November verse 9: In Newtown

November verse 9: In Newtown
Noon, Saturday. As I went walking
King Street South I met a flow,
a gaggle, not a troupe, of talking
mimes – youths dressed à la Marceau:
white face, striped shirt, a red carnation.
Cheerful, noisy desecration.
If mimes aren’t silent, what’s the point?
The times are clearly out of joint.
Then at the bus stop, here’s a scammer:
‘Hi,’ she says, ‘Long time no see!’ …
Then, ‘Would you like to come with me?’
She made no headway with her glamour.
‘Five dollars, then?’ I shook my head.
All when I went to buy some bread.

Overland 230

Jacinda Woodhead (editor), Overland 230 (Autumn 2018)

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.

From On the passing of internet time by Giovanni Tiso:

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.

From Myth & consequence by Georgina Woods:

With global warming, the spectacle of change has been brought into a time perspective that a single human life can understand. The comforting illusion of immutable environments has fallen away.

From On water by Alison Croggon:

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.

Swimming with aliens by Jennifer Mills:

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.

From From Grenfell to Gulgong and back by Brigid Magner:

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’.

From Limbo by Nicole Curby:

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

November verse 8: Moving out, moving in

Verse 8: Moving out, moving in
Sugar-soaping, mopping, sweeping,
drilling, screwing, bashing nails,
flattening used boxes, heaping
rubbish near the balcony rail,
fix the toilet seat (if able)
buy a longer TV cable,
screw in half a dozen hooks,
unpack and shelve a thousand books
(give some away), fix vacuum cleaner,
phone about the internet,
the Council pickup, don’t forget
the neighbours’ names (Regina, Tina?).
Too much to fit so little time,
too much to squeeze into a rhyme.

November verse 7: Removal day

This was yesterday:

Verse 7: Removal day
We rise at six. Van’s due at seven.
All 34 is boxed and stacked.
We’re bushy-tailed, all systems revving.
8.30, no van. Panic attack.
Six phone calls get the tragic story:
driver’s wife and something gory.
By 2 we’ve found another mob
from near Kashmir to do the job.
And so eight years accumulated
tables, books, beds, fridge, TV,
become backbreaking work for these
young men. By six, not quite elated
we’re sitting in our home-to-be,
all boxed and stacked at 43.

November verse 6:

Getting 14 stanzas done this November is going to be hard: moving house gets in the way of rhyme, and we’ve been very busy getting ready for the big move, which happens tomorrow. In the meantime, though, the corner of my brain that still can scan (almost) and rhyme (just) has managed this:

November verse 6:
My Twitter feed was full of Bunnings’
sausage sizzle safety scare,
of mock alarm and gleeful punning.
I’ve never bought a sausage there
or been assaulted by fried onions.
Bunnings is the place that summons
me when I need pipes or screws,
drill bits, mulch or kangaroos’
paws. Temple of the DIYers,
initiates there wear high viz
or paint-streaked shorts. The glad fact is
I don’t go there for silk-clad choirs
or poetry, or barbied snags,
Who asked Ikea for hot dogs?

Emma and the Book Group

Jane Austen, Emma (1815)

emma

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.

 

November verse 5: To be done

Verse 5: To be done
Moving home’s no roller-coaster,
no painful climb up, screaming down,
just daily questions like ‘New toaster?’
(answered ‘Yes’, though with a frown)
and wrap the artwork up in bubbles,
smash failed ceramics into rubbles,
organise a picture rail,
fix a redirect for mail,
fill a box with medications,
give away our potted lime,
dump the clock that’s lost its chime,
breathe slow when there’s palpitations
and so nothing will be missed
sit and write a to-do list.

November verse 4: Our new home, soon

Verse 4: Our new home, soon
Friday: day to take possession
(under licence) of our flat.
We got the key and in procession
took two chairs there. That was that
or so we thought. About 12.30
emails from the lawyers curtly
told us that we had no right
unless we paid before that night
a thousand bucks, and emailed paper
work we simply didn’t know
we had to have. To and fro
the calls and emails flew all day for
Friday. Solved by five! On Sun-
day twenty-box transfer is done.

And if that verse seems tortured to you, then all I can say is it reflects the process at least a little. In case it’s not clear, twenty boxes is just a beginning.

Moreno Giovannoni’s Fireflies of Autumn and November verse 3

Moreno Giovannoni, The Fireflies of Autumn and other tales of San Ginese (Black Inc 2018)

fireflies.jpgThe 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 verse 2: Time’s arrow

Inspired by a true and very recent event:

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.