Monthly Archives: July 2021

Ruby Reads 25: Ursula K Le Guin

Ursula K Le Guin, Illustrated S D Schindler, Catwings (Orchard Books 1988)
–––––, Catwings Return (Orchard Books 1989)

Yesterday, Ruby decided that she’d had enough of the pile of books in our living room, and raided the child-height shelf in the second bedroom. She pulled out a boxed set of Roald Dahl, but before she could get too committed to it I reached for the Catwings books. I thought they’d be ‘too old’ for a three-and-a-half-year-old, but I was delighted to be found wrong.

Mrs Jane Tabby was surprised when she gave birth to four kittens with wings, but she didn’t feel the need to find an explanation. Having dismissed the issue of ‘How come?’, the book moves on to the much more interesting question of ‘What then?’

The kittens were born under a dumpster (which I read as ‘skip’ to Ruby) in an alley, and their mother rightly fears for their safety. In addition to the dangers faced by ordinary kittens, they run the extra risk of being abducted by curious or exploitative humans and subjected to at best humiliation and at worst vivisection, though the book tactfully avoids being explicit about the latter. So their mother sends the kittens off into the world by themselves to find a safe place. After a number of adventures, involving injuries and close shaves, and hostility, especially from birds who don’t want cats invading their airspace, they are eventually coaxed into contact with two human children. The last two lines, which I won’t quote here, echoing Leontes’ wonderful line in The Winter’s Tale, ‘O, she’s warm,’ and have almost the same emotional force.

Catwings Return takes up the story just a little later. Two of the kittens – Harriet and James – decide to go back to the city to visit their mother, and there, in a row of buildings that are being demolished, they discover a tiny black kitten, who also has wings but is too young to fly. Alone, filthy, starving and terrified, it can say only two words, a desolate ‘Me’ and a spitting ‘Hate!’ Of course, the older kittens befriend the little one and all three are reunited with their mother before rejoining their siblings. But there is genius in the scenes where Harriet and James calmly, purringly surround the terrified defensive little one with love and reassurance.

The Emerging Artist and I read one book each – no mean feat for the EA, given that she had cataract surgery two days earlier. Occasionally Ruby would want to turn the page before the EA or I had finished reading it, but she never insisted when we said she needed to wait. S D Schindler’s brilliant illustrations held her attention, especially by setting the mostly impossible task of figuring out which kitten was which. But she also remained rapt for the pages without illustration. In the second book, Thelma and Roger are the two kittens who stay behind. Ruby, who had barely met Thelma in its opening pages, kept asking after her all through Harriet and James’s adventures, and was very pleased when she was found safe and happy at the end. Roger didn’t provoke similar concerns – I suspect gender bias.

We only read the books once each, but we had Catwings themed play for some time afterwards: ‘You be the black kitten and say “Hate!” and I’ll purr at you.’

And so the late great Ursula K Le Guin enters the world of another new person. How good is that?

There are three more books in the series, which I will now go in search of.

[I went searching for my other blog posts about UKLG, and found that they hadn’t been transferred from my old, pre-Wordpress blog. So I’m fixing that.]

The Prelude Progress Report 1

William Wordsworth, ‘The Prelude, or, Growth of a Poet’s Mind’, in William Wordsworth Selected Poetry, edited, with an Introduction, by Mark Van Doren (Modern Library College Edition 1950), Book First to Book Fourth, line 338.

I’m a month into reading a little of ‘The Prelude’ first thing in the morning, averaging 70 lines a day, now nearing the end of the fourth of 14 ‘books’

Wordsworth began writing the poem in 1799, when he was in his late 20s, and worked on it all his life. It wasn’t published until 1850, soon after his death that year. His own account of the poem’s origins, in the preface to another of his long poems, ‘The Excursion’, includes this:

Several years ago, when the Author retired to his native mountains with the hope of being enabled to construct a literary work that might live, it was a reasonable thing that he should take a review of his own mind, and examine how far Nature and Education had qualified him for such an employment.

As subsidiary to this preparation, he undertook to record, in verse, the origin and progress of his own powers, as far as he was acquainted with them.

(From Wikisource)

So ‘The Prelude’ was intended not so much to stand in its own right, or even to stand as a preparation for a truly great poem, but as subsidiary to that preparation. Which sounds a lot as if he was managing expectations.

The poem itself begins with a seductively straightforward narrative of a time away from the pressures of life in the city – the early 19th century equivalent of a cyber-break. On the first page, my attention was snagged by these lines (13-17):

The earth is all before me. With a heart
Joyous, nor scared at its own liberty,
I look about; and should the chosen guide
Be nothing better than a wandering cloud,
I cannot miss my way.

It’s hard to miss the echo of the last lines of Milton’s Paradise Lost:

The world was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way.

Wordsworth’s echoes imply, cheekily, that his poem aims to take up where Milton’s left off: where Adam and Eve had Providence he has liberty (and though it doesn’t rate an initial cap here, it does a few lines later); his solitude is joyously chosen where theirs was imposed as punishment; and where their wandering is sorrowful and tentative, his is leisurely and unafraid. The poem itself invites us to keep our expectations high.

After that, I haven’t been struck by any strong allusions. There are line that reminds me of the kind of balance and order that I dimly remember being characteristic of non-Romantic poets like Pope, and I can easily get fascinated by the way he pauses in midline and has the sentences flow over the line breaks.

I’m glad I’ve chosen to read just a small amount each day. Mostly I’m carried along by the narrative and his reflections, though sometimes I have to slow right down and reread some lines. I’m always left wanting more, and I never get to the stage where I’m lulled into a kind of trance by the music of the iambic pentameters, not that there’d be anything wrong with that.

Every day’s reading has been pleasurable. In what I imagine is a common experience, I find the poem stirs memories of my own childhood. Not that a North Queensland sugar farm on a hill overlooking the North Johnstone river, with Mount Bartle Frere to the north like a blue cardboard cut-out, has much in common with the humble cottages, the crags and lakes and mist of England’s Lake District. But things are stirred anyhow.

One place where our childhoods echoed each other pretty directly is where the poem celebrates indoor childhood activities. My two sisters and I used to play cards for days on end on the floor of our veranda while tropical rain pelted against the louvres. According to family lore my youngest sister learned arithmetic adding up matches in those early poker games. Here’s Wordsworth on card games:

Oh, with what echoes on the board they fell!
Ironic diamonds,—clubs, hearts, diamonds, spades,
A congregation piteously akin!
Cheap matter offered they to boyish wit,
Those sooty knaves, precipitated down
With scoffs and taunts, like Vulcan out of heaven:
The paramount ace, a moon in her eclipse,
Queens gleaming through their splendour's last decay,
And monarchs surly at the wrongs sustained
By royal visages. Meanwhile abroad
Incessant rain was falling.

So. nearing the end of Book 4, we’ve had his childhood among the beauties and occasional terrors of the Lake District (‘Fair seed-time had my soul’), in company and solitude, his time among the distractions of Cambridge (‘I was the Dreamer, they the Dream’), and his return home on vacation. There’s a wonderful description of the restorative power of a bush walk (‘and restoration came / Like an intruder knocking at the door / Of unacknowledged weariness’), and an epiphany when, returning home in the dawn light after a night of ‘dancing, gaiety, and mirth’ he is overwhelmed by the beauty of the world and: ‘I made no vows, but vows / Were then made for me’.

This morning, bringing a nice roundness to this blog post, I read another reminder that Wordsworth had the great epics somewhere in the background, a lovely example of what I dimly remember from school is called a Homeric simile. The opening ‘As one who’ signals that we’re reading a simile, but it takes 15 lines before we know that the lovingly-described process of looking over the side of a boat is being compared to the exercise of memory:

As one who hangs down-bending from the side
Of a slow-moving boat, upon the breast
Of a still water, solacing himself
With such discoveries as his eye can make
Beneath him in the bottom of the deep,
Sees many beauteous sights – weeds, fishes, flowers,
Grots, pebbles, roots of trees, and fancies more,
Yet often is perplexed and cannot part
The shadow from the substance, rocks and sky,
Mountains and clouds, reflected in the depth
Of the clear flood, from things which there abide
In their true dwelling; now is crossed by gleam
Of his own image, by a sun-beam now,
And wavering motions sent he knows not whence,
Impediments that make his task more sweet;
Such pleasant office have we long pursued
Incumbent o'er the surface of past time
With like success, nor often have appeared
Shapes fairer or less doubtfully discerned
Than these to which the Tale, indulgent Friend!
Would now direct thy notice.

‘Incumbent o’er the surface of past time’ – shades of Proust, though Proust never acknowledges how much of what he remembers is actually projection!

500 people: Weeks 21–23

See this post for a brief description of my 500 People challenge.

In spite of what the papers say, the citizens of Sydney have been taking this lockdown seriously. We hardly go out. and when we do we stay clear of strangers. My project has wilted on its stem, so much that I have very little to report for the last three weeks, 4–24 July.

Today, when we were on a long walk that took us to Glebe Point Road by way of Victoria Park we noticed a large police presence and though something must be up. we passed a group of about five people in a loose procession behind a man carrying a sign that said something about Bill Gates and hoaxes and genes being fried: I almost spoke to him, but didn’t see how any conversation could be even remotely amicable. (Having seen a tweet that described the demonstrators as putting the concerns of straight white people above the safety of everyone else, I should mention that this group of people weren’t white.)

There have, however, been some moments of warm connection with strangers.

  1. Thursday 15 July, walking in an unfamiliar part of Sydney Park, where a number of alarmingly fit looking people were exercising on outdoor gym equipment, generally keeping a safe distance from one another, I watched one man holding parallel bars at waist height, then lift himself up off the ground until his legs were stretching vertically above him, then come back down to earth, slowly, with extraordinary control. He looked around, pleased with himself but not particularly expecting to have been noticed. Having just about drawn level on the footpath near him, I said, ‘I’m impressed.’ He gave a gratified smile. It occurred to me that this is a perk of age: I wouldn’t have dreamed of commenting like that even 20 years ago, but coming from a 70-something pushing a stroller, my remark was obviously straightforwardly friendly and admiring, no other agenda.
  2. Friday 16 July, as took our afternoon exercise by the Cooks River, my lockdown hair acted as a facilitator of human contact. A woman jogger with flaming red hair shouted to us as she drew near, ‘Your hair with the sun behind it makes you look like an angel!’ (See photo below.) This is not the first time my hair when grown longish has attracted comment but I was telling the truth when I shouted to her retreating back, ‘That’s the nicest thing anyone’s ever said about my hair.’ She stopped for a moment and called, ‘Bye, angel!’ (For remote context: Roughly 30 years ago I was at a school basketball game when a young Aboriginal boy approached me out of the blue and asked, ‘Are you a mad professor?’ then ran away cackling.)
Me looking angelic?

3. Saturday morning, on our pre-breakfast constitutional (aka permitted exercise outing) we passed a man with a small girl wearing a pink tutu. The girl was engrossed in a book. It wasn’t a children’s book and she wasn’t reading it, but focusing intently on its cover. As we approached, the man said, appropriately enough, ‘Look up, don’t walk into people.’ She ignored him, and as we made our way around her, I said, ‘Never look up from a book if you can help it.’ He said, ‘It’s a good one, this one.’

4. Saturday, we had stopped off on that walk to buy bread. I was standing for a moment with the Bourke Street Bakery paper bag under my arm while the Emerging Artist retraced our steps to deposit a found bag of dog poo in a bin. Another couple out for a walk passed me. The woman called, ‘Ah, I see you’ve just bought some bread for breakfast.’ I confirmed that she saw right. (These moments feel inconsequential, but they increment to counter the innumerable moments when we might as well be blocks of stone, or worse, to each other as we pass).

5. Wednesday 21 July, mid-afternoon, the Emerging Artist and I were heading out for a walk before it got even colder. In the near-deserted park, we passed a woman with two dogs, a black and white collie and another, which i learned is a blue merle collie. I was struck by the dogs’ precisely timed, synchronised movements as they waited for her to throw the ball for them, and then by the way the blue merle leapt in the air with a double twist, apparently for no reason except to show off. I stopped, and expressed my admiration from a Covid-safe distance. ‘Are they trained for agility?’ I asked. ‘That one competes,’ she said, pointing to the black-and-white dog, ‘ but she,’ the other, ‘is too young just yet.’ She must have scores of people stopping to ask about her dogs, but she seemed perfectly happy to chat about them, without for a moment leaving them hanging out for the next instruction. When one of them looked as if it was going to come our way in search of affection, a sharp ‘Eh, eh, eh!’ had her turning on her heel and back to work. There was nothing insincere about my admiration for those two.

6. Wednesday, perhaps on that same exercise outing, we were passed by a woman with two small children on tricycles, maybe three and four. One of them said to her, as if offering a solution to a problem, ‘You could buy us something’. I caught her eye and she rolled hers.

7. Saturday, on our exercise outing, on our way home from the non-encounter in Glebe, I stepped off the footpath to allow a woman pushing a stroller to pass. We did the customary mutual acknowledgements, muffled by our masks. A little later, as she stopped to fix something on the stroller, we passed her, and then the sequence repeated itself. The next time she passed us, I said, ‘We keep doing this.’ She looked surprised to be spoken to, and asked, in a strong European accent, me to repeat what I’d said. I repeated myself. Probably still not understanding what I’d said, she gestured to a block of flats up ahead and said, ‘I live there, nearly home,’ and as she drew ahead of us, gave a cheery wave goodbye. I think this demonstrates that the content of what one says in a brief encounter matters a lot less than tone of voice.

8. Saturday, on the same outing, we passed a small former corner store in Angel Street Newtown with a photo exhibition in its windows. A woman was standing near the windows looking through some art books on top of a rubbish bin. I stopped and asked from a safe distance if she was the photographer. No, she said, but she loved the photos. And we chatted very briefly about the way this corner store often has interesting things on display.

Running total is 199. I’m still aiming for 500, but not with a time limit.

Next-door-to-Marrickville mattress poetry

A friend emailed me this photo. It’s not the work of fabulous Marrickville mattress poet C.L. It lacks her (I’m convinced the MMP is a woman) world-weary generosity of spirit and may stray a little into vulgarity, but it’s heartening to see that someone in Newtown is keeping the flame of mattress poetry alive:

Growing up Aboriginal in Australia

Anita Heiss (editor), Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia (Black Inc 2018)

I’m coming to this book late, but it’s a book that will remain fresh for a long time yet.

It contains 52 essays from First Nations people of Australia. The range of contributors is huge: people from all parts of Australia, urban and remote, from Cape York to the Western Australian wheat belt; some who are household names, some who should be, and some who live quiet lives far from the limelight; people who were strongly connected to culture and community as children and people who discovered they were Aboriginal only in adulthood; old (several contributors were born the same year as me, 1947) and young (one was 13 at the time of publication); sports stars, poets, novelists, classical musicians, prisoners.

Anita Heiss writes in her introduction:

There is no single or simple way to define what it means to grow up Aboriginal in Australia, but this anthology is an attempt to showcase as many of the diverse voices, experiences and stories together as possible.

The attempt succeeds admirably.

I was struck by the sheer number of almost identical incidents in which someone challenges a young person’s Aboriginal identity. Here’s one of them, as told by Keira Jenkins, a Gamilaroi woman from Moree in New South Wales:

I was six years old, sitting cross-legged on the floor in my checked dress, which was slightly too long for me, looking eagerly up at Miss Brown – at least I think that was her name – the first time I had a blow to my sense of identity. We were learning about Aboriginal people and I piped up very proudly.

‘I’m Aboriginal.’ I waved my hand in the air.

‘No, you’re not,’ my friend Alison said. ‘You’re too white to be Aboriginal.’

I don’t remember what happened after that; I just remember feeling ashamed.

(Pages 119–120)

The challenger isn’t always another child. Sometimes it’s an adult in authority, sometimes even another Aboriginal person, but the confident refusal to accept that a child with fair skin can be Aboriginal occurs again and again in almost exactly the same words, never without impact on the child. No wonder Andrew Bolt was taken to court over his 2009 slur against ‘light-skinned people who identified as Aboriginal’ (news story here if you don’t know about that): the people bringing the case must have been desperately sick of that pernicious stuff.

The sameness of attacks stands in striking contrast to the tremendous variety of the life stories. I loved reading how eleven-year-old Miranda Tapsell refused to go to an event as Scary Spice just because Scary Spice was brown like her, and risked the ire of her non-Indigenous friend by going as their shared favourite, Baby Spice; how Adam Goodes disobeyed a teacher on a zoo excursion and stared at a gorilla; how Karen Davis, a Mamu–Kuku Yalanji woman who grew up n Far North Queensland in the 1970s and 80s sang songs on long car trips with her family pretty much the way I did with mine in the 1950s.

Some of the stories defy belief. William Russell, who describes himself as ‘a black, fair ex-serviceman with PTSD, blind and with a severe hearing impediment, and a long list of other physical problems from military service’, is a case in point. He tells of a time when his mother, with a babe in arms and four-year-old WIlliam by her side, faced a crowd of drunk, angry white men in the tiny town in Victoria where they had just come to live as the only Aboriginal family. Her grandfather stepped out of the shadows to save the day, naked ‘as always’, painted up in ochre and kaolin, and discharging a shotgun. This was in the 1950s. Hm!

There are tragic stories of the damage done by of colonisation to individuals and communities,featuring alcoholism and addiction; diabetes and diagnoses of mental illness; family violence and dysfunction; premature death. And there are stories of heroic resilience. Tony Birch’s story of his father is a beautifully told study in reversing fortunes. After years of violence and anger, followed by years of medication, electric shock treatment and institutionalisation, he ‘is saved’:

The Aboriginal community of Fitzroy gather around and care for him: men and women who had known him when he was a kid, during the years before any of them were ravaged by the force of racism and exclusion. He moves to the countryside and begins working with young blackfellas in schools. The experience is life-changing, for both my father and his family. I discover, a little to my own surprise, that I love him.

(Page 35)

My copy of Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia is a loan from my Book(-lending) Club. I consider it belongs in the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2021: it’s edited by a woman, and more than half the contributors are also women. So I’m counting it as the eleventh book I’ve read for the challenge.

This blog post is also a contribution to Indigenous Literature Week hosted by Lisa at ANZ LitLovers blog.

Richard Powers’ Overstory

Richard Powers, The Overstory (William Heinemann 2018)

To be human is to confuse a satisfying story with a meaningful one, and to mistake life for something huge with two legs. No: life is mobilised on a vastly larger scale, and the world is failing precisely because no novel can make the contest for the world seem as compelling as the struggles between a few lost people.

(The Overstory, page 385)

That’s the challenge Richard Powers has taken on: to write a compelling novel about the contest for the world. While I was reading it, the Australian Commonwealth Government was trumpeting the virtues of coal even while the memory of last year’s devastating fires was still fresh and temperatures in Canada reached staggering new heights. You don’t have to be particularly radical or visionary to realise that the climate emergency is upon us and decisive action is needed; but most of us go on, with occasional breaks for demonstrations or lockdowns, more or less business as usual. The Overstory resolutely turns its gaze on the crisis currently facing humanity, focusing on the world’s forests, attempts to protect them, and the catastrophic scale of destruction.

The opening section, ‘Roots’, reads like eight short stories, each more or less complete in itself, and with no obvious similarities or connections between them. It turns out that we are being introduced to the nine main human characters, and the role trees have played in each of their lives. A boy lives on a farm where his great-grandfather, his grandfather, and his father, have photographed a particular chestnut tree once a month for a century, so that he has a stack of photographs that can be flicked through to show the tree’s growth over that long time. Another boy becomes an early computer nerd, whose life changes dramatically when he falls from high in a tree. A girl is fascinated by what turns out to be a priceless scroll her father has somehow smuggled out of China when he left as a refugee.

In the second and longest section, ‘Trunk’, the main narrative is played out. One character develops a hugely popular and lucrative computer game. Another, who Wikipedia says is modelled on Canadian scientist Suzanne Simard, makes world-changing discoveries about how trees communicate with each other. But the dominant thread is about five characters who become part of the ecological movement of the last quarter of the 20th century. There are brilliantly powerful accounts of front-line protests to save the forests of north west USA (of the kind that still continue today, as in Sally Ingleton’s 2020 doco, Wild Things. Avoiding extreme spoilers, I’ll just say that their activism doesn’t end well, and that it ends spectacularly.

The third section, ‘Crown’, is pretty much aftermath. That is, the sense of anticlimax never quite dissipates. Life continues. The activists build new lives. The computer game becomes more complex, more successful, and ultimately less satisfying to its creator. The scientist, whose work was initially ridiculed, is now validated and in demand.

In the fourth, shortest section, ‘Seeds’, the novel’s big question comes into focus. So much damage has been done, such a huge proportion of the earth’s forests has been destroyed, and attempts to prevent further destruction have failed. The damage is either irreparable will need more time to be repaired than we have left: where can we go from here? A number of possibilities are raised – seeds for the future, not all of them including human thriving – but I’m glad to report that the book’s final pages are neither glibly optimistic nor glibly despairing. There is no saying which of the seeds will take root or bear fruit. Trees will survive, but will humanity?

If, like me, you know intellectually how serious the climate emergency is but have trouble really holding that knowledge in your mind and heart, then reading this book will probably bring you closer to facing up to the reality. It is full of passionate love for trees, and for their interconnectedness in forests. I’m not a tree scientist, but my impression is that Richard Powers has immersed himself in the research, then produced his own lyrical, impassioned version, nudging it slightly towards science fiction/fantasy – at times crossing over to mystical communication between trees and humans – but still true to the spirit of the science. Likewise, when Nick and Olivia, now calling themselves Watchman and Maidenhair, spend a year on a platform high up in a threatened redwood, I read it as beautifully realised fiction, but trust that the fiction has solid roots in the realities of those ecological protests.

The Overstory is brimful of ideas: about computer technology, tree science, political organising, the function of art. It’s full of history – in particular of the destruction of the forests of North America by disease and rapacious capitalism in the late 19th and 20th centuries; and of US environmental law, environmental protest movements and, less overtly, land art. It also has nuanced, complex relationships among humans and moments of visceral violence. There are moments of devastating wit, not least the moment towards the end when a Native American perspective is sharply introduced. And all the way through, it rhapsodises about trees, and this, for me, is the engine that keeps the book alive when the plot sometimes loses momentum. Here’s the moment when Nick and Olivia first drive into the redwood forest:

The redwoods knock all words out of them. Nick drives in silence. Even the young trunks are like angels. And when, after a few miles, they pass a monster, sprouting a first upward-sweeping branch forty feet in the air, as thick as most eastern trees, he knows: the word tree must grow up, get real. It’s not the size that throws him, or not just the size. It’s the grooved Doric perfection of the red-brown columns, shooting upward from the shoulder-high ferns to the most-swarmed floor – straight up, with no taper, like a russet, leathery apotheosis. And when the columns do start to crown, it happens so high, so removed from the pillars’ base, that it might as well be a second world up there, up nearer eternity.

(Page 211)

When I’d hit Publish on this I went for a walk and as I passed the trees in the park near our place and in the surrounding streets, I realised that the main joy of The Overstory for me was that it reminded me of how much I love trees. There was a time in my early days in Sydney when I couldn’t talk about the trees near my home in North Queensland without tearing up. More recently, when we left our house for an apartment, it was the guava tree and the cumquat tree that I missed most. Again and again in this book, Richard Powers as narrator or through one of his characters gives unabashed expression to what I suppose should be called dendrophilia.

Here’s a eucalypt catching the afternoon light in our park just now, and some of its tree neighbours.

Journal Blitz 8a

I’m chronically behind in reading the journals I subscribe to. I’ve had seven goes at dragging myself up to date by blogging about a batch in one post. But blog entries get unwieldy when they deal with several very different publications, and I wouldn’t blame my readers fro giving up after the first screen or so. So this time, there’s just the one journal:


Ellen van Neerven, David McCooey, Felicity Plunkett and Eunice Andrada (editors), Australian Poetry Journal Volume 10, Number 1: modern elegy (2020)

At the 2019 Melbourne Writers Festival, poets Ellen van Neerven, David McCooey, Felicity Plunkett and Eunice Andrada met with Jacinta Le Plastrier, publisher of the Australian Poetry Journal, on a panel called The Heart Bent for a discussion on ‘the ethics of elegy and writing on and from love’. Jacinta suggested that the panel members put together an issue of the APJ on the theme, and this excellent publication is the result. No one could have guessed that a pandemic would come along to make the theme of elegy – a formal lament for the dead – bitingly relevant.

The journal is divided into four main sections, each wth a foreword by a different editor, a brilliant solution to the question of how to co-edit.

Each of the forewords ruminates on the nature of elegy. Ellen van Neerven invokes the context of the terrible happenings of 2020 – the ravages of country, Indigenous culture and First Nations people in Australia and around the world, and the rising up against racism that followed the deaths of George Floyd and David Dungay. In the thirteen poems she has selected, she says she feels ‘the energies of these pieces and the futures these poet don’t wish to mourn’. David McCooey writes, ‘We all live elegiac lives. Loss is endless, and the things we lose pile up like the debris in the wings of Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History.’ Felicity Plunkett starts from Denise Riley’s Say something back (2016), a book of poems that centres around the death of the poet’s son, and writes, ‘The question of what the elegy – and, more broadly, the elegiac mode – can and can’t do is one the poems in this anthology approach from different angles, counterpoints in an extensive song.’ Eunice Andrada hopes ‘that through engaging with these elegies, we can widen our collective vocabularies when attempting to offer language to our loss’.

Behrouz Boochani has a special place. His ‘Forgive me my love’, hand-written in Farsi and translated by Moones Mansoubi, stands alone before all four sections. Even if it was drivel it would have justified its place, given his heroic history as a beyond-marginalised Australian writer. But it’s not drivel:

Forgive me, my angel!
I am not able to caress your gentle skin with my fingertips.
But I have a lifelong friendship with sea zephyrs
and those zephyrs strum my nude skin here, in this green hell!

What follows is extraordinarily rich and diverse. Well established writers have beautiful work here: Jennifer Maiden (‘Meteors’, since published in Biological Necessity), Eileen Chong (‘Cycle’, in A Thousand Crimson Blooms), Evelyn Araluen (‘FOR POWER FOR PRAYER FOR PROMISE FOR PEACE’, in Dropbear), Toby Fitch (‘Spleen 2’ in Sydney Spleen, which is on my TBR shelf), Andy Jackson, Sam Wagan Watson, Jordie Albiston, Tricia Dearborn, and more.

There must be something in this collection for all tastes and moods. I want to mention three poems by poets who are new to me.

Winnie Dunn’s ‘God in the Margins’ dramatises three episodes from a young woman’s life involving menstruation, contraception and herpes. They are told in straightforward vernacular, but with footnotes that link to texts from Hebrew, Christian and Muslim scripture. The effect is stunning: hard to demonstrate by quotation, because the thrill of the poem lies in the way the footnotes create a kind of cosmic miasma around the scenes of demotic Western Sydney life.

Merlinda Bobis’s ‘Air: For my parents and all who passed (2018–2020)’ starts with a school music teacher telling students, ‘Open your lungs when you sing’ and contrasts it to her dying parents’ difficulty breathing on their deathbeds. Here’s the poem’s turning point:

Death gags us, or swallows
all the air and never ever
gives it back, but today
walking in Haig Park,

under the cedars, I chance
upon a Chinese woman,

alone she sings with the beat
of a tambourine I hear
before I see, we're trees and trees
apart, socially distanced
but what amplitude her air,
its rise and fall of notes

giving back, giving me back 
a song I cannot understand 
except that it's lament

Perhaps I responded strongly to Elena Gomez’s ‘Death and all his friends’, because I read it just after hearing a review of the movie Fast and Furious 9, but it’s a terrific poem even if you’ve never heard of the franchise. it enacts the way emotions evoked by movies and TV shows – in this case a Fast and Furious movie, an episode of Gray’s Anatomy, and Jurassic Park – can be a vehicle for grief that has nothing to do with the movie. I desperately want to quote the poem’s surprising, brilliant and devastating last four lines, but that really would be a spoiler.

Tucked away at the back of the journal are two related sections: ‘Meditations in an Emergency’ – five poems from an event at the 2019 Melbourne Writers’ Festival (not all by Melbourne poets); and ‘Introducing the Tagelied, the Dawn Song’, a brief essay by Nathan Curnow followed by six poems – by poets including Cate Kennedy and Bella Li – that are either examples of the form or relate to it somehow.

So poetry is thriving in Australia. I’m pretty sure copies of this journal are still available for Australia Poetry.

500 people: Week Twenty

See this post for a brief description of my 500 People challenge.

As predicted, opportunities for chats with new people this week have been few, if you don’t count knowing glances shared between people wearing masks in the street even though they’re only mandated indoors. To make matters worse, grandfatherly duty was cancelled because Ruby had been contact-traced and was in isolation. But there have been some chats.

  1. Sunday 27 June: we have new neighbours in one of the two other flats that opens onto our small landing. They’ve been here a week or so, but today for the first tine we both emerged onto the landing at the same time. We swapped names; I made a point of asking the name of the little boy who was enjoying the challenge of the stairs. They’ve only been in Australia for a couple of weeks. I expressed mild surprise that they had been allowed into the country but not, I hope, in a way that suggested disapproval. I said ‘Welcome’ more times than was cool, and practised a little Portuguese (‘Bom dia‘ to be precise).
  2. Monday, I had a bone density test at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. The wonderful nurse who did the test said that as it didn’t count as essential my appointment would have been cancelled, but the latest lockdown announcement was made on the weekend, and I was first cab off the rank on Monday morning so turned up before they could tell me not to come. When she introduced herself it was by a first name that differed from the one on her name tag: the tag name indicated complex non-Anglo heritage; the other, as she explained, was given to her in Year 5 at school and she embraced it as straight-up Aussie. She told me bits of her family story, and generally filled the clinical visit with human interaction.
  3. Tuesday afternoon, visiting the new Harry Hartog bookshop in Marrickville Metro, I asked the shop assistant about her name tag, which gave her pronouns (yes, this is the 2020s), her unofficial pastime (I won’t tell you the actual pastime, but let’s say it could have been ‘House sharer’), and the kinds of books she’s interested in. This led to a wide ranging conversation about the bookshop, the amount of attention lavished on decor (it shows, and it works), the special islands of imported remainders. After quite a while, in which the Emerging Artist and I bought a number of books, I realised that I’d read and remembered everything from her name tag except her actual name. We swapped names before the EA and I went on our way.
  4. Tuesday, a couple of seconds later, I had a brief but similarly amiable conversation with the other shop assistant who, in spite of having a beautifully embroidered moustache on her mask, also nominated her pronouns as ‘she/her’. The EA says these young women probably saw me as a needy and garrulous old white man. I choose to believe otherwise.
  5. Wednesday evening, I was putting our recycling into the communal bins to the accompaniment of Waleed Aly and Scott Stephens chatting on about laughter. As I was moving huge chunks of styrofoam from a recycling bin to a landfill bin, another inhabitant of our complex came into the room. I turned the podcast off, we introduced ourselves and had the kind of awkward yet almost-intimate conversation you can only have when both people have their hands full of garbage.
  6. Thursday, for at least the hundredth time, I walked past a black plastic fishpond in one of the tiny front yards on a busy street near my place. I often take a moment to enjoy the big healthy golden fish, who provide a splash of colour and elegance in the otherwise fairly dreary street. This day, a man was sitting in the afternoon sun and reading in a cane chair on the front veranda. I stopped to say g’day and say how much pleasure his fish gave me. I mentioned that we have a smaller pond on our balcony, with much smaller fish. ‘They’ll grow,’ he said.
  7. Saturday, on an exercise break in the alarmingly busy Sydney Park, where many people were masked and most were kind of keeping their distance, we passed a family group who were collectively training a puppy. ‘Sit … sit … sit,’ the woman said as she and the rest of the group moved away from the anxious but stationary puppy. I made an admiring exclamation as I passed, and the spell was broken: the puppy bolted to its human. Much merriment all round.

Running total is 191.