David Musgrave’s Anatomy of Voice

David Musgrave, Anatomy of Voice (Gloria SMH Press 2016)

1478186754915.jpgThis book of poetry invites readers to immerse themselves in its complex playfulness. As well as the poems, beautifully laid out on the page, there are gorgeous images culled from sixteenth and seventeenth century emblem books (with notes giving the French, German and Latin verses they originally accompanied), an occasional burst of morse code (and inside front and back covers filled with tiny dots and dashes), footnotes that serve not so much to clarify as to enact the poetry’s theme, an ingenious use of showthrough (something you just can’t do in an e-book), and more. And it’s a book that grieves for a lost friend. In some ways I’m a privileged reader because I knew the man who is grieved for, though not as well as David Musgrave, so I read the book very personally.

It consists of six main parts, four ‘partitions’ of poetry, an afterword, and eleven pages of notes.

Given that so much contemporary poetry is compressed and elliptical, it’s often a good idea to start with the notes. Here, the afterword should definitely be read first: in it David Musgrave explains that the book is a personal tribute to Bill Maidment (1924–2005), who taught in the English Department at Sydney University from the 1950s to the 1980s, and was a significant mentor of Musgrave as scholar and poet.* The afterword explains the book’s genesis:

The decision to start writing about Bill’s voice arose from a number of auditory hallucinations I experienced some months after his death. From there the interrogation of that experience led inevitably to the anatomisation of the idea of what a voice is, as well as, of course, a desire to memorialise the man who had given me so much.

The First Partition is a sequence of 24 poems, each of three four-line stanzas. This is the ‘anatomisation’. It begins with an auditory hallucination:

Somewhere–––––a voice
near my mind——-not in it
but part of it——apart
and tethered by memory

and continues as a sustained, fascinating, quotable, and at times moving meditation on voice – as container of meaning, as non-human sound, as remembered part of someone who has died, and much more.

The second Partition, consisting of ten short poems accompanied by images culled from emblem books, is gorgeous to look at and hold. The poems, apart from the first, don’t easily yield their paraphrasable meanings, if such meanings exist – the verses that accompanied emblems were traditionally enigmatic. But I spent a lot of time with them, reading, in the notes, the verses that originally accompanied the emblems, and trying to figure out what is going on. Some typical lines:

Maenads, dandies, their unedited fiends
danced and tended faded anathemas.
The deadened ides of dire mendacity.

The lines do relate to the accompanying image of dancing monkeys. They are almost anagrams of each other, and are full of echoes and rhymes. Maybe their tantalising almost-coherence mimics a hallucinated voice.

But moving on: the third Partition is a kind of biography of Bill Maidment in fourteen poems, for which a prose biography in the afterword provides a useful map. In what at first reads as a humorous gimmick, there are footnotes in which Maidment, and sometimes his widow, comment on the poems (a note explains that these footnotes are quotes from articles or letters). Some of the notes expand on the narrative, others comment on the poem, as the afterword tells us the living Maidment often did on Musgrave’s poetry. It’s a very beautiful sequence, and the cumulative effect of the footnotes is to enact the central motif of the book – they are the voice of a loved one speaking to the living from beyond the grave. Still clever-dicky and comical, but also hitting a deep chord of sorrow. And that’s true of a lot of this section: I laughed out loud at times, and at others found myself brooding on all the people I have loved who have died, trying to remember their voices.

The fourth Partition consists of a single short poem addressed to the departed. I love how these lines evoke the meaning of the hallucinated voice:

————————–that which calls

across heavens, from room to room,
joining us through air, through love

and dividing us from silence
this gift of next-to-nothing

that we carry in our mind’s heart

In a brilliant review in the most recent Southerly, Michael Sharkey spells out the book’s ‘bravura display of easy erudition’, and its relationship to Richard Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy among other works. He describes it as ground-breaking in scope, and says he knows nothing like it in Australian poetry. I can add my less learned praise to his, and say that it’s been a while since a book of poetry has grabbed me and held me so deeply and, for all its grief, so joyfully.


* A personal note: I was lucky enough to be lectured by Bill Maidment in the early 1970s, and was enough under his spell that someone once called me a Maidmentian: I think he was referring to my inability to think one coherent thought at a time. Sometimes, when I’m trying to articulate a difficult thought, I hear myself adopting one of Bill’s mannerisms, muttering the sound that Musgrave describes as the phoneme ‘ze’.

Couplets refusing to be enraged

Young man, who tore down Lord Street on your bike
and called my love a deaf old ugly dyke
because her body occupied a space
you wanted to traverse at lycra pace
(though you’d admit it was a narrow path
designed for walkers), you whose noisy wrath
resounded once you’d left her in your wake
until the lights at King Street made you brake,
you know, I’ve nothing much to say to you
except perhaps, Yah sucks bum piss, dog poo
and pubic hair. Our guava tree meanwhile
drops fruit as if it’s going out of style.
The tree won’t read this rhyme, nor I suppose
will you. Your droppings are a lot more on the nose.*


* Though I love the smell of guavas, other people say that to them it’s like a cross between vomit and excrement.

Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Sympathizer

Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Sympathizer (Grove Press 2015)

sympathizer.jpgIn the early pages of The Sympathizer the narrator is working for a Vietnamese general in the last days of the US–Vietnam war. A CIA man gives him a book:

I took care to peruse the book’s cover, crowded with blurbs so breathless they might have been lifted from the transcript of a teenage girls’ fan club, except that the excited giggling came from a pair of secretaries of defense, a senator who had visited our country for two weeks to find facts, and a renowned television anchor who modelled his enunciation on Moses, as played by Charlton Heston.

This little bit of mockery of US publishing practices is given an ironic bite by the blurb overkill of the book in which it appears: front and back covers are so crowded with flattery that an extra false front has been added to take the overflow, then inside the book there are six pages of praise before the title page, and then 15 pages up the back of commentary from the author in the form of an essay and an interview.

Count me among the hardy souls who decided to read the novel anyhow.

The sympathiser of the title, who is the protagonist–narrator, is a Vietnamese double agent, a US-trained member of the South Vietnamese secret police and a spy for the Vietcong. He takes part in some key post-war events: the last-minute escape from Saigon by members of the South Vietnamese armed forces; the making of a brilliant film that, for all the pretensions of its director, portrays the Vietnamese people as subhuman (and in an author’s note, in case we missed it, is identified as a fictionalised analogue to Apocalypse Now); a re-education camp under the Communist regime; covert assassinations by rightwing refugees in the US; a pathetic attempt to invade Vietnam years after the war is over; and eventually the humiliation of being classified as boat people. While he remains in two minds (a notion that the narrative plays with in a number of ways), his closest friends are an anti-communist zealot and a staunch upholder of the Communist regime.

It’s a historical novel, with an instructional agenda which it fills well. It also spins a gripping, episodic yarn, and offers a sharply satirical perspective on the Vietnam War and US politics in general. For example, a Republican Congressman speaks at a Vietnamese refugee wedding feast, in rhetoric that uncannily foreshadows the vision of the current President (page 119):

… your soldiers fought well and bravely, and would have prevailed if only Congress had remained as steadfast in their support of you as the president promised. This was a promise shared by many, many Americans. But not all. You know who I mean. The Democrats. The media. The antiwar movement. The hippies. The college students. The radicals. America was weakened by its own internal divisions, by the defeatists and communists and traitors infesting our universities, our newsrooms, and our Congress.

There are some neat epigrams:

After all, nothing was more American than wielding a gun and committing oneself to die for freedom and independence, unless it was wielding that gun to take away someone else’s freedom and independence. (page 218)

or:

Americans on the average do not trust intellectuals, but they are cowed by power and stunned by celebrity. (page 254)

That kind of wit is hard to pull off without sounding just a bit smug and/or glib, and Viet Thanh Nguyen doesn’t always succeed.

On the whole I found the book a bit of a slog, not without its rewards, but also with some longueurs.

Six months of movie-going

I just found a list of the movies I saw in the first half of 1970, the year I turned 23, my English Honours year at Sydney University. I had just left the Marist Brothers and I was awfully lonely without the fraternal community of the previous seven years, but there were movies to fill the void: the ones in the picture theatres and the ones screened cheap by the Sydney University Film Group (of whom John Flaus and Michael Thornhill were leading lights). No film courses were offered at the university in those days, but it’s hard to imagine a course that would have been this eclectic or offered such startling double bills. I wonder if such an extended binge is a common experience.

Here’s the incredibly rich list.

I saw the first four films at home in North Queensland, with my older brother (the first three) and my parents. After that I was in Sydney and briefly in Canberra.

January:
whisperers25 The Lineup (Don Siegel 1958)
27 Summer Fires (also known as Mademoiselle) (Tony Richardson 1966, starring Jeanne Moreau)
28 The Whisperers (Bryan Forbes 1967, with Dame Edith Evans)
30 The Subject Was Roses (Ulu Grosbard 1968: the poster said, ‘Patricia Neal is back,’ but I didn’t know she’d been away, or who she was)

February:
culdesac13 Hamlet (Tony Richardson 1969)
14 If … (Tony Richardson 1968)
18 Midnight Cowboy (John Schlesinger 1969)
20 The Searchers (John Ford 1956; John Wayne, ‘As sure as night follows day…’)
23 The Killers (Don Siegel 1964)
23 Chimes at Midnight (Orson Welles 1965)
24 Cul-de-Sac (Roman Polanski 1966; Donald Pleasance bowled me over)

March;
mabuseStrike (Sergei M. Eisenstein 1925)
9 Targets (Peter Bogdanovich 1968)
12 Alice’s Restaurant (Arthur Penn 1969; Arlo Guthrie)
12 The Chase (Arthur Penn 1966)
13 Medium Cool (Haskell Wexler 1969; the 1968bDemocratic Convention – ‘Haskell, it’s real!’)
20 Dr Mabuse (Fritz Lang 1922)
21 Touch of Evil (Orson Welles 1958; Marlene Dietrich; ‘He was some kind of a man’)
28 Zabriskie Point (Michelangelo Antonioni 1970; amazing street art in San Francisco, and also kaboom!)
28 Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper 1969)

April:
coeurs3 Nanook of the North (Robert J. Flaherty 1922)
3 Les coeurs verts (Edouard Luntx 1966; the scene where the juvenile delinquents break into a swimming pool and suddenly there’s a wonderful naked underwater ballet; Gus Van Sant must have seen it)
6 Summer with Monika (Ingmar Bergman 1953)
Sawdust and Tinsel (Ingmar Bergman 1953)
13 Mickey One (Arthur Penn 1965)
13 Through a Glass Darkly (Ingmar Bergman 1961)
16 Repulsion (Roman Polanski 1965)
17 Twelfth Night (John Sichel 1969; one of the very few films in this list that I don’t remember at all)
18 Richard III (Laurence Olivier 1955)
20 Winter Light (Ingmar Bergman 1962)
20 Guns in the Afternoon (Sam Peckinpah 1962)
23 Barrier (Jerzy Skolimowski 1966)
24 White Nights (Luchino Visconti 1957)
26 Planet of the Apes (Franklin J Schaffner 1968)
26 Modesty Blaise (Joseph Losey 1966)
27 The Enforcer (Raoul Walsh 1951)
27 Vivre sa vie (Jean Luc Godard 1962)

May: 
burmeseMinistry of Fear (Fritz Lang 1944)
1 Where the Sidewalk Ends (Otto Preminger 1950)
5 The Blue Gardenia (Fritz Lang 1953)
9 The Wild Bunch (Sam Peckinpah 1969)
12 The Burmese Harp (Kon Ichikawa 1956; maybe my first east Asian film, and I was gobsmacked)
12 Tirez sur le pianiste (Francois Truffaut 1960)
23 Frankenstein (Don Whale 1931)
30 MASH (Robert Altman 1969)

June:
pointblank12 Crime and Punishment (Josef Von Sternberg 1935; could Peter Lorre really be who Dostoevsky had in mind?)
15 Bedazzled (Stanley Donen 1967)
20 Ramrod (André De Toth 1947; a Joel McCrae western)
21 Point Blank (John Boorman 1967; Lee Marvin!)
21 The Fearless Vampire Killers (Roman Polanski 1967; I laughed myself silly at the Aquarius Festival in Canberra)
26 The Man Who Had His Hair Cut Short (André Delvaux 1965)
26 Notorious (Alfred Hitchcock 1946)
27 The Power and the Glory (Marc Daniels 1961)
27 L’Etranger (Luchino Visconti 1967)
29 The Damned (Joseph Losey 1961; ‘Black leather, black leather, rock rock rock’; Oliver Reed)
29 Persona (Ingmar Bergman 1966)

July:
gospel2 Rysopsis (Jerzy Skolimowski 1964; is this the one where the old people in the bar make their glasses resonate?)
2 My Way Home (Miklós Janscó 1965)
3 Bullitt (Peter Yates 1968)
3 Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn 1967)
3 October (Sergei Eisenstein 1928; Ah, by this time I wasn’t so lonely any more; I saw it with my girlfriend and her Russian mother, who didn’t like its politics)
Alfie (Lewis Gilbert 1966)
6 The Tall T (Budd Boetticher 1957)
6 Shame (Ingmar Bergman 1968)
8 Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (George Roy Hill 1969)
10 The Thirty-Nine Steps (Alfred Hitchcock 1935)
10 Memories of Underdevelopment (Tomás Gutiérrez Alea 1968; an independent Cuban film)
12 Juliet of the Spirits (Federico Fellini 1965; my first Fellini, I had no idea what to make of it)
13 Petulia (Richard Lester 1968)
13 Last Year at Marienbad (Alain Resnais 1961)
20 The Gospel According to Matthew (Pier Paolo Pasolini 1964; my first Pasolini, I was blown away)
25 The Roaring Twenties (Raoul Walsh 1939; screened to a small audience, Flaus stopped the projector and rescreened Marlene Dietrich’s first appearance three times)
27 Contempt (Jean Luc Godard 1963; starring Fritz Lang and Brigitte Bardot)
– The Wild Angels (Roger Corman 1966)
– Woodstock (Michael Wadleigh 1970)

Hisham Matar’s Return

Hisham Matar, The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between (Viking 2016)

returnWikipedia describes Hisham Matar as a Libyan novelist. Actually, it’s more complex than that: he’s a British citizen, born in the USA, who spent six childhood years in Libya before being exiled with his immediate family to Egypt. But despite these complexities he is Libyan, deeply invested in the history, culture and fortune of that country. This wonderful book is built around his return there during the brief window of peace and hope after the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime in 2011. Matar’s father, Jaballa Matar, an influential political dissident, was kidnapped in 1990, never to be seen again by his family. Hisham, 19 years old and studying in London at the time of the kidnap, spent the next two decades trying to find out what happened to his father, and working for the release of his uncle and cousins who had been arrested at the same time.

As the story of the author’s visit to his Libyan family unfolds, the book travels back in time to his childhood relationship with his father, his life as a literary person in London, his many encounters with men who had been in the infamous Abu Salim prison at the same time as his father, the testimony of his uncle who spent 21 years in Abu Salim, the story of a heroic younger cousin who died in the resistance, a truly bizarre series of encounters with one of Gaddafi’s sons who makes and breaks endless promises to help, and a witness account of the massacre in which his father probably died. It’s a far cry from painless, but it’s a dramatic and engrossing lesson on the recent history of Libya.

It’s also a passionate account of what it means to have your beloved father snatched away by an oppressive regime and to spend decades imagining the worst and having only partial success in finding out what happened. It’s that emotional charge that animates the narrative. There are passages that readers from less expressive cultures might find a little florid, but for me they were among the strongest things in the book. This passage, for example, rings completely true to me, and makes me regret that I never managed to acknowledge anything of this debt to my father when he was alive:

The country that separates fathers and sons has disoriented many travellers. It is very easy to get lost here. Telemachus, Edgar, Hamlet and countless other sons, their private dramas ticking away in the silent hours, have sailed so far out into the uncertain distance between past and present that they seem adrift. They are men, like all men, who have come into the world through another man, a sponsor, opening the gate and, if they are lucky, doing so gently, perhaps with a reassuring smile and an encouraging nudge on the shoulder. And the fathers must have known, having once themselves been sons, that the ghostly presence of their hand will remain throughout the years, to the end of time, and that no matter what burdens are laid on that shoulder or the number of kisses a lover plants there, perhaps knowingly driven by the secret wish to erase the claim of another, the shoulder will remain forever faithful, remembering that good man’s hand that had ushered them into the world. To be a man is to be part of this chain of gratitude and remembering, of blame and forgetting. of surrender and rebellion, until a son’s gaze is made so wounded and keen that, on looking back, he sees nothing but shadows.

A version of the opening of the book was published in the New Yorker in April 2013. It’s available online here.

Jennifer Maiden’s Metronome (paper)

Jennifer Maiden, The Metronome (Giramondo 2017)

metronomepaper.jpegI don’t have anything new to say about The Metronome since I posted about the ebook version in January, and sadly I missed the launch at Gleebooks on the weekend. But for the sake of completeness, this is a short post to tell my readers the book is now out in the world, launched by Robert Adamson at Gleebooks on 26 March 2017. There are photos of the event on the Quemar Press website, and here’s a video of Jennifer Maiden reading ‘Mary Rose’ from the book:

One of the many things I love
about Gen Y is that they’re ready to accept
transgender in anything, as if Caitlyn Jenner
was the best fan fiction ever.

The Book Group in an Ian McEwan Nutshell

Ian McEwan, Nutshell (Jonathan Cape 2016)

1911214330.jpgThe Meeting: This is the first time I’ve been to a Book group meeting without having read even one page of the book that’s up for discussion. The Emerging Artist asked me what excuse I was going to give. I replied haughtily, and a little disingenuously, that I didn’t need an excuse, because the group is about much more than discussing a book.

There’s food, which this time was excellent: our host had taken a day off work to buy ingredients and cook a fabulous Malaysian meal. (He joked that he had thought of making smoothies but decided against it – a joke which I only got a week later when half way through the book.) And there’s bonhomie: we caught up with each other’s lives, relationships, illnesses and other milestones.

We eventually did discuss the book. I gleaned that it is beautifully written, with many sentences that at least one person was compelled to read more than once. A couple of people laughed so hard at some parts they had to put the book down. The plot had to do with Hamlet, but not obviously. The central conceit, that the narrator is a foetus in the last weeks of gestation who knows an awful lot about the world from listening to podcasts, was either amusing (most of the group), richly metaphorical (one person), or one-joke tedious (the main dissenter who, incidentally, says he is an Ian McEwan fan).

I snuck a quick look at a page close to the end, and was enthralled. Here’s the paragraph I read, without spoiler anxiety, because after all it would have been odd for the narrator not to be born at the book’s end:

A slithering moment of waxy, creaking emergence, and here I am, set naked on the kingdom. Like stout Cortez (I remember a poem my father once recited), I’m amazed. I’m looking down, with what wonder and surmise, at the napped surface of the blue bath towel. Blue. I’ve always known, verbally at least, I’ve always been able to infer what’s blue – sea, sky, lapis lazuli, gentians – mere abstractions. Now I have it at last, I own it, and it possesses me. More gorgeous than I dared  believe. That’s just a beginning, at the indigo end of the spectrum.

In the course of the evening someone read a passage that he particularly enjoyed. To my uninformed ear it was a dry if elegantly constructed list of items such as one hears on the news every night, with nothing particularly clever, pleasant or moving about it.

The discussion must have been enticing enough because when the library emailed that a copy had finally become available, I borrowed it.

After the meeting: It turned out that the main challenge for me as a reader was the requirement that I willingly suspend, not so much disbelief, as my sense of late prenatal awareness as an actual thing, one that bears little or no resemblance to the sophisticated rumination, moral discrimination, wine connoisseurship and intense visualisation that characterise the narration here.

Once you are reconciled to the fact that there’s no attempt to imagine an actual foetus’s mental processes, and have set aside any anxiety about the potential damage from the mother’s copious alcohol consumption or vigorously receptive sexual activity, you can pay attention to the story, in which the narrator listens and feels helplessly while his mother (Trudy/Gertrude) and her lover/brother-in-law (Claude/Claudius) plot the death of his father.

Like a number of recent and forthcoming books, though not part of the Hogarth Shakespeare Project (Gillian (Gone Girl) Flynn will be doing Hamlet for that project), this is a novelistic riff on a Shakespeare play. The names and the incest–murder scenario aren’t all that links it to Hamlet. There are plenty of verbal echoes  – ‘To be’, though not ‘not to be’; ‘Seems, nay tis’, and so on. And Hamlet’s indecisiveness is parallelled in the narrator’s vacillations as he is influenced by his mother’s hormonal fluctuations and his own divided loyalties. The narrator toys with the idea of killing himself, with a literal ‘mortal coil’. There’s even a Shakespearean ghost.

The narrative swings along, and the remarkably well-informed foetus’s reflections are engaging, but I kept wondering if the central conceit was really any more interesting than the one in the movie Look Who’s Talking. In an odd way, it was this rather than the narrative question – would the plotters get away with murder? – that kept me in suspense. In the end, it was a passage very like the one that had so failed to impress me at the meeting that brought the narrative’s metaphorical power home for me. The narrator is well informed, like so many of us in the age of social media, about things he is all but powerless to influence. This helplessly informed state is the novel’s equivalent to Hamlet’s indecisiveness. ‘And always, there are problems closer to hand.’ That sentence, banal as it may seem out of context, is actually a call to action, and it’s what in the end made me love the book, though I still could have done without all the alcohol during pregnancy.


 

Maxine Beneba Clarke’s Hate Race

Maxine Beneba Clarke, The Hate Race (Hachette Australia 2016)

haterace.jpgI finished reading The Hate Race on the eve of the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, celebrated in Australia as Harmony Day, and this year the day on which the Turnbull government put forward legislation intended to make it legal to insult, offend or humiliate someone on the basis of their race.

As a result, soon after finishing the book I read Adam Liaw’s Twitter thread being ‘a bit frank about race’ (well worth reading), and some of the painful contributions to the thread #FreedomofSpeech initiated by Benjamin Law. These read almost as continuations of the book, placing it as part of a vast, continuing, necessary conversation. The connection became explicit when Benjamin Law tweeted a recommendation to ‘read Maxine Beneba Clarke’s memoir of growing up black in Australia. Utter punch in the guts’. And it’s true that Clarke’s book gives devastating heft to the abstractions ‘insult’, ‘offend’ and ‘humiliate’.

But it would be a mistake to think of The Hate Race as an extended tweet about racism, whether micro-agressive, casual, everyday, or viciously intentional. It’s a beautifully written memoir about growing up as an Caribbean–African-heritage girl in suburban Sydney in the 1980s and 1990s. Its focus on racism gives it power and coherence, but doesn’t stop it from being very funny in places and heartbreaking in others, from having a satisfying (and surprising) overall narrative arc, and any number of story-telling pleasures along the way. The narrator tells us again and again that she is making a story out of her experience. ‘This is how it happened,’ goes her refrain, ‘or what’s a story for.’

There’s a wonderful tale involving Cabbage Patch Kids, and Maxine’s time on the debating team in high school is a source of complex humour. There are stories of teenage love, of intellectual adventure, of defiance, smart-arsery and righteousness. I expect that anyone who has been to school in Australia will recognise the truth of the playground politics.

There’s one passage I’m tempted to quote as most vividly transcending the extended-tweet form and exemplifying the book’s complex honesty – for those who’ve read it, I’m thinking of the ‘incident with Baghita Singh’ from Chapter 19. But I’ll avoid spoilers. Here’s a taste, from Chapter 7, of the world as seen by little Maxine, one of many such tiny gems:

I have only one memory of entering a church with my mother. In it, I am about four years old. We are walking, my mother and I, along Wrights road on the way home from preschool, when the heavens unexpectedly open. Sheets of freezing rain pour down on us. Umbrella-less, we huddle under the small awning of the nearby white-painted timber Anglican church. But the rain seems to be chasing us, curving in under the church awning in piercing darts, as if directing us into the arms of the Lord.
—–When my mother eases open the heavy wooden church door, rows of polished pews with plush red cushioning reveal themselves. Light streams through the pretty stained-glass windows.
—–‘What is this place?’ I am breathless with awe. ‘It looks like the inside of a Pizza Hut restaurant.’

At about the halfway point, I was filled with vicarious terror for the people whose names are named: Carlita Allen, Maxine’s vicious nemesis from the first day of preschool; Mrs Kingsley, the preschool teacher who smilingly refused to believe that a little black girl’s father could be a mathematician; Mrs Hird, who turned a deaf ear to racist taunts and objected furiously to the use of the word racism;  the vile bullies Derek Healey and Greg Adams; all the abusive children and adolescents, the obtuse or collusive teachers. It was a relief to read in the acknowledgements that all names apart from the author’s have been changed. But I do hope that Carlita and Greg and Derek and the rest read the book and are inspired to do some hard thinking. As a white man, I’ve been pushed to face at least bystander behaviour on my part. Perhaps even John Howard and Pauline Hanson, offstage characters whose names are not changed, might have their worlds expanded if they open these pages.

aww2017.jpgThe Hate Race is the fourth book I’ve read for the 2017 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Southerly 76/2

David Brooks and guest editor Andy Jackson (editors), Southerly Vol 76 No 2 2016: Writing Disability

southerly762.jpgThe term ‘disability’ covers a vast range of experience: body shapes that differ from the norm, impaired bodily function, chronic pain, chronic disease, learning difficulties, the autism spectrum, conditions labelled ‘mental illness’, combinations of those and more. It’s an obvious point, and perhaps only in an academic context would you invoke a French theorist to make it, as in this passage from Andy Jackson and David Brooke’s essay ‘Ramps and the Stair’ in this Southerly:

Derrida tells us that we should not, when talking about animals, use the word animal. It is an umbrella term, an intellectual violence. We should say cat, we should say horse, we should say mouse. […] ‘Disability’, then, an umbrella term? an intellectual violence? There are as many forms of disability as there are things a non-disabled person might be able to do. The term effaces even as it tries to draw attention.*

But with or without Derrida, cats, mice and horses, this Southerly focuses on disability. The contents are listed according to kind of writing – essays, poetry, short fiction etc (you can see the online version here). They could as easily have been listed according to kind of disability. Here’s a partial list:

Degenerative disease:

  • An intensely personal obituary by Bruce Pascoe for Gillian Mears, best known as the author of Foal’s Bread who died of  multiple sclerosis last year
  • Koraly Dimitriadis, ‘The Recipe’, an exuberant short fiction in which a Greek family deals with a matriarch’s diagnosis of motor neuron disease

Cerebral palsy:

  • Kit Kavanagh-Ryan, ‘Permanent Problems’, a memoir, self described as ‘ a story about identity and anxiety, about rude questions and boring answers … a story I can’t grow out of, even as I grow up’, followed by  ‘life prep (dear able bodied partner)’, a brief, caustic lyric on the same theme

Chronic illness:

  • Heather Taylor Johnson, ‘Trying to Talk about Ménières Disease’, a poem (a fourfold haibun?) that vividly captures devastating encounters with a medical practitioner

Blindness / visual impairment:

  • Ben Stubbs, ‘A Different View’, in which the author, a travel writer, is taken on a blindfold walk through the streets of Adelaide by a blind activist/educator, almost as good (or bad) as being there

Deafness:

  • Amanda Tink, ‘Deafness: a Key to Lawson’s Writing’ reminds us that Henry Lawson was deaf, and argues that his disability lay at the base of his commitment to social justice. (I do wonder if Ms Tink has thought much about the influence of Henry’s feminist mother and his class background)
  • Jessica White, ‘A Great Many Capital Foreign Things’, a memoir about her own experience as a deaf person, including her time researching colonial novelist Rosa Praed’s daughter Maud, who was deaf.

Autism spectrum:

  • Darcy Hill, ‘Disjointed Words’, a revelatory personal essay recounting a couple of hours in the life of an autistic university student
  • Jessica Clements: ‘Theories of LIght’, a fiction in which a boy with Aspergers (though it’s not named) begins school. It opens a gentle door for readers unfamiliar with the territory

Chronic pain:

  • Josephine Taylor, ‘Mark My Words’, the most scholarly piece in the journal (with four pages of ‘works cited’), about vulvodynia, a condition of chronic unexplained vulval pain. I’m not drawn to writing that quotes the likes of Lacan or the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, and parts of this essay are hard going, but as it’s rooted in, and animated by, the writer’s quest to come to terms with more than fifteen years of acute pain, it’s hard to turn away

Mobility impairment:

  • Michèle Saint-Yves, ‘The Inner Shepherd’, a spectacular story in which a character takes 12 pages to sit up in bed in the morning, bringing extraordinary self-discipline to the task.

‘Mental Illness’:

  • Liana Joy Christensen, ‘Before They fall’, a memoir that pays pained tribute to a friend who lived with mental chaos.: ‘He could not help being ill; I could not help writing.’

Intellectual disability:

  • The cover is by Fulli Andrinopoulos, represented by Arts Project Australia, whose website declares that it insists ‘that intellectually disabled artists’ work be presented in a professional manner and that artists are accorded the same dignity and respect as their non-disabled peers’.

Not easily categorised:

  • Elisabeth Holdsworth, ‘The Interpretation of Dreams, the friends of our youth and 83 seconds’ ranges widely over stillborn babies, misdiagnosed back injury, childhood epilepsy, survival of Dachau – friendship, grief, solidarity, courage …

I would have been satisfied with this richly diverse reading experience, and then the short reviews section sprung a pleasant surprise on me in Michael Sharkey’s review of David Musgrave’s Anatomy of Voice. This book is an elegy to Bill Maidment (1924–2005), who lectured at Sydney University and was a mentor and friend to Musgrave and Sharkey. Though I wouldn’t presume to claim him as a friend, he was one of the three most inspiring, and dare I say loveable, teachers I had at university (the others were Elisabeth Hervic, of the French Department, and David Malouf). The review send me to Gleebooks to buy a copy of the book, but the real delight was in Sharkey’s departures from the business of reviewing to note down some of his own memories of Bill:

Bill Maidment received that sort of admiration and affection from several generations of students and fellow teachers. He represents a world now gone, when an Air Force radio operator, journalist, plein-air geographer and adventurer, forensic critic, collector of Australian folklore and arcane Renaissance knowledge, and brilliant lecturer could exist in one person, and hold a packed lecture theatre in such thrall that the listeners erupted in applause not only at the end of lectures but sometimes following a bravura exegesis.


  • Because my WordPress format doesn’t distinguish italicised text in quotes, I’ve used purple for words that are italicised in the original. I’ve also altered punctuation slightly to follow Australian conventions.

Tom Keneally’s Crimes of the Father

Tom Keneally, Crimes of the Father (Vintage 2016)

crimes.jpgPerhaps a novel is just what’s needed after the news cycle has rolled on, to keep our minds and hearts alive to painful issues such as child sexual abuse in religious institutions. That, it seems to me, is the need The Crimes of the Father aims to fill.

It’s a stranger-comes-to-town story. Father Frank Docherty was stripped of his priestly role by the Sydney Cardinal in the early 1970s because his politics were contrary to the prelate’s conservatism. As a member of a religious Order, he found a new life in Canada as a priest and academic psychologist, and came to specialise in cases of clerical child abuse. In 1996 he returns to Sydney to address a conference, and finds himself embroiled as adviser and advocate with not one but two people who were abused as children by a Monsignor of the diocese who also happens to be the brother of a woman he has loved, chastely, for more than 20 years.

There are lectures, legal arguments, and excursions into the history of the Catholic Church in the aftermath of Vatican Two. Tom Keneally has clearly done conscientious research, and in that sense is trustworthy. But at about the midpoint I was muttering, ‘Show, don’t tell,’ and three quarters of the way through, ‘Write what you know!’ I just didn’t believe in Frank Docherty’s inner life, or that of the accused abuser or the abuse survivors. The dialogue rarely sounds like conversation. The narrative feels like a survey of the literature, a tableau where you might reasonably expect a drama.

Though Keneally’s skill as a story teller is powerful enough that I kept reading, it’s the brief preface, in which he writes about his own relationship to the Catholic Church, that delivers the strongest emotional punch. The rest is too schematic, the characters too much at arm’s length, the action too often described rather than enacted. And as our hero flies off into the sunrise, the necessary final twist is a convenient deus ex machina.

Perhaps because I had just read Kim Mahood’s brilliant Position Doubtful, this unengaged quality struck me with particular force in the section where Sarah, a survivor of sexual abuse who has temporarily become Sister Constance, spends time on a remote Aboriginal community. She visits the outstation of a man called Douglas (‘that was his European name, anyhow’), with some of his relatives. Here are the first paragraphs of her visit:

Douglas was reserved but welcoming. His habitation, an elegantly constructed lean-to, lay at the foot of a ridge in which the entire range of umber and yellow rocks were exhibited. His wife was profoundly black and limpid-eyed, and there was just her and him there – the kids were learning white-fella stuff in Cairns, he told them. He had a kerosene refrigerator and a telephone that hung on a pole and ran off solar panels. He was a man of past, present and future.
—-The relatives sat about on a rug in front of the lean-to and spoke in their language – part guttural, with some sounds like bird calls – her ignorance about which  Constance had never felt more acutely than at this moment. The host, his wife and his relatives drank tea from enamel mugs. A stranger at the feast, she did too.

And that’s as vividly as we ever get to see Douglas and his unnamed wife and relatives. Of course, they’re incidental characters (and I should mention that ‘their language’ has been previously identified as Guugu Timithirr), but the writing is not completely untypical. It might work as a film script, because the actors would flesh it out, but there’s not much flesh in the written form.

Compare this from the Author’s Note:

At an immature age I chose to study for the priesthood. and I would like to put on record my thanks for the more generous and open-handed aspects of that training. It was not, however, an education designed to encourage a callow young man to achieve full maturity as a sentient and generous male adult. I was too innocent to understand that the education to make me a celibate strayed easily into stereotyping half of my species – women – as a perilous massed threat to priestly purity; or that the attendant emotional dwarfing could create, encourage or license the young men whose abusive tendencies are mourned in this novel.

I so wanted to read the novel that this seems to promise. But I was disappointed: those young men make no appearance except as manipulators lifted straight from Keneally’s evidently punctilious research. No light is shed on their motivations as individual, breathing human beings. And the same is only slightly less true of the survivors.