I’m still way behind with my journal reading. Here’s a quick catch-up.
As with every issue, this Overland is full of reminders of things the mainstream media would prefer us to forget, and offers perspectives that are mostly unseen in those media.
Most strikingly, there’s ‘Ignorance is bliss?‘, an article by Sam Lieblich, psychiatrist and neuroscience researcher, on what he calls ‘ the mental health business’. His thesis is that psychiatry ‘pathologises the normal problems of human life, enforces highly constrained paradigms of thought and behaviour, and insufficiently values patients’ autonomy’. He goes on:
There is still, however, a lot of confusion about the status of the things that psychiatrists treat. These are by no means illnesses, and the medications doctors use to treat them are by no reasonable measure effective.
These are fighting words, and he backs them up with solid references scientific papers that go mostly unreported and remain uncontradicted in scientific circles. The pharmaceutical industry, preying on the desperation of patients and doctors, has ‘insinuated itself into the state and into academia so thoroughly that to find a research project or piece of regulation untouched by their money is almost impossible’. Even so-called mental health advocacy organisations such as Beyond Blue, he argues, ‘act as de facto pharma advertisers’. His discussion of the changing definition of Major Depressive Disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is an entirely convincing demolition job.
No doubt this essay, like the many books and article it cites and like, say, Gail Bell’s Quarterly Essay The Worried Well and Robert Whitaker’s Anatomy of an Epidemic (links are to my blog posts), will be dismissed out of hand, all evidence to the contrary, by the vested interests it challenges. But I hope it’s widely read. I do wish Sam Lieblich had allowed space for hope with more than a passing mention to ‘the emancipatory and compassionate potential within psychiatry’, but that’s probably another essay.
This Overland‘s theme is ‘Health’. There are other articles on mental health, including the misery caused by Australia’s offshore detention regime (‘Behrouz Boochani and the Penal Archipelago‘ by Dashiell Moore), and a manifesto-like piece on hospitals as places of oppression (‘On hospitals‘ by Vanamali Hermans).
Overland showcases new poetry, short fiction and visual art, all worth paying attention to. I’ll mention just one piece from each category.
Philip Neilsen’s poem ‘Cockatoo‘ tells a comic tale of cockatoos disrupting a football game that widens out beautifully. Who can resist a poem that includes this:
Horns are honking, people are shouting, the cockatoos are shouting back, with an intensity that is winning the contest.
Freya Cox’s short story ‘A murmur of resistance‘ evokes the moment of the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 as experienced by a mostly non-political young Czech woman.
‘May Day 2020: Organising in the Pandemic‘ is a spread by comics artist Sam Wallman, whose distinctive pieces have appeared in Overland regularly for some time. This one is a witty, concise account of the way ‘some of the more staunch segments of the union movement’ found ways to celebrate May Day under lockdown conditions in 2020 that is, and a pleasure to read.
Occasionally, there are signs that Overland‘s writers and editors want us to know they’ve been to university, and that loss of funding has meant cutting back on copy-editing. The editorial, for example, laments that under Covid ‘we forego almost all the habits of flourishing and eudaimonia’, managing a spelling error and a ten-dollar word in one short clause. But maybe you have to be a copy editor to care about such things, and the pain they cause is vastly outweighed by the good stuff that surrounds them.
Sara Saleh and Melinda Smith (editors), Australian Poetry Anthology Volume 8 (2020)
Each year the Australian Poetry Anthology focuses on a different state or territory. Of the 120+ poets in the 2020 anthology, 23 are from the ACT. A more perceptive reader than I am might be able to distinguish locality-based differences in the poetry, but I couldn’t tell who comes from where without checking the biogs up the back of the journal.
Not that there’s any kind of dull uniformity here. The foreword puts it nicely:
Arguably our duty as artists is to bear witness to all of it – from the looming catastrophes of runaway climate change, epoch-making bushfires and a deadly global pandemic, to ever-present entrenched societal injustice, to the smaller griefs, puzzles, and epiphanies that enter every human life. If we ignore the big picture we become irrelevant, if we ignore the small things we ignore the beauty, complexity and mystery of what it is to exist; of what it is we stand to lose. It is in allowing us to play (and hear) many notes at once – to encompass contradictions without being destroyed by them – that the strength of poetry lies.
That range and variety is the strength of poetry, and it’s the strength of this anthology. There’s something here for everyone, and for a wide range of moods and concerns. I enjoyed the presence of many poets whose work I know and love, and many who are new to me. There are indeed poems about climate change and other aspects of ‘the big picture’. There are (of course) poems that didn’t speak to me at all; others that took the words right out of my mouth – or from wherever they were before they got to my mouth – and made them shine; and others still that came from a whole other paddock and made me laugh or, once or twice, cry.
I could list the poems that stirred me, but I’m pretty sure your list would be different from mine. I’ve marked about a third of them for rereading when I pick up this book again, and probably should have marked more. They range from Shastra Deo’s ‘Orichalcum’, which begins:
I don't know what will happen to my body afterwards, but I want to return to the reservoir outside our hometown where we caught catfish in the summer my father close to kneeling at my feet.
to Jennifer Compton’s ‘Late and Soon’, which deals with anxiety about climate change and ends:
Ha ha ha ha ha ____________________________________ha ha.
Regular readers of this blog know that I’m fascinated by translation, of which there are a couple of fine examples here. I want to say a bit about Paul Magee’s poem on page 61, whose title tells us everything we need to know: ‘Seneca, ‘Omnia tempus edax depascitur’ (‘Time eats everything up’)’. If you’re interested, you can see the original Seneca poem with a close translation at this link. Magee, who is one of the featured Canberrans, renders it like this:
Time eats everything up – it snatches it all from the root. Nothing's for long here. Rivers lose heart. The beach is desert. Exiled, the sea. Tallest mountains fall. Why chatter? The giant sky’s beauty will burn to a cinder again. Suddenly not as punishment but law everywhere death insists. And away with worlds.
Like Seamus Heaney’s 9/11 poem ‘Anything Can Happen‘, which is a translation of a poem by Horace, this speaks directly to the present moment – it summons up images of thousands of dead fish in the Darling/Barka last year, horrendous bushfires, and the dire warnings of climate scientists. The tone of Seneca’s original is a kind of stoic (or Stoic) resignation: ‘Everyone dies; everything come to an end sometime.; that’s just how it is.’ This translation has the same content, the same images; just two words that aren’t there in the original create a key difference: ‘again’ and ‘Suddenly’. We can no longer think of the sky on fire as a fanciful imagining of doom – it has already happened; we can no longer think of global destruction as something that will happen in the distant future – it’s happening now. The poem’s key thought that this is not punishment but a law of nature might in other contexts be somehow consoling, but here it’s chilling. I don’t read it as despairing, but as insistently grim: this is real, we’d better face it.
Someone said that one of the aims of poetry is to slow the reader down. Magee’s little poem does that. Sara Saleh and Melinda Smith have put together a collection that will slow its readers down, open us up, broaden us, deepen us, and I hope strengthen us.