See this post for a brief description of my 500 People challenge.
Lockdown continues. I’ve restrained myself a number of times from yelling at chin-mask wearers, and I’ve been sharply reminded to put my own mask on twice. None of these count as warm communication with strangers. I have been communicating with people on line, including some new people, but it’s been slim pickings in the non-virtual world.
1. Saturday 21 August. There’s a circular patch of grass in the grounds of our complex of 43 units. Nothing much else can grow there because there’s just a shallow layer of soil on top of the cement roof of the garage. As I went out for my state-sanctioned daily walk to the shops, I passed two young women reclining on the grass, playing cards and chatting. Seizing the moment, but keeping my mask on, I stopped and said how good it was to see the space being used. ‘Yes,’ one of them said. ‘It seemed a pity not to take advantage of it.’ It would have felt rude to prolong the conversation, but this was warm and neighbourly.
2. Monday in Callan Park, which is just inside our 5 k radius, we passed two young men doing extraordinary feats on a low overhanging rock, probably what’s called bouldering. While one of them clung to the underside of the rock and found handholds and footholds to pull himself along, gecko-like, the other moved a couple of thick mats to catch hm if he fell. Then they swapped roles. The Emerging Artist and granddaughter weren’t diverted from their mission to find the little beach, but I was transfixed. In a break in the action I expressed my awe. One of the young men invited me to have a go. He may not have been joking, but there was no way. I again expressed my awe, and one of them said, ‘There are a lot who are better than us.’
3. Tuesday afternoon – I don’t know if I should count this – I had my first session with a cardiologist. (Nothing to be alarmed about, as far as I know.) We managed some non-transactional chat, partly because that’s clearly her approach as a medical specialist, but also because I was open to it. She commented on my bright striped socks. I said I mostly wore them to please my granddaughter. She, on the other hand, changes into woolly socks as soon as she gets home from work, partly because they’re comfortable and partly because they were a gift from one of her teenage children and she wants (needs?) to show her appreciation.
4. Thursday morning, as the Emerging Artist and I were walking in Newtown, we were hailed by a man emerging from a house across the narrow street. Because of mask-related hearing impairment, I wasn’t sure what he said, and thought perhaps he’d mistaken us for someone he knew. As I moved towards him questioningly, he said, ‘I said buon giorno, good morning,’ and was hunting around with German-sounding words when I said ‘Buon giorno’ back to him. Then I said, ‘Buona giornata,’ and he gestured to indicate that he was pleased I understood enough Italian to muster a reply.
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 Fourth line 339 to Book Seventh line 618.
I’ve now been reading ‘The Prelude’ for two months, 70 lines first thing in the morning every day except one, when an an early doctor’s appointment messed things up.
It has been a pleasurable enterprise – nothing like a dose of beautifully crafted language to start a day well. The first four books dealt with Wordsworth’s childhood, his school days, his time at Cambridge, and a summer vacation from Cambridge. At the end of Book Fourth, after pages about the pleasures of summer holidays, these lines struck a chord when read during our Covid lockdown:
When from our better selves we have too long
Been parted by the hurrying world, and droop,
Sick of its business, of its pleasures tired,
How gracious, how benign, is Solitude;
How potent a mere image of her sway;
Most potent when impressed upon the mind
With an appropriate human centre—hermit,
Deep in the bosom of the wilderness;
Votary (in vast cathedral, where no foot
Is treading, where no other face is seen)
Kneeling at prayers; or watchman on the top
Of lighthouse, beaten by Atlantic waves
The next three books – Fifth, Sixth and most of Seventh – are handily titled ‘Books’, ‘Cambridge and the Alps’, and ‘Residence in London’. He constantly plays off the natural and rural worlds against the urban, busy or frivolous world. There are some satirical passages, but the best bits are the ones that celebrate the beauties of the natural world or works of the imagination. When he was about 20, he took time off from Cambridge for an epic walk across France to the Alps early in the French Revolution: Book Sixth documents the joy that filled the countryside at that time, and leads to some wonderful passages about the Alps.
And now, he’s in London, enjoying the theatre, including music hall, and being less than impressed by the way language is wielded in parliament (‘Words follow words; sense seems to follow sense’), in the pulpit, and all around him (‘Lies to the ear, and lies to every sense’). But he is struck by ‘individual sights / Of courage, or integrity, or truth / Or tenderness’, and my reading this morning finished with such a sight – a working man sitting in the sun with a sickly baby on his knee:
Of those who passed, and me who looked at him,
He took no heed; but in his brawny arms
(The Artificer was to the elbow bare,
And from his work this moment had been stolen)
He held the child, and, bending over it,
As if he were afraid both of the sun
And of the air, which he had come to seek,
Eyed the poor babe with love unutterable
It’s 1985. Durga’s relationship comes to an end when her lover returns to his wife. She leaves her job as a maths lecturer in a Canadian university and takes her wounded heart back to her native Malaysia where she gets a job at a university in Kuala Lumpur. When the novel opens she has left KL for Diwali to visit her cantankerous grandmother in the village of Kuala Lipis where she grew up. A gift of fireworks goes badly awry, the roads are shut by floods, she stays in the village much longer than expected, and while she’s there confronts the ghosts – fragile monsters – of her past.
In alternating chapters we read the story of Mary, Durga’s grandmother: her childhood, her experience of the Japanese occupation in the 1940s, the Malayan Emergency, her relationship with her daughter Francesca, who was Durga’s mother.
The two narratives come together in the climactic final chapters. Durga makes some deeply disturbing discoveries about her family history, and the great miasma of stories that she grew up with are resolved into some kind of reality.
Throughout, there’s a contrast between Durga’s world view and her grandmother’s. Durga is thoroughly westernised, and loves the world of mathematical exactness and consistency. Her grandmother is a wild woman who tells stories that differ with each telling. Durga finds herself being drawn back into her childhood world of ghosts and half-truths.
I’m glad I read this book. The characters, especially the grandmother in the present time, feel real, and there are rich insights into Malaysian traditional culture and history. (The university in Kuala Lumpur is an offstage presence that tries to pull Durga back to westernised, mathematical reality, but without a lot of success.) But it didn’t sweep me away. It was as if I could always feel the work that was going into the writing – a symptom of this is the occasional reflection on mathematical concepts. These feel like scaffolding the helped the writer create the work, but needed either to be more fully integrated or designated as darlings to be killed.
Inspired by the success of the first two Catwings books, we bought the other two online (not from Amazon). They arrived a week apart and in the wrong order, so Ruby got the story in a nonlinear fashion, but it didn’t seem to matter. Here they are in their correct order.
Alexander is a kitten who believes in his own wonderfulness, and is tremendously brave in his home environment. He ventures out into the world where he meets with actual danger and finds himself stuck up in a tree and terrified, when along comes little black Jane-with-wings from Catwings Return to help him down.
The two kittens develop a strong bond, and (spoiler alert!), Alexander is able to help Jane face the early terrifying experience that has left her functionally mute, and having faced it regain her capacity to speak
After having this read to her once, Ruby cast her Nana and Pop as various cats and herself as Jane, and then Alexander, but mainly Jane, and a good time was had by all. The book was then read several more times. Thelma, who barely features in the narrative to my mind, is firmly entrenched as Ruby’s favourite character, possibly because she is the oldest of the Catwings siblings, the big sister, a role Ruby revels in in real life.
Jane takes centre stage here. Bored with the safe life on Overhill Farm, she sets out on an adventure. The others all warn her that if human beings (not ‘beans’) see a cat with wings they’ll either put her in a cage or take her to a laboratory. As it happens, Jane finds herself for a time a captive TV celebrity.
When I saw the title of this book, I thought it was going to be about the Catwings’ mother, Mrs Jane Tabby, and I’m a little ashamed that I wasn’t all that interested. Mrs Jane Tabby does make an appearance at the end, and the whole series finishes, like the first book, with human-to-cat kindness.
I hope Ruby keeps on loving these books, because at the moment I’ve got them on a par with where the Wild Things Are or The Sign on Rosie’s Door for enduring readability.
I blogged about this book some years ago, here. It was a gift from the author to Ruby, back when looking at pictures of cats was what Ruby did by way of reading.
She asks for it often just now, and a measure of her engagement with it is a question she asked last week as we were out walking: ‘Poppa, do you think Rose Quong is a beautiful name?’ Rose Quong makes a bigger impression than Nellie Melba, and she’s very interest to know if Edith Cowan had babies.
There are four poems with the title ‘Spleen’ in Charles Baudelaire’s Les fleurs du mal (1857). Toby Fitch’s Sydney Spleen is roughly structured around those poems – its first three sections begin with his version of one, and the third section finishes with his version, or perhaps re-imagining, of the fourth.
The translations are a long way from word-for-word French-to-English transcriptions. Only the first of the four preserves Baudelaire’s conventional line-by-line layout, but even in it the Fitch version moves the action from Paris to Sydney, and in its final couplet, rather than two court cards muttering sinisterly about their defunct loves, the looming climate catastrophe disinters ‘whole centuries of fear’. On close reading, though, these versions astonishingly true to the originals – recreations of the same mood of disgusted melancholy in a different cultural, geographical and ecological context. (I have had quite a bit of nerdy fun comparing these versions with other more conventional ones. If you’re also inclined that way, you can find Baudelaire’s first ‘Spleen’ and a handful of English translations at fleursdumal.org. The Fitch version is online here.)
In the rest of the book, poem after poem vents its spleen on this city and this country, articulating – to quote the excellent back-cover blurb – ‘the causes of our doom and gloom: corporate rapacity, climate change, disaster capitalism, the plague, neo-colonialism, fake news, fascism’. They do it with gusto, with dazzling wordplay, and with the engagement of a parent of small children and owner of an ailing small black dog.
I’m not a critic or a scholar. Mostly, I read poetry for pleasure, and even though in a number of the poems in this book I have no grasp of their organising principles or structures, there is almost always something to give pleasure. I feel a little the way I did on first hearing Bob Dylan’s ‘Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’ or ‘Desolation Row’ – the words have a magic that doesn’t depend on me understanding them. For example this, from ‘New Work Metaphorics’ (page 19), which seems to be the inspiration for the book’s cover:
I've got over 73
tabs open in my hot
skull right now, one of which
on death-cult capitalism says, Thereare more important things than living and
I agree with the whole of my man-o'-war
heart still beating its stung drum.
Skeletal, diaphanous, I am
traversed by grace,
The image of multiple open tabs in one’s hot skull is fabulous. I don’t understand that man-o’-war image, but I love it.
There are poems that play around with the n + 7 game invented by the Oulipo poets in the 1960s – you take a passage and replace every noun with the one that comes seven after it in the dictionary. A pretty soulless activity you might think, but when you do it to a certain kind of public utterance, and tweak it a little, the results can be savage, as in this mangled mash-up of Scott Morrison’s ‘I will burn for you’ and ‘This is coal’ speeches (in ‘Captain’s Cull’):
I will burnish for you every deadbeat,
every single deadline, so you can achieve,
your amnesties, your assemblies, your destinations.
That is what's at the torch of my aid.
And this is coalface. Don't be afraid. Don't
be scared. An ideological, pathological
feedback of coastline won't hurt you.
There are poems that use homophones to similar effect, like this, from ‘The Last few Budgets in a Nutshell’:
Wort I'm swaying is, Barry, the primonastery
has my combpleat confit dense. It's imply
inTrumpting bracket creep and I tink the sir plus
is a goner schtick. HoWeber the diss royalty of sum
has been outray juice.
So many levels of splenetic wonderfulness in ‘the sir plus is a goner schtick’!
There are found poems, including one that claims to have been copied verbatim from the label on a bottle of water, and others that play around with found texts. There are prose poems that may be accounts of dreams, especially a sequence titled ‘Pandemicondensation’. And there are poems that take us on a ride through conversations with the poet’s young daughters, online idiocies, dire environmental news, encounters with the police, and more, all tossed in together but somehow making a whole.
The part of the book I really love is the fourth section, a single prose poem in 25 parts called ‘Morning Walks in a Time of Plague’. It’s exactly what the title says. The poet goes for a morning walk during Covid lockdown with his partner, their two young daughters and their little black dog. In the first eight parts they go to the lovingly evoked ‘chicken park’. I’ve been to that park with a little girl more than once, and am delighted that it has been immortalised. Here it is:
In the rest of the poem, they go to Camperdown Cemetery, whose celebration in verse I’ve already blogged about (here).
Both these places come wonderfully alive in what purport to be – and I believe mostly are – straightforward accounts of daily visits to these locations. Sometimes the adults join the girls’ imaginative play, which mostly involves unicorns, or alicorns to be precise. Occasionally they yell at them. Sometimes they get lost in their phones, reading news about the pandemic or plague-related texts from Boccaccio, Defoe, Camus and contemporary scholars, the latter via Twitter. The narrator is aware that the late John Forbes lived nearby (I’m guessing it was in the sunlit brick building in the photo above), and quotes lines from his poetry. The two imaginative worlds co-exist easily with the natural world of high winds, dropping pine cones and orgiastic lorikeets. Once the poem moves to the cemetery, the context broadens out to include precolonial and colonial history, as well as a pervasive sense of mortality, and, oh, a hint of Lovecraftian horror. All this happens in unforced prose narrative, so that one barely notices the dark, melancholy undertow: the dog’s body is failing, the girls have little accidents, there are countless tales of the buried dead, they come across a dead bee, and all the time the pandemic looms just outside the poem’s frame.
It’s hard to find a short passage that conveys the pleasure that this poem gives, but here’s an attempt, from the 17th part, featuring the poet’s daughters Evie and Tilda:
Once we reach a clearing, Evie spots an alicorn flock in the
sky. They eat the belly-sized candlenut leaves we offer them.
When we reach the other swamp mahogany, in the
northwest, it's clear the lorikeets are coming and going
between the two, raucously. The tree's thick chunky brown
bark looks super tough but up close is pliant, squidgy.
Tilda needs to do a 'bush wee', which ends up going down
the backs of her legs into her gumboots.
On the way home Evie finds a feather which I decide is
from a pigeon, though she says it has too much shine.
In the back alleys we meet, perched on a back gate, a black-
and-white cat adept at keeping his distance from our loose
It is forbidden to spit on cats in plague-time, writes Camus.
See what I mean? This is funny, affectionate, and melancholy all at once. The play between adult and children is fresh and respectful. There are notes on nature and some acute social observation – the cats of Newtown are notoriously self-possessed. These paragraphs quote The Plague, feature My Little Pony figures, and arguably allude to Bluey. With apparent effortlessness, they invite us into an intimate world. The tiny hints of something being amiss, in the description of the tree’s bark and the trouble with Tilda’s wee, are unstrained, and we could almost forget there’s a pandemic on, but the cat sets off an association that reveals the pandemic is always hovering in the poet/father’s mind.
For quite a few years now I’ve enjoyed the fruits of Toby Fitch’s labours as organiser and MC of poetry readings, editor and critic. I’ve heard him read, I’ve read a number of his poems in journals, and I’ve tagged him in this blog a number of times (here’s a link). I used to see his distinctive unruly head of hair behind a stroller in the local park (not the chicken park) accompanied by the small black dog. But though he has had seven books of poetry published, Sydney Spleen is the first I’ve read. I’m very grateful to Giramondo for my review copy.
Before the meeting: The Book Group had a run of Russian novels last year. This year we’ve moved to Scotland, though as with Russia any fears of sameishness would have been misplaced: a bigger contrast between this book and Janice Galloway’s The Trick Is to Keep Breathing would be hard to imagine. Where that book is introspective, claustrophobic and grim (though some disagreed about that), this one is expansive, multifarious and in the end upbeat.
Among other things, And the land lay still is a history of Scotland in the second half of the 20th century, with a focus on the growth of Scottish nationalism leading to the yes vote for the Scottish Devolution Referendum in 1997. The book’s title comes from ‘The Summons’, a 1984 sonnet by Edwin Morgan who was to become Scotland’s first national poet in 2004: the poem marks a moment when the Scottish electorate did not vote for the – it ends, ‘a far horn grew to break that people’s sleep.’ The book relates the slow and tortuous response to that summoning horn. It traces the lives of a diverse score of characters: a Tory member of the UK Parliament, the photographer son of a photographer, a war veteran, a boring spy, a vicious thug, a woman who hosts a bohemian salon, an English nurse who moved to Scotland when she married a Scot and stayed, a rich girl who becomes addicted to a string of radical causes, an investigative journalist who gets into serious trouble and, appearing in italics between the main chapters, a wandering tramp-like figure who takes on an uncanny symbolic identity in his own mind and in the mind of the novel.
At the end of the first of the book’s six parts, just as I was settling into one story, I was shocked to realise that a whole new narrative was beginning, with new characters in a different time and place. And the sharp breaks continue with each new part, and then within the parts. Perhaps the spy’s story dragged on a bit (his name is Jimmy Bond, but he changes it to Peter to avoid bad jokes, and the dragging on is partly intentional, making the point that spies can be very boring people). The depiction of the Tory politician’s sexuality may involve a slightly blunt satirical jibe about Maggie Thatcher’s appeal. And the eventual fate of the hideously violent thug may be too kind, too neatly conveyed. But if those are faults, they’re minor ones. This is a terrific book, with some spectacularly good writing. And it’s very Scottish.
Here’s the passage where the music of Scottish language first asserts itself and where I became totally hooked. The speaker is Walter, a minor character who is a folk singer:
In thae days, if ye were a working-class boy and ye wanted a better kind o life than the one that was mapped oot for ye, there was just two ways o daein it: ye could become a professional footballer, if ye were skilled enough, or ye could become a professional boxer, if ye were hard enough. And then this third opportunity came along: ye could form a band and sing your way tae glory if ye were bonnie enough. Weel, I wasna skilled or hard or bonnie enough for any o thae things, sae I become a plumber. But then something amazing happened. I was on a job doon at Lauder, on the road tae England, and I was there for aboot a week wi a couple o other boys, up and doon the road every day, and on the last day, when we'd finished the job, we went for a few pints in a pub afore we came back up the road. And there was this auld man there, and he just started singing. There was a wee lull in the general noise, ye ken, and he started singing intae that space. The haill pub went silent as he sang, he didna hae the best voice, it was auld and quavery and a bit flat but by Christ he had us aw spellbound, we aw listened, even the guys that were wi me, on and on he went, verse efter verse efter verse, a story aboot a sister and her lover, and her brothers killing him because he wasna good enough for her, and her defiance when the faither tried tae mairry her aff tae another man. Weel I'd never heard anything like it in my life, and when he was done I went over and bought the auld fellow a drink and asked him aboot it.
After the meeting:
Sadly, we’re still meeting remotely, but we are meeting. One person couldn’t make it because he’d had his first Astra Zeneca shot in the morning and was feeling wiped out, which led to a lot of comparing of post-shot symptoms at the meeting.
Those who’d finished the book loved it. No one had stopped reading from lack of interest. Some felt that at 670 pages it was too long, but no one would say which character they would have cut. Some felt that now and then they were being treated to a lecture on Scottish history that they could have done without, that the vividly realised characters, their relationships and life stories made the detailing of broader history unnecessary. I disagreed. I loved the interplay of those elements. The English-born group member said he too loved the explicit history, as it led him to revisit his young understanding of what was going on in Scotland and see it afresh.
We spent a lot of the meeting reminding each other of the good bits. One or two chaps had to clap their hands over their ears now and then as we discussed parts they hadn’t read, but someone pointed out that Rule 738B says that books may be discussed in their entirety regardless of whether everyone in the room (or zoom) has read the whole thing.
Some responded strongly to a sweet romance (if you’ve read the book, you’ll know what I mean if I say ‘the kiss’), others to the relationship between the salt-of-the-earth father and his wrong-‘un son. Someone reminded us of the way now and then a character tells a story that stands alone as a kind of parable. We didn’t get as far as the way one such story is told early in the book as a kind of folk legend, then again as an eye-witness account, and yet again as a brief newspaper story.
There was some discussion of gender fluidity, but I can’t remember how, or even if, that related to the book.
I got some advice about a dilemma to do with lockdown hair and my barber having shut up shop, which definitely had nothing to do with the book.
It looks as if our next meeting, in six weeks time, will also be on screens.
See this post for a brief description of my 500 People challenge. It was great to read ‘”The assignment made me gulp”: Could talking to strangers change my life?’ by Jamie Waters from the Observer (here), an excellent article that includes the proposition ‘that many of our gravest ills, both on an individual and societal scale, can only be cured by engaging with people we don’t know.’
Warm encounters with strangers have continued to be hard to come by as the New South wales lockdown continues. But there have been some, including some that were barely perceptible to the naked eye.
1. Tuesday 27 July, I arrived at Royal North Shore Hospital late in the afternoon to collect the Emerging Artist, who had been there for day surgery since 11 in the morning, and hadn’t eaten since Monday night. I couldn’t go further than the front door, of course, but the woman in charge of vetting people went off to find out when the EA might emerge. While I was waiting for her to return I got into conversation with her offsider, a much younger man. He had been coopted to this role from ‘next door’, probably because he looked as if he could hack it, he said. He had been abused 35 times on his first day by people who thought it was totally unreasonable that they shouldn’t be allowed to visit sick relatives.
2. Wednesday morning early, I dropped the EA off at the same door for a follow-up meeting with the surgeon. Aware I was being slightly absurd, I gave her a masked kiss on the forehead as we said goodbye. Then, as I was heading back to the car, a woman who had evidently noticed the kiss said, ‘It’s hard leaving them like that, isn’t it?’ It turned out she had just dropped her husband off for a test that would be followed in the next couple of days by bypass surgery. I explained that my dropped-off one had had cataract surgery the previous day. She said, ‘I guarantee she’ll never look back,’ and waxed lyrical about the effect of her own cataract surgery. I was able to ply her with questions about the period when only one eye had been done, all the way to the parking station.
3. Wednesday later, on my permitted outing to buy food, the man behind the delicatessen counter handed me a container of ricotta, and said, ‘Are you going to make something nice with this … or Mum?’ ‘No,’ I said, swallowing my disdain for this kind of language, ‘we have it with jam on toast at breakfast.’ I think this exchange belongs here: one of the forces mitigating against conversations with strangers is exactly the disdain for political incorrectness that I resisted in myself – ‘Don’t call me love,’ ‘Don’t assume there’s a woman to do the cooking,’ etc. This was someone trying to include a bit of human connection in a transaction during lockdown when human connection is at a premium, and a degree of clumsiness comes with the territory. And I was glad of it.
4. Friday morning, on our routine walk beside the Cook’s River, maskless on the northern side and wearing the mandated mask on the south, we passed a woman enjoying a solo dance exercise moment down at the edge of the river – performing a parody mixture of robot and bump-and-grind for her own entertainment, facing away from the path. Pretty much at the moment I spotted her, I noticed a man on a bike on our path watching her with a big grin. As he sailed past, he said to me, ‘Go and join her.’
5. Sunday 1 August, entering a main road while returning mid afternoon from an exercise outing, I gave way to a number of cars, a bus and four bikes. One of the bike riders acknowledged the courtesy with a smile and a wave. It made me think my life would be improved if I always noticed when a person was making space for me rather than simply following the rules. Then, a little later, I stopped at a pedestrian crossing where four bikes were waiting to cross. One of the four waved an acknowledgement, and then laughed as we recognised each other from a minute or so earlier.
6. Tuesday morning, as I went out to buy bread I passed a masked man cleaning first-floor windows elsewhere in our complex. We were advised weeks ago to make sure all our windows are shut today so this can be done, but the lockdown had made us wonder if it would happen. I said to the masked man, ‘I’m glad you’re doing this,’ meaning I was glad we were getting clean windows. ‘So am I,’ he said, meaning he was glad to have some pay coming in. We chatted fo a bit about how he couldn’t do balcony windows because of lockdown. When I came back with my bread, he asked me for the whereabouts of the nearest open coffee shop, given that the one across the road has shut for the duration, and I gave him directions.
Running total is 205. I’m still aiming for 500, but not with a time limit.
So much to read, so little time. So many journals, so few subs, and still I can’t keep up.
Evelyn Araluen and Jonathan Dunk (editors), Overland 238 (Autumn 2020)
Published more than a year ago, this is the first issue of Overland edited by Evelyn Araluen and Jonathan Dunk. The new editors swept in not so much with a new broom as with a sandblaster. The regular columns are gone; issues are themed (though judging from a quick look ahead this change only lasted three episodes); and there’s a bold new feel to the design.
It may be part of the new approach, or perhaps it’s teething problems, but I found some of the articles in this issue hard gong to the point of being unreadable. Some dispense with sentences as we have known them. Others disappear unapologetically down etymological and literary-history rabbitholes. Yet others drop unexplained references to – I assume – French theorists, with no apparent purpose other than to discourage non-insiders. I tried, I really did, and I’m pretty sure I missed out on some terrific insights, but I just couldn’t finish a number of them. And that’s before I got to John Kinsella’s sequence of poems, ‘Ode to the defenceless: from hypotaxis to parataxis‘, whose prolix obscurity lives up to the promise of its title. I’m not completely sure that some kind of complex leg-pulling isn’t involved, as in the infamous Sokal affair.
This was all the more disappointing because the journal kicks off with a genuinely interesting piece, Toby Fitch’s obituary for British revolutionary socialist poet Sean Bonney (1969–2019), ‘Our Death: Aspects of the radical in Sean Bonney’s last book of poems‘. Toby describes Bonney as having ‘a performative ethics of scathing animosity and nihilistic humour’, and gives the reader plenty of what is needed to grasp the two poems by Bonney that follow his article.
Of the other articles, I want to mention ‘Welcome to the Nakba: notes from the epicentre of an apocalypse‘ by Micaela Sahhar – nakba is Arabic for ‘catastrophe’ and usually refers to the dispossession of Palestinians in the founding of the Israeli state. Writing in the aftermath of the 2019–2020 bushfires, Sahhar offers a startling perspective on Australia’s challenges:
Dear settler-Australia, your Nakba has arrived. Don’t feel helpless, powerless, frustrated, and above all, don’t pray for a miracle. I can tell you from the other side that it will never arrive. It’s time to tackle the structures you made, the structures that will ruin us all.
Poetry and fiction are still a major presence in the new-look journal, and this issue, like its predecessors, includes the results of literary competitions.
The Neilma Sidney Short Story Prize, judged by Joshua Mostafa, Margo Lanagan and Hannah Kent, was won by ‘The Houseguest‘ by Jenah Shaw, a story that captures brilliantly the uneasy situation of a young person who has left home in the country to stay with a family in a big city.
The Judith Wright Poetry Prize had three winners, published here with notes from the judges – Michael Farrell, Toby Fitch and Ellen van Neerven, had three winners. Each of these excellent poems left me bemused more than anything else.
Then there are four short stories, which arrive like a reward for persevering: ‘Creek jumping‘ by Cade Turner-Mann, a tiny moment in a rural community that reflects and resists the impact of environmental degradation and colonisation; ‘Mermaid‘ by Gareth Hipwell, a borderline science fiction tale of eco-guilt; ‘Pinches‘ by Emily Barber, an abject tale of sexism; and ‘Urban gods‘ by Cherry Zheng, which could be a starting sketch for a dark fantasy/sci-fi television series.
Far from being a new broom, this issue of Meanjin celebrates its continuity with the journal’s past 80 years, reproducing Clem Christensen’s first editorial and featuring short pieces from each of his ten successors in the editorial chair. A powerful narrative emerges of a publication that has managed to survive and thrive in the face of serious challenges, and that has transformed itself many times over to meet the changing times.
Then there’s a stellar line-up of writers, many of them responding to the ‘Next 80 Years’ theme.
Some I need only name for you to get a whiff of their excellence, and timeliness:
An email dialogue about time and memory between Behrouz Boochani and Tara June Winch, apparently an excerpt from an ongoing conversation between these two writers
An article from Jess Hill on police responses to domestic abuse call-outs – following up a chapter in See What You Made Me Do
A scathing piece about the tree-hating official response to the bushfires, by Bruce Pascoe
An even more scathing piece by Michael Mohammed Ahmed about White victimhood (starting with the observation that though people complain that it’s racist to name their Whiteness, it was White people who invented the term)
A wide-ranging and lucidly angry piece by Raimond Gaita on moral philosophy vs economics in the context of Covid-19.
And that’s only part of it. Of the remaining articles, the standouts for me are ‘Consider The Library’ by Justine Hyde, a wonderful account of the changing roles of public libraries in Australia and elsewhere, including their potential contributions to averting climate catastrophe; ‘More Than Opening The Door’ by Sam Van Zweden, which advocates for inclusion of people with disabilities in Australian literary life, arguing in particular that if a publication commissions a piece on, say, mental health issues from someone who is drawing on their own experience, then the publication needs to consider having a duty of care to the writer; ‘Heading to Somewhere Important’ by Martin Langford, a brief account of the changing face of Australian poetry over the last 80 years – an impossible task acquitted with grace; and Nicola Redhouse’s ‘Future Tense’, which engages with Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, in ways that are probably crucial to making that ‘intimidatingly thick opus’ as accessible and influential as we all need it to be.
Scattered like jewels through the pages are poems from David Brooks, Kim Cheng Boey, Eileen Chong, Sarah Day, Jill Jones, David McCooey, and more. If you count two pieces labelled ‘memoir’ that look back from the year 2200, there are six short stories, which project a range of pretty depressing futures. My pick of them would be Tara Moss’s The Immortality Project, where being able bodied is seen as indicating deficiency, and uploading one’s consciousness to Another Place leads to an interesting twist on the expected outcome.
Decades ago, I was a keen subscriber to Meanjin, and in my mid twenties I bought a swag of back copies (from Kylie Tennant, as it happens, whom her husband L C Rodd described to me over the phone as ‘an extinct volcano of Australian literature’). I loved my collection and browsed in it often, but sold it and let my sub lapse when space and time shrank around me with parenthood and a job that required a lot of reading. When I considered resubscribing some time ago, I was deterred by the tiny type – as noted on my blog, here. Someone gave me this issue as a Christmas present, and it seems very likely that I’ll resubscribe.