meant, ‘Why are these old people commenting on my appearance?’ (I don’t usually mention race in these encounters, but it’s significant that this man is white.)
Friday morning, we called on the William Robinson Museum near the pool. The woman on security told us we could visit a website that gave a guided tour of the exhibition, relating it to Nick Earls’s book William Robinson: A New Perspective. ‘But it takes a lot longer if you do that,’ she said. I said we needed to be quick because we’d just been for a pre-breakfast swim and were hungry. ‘You went for a swim in this weather?’ she asked in Queenslandish horror (we’re having a bit of an Antarctic moment). We reassured her that we’d been to the heated pool. When we left 20 minutes later, she wished us a good breakfast.
Friday, a knock on the door turned out not to be the Emerging Artist returning from the laundromat, but a woman who introduced herself nervously as working with our AirBnB hosts. ‘I’m wondering,’ she began, ‘if you’ve seen—’ I interrupted her and to say that yes, I had seen the bunch of access cards she was looking for. I apologised for not having been in touch as soon as I saw them, as I knew they weren’t meant to be there. Her relief was so enormous, it clearly didn’t occur to her to blame me.
Saturday morning, as we headed out for breakfast and the European Masterpieces from the MET exhibition at QAGOMA, we shared the lift with two brightly clad young people. They barely acknowledged us when they entered the lift, not rudeness so much as mutual absorption. When the woman said something about coffee, I said something about the importance of the first coffee of the day. (I don’t actually drink the stuff, but I’ve learned that it’s richly symbolic of the good life for some people.) That broke the ice, and for the rest of our descent we chatted about the terrible noise from construction work in Roma Street that had kept up all night.
Saturday afternoon, we were barefoot in bathers on our way to the sauna in our hotel/AirB’n’B. Outside the lift on our floor, an elderly gentleman said hello (elderly, but probably younger than me!). I said something about us making ourselves at home and he ignored me completely. A little later, he asked if our TV worked. I said it had last night. He again didn’t respond. At that moment the lift arrived and two much younger people came out. ‘Ah, there you are,’ he said. ‘I need your help. My television doesn’t work.’ I realised later that he must have been very deaf, and had been looking away when I spoke.
Saturday evening, when we’d finished dinner, a group of young people arrived at the door we were coming out of. The woman who seemed to be their leader said they were in the wrong place and should turn around. Knowing that the eatery has three entrances, I said its name and asked if that’s what they were looking for. She said No and set off. The last of the group, a man with a blond beard and a northern European accent, said, ‘We are just confused.’ I said, ‘And I was just helping to increase the confusion.’ ‘Yes,’ he said, smiling. ‘Thank you.’
See this post for a brief description of my 500 People challenge.
Sunday 30 May, at a one-year-old’s birthday party, I met a number of new people, but really only had one conversation with someone who was new to me – the baby’s father’s stepmother. (We didn’t discuss what relation that makes her to the baby: I’d just go with grandmother.) She’s been travelling to Europe for work three times a year until last year, and was happy to regale me with tales of her travels, including a particularly lovely three days working at her computer on a train from Chicago to San Francisco – three very productive days with fabulous scenery rolling by outside her window. I asked the potentially annoying question: Did she know a friend of mine, from the same country of origin as her parents? After some memory trawling and adjusting of my pronunciation, she realised that she did know my friend, whom neither of us has seen or some years.
Tuesday afternoon, I was having a hot drink with a couple of relatives from out of town at the Art Gallery of NSW. As I carried two large slices of layered honey cake to our table, the woman at the next table looked up from her abstemious salad and said something envious. ‘They’re not for me,’ I said, sharing her envy.
Wednesday, in my second 20-minute session in the sauna, I somehow managed four conversations with new people. When I returned from my between-sessions cold shower, the two men I had left in sombre silence were chatting. The subject was tattoos. When one of them said, ‘I actually regret about half of mine,’ I seized the chance and asked him which ones. He backed off from his original statement ], but gave us both a tour of his calves and lower thighs, where he sported the images of a number of computer games – Pacman, Mario Bros, etc – and (the reason he’d backed off) the names of his three children. He saved the upper part of his body, he said, for more spiritual images. Something from The Everlasting Story scraped into that category.
Wednesday, a woman joined us, and took control of the situation, swapping names and information about how long we had all been coming. I mentioned that my partner had stopped coming because the sauna was a bit male dominated, and people didn’t observe the Covid three-person limit. As it happened she had come in and made it four, but we didn’t make an issue of it. When another man (more about him soon) poured water on the rocks, she said something like, ‘It doesn’t matter to me, but there’s a sign asking us not to do that.’ A little later when the same man took a swig of water, she said, ‘It makes no difference to me, but I’ve read that if you drink while you’re in the sauna it takes away from the health benefits.’ She didn’t seem to mind that she got grunts in return and when, after a decent pause, the man took another swig, she exchanged a rueful smile with him.
Wednesday, somehow the conversation turned to health and the water-swigging, stone wetting, grunting man, who had long blond hair and had a godlike surfy beauty about him – someone I was prepared to dislike on sight – volunteered that he’d recently had a brain tumour removed. While the woman, who had facilitated the conversation so elegantly, expressed sympathy, I went for vulgar curiosity: ‘Did you have a general anaesthetic, or did you have to be awake for the surgery.’ He’d had the anaesthetic, but knew it wasn’t always so. In that brief exchange my whole understanding of what was happening with the grunts etc was transformed. Later, I saw him with his clothes on, and something in his demeanour made it clear that he was dealing with the after-effects of the surgery.
Wednesday, then I was alone with the other man who had been part of the tattoo conversation. He said he wouldn’t be game to bring a book into the sauna. And we had an interesting chat about the problem of too-many-books. He’d recently sold some art books for about a fifth of their worth, because it was easier to just accept the first offer from a bookshop. In the earlier conversation, before we got to tattoos, we had been taking about flexibility, specifically the possibility of putting one’s palms flat on the lower bench while sitting on the upper one. He had said to tattooed man that he could help him get there. I’d chimed in – and maybe it was my entry onto the conversation: ‘You’d never get me that flexible.’ He took it as a challenge: ‘Maybe not. But I could get you closer to it.’
Saturday in the Inner West (Dulwich Hill, Earlwood, Marrickville, Enmore) I kept noticing other drivers being courteous and generous, often with a friendly smile, which was pretty good given how heavy the traffic was. I’m not counting them, but we had a similarly courteous encounter while walking on the Earlwood side of the Cooks River. As we approached a little sandstone-block chicane (see photo) designed to make the path unpleasant for bike-riders, a 60-something man with earbuds approached from the other direction, jogging at an impressive pace. We stopped to let him through, but he also stopped, and waited until I gave an explicit ‘After you’, then ran between the stones and past me with a friendly smile.
Evelyn Araluen, Dropbear (University of Queensland Press 2021)
This is a formidable book. I’d heard Evelyn Araluen read some of its poems, which she always does with a slight, dangerous smile, and was looking forward to reading them. The smile is mostly still in evidence, but the danger doesn’t feel slight. What’s endangered is any hope of emerging with Australian settler colonialist assumptions intact, or at least untroubled. In the book’s generous notes, Araluen spells out her understanding
that the material and political reality of the colonial past which Indigenous peoples inherit is also a literary one. Our resistance, therefore, must also be literary.
What looks like an elegantly designed slim volume of poems is actually a piece of incendiary resistance to colonial attempts at genocide and erasure, from May Gibbs’s cute bush creatures to perfunctory or self-serving acknowledgements of country, by way of a whole gallery of settler-Australian poets and poetic tropes. There are rage-fuelled mash-ups taken from widely read, familiar texts; poems whose ideal readers have PhDs in critical theory or contemporary poetics; and longer prose poems that could just as easily be categorised as essays and short stories. There are poems that turn their gaze away from the colonisers and dwell on family and the natural world.
In her conversation with Tony Birch at the Sydney Writers’ Festival My blog post is at this link), Araluen said. ‘This is not a cancel culture book.’ And that’s an important point to make. ‘For the parents’, one of the longer pieces, is in part an expression of gratitude and appreciation for her parents who read May Gibbs to her and her siblings, which when she first ‘discovered theory’ she thought meant they were ‘losing to the settlers’:
While my siblings and I consumed those stories, we were
never taught to settle for them. My parents ever pretended
these books could truly know country or culture or
me – but they had both come from circumstances in which
literacy and the access it affords was never a given. They just
wanted me to be able to read.
The acts of resistance in this book are not rants against an easily demonised foe. They involve the poet’s own inner wrestles, and bring a finely tuned, disciplined intelligence to bear on issues that lie at the heart of Australian culture. The book isn’t an easy read, especially for old white men, but it’s not hostile. Speaking as an old white man I felt it as a bracing invitation and a forthright offer of guidance and even help.
Added later: There’s an excellent discussion of Dropbear by Jeanine Leane in Sydney Review of Books, at this link. Here’s a taste:
Dropbear is blunt, biting and beautifully crafted. Although it is those things, it is more than the sum of those things. It’s a radical and timely affront to the history, the myths, the gossip and the stereotypes that still confront us all as the Country’s First Peoples.
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