As I continue my slow read of the Iliad, I keep being shocked by the intensely physical descriptions of the fighting. The warriors are surely meant to be admired, but it’s hard to imagine anyone reading without revulsion the accounts of spears penetrating just above the nipple, heads and arms severed, the ground littered with corpses, clothing drenched in blood. There’s one gruesome moment when Odysseus and Diomedes extract information from a Trojan spy then kill him in cold blood, while Homer lets us know he was a bit of a wannabe anyhow. It could be straight out of The Sopranos.
I’m still surprised each time by the way an individual’s death on the battlefield is followed by elegiac lines about his peacetime life war and the people who will now be left grieving. I’m still taken aback each time the narrative slows down to dwell on the splendour of this hero’s armour, or the luxurious appointments of that one’s tent – Nestor, for example, has an ornate ceremonial mug that only a very strong man can lift unaided. The luxury feels a bit Trump-like to me, though I doubt that’s how it felt to the original audiences.
Mostly I’m in awe of the way, amid the back and forth of the war and the squabbling of the gods, the main characters are clearly drawn, and the narrative arc is clear. Achilles has withdrawn from the battle in a rage, leaving the Greeks (called the Achaeans in this translation) at a disadvantage while the great Trojan warrior Hector dominates the battlefield. Achilles refuses the increasingly desperate pleas of his countrymen. Now, at the end of Book 11, Nestor proposes to Achilles’ close companion Patroclus that he, Patroclus, re-enters the battle wearing Achilles’ armour. This would terrify the Trojans by giving he appearance that Achilles was back, and Patroclus himself would be able to do a lot of damage as he would be fresh to the battle. Patroclus hasn’t yet conveyed the proposal to Achilles and is busy tending a wounded man, but we now see that all those descriptions of armour weren’t just a bit of colour, but laid grounds for a major plot development.
Now, at the start of Book 12, there’s a passage foreshadowing the end of the war, when Hector will be killed, Troy stormed in the tenth year of the war and the Achaeans sail home triumphant. Then the gods Poseidon and Apollo will divert all the rivers of the region to wash over the great rampart that the Achaeans had built to defend their ships. And all traces of the city of Troy and the presence of its attackers will be wiped away:
So, in the years to come Poseidon and god Apollo
would set all things to rights once more.
This is surely a classic midpoint, an image of the end of the story coming immediately after the moment when the tide of the story, if not of the battle, turns.
Given the dominance of the 24-hour news cycle and a federal government that seems to expect us not to remember anything that happened before last Tuesday, we can be grateful to the Quarterly Essay team for bringing us a history of the #MeToo movement in Australia. Jess Hill, author of the monumental account of domestic abuse, See What You Made Me Do (my blog post at this link), was an obvious choice to write that history.
She opens with a brief account of Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s press conference in March 2021, at which he began by calling ‘sincerely’ for an end to mistreatment of women in Parliament House, and then quickly descended into veiled and unfounded accusations against a woman journalist who had exposed the things he was deploring. This is an emblematic moment: political spin, Hill says, has no power against the rage unleashed by #MeToo.
The history follows, and it’s more complex and interesting than most of us remember, with a regular interplay between gesture and substance pretty much as foreshadowed in that opening scene.
It begins with Tarana Burke, who started a movement – not a hashtag – called ‘me too.’ in the USA 2005. It was ‘an activist group promoting solidarity, healing, education and community’ among Black women who had been sexually assaulted or harassed. #MeToo the hashtag burst on the world twelve years later on 14 October 2017, when actor and activist Alyssa Milano tweeted: ‘If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted, write “me too” as a reply to this tweet.’ The response to the tweet, with the revelations about Harvey Weinstein as background, was explosive. Milano did recognise Burke’s earlier work, but Jess Hill tells us that the distinction between the two movements was obscured:
The cultural revolution triggered by #MeToo was, at least in its initial phase, not in line with Burke’s vision of healing and structural change: it was about rage and retribution.
The essay reminds us that impetus had been building before the Weinstein case. It goes into some detail about cases ranging from the Boston Globe‘s revelations about child sex abuse in the Catholic Church (as in the movie Spotlight) in the early 2000s to the 2016 case of Chanel Miller, whose rapist received a two month sentence because the judge feared for his career prospects when her victim impact statement, published online, had made it vividly clear that he had damaged much more than career prospects for her. The election of Donald Trump after boasting about sexually assaulting women completed the tinder pile. No wonder #MeToo exploded in 2017 and, as Jess Hill says, ‘powerful men across the United States started dropping like flies’.
In Australia, ‘extraordinary energy and heat [was] generated in the first twenty-four hours of #MeToo’. Here a small number of high-profile predators, most prominently Don Burke, were exposed by painstaking work by journalists including Kate McClymont and Lorna Knowles. But the building momentum was savagely undermined when The Daily Telegraph went public with a complaint against an actor without seeking permission of the complainant. When the actor sued for defamation and won, thanks partly to Australia’s ‘monstrous’ defamation laws, but mainly to the unethical behaviour of the Daily Telegraph, #MeToo faltered.
In 2018, the #MeToo movement rolled on in many parts of the world. In Australia its main front became the organisation NOW Australia, with Tracy Spicer as ‘talking head of choice’. This fizzled out: not only did NOW Australia present as ‘glaringly white and middle class’ (the phrase is from Darug woman and writer Laura La Rosa), but it lacked grassroots consultation, and ‘was wedging a collectivist movement into the prism of corporate feminism’ (that’s Jess Hill’s phrasing). So in spite of the massive impact that #MeToo had, and continues to have, on individual lives, it stalled as an organised movement.
Worse, in Australia most of the women whose stories went public did not give their consent: Hill gives four examples in some detail. In each of these cases the revelation brought unwanted negative attention on the women, described in one case as ‘not only brutalising, but dehumanising’, with the result that they could easily be seen by other women as warnings not to come forward.
Just the same, it seemed that Malcolm Turnbull’s government was responding. In mid 2018, Minister for Women Kelly O’Dwyer, initiated a national enquiry into sexual harassment, headed by sex discrimination commissioner Kate Jenkins. Simon Birmingham, Minister for Education, was preparing to announce a taskforce to oversee how universities responded to complaints of sexual harassment and assault.
Then Scott Morrison became Prime Minister, and Dan Tehan became Minister for Education: the universities task force was shelved. The national enquiry went ahead, but its report, Respect@Work, delivered in March 2020, was shelved by the government. Hill’s discussion of the report ends:
Respect@Work found the safety laws did impose a duty on employers to prevent sexual harassment. Clearly, this wasn’t enough. Why shouldn’t employers have a responsibility to protect their workers from it under the Sex Discrimination Act as well? That’s what Respect @Work is asking the government to legislate. It is simple – and it’s revolutionary.
The essay traces the impact of #MeToo in the private sector, the finance services sector, and the legal profession. The latter was racked by The International Bar Association’s report, Us Too?, which named Oceania as the worst region in the world for bullying and sexual harassment. Then former High Court Judge Dyson Heydon was revealed as a serial sexual harasser of young female associates. Instead of speaking of him as a ‘bad apple’, Chief Justice Susan Kiefel did what would have been unlikely a couple of years earlier, and apologised to the complainants on behalf of the High Court.
The movement had a massive resurgence in early 2021 brought about by the rape allegations against Christian Porter (which, Hill is careful to note, he denies), Grace Tame’s time as Australian of the Year, and Brittany Higgins’s story of rape in Parliament House. It’s a masterly telling of all three stories, including the dedicated work of journalists including Nina Funnell, Louise Milligan and Samantha Maiden, and the inadequate-to-hostile response of Scott Morrison, his government, and his allies in the press.
A final section is titled ‘Men’. Hill asks, ‘Is there a backlash against #MeToo fomenting among young men?’ and offers some chilling evidence that it may be so, including the existence of ‘well-oiled grooming machines capitalising on algorithms and social media platforms to radicalise young men into hatred of women’.
She also cites men who are energetic supporters of #MeToo and do powerful educational work among young men. She offers an interesting account of the conditioning that turns ‘those vulnerable, loving little boys’ into perpetrators of sexual violence, abuse and harassment. She revisits some of the analysis in See What You Made Me Do, and acknowledges that her husband, psychotherapist David Hollier, helped in the writing of this chapter. I found it quite wonderful, not least in its discussion of ‘the Australian virtue of mateship’, which includes this:
The thing #MeToo demands we confront is that mateship isn’t just about loyalty: it is also about protection, impunity and, following its perpetration, the erasure of sexual violence.
Given that sections of the media are currently making much of the ‘mean girls’ trope in federal politics, in a fairly transparent attempt to claim an equivalency with the allegations of sexual misbehaviour and alleged criminality elsewhere in our parliaments, this essay is extremely timely. There is no equivalency.
The correspondents in Quarterly Essay 85, Not Drowning, Waving by Sarah Krasnostein, mostly enlarge on elements of Jess Hill’s essay. Journalists Hannah Ryan and Gina Rushton’s short essay seems to be there mainly to point out that they broke a number of important news stories, and to lend their weight to Hill’s negative account of Tracy Spicer’s moment in the limelight. Amber Schultz, and separately Sara Dowse, pick up on the party-political dimension, easy to do given Hill’s account of the Morrison government’s failure to raise to the occasion. (Sara Dowse has a beautiful paragraph listing the gains women have made since the Whitlam years.) Kieren Pender, who has led the International Bar Association’s efforts to address sexual harassment in the legal profession, picks up on the essay’s implication that focusing on the big-name offenders has limited effectiveness:
In individual workplaces, and in civil and criminal law, clear accountability mechanisms exist for serious forms of sexual harassment (even if too many workplaces still wish to conceal rather than address incidents). But what of the grey areas – the sexual joke in the elevator, the possibly suggestive text from a boss to their staff member, the colleague leaning in for an unreciprocated kiss at after-work drinks? In these contexts, right and wrong are not always as clearly distinguished – subtle cues, power dynamics and subjective interpretation can be everything. It is in these contexts that the million Australian perpetrators can mainly be found – not committing Weinstein-esque behaviour, but making inappropriate comments, or being ‘too friendly’.
(Quarterly Essay 85, page 137)
Journalist and novelist Malcolm Knox speaks for many men when he says that his ‘instinctive response, in the face of white-hot female rage, is silence and submission’. He rejects that instinct, and joind Jess Hill’s implied challenge to us men to stop being too passive around ‘our Christian Porters’. Nareen Young, Darug woman and writer who is quoted in the essay, stresses the importance of the Respect@Work report, and writes that
there are so many issues we need to track and continue to fight for collectively. And that’s long after the mainstream media band moves on, or white corporate feminists who claim ‘the movement’ as their own, then gate-keep and co-opt it for their own ends (activism is collective, not part of anyone’s ‘brand’), lose interest.
(Quarterly Essay 85, page 144)
Uncharacteristically, there’s a response from a culture warrior. Janet Albrechtsen appreciates the ‘excellent timeline’ and ‘sensible analysis of the need to focus on the long game of embedding cultural change’. She says some stuff that leads Jess Hill in her reply to wonder if she read the whole essay.
And the correspondence ends where the essay began, with Scott Morrison. Some time this year we will see if women are sufficiently disgusted with this government to change their vote. ‘How many women? we’ll have the answer by the time the next Quarterly Essay is published.’
This book. It’s exactly what you’d expect of a memoir by Archie Roach, whose song ‘Took the Children Away’ became a kind of anthem for the Stolen Generations. It’s a warm, generous account of a life well lived, as a member of the Stolen Generations who went in search of his lost family, and having found them struggled with addiction to alcohol, won the love of a remarkable woman, and became an internationally celebrated singer-songwriter and respected Aboriginal elder and activist.
The telling doesn’t minimise the systemic racism he has faced or the destruction it has brought on him and the people around him, culminating in the deaths of many loved ones, especially the great love of his life, Ruby Hunter. The book’s title bewildered rage at the cruelty of colonialism and racism.
But the book focuses on the goodness, kindness and resilience of Aboriginal people, as well as the kindness that he has encountered from others all through his life – from his much-loved foster parents and an occasional exceptional police officer, all the way through to singer-songwriter Paul Kelly and British actor Pete Postlethwaite.
There’s not a lot of laugh-out-loud humour, but the book is far from unrelentingly grim. To give you a small taste, here’s a passage that comes when Archie has gone to Melbourne to spend time with his family, leaving Ruby pregnant in Adelaide, and has stayed longer than he intended, hitting the grog. Horse is his oldest brother:
‘Tell me about this little woman of yours,’ Horse said, surprising me. I told him about her – she wasn’t tall but had flowing dark hair, and big cheeks that matched the deepest brown eyes you’d ever seen. I told Horse she was the most beautiful girl. ‘Is that her behind you?’ he asked. I turned. It was. She had her hands on her hips. It wasn’t good. If looks could kill, I’d be a dead man.
Each chapter of the book begins with the lyrics of a song, and we are told the origin stories of some songs. This is wonderful for someone like me who has a limited knowledge of Archie Roach’s music, and I was glad to discover that there’s a companion album with the same title, with eighteen songs from the whole range of his extraordinary career. It’s now on my phone.
Gertloveday recommended this book in a comment on my blog post about Amanda Lohrey’s more recent book The Labyrinth. They were worth reading together, she said, ‘as fire plays a part in each book’. She could have added that both books have a major narrative strand dealing with a lost son. They’re both set in the town of Garra Nalla, and each of them describes itself on the title page as ‘A Pastoral’.
Gertloveday was right. The books make a good double feature. They have no characters in common, unless you count Garra Nalla itself as a character, but each of them entails a retreat from the city to live in a small seaside community with the aim of healing, and in each of them the dangerous rip at Garra Nalla is a symbolic warning to the reader that this is no Eden. And they are both relatively short. Vertigo has just 140 pages.
In Vertigo, thirty-somethings Luke and Anna leave the city partly because of her asthma, partly because of his generalised discontent. They are accompanied by ‘the boy’, who acts like a normal four or five year old child, but is somehow insubstantial. The details of the couple’s new life are fleshed out: the relationships with various neighbours, the discovery of bird life, the threats to the environment posed by corporate take-over of a nearby property. Though Lohrey’s writing is fresh and clear, the first two thirds of the book offer little more than a blow-by-blow account of an uneventful move to a new place. Anna watches news about the invasion of Iraq on CNN, and Luke reads (with us reading over his shoulder) excerpts from The Land that is Desolate by Sir Frederick Treves, a real 1913 travel diary about Palestine left by the house’s previous owner. It’s not dull, but only the mild mystery of the boy’s silent, intermittent presence creates a forward impetus. Anna ruminates near the end of the second of the book’s three parts:
So what is this pointless dance that they are engaged in, this dance where they whirl together in an endless circle, locked in the illusion that they are going somewhere, that what they do has meaning beyond their own day-to-day survival? At any moment they could disappear from this place and nothing would change, nothing of consequence, so vast is the land and so small are they. And the thought of this brings on a rush of vertigo, a dizzying sense of disorientation, as if she is about to fall, but that when she falls she will be weightless. She has lost her roots, her anchorage to the earth; she might float away into the blue of the sky and never be heard from again.
Then in the third part all hell breaks loose in the form of natural disaster, vividly described. An acknowledgement of Henry Lawson in an end note acknowledges that the description is part of an Australian tradition; and the apocalyptic quality of the writing gives it astonishing relevance to events that were to take place more than a decade after the book was written. The peril facing all the characters is real, and as with the book’s less dramatic moments it feels as if it was taken from life. It also precipitates a resolution to issues that have been more or less unstated, and we realise that, like The Labyrinth, this is a book about grief.
One more point of comparison between the two books. I complained that The Labyrinth lacked illustrations. Tiny photographs by Lorraine Biggs are scattered through Vertigo. They appear to be images of the coastal landscape – sadly, in the trade paperback edition I read they a bit smudgy.
So, many thanks to gertloveday. The next time I visit the south coast, Amanda Lohrey’s imagining of it will be with me.
Joe Sacco, Palestine (1993–1996, Jonathan Cape 2003)
If, like me, you quail at the thought of reading Amnesty International’s recent report, Israel’s apartheid against Palestinians, subtitled Cruel system of domination and crime against humanity (downloadable as a PDF at this link), you may find the information easier to absorb in comic-book form. Joe Sacco’s Palestine is one of the classics of comics journalism, aka graphic non-fiction.
Sacco spent two months in Israel’s Occupied Territories – Gaza and the West Bank – in the northern winter of 1991–1992, during the first intifada. He produced a series of comics about the experience, which were collected into a single volume in 2001, with an introductory essay by Edward Said. This London edition came two years later. More than 20 years after publication, and 30 years after the events he recounts, the specifics of the situation in Israel and Palestine have changed but the book is still urgently relevant.
Edward Said’s introduction speaks of his childhood love of comics and how this book brought that love together with his lifelong advocacy of the Palestinian people. Here’s part of his description of the book:
As we also live in a media-saturated world in which a huge preponderance of the world’s news images are controlled and diffused by a handful of men sitting in places like London and New York, a stream of comic-book images and words, assertively etched, at times grotesquely emphatic and distended to match the extreme situations they depict, provide a remarkable antidote. In Joe Sacco’s world there are no smooth-talking announcers and presenters, no unctuous narrative of Israeli triumphs, democracy, achievements, no assumed and re-confirmed representations – all of them disconnected from any historical or social source, from any lived reality – of Palestinians as rock-throwing, rejectionist, and fundamentalist villains whose main purpose is to make life difficult for the peace-loving, persecuted Israelis. What we get instead is seen through the eyes and persona of a modest-looking ubiquitous crew-cut young American man who appears to have wandered into an unfamiliar, inhospitable world of military occupation, arbitrary arrest, harrowing experiences of houses demolished and land expropriated, torture (‘moderate physical pressure’) and sheer brute force generously, if cruelly, applied … at whose mercy Palestinians live on a daily, indeed hourly basis.
I’d only add that Sacco doesn’t portray the Palestinians as saintly victims. At times he recoils from an antisemitic remark (he doesn’t correct his informants when they talk of ‘the Jews’, but his own narrative refers meticulously to ‘Israeli soldiers’, ‘the Israeli government’ and so on), and you feel how strongly he hopes the voices of despair are wrong. He’s also unsparing of himself as the visiting US comic-making journalist who wants to see real suffering because that’s what he needs to make his comic dramatic. He squirms for a whole page when he colludes with sexism. And he manages to find glimmers of humour, mainly in the endless cups of tea he has to drink in order to hear people’s stories.
Here’s a page, sadly without an image of gawky and bespectacled Sacco himself, to give you an idea:
Sacco returned to Gaza in 2002–2003 to investigate a massacre that happened in 1956. The resulting book, Footnotes on Gaza (2009) is almost as hefty as Palestine and definitely worth reading alongside it (my blog post at this link).
My father was a sugar farmer in North Queensland, on Mamu Country. My childhood was full of the sights, sounds, smells and language of sugar, but nowhere was that world reflected in the books I read or movies I saw. So now I seize greedily any movie, novel or poem that touches on it, from Summer of the Seventeenth Doll to A Girl in Australia (Bello onesto emigrato Australia sposerebbe compaesana illibata), a 1971 film starring Claudia Cardinale that sank without trace. Sugar Cane Alley (Euzhan Palcy 1983), set in Martinique, was the first film I saw that showed sugar farming from a non-settler point of view. (The analysis of colonisation in I Walked with a Zombie (1942) had gone over my head in the 70s.) Jean Devanny’s social-realist novel Sugar Heaven (1936) broadened my understanding of the history of my own town, my own family. If a book mentions bagasse (we used to call it megass), meaning the great flakes of ash that fill the sky during ‘the season’, I am wide open for whatever else it sends my way.
A Tall History of Sugar isn’t obviously about sugar at all, but it’s set mainly in Jamaica, beginning in 1958, four years before Jamaican independence, and its characters live in a world dominated by the colonial sugar industry. They suffer a number of wounds and afflictions that are somewhat magically caused by sugar. And there is bagasse (though I’m surprised to find on rereading this extract that the word itself isn’t there):
The cane is burning. Soot from fires twenty miles away floats through windows and doorways, soiling chenille bedspreads and the pristine white of lace doilies artfully strewn on tables. (Doilies are always made in white, even during cane-crop time.)
To the children, the soot flies like charred paper planes, or rat bats, birds of ill omen. Tumela women cover the beds with rags and remove the doilies, hiding the precious delicate things in cupboards until the cane is fully reaped. They put newspaper over the dressing tables. The newspaper will soil the tables black, but you won’t see the stain unless you wipe the table with a clean cloth or put something clean on the surface.
Sometimes people close their windows, but the soot seeps between the jambs and slats. And it is hard to be so confined, in a place where nobody locks a door, even at night, except in fear of things that are not human.
I don’t remember doilies or fear of things that are not human, but I recognise the rest in my bone-marrow, including the unlocked doors.
When the main male character first arrives in London, there’s a wonderful description of the colonised gaze, including this:
Covent Garden Mayfair Shepherds Bush Notting Hill Tyburn Tree Victoria Station Waterloo Trafalgar Square the River Thames. Everywhere was strange yet nowhere was strange, because he had seen it all before, in the books he had read at school, almost all of them from England, and then at last a few that were still from England but written by people from the place where he was from and these had opened like a light to him that first year he and Arrienne went to university …
Sometimes he had the strange sensation that he was leaking, not body fluids but ink, printer’s ink, that had made his skin porous over many years of exposure; he was poisoned in his bloodstream by other people’s words written down, and he couldn’t tell what the outcome would be, except that because of such words a foreign place had become more familiar to him than any place should be that he had never been.
Another of the book’s charms is its use of Jamaican patois. Early on, Curdella Forbes dutifully translates non–West Indian speech, sometimes hilariously. For example, here an old woman comments to the mother of the book’s main male character, a child born with rare, and in this world uncanny, physical differences:
Miss Hildreth fell into the habit of prophesying his future. ‘Him gwine have a hard time, Rachel. Dat skin an dat hair gwine mek him way in dis world hard-hard. Hard travail. Mi si it. Ehn-hn.’ This unresolved body in which history has made ructions will make his pilgrimage difficult. This is what I have seen.
But what’s the book about, you ask. Well, it’s the story of Moshe, a boy ‘born without skin’, found in bushes in a basket made of reeds, and big, dark-skinned Arrienne, exactly a year older, who becomes his protector from his first day at school. They are so close as children they communicate without speech. Their bond is deeper than romantic love, though there are some awkward sex scenes (awkward for them but not for the reader – Curdella Forbes’ telling is never less than brilliantly alive). They go on very different life courses: she to political activism at home in Jamaica, he to artistic success in Britain, but the bond endures. Their story plays out in the aftermath of the sugar plantations and slavery, manifesting in magic-realist wounds that bring torment when harvesting season begins, in characters’ engagement in the politics of post-independence Jamaica, in Moshe’s visit to Bristol where the slaver Edward Colston is celebrated as a great philanthropist.
In her essay, ‘The Political Poem’ in Fishing for Lightning (my review here), Sarah Holland-Batt says that lasting political poems are notoriously difficult to write, in part because of ‘the question of how to transform rage into poetry’. She names three Australian poets who manage to pull it off: Barry Hill, the late JS Harry, and Jennifer Maiden.
In Ox in Metal, her fifth book of new poems from Quemar Press in as many years, Jennifer Maiden pulls off the difficult trick once again.
These lines, from ‘There seems an easiness’ in this book, relate interestingly to Holland-Batt’s generalisation:
is here, but how? A recent ABR review of my last book says
I avoid buttonholing the reader by using experienced
techniques. I thought: I learned them over half a century,
more to make fear bearable for both of us,
__________________________________ you and I,
not buttonholing, clutching the cliff-edge,
turquoise sharp mountains in mist beneath
I read buttonholing as meaning the kind of verse that doesn’t manage to stay interesting once its immediate occasion is past, something more than an op-ed piece with added line breaks (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Maiden identifies two things: ‘experienced / techniques’ and an underlying emotional impulse.
Thereview by Rose Lucas referred to in the poem (at this link) speaks of ‘familiar Maiden strategies’ (rather than techniques) as moderating the ‘pent-up urgency of political imperative’, which isn’t a bad description of what happens in many of the poems.
Chief among Maiden’s strategies/techniques is the use of fictional characters as means to exploring ideas. In a signature opening to a Maiden poem, a historical or literary personage wakes up in the presence of a current political figure who has some connection to him or her: in Ox in Metal, Gore Vidal is paired with Julian Assange who was reading one of his books when arrested; Malcolm Turnbull chats with his relative Angela Lansbury playing Jessica Fletcher; Eleanor Roosevelt broods about Hillary Clinton; and in an interesting variation Maiden herself meets the lunar zodiac’s emblem of 2021, the metal ox. Since their first verse appearance in Friendly Fire (Giramondo 2005), her characters George Jeffries and Clare Collins have turned up in political hotspots in more than 40 poems: here they skype with a deputy leader of the Taliban and Joe Biden (though not in the same poem). There are other creations, including a cute little marsupial named Brookings after the Brookings Institute and the Honourable Carina Monckton, a kind of incarnation of the Carina Galaxy.
A main consequence of all this inventiveness is that when Maiden’s poems assert political views that many would see as contrarian or extreme leftwing*, they don’t harangue readers, or try to persuade us. The lines I quoted above speak, not of the rage that Sarah Holland-Batt sees as needing to be transformed, but of a fear that the poet assumes she shares with her imagined reader. The poetry’s motor isn’t political urgency or the need to vent emotion, but the attempt to make terror bearable, for the reader as well as the poet.
As well as the fictional creations, there are what have been called her weaving poems which bring together seemingly disparate elements – a passing remark by another poet, an item from the headlines, a memory of her daughter’s childhood. These poems are like sculptures created from found objects. An example in Ox in Metal is ‘It can’t be easy, being Tabaqui’, which picks up a quote from Vladimir Putin, finds some Kipling in it, makes connections to a recent biography of Paul Robeson and then-current Australian headline news. It’s a challenging poem to read at this time, as Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine continues to horrify and terrify the world, but here goes.
The opening quote is from Vladimir Putin’s address on 21 April 2021 to the Russian Federal Assembly, a combined gathering of members of the Federation Council (Senators), the State Duma (Parliamentarians), Cabinet ministers, Regional Governors, representatives of selected State Departments, Agencies and the media. In the address as a whole (online here), Putin positions himself as defender of a beleaguered Russia, and we now can see that he was laying the grounds for his invasion of Ukraine nine months later. The claims he was making have been fairly throughly debunked, for example at this link.
Maiden singles out a moment when Putin refers to Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book (which you can read at this link). The quotation is almost a found poem in itself, juxtaposing Putin the ruthless imperialist with Kipling, spokesman of the British Empire. I wonder if Maiden considered writing a poem that began ‘Rudyard Kipling woke up in the Kremlin, next to Vladimir Putin’. As a reminder: Tabaqui the jackal is the contemptibly devious offsider to Shere Khan the tiger, deadly enemy of the wolves who adopted Mowgli the book’s hero. Tabaqui’s propensity for rabid rages, mentioned in the poem, comes from Kipling. The Seeonee Pack, named by Maiden but not by Putin, are the wolves, and include Grey Brother, who kills Tabaqui. In the speech, Putin fairly explicitly casts the USA, or perhaps NATO, as Shere Khan.
The context of the quote is less charming, and is not irrelevant to a reading of the poem. Here is the next paragraph:
We really want to maintain good relations with all those engaged in international communication, including, by the way, those with whom we have not been getting along lately, to put it mildly. We really do not want to burn bridges. But if someone mistakes our good intentions for indifference or weakness and intends to burn or even blow up these bridges, they must know that Russia’s response will be asymmetrical, swift and tough.
He was definitely casting himself as the wolf.
Having unsettled the reader by quoting, without disclaimer, one of the nastiest political leaders of our time (it might even have been less unsettling to quote that Serbian butcher who was a Shakespeare scholar), the poem proper begins.
The opening lines make a complete break from Putin, and take a while to get to Kipling:
An Australian biographer of Robeson innocently undermined him
with a bulging pocketful of CIA pathologies, summed it up:
'It can't have been easy, being Paul Robeson' but as an
alternative to coming up like thunder
how easy is it to be a jackal?
This offers a case of a virtuous figure (Paul Robeson) harassed by a smaller one (the biographer) doing the work of a big enemy (the CIA), a version of the Wolf pack–Tabaqui–Shere Khan diagram. ‘Coming up like thunder’, a phrase that seems made for Robeson, comes from a different Kipling work, his poem ‘Mandalay‘. The word ‘innocently’ suggests that the biographer is a useful idiot, doing the CIA’s propaganda work without realising it – but the suggestion hovers that literary biographers (and by extension reviewers, critics and dare I say bloggers) can be like jackals, opportunistic scavengers on other people’s creativity who wittingly or unwittingly serve the interests of political players.
It doesn’t take much research to identify the book in question as Jeff Sparrow’s No Way but This: In Search of Paul Robeson (Scribe 2017). Judging by the reviews, I’m confident that Sparrow would vigorously challenge the assertion that he undermined Robeson, and that Robeson’s ‘pathologies’ are CIA inventions. But we can agree to suspend judgement, and read on.
The word but occurs three times in this poem, each time signalling a pivot: here, it’s a pivot from Robeson to those who would attack him and his ilk.
how easy is it to be a jackal? Pity jackals. All children have been
Tabaqui, lying for scraps from any father or mother,
living off scraps allowed him by Shere Khan, or the wolves
of the Seeonee Pack, and at last killed by Grey Brother.
It can't be easy, being Tabaqui.
‘Pity jackals’ shifts the tone: it suggests that it’s important to pay attention to people who curry favour with powerful entities, and do their bidding, even to have sympathy for them. The next line suggests that the roots of such behaviour may lie in the universal childhood experience of dependency, lying as a developmental stage. The next lines slide to a slightly different take, suggesting that children who read The Jungle Book will identify with Tabaqui – will have been him in imagination, similarly to the way we are every character in our dreams.
Now for the only time the verse refers explicitly to Putin’s address:
It can't be easy, being Tabaqui. Putin was perhaps
thinking foremost of the Ukraine's build-up of troops,
or the put-down violent putsch in Belarus,
There’s no ‘perhaps’ about it (perhaps may well be there for the sale of the almost-rhyme with troops., which in turn chimes with Belarus). Putin was explicit: he was spinning the build-up in Ukraine as a potential attack on Russia, and threatening a response that would be ‘asymmetrical, swift and tough’: in the light of recent events he could have added ‘unprovoked’. This is the most unsettling moment in the poem, as it makes no attempt to distance itself from Putin’s point of view. If written today, reference to ‘the Ukraine’ would signify agreement with Putin that Ukraine is not a separate nation. Is Maiden here playing Tabaqui to Putin’s Shere Khan?
That’s not how I read it. Elsewhere, Maiden often quotes and even portrays sympathetically people whose politics she loathes – Tony Abbott and Donald Trump come to mind. Putin has a point when he says that NATO is hostile to him, even if he doesn’t acknowledge that they may have good reason. But to quote him like this doesn’t imply agreement, and the poem can’t fairly be accused of endorsing military action Putin took long after the poem was written.
The next lines, beginning with the poem’s second but, move away from Putin to the more general phenomenon that is the poem’s real subject:
but jackals are prone to rabies and zigzag insane
in a way even feared by the Beloved King:
The first of these lines is from the The Jungle Book‘s account of jackals. There is no Beloved King in that book, at least not by name. The gist is clear enough. Once you unleash Tabaqui, even in a poem, you can’t tell what it will do.
in a way even feared by the Beloved King: Shere Khan
might in Australia have wanted famished Morrison
to cancel a couple of contracts with China, and academic
agreements with Syria or Iran, in puzzled Victoria,
It’s reasonable to take Shere Khan as signifying the USA here, as in Putin’s speech. I found an ABC story about Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s cancelling contracts. It’s dated 22 April 2021 (link here), the day after Putin’s address to the General Assembly. So this example of a Tabaqui doing the bidding of a Shere Khan is in effect a piece of synchronicity, suggesting that examples could be multiplied endlessly. Then there’s the third but:
but one is compelled to look in shadows and be sorry
for mottled bundles of bravado and ingrained hunger
alternately huddling and howling.
Again, the poem turns away from particular actions: one is compelled (by what? a need to move from particular cases to an underlying phenomenon?) to pay attention to the Tabaquis, and in these lines the poem lands. Former Prime Minister John w Howard could evoke the myth of the Wild West and describe himself as the US’s deputy sheriff, and George W Bush could evoke the other US myth of the superhero and call Howard a man of steel. Maiden, leapfrogging on Putin, reaches further back to Kipling for a powerful alternative image of the relationship. The lines had me imagining Scott Morrison in camouflage gear, and sure enough I found a photo of him three years ago as almost literally ‘a mottled bundle of bravado’, here.
alternately huddling and howling. All children have been
Tabaqui, lying for scraps from any father or mother,
These repeated lines now carry a little more weight, perhaps a suggestion of forgiveness, but really they are softening the reader up for the chilling final line:
and it isn't for the tiger the wolves come.
That gets me every time. Reading it in March 2022, on the 19th day of Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine it’s hard to get beyond that reference. In that context, apart from the putrid implication that Ukraine somehow provoked the attack, the line implies Putin and his wolves are pretty cowardly in attacking Ukraine rather than going after the real tiger enemy, the USA. But the poem has explicitly moved away from the Russia/Ukraine relationship, so the line is even more chillingly open-ended. Perhaps China will be a wolf for ‘famished Morrison’ and Australia with him. But the reference doesn’t need to be tied down. The poem is about a general syndrome, and the dangers it points to, at geopolitical or interpersonal levels, are real.
So the poem does indeed take us, as the lines I quoted near the start of this blog post suggest, to fear.
* Examples abound in Ox in Metal. Maiden reminds us that on the day of the celebrated misogyny speech Julia Gillard’s government reduced support for single mothers (‘Diary Poem: Uses of Iron Ladies’); she characterises the White Helmets in Syria as a false flag terrorist operation (‘Death-Wish Moths’); she reminds us that ‘Menzies made up the South Vietnamese invitation’ (‘There Seems an Easiness’); she describes the leaks of the Pandora, Panama and Paradise Papers as ‘a CIA self-amusing / parody of Wikileaks’ (‘Pandora and her Sisters’); she describes Joe Biden as ‘dreamy with dementia’ (‘The peace prize’); one of her characters notes that US drones and aircraft have killed many women and children in Afghanistan (‘Clare, George and Abdul Ghani Baradar’); another asserts that ‘most of the almost two hundred dead / at the airport in Kabul were shot / by naive young America soldiers’.
The Australian Women Writers Challenge has moved on: in 2022 they’re no longer inviting us to keep a tally of the books we read that are written by AWWs, but instead they are publishing a range of blog posts about or by early Australian women writers, appearing every Wednesday at this link.
I’m thrilled to have been invited to do a couple of guest posts. My first, which I’m reprinting here, looks at Zora Cross, the now all but forgotten poet who took Australia by storm during the first world war.
I recommend the AWW blog. It’s full of riches. If you’d like to contribute a review or essay contact Bill Holloway at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In the 1980s poets Judith Wright and Rosemary Dobson were approached by the Australian Jockey Club, who wanted to name a horserace after one of them. They recoiled from the notion and suggested Zora Cross, who had then been dead for nearly two decades. Judith Wright wrote to a friend, ‘It’s lucky Zora Cross can’t object, and since nobody remembers the poor woman, the good name of Poetry can’t be involved.’ That poor woman, who was phenomenally successful with readers and critics when she was in her 20s, has recently been making a partial return from oblivion. (I’ve added links in the following where I’ve found the poems referred to online.)
Zora Cross had a remarkably productive writing life, and was part of Sydney’s bohemian literary scene between the two world wars. Apart from journalism and editing work, she produced five poetry books (one of them for children), six novels (two as serials in the Sydney Morning Herald), a book of essays on Australian literature, and a number of plays. Many of her poems appeared in newspapers and have never been collected, and she spent her last years working on an ambitious series of novels set in ancient Rome that were never published.
I first met her poetry when I was an editor on The School Magazine. We regularly received phone calls from elderly people asking us to help retrieve a half-remembered poem. Zora Cross’s ‘Memory‘ was often the one they were after. It was published in the magazine seven times between 1918 and 1960. It’s not her only poem the magazine published, but it is evidently the most memorable. In the 1953 City of Sydney Eisteddfod, a record 127 children entered to read it (and 107 to read ‘Dream Travel‘, another of Cross’s poems). In the prologue to her biography of Cross, Cathy Perkins writes that when she asked people if they had heard of her, some remembered reciting ‘Memory’ at school, especially perhaps the final couplet:
And Eight must never see Twenty-three
As she peeps through the door of Memory.
The Shelf Life of Zora Cross tells its subject’s story as reflected in the papers of ten people, including Ethel Turner, author of Seven Little Australians; Norman Lindsay, who reluctantly accepted a commission to provide a cover for Songs of Love and Life; Cross’s publisher, George Robertson; her younger brother Jack, who died in Europe during World War One; and David McKee Wright, the love of her life who was for a time editor of the Bulletin‘s famous Red Page.
Zora Cross was born in 1890 at Eagle Farm, which was then a rural locality outside Brisbane, and moved to Sydney when she was 15. One of the great pleasures of Cathy Perkins’s biography is the detailed account of Zora’s writing apprenticeship before and after that move as a contributor to the Children’s Corner of the Australian Town and Country Journal, edited by Ethel Turner. Turner encouraged the young writer, and remained a friend and mentor after she outgrew the Corner and began writing what Turner called ‘heady stuff’.
Perkins gives a lively account of Cross’s early adult years performing with a theatrical troupe in North Queensland and then in Sydney, working as an editor, teaching in schools around what we now know as Sydney’s Inner West, and collecting rejections from newspapers and literary journals, with an occasional acceptance. We read of her somewhat mysterious marriage to a fellow actor, who disappeared from her life, never having lived with her, but leaving her with a son. (Perkins has unearthed the husband’s story, as Zora never managed to do: he moved to the USA in 1911, the year they married, and lived there until his death in 1967.) Zora was a striking presence in her 20s:
One day in 1915, Zora is rushing from a rehearsal at the Tivoli Theatre in central Brisbane to the office of the Bohemian to pick up her editor’s salary when she meets a journalist who will later write a profile on her for the Australian Woman’s Mirror. She is ‘slight and pale and terrific with energy’ and covered in red printer’s ink from the paper’s scarlet masthead, which looks like blood on her white dress.
Perkins quotes copiously from Cross’s effusive and often hilarious correspondence with George Robertson and other publishers, and gives a moving account of her relationship with David McKee Wright, with whom she had two daughters and lived in relative poverty in the Blue Mountains. In the final chapters, after David’s death, she lived precariously as a single mother earning a little from journalism but relying on a pension from the Commonwealth Literary Fund. She was part of the local community, celebrated as ‘a well-known authoress’, and died of a heart attack in her garden in 1964, leaving among her papers the manuscript of her Roman novels, now reduced by time, insects and possibly fire to a condition Perkins describes as ‘more like sculpture than text’.
The ‘heady stuff’ that Ethel Turner referred to was mainly three books of poetry: Songs of Love and Life (1917), The Lilt of Life (1918) and Elegy on an Australian Schoolboy (1921).
Songs of Love and Life, whose manuscript had been rejected unread by publisher George Robertson, first appeared in a small cheap edition in October 1917. Robertson deigned to read a poem or two in his advance copy, and published a second edition a month later with a cover by Norman Lindsay. The book was a huge success.
Its popularity was mainly due to a 60-poem sequence, ‘Love Sonnets’, whose exuberant expressions of female desire – unprecedented in Australian literature – struck a chord with young men and women separated by World War One, and gave voice to changing cultural expectations about sex and romance. Despite much rhapsodising about jewels and fabrics, gods and souls, these poems still speak to us. John Kinsella included two of them (and two from The Lilt of Life) in The Penguin Anthology of Australian Poetry (2009), including number XV:
Love, you have brought to me my perfect soul.
More sweet than earthly things, more precious rare,
Hiding its fragrance in my loosened hair
And folding up my body like a scroll.
O, lie with me all night, and let the roll
Of Rapture's waves wash over us, as, bare
Of anything save Love, we haply share
The joys of our first parents' chaste control.
My Love, my piece of Heaven God has spilled
Upon my outstretched hands, O, kiss me yet.
Here, lying close to you, I feel – I know,
My being, even now, is charged and filled
With light and bliss it never will forget
Though aeons over my cold corpse should flow.
It’s not hard to imagine a young man in the trenches or the young woman he has left behind finding comfort in these lines.
If you stumbled on the word ‘control’ at the end of the octave, you’re not alone.
That’s an annotation in the scanned copy of the first edition that I read (available from the State Library of New South Wales, at this link). In case you can’t read the image, the note says:
control is just a little vague [then, in pencil] – in fact obscure: what is controlled, by whom, and to what end?
I was reading a scan of a copy that had been annotated by the distinguished scholar-poet Christopher Brennan! He is completely, hilariously, and to my mind correctly dismissive of some of the poems, but mostly he comments as a minutely attentive mentor (something the young Zora Cross ignored, and perhaps just as well, because if she had aimed for the kind of precision he advocated, her poetry may well have lost some of its spontaneous feel).
In the case of ‘control’, I beg to differ from the great man’s implication that there’s something wrong. For me it’s like a bit of thought-provoking grit. After celebrating the rapture of lying naked in each other’s arms the poem invokes the Bible story of Eden. The orgasmic waves washing over the lovers are like the ones experienced before the Fall, fully sexual and at the same time completely innocent. ‘Control’ in this context is a rough opposite to ‘moral abandon’. Typically of Cross’s love poems, this one is uninhibited in its sensuality and filled with imagery that comes as close to sexually explicit as the times allowed (‘my being even now is charged and filled’), and at the same time insistent on the rightness and goodness of sexual desire. Norman Lindsay’s cover may have helped sales, but female sexuality as affirmed by Zora Cross has little in common with Lindsay’s pseudo-pagan rompiness.
A second book of verse, The Lilt of Life, appeared a year later, including a series, ‘Sonnets of Motherhood’, that was just as erotically charged. This is the start of Sonnet XIII:
Accept my body, Dearest, as a gift,
A precious casket of the purest pearl.
Some of her long poems in these books are pretty much unreadable. For example, ‘Man and Woman’, a 65-page essay in blank verse, a rich historical-philosophical-mystical-religious vision of the meaning of life for Woman with a strong anti-war theme, is in a poetical mode that hasn’t aged well, and was too much for my limited patience. Here’s a tiny taste, in which the poem’s speaker addresses the Christ child:
Men war. Men war for ever, but You come
Because a mother-heart is left to love.
Rachel is weeping still and Hecuba;
A thousand wives a Hector mourn again
As Aphrodite and Athene strive
Through the bruised souls of men and women too.
But, You are safe, O little child of Love,
That ages touch not with their misery.
The third book, published in 1921, communicates anti-war sentiments much more powerfully. Rooted in Cross’s own deeply-felt loss, it comprises a single long poem, ‘Elegy on an Australian Schoolboy‘, written for her younger brother Jack who had died in uniform during the war:
I only know you, brother of my blood,
Have gone; and many a friend,
Trampled and broken in the Flanders mud,
Found Youth’s most bitter end.
God! You are not yet one with the kind dust
Before new war-horns blow
And sleek-limbed statesmen in their halls break trust
To tell of other woe.
When she died 43 years later, she had continued to write and take part in literary life in the intervening decades, including for example a series of article in the Melbourne Herald in 1935, ‘Women Who Have Helped to Build Australia’. But it was the early works that were celebrated in her obituaries. As far as I know, there is no Collected Poems, or even a Selected. Her journalism can only be found in its place of original publication, and her novels haven’t been reissued (perhaps a shame in the case of This Hectic Age, aka The Night Side of Sydney, a novel of sex and violence in wartime Sydney).
Having threatened us with another Rachel Cusk title, this month’s Book Chooser opted for last year’s Miles Franklin Award winner, a decision I applauded.
Before the meeting: The book’s narrator, Erica Marsden, moves to a small town on the south coast of New South Wales to be near the prison where her son is serving a life sentence for murder. Harking back to her own childhood in a mental institution where her father was head psychiatrist and inspired by a dream, she decides that a way out of her depression is to ‘make something’, and sets out to create a labyrinth in the weedy patch of sand beside her shack. Between dispiriting prison visits, she makes connections in the local community, and runs into an illegal immigrant who has just the skills needed to help design and build the labyrinth. As she realises her plan, she regains a degree of equilibrium, and her son seems – tentatively, incompletely – to be returning from the weirdness that had led him to commit a horrific act and then be lost in rage-filled (and, she believes, mother-blaming) isolation.
That’s it. It’s beautifully written, including some evocative moments when Erica is bemused by unspoken understanding among diverse male characters. I loved it.
My one small complaint is that there are no illustrations. Even though the descriptions the making of the labyrinth are very clear, I lack the visual imagination needed to interpret them. When I looked online, key words like ‘seed pattern’ seemed to have different technical meanings from the ones Erica gives. I mention this in the hope that an illustrated edition may be on the way.
What you get from a work of art depends on what you bring to it. I brought quite a bit to this book that intensified my enjoyment of it. I’ve seen the labyrinth at Chartres, and it was covered with wooden chairs just as Erica describes it. I’ve meditatively walked a small labyrinth at Glendalough in Ireland. Much more significantly, I took part in Connecting Hearts Project, an art work created by the Emerging Artist, which invited participants, among other things, to walk a kind of labyrinth made of terracotta hearts while reflecting on our common humanity, on our connection to people fleeing persecution, especially those held in detention by successive Australian governments, and on what it means to belong. With her permission, here are a couple of images:
And a video of the London iteration, where the spiral/labyrinth appears from 2 minutes 22 seconds:
After the meeting: There were six of us. The streets were awash outside, but we were warm and dry in our host’s home, which had been a rundown mess when we met there just before the onset of Covid, but he and his family have rebuilt as a joy and a wonder to behold. We ate well, and drank well (I wasn’t the only one to bring non-alcoholic beer, one of the many pleasures of the evening).
Probably because we were all so pleased to be meeting in person again, and because of the absence of him who has been tacitly designated the group facilitator, we spent a long time chatting – mainly about the new house and the current theatre work of one of us, complete with some great inside-theatre gossip – before focusing on the book.
The terrific discussion was kicked off by someone who said he had reread the second half of the book because it seemed that everything that had been built up in the first part was then wasted in the second. Characters were introduced with the beginnings of narrative arcs, and nothing came of it: an architect promises to get back to Erica with ideas for a labyrinth, then nothing; a teenage girl is seen self-harming, then nothing; Erica meets a neighbour’s daughter, then nothing. On a second reading he felt he had been too harsh, but still felt like things more or less petered out.
I couldn’t fault him on his description, but I felt that it worked, and struggled to say why. In some way, the incompleteness of the stories was the point. The labyrinth itself (mild spoiler alert) is never finished, and there’s a tiny movement in a key relationship towards the end that could be the beginning of significant change. I passed around printouts of some of the above pictures.
A third chap said he read the book as a study in grief: after the ordeal of her son’s trial and imprisonment for a horrific crime, Erica is in a fugue state, and the failures to connect or follow through on other people’s stories is a function of that. He drew our attention to the last two paragraphs, and when they were singled out in this context I think we could all see how beautifully the book is brought home. Both the opening speaker and I said we now felt like rereading the book from the beginning.
One chap confessed right at the start that he hadn’t read the book. He said he enjoyed the discussion, and I almost wished I could have been him when, in the middle of all the discussion of grief and fugue states, small town communities, the perils of living as a refugee, the points of similarity and difference between this book and, say, Sea Change, and so on, someone asked, ‘What about the book burning?’
Then five of us made our various ways home, all through streets that were awash.
David Tennant and Michael Sheen are back as thoroughly unpleasant actors bickering over a show that almost certainly won't happen, except that we're watching it. Neil Gaiman has a guest appearance at the end of the first episode, and he allows himself to come across as equally unpleasant. It's very funny. Everybody despises Simon Evans, who is […]
A beautifully designed little book, with illustrations by Peter Sís, this fable about exploration may be for children, but meanwhile It's a perfect read for the sauna (assuming the heat doesn't damage it).
Image from Belvoir websiteFrom the opening moments in which a blindfolded older woman in a sari dances in silence on an almost bare stage, this is captivating. It's also epic, and feels necessary. It's a joy and a privilege to have seen it.