The Book Group and Gerald Murnane’s Collected Short Fiction

Gerald Murnane, Collected Short Fiction (Giramondo 2018)

murnane.jpgBefore the meeting:
Gerald Murnane has been described as ‘Australia’s most distinguished unread writer’. His most recent novel, Border Districts, is shortlisted for this year’s Miles Franklin Prize. He is the author of seven other novels, two books of essays and a memoir as well as the 20 short fictions in this book, which have previously been gathered in three collections: Velvet Waters (1990), Emerald Blue (1995) and A History of Books (2012).

My introduction to Murnane was ‘The Breathing Author’, an essay published in Heat 3 (New Series) in 2002, in which he portrays himself in such a negative way (‘I cannot recall having gone voluntarily into any art gallery or museum or building said to be of historic interest’) that I felt absolutely no desire to read more.

So when the Designated Book Chooser chose Murnane’s  Collected Short Fiction for our August meeting, I was less than thrilled.

And now I’m grateful to the Book Group for once again taking me places I wouldn’t otherwise have gone. The book may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I was enthralled – I loved it.

It’s hard to say why I loved it. These fictions (every time you see that word here, I have first typed ‘stories’, and then deleted it and replaced it with ‘fictions’) have no named characters (unless you count the uncle of the main character in the third last story who is given the name Nunkie), they generally have very little action, and it’s sometimes hard to see how they even hold together. They feature an obsessive repetition of words and phrases and constantly draw attention to themselves as something being written. If the word ‘introspection’ didn’t exist it would have to be invented to describe them.

What do they have? Well, the narrator of one of the stories, ‘In Far Fields’, who is described in the story itself as its implied author (that is, I think, he is implied to be Gerald Murnane), describes to a hypothetical student his own approach to creating fictions. He begins by writing a sentence, which is ‘a report of a detail of an image in [his] mind’, an image that ‘was connected by strong feeling to other images in [his] mind’. He then proceeds to write a sentence that is a report of a detail of another image that was connected by feelings to the first image. And then a third image, and so on. This chain of images forms the basis of the story. It becomes complicated after that, but it’s worth quoting a little from near the end of his talk to the hypothetical student:

Before she left my office, I would tell her, as a last piece of advice, that she need not have learned the meaning of every image reported in a piece of fiction before she had finished writing the final draft. Nearly every piece of my fiction, I would tell her, included a report of an image whose connections I did not discover until long after the piece had been finished. Sometimes these connections had not appeared until I was writing a later piece of fiction, and then I would understand that the image in the earlier piece of fiction was connected with an image in the later piece.

I think it’s this sense that the (implied) author is always exploring something that involves deep and not yet understood emotion, not knowing where the writing is taking him, that kept me pretty much spellbound on almost every page of this book. The prose is generally dry, methodical, self-referential, but the analogy that come to my mind is of an archaeological dig in a temple of Aphrodite: meticulous brushing, digging, scraping around objects that speak for themselves of great unruly passion.

One effect of this approach is that no distinction is made in the text between memory and fantasy. Most of the fictions feel autobiographical, but that isn’t the point: the reader is invited/expected to respond to the images and the fiction that connects them without knowing or caring if they come from Murnane’s actual life. Many of the images that the fictions ‘report’ are scenes from rural Victoria, and I expect that readers from that part of the world would feel an extra connection with the writing. Another whole swathe of images relate to the Catholic childhoods and adolescences of the unnamed main characters, and it’s probably these that led me to a deeper emotional engagement.  ‘Pink Lining’ is an example. It begins:

The image that caused me to begin writing this story is an image of a single cloud in a sky filled with heaps or layers of clouds. The single cloud and all the other clouds in the sky are coloured grey, but the single cloud is surrounded by an aureole or nimbus of pink.

It turns out that this image is on a holy card preserved from the narrator’s childhood. Adult, non-believing cynicism having been raised and brushed aside, the image leads to memories of the narrator’s favourite aunt, a pious woman, bedridden since the age of twelve, who taught him a lot about Catholic teachings. The story of the narrator’s relationship to that aunt emerges, and the fiction wanders through other parts of his life, with every now and then a tight focus on the colour of a wall, a pink holy water font, a sky ‘filled with heaps or layers of grey clouds’. Here’s perhaps the most dramatic paragraph (which reports on one of the key images of the piece):

At certain times during the years following his twenty-fifth year, the man who was first mentioned in the second paragraph of this story believed that he had never looked at or touched the naked body of any woman before his twenty-fifth year. At other times during the years just mentioned, the man believed that he had looked at the naked body above the waist of a certain woman during his fifth year. Whenever the man believed what is mentioned in the previous sentence, he believed that he had seen, after he had opened the door mentioned in the previous paragraph, the naked body above the waist of his favourite aunt as she leaned over a dish of white enamel filled with water and on that body two breasts, each with a nipple surrounded by a zone of pink. Whenever the man believed what is mentioned in the sentence before the sentence mentioned in the previous sentence, he believed that he had seen, after he had opened the door just mentioned, the naked body above the waist just mentioned and the dish filled with water just mentioned and on the body the nipples of a girl whose breasts had not yet begun to grow,

The affectless, asperger-ish quality of this is typical of Murnane’s prose. The prim but eloquent silence about what happened when the man was 25, and then the pedantically framed account of what he had seen when he was five (leaving the reader to imagine the emotional content of the experience) have a feel I recognise from my own Catholic childhood: some things simply aren’t meant to be spoken of, especially if sex or the naked human body is involved. (My mother’s response to The Female Eunuch comes to mind: ‘You don’t look over people’s shoulders when they’re brushing their teeth, so why do it with that?’) The result, though, is that moments like this or the final words of this story, which quote a line from a song ‘previously mentioned’, pack a huge punch.

Now that I have actually read this book, I am left wanting more: maybe I should start with Murnane’s first novel, Tamarisk Row. I am immensely grateful, not only to this month’s Designated Book Chooser, but also to Giramondo for my complimentary copy.

The meeting:
There were six of us. One of the absentees said on the phone, in a voice affected by a heavy cold, that he thought Murnane used a lot of words to say almost nothing. But those of us who ate the spinach pie and ice creams found a lot to talk about. In fact, we probably stayed with the book more than any other night except maybe Anna Karenina. I wouldn’t say everyone was wild about the book, and only three of us had read all 20 stories (plus one was part way through Border Districts), but we had all engaged with the writing, with Gerald Murnane’s mind (or to be more precise his way of writing about his mind).

One chap came back from a toilet break saying, ‘I’ll give him a hundred percent for slowing time down. I love dance and music that does that, and he’s done it  in writing.’ I think he meant that Murnane’s fiction moves from emotionally charged image to emotionally charged image is something that we all do, but what we do in fractions of a second, he slows down and dissects meticulously.

Someone quoted from a review that said that with Murnane’s writing, what matters is what you find yourself thinking about as you read it. That struck a chord: some of us had found ourselves reflecting on our intensely religious upbringings; others on our connection to the land where we live; others still on the complexities of early adolescent attitudes to sex.

Someone said that even when Murnane is annoying – and at least one person said he’d felt like throwing the book across the room more than once – he’s interesting. Someone said he’s cruel, leading the reader in one direction and then springing a nasty surprise. Others disagreed, reading him as not really caring how the reader responds, but following the logic of his own process. In fact, we generally felt there was a ruthless honesty in his self-exploration.

When someone gave a 30 second version of one of the stories, it produced belly laughs, which for me at least was a revelation, as I hadn’t found the story funny when I read it in its own tempo.

That is to say, I’d recommend these short fictions as an excellent choice for a book group.

 

Jennifer Maiden’s Selected Poems

Jennifer Maiden, Selected Poems 1967–2018 (Quemar Press 2018)

__________________________I plough my furrow
heavily and fruitfully and my seldom rage
is that of the earth like an earthquake, sudden
and efficiently gutting.
(‘The Year of the Ox’, page 205)

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That’s one of Jennifer Maiden’s many self-descriptions in this book. It leaves out a lot, of course – the wit, the polemic eccentricity, the sensuousness, the drama, the scarily eclectic erudition and much more – but it does capture her commitment to the work of poetry and her occasional bursts of rage at, well, anything from genocidal war to ‘ethical security’ in her fellow left-wingers or sister feminists.

This is Maiden’s third Selected Poems. The 1990 Penguin Selected drew on just four books. Bloodaxe’s Intimate Geography was a kind of introduction to British readers covering 1990 to 2010. This selection covers Maiden’s whole poetic career, and is appropriately hefty.

I’ve read the book a little at a time over several months. As the poems are printed in approximate order of publication, you get to see Maiden’s subjects and poetic forms develop over the years, a little like a stop-motion movie. Her daughter, Katharine, for example, first appears in ‘The Winter Baby’ on page 61:

She feeds as firmly
as the heart mills blood,
her needs as fair as Milton’s God
and her eyes like night on water.

The ‘whimsical huge pleasure’ of Maiden’s maternal love gives rise from the beginning to complex, wide-ranging poetry. Incidentally, one of the pleasures of this book is that when a poem refers to one that Maiden wrote decades earlier, it’s often possible to flip back to the earlier poem: ‘Night on Water’, more than a hundred pages and nearly a decade later, refers to the ‘The Winter Baby’. The appearance of the Winter Baby ushers in Maiden’s characteristic use of dialogue. In ‘Chakola’ (page 71) Maiden and her now three-year-old daughter visit an old school in the Monaro (emphasis from the original publication, not reproduced in this book):

She says ‘You used to teach here.’ I say ‘No:
your great grandfather did, and your father
played here.’ But you say ‘You mean
grandfather.’ And yes, that’s where the sense
of self slips up of course – in history.
Maybe we’re all an ‘I’ as we confront
the past, the broken ford, the Numeralla
gleaming with sunlit absence.

(I initially read the third line as the little girl correcting the speaker, but on typing it out realised that it’s actually the person the poem is addressed to who corrects her, a more interesting progression, of a kind that isn’t unusual in Maiden’s work.)

Maiden’s engagement with politics and especially violence is there from the start: among the very early poems are ‘Princip in the City’, about the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in 1914, and ‘The Problem of Evil’ a long narrative set in an unnamed war that reads as the US-Vietnam war. Her acute observaations of political figures as seen on TV, from George W Bush’s mouth (‘George Jeffreys 4: George Jeffreys Woke Up in Berlin’) to Julia Gillard’s eyes (‘Poor Petal’), begin on page 73 (about 1990) with ‘Mandela in New York’:

_____the first loss is not time or health,
so much as forever the freedom
to escape to the purposeless self,
He walks slowly, precisely, and smiles.

And it’s fun to see Maiden’s signature ‘So-and-so woke up’ poems coming into being. In a long prose passage (on pages 153 to 159) ‘George Jeffreys: Introduction’, first published in Friendly Fire, 2005):

The part of my brain that provides new things was often inaccessible about September 11. Then driving along the Monaro and watching the tumbling circus of clouds one day, I thought: what are George and Clare thinking? George and Clare are characters from my second novel, Play with Knives, and my later notoriously unpublished novel Complicity, or The Blood Judge. George Jeffreys is a Probation Officer turned Human Rights investigator … Clare is his former Probation client and sometime lover … who as a nine-year-old child murdered her three younger siblings. The two could clearly do New York and in the process, with the freedom of fiction, the horror-inhibited portions of my mind might speak.

And so George Jeffreys and Clare Collins wake up from wherever fictional characters go when their novel s are finished, and usher in the George and Clare poems, thirty of them so far, come into being, as George and Clare visit horrors, from Manus Island to the pirate coast of Somalia, talking non-stop to each other and personages as disparate as Donald Trump  and Confucius.

There’s much more. The book is full of joys, even as it confronts many of the terrible elements of our world.

I don’t usually comment on book design and production, but it’s probably important to do so here. My impression is that Quemar Press operates on a shoestring. But I wish they had employed a professional book designer, and a professional proofreader. The margins of this books are painfully narrow – top, bottom, left and right. And there are no blank pages. It feels as if as the poems have crammed into the available space, an impression that is reinforced when occasionally the final line of a poem drifts to the top of the next page, where it sits a lonely widow above the title of the following poem. This isn’t just an aesthetic matter: I found it physically hard to read more than a couple of pages at a time. If you’re new to Jennifer Maiden’s poetry, you might find one of the smaller volumes more reader friendly.

But the mild pain was worth it for the intense pleasure to be found on almost every page.

Selected Poems 1967–2018 is the eleventh book I’ve read for the 2018 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Mohammad Ali Maleki’s Truth in the Cage

Mohammad Ali Maleki (translator Mansour Shoshtari), Truth in the Cage (Verity La Press 2018)

truth.jpg

It can’t be right that my birthday hurts me;
I feel such regret for having been born.
(‘An Unforeseen Life’)

In 2001, when the Norwegian ship Tampa was turned away from Australian mainland with its burden of desperate people seeking asylum, Prime Minister John Winston Howard made sure that nothing reached the Australian population that would foreground their humanity: no photographs of their faces, no TV, radio or newspaper articles telling their personal stories, or quoting their own words.

Seventeen years later, Peter Dutton and Malcolm Turnbull maintain the same depersonalising policy regarding the men, women and children refugees and seekers of asylum now detained on Manus Island and Nauru, some of them for just over five years. The cost of a visa to Nauru is prohibitive; doctors and others speak about what they witness there under threat of imprisonment; Peter Dutton recently said that ‘the hard-won success of the last few years could be undone overnight by a single act of compassion’, and he seems to insist that no such act be allowed within his department, even to people who have died.

The detainees are not voiceless or faceless, but they are systematically denied a platform from which their faces can be seen and their voices heard. Word has managed to get out. Notably, Behrouz Boochani co-directed the documentary Chauka, Please Tell Us the Time with Dutch film director Arash Kamali Sarvestani, and his book No Friend but the Mountains is to be launched next month. There have been other newspaper articles by him and other detainees, and there are a number of detainee  Twitter accounts. Penny Ryan’s Connecting Hearts project garnered a collection of short messages from people on both islands, published in the Guardian in late 2016.

Now Verity La, a tiny, no-way-for-profit online literary magazine, has added to the voices we can hear with this chapbook containing eight poems by Mohammad Ali Maleki, translated from Farsi by another detainee, Mansour Shoshtari. All profits from sales of the book go to the poet.

As you would expect, the poems are grim: ‘The Migrant Child’ is for Aylan Kurdi, the child whose body was photographed washed up on a Turkish beach; ‘Brother’ is for Hamed Shamshiripour, one of the men who has died on Manus Island on Peter Dutton’s watch; and generally the poems reflect the desolation and despair of the experience of indefinite detention.

So, OK, this isn’t a cheerful read. But it seems to me that as well as going on protest marches, lobbying our MPs, and voting in elections, it’s important to take every opportunity that arises to listen to the voices of people with the lived experience. From ‘Where Is My Name’:

All people are known by name;
I’ve never met a human without one
Yet they stole mine and gave me
a meaningless nickname instead.
I’m fed up wth repeating this false name!
Take it away and return my identity.
That is the only thing I have left in this land.
That is my parents’ only mark here.

The book can be bought direct from Verity La. It costs $10 plus nominal postage.

Two quick reads

Ian McPhedran, The Smack Track: Inside the Navy’s war : chasing down drug smugglers, pirates and terrorists (HarperCollinsAustralia 2017)
Dervla McTiernan, The Rúin (HarperCollinsAustralia 2018)

rúinsmackThis blog post is an exercise in completism. I read The Rúin and The Smack Track last year but didn’t blog about them at the time for reasons I won’t go into. I want to make up for that omission, if briefly.

The Rúin is an excellent thriller/detective yarn set in Ireland, the debut novel of Dervla McTiernan, an Ireland-born writer who lives in Perth. An author’s note explains that the book’s title can be read in English, or can be given it’s Irish meaning: ‘In Irish, Rúin means something hidden, a mystery, or a secret, but the word also has a long history as a term of endearment.’  And that pretty much sums up the feel of the book: there’s a mystery to be solved – two murders decades apart – and a story of family love and commitment to be uncovered along with much darker secrets. It’s fast moving, and satisfyingly complex. The Galway setting is vividly real. I’m surprised it hasn’t been snapped up for a television series.

A second book featuring McTiernan’s garda Cormac Reilly is promised for March next year. I expect it will have me breaking once again my general resolution not to read crime novels.

The Smack Track makes me think of Trotsky’s warning: ‘You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.’ I was the boy in my primary school class who wasn’t interested in war comics. I was never into model war planes. I was a conscientious objector to the draft at the time of Australia’s military involvement in Vietnam. Ian McPhedran, by contrast, worked as a defence writer for The Australian for nearly twenty years. He has written six books, including this one, about aspects of the Australian armed forces, and has had extensive experience of being embedded with the military. Just the writer to help me out of my comfort zone.

This book isn’t about combat, but about the RAN’s extraordinary work disrupting the drug trade off the east coast of Africa. It includes first hand accounts of intercepts, including dramatic accounts of the dangers faced by the sailors on these missions. McPhedran, writing as an embedded writer, doesn’t swagger. If anything, he mocks his ‘landlubber’ status. His respect and appreciation for the men and women whose work he observes up close is contagious.

As I read The Rúin in 2017 I’m not including it as part of the 2018 Australian Women Writers Challenge. But it’s an excellent addition to the list of books written by Australian women, so I’ll mention it on the AWWC site anyhow.

I’m grateful to HarperCollinsAustralia for my copies of both books.

Stephen Hart’s Lighthouse at Pelican Rock

Stephen Hart, The Lighthouse at Pelican Rock (Eagle Books 2018)

lighthouse.jpgPublished by Eagle Books, an imprint of tiny, Armidale -based Christmas Press, this is Stephen Hart’s debut novel for young readers. May he live long and give us many more.

It’s a time-slip adventure novel. Twelve-year-old Megan is recuperating from serious illness, and is sent to stay with her Aunt Rachel in Pelican Rock, not far from Eden on the south coast of New South Wales. While she’s there, a strangely aggressive pelican visits her in the night and somehow transports her back to a time when Pelican Rock’s ruined lighthouse was in one piece and functioning. In a number of what we at first think may be just dreams, she becomes friendly with the ancient lighthouse keeper.

If you’ve read a lot of children’s adventure books, you know that the first thing to do is get rid of the parents, and that’s how it is here, but it turns out that although Megan’s parents are still in Sydney, hundreds of miles away, they are very much on her mind: Aunt Rachel’s interest in her, and obvious caring for her, make her realise that she has come to expect to be treated as uninteresting and unimportant compared to her younger brother, Alex. At Pelican Rock she begins to recover her health and fitness, and also her sense of herself as deserving to be loved and cherished. The trips back in time are at first just icing on the cake.

I enjoyed this book a lot, not just for the well-paced, less than predictable story. One thing I especially like is the way it speaks to the young reader’s curiosity – and the old reader’s for that matter. Aunt Rachel tells Megan why the nosy little Jack Tussell terrier is called Cyrano, the lighthouse keeper explains interesting bits of how lighthouses work, the doctor and the vet both make sure Megan understands what they are doing. And Megan’s understanding of relationships between adults deepens and grows: with her we gradually come to understand that Aunt Rachel and Rhys Evans, whom Megan meets on the train, have been in love and still have feelings for each other (as the Americans would say); she grasps from the beginning that cranky old Aunt Rachel is critical of her parents and over the course of the book’s action comes to see this is as a very good thing;  she takes careful note of the way the doctor and the vet relate to children differently from anything she has previously experienced.

The illustrations by Kathy Creamer are perfect for the story.

So if you’re looking for a book for someone on the cusp of teenagehood, or if like me you enjoy an occasional children’s book for your own pleasure, here’s one I recommend.

Eunice Andrada’s Flood Damages

Eunice Andrada, Flood Damages (Giramondo 2018)

damages.jpg

There’s a lot of pain in these poems: the pain of migration and living in diaspora, of miscarriage and sickness, of  domestic violence, racism and internalised racism, and – shockingly topical just now – of family separation at the hands of officaldom. There are also poems that celebrate the body and family relationships, especially of a young woman with her grandmother.

There’s a wonderful variety in the forms of the poems. There are ‘novenas’, which echo the cadences of the Catholicism of Andrada’s native Philippines. There are prose poems – such as the one that would be a straightforward account of an allergy test except that the doctor is Ferdinand Marcos. There’s ‘photo album’, made up of captions to photographs, some of which probably actually exist. There’s a narrative element: no dates, times and places, but a cast of characters that we come to recognise, and when in ‘alibi’ the speaker refers to ‘the muscle memory of dancing / to the gospel / of my father’s temper’ the reader knows what she is talking about.  There are elusive epigrams, of which the best example is ‘forms’:

It is no sacrifice
when he collapses over his own altar
then asks for your body.

Eunice Andrada is also a Spoken Word practitioner – a poet of the stage as well as the page. She recently appeared at the fabulous Bankstown Poetry Slam. Here, for my readers who might hesitate to read an actual book of poetry, is a video of her performing her climate change poem ‘Pacific Salt’ at Sydney’s 2015 Youth Eco Summit, preceded by a short and charmingly awkward interview:

Flood Damages is the tenth book I’ve read for the 2018 Australian Women Writers Challenge. I am grateful to Giramondo for my copy.

Southerly 77/1

David Brooks and Elizabeth McMahon (editors), Southerly Vol 77 No 1 2017: Questionable Characters

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Cate Blanchett picks up a Southerly in Michael Farrell’s ‘Cate Blanchett And The Difficult Poem’ (see previous blog post)  and I am reminded that all three 2017 Southerlys are on my To Be Read pile. That’s not as bad as it sounds, because the third of these just arrived last week. Still, it’s a backlog.

Nº 1 of 2017 has a terrific piece by Debra Adelaide, ‘Re-reading Thea Astley’s Drylands‘. Originally delivered as a lecture in the Sydney Ideas: Reading Australian Literature series, it has all the liveliness of the spoken voice as it celebrates Adelaide’s readerly relationship with Astley and in particular her final novel:

From its beautiful original cover to its unpunctuated ending, I have been in love with this novel since it first appeared. And as in a love relationship I am aware of its flaws, and I forgive them.

I hope one day I’ll be able to communicate as eloquently as Debra Adelaide when I passionately love a writer, flaws and all. Thea Astley emerges from this essay as no less ill-tempered and unfair, with a writing style no less over-complex than as other critics’ have described her, but here they are cause for celebration rather than reproach (and for the record this tone chimes well with my own sense of her from the one occasion I met her and the two books I’ve read, including A Kindness Cup).

Poet Sarah Day’s prose essay ‘A Significant Backwater’ is a welcome contribution to the growing body of non-Indigenous writing that explores connections that familiar places have to previously hidden-in-plain-sight history of the dispossession of Aboriginal people. (Mark McKenna’s Looking for Blackfellas’ Point is a brilliant book-length example of the genre.) Day’s subject is the area just out of Hobart known in her childhood as Old Beach Road, and now, having been handed back to Aboriginal people in 1995, called piyura kitina. The essay juxtaposes affectionate childhood memories with the narration of a dark history, and as a bonus describes two watercolours from the early years of settlement, one by little-known artist Margaret Sarah Cleburne, the other thought to be by T G Gregson.

Southerly generally has at least one item that stimulates my argumentative juices. In this one it’s Jonathan Bollen’s ‘Revisiting and Re-imagining The One Day of the Year‘. Bollen quotes the late great Raymond Williams, ‘there is no constant relation between text and performance in drama’, and discusses the way Alan Seymour tinkered over the decades with his 1960 play about intergenerational conflict over Anzac Day. He mines photos from the first production and a video of Seymour directing it for what they can tell us. This is all fascinating.

Then, as the essay moves into the re-imagining promised in its title, its focus narrows to the character of Jan, the girlfriend of Hughie, the young man who challenges the older generation’s celebration of the One Day. Jan has been pretty well universally disliked by reviewers: ‘crudely drawn’, ‘a little snob who goes intellectually slumming’, ‘insufferable’, ‘a pseudo-sophisticate’ are some of the terms Bollen quotes. Evidence is building that there’s a problem with sexism – not deliberate and explicit, but the ingrained kind that led to Seymour’s inability to write a rounded, interesting female character. Surely this is where some re-imagining is needed. But, true to our times, Bollen sees the issue as one of gender rather than sexism. What if the problems could be solved, he asks, ‘by cross-casting a male actor to play Jan and queering his relationship with Hughie?’

Would Jan, the character, remain female within the world of the play? Could she become a male character so that Hughie becomes gay? Or a male character transitioning in gender to become Jan?

I guess it’s an intriguing proposition, and it might well ‘provide the motivation for a company in Australia to stage a fresh production’ as Bollen hopes. But if you see sexism as the issue, then Bollen comes close to proposing that sexism can be fixed by getting rid of the woman, or at least of those who were born female. I don’t know what to say to that beyond Yikes!

Of the other prose pieces, Honni van Rijswijk’s ‘The Pointy Finger of God’ and Craig Billingham’s ‘Breathless’ are stories made me want more from their authors, though I was left uncomprehending by both their endings.

More than 20 poets get a guernsey. ‘Quiet Times’ by S K Kelen offers a grim summary of our species:

The human mission
kill all life on earth no one
nothing to stop them.

Others that speak to me are New Zealand poet Elizabeth Smither’s ‘Miss Bowerman and the hot water bottles’ (a tribute to the poet’s mother, employed as a maid in Government House), Christopher Kelen’s ‘Tang Gals’, Joel Deane’s ‘A wasp is in the ward’ and Brenda Saunders’ ‘Sclerophyll’ (a succinct bushfire poem).

There are scholarly essays on P L Travers, George Johnston writing as Shane Martin, Gwen Harwood and Peter Carey, plus a ‘creative non-fiction’ piece about H G Wells.

Michael Farrell Loves Poetry

Michael Farrell, I Love Poetry (Giramondo 2017)

ilovepoetry.jpgSomeone said (on Twitter) that if a reviewer doesn’t get the thing they are reviewing, then no matter how long the review is, it will just be a whole lot of different ways of saying ‘I don’t get it.’ So, though I think of myself as a reader with a keyboard rather than a reviewer, I’ll make this brief.

I don’t get a lot of Michael Farrell’s poetry. That is to say, in some of his poems I really can’t tell what’s happening, apart from random phrases appearing on the page. It’s not like it’s a foreign language – I can’t tell if it’s a language at all. For instance, here’s the start of one poem (punctuated as in the book):

K In The Castle

I

Like a food documentary from 2013
Know something of your life
———and character. giraffes cry

Australian giraffes – third generation. everyone has
coconut in their tears, saliva and blood

Apart from recognising the reference to Kafka’s The Castle in the title, I draw a blank. I’m not even puzzled. My guess is that this is doing something that’s discernible to readers who are versed in contemporary poetics, but certainly not to me, and a fair amount of this book is as inaccessible (to me) as that.

Then there are poems that work for me in a tantalising way that makes me think of the fan dancers who performed in sideshow tents at the Innisfail Annual Show in my 1950s childhood. As a nine or ten year old I wasn’t oblivious to the performances’ salacious dimension, but I was mainly enthralled by the dancers’ amazing skill at waving ostrich feathers around while keep their presumably naked rude bits hidden. I don’t mean (obviously) that the poems are salacious, but that the frequent brilliant phrase and the pervasive, if sometimes annoying, playfulness are what keep me going, along with a feeling that often just out of sight there’s something coherent and beautiful.

There are some enticing opening lines:

Blue Poles and INXS shuffle into a bar. ‘What’ll you have?’
(‘Into A Bar’)


In Newcastle a businessman half-disappeared into another life.
(‘Death Of A Poet’)


The boxer has great hair, a great beard, great ink
jobs down both arms. He likes to pull up his
shirt when he’s with his friends: just above the nipples
(‘The Boxer’)


Bending over in shorts forever, Australianything
can remind us more of a country and western
song than a rap
(‘When Arse Is Class, Or Australianything’)

The poems then reliably take off in reliably unpredictable directions.

Sometimes I think I catch a glimpse of what lies behind the fan-dancing. ‘Cate Blanchett And The Difficult Poem’, perhaps the most straightforward of the book’s narrative poems, is a case. In it Cate Blanchett chats ‘laconically, fragmentedly’ with Waleed Aly while preparing to go on stage to read a difficult poem. Partly I feel relatively confident with it because I get most of its references.I know who Cate Blanchett and Waleed Aly are, and also Judith Wright and Patrick White who are both mentioned. The reference to ‘Jackie Weaver’s eye manoeuvres in Animal Sconedom / as they scorched their moving targets’ would be lost on anyone who hadn’t seen David Michôd’s Animal Kingdom, but it a great description of that performance in that film. I’ve even seen Julian Rosefeldt’s multi-screen video work Manifesto, in which a protean Blanchett performs a multitude of artistic manifestoes, and which may lurk in the background of the poem.

But those are all part of the ostrich feathers. The thing that I have glimpsed is possibly an account of a poetic method. After Cate has read the text silently then aloud, trying out different tones and accents, an actor preparing, the ground shifts beneath our feet and she starts inserting lines from Judith wright’s ‘Woman to Man‘:

Blanchett’s jaw connects to a signal tower in her brain
that produces a pas de deux between the difficult
poem – but does it exist? – and the Wright poem, which
she gradually replaces with – not exactly quotations from
she’s not a complete freak – paraphrases of scenes from
Patrick White novels

A couple of lines later, Cate says to Waleed:

You have to fake it with a difficult poem: be like
I ain’t easy either, me. Treat it like a camera or
call it to the stage for an award and trapdoor it.

I like to think that’s a description of Farrell’s method: there’s a text (in the sense that everything we experience is text of one sort or another) that he has some difficulty with (for values of difficulty that include interest in a complexity), or maybe there’s nothing there at all (‘but does it exist?’); you make a poem from it by faking it, being like ‘I ain’t easy either, me’, that is tosay, by assuming you’re on equal terms with it – perhaps inserting bits of other texts (childhood memories, bits of pop culture, literary allusions), improvising a performance around it. By this method, of course, the original text / idea/ emotion will be hard if not impossible for the reader to see: what we are reading is a pas de deux between it and the poet, or perhaps only the poet’s side of the pas de deux. And maybe it’s a danse des éventails  de deux.

There’s also an implicit invitation to readers to do their own pas de deux with Farrell’s poetry. This has been an attempt to do just that.

Once again, I’m happy to acknowledge that my copy of the book is a generous gift from Giramondo.

The Book Group and Shirley Hazzard’s Transit of Venus

Shirley Hazzard, The Transit of Venus (1980, Virago 2004 … 2014)

transit.jpgBefore the meeting: Serendipitously, I heard that this book had been chosen for the Book Group’s June meeting just after visiting the wonderful exhibition James Cook: The Voyages at the British Library, which features the actual transit of Venus across the face of the sun in 1769. I enjoyed the exhibition much more than the book.

Sadly, though I’m in awe of The Transit of Venus for its passion and complexity and astonishingly subtle prose, I just couldn’t like it. I feel mean saying so, because it feels like a very personal book – Shirley Hazzard and her protagonist Caroline Bell have a lot of history on common. At the same time, it’s the way the author injects herself constantly into the narrative that alienated me. Though she never actually addresses the reader, as in ‘Reader, I had an adulterous affair with him,’ she regularly winks at us over the characters’ heads – informing us of one’s eventual fate, giving us just the beginnings of sentences whose cliché endings she expects us to know, or commenting with Patrick White–like snobbishness on someone’s snobbery. The prose is studded with literary allusions, not all of them convincingly attributed to the characters, of which I recognised enough to know that I was mostly being cast as an outsider.

Two young Australian women whose parents died in a marine accident are in the care of their martyrish older half-sister, who brings them to England a little after World War Two. The younger sister, Grace, makes a boring marriage and the novel focuses on the complex relationships of Caro/Caroline, the older sister. Caro is loved by a young scientist of working class origins, Edmund Tice, but she falls for a sophisticated playwright, Paul Ivory, who is engaged and then married to a nasty piece of aristocratic work named Tertia. Caro eventually frees herself of Paul’s charms and finds happiness with a wealthy US social justice activist, Adam Vail. Vail’s death years later introduces the final act, in which both Grace and her husband are separately tempted to adultery (it would be a spoiler to tell if either or both succumb), and circumstances bring Caro back to her youthful love triangle, where there are as many revelations as you’d find at the end of an Agatha Christie novel, delivered pretty much in an extended monologue by one of the characters. Then there’s a final scene that, like the ending of The Sopranos, is illusorily inconclusive.

It’s not as soapy as that summary makes it sound, but that’s the bare bones. Here’s a sample of the writing, picked pretty much at random. Caro and Paul are visiting a megalithic site, and Caro is in awe. Then:

Some stones were rounded, some columnar. That was their natural state, unhewn, untooled. Paul Ivory said, ‘Male and female created He them. Even these rocks.’
The presence of Paul offered something like salvation, implying that the human propensity to love, which could never contradict Avebury Circle, might yet make it appear incomplete. Aware of this advantage, Paul awaited the moment when Caro’s silence would be transferred back, intensified, from the place to himself. He was calm, with controlled desire and with the curiosity that is itself an aspect of desire. As yet he and she had merely guessed at each other’s essence, and her show of self-sufficiency had given her some small degree of power over him – power that could only be reversed by an act of possession.
Preliminary uncertainty might be a stimulus, if the outcome was assured.
Caro had a wonderful danger to her, too, that derived not only from the circumstances, but also from her refusal to manipulate them. The danger and the attraction were the same. There was, in addition, her strong, resilient body, strong arms and throat, and her aversion to physical contact. Beyond the pleasure of defying his own circumstances, Paul pursued a further impulse to violate Caroline Bell’s pride or her integrity.

The quote from Genesis is the kind of thing most characters in the book come out with, except that the Bible crops up less than Yeats or eighteenth century London gossip. I’ve recently visited a megalithic site a little like the one in the book (mine was near Évora in Portugal), and while I completely get Caro’s awe, I simply don’t believe in her need for ‘salvation’ or her resulting vulnerability to Paul’s seductive intentions. And all that stuff about essence, power,  possession, uncertainty and violation … well, to me it’s very high-level hooptedoodle. If it’s to your taste or sheds light on the human condition for you, you’ll enjoy this novel a lot more than I did.

But don’t let my comments put you off. When I’d finished the book I read an excellent article about it circulated by a member of the Book Group, ‘Across the Face of the Sun’ by Charlotte Wood in the Sydney Review of Books. It’s an excellent article, though not something you should read before reading the book. She writes:

It has been fascinating to observe, in other writers’ responses, how often they remark on seeing its greatness only on a second visit – often decades after first buying or reading it. Michelle de Kretser, Geoff Dyer and Michael Gorra have all written of their early resistance to the book, only to have returned to it later and been shocked by its brilliance. Even Hazzard’s husband Francis Steegmuller remarked that nobody should ever have to read this book for the first time.

Well, there you have it. I’ve read it for the first time.

After the meeting: It was a small meeting, just five of us, of whom four had read the whole book – though one of the completers confessed to skipping slabs of it.

It turned out we’d all responded to the same elements in the writing, but our responses were vastly different. Two of us, neither of whom usually does this, had marked a number of short sentences that had delighted them, and when they read them aloud it turned out that some of them were exactly the kind of thing that had increasingly turned me off the book. Someone said he had laughed out loud at parts that I registered as annoying smart-arsery.

I had read the book as permeated with a kind of expatriate contempt for mid 20th century Australia. Others read it very differently, as challenging English assumptions of cultural inferiority. One chap spoke of visiting Britain as a young man and being surprised to discover that there were people there who had a mental hierarchy of cultural worth, in which he had been given a low place as an Australian. There are a number of moments in The Transit of Venus that challenge that ranking: snobbish Christian Thrale observes silently that the two young women don’t seem to realise that they are just a couple of Australian girls living in rented accommodation.

We made the non-completer leave the room at one stage so we could discuss the ending, something everyone who read the book for the first time needs to do.

Everyone had enjoyed the book more than I had, and though I don’t think anyone thought it was a truly great book, we were unanimous in our awe of it. I certainly had to rethink my own response. Maybe I’ll get to a revelatory second reading some time.

The Transit of Venus is the ninth book I’ve read for the 2018 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Anna, Kim and Stephen’s Monsters

Anna Fienberg (writer), Kim Gamble and Stephen Axelsen (illustrators), Monsters (Allen & Unwin 2018)

monsters.jpgThis is the final collaboration between Anna Fienberg and Kim Gamble, the creators of the wildly popular Tashi books. They began it when they both knew Kim didn’t have long to live. When Kim became too ill to continue he bequeathed the job of finishing the illustrations to his close friend Stephen Axelsen. In the  published book it’s all but impossible to tell where Kim’s work finishes and Stephen’s starts. So the book is a testament to love and friendship, a cairn of lyrical words and luminous images.

It’s also a funny, scary picture book about a little girl, Tildy, who is terrified of monsters in the night and finds a way to overcome her fear through her friendship with Hendrik. There’s plenty of room to play spot-the-monster (and an occasional thieving magpie), and plenty of the visual and verbal wit and warmth that has made Anna and Kim (and, until now separately, Stephen) such beloved giants of Australian children’s literature.

Monsters is the eighth book I’ve read for the 2018 Australian Women Writers Challenge.