Category Archives: Books

Evie Wyld’s All the Birds, Singing

Evie Wyld, All the Birds, Singing (Vintage 2013)

wyld.jpgMy copy of All the Birds, Singing announces on the cover that it won the Miles Franklin Award in 2014. As I read the first chapter, which is set in a generic British countryside, I wondered about that prize, given the insistence in past years that the Miles Franklin winner had to be set in Australia. The first paragraph of the second chapter put my questioning to rest:

We are a week from the end of the job in Boodarie. I’m in the shower at the side of the tractor shed watching the thumb-sized redback that’s always sat at the top of the shower head. She hasn’t moved at all except to raise a leg when I turn on the tap, like the water’s too cold for her.

Then, as if Boodarie and the redback aren’t enough to signal that we are now in rural Australia, the next paragraph lays it on thick:

The day has been a long and hot one – the tip of March, and under the crust of the galvo roof the air in the shearing shed has been thick like soup, flies bloating about in it. […] The first stars are bright needles, and in the old Moreton Bay fig that hangs over the tractor shed and drops nuts on the roof while I sleep, a currawong and a white galah are having it out; I can hear the blood-thick bleat of them. A flying fox goes overhead and just like that the smell of the place changes and night has settled in the air.

The novel continues in alternate chapters. On an unnamed British island, the protagonist has a small sheep farm, and someone or something is killing her sheep. In Australia, some years earlier, she is a lone woman shearer, with a dark secret in her past. On the island, she has to deal with a series of men who refuse to take her story of a sheepkiller seriously. In Australia, the telling moves back in time through a series of unfortunate incidents, mostly involving physical and sexual abuse by men.

It’s a good read, but I have to tell you that if, like me, you prefer a book that sets up a mystery to arrive at a solution to that mystery, you will want, like me, to throw this one across the room when you reach the final pages.

All the Birds, Singing is the fifth book I’ve read for the 2018 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Beverley Farmer’s This Water

Beverley Farmer, This Water (Giramondo 2017)

5tales.jpgThis Water is Beverley Farmer’s tenth book. Her first, the novel Alone, was published in 1980. Her short story collection Milk won the Christina Stead Prise for Fiction in 1984. She was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award in the 1990s, and in 2009 she received the Patrick White Award, given each year in November to an Australian writer ‘who has been highly creative over a long period but has not necessarily received adequate recognition’.

As Alexis Wright said in her acceptance speech for this year’s Stella Prize, ‘any book is nothing less than a monumental achievement’. To have written book after book as Beverley Farmer has done, with just enough recognition from those who bestow cultural credibility, is beyond monumental.

I haven’t read any of her earlier work, apart from an essay or perhaps two in the late lamented Heat, but I suspect that This Water represents something like a Late Style. There’s something about its five stories that signals a grand indifference to fashion or indeed to how any reader might judge them. They are:

  • ‘A Ring of Gold’, which features an old white woman living alone (though surrounded by other people) in coastal Victoria, long after the death of her husband and her only sustaining relationships being in memory and with the natural world. I thought of this as a kind of Portrait of the Artist as an Old Woman, only deliberately leaving out the art-making
  • ‘This Water’ and ‘The Blood Red of Her Silks’, two tales in the mode of Celtic stories of princesses and curses. Unlike the magnificent tellings of such stories for young readers by the late Ruth Manning Sanders, or for that matter Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘The Wild Swans’, these – especially the second, much longer one – leave their folk origins to tell challenging adult tales (adult in the sense of grappling with difficult ideas)
  • ‘Tongue of Blood’, a monologue from a figure from Ancient Greek tragedy
  • ‘The Ice Bride’, the longest of the tales. With motifs and structural elements from fairy tales – especially “Bluebeard’ and ‘Beauty and the Beast’, and perhaps a gender-reversed ‘The Snow Queen’ – this is a deeply creepy, dream-like fantasy. I haven’t read Fifty Shades of Grey, and I imagine that this is infinitely better written, but the abject dependence of the female protagonist on her ‘Lord’ made me think of that book.

None of the characters in any of the tales has a name.

I can’t say I loved the book, but it’s beautifully written, uncompromising in its commitment to exploring aspects of women’s experience, and strong enough that when ‘light year’ is referred to as a measure of time (‘Our dreams are like the stars. What we see is light years ago.’) my irritation was forgotten within a couple of pages. If you plan to read just one of the stories, I recommend ‘The Blood Red of Her Silks’.

This Water is the fourth book I’ve read for the 2018 Australian Women Writers Challenge. I gratefully acknowledge that my copy is a gift from Giramondo.

China Miéville’s Scar

China Miéville, The Scar (Del Rey Books 2002)

scar.jpgThis was another gift from the Street Library gods. A couple of pages into it, I realised that it was set in the same world as China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station, which I read many years ago. It’s not a sequel. As far as I recall (which I admit isn’t far) no characters have made the transition from the earlier book, but it packs a similar narrative punch and is populated by a similar range of fantastical creatures who engage in the same blend of steampunk science and magic (thaumaturgy) in the same teemingly complex universe (which I hope never gets made into a CGI-based movie).

The story involves an immense sea monster that is tamed and/or drugged into towing on huge chains a pirate city made up of hundreds of lashed-together vessels small and large. It features sentient beings known as the anophelii, whose chronically famished females attack any creature with blood in its veins and suck it dry in seconds, and whose males, whose mouths resemble anal sphincters, live lives of weirdly passive abstraction. It includes, not necessarily in order of importance, vampir (sic) bureaucrats, cactus people, probability mining (I won’t try to explain), fabulously bloody sea battles, a sweetly tragic love story (not of the romantic variety), a vast crack in the universe, and a charming account of the process of learning to read.

I read somewhere that a secret of good fantasy writing is to give the reader cool stuff now, and then cooler stuff later – that is, not to have a terrific climax preceded by a hundred pages of so-so build-up. The Scar is profligate with cool stuff.

I could go on, but I’ll finish off with a taste of Miéville’s prose (I don’t think it’s a spoiler to tell you that the characters are descending in a tiny deep-sea vehicle):

After uncountable minutes, the darkness outside was momentarily broken, and the crew gasped as time returned to them like an electryc [sic] shock. Some living lamp was passing them by, some tentacular thing that inverted its body with a peristaltic wave, enveloping itself in its luminescent innards and shooting away, its austere glimmer snuffed out.
Chion ignited the lamp at the bathyscaphos’s front. It stuttered on, its phosphorous glow casting a cone of light. They could see its edges as clearly as if they were marble. There was nothing visible in the lamp’s field except a soup of minute detritus, particles that seemed to eddy upward as the Ctenophore plunged. There was nothing to see: no ocean floor, no life, nothing.That crushing emptiness they had illuminated depressed them more profoundly than the darkness. They descended unlit.

The book may not be to everyone’s taste, but I found it full of delights.

Rose Tremain’s Restoration

Rose Tremain, Restoration (©1989, Sceptre 1990)

Irestoration.jpg read this book – another gift from strangers by way of our little Street Library – while in London with the Moving Hearts Project, which regular readers will know involves shaping hearts from clay. It was a lovely bit of serendipity that in the first couple of pages the narrator, an anatomy student in the mid 17th century, is ‘forced to contemplate an astounding phenomenon’:

I am encircling a human heart, a living human heart with my hand. I am now, in fact, squeezing it with controlled but not negligible force.

I had been doing the same with a heart of clay just minutes before I read that.

Robert Merivel, the narrator–hero, quits medicine for the pleasures and intrigues of the court of Charles II, where he sees himself as a kind of beloved fool. His fortunes rise, and fall dramatically. He finds himself working with an austere group of Quakers in an insane asylum, and again falls from grace. Merivel is his own worst enemy: his heart is in the right place but another part of his anatomy is too often in the wrong one. The book is often very funny, with moments of tenderness and heartbreak.

I haven’t read Pepys’ journals, but I’m guessing that the book owes quite a lot of its tone and ambience to them. I’m pretty sure that Pepys himself makes a brief unnamed appearance.

I enjoyed the book hugely. It was an extra pleasure to read it in London. I regularly walked around Lambeth and Vauxhall, where Merivel rides his horse through the woods (no woods there now), or beside the Thames as Merivel does. The echoes intensified my enjoyment of both the real and the imagined London. Though it doesn’t snow in the novel as it did in my time there, and there was no plague that I knew of in 2018 London, I was particularly struck by this little moment, which also gives some idea of Merivel’s voice:

I stood still and took my first breath of the city. The scent of the air dod not seem to have been altered by the presence of the plague. What I did notice at once, however, was a strange quietness in the street and beyond it, which was like the quietness of snow. It was as if the city had fallen into a trance, or else become a place that I was not really standing it, but only saw and heard from a long way off.

I gather Merivel is the hero of a second book by Rose Tremain. If it turns up in our Street Library it will be hard to resist.

Roxane Gay, Ta-Nehisi Coates and others’ Black Panther

Roxane Gay, Ta Nehisi-Coates, Yona Harvey and Rembert Browne (writers), Alitha E Martinez and Roberto Poggio (main artists) and others, Black Panther: World of Wakanda (Marvel 2017)
Ta-Nehisi Coates & Yona Harvey (writers), Scott Hanna (main pencils), Dan Brown (main colorist) and others, Black Panther & the Crew (Marvel 2017)

My resolve not to read any more superhero comics weakened when, soon after seeing Ryan Coogler’s fabulous Black Panther movie, I spotted these books written by, among others, Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of Between the World and Me, and Roxane Gay, who was a fabulous guest at last year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival. I bought them as a gift for the son who generally gives me comics – and read them first.

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I’ve been lured to superhero comics by big name writers before, and been disappointed. Josh Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men and Neil Gaiman’s Marvel 1602 left me cold. Alas, so did these two.

World of Wakanda comprises three origin stories of characters who I assume feature in the Black Panther series proper. There’s a permeating sense that the main action is happening between episodes of these stories or is yet to come. Occasional footnotes refer the reader to other comics. Oddly, even some of the key moments in Roxane Gay’s story, which is the longest and most interesting, happen off the page.

Without the in-house Marvel elements, Gay’s story is of a kind that’s banned from my (mostly Lesbian) Book Club: a Lesbian story in which the Lesbianism is not incidental to the plot. I’m guessing that for Marvel cult members the story will work as thrilling feminist subversion of the prevailing indiviualistic male domination. I can applaud that at a notional level, but meh, I’m not part of the target readership. bp&C

Black Panther and the Crew is another origin story. Again, as evidence that I’m not the target readership, I found the superhero elements a fairly repugnant intrusion into a story about African American politics. I was with Brecht’s Galileo: ‘Unhappy is the land that needs a hero.’ I also found it hard to follow at times, possibly because unlike proper Marvel readers I don’t recognise the superheroes who make up ‘the Crew’ (and before them ‘the Crusaders’) and almost certainly because my grasp of Marvel’s visual language is patchy.

Both books include advertisements for the three volumes of Black Panther: The World Beneath Our Feet, the main Black Panther story written by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Even if I don’t read those myself, I’ll keep an eye out so I can include them in my gift to my son.

Amitav Ghosh’s Flood of Fire

Amitav Ghosh, Flood of Fire (Straus and Giroux 2015)

flood.jpgWhen we set up a street library out the front of our house, we intended it as a way to send books from our shelves to good homes. We hadn’t thought about the reverse traffic: this book is like a gift from the benevolent Street Library deity. I loved the first two books in the Ibis trilogy when I read them for the book group some time back. When this third book urned up on our front fence I  snuffled it gleefully.

I started reading it on the plane from Sydney to Singapore and finished it after a little more than a week in London, where I’m staying in culturally diverse Walworth (or SE17, to use the locals’ preferred term). That’s an eminently appropriate way to have read it.

The flood of the title is the firepower unleashed on China by the British in what is now known as the First Opium War in the mid nineteenth century, and the vivid account of that assault, including the brutal use made of Indian sepoys, is a salutary reminder of the blood-soaked foundations of England’s prosperity. By happy coincidence I just found this in my twitter feed:

That – or at least the similar events a couple of decades earlier – is the big historical event that provides the context and is front and centre for quite a lot of the narrative, but on the way we follow the adventures of a handful of characters who sailed on the Ibis in the first book, and whose paths continue to cross in unexpected ways. There’s comedy, melodrama, romantic tragedy, a sustained bawdy episode, and always a dizzying interplay of cultures.

I love the way Amitav Ghosh incorporates his research into the narrative. To give just one small instance, after an encounter in which the Chinese forces were routed:

There were corpses everywhere, many of them with black scorch-marks on their tunics. On some, the clothes were still burning: looking more closely, Kesri saw that the fires were caused by a fault in the defenders’ equipment. The powder for their guns was carried not in cartridges, as was the case with the British troops, but in rolled-up paper tubes. These tubes were kept in a powder-pouch that was strapped across the chest. In the course of the fighting the flaps of these pouches would fly open, spilling powder over the soldiers’ tunics; the powder was then set alight by the wicks and flints of their matchlocks.

I don’t suspect for a moment that Ghosh has made this up. Along with the horror, you can sense the novelist’s exhilaration in finding such telling details. I suppose you might read it as an info-dump that distracts from the story, but from my point of view it’s an info-dump that enriches the story with a sense of historical truth.

Similarly, I relish Ghosh’s seemingly endless play with language. I’d call this inventive if it didn’t seem to be the result of arduous research into the many englishes of South, Eastern and South-east Asia. This play is everywhere, but nowhere more joyful than in the pages where a sternly moralistic mem sah’b demonstrates her vast repertoire of synonyms for male masturbation. There a re many sentences elsewhere that, if taken out of context, would be mystifying. I defy you to guess the meaning of, ‘It isn’t decent for a girl to talk to mysteries.’

I had one discontent as I read. Neeti, the character who was in some ways the warm heart of the first book, is no longer a presence. We left her on Mauritius in the second book, and this one is set entirely in India, China and places nearby. But Ghosh is no idiot. My discontent was surprisingly and satisfactorily dealt with in the very last page.

Overland 229

Jacinda Woodhead (editor), Overland 229 (Summer 2017)

overland229My blog post about Overland 228 ended with a lament that I had lost my copy before I could finish reading it. To my surprise and delight, a couple of days after my blog post went up, I received a replacement copy in the mail with a friendly note from Jacinda Woodhead. I don’t know what pleased me more, the kindness of the gift or the fact that someone on Overland‘s staff had read my post all the way through. (I realise just now that I didn’t write to thank her. Better late than never: Thank you, Jacinda, especially for the chance to read Jennifer Mills’ conversation with Peter Carey.)

There’s lots of good stuff in issue 229, but I’m travelling and have to be brief. So here’s a list of things I found particularly wonderful:

  •  ‘Indefatigable Wings‘ by Allan Drew, which argues the case for the continuing influence John Milton, of Paradise Lost fame. The argument doesn’t completely convince, but it’s refreshing.
  • Napalm, guns & underwear‘, in which Aotaroan / New Zealander Michalia Arathimos tells the story of her Maori environmental activist partner’s arrest (and subsequently release) on terrorism charges. It’s a tale of dangerous absurdity.
  • Sleeping the deep, deep sleep‘ by Dean Biron and Suzie Gibson, an essay about the state of the world which begins with the photograph of the Earth taken from Apollo 17 in 1972 and ends with Voyager I’s 1990 photograph. Carl Sagan’s description of the latter photograph as showing ‘a tiny blue dot suspended in a sunbeam’ takes on tragic resonances. (I also liked the phrase ‘rouge states’, which may have been an original typo or, I hope, a typo quoted from the Spectator.
  • On sovereignty‘, a column by Tony Birch spelling out the epochal implications of the Turnbull cabinet’s summary rejection of the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

Every edition of  Overland includes the results of at least one writing competition. (Long may the practice continue!) This issue has the third Fair Australia Prize, sponsored by the NUW in partnership with the MEAA and the NTEU: a poem, a short fiction, an essay and a cartoon. The Member Winner, ‘Beyond the Bridge to Nowhere‘ by Michael Dulaney, an essay about lead pollution in a South Australian town, is among the outstanding pieces in a generally excellent issue.

Kathleen Jamie’s Bonniest Companie

Kathleen Jamie, The Bonniest Companie (Pan Macmillan 2016)

companie.jpg

This book was a Christmas present from a friend who may have thought of me when she read that the book resulted from Kathleen Jamie’s project of writing a poem every week in 2014. I had a similar project, maybe even that same year.

My resulting rhymes went up on the fridge for a time and then mostly were seen no more, for which the world should be glad. Conversely, the world can be glad that Kathleen Jamie’s results are collected here – though there are slightly fewer than 52, so maybe, unlikely as it seems, there were a couple of duds.

Kathleen Jamie is a Scottish poet. You can read her Wikipedia entry here, and a 2012 article by Sarah Crown in the Guardian here. 2014 was the year of the Scottish independence referendum, and at least one of these poems refers to that explicitly. All the poems have to do with Scotland one way or another: the language moves back and forth between standard English and Scottish; the wild creatures and landscape are always present. But I’ll stick to my policy of picking just one poem:

world tree002

I love the sound of this, as of these poems in general. In its sense, I recognise that experience of something remembered from childhood looming large in your mind in the present moment, with a new question about it. Here the speaker asks what kind of tree, as in what species, but she conjures up childhood memories that are full of a different kind of kind: tree as boundary, as relic, as something damaged, as a place for scary stories, magic and lore, as something not completely separate from herself (‘your sap in me’).

The bits of Scottish language – ‘yon’, ‘wee’, ‘gloaming’, ‘bour’ – link the adult speaker back to her childhood language. At least that’s how it reads to me: I imagine the speaker has had a more emphatic version of my experience of losing the accent and linguistic tics of my North Queensland childhood as I was educated into standard Australian in southern climes.

Anyhow, the last line performs a nice twist. The expected question is something like, ‘why this charged memory comes back so vividly after years of not being thought about’. But childhood memories just do that when one is of a certain age, and really to ask why would be futile. But the poem opens with a different question, and the last line brings us back to it: why do I ‘suddenly care’ about the kind of tree? Why does the mind, having gone back to a childhood experience, ask a question that was of no interest during all the years of the experience (‘from infancy to the gloaming of the teens’)? The tone is ambiguous: it could be like, ‘Why should I care about such an irrelevancy?’ or ‘What strange ways of the mind have made this interesting after all this time?’ Or, actually, both.

The title, ‘World Tree’, suggests a generalisation from the experience, that the poem is about the difference between a child’s immersive relationship to the world, and an adult’s more analytic one. The resonances then run deep.

But I’m out of time. It’s a terrific book.

 

Lachlan Brown’s Lunar Inheritance

Lachlan Brown, Lunar Inheritance (Giramondo 2017)

Lunar-Inheritance At the beginning of 2013, the Carriageworks in Sydney hosted Song Dong’s extraordinary art installation, Waste Not, in which we were invited to walk about in the skeleton of a small house, along narrow pathways among the neatly arranged items that were found in the artist’s mother’s house when she died. The hundreds of duplicate humble household items – cakes of soap, hairbrushes, spectacles, shoes, plastic bowls, eggbeaters – had an uncanny power, like mute witnesses of a life lived with scrupulous thrift. As Song Dong says in the video below, the installation struck a chord with Chinese viewers: ‘This is not just your home. It is our home too.’

Lachlan Brown invokes that work in an epigraph to Lunar Inheritance*, and as we read on we realise it is a literal reminder of his own Chinese grandmother’s hoarding, as well as a rich metaphor for his own complex diasporic cultural heritage.

The book is neatly structured: two poems each consisting of eight eight-line stanzas (or call them sub-poems, because they don’t have the continuity of narrative or argument suggested by ‘stanza’), followed by a tightly rhyming sonnet; repeat four times; then one more 8×8 poem, and a final 7×8. Each of the sub-poems has a title in parenthesis.

As the structure suggests, the book has an over-all unity, which is woven from several strands: memories of growing up Chinese in rural New South Wales, memories of the poet’s grandmother, notes from a visit to China where, as the cover blurb puts it, ‘amidst the incessant construction and consumption of twenty-first century China, a shadowy heritage reveals and withholds itself.’

The book is exhilarating . There are so many beautifully crafted phrases, moments captured with brilliant clarity, sharp observations, surprising connections and juxtapositions – so much mind at play!

But I’m sticking to my policy of talking about just one poem, here’s the second page – the third and fourth ‘sub-poems’ – from the book’s third 8×8 poem, ‘Self Storage’:

brown

(I had to look up a couple of words. KTV is Chinese Karaoke. Sorites is a term used in philosophy, but as far as I can tell that’s a red herring: it’s Greek for ‘heap’. Soteriology is the branch of theology that deals with salvation [I knew that]. I don’t expect many of my readers will have trouble with ‘HK’ or ‘KFC’.)

The first of these looks at first glance like a pure tourist poem, an outsider’s satirical observations with a bit of intellectual showing off in the reflection on ‘capitalism’s iterative power’ and a hint of traveller’s condescension in the description of the karaoke singers. Even the complex observation about the connection between poverty reduction and KTV as a kind of salvation is made from an outsider’s viewpoint. (Incidentally, the pun created by the line break ‘red-/uction’ is one of the sweet, sharp moments that make me love this book,) But the title, ‘(grandmothercountry)’, sets up a counter-current: even without reference to other poems in the book, it lets us know that the speaker is on some kind of quest to explore his heritage wit the result that the touristic commentary is tinged with deep melancholy. I doubt if Lachlan Brown had A D Hope’s 1962 poem ‘A Letter from Rome‘ in mind,  but the final reference to moped alarms reminds me of Hope’s final lament about motor scooters in Rome:

A song the Sybil’s murmur taught to grow
From age to age, until the centuries
Heard the high trumpets in their passion blow,
Now lost in mindless roar from the abyss.
The parables of history can show
Surely no sadder irony than this
Which brings that noble, intellectual voice
To drown in trivial and distracting noise.

The second poem doesn’t obviously follow on from the first, but the title does suggest links: ‘another traveller’s song’ locates the poem as sung by a traveller (remembering home, as it turns out), and ‘sorites’, a hi-falutin word for ‘heap’, is a part anagram of ‘soteriology’ – which you notice because both words stand out like sore thumbs – perhaps suggesting that there’s some kind of salvation to be found in grandmother’s piles. If so, that salvation isn’t worth much more than the salvation offered by karaoke.

But isn’t it a terrific eight lines? The piles of clothes that fill the room the way Sydney summer light does – which means completely; hoarding as a gesture of futile hope so beautifully embodied in the image of tracksuited ghosts of people who will never exist; the final line, its whispers a slight echo of the tone-deaf singing of the previous piece, so poignantly capturing the paradox that the piles of clothes embody both a hope and its pathetic nature.

I recommend this book. But don’t take my word for it. Eileen Chong has a brilliant review in the Sydney Review of Bookshere.

I gratefully acknowledge that Giramondo Publishing give me my copy of Lunar Inheritance.

—–
* ‘In Beijing as well as in Gwanjiu and Berlin, it evoked strong responses from the audience, some of whom wept in front of it as if encountering a long lost friend or relative.’ The other epigraphs are Matthew 6:19 and lines from contemporary Chinese poet Ya Sha‘s ‘The Ancient City’: ‘what’s the use of writing poetry / in this ancient city / since the new era has arrived’).

Kate Middleton, Passage

Kate Middleton, Passage (Giramondo 2017)

passage.jpg

Most of the poems in Passage are either erasures or centos.

/Explanatory note for the benefit of readers who know even less than I do:/
Cento is defined in my excellent Gepp & Haigh Latin–English dictionary (1888) as ‘a poem or composition made up of scraps from various authors or parts of an author’. A basic, nonsensical nursery-rhyme cento, for example, might be:

The mouse ran up the clock
to fetch a pail of water.
He put in his thumb,
see how they run,
How does your garden grow?

An erasure is created by erasing some or most of another piece of writing. I enjoy making them from newspaper columns that annoy me.  Here’s one based on a recent attack on the #changethedate movement:

erasure005-e1517140699925.jpg

/End explanatory note/

Both forms can be fun, but when, as in Kate Middleton’s work, the source material isn’t well known or readily available, and the poem is longer and more than a fun game, questions arise that I don’t know the answers to.

Given my new policy of just talking about a single poem when blogging about poetry books, I was tempted to choose one of Kate Middleton’s fine poems that aren’t centos or erasures or in some other way symbiotic with another text (such as the handful that are responses to episodes of a TV show I’ve never heard of). There are plenty of such fine poems –  but to choose one of them would feel craven. So here’s the cento ‘Elegance’, which I’ve singled out because I’ve read its source text, Luke Carman’s An Elegant Young Man.

elegance006.jpg

It’s possible to read this without any attention to its cento-ness. The opening couplet announces an emotional tone and names a locality. The next two stanzas sketch an unprepossessing urban landscape – this is not the West of movies but western Sydney. Then the poem turns to address the person looking at this landscape, and becomes a portrait of a writer as one who conceals his metaphorical knife in public, is loud alone at home, and struggles to avoid clichés (‘ordinary answers’).

It’s a cento not only from Luke Carman but for him. Writing cover letters to nowhere is a pretty nice description of a writer’s job, and the references to chance and repeated falls are extraordinarily apposite to the way Carman’s writing often mimics an intense distractibility, and so much of it is about his own social awkwardness and other struggles.

It’s a sweet tribute. By the end, one wants to revisit the capitalised ‘West’ from the second line. Carman is a kind of Western hero after all, even though his West is not Monument Valley, but Western Sydney.

So what does it mean that the poem is a cento?

Being by profession a proofread type editor, and by inclination a bit pernickety, I got out my copy of An Elegant Young Man. I didn’t have time to reread it all, but I read enough to find some of the poem’s source text. ‘Barred shopfronts flicker phantasmic blue’ is distilled from ‘shuttered-up Asian supermarkets and squash centres and brick unit blocks with TV flickering a phantasmic blue through the windows’. ‘I guess you’re like a minor Aussie character / in movies’ comes from this: ‘I mostly stood still and tried to seem happy-go-lucky, like those minor Aussie characters in movies like Chopper and  Getting Square’.

So Kate Middleton hasn’t been rigid in quoting the original. As the Emerging Artist said, she’s referencing the text rather than quoting it. In these examples, she leaves out the detail of the shopfronts and the TV, and the happy-go-lucky appearance (which is ironic in its original context anyhow). It’s not just referencing, but also repurposing. She finds in Carman’s text words that describe him in relationship to the milieu that is his subject in ways that he (presumably) wouldn’t think to describe himself. It’s a kind of alchemy.

I still don’t know how the longer centos work, from writers including Siri Hustvedt, Eliot Weinberger and Sir John Mandeville; or erasures that run to several pages. I’m happy to leave that question to better informed readers than I am.

Passage is the third book I’ve read for the 2018 Australian Women Writers Challenge. I was given a complimentary copy by Giramondo, for which horizon-expanding gift I am grateful.