Just under a year ago I became a grandfather. My granddaughter isn’t up to Sendak or Roald Dahl yet, of course. She’s barely up to Eric Hill’s Where’s Spot, Ted Prior’s Grug or Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar, though she listens attentively to readings from them, as well as Judy Horacek and Mem Fox’s Where Is the Green Sheep? and any number of excellent board books supplied by her excellent parents.
My own interest in children’s literature has been undergoing a revival independent of the granddaughter’s needs or interests. When I saw Leaf Stone Beetle on the shelf at Gleebooks, I couldn’t resist: Ursula Dubosarsky has written a number of brilliant novels for children, and Gaye Chapman is a formidable, adventurous illustrator. The book will probably belong to a grandniece in less than three weeks, but I have enjoyed it first.
It’s a beautifully produced little book, just 36 pages, that tells a little story about three things – vegetable, mineral, animal, leaf, stone, beetle – each of which/whom is affected by a storm, which brings them together for a moment. That’s it. That’s the whole story. Small illustrations of the leaf, stone and beetle are scattered through the pages, and there are three spreads showing the storm, one for each of the ‘characters’.
My grandniece will no doubt have a different take, but I responded to it as a lyrical embrace of a world where anything can happen, where life is precarious and finite, where there is profound comfort to be found in the sense that one’s small existence is part of the great processes of nature. The text is exquisite, and the drawings burst with energy.
Pat Barker is one of the great war novelists. Mostly she has written about the wars of the 20th century, most notably in her Regeneration trilogy. The Silence of the Girls goes back to the first war story in western literature, and tackles the Trojan War. She’s not the first to do so: in recent years, David Malouf’s novel Ransom focuses on the episode where King Priam begs Achilles to hand over the corpse of his son, Hector, and Alice Oswald’s stunning book of poetry Memorial excavates the Iliad, consisting mainly of translations of the death scenes. The Silence of the Girls tells Achilles’ part of the story, mostly from the point of view of his trophy slave Briseis.
Some readers have complained that though the book sets out to tell the story of the women, whose voices are unheard in the original text, the men’s stories are still central and much more interesting than the women’s. I don’t see it that way. I think the book sets out to tell the story of Achilles, bringing to bear Briseis’ perspective as a non-combatant who is generally regarded as a prize rather than as fully human. I don’t think Pat Barker sets out to subvert the tale of Achilles’ heroics and passions so much as to contextualise them and enrich our understanding of them.
There are a couple of pages in The Silence of the Girls describing the deaths of individuals at Achilles’ hands that I would have assumed were Pat Barker’s invention if I hadn’t read Alice Oswald’s filleted translation (yes, I haven’t actually read the Iliad): the original makes the brutality of warfare viscerally explicit. What Barker does add is Briseis’ imaginings of how the slain men’s mothers must have seen them as children. The book asks, and sets out to answer, not so much the plaintive question, ‘What about the women?’ as the much more interesting ones, ‘Where were the women and what did they think about it all?’
Speaking a couple of years ago at a seminar on Poetry and the Sacred at the Catholic University, David Malouf offered a definition of prayer as paying close attention. If one accepts that definition, then An Open Book is full of prayer: attention to the environment, to relationships, to small children playing, to tiny moments, to his own fleeting thoughts and feelings. There’s also close attention to language, in particular the kind of attention that translation demands.
This means that for the reader the book offers many things that make you go hmmm, or ah, and sometimes oof!
The title, An Open Book, could look like a publisher’s little joke: that is, it’s a kind of label – ‘This is a book.’ But there’s more to it: it makes you think the sentence, ‘My life is an open book,’ and the book does follow the trajectory of a life’. It pretty much begins with a series entitled ‘Kinderszenen’, German for ‘Scenes from childhood’, and ends with a number of poems about old age and the anticipation of death. It follows in the poet’s footsteps from the Brisbane of his childhood, to London, the village of Campagnatico in Tuscany, Myrtle Street in Chippendale, and back to Brisbane.
One of the childhood poems, ‘The Open Book’, suggests pretty strongly that while the book may be in some way autobiographical, it’s not offering us a writer stripped bare:
My mother could read me, or so she claimed, like a book. Fair warning! But I too was a reader and knew that books
like houses have their secrets. Under the words even of plain speakers, echo and pre-echo.
There’s plenty of echo and pre-echo under the mostly plain words of these poems.
I mostly want to talk about translation, but first, just because I love them, I have to quote these lines from one of the ‘death’ poems, ‘Before or After’:
At something more than fourscore, till the big
surprise kicks in and leaves me breathless, most surprises, though not unwelcome,
are small. It is the small, the muted inconsequential, at this point that comes closest to real.
About translation. Malouf’s first collection, Bicycle and other poems (UQP 1970) included a number of translations. I can’t quote from memory, but I remember the pleasure I found in the freshness of his versions of Horace: one of them mentions the early light glinting off milk churns put out beside a country road, and to me it felt that rural Queensland was being linked to classical Rome; and his translation of ‘carpe diem’ is a small miracle:
Today's a rose. Let it blaze in your lapel.
There’s a Horace translation in this book, and a Dante, and the one I want to talk about, ‘La Belle Hélène’, after ‘Sonnet pour Hélène’ by the 16th century French poet Pierre de Ronsard. This is not exactly an obscure poem: I found a website that gives the original French and at least ten translations (here, if you’re interested).
A basic question about any translation is: why? Why this poem? Why include it in a collection of your own poems? Is it a technical exercise? is the translated poem one you love and simply want your readers to know about? Or does it provide a medium for you to express something of your own?
The first thing to say is that ‘La Belle Hélène’ is actually a translation – in contrast to W B Yeats’s also-lovely ‘When You Are Old‘, which takes the original poem as a starting point for a slightly different argument addressed to his own love.
Look at the first lines.
Quand vous serez bien vieille, au soir, à la chandelle, Assise auprès du feu, dévidant et filant, Direz, chantant mes vers, en vous émerveillant : Ronsard me célébrait du temps que j'étais belle.
Very close literal translation):
When you will be well old, in the evening, by the candle, Sitting near the fire, dividing and spinning You will say, singing my verses, being filled with wonder: Ronsard celebrated me in the time when I was beautiful
Long years from now, in the fireside hush of midnight, as you muse by candlelight, you'll pause at your needle -work and say, 'Years back, when I was a girl, an impossible sweet sixteen, Ronsard, the poet
you know, once sang my praises, called me 'belle'.
Malouf doesn’t stay close to the words of the original, or use full rhymes, but nor does he hijack the poem for his own purposes. There is evidence everywhere that he has paid close, loving, deeply respectful attention to the original. All the elements are there: the projection well into the future, the fire, the candle, the work, the rhyme scheme (though modernised away from full rhymes). Instead of singing the poet’s verses, the future person drops his name, a rough equivalent in these days when no one sits around a fire singing poetry. Malouf moves the hour of the imagined future scene from the evening to midnight, and introduces the idea of a hush, but the effect is to intensify what’s in the original rather than change it. Interestingly, he does specify the girl’s age, ‘sweet sixteen’, which has a decidedly 20th century feel, and can be seen as part of the project of rescuing the poem from a museum existence.
But she’s not just ‘sweet sixteen’, she’s ‘an impossible sweet sixteen’. And that sounds a note not in the original: one feels that Ronsard is about the same age as the woman he addresses, but this ‘impossible’ comes from a much older person. It seems to be asking how anyone could ever be that young?
And it turns out that the poet as an older person has been subtly woven into the texture of the poem. Where Ronsard’s speaker refers to his future self abstractly as a boneless ghost (fantôme sans os), Malouf’s is more specifically imagined – ‘innocuous’ and ‘esteemed’. It’s slight, but enough to be the difference between a young person and an old one imagining themselves as no longer alive. So the ground has been prepared for when he calls her ‘child’ in the second last line. And that word does a lot of work.
Ronsard’s original is unambiguously a poem of seduction. Malouf’s is something else. Ronsard says the older woman will be ‘regrettant mon amour et votre fier dédain‘ (‘regretting my love and your proud disdain’). There is no reference to Malouf’s speaker’s love:
You'll regret at last what youth and youthful pride disdained.
Ronsard’s final injunction – ‘n’attendez à demain; /Cueillez dès aujourd’hui les roses de la vie‘ (‘don’t wait until tomorrow; / Gather today the roses of life’) – is a lover pressing his case. In Malouf’s version, having diverged incrementally from the original, it becomes something else, a warning from age to youth:
child, relent, choose life! Today is a rose that withers. Pluck it now, and boldly. Beware tomorrow.
Only the single word, ‘relent’, carries a hint that seduction might be on the agenda. Which would be just a bit creepy. But having now read the poem a number of times, I find that element recedes into the shadows, and the poem becomes an impassioned, generous, considered cry to the young not to waste their youth.
Overland provides the significant pleasure every quarter (or even more often if you can read on the web) of argument, analysis, fiction, poetry and visual art informed by a leftwing perspective. I think it would probably be a pleasure even for people whose politics are antagonistic – they could still enjoy engaging with minds that are engaging with things that matter.
Because I’m three issues late and short of time, I won’t attempt to review this issue. Instead, here are some excerpts that leapt out at me.
From Rise from this grave by Tony Birch, which tells the story of Camp Sovereignty, the Aboriginal protest at the park known as Kings Domain during the 2006 Melbourne Commonwealth Games:
Kings Domain is clogged with imperial monuments, statues of civic leaders, celebratory plaques and war commemorations, offering a sanitised, largely fictional history of colonial occupation.One of the most imposing monuments os a stature of George V, ruler of empire. Its plaque explains that it was a gift from the people of Victoria to the crown; today it serves as a perpetual reminder of who we once were, and who many continue to regard themselves, despite periodic rumblings of republicanism. King George looks pensively across the gardens to the Shrine of Remembrance, which itself is h=guarded by an eternal flame.
In occupying the Domain, Black GST [Genocide Sovereignty Treaty] staked a claim on both its past and its present.
There is the permanent ‘now’ of the social media exchange. But even there, even on what goes by the absurd name of ‘my Twitter timeline’, there is a user who sends day-by-day dispatches from the Second World War and another who types out the diaries of a long-dead writer.
I feel at home on Twitter, where the evanescent thoughts of millions of people (and even more millions of bots that are, nevertheless, programmed by people) slip past in a turbulent Heraclitan stream. Like the sea, Twitter is full of pollution. But at least I can filter it.
The first time I make eye contact with a cuttlefish I am shocked by the familiarity of the animal’s gaze. I know that their eyes are a case of parallel evolution, that their similarity to our own in form is a 600-million-year-old coincidence. I know that I could be projecting. Nonetheless, the experience of catching a cuttlefish’s eye is uncannily like catching the eye of an intelligent human. It seems to react just as a human’s would: widening a little, studying the stranger for a moment, then looking politely away.
Incredibly – given his later literary achievements – [Henry] Lawson’s formal schooling lasted only three years. Opinion is divided over why he left school. Local legend has it that John Tierney, the schoolmaster, accused Louisa [Lawson, Henry’s mother] of plagiarising Byron in one of her literary pieces. leading to a ‘falling out’.
Jafar arrived in Indonesia hoping, like many others, to travel to Australia by boat. His was one of the boats that the Australian government so proudly stopped. His is the ‘life saved’ by bureaucracy. But, he says, it’s a life barely worth living.
From Unspooling by Laura Elvery, winner of the Neilma Sidney Short Story Prize (there’s always a literary prize in Overland):
Don’t name it. Don’t wonder about its sex. Don’t send out for a handmade silver oval pendant half the size of a postage stamp to wear around your neck. Don’t feel bad that you sprinted up a hill, in the cold, in the dark. Don’t google anything.Don’t seek out that TV show you mainlined those few days to take your mind off what was happening (Never again, even though, truth be told, it was a terrific show.) Don’t look at the pale, soft things you bought to put in a bassinet. Don’t forget your good posture. Don’t forget your exercises. Keep it up.
From Guarded by birds by Evelyn Araluen, winner of the Judith Wright Poetry Prize:
I know little of this ceremony
have only collected for the coolamon
carved from river red
to carry water to carry child to carry smoke _________to carry you to those who watch _________and hope there will be a place for you
Before the meeting: I’m not much of a rereader, so reading Emma for the second time for the Book Group is a bit of an event. Please indulge me in some autobiographical reflection.
I first read Jane Austen novels, including Emma (but shamefully not Pride and Prejudice), as part of my exhilarating six years at Sydney University – 1967–1972 – when the Englit canon swept me away like a giant rip. Not just Englit: there was also Auslit and Amlit, as well as French, Italian and Latin lit. And movies. And even some visual art.
There was a problematic side to this exhilaration. The notion, which I think came from Thomas Arnold in the 19th century and received a big boost from F R Leavis in the twentieth, was that we should study ‘the best that has been thought and said in the world’, but in practice that meant what had been thought and said by white people in Europe, mainly England, and, in some electives, the USA. A lot was said about universal human truths, but that was for values of universal that excluded people of colour, colonised peoples, and settler peoples, among others. Not a terribly satisfactory education by today’s standards.
As a white boy from tropical North Queensland I was enough outside the magic circle of people who were purportedly capable of ‘the best’ that I had it confirmed that my life experience, my actual social and physical environment, was not the kind of thing great art could be made of, that I could see myself in ‘the best’ writing only at several removes, and conversely that any art that did talk about people and places I recognised was ipso facto not among the best. (It was a thrilling exception to see Paul Morel’s miner father disrupt a ladies’ afternoon tea in Sons and Lovers in just the way my cane-farmer father disrupted at least one of my mother’s gatherings, though without my father’s sense of fun.)
Emma was part of that centre-to-periphery invalidation. Mind you, that didn’t stop me from loving it with a passion.
I read differently now. I’m more aware of what I believe is called my positionality as a white, middle-class member of settler society, beneficiary of colonialism. Among other things, I’ve read Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism, which includes a chapter on Austen’s Mansfield Park, and does a stunning job of explicating how West Indian slavery figures in that book.
Coming back to Emma now, the main thing I have to say is that I love it again. It’s full of marvellous sentences, often wreathed in irony. There’s a constant sense that Austen is laughing her head off with a straight face, that she loves her characters, especially Emma herself, with an indulgent love, and at the same time has a clear-eyed sense of their failings and limitations.
My Said-influenced antennae were alert for any unobtrusive reference to the big political issues of Austen’s day. But the one explicit reference to politics is a moment when the men are talking about politics so Emma has to find something else to talk about. And as Emma turns away from ‘serious’ talk, so does Austen. Mr Knightley might be describing her when he says of Emma’s friend Harriet:
She will give you all the minute particulars, which only women’s language can make interesting. – In our communications we deal only in the great.
His ‘we’ is, of course, men. But you know, the book does give us the minute particulars of women’s lives, in language that makes them interesting – and in doing so challenges the assumption that women’s concerns are trivial. I confess that in my twenties I almost missed Emma’s big moment, when she insults Miss Bates. Now, that moment carries a huge emotional charge. Austen makes sure we know how irritating Miss Bates is, by giving us pages of her inane nattering, but she also makes us see her dreadful lot in life, unmarried, carer to her aged mother and almost completely dependent on other people’s kindness, yet completely without malice. When Emma, with all her privilege, insults her so rudely, it’s devastating. The other character who highlights the lot of women is Jane Fairfax – and there’s a breathtaking moment when Jane draws an analogy between her having to farm herself out as a governess and that of people who are enslaved: ‘the sale – not quite of human flesh – but of human intellect’.
Emma was a revelation to me. On first reading it was part of the Great Tradition, which I as a boy from the canefields was meant to be in awe of (and I was). Now I read it as an assault on the canon of its time: cunningly, ironically, genially (in both sense of the word) it makes a space for what at least some women think and say. And a lot of her barbs still strike home.
After the meeting: We had a vey animated discussion. There were many points of view, many different levels of engagement with the book. One man had done extra reading – A Truth Universally Acknowledged: 33 Great Writers on Why We Read Jane Austen – and shared snippets. A number of us had rewatched Clueless – one said he needed it to find his bearings amid the 200-year-old wordiness. Another, actually one of our most astute readers – said he just couldn’t find a way into it – though he said the group’s conversation opened the book up for him. One just couldn’t stand the narrow class content. Another was surprised at how funny he found it, that he laughed out loud a number of times. And so on. We challenged each other, disagreed a little, and had a great time, spending most of the evening on the book.
Unusually, a number of us read out favourite sentences. I had counting on this, which is why I didn’t go hunting for examples in my Before the Meeting section. Here are some that got read out, for my readers’ pleasure.
From Chapter 9, when Emma has an idle moment:
Mr Perry walking hastily by, Mr William Cox letting himself in at the office-door, Mr Cole’s carriage-horses returning from exercise, or a stray letter-boy on an obstinate mule, were the liveliest objects she could presume to expect; and when her eyes fell only on the butcher with his tray, a tidy old woman travelling homewards from shop with her full basket, two curs quarrelling over a dirty bone, and a string of dawdling children round the baker’s little bow-window eyeing the gingerbread, she knew she had no reason to complain, and was amused enough; quite enough still to stand at the door. A mind lively and at ease, can do with seeing nothing, and can see nothing that does not answer.
From Chapter 7, one of the bits that some read as irritatingly snobbish, others as mocking the snobbery, but I think all agreed to be marvellously deft:
The Coles had been settled some years in Highbury, and were very good sort of people – friendly, liberal, and unpretending; but, on the other hand, they were of low origin, in trade, and only moderately genteel.
From Chapter 14, something that he who read it to us said he had experienced many times:
Some change of countenance was necessary for each gentleman as they walked into Mrs Weston’s drawing-room; – Mr Elton must compose his joyous looks, and Mr John Knightley disperse his ill-humour. Mr Elton must smile less, and Mr John Knightley more, to fit them for the place.—Emma only might be as nature prompted, and shew herself just as happy as she was.
And this from Chapter 4, a single sentence:
The charming Augusta Hawkins, in addition to all the usual advantages of perfect beauty and merit, was in possession of an independent fortune, of so many thousands as would always be called ten; a point of some dignity, as well as some convenience: the story told well; he had not thrown himself away – he had gained a woman of 10,000 £ or thereabouts; and he had gained her with such delightful rapidity – the first hour of introduction had been so very soon followed by distinguishing notice; the history which he had to give Mrs Cole of the rise and progress of the affair was so glorious – the steps so quick, from the accidental rencontre, to the dinner at Mr Green’s, and the party at Mrs Brown’s – smiles and blushes rising in importance – with consciousness and agitation richly scattered – the lady had been so easily impressed – so sweetly disposed – had in short, to use a most intelligible phrase, been so very ready to have him, that vanity and prudence were equally contented.
The Fireflies of Autumn begins with a bang. To be more precise, one of its first stories is a tall tale involving a vast explosion and enormous quantities of excrement – the kind of story that you feel you ought to have heard a thousand times, but which is actually completely new to you. or at least to me.
The book announces itself as a collection of tales told by Ugo Giovannoni, who migrated to Australia in 1957 – stories about the tiny Tuscan village of San Ginese that he left behind. These tales include folk versions of the distant past (as in the explosive one already mentioned), lore about Ugo’s forebears and relatives (much of it scurrilous), tales of the village during the Fascist era and World War Two (including the marvellous title story, in which the whole village decamps to a forest glade to avoid being caught in the crossfire between the Americans and the retreating Germans), and a little historical documentation.
I was reminded often of Fellini’s masterpiece of nostalgia, Amacord. The celebration of community, the occasional bawdiness (see my versification below), the indignation at the repressive role of the Church, all feel a little Felliniesque. But these tellings differ from Fellini’s in being told, not just from a different time, but also from a different place, in the diaspora.
Migration to America, Australia and occasionally Argentina is a dominant theme. Over the decades, those who leave often return once they have earned enough money to buy some land, or perhaps when the longing for home becomes too much to bear. As well as the wonderful, possibly romanticised evocation of village life, there is some fine writing about the effects of dislocation from migration:
And they would go to America and become lost over there, and when they returned to San Ginese they would still be lost, as if they could not find the place they had left, but kept looking for it, anywhere, somewhere, but it was always elsewhere – on top of a hill, along the walking paths between the villages, in a field, inside a stable or a pig-sty, inside a woman, a wife, a neighbour’s wife. You could see the men wandering about in the courtyards and between the houses, aimlessly at first, and then slowly they would give the appearance of settling into their lives again, but remained as sad as trees that have had half their roots hacked off. Such trees can barely feed and water themselves and are in danger of toppling over in the gentlest breezes.
In a way this collection of stories is itself a symbolic return, as a telling and reclaiming of the stories that had to be left behind. Ugo’s introduction tells us that he wrote the tales in Italian and sought out ‘a translator expert in the writing of immigrants’ to render it into English. That translator is of course the actual author, Ugo’s son Moreno, who came to Australia as a child in 1957. Some of the later stories in particular make it clear that, though Ugo may be the source of many of the tales, Moreno has drained many other tongues and done his own wandering about. The painful melancholy that is never far beneath the surface of these tales is his as much as Ugo’s.
After reading excerpts in Southerly a couple of years back (blog entries here), I was looking forward to the book’s publication. I wasn’t disappointed. It’s never boring, I smiled constantly and laughed often. Then in the final chapters, possibly affected by Altitude Adjusted Lacrimosity Syndrome as I read them on a plane, I wept copiously.
I recommend Lisa Hill’s review for a beautiful account of the book.
Because it’s November, and my blog has to include 14 14-line poems in the month, here’s a versification of a tiny story in the brilliant long chapter about the villagers in wartime:
November verse 3: The widow Pasquina
No one noticed when Bucchione
vanished as the sun went down,
gone to visit la Pasquina,
wealthy widow of that town.
She’d come out, no need for knocking,
ask you in (now is this shocking?),
offer you a bowl of wine
and several more till, feeling fine,
you told your troubles, like confession,
she’d strip you, take you to her bed,
then later make sure you were fed
and bathed beside the fire, refreshing
limbs and mind. In those hard days
she did this service for no pay.
November poem 2: Time’s arrow
The unforgiving fourth dimension
points one way, no turning back.
A single moment’s inattention
cycling on the Riesling track
going 20 k or faster
courts an imminent disaster.
Do not gaze at grazing sheep
or rocks thrust up from ancient deep:
you’ll clip the wheel you follow after,
hit the ground hard, skin your knee,
be run over, then all three
lie about in helpless laughter,
bloodied, bruised and now quite sure
to feature large in family lore.
tl;dr: I love this book. Judith Beveridge writes a great self-introduction, and she is the queen of similes.
The six-page Author’s Note at the start of Judith Beveridge’s Sun Music is a class act. She begins by talking about her ‘pathological shyness’ as a child, adolescent and adult, seeing in it a partial explanation for why nature features ‘as an abiding source of connection’ in her poems, and for her turning to literature and the written word as a source of intense pleasure and a means of communication.
She goes on to describe the kind of poet she is – mainly lyrical, she says, rather than having ‘an over-heated experimental or exploratory approach’, deriving ‘idiosyncrasies of rhythm, music, voice, sensual knowledge, syntactical deportment, emotion and ideas’ from the body. She also acknowledges that she is a dramatic poet, particularly in two long sequences centred on the life of Siddhatta Gotama the Buddha (not included in this selection but promised as two thirds of a future book), and ‘Driftground’, about a group of fishermen, which account for 27 marvellous pages here.
She discusses influences and aspirations, and generally provides an excellent orientation to the 103 poems that follow. One sentence stood out for me:
It’s the challenge of trying to write a good poem rather than feeling that I have something unique to say that motivates me.
That sentence prepares one for the way her poetry is marvellously open to its subjects. She never comes wielding an agenda, but pays attention with tremendous humility, often to breathtaking effect.
I loved reading Sun Music, and came away resolved to keep my eyes and ears more open to the world, especially but not only to the birds and animals in my life.
When I wrote a blog post about Beveridge’s book Wolf Notes seven years ago I quoted lines about the moon from a number of poems. Looking back, I realise I was trying to communicate my awe at her use of similes. That awe deepened as I read this volume. Some random examples: ‘an egret posed like a too-slim / model in the glossy light’ (‘Sun Music’), or ‘On the headland motels light up / like bright perfume bottles’ (‘Resort Town’), or ‘bluebottles are cast up in clusters / of varicose knots’ (‘Spittle Beach’), or (from ‘Lighthouse Beach’):
stands still as an altarpiece, then for a moment,
sea-misted, it looks like a whale’s spout
about to give way to wind and waves.
Occasionally there’s some showing off – as in ‘The Harbour’, where everything in the poet mentions is seen as something to do with food or its preparation or consumption (the Opera House like an ‘arrangement of prim serviettes’). But it almost always feels as if Beveridge’s similes arise from the quality of attention she has paid to the thing she sees (or hears) – as if it gives her words to describe it, words that she then passes on to us.
I generally try to single out just one poem I connect with when I blog abut a book of poetry. There are so many to choose from here, but I’ve settled on ‘Panegyric for Toads’, one of the thirty-three new poems on the final section – because I’ve been thinking about my North Queensland childhood recently, and this poem restored memory of the ubiquitous cane toads, and captures something of the secret affection I had for them as a child. Here’s the poem (click to enlarge):
The beginning – ‘These slumlords of burrows and tree-hollows / are on the move’ – evokes an image of toads – squat and repugnant as cartoon slum landlords, then after the line break they are ‘on the move’. This is not a panegyric to a single toad, and not to toads in general, but to a particular set of toads, dozens of them, part of the pestilential spread of their species across vast tracts of Australia. The general point isn’t laboured, it may not even be intended, but it’s strongly there, and the poem goes back to beautifully concise description of their appearance and sound.
The rest of the poem moves back and forth between general cultural and scientific knowledge about toads and precise, felt observation. There’s the folklore, the glaze of poison (we had a dog that tried to eat a toad and got very sick), the mating . All pretty yuck, really. But
__________look at those copper-red eyes leasing
fire to the damp core of evening; listen to their calls
in the reeds like the low-plucked strings of ouds;
and how, sometimes, as if led by an unseen conductor,
sensing peril, their singing instantaneously stops.
Well, yes, one has to concede, there is that. But then she goes for the most grotesque aspect of these creatures, their mating (here’s a link to a video in case you need to refresh your memory). There’s a marvellous reversal of the expected order here: there is description of the grotesquerie, the female
with a group of males, an iron-lock embrace
they won’t break for days, risk drowning for sex.
But that comes after the process has been described as ‘like a congregational / laying on of hands’, whose purpose is to heal their warts. And it comes after the poem’s genuinely shocking moment:
Some say toads are always belching, breaking
wind, eating each other’s shed skin. I’d happily
kiss a toad on her sullen, troglodyte mouth
It’s hard to know what to make of that, apart from to be revolted. The fairytale reference suggests that some transformation might result: it could be that the poet would happily kiss the toad to spare her from the ordeal of the mating scrum, but I don’t think that’s it. Maybe there is a transformation here, though: the poet has seen past the belching, farting, dead-skin eating, sullen wartiness to what is wonderful about these creatures and her response to them has been transformed into something like love. Certainly, coming where they do in the poem, the lines about indissoluble scrumming and risking drowning for sex are celebratory more than anything.
The last three lines, after evoking the beauty of frogs, end with an assertion of fellow-feeling. Maybe we like to think of ourselves as agile, smooth-skinned frogs, but really, warts and all, we’re like toads.
The poem was included in Black Inc’s The Best Australian Poems 2016 edited by Sarah Holland-Batt. A reviewer in in The Australian (link here, not behind pay wall) wrote:
Judith Beveridge’s A Panegyric for Toads is a breathtaking piece that conflates the behaviour of toads with our reckless treatment of the environment.
I’m not saying that’s wrong, but I just don’t see it. I don’t think the toads here represent anything. Sometimes a toad is just a toad.
Follow the Leader is Laura Tingle’s third Quarterly Essay, a third instalment in a loose trilogy. Great Expectations (QE 46 2012) dealt with Australian expectations of government, Political Amnesia (QE 60 2016) with failing institutional memory, and now Follow the Leader with political leadership in the modern world (links are to my blog posts). ‘For,’ Laura Tingle writes, ‘whatever our expectations of government, whatever the state of our institutions and institutional memory, it is leadership that helps to settle those things, and change them.’
She might have added that the ills of political leadership looms large in the age of Trump, Duterte, Putin, Rudd–Gillard–Rudd–Shorten and Abbott–Turnbull–Dutton–Morrison.
The tagline on Laura Tingle’s website is ‘Reporting on politics from Canberra’. This essay is very high level reporting, and not just about Canberra, offering incisive accounts of political developments in the years since Howard’s prime ministership and invoking the insights of historians, political scientists, politicians (from Kim Beazley to Barack Obama), speechwriters, military leaders, philosophers, other journalists and more.
The essay takes a key idea from Ronald Heifetz’s 1994 book Leadership WithoutEasy Answers that ‘leadership, power and formal authority too often get confused and need to be carefully distinguished’, and offers his definition of leadership as ‘helping a community embrace change’ as a touchstone against which to judge the functioning of our elected leaders. (incidentally, her account of Heifetz’s discussion of Lyndon Johnson’s handling of the US war in Vietnnam – big fail – and Civil Rights – big win – is enlightening.)
The reality is that elected leaders in Australia and elsewhere are much more committed to their own survival in office, treating their rivals as enemies or pushing their ideological agendas as ‘would-be strong men’ (I love the way that phrase punctures postures) than to leading in the Heifetz sense, and in the face of global warming, mass displacement of people, stunning unequal distribution of wealth, and increasingly dangerous international politics, that is just plain terrifying. Laura Tingle gives an account of how we have come to this dire situation, and perhaps reassuringly sketches alternatives, mainly in the leadership style of Angela Merkel, who is masterly at building consensus, and giving her opponents room that allows compromise.
I’ll give Laura Tingle the final word in this sketchy account of the essay. Her closing words, which I wish could appear in letters of fire over the entrance to parliament House (notice the eleg:
We need our leaders to be wary of simple solutions built on scapegoating and hatred, and to resist succumbing to those who relentlessly conjure up reasons for intolerance. We should expect our leaders to help rebuild the national debate and protect other voices within it. We should be looking for strong leaders to follow, not a strongman.
If, like me, you expect an essay on economics to be dry and jargon-ridden, you will be relieved to find that this Quarterly Essay is witty, passionate and accessible. On the 2018 Sydney Writers’ Festival podcast of Richard Denniss discussing his previous book, Curing Affluenza, there are a number of Anna Russell ‘I’m not making this up’ moments: the audience laughs at a piece of snark about the workings of capitalism and right-wing politics, and Denniss protests that what he has just said is the simple truth. These pages bristle with the written equivalents of those moments. It would be hilarious if it wasn’t real
The main thesis:
Neoliberalism, the catch-all term for all things small government, has been the ideal cloak behind which to conceal enormous shifts in Australia’s wealth and culture. It has provided powerful people with the perfect language in which to dress up their self-interest as the national interest.
Neoliberalism pretends to be a coherent theory of economics that says the market should be allowed to function without government interference – hence deregulation and privatisation are always the way to go. But as preached and practised in Australia it is really a rhetoric to disguise greed and self-interest. Denniss multiplies examples of places where the proponents of ‘small government’ are all for government subsidy and regulation, so long as it goes to them or helps causes close to their hearts. The Murdoch media empire and Adani coal mine are only the most egregious instances.
Since I started drafting this blog post, Australia’s Prime Minister has dismissed the ALP’s policy emphasis on welfare, health and education as being about ‘More taxes, more taxes, more taxes, more taxes and more taxes’. He has also described the Sydney Opera House as ‘Sydney’s biggest billboard’. I could almost hear Richard Denniss’s pen scratching these utterances into his notes for future articles.
But yelling at the absurdities and cruelties of neoliberalism is a game we all play in front of our televisions every night. Denniss offers analysis and some steps towards remedy. The real power of neoliberalism, he writes,
has been to convince the media and large swathes of the public that … debates about the shape of our communities and the design of our institutions are somehow a ‘distraction’ from the main game of further tax cuts and industrial relations reform. Neoliberalism has produced the bizarre result that serious politicians and serious political parties define themselves by their ‘economic agenda’, while declaring simultaneously that it is individual choice, not government policy, that creates jobs and prosperity.
Faith in our democratic institutions, he argues persuasively, has been eroded:
The opposite of the narrow economic agenda of neoliberalism isn’t a progressive economic reform agenda; it is the re-establishment of a broad debate about the national interest. After thirty years of hearing that politicians, government and taxes are the things that ruin the economy, it is time for the public to hear and see that politicians, government and taxes are the foundations on which prosperous democratic nations are built.
The essay ends with a list of five new institutions that might help restore a vibrant democracy – institutions that Denniss would like to see introduced only if citizens are consulted at the beginning, the middle and the end of the process of their creation. The institutions, none of which are either left or right propositions, are:
• A charter of rights – to place our collective vision of our fundamental rights above any attempts to limit such rights based on the politics of the day. This would have protected us from the recent ‘robot-debt’ debacle, and would curb the current expansion of Peter Dutton’s powers.
• A National Interest Commission – to replace the Productivity Commission and provide ‘broad advice on the kind of advantages (as opposed to benefits) and disadvantages (as opposed to costs) that m=a major project like … an enormous new mine … might entail’.
• A federal corruption watchdog – hardly needs arguing for.
• Democratic education – that is, education in the workings of our democratic system, especially perhaps in the nature of the Senate and how Senate voting works.
• A sovereign wealth fund – ‘imagine if all tax collected from the mining industry went into the same fund from which all [mining] subsidies were drawn. Not only would there be much greater transparency and accountability concerning the subsidies, the revenue collected from the sale of our scarce resources also could not be squandered on short-term vote-buying.’
This QE was published in June. An advantage of coming to it late is that the next in the series has been published, with 47 pages of correspondence about Dead Right up the back (not bad for a 77 page essay). As always, the correspondence sheds new and interesting light on the essay’s subject. This is particularly true of John Quiggin’s account of how Tony Abbott’s prime-ministership dealt the death blow to Australian neoliberalism’s credibility. Interesting in a different way is John McTiernan’s attack, which is a brilliant example of a kind of political writing that distorts the writer’s enemy’s position and then tramples all over the straw man it has created: this is apparently quite effective in the opinion columns of the Australian, when readers of the attack can be assumed not to have read the thing being attacked – here it just makes Mr McTiernan look illiterate. On the other hand, The Australian‘s economics editor, Adam Creighton, is one of several economists who criticise Denniss’s essay trenchantly without grossly misrepresenting it.
Denniss uses his right of reply deftly and with more courtesy than sarcasm. He says in his concluding paragraph:
It is a privilege to have my arguments tested by such diverse voices. The conclusion of Dead Right is that the opposite of neoliberal economics isn’t progressive economics, but engaged democracy. And engaged democracy requires exactly the sort of well-meaning debate contained in these pages.
Omar Musa seems less at home in the Stables Theatre than at Bankstown Poetry Slam, and this hour of song and poetry with an autobiographical feel doesn't really work as a play, but it's greattheatre anyhow. Directed by Anthea Williams. Photo by David Charles Collins, taken from Griffin website.