Monthly Archives: March 2023

Staples and Vaughan’s Saga 10

Fiona Staples and Brian K. Vaughan, Saga, Volume10 (Image 2022)

It would be overstating it to say I was devastated when Saga went on hiatus ‘for a year’ after volume 9 in 2018 and then stayed out for three years. But delighted is not too strong a word for my reaction when the Comics experts at Kinokuniya told me the hiatus had ended and monthly comics Nº 55–60 had been collected to make Volume 10.

I won’t try to summarise the Story So Far. This Romeo and Juliet space opera has been going for nearly ten years and you’re welcome to read my previous blog posts. (This link should give you a list.)

Sadly, it looks as if the story has run out of puff a bit. A Terrible Thing happened at the end of Volume 9, and though the characters have had three years to adjust, it feels as if they all have that much less spark. The villains have less venom. The good guys have less vitality. The gratuitous naked breasts are more perfunctory. Hazel, the child at the centre of it all, is three years older, and less interesting because of it. One major plot point just … happens, though maybe I missed some subtle foreshadowing.

There’s another Terrible Thing on the last pages of this volume, which gives me hope for a revitalised Volume 11.

My general policy, when blogging about books, to pay attention to a single page (usually page 76, chosen arbitrarily because that’s my age) probably makes even more sense when the book is a comic, given my lack of visual vocabulary. As far as I can tell, the pages aren’t numbered in this book, so here’s what might be page 76 to give you some inkling of the book’s style. Our young heroine Hazel and the remains of her family have been captured by space pirates, and are about to forced back into their former outlaw ways. The junior members of the pirate crew have just given a concert for Hazel and her adopted brother-from-another-species. Hazel is the small person in blue with cute horns:

This page doesn’t illustrate is the way Saga’s text and image often play off against each other in tantalising counterpoint. But it might give you some idea of Fiona Staples’s gloriously playful artwork, and Brian K Vaughan’s gift for dialogue.

It’s a classic Saga moment of light relief, when Hazel has more or less ordinary child-to-adult interactions and the other main players, for good, evil or ambivalence, are offscreen. The pirate band members are each of a different species: the first speaker is from one of the story’s main species, the ones with TV sets for heads, the others are less significant. The frog-like creature is representative of a whole strand of illustration that owes something to children’s comics: not quite as cute as some of the animals that befriend Hazel, but getting there. Hazel’s enthusiasm for the guitar reminds us that she is growing up, and introduces a minor plot strand.

To be continued when Volume 11 arrives.

Katharine Murphy’s Lone Wolf

Katharine Murphy, Lone Wolf: Albanese and the New Politics (Quarterly Essay 88, 2022)
– plus correspondence in Quarterly Essay 89

Katharine Murphy is Guardian Australia’s political editor. I always find her political commentary enlightening, and it’s a pleasure to read this Quarterly Essay, where she does a terrific job of making sense of what happened at the May 2022 federal election, which ended a decade of Liberal–National Coalition government, ousted Scott Morrison from the prime ministership, replaced him with Anthony Albanese and an Australian Labor Party majority, and increased the cross benches significantly.

A good half of the essay is devoted to the Albanese story, in particular the way he developed from the ‘lone wolf’ who once said he was in the parliament to ‘fight Tories’, to the man who, having decided he wanted to win the prime ministership, became a great unifier and team leader. Albanese’s starring offscreen role as ALP heavyweight in Robin Anderson and Bob Connolly’s excellent 1996 doco, Rats in the Ranks, gets a passing mention, but the Albanese who emerges into the spotlight in this essay is not so much a heavyweight as a lightfooted dancer, always with a plan.

The essay also, as announced in the second part of its subtitle, describes how Climate 2000 provided resource to a number of independent candidates (the so-called Teals), and how their electoral success, along with that of the Greens, has changed the nature of Australian parliamentary politics.

Page 76* is part of a short section subtitled ‘Big Tents and Unifying Theories’. The section begins by explaining that Australia’s major political parties are ‘big-tent actors’. The ALP and LNP Coalition each embrace a wide range of perspectives but, unlike the major political parties in the USA, have tight party discipline: they ‘model the reality that deliberation and compromise can lead to progress’. The section goes on to ask how these parties will respond to ‘political disrupters’ like the Teals and the Greens, as well as Pauline Hanson and Clive Palmer’s parties, that tend of offer uncompromising positions (as I was drafting this I saw a Greens poster for the NSW election: ‘All Pokies out of Pubs and Clubs’). The section warns against making firm predictions on the basis of Grand Unifying Theories; it hopes that Peter Dutton’s opposition will aim to (re-)build a diverse electoral community rather than allow its extremist rump to call the shots; and it ends with a line from elected independent Zoë Daniels, not necessarily quoting Bob Dylan on purpose: ‘Something is happening here.’

Katharine Murphy has a terrific ability to explain complex issues in memorable language, and she doesn’t indulge in pseudo-objective ‘balance’. Here are some bits from this page:

Democratic parliaments are not iTunes or Spotify. Citizens can’t curate their own playlists. Parliaments cannot possibly reflect the will of every individual citizen. They model the art of the possible.

In the positive, disrupters mirror the gnawing hunger among engaged people for a more perfect democracy as a bulwark in uncertain and dangerous times. In the negative, the mirroring engages with voter grievance or alienation.

Not every minority parliament will function as cooperatively and productively as the Gillard parliament, because not everybody enters politics to get things done.

There is a school of thought that Coalition governments – particularly Abbott’s and Morrison’s – existed largely to stop Labor doing things rather than to do anything much themselves.

As usual with the Quarterly Essay, the correspondence in the following edition casts further light on the argument, some disagreements, some amplifications. The first response is from Christopher Pyne, whom Katharine Murphy describes as ‘another wily factional veteran’ and Albanese’s friend and rival. He is sceptical about any ‘new politics’ – and sees politics as still, and always, about winning and losing. Michael Cooney, among other things a speech writer for Julia Gillard, has interesting things to say, but I am gratified that he also notes Katharine Murphy’s gift with a telling phrase – he says she ‘saw the election in haiku’.

Perhaps the most interesting piece of correspondence is from Simon Jackman, one of the principal investigators of the Australian Election Study. This study has surveyed a representative cross section of the electorate after every federal election since 1987 and, Jackman writes, is ‘an authoritative source for assessing what is “new” about the new politics’. Mostly he cites data that validates Katharine Murphy’s analysis. The data especially puts a rocket under the notion that Scott Morrison’s unpopularity played a role, showing him to be the least popular PM or Opposition leader ever seen in AES data. The information about ‘new voters’ is also interesting: ‘Only about 1 in 4 voters under the age of forty report voting for the Coalition in 2022.’ [Someone on the NSW election commentary last night said 1 in 5 millennials do so – presumably a version of the same research finding.]

Katharine Murphy’s response to correspondents is gracious and generous. It ends with a postscript correcting a minor factual error. That postscript leaves the final word to Dr David Champion, the rheumatologist who attended Albanese’s mother: ‘Young Anthony was an inspiringly good son from my perspective.’

The essay isn’t hagiography, but you do come away from it with a deep respect for Anthony Albanese, and a sense that Katharine Murphy likes him.

* Currently when blogging about books I have a policy of taking a closer look at page 76, chosen for the arbitrary reason that it’s my age.

Robbie Arnott, Limberlost and the Book Group

Robbie Arnott, Limberlost (Text Publishing 2023)

Before the meeting: To fully appreciate this book, you may need to have read Gene Stratton-Porter’s 1909 classic of USA children’s literature, A Girl of the Limberlost. I haven’t read it, but Sue at Whispering Gums has, and loved it. You can read her review of Limberlost at this link.

The novel’s main character is Ned, a young teenager living on an orchard in Tasmania towards the end of World War Two. His two older brothers are away at the war, leaving Ned and his older sister to help their gruff, widowed father on the struggling farm. Ned has a secret goal of buying a boat – he’ll raise the money over summer by shooting rabbits and selling their pelts. Rabbit fur is prized as material for making slouch hats for soldiers, and Ned hopes his father will believe his killing project is inspired by patriotism rather than self-interest.

The story unfolds as you’d expect, reaching forward to Ned’s later life as father of two adult daughters and back to an incident involving a whale. There’s more I could say about the book as a whole – the Tasmanian bush, Ned’s father, the boat, the whale and a wounded quoll – but this is a ‘Page 76’ blog.

Page 76 comes almost exactly at the novel’s one-third point. The local vet has given Ned’s project a boost by asking as payment for services rendered that he clear rabbits from her garden and the forest behind her place. (US readers note: in Australia a vet is a veterinarian surgeon, not a former soldier.)

Before rereading the page closely for this blog post, I would have said that it deals with the practicalities of trapping and shooting rabbits – a necessary bit of telling before we move on to the important bits of the story (the boat, the quoll, the father, the girl next door, etcetera). But slowing down to read it, I realise that it’s full of the stuff that makes the book engrossing.

Bending my rules a little, here’s part of the description of the vet’s patch of forest on page 75:

A place of dark-eyed wallabies and fat-faced possums and flickering wrens and eagle-sized ravens and swarms of rabbits beyond counting, beyond thought. A place so thoroughly non-paddock and non-river and non-orchard that, when he picked his way through its structures, Ned began to unmoor from the leafy dirt and drift away from the version of the world he knew. A wave of prickles needled through him. He felt a shifting beneath his flesh: all his pain and shame and anger and sorrow would peel off his nerves, steam from his bones and fry off his skin.

Only after bringing the place to our attention as so full of life and a kind of enchantment, the narrative moves on to Ned’s activities. The first full sentence on page 76 pulls us up short:

By the time the sun had fully risen, his hands were full of death.

What follows a brutal edge to it. First the traps:

Each morning he’d find at least two of their corpses in the teeth of his traps, sometimes three. He’d skin them at the edge of the garden and hurl the bodies far into the trees.

Then the shooting:

After he’d stashed the skins in his bag he’d move through the forest, towards the small clearings that lay within its interior. Here other rabbits inched over the grass, grazing at pace, their cheeks swelling in the low light. Ned stepped quietly, made sure he was obscured by the darkness of the ferns, waited. He’d raise the rifle and pick out the fattest animal, the cleanest fur. Missing was difficult, although occasionally he managed it.

It’s not that Ned has any particular feeling about the killing. Earlier, we’ve seen him working out the best way to place the traps, and he’s fascinated by skinning techniques. Here his focus is on moving quietly, picking the best victim. But Robbie Arnott’s prose insinuates a different perspective: the dead rabbits are ‘corpses’ and ‘bodies’; the living animals graze ‘at pace’. The comment that ‘missing was difficult’ comes from Ned’s pragmatic perspective, but it conjures up an image of innocent, vulnerable creatures. I’m reminded of the hunting scene in Renoir’s La règle du jeu, where the humans are cheerful and relaxed, but the camera shows rabbits first fleeing for their lives then dying in close-up, tails and ears twitching. The counterpoint there between the characters’ perspective and that of Renoir’s camera is similar to the tension between Ned’s view and Arnott’s prose.

The narrative doesn’t pass judgment. It leaves that to Ned’s daughters much later. This page offer a final harsh image (‘In the trees, ravens picked apart his kills.’), and something that has underlain much of the story so far comes into full view. As Ned makes his way back, ‘his bag heavy with pelts’, he feels ‘the unmooring, the needling, the shifting’ named on the previous page:

The burning away of his emotions, until he saw only the forest around him, and felt only the weight of his bag and gun, and the warmth of the morning.

Then this (moving on to page 78 – Maggie, Toby and Bill are his siblings):

Outside of those mornings in the forest he was exposed to an uncontrollable stinging in the folds of his mind … To counter this, he avoided thinking about anything that brought on the sting. The war. The school year that awaited him. The mare. The quoll. Maggie, ice hammered from metal ships, northern seas of endless chop. The rush of Toby’s smile, and how soon they might see each other. His father. How his father, after he’d read Toby’s letter, had asked Ned if anything had come from Bill. The blank fissure in the old man’s face when Ned had shaken his head.

The saga of the rabbits and the boat is something that Ned has dreamed up to distract himself from deeper issues: the questions of his relationship to the land that the captured quoll embodies, the ordinary angst of being a teenager, and over it all the cloud of war. Arnott doesn’t hit us over the head with this, but it’s always bubbling under the surface.

After the meeting:

As always it was a fun evening with far too much to eat. A couple of chps brought Tasmanian-themed food and drink. I had offered to host at short notice when our designated host came down with Covid (not as bad as the first time, he said, but still rotten). As a result I inherited substantial leftovers. We spent some time, quite unrelated to the book, as a bunch of old codgers trying to help each other understand the young people these days. We had minimal success, perhaps because the younger and wiser group members (overlapping categories) were detained elsewhere by work, family commitments and the aforementioned Covid.

The book struck a deep chord for a number of people. Two had read it twice. One said he resonated strongly because like Ned he had two older brothers and has two adult daughters, and Ned’s experience chimed with his own. The other had read Robbie Arnott’s first novel, Flames, then returned to Limberlost, enjoying the way it revisited similar concerns in a very different mode. One man’s partner had loved A Girl of the Limberlost with a passion, but otherwise we’d all read this book without illumination from that one.

I confessed to blogging about page 76. Someone promptly read a beautiful passage from page 77-78, in which Ned is haunted by images of violence among birds, in ancient and modern warfare, and in the sight of the girl next door carrying a rifle.

Some insights were shared about the quoll that Ned accidentally traps and then keeps until it has recovered from its wounds: it mirrors back to Ned the wildness and rage he can’t admit to feeling; it’s a beautiful thing that transcends humdrum daily life; it becomes an intimate shared experience between Ned and the girl next door; it provides one of a number of occasions when Ned’s father surprises him by being sympathetic.

There was a lot more. I came away from the meeting with a much deeper understanding of the book, and of the traditional rural masculinity it depicts.

Sarah Holland-Batt’s Jaguar

Sarah Holland-Batt, The Jaguar (UQP 2022)

If you come across The Jaguar in a bookshop and want to dip, I recommend any of the first half dozen poems. Possibly the most direct is ‘The Gift’ on page 4, which you can also read online at The New Yorker in February 2021, or the Australian Book Review in June 2021.

The book is shortlisted for the Kenneth Slessor Prize in the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. I’ll be surprised if it doesn’t win. It begins and ends with stunning poems bearing witness to the final illness and death of the poet’s father. They are almost unbearably good in their own right, but carry even more force when one is aware of Holland-Batt’s passionate and eloquent campaigning for improvement in the aged care sector (as in this article in the Guardian).

Here’s part of the Kenneth Slessor Prize judges’ citation:

The Jaguar is a tremendous collection of poems, deeply compelling in their subject matter and exemplary in their attention to language and craft. … This is muscular, tenacious writing of great intensity that bears unflinching witness to the decline and death of a loved one, that embraces the necessary suffering that is part of loving and of being human. The Jaguar is poetry of the highest order — poetry that changes us in the reading of it, that reminds us of the inevitable.

From State Library of NSW website.

My current blogging practice is to focus on page 76 of the book I’m discussing. In The Jaguar, that page comes part way through the third of the book’s four sections. Not all the poems in this section relate to the poet’s father. There are a couple of break-up poems, some despatches from the high life on the Riviera and the USA. ‘Tiepolo’s Cleopatra’ might well be a response to John Forbes’s ‘On Tiepolo’s Banquet of Cleopatra’ (which you can read at this link) – both attend to a painting that reeks of decadent luxury. The poem on page 76, ‘The Worst of It’, appears between two poems about past romantic relationships – ‘Night Flight’ (‘our bodies puzzled together in that room’) and ‘Mansions’ (‘When I think of you I think of mansions’):

The Worst of It
As I combed it, 
he sat cross-legged 
in front of me, 
bent over 
like a penitent, 
his head heavy 
as intimacy.
An easy gesture, 
like wind riffling 
blue dunegrass 
in tidal weather.
Salt and pepper 
at the temples, 
or more accurately 
silver, perilous 
and stellar.
A wave in it, 
long from lack 
of cutting.
How can I go back 
to knowing nothing, 
knowing this?

There are three pronouns: I, he and it. We know who I is; we know what it is; he is unidentified. I read him to be the poet’s father, but he could be a lover or even someone in a patient–nurse relationship with her. It’s part of the poem’s power that his identity isn’t explicit. Readers are free to invent their own specifics.

The short lines aren’t typical of Holland-Batt’s poetry, but they work beautifully, inviting the reader to focus on each element, each connotation, as they are revealed line by line. There’s a lot of unobtrusive echoing of sound – not exactly rhyme – that binds the lines: ‘combed ‘cross-legged’; ‘front’, ‘bent, ‘penitent’; ‘heavy’, intimacy’; ‘silver’, ‘perilous’, ‘stellar’; and so on all the way to the repeated words in the final couplet.

The line-by-line movement is especially clear in the first seven lines, where a physical scene unfurls: first the action of combing, then the man’s basic position, then his spacial relationship to the speaker, then his bowed attitude, then a traditional meaning of that attitude, then a close focus on the head, then the poem’s key word, ‘intimacy’. I love the way the music of these lines builds to that word as a resonant conclusion. Heaviness isn’t an obvious quality of intimacy: we’re not dealing with, say, the intimacy of fresh love, but something more sombre.

In a kind of undulating movement away from that heaviness, the next four lines quietly surprise by comparing the combing action / gesture to wind blowing though blue dunegrass (of which you can see some images here in case, like me, you’re botanically ignorant). Though it doesn’t say so explicitly, this suggests that the two people in the poem have spent time together at sandy beaches, so the intimacy hasn’t always been heavy.

The next eight lines focus on the hair and, again one line at a time, what it tells us about the man.

  • ‘Salt and pepper’: he’s ageing
  • ‘at the temples’: but not what you’d call old or elderly
  • ‘or more accurately’: wait on, the poet is about to rethink her use of a stock phrase
  • ‘silver, perilous’: the light and the dark; on the one hand precious, and on the other in danger, perhaps because ageing brings one closer to death, or perhaps something more specific
  • ‘and stellar’: a nice alternative to ‘salt and pepper’ to describe ageing hair – flecks of shining white against a dark background
  • ‘A wave in it’ – ‘stellar’ felt like the end of the description, but the poem decides to linger a little on the hair itself, noticing other qualities
  • ‘long from lack’ – here’s a place where the line break does a lot of work: by leaving the word ‘lack’ suspended for a moment, it reinforces the earlier suggestions that the man is somehow in trouble: penitent, imperilled
  • ‘of cutting’ – on the one hand this clarifies that the lack is as mundane as not having gone to a barber, but it also suggests a degree of neglect.

In the final three lines, something of the emotional meaning of the moment is revealed. Or more accurately is invoked. This moment of combing the man’s hair comes after a discovery that has transformed the relationship. Given the wider context of the book, I read it as the moment when the father has told the daughter of his illness and the grim prognosis, but in itself it’s not tied to that. The tenderness of the first fifteen lines has been laced with a hint of sorrow or threat. These last lines bring those elements to the surface: something has happened which cannot be reversed.

So, this isn’t one of the book’s poems that takes its readers by storm. But quietly, artfully distracting from its artfulness, it delivers a moment, the kind of moment that could happen at the midpoint of a movie: the moment when we know where things are headed. A moment when we hold our breath and understand the shape of things.

Hilde Hinton’s Solitary Walk on the Moon

Last November I decided to experiment with blogging about books by taking a single page and writing whatever comes to mind about it. I picked page 75, my age at the time. Sadly, though I did focus on page 75 (or 47 or even 7 in shorter books), I didn’t really keep to the plan but felt obliged to go on about the books in general as well. Now that I’m 76, I’m renewing the experiment.

Hilde Hinton, A Solitary Walk on the Moon (Hachette Australia 2022)

You could describe A Solitary Walk on the Moon as a quirky comedy, but that suggests a particular kind of US movie – and Evelyn, the book’s laundromat-manager protagonist, is more John Wayne than Miranda July, or perhaps Miranda July in a John Wayne role. Like the hero of a classical Western movie, she’s a loner who brings her peculiar set of skills to the aid of the community who come to love her, but among whom she feels she has no abiding place.

Page 76, a little past the one-quarter mark, is relatively uneventful, but in it the characters develop, the plot moves forward and key images recur, all without breaking a sweat.

Evelyn is in the process of building what will turn out to be a patchwork family. Having overheard two young women, laundromat customers, talking about a friend who has disappeared, she has insinuated herself into their confidence, and enlisted the help of a befuddled old man, also a customer, who she has learned is a retired policeman. At the start of this page, she introduces the man to the young women with characteristic awkwardness and a touch of bravado that doesn’t quite work:

‘This is,’ Evelyn said, suddenly realising that she didn’t know his name, ‘our retired policeman.’ Her ta-da finish went unacknowledged.

We understand the lack of acknowledgement to be partly because the young women don’t quite trust Evelyn, and partly because the retired policeman is grubby and vague-looking. By this stage readers have come to understand that though Evelyn is deeply strange – perhaps non-neurotypical, perhaps from a non-mainstream culture, or perhaps dealing with childhood trauma – she is smart and well-intentioned. But we also understand other people’s hesitance around her.

The ex-policeman introduces himself as Phillip, and they head off to the police station. In a characteristic narrative move, they stop on the way for Phillip to play the love-me, love-me-not ritual with a daisy. He presents Evelyn with the stem, ‘topped by a clearly embarrassed pistil and a sad, solitary petal which flapped about in the evening breeze’. This moment reminds us that Phillip is probably in early stages of dementia, but it’s also a feature of the novel’s style: at any moment there’s likely to be a mild departure from a straightforward narrative. All the characters, it seems, are at least slightly odd, or at least wonderfully naive.

They arrive at the police station:

‘Don’t ring the bell,’ he said authoritatively when Evelyn went to ding the bell.
‘How will they know we’re here?’ she asked. The old man pointed at the mirror behind the counter and sat down on one of the plastic moulded chairs. They were all bolted together, and Evelyn wondered why. No one in their right mind would steal one. Phillip crossed his legs and clasped his hands behind his head. The two girls sat either side of him. Evelyn was not in the mood for sitting and wandered around the waiting room looking at the faded posters that looked like they’d been there for years. There was a chart of missing persons, and Evelyn vaguely remembered the tall cross-eyed man who had gone missing while bushwalking a few years back. They had never found him, as far as she knew.

This isn’t one of Evelyn’s most eccentric moments, but you can see her restless mind at work, wondering about the chairs, noticing the details of a missing man. We half expect her to go in search of him (she doesn’t). Hilde Hinton draws us into Evelyn’s world, so that we too come to notice the odd things that stand out for her, and find ourselves seeing the world with fresh eyes – not those of a child, but fresh all the same.

You can see the author’s mind playfully at work here too: is Phillip’s counter-intuitive advice about ringing the bell sensible, or are we being played with? Either way, it’s characteristic of this book that a man who when we first saw him was unable to find his own way home has practical wisdom to offer when he’s on his own turf.

There’s a faint hint here of Evelyn’s past. It’s the missing persons chart that she notices. The novel is full of such people: the young women’s missing friend, the mother of a little boy who calls on Evelyn as the only friendly adult in his life, potentially Evelyn herself. We gradually discover that she has had a number of previous lives. We learn almost no specifics, just enough of her childhood to know she was ill treated. We learn that she has walked out of her life a number of times and started over each time, so an undertow of suspense builds: this time, as she almost inadvertently builds a patchwork family around her, will she stay or will she go?

The search for this missing friend turns out to be a minor episode (they don’t actually find her, but the search is resolved). In terms of the longer arc, what is happening here is that Phillip is being drawn back into meaningful participation in society. He will go on to help solve the mystery and become part of Evelyn’s knocked-together community.

There are other great characters: Don, the man from the paint shop who is delighted by Evelyn; and the little boy and his drug-addicted mother. As the back-cover blurb says, Evelyn is going to make a difference in their lives, whether they like it or not. She’s a terrific character and this is an immensely enjoyable book. I’m grateful to the Struggling Artist, who picked it up more or less at random from the Marrickville Library shelves.

Ocean Vuong’s Time is a Mother

Ocean Vuong, Time Is a Mother (Cape Poetry 2022)

This book is dedicated ‘for Peter’ (who I’m guessing is the poet’s partner) and ‘for my mother, Lê Kim Hồng, called forward’. The inside front flap confirms what the dedication implies:

In this deeply intimate second poetry collection, Ocean Vuong searches for life among the aftershocks of his mother’s death, embodying the paradox of sitting within grief while being determined to survive beyond it. … Vuong contends with personal loss, the meaning of family and the value of joy in a perennially fractured American spirit.

In a 2020 interview with Seth Meyers (on YouTube here) promoting his novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Vuong spoke beautifully of his relationship with his mother. She must have died soon after the interview.

This is not a single-focus collection. It opens with ‘The Bull’, a dream-like encounter between a bull and the narrator as a boy (you can hear Vuong read it at this link). Like a dream, the poem invites a range of interpretations: could it be about vague adolescent guilt (‘I was a boy – which meant I was a murderer / of my childhood’), or religion (‘my god / was stillness. My god, he was still there’), or ambivalence about sex (‘I didn’t / want him. I didn’t want him to / be beautiful’), or a psychotic episode? It’s a suitably uncanny introduction to the book as a whole, which is – if nothing else – hard to pin down.

The next couple of poems likewise don’t insist on a single theme: if anything, mental illness seems to be taking centre stage. The first long poem, ‘Dear Peter’, is a verse letter apparently written in a psych hospital (it begins ‘they treat me well / here’).

But given the context of the poet’s mother’s death, these poems can be read as ’embodying’ the profoundly unsettling effects of grief. The last lines of ‘The Bull’, foe example, reveal that behind the image of the bull lies a sense of oneself as a grieving animal:

enough to hold. I
reached for him. I reached - not the bull - 
but the depths. Not an answer but 
an entrance the shape of 
an animal. Like me.

As in Vuong’s novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous (my blog post here), there’s a complex interplay between the author’s identity as a young gay man who migrated to the USA from Vietnam as a child, and his relationship to his mother and her experiences both before and after migration. For example, ‘Not Even’ (page 35) starts out with a witty take on the changing social status of gay men:


I used to be a fag now I'm a checkbox.

The pen tip jabbed in my back, I feel the mark of progress. 

Further on, a young woman at a party says to the poet: ‘You’re so lucky. You’re gay plus you get to write about war and stuff. I’m just white.’ The next lines are:

Because everyone knows yellow pain, pressed into American letters, turns to gold.

Our sorrow Midas touched. Napalm with a rainbow afterglow.

But the poem doesn’t stay at that satirical level. It goes to deeply felt issues of ‘war and stuff’, including the kindness of a stranger and, inevitably, his mother’s death, until it arrives at a stunning metaphor for emergence from grief – which I won’t quote here because you really do need to read the whole four pages to get its full effect. A slightly different version has been published by the Poetry Foundation website at this link.

Even a poem such as ‘Old Glory’, a non-rhyming sonnet that lists common US turns of phrase, doesn’t depart far from the theme of death and loss. It begins, ‘Knock ′em dead, big guy’, and ends, ‘I’m dead.’

As usual, I want to look at some of the poetry in close-up. I’ve picked page 75 arbitrarily (it’s my age – at least it was when I started this blog post), but it happens to fall part way through ‘Dear Rose’, the most powerful and interesting poem in the collection. You can read the whole poem at this link, with an elegant introduction by Ben Lerner.

For context, it’s a long poem, 33 eight-line stanzas, framed (like On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous) as an address to the poet’s mother. It recalls key moments from her life: a schoolhouse destroyed by napalm when she was six years old; her ostracism in Vietnam as the son of a white US soldier; her brother shot dead for stealing a chicken to feed her. Intermingled with these historical moments are some apparently random elements: the sight of an ant carrying its dead brother; memories of his mother making fish sauce from the salted corpses of ‘a garbage bag of anchovies’. Page 75 goes from mid-stanza 17 to stanza 21. In the image below, disregard the first word, a carry over from the previous line. It may help to know that ‘their’ in the first line refers to the fermenting anchovies:

First, a word about punctuation. There isn’t any. Even line-break and stanza-breaks don’t function as punctuation. One effect of this is to slow the reader down. Several times, even in this short passage, you have to stop and realise you’ve moved on to a new thought. The transition point isn’t always clear. In what follows you may well have a different notion of where the sense breaks fall. It’s worth noticing how meaning is often carried over the line-breaks and stanza-breaks (technical term: enjambment). The effect varies, but there’s usually a moment of suspense that’s resolved at the start of the next line (‘almost /-sauce’, ‘dissolved / by time’), or a slight surprise as the meaning changes or enlarges (‘like an animal / being drowned’, ‘the largest thing you knew / after god’).

enter within months their meat
will melt into brown mucus rot almost
-sauce the linear fish-spine dissolved 

by time at last pungent scent 
of ghosts

The fermenting anchovies are not a pretty sight, or smell. They entered the poem as a memory in their own right, but by this stage they’ve come to represent the process of memory, or perhaps of grief: there’s a promise that they will dissolve and develop into something useful, even delicious, but first there’s a lot of painful emotion (‘brown mucus rot’) to be endured. Not yet sauce, they are all that remains of those who have died, ghosts.

of ghosts you said you named me
after a body of water ′cause 
it's the largest thing you knew 
after god I stare at the silvered layers 

This abrupt shift of subject is one of many in this poem and elsewhere in Vuong’s poetry. The poem’s attention comes up out of the murk to a clear, simple memory, a many-times told tale, that speaks loud and clear how much his mother treasured him. But then:

after god  I stare at the silvered layers 
the shadowed line between two pressed fish 
is a finger in the dark gently remembered

There’s a difference between the familiar stories of the past, and the way some memories come unbidden and partial, ‘gently’, sometimes without context, like a shadowed line in the fermenting jar. In this case, it’s ‘a finger in the dark’ that’s remembered.

in the dark his finger 

on my lips Ma his shhh 
your friend the man watching me 
while you worked the late
shift in the Timex clock factory why 
am I thinking this now the gasped throats 
mottled pocked fins gently the door its blade 
of amber light widening as it opened 
shhh it sounds like an animal

being drowned as you churned 
the jar your yellow-white arms pink 
fish guts foaming up gently you must 
remember gently the man he's in 
the '90s still his face a black rose 
closing do you know 

This feels like a memory of sexual abuse. As I read it, the question, ‘Why amI thinking this now?’, is answered in the following words: ‘the gasped throats /mottled pocked fins’. Something about the image of the anchovies brings this memory up from the depths. The stanza break here is brilliant: the man’s ‘shhh’ sounds like an animal, and then the first words of the next stanza, ‘being drowned’, tie the memory back to the image of the anchovies as well as leaving no doubt about the nastiness of the remembered incident. I’m fascinated by the repetition of ‘gently’: usually with implications of tenderness, here it suggests stealth – both on the man’s part and on the way the memory steals into consciousness.

Colour is important in this poem. Pink, red, blue, amber, brown, white and black recur, each with a range of connotations, as if the disparate elements of the poem are tied together with coloured threads. The ominous blade of light here is the same colour as the New England light beneath which his mother started the fish sauce, as her hair, and as the anchovies themselves. The description of the man’s face as a black rose contrasts to Vuong’s mother, Hồng – meaning ‘rose’ – who is sometimes describes as pink, sometimes white.

The last phrase ‘do you know’ is the classic question of the abused child to the parent who might have been expected to protect them. Such a question demands to be included in this letter to the poet’s dead mother. But it goes no further, as the mother now speaks, beginning with the same phrase:

closing do you know 
what it's like my boy my 
boy you said sweating above the jar

to be the only one hated the only 
one the white enemy of your own 
country your own

You could read this as the mother being incapable of hearing the son’s story. And you’re probably right. But it’s like the extraordinarily powerful moment in On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous when Little Dog comes out to his mother, and just as he thinks his big dramatic moment is over she says, ‘Now I have something to tell you.’ It might not be ideal parenting for a mother to burden her little son with a story like this, but this is not a poem of reproach. Far from it. The poet is acutely aware of what his mother has endured – and by implication he has been aware of it since he was very young (‘My boy my / boy’), and it’s her life struggles and triumphs that

face the trees they were roaring 
above us red leaves leaving little cuts 
in the sky gently I touched 
your elbow the fish swirling 
in their gone merry-go-round

The final lines on this page bring us back to the moment when the mother is stirring the anchovies with her attentive son beside her. The ‘red leaves leaving little cuts / in the sky’ suggests that the exchange has left both of them still wounded, but this time ‘gently’ surely does suggest tenderness, and the merry-go-round is ‘gone’ – the issue can be left behind.

Over the page, as you’d expect, there is further complexity. As with fish sauce, the poem’s disparate elements, many of them horrible in themselves, are mixed together and allowed to work on each other to become an unexpectedly beautiful new thing. If you have a chance, do read the whole thing.

I read Time Is a Mother in honour of World Pride, which has recently dominated my part of the world. The book turns out to be a salutary counterweight to the relentlessly manic imagery with which commercial culture signifies its openness to the LGBTQIA+ community: self-questioning, generous and deeply serious.

Middlemarch: Progress report 5

George Eliot, Middlemarch: A study of provincial life (George Eliot, 1871–1872; Könemann 1997), chapter 47 to beginning chapter 59

This month, as usual, Middlemarch made its presence felt elsewhere than in the five pages I read each morning. Researching her family history, the Struggling Artist learned that her paternal ancestor who came to Australia roughly a decade after the events related in Middlemarch was a health practitioner who started out as a doctor and became an apothecary because that’s where the money lay after medical doctors were no longer able to sell drugs. This change in the law plays a big role in the fortunes of Middlemarch‘s Lydgate. He is in favour of the changes and the established medical men of the town, believing they will be deprived of much of their livelihood, take against him.

In last month’s progress report, I described the moment when Dorothea feels pity for Casaubon, her dried-up stick of a husband. I thought it was a central turning point, a hinge. Little did I know (spoiler alert) that the real turning point would turn up in the next day’s reading! He died.

This month, among the older generation there’s much buying and selling, some blackmail, some generosity to the younger generation, a near riot as the railway comes to town, and some apparent endorsement by George Eliot of appalling class attitudes and behaviour.

Among the younger generation, which is where our interest really lies, Dorothea is taking up the management of her inherited estate, while a codicil to Casaubon’s will says she will be disinherited if she marries Will Ladislaw – which if it becomes known will create the impression that the two young people have been having a dalliance (nothing could be further from Dorothea’s mind or Will’s upright nature, though it’s what we want for them both). In the hope of winning Mary’s hand, Fred has given up any intention of becoming a clergyman, but he has discovered, and inadvertently alerted Mary to the fact, that the altogether decent, but older, Mr Farebrother has his hopes set on her too. Rosamond, who only last month revealed that she was pregnant, has had a miscarriage probably caused by going riding against her husband’s advice, and there’s a brilliant scene when Lydgate tells her about their financial crisis expecting her to see it as their shared problem, only to find that their understandings of the world, including in particular of their marriage, are separated by a huge gulf.

Today the narrative returns to the vexed issue of Dorothea and Will’s prospects. At least, that’s where I think we’re heading. Chapter 59 begins with this wonderful sentence, a nice example of Eliot’s way with similes, and of her wry understanding of how good intentions don’t guarantee good outcomes:

News is often dispersed as thoughtlessly and effectively as that pollen which the bees carry off (having no idea how powdery they are) when they are buzzing in search of their particular nectar.

While visiting the Farebrother household Fred learns about the codicil to Casaubon’s will. He, who ‘knew little and cared less about Ladislaw and the Casaubons’, wants to avoid being scolded tiresomely by his sister for having given up the Church, and passes the news on to distract her. Who knows what his sister, gorgeous and totally lacking in empathy, will do with the information? It’s not like her to keep any cat in any bag.

The suspense is massive.

2023 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards

Who knows who will be Premier at the awards ceremony in May, but the shortlist was announced on 1 March while Dom Perrottet is still in the offices. The list can be bit hard to read on the State Library site. Here it is in one quick look, with links to the judges comments.

Christina Stead Prize

UTS Glenda Adam’s Award for New Writing

Douglas Stewart Prize for Non-fiction

Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry

Patricia Wrightson Prize for Children’s Literature

Ethel Turner Prize for Young People’s Literature

Nick Enright Prize for Playwriting

Betty Roland Prize for Scriptwriting

Multicultural NSW Award

NSW Premier’s Translation Prize

Indigenous Writers’ Prize

The winners are announced on 22 May. With any luck there will be a break from recent practice and the Premier, whoever it is, will make the presentations.

I’m in no position to predict winners, having read or seen very few of the shortlisted titles, loved some, found one mediocre and one unreadable. All the same, I’d happily risk a large sum on The Australian Wars for the Betty Roland, and a moderate amount on Jaguar for the Kenneth Slessor. It will be interesting to see what happens if Anonymous wins the Translation Prize. Whatever, that’s an impressive list for anyone stuck for something to read.

Reading with the Grandies 32: Digger, Digger and Despereaux

The world has changed since my last post about grandparental reading. Our granddaughter has started school, which means that her little brother now goes to Day Care without her reassuring presence. They both still like to be read to. Here are some of the titles that now have a look-in among the established favourites such as Catwings, Grug, Mrs Wobble the Waitress or Fantastic Mr Fox.

Sally Sutton, illustrated by Brian Lovelock, Dig, Dump, Roll (Walker Books Australia 2018)

For a brief time, our grandparentng days included the reading time at our nearest bricks and mortar bookshop, Harry Hartog’s in the Marrickville Metro. On one of our attendances we asked the brilliant ukulele-playing book reader to include a book about diggers as a treat for our two-year-old grandson. She obliged, and made a sale for which we are immensely grateful.

It’s a simple book, first published in Australia but now available from Candlewick in the USA and Walker in the UK. It’s structured as a series of riddles: What’s that making that noise? Here’s a hint … [Turn the page] … machinery revealed. The book’s refrain has now entered permanently into the vocabulary of the two year old and the five year old as well as their grandparents: ‘Digger digger coming through!’

An added topical bonus is that we discover at the end that all the machinery and the builders have been constructing a school: ‘You can learn and play here too.’

Hervé Tullet, Press Here (Allen & Unwin, first published in France as Un Livre by Bayard Editions 2010)

This is a terrific piece of design. One spread presents an image of one or more coloured dots with an instruction (‘Press here and turn the page’, ‘Tilt the page to the left’, and so on). The next spread reveals the result of your action. The dots multiply, change colour, move around the page, get bigger and smaller. It’s a wonderful book to read and be read to, and I’ve seen people of various ages having a nice time with it.

The English translator isn’t named. It may have been designer Hervé Tullet himself. Whoever it was did a magnificent job.

Esphyr Slobodkina, Caps for Sale (©1940)

We may have a copy of this in a box somewhere. I remember enjoying it with our children, and now it’s been read to us by the marvellous Lisa at Balmain Library Storytime.

A troupe of monkeys steal a pedlar’s caps from his head while he’s asleep. He tries everything he can think of to get his caps back, and in the end manages it in an unexpected way. The language is wonderfully incantatory, and apart from sheer enjoyment value, there’s plenty to exercise young minds – the range of colours, numbers, and of course the overarching problem to be solved.

Esphyr Slobodkina was a Russian-born avant garde artist and feminist, and this is brilliant.

Kate diCamillo, The Tale of Despereaux (Being the Story of a Mouse, a Princess, Some Soup, and a Spool of Thread) (Walker Books 2003)

I may be posting about this prematurely, as we’re only a couple of chapters in – it’s a big chapter book. But both Nana / the Emerging Artist and I are enjoying it immensely, and Granddaughter listened wide-eyed.

I did read parts of this decades ago, but it’s brilliantly fresh this time around.

The princess, known as Pea, isn’t all that keen on the business of choosing a suitor, but is very taken by a little mouse, the Despereaux of the book’s title, who is entranced by her beauty. The mouse breaks some of the most sacred rules of mousekind by first letting humans see him, then letting one of them (Pea) touch him, and then – oh horror! – speaking to them. But what are you gong to do when the most beautiful creature you’ve ever seen doesn’t think you’re an ugly, big-eared runt, but thinks you’re cute, with cute ears?

We do a lot of reading. Small amounts of Paw Patrol, My Little Pony, Peppa Pig. These blog posts are selective.