Nir Batram’s At Night’s End

Nir Baram, At Night’s End (2018, English translation by Jessica Cohen, Text Publishing 2021)

I may have missed the point of this book.

It begins with an Israeli novelist waking up in a hotel room in Mexico after appearing as a guest at a writers’ festival. He is disorientated, and decides to stay on in order to track down a young woman whom he blearily remembers saying something to him about the death of his best friend. The friend isn’t dead, or is he?

The following chapters take place by turns in three different time periods: the late 1980s, when the novelist and his friend are in elementary school, creating an elaborate fantasy world and dealing with a trio of bullies; the mid 1990s, when they are in their final year of school; and the present time, in Mexico. There are frequent flashbacks and forward projections in each of the time periods, complicated further by dream sequences, drugged states and possible psychotic episodes. The friendship hits on some hard times. The friend (I think) becomes deeply depressed and after being suicidal for years finally kills himself. The narrator does meet up with the young woman, but as far as I could tell he just gets very drunk and/or stoned with her and another poet. I don’t know if the friend dies before or after their meeting.

Though I spent most of the book in a state of disorientation, the problem wasn’t at the sentence level. The prose, in Jessica Cohen’s translation, is clear and flows easily. It’s just that I never did really get what happened between the two friends, either in the late 1980s, the mid 1990s, or whenever the friend finally died.

The back cover blurb quotes a review by in Haaretz: ‘One of the most intriguing writers in Israeli literature today.’ Yossi Sucary, the quoted reviewer, is probably more dependable than I am. I brought it home from the Book(-swapping) Club. I can’t say it was one of my more successful borrowings.

Ouyang Yu’s Terminally Poetic

Ouyang Yu, Terminally Poetic (Ginninderra Press 2022)

Every now and then someone on my Twitter feed shares an angry response to a rejection letter from a literary magazine. These responses generally assert that the rejecting editor is too stupid, racist, sexist, transphobic or something of the sort to have recognised the brilliance of the rejected work. In my time as editor of a children’s literary magazine, such responses were rare, but they certainly never made us think we might have been mistaken.

Here’s one editor’s take on such responses:

Much of Ouyang Yu’s Terminally Poetic could be read as making poetry out of that kind of letter. The persona in these poems rails against poets who are famous (Les Murray is singled out a couple of times), against the useless sadness of ancient Chinese poets, against editors who say they want to publish work that will sell, against editors who ask that a submission be accompanied by a stamped self-addressed envelope, against editors who are white or coloured, against the notion of revising poems, against literary prizes, against the dominance of white people in the Australian literary scene, against the intrinsic mediocrity of Australian poetry, against people who don’t pay him enough attention, against himself.

The poems were written over three decades. A couple of them self-identify as written in 2000; one calls for Australia to emulate the 2000 coup in Fiji; one (‘Temporarily Untitled’) starts with a bald account of a murder-suicide by a poet, who a little googling identifies as Chinese poet Gu Cheng in 1993, making it perhaps the earliest poem in the collection. It begins:

the news came that the poet died
he had killed his wife and hang himself on a tree outside the house

on an island not far from auckland
called something i can't remember at all

because it is difficult to pronounce

The offhand disrespect of these lines is all too typical of the book (the unconventional/incorrect ‘hang’ is less so). It may be a sign of youthful harshness, but as the poems are presented in alphabetical order of title – from ‘About poetry’ to ‘Written by one who doesn’t know how to write poetry’ – there’s no telling if there is any mellowing with age.

This is an unpleasant book. It means to be. It’s also an insider’s book. Even though the speaker of the poems positions himself as an outsider, his attention rarely moves out of the world of literature and publishing. It won the Judith Wright Calanthe Award for a Poetry Collection in the 2021 Queensland Literary Awards. I couldn’t find the judges’ comments online, and I’m curious about their choice.

When I blog about poetry collections it’s my practice to single out one poem for a closer look. Here’s one of the few poems in this book that isn’t about the poetry world:

(Maybe this appeals to me because I cherish childhood memories of coming home from a movie and peeing in the yard in the moonlight with my father and brothers while my mother and sisters took turns at the toilet inside.)

The heart of the poem is the moment when the speaker is taken by surprise by the moonlight and the edible-looking streetlights. I know hardly anything about classical Chinese poetry, but I understand that there are many poems about the moon and moonlight, including the one at this link by the great Li Bai. I can’t help but read Ouyang Yu’s poem in the context of that tradition.

But before we get to the moonlight, there’s ‘a long dream of dreaming of toilets’ in ‘the unconscious hours of the night’. It’s not just sleep, but unconsciousness. It’s not just a dream, but a dream of dreaming. He’s deep in the dream, dead to the world as we say. The syntax of what follows is muddled: read literally, the speaker is ‘turned away by closed doors or crowds of pissers’ after he gets up to relieve himself. This captures so well the muddled state of waking from a deep dream, especially perhaps a dream of pissing, the way the dream pulls you back to itself.

In the two middle stanzas, the speaker goes to the real toilet, and he momentarily forgets bodily functions because the moonlight is there. And then there are the streetlights, like juicy oranges, and the stirrings of some unnamed, hunger-like desire. In these stanzas he comes fully awake to the world in the silence of the night.

In Li Bai’s poem the speaker looks down to see the moonlight like frost on the ground, looks up at the moon, looks down again. This poem has a similar movement: the speaker looks down, metaphorically, at his bodily need; looks up at the moonlight and the streetlights; then looks down again, to pee (this poem definitely assumes a male body). Then there’s a moment’s reflection. Li Bai thinks of his homeland, evoking the yearning of nostalgia. In Ouyang Yu’s poem, ‘shiveringly’ refers to the cool of the night, but it also suggests an emotional moment. The final line, banal and bathetic at first glance, is just surprising enough to give the reader pause: what does it mean to wonder about life without toilets? I take it to be an oblique way (a very oblique way) of giving thanks for a tiny moment of appreciation of the beauty of the world, perhaps even of transcendence.

I haven’t read any other of Ouyang Yu’s many books of poetry. I hope they are full of such moments.

I am grateful to Ouyang Yu and Ginninderra Press for my copy of Terminally Poetic.

Two Flying Island pocket poets

The Flying Islands Poetry Community has been publishing pocket-sized poetry books (14 x 11 cm) for more than 10 years. According to its website:

The Flying Island Pocket Poets series originated as a simultaneous entity in Markwell, NSW and Macao, China, through the work of Professor Christopher (Kit) Kelen. Running since 2010 (in association with the Macao-based community publisher, ASM), Flying Islands has published more than eighty volumes, with authors from all over the world, but more from Australia and China than from anywhere else.

We can subscribe from within Australia for $120 to receive a year’s publications (details here). From the beginning of the series, the RRP for individual copies has been kept to A$10. But that’s not all. To quote the website again:

These books that magically appear out of pockets are part of a gift and exchange art-economy. They are our currency! 

Those aren’t just empty words. It was through versions of the gift and exchange art-economy that I found out about the Pocket Poets series, and came to possess, and read, two of these niftily designed books.

Richard James Allen, Fixing the Broken Nightingale (Flying Island Books 2013)

At a poetry reading in Sydney a couple of years ago, Richard James Allen read his poem ‘It’s Saturday night in almost any city in the world and’, and offered a prize for whoever could guess the city in which he wrote it. The audience called out the names of almost every city in the world, but I was the one who finally shouted, ‘Florence!’ and won the prize, Fixing the Broken Nightingale, which did seem to magically appear out of a pocket.

There’s a rich variety of poems in the book, ranging from straightforward love poems to poems that turn back on themselves like Escher drawings. There’s whimsy and melancholy, moments of ontological despair and intimations of mortality. The most striking poem is ’13 Acts of Unfulfilled Love’, which has some extraordinarily explicit sexual images, to arrive at this, in ‘ACT TWELVE‘:

These are my real thoughts,
not my dirty thoughts.
______________________ ____________This is my real love,
_________________________ ____________not my dirty love.
I am trying to live a real life,
not a dirty life.
_________________________And I'd like you there with me,
_____________________________in this soiled, holy world.

Kit Kelen, A Pocket Kit 2 (Flying Island Books 2015)

When I bought a copy of Kit Kelen’s Book of Mother at its launch in Sydney, neither of us had correct money. This little book materialised as if by magic to be my change.

It’s very different from Book of Mother and from other books of Kelen’s that I’ve read (blog posts here, here, here and here). As the title suggests, it’s a kind of sampling of his work, rather than a collection organised around a central subject or theme. A first Pocket Kit was published in 2011.

This is mostly a cheerful book. There are poems celebrating elements of Australian culture, like ‘Blokes’ (‘They know it’s bad luck to speak / when gesturing would do the trick’) and ‘shed’ (‘the peasant is the king here / where monarchs tinker with old crowns / no need for revolution’). The same ironic celebratory tone comes to bear on Macau where Kelen was a professor when this book was published, on his Hungarian heritage, on the prospect of having children, on the yellow umbrellas of Hong Kong in 2014.

My favourite in the book is ‘to tend’. If I remember correctly, Kelen like me had a Catholic childhood. This poem delicately addresses the question of what to do about the gap created when you stop believing. It starts:

to tend the gods as given, as found
new habits of homage are required

in word untamed, in sight unframed
paths to follow are so chosen,
by you, for you, willing, blind

go to the makers
not to the mockers
take the trouble to tell them apart

And ends:

go to the makers
never the mockers

tend to the habits of homage
you've found

Even though Kelen can begin a poem called ‘ancestor worship’ with ‘people smelt bad in the old times / they had bad teeth, they were stupid’ and can continue in that vein for 20 lines, he is certainly one of the makers, not one of the mockers.

Les Murray’s Continuous Creation

Les Murray, Continuous Creation: Last Poems (Black Inc 2022)

This beautifully designed book is a fitting way to honour the 2019 passing of a poet who loomed large in the Australian cultural landscape. The cover photograph is an inspired choice. Les Murray, seen in profile and lit from behind as if about to disappear from view, is alert and seems to be preparing to stand up. We see him through glass, so that the bookshelves, family photographs and artworks in the room blend with the bright green reflections of the outside world. Scholarship, engagement with the non-human natural world, his particular breathiness are all suggested. The photograph was taken by Murdoch press journalist Amos Aikman, while the book is published by Black Inc: Murray’s affiliation with political reaction hasn’t stopped the left-of-centre literary establishment from honouring him with this publication.

The poems are preceded by a Note on the Text by Jamie Grant: some time before he died, Murray told Grant that he had about two thirds of a book ready to go. After his death (longer than it would have been in the absence of a pandemic), Grant visited Murray’s home to find a folder of poems that had been typed by Murray’s wife Valerie, and a box filled with a jumble of handwritten poems, some of them in many versions. The contents of that folder and box, with some judicious choosing among versions in the latter, have become the contents of this book.

I’ve loved some of Murray’s poems since first hearing him read them in (I think) the early 1970s – ‘A Perfectly Ordinary Rainbow’, ‘The Buladelah-Taree Holiday Song Cycle’, the one about blowing up trees as young men, or the one about eating curry somewhere in Britain. I’m also a bit of a hater, starting with the ‘humorous’ homophobic quatrain he regularly read along with the ‘Rainbow’. I found much to love and hate in this book as well, though ‘love’ and ‘hate’ may be too strong in both cases. There’s nothing as brilliant as his most brilliant poems, and nothing as terrible as his most anti-modern barbs.

There are aphorisms (including the title poem), odd moments of Australian history and autobiography, pronouncements on culture and politics, descriptions of natural phenomena and works of art – all conveyed with Murray’s characteristic love of wordplay, often with elements of puzzle, and his terrific ability to make us see things. ‘A Friendship’ stands out as a straightforwardly affectionate elegy for Bob Ellis.

Here’s ‘Dateline’, one of the poems from the jumble in the box. (As always, I’m assuming permission to show the poem here, even in this poor quality phone photo, and will happily remove it if the copyright owners ask me to):

The first three stanzas include examples of Murray’s gift for visual metaphor. At different stages and from different points of view, the floodwaters are like old-time washerwomen, like a mirror, like windribbed parchment. Reading these, we know that the poet has looked with fresh eyes, and invite us to do likewise.

The opening stanza is strongly visual: trees and shrubs are dumped in the creek and swirled around like laundry, letting wrack dribble downstream like dirty suds. But the words bring more than the visual. Washerwomen, especially ‘old-time’ washerwomen, belong in Dickens or Wind in the Willows (Toad disguising himself is probably the first time I heard the word). That and the verb ‘souse’ identify the poem as ‘literary’, in the English tradition. This is worth saying because Murray has been called ‘the last of the Jindyworobaks’, meaning that he sets out to write in continuity with First Nations song and story. The label is at best only partly correct. (Incidentally, I expect if he’d had a chance to revise the poem further, Murray might have changed the second line to ‘floodwaters are sousing trees and shrubs’ so that the ‘their’ in line 4 would work syntactically.)

Paradoxically perhaps, the second stanza brings us closer to the action by pulling back from description. Watching the floods, who could avoid remembering the drought? Then, another visual effect: the rain isn’t just ‘refilling the land’ (what a lovely phrase). It sits on the roads, reflecting the sky.

Human effort gets its pages turned

This is the poem’s key line. In the short term, it means that effort earlier put towards dealing with drought must now be directed towards flood mitigation, relief and recovery: the humans aren’t the ones who determine where their effort needs to go. Before any wider implication can be absorbed, the stanza moves on to the striking image of towns blanked (not blanketed) in water. I’m pretty sure ‘windribbed’ is one of Murray’s inventions – beautifully capturing a metaphorical link between agitated floodwaters and ribbed fabric, which is then further complicated by calling it parchment.

Murray’s fascination with linguistics now swings into action:

We are hearing Tornado and Tsunami

at home, words unknown in teapot times.
Downpour and Inferno are states
that people drive between

‘Teapot times’: in the olden days when people around here (‘at home’) drank tea rather than coffee, and brewed it in pots, before teabags became all but universal. Back then, people in Murray country didn’t use words like ‘tornado’ or ‘tsunami’; now they are part of the language, and have assumed enough presence to require initial capital letters. The language has changed. And so has the reality: ‘Downpour’ and ‘Inferno’ may not be new words in quite the same way, but they too have taken on initial caps – they have grown from occasional events to states.

I read the reference to senators as one of Murray’s kneejerks attacks on politicians: the floods mean people lose their whitegoods, and somehow, by Murray’s anti-politician logic, they cast aside their political representatives as well.

The next lines are the reason I chose this poem to talk about:

Global warming's chiller winters
rule both hemispheres. Arizona snow golf,
Siberian wheat, English vineyards
stricken by blizzard in their chardonnay.

I may be confusing Murray with Clive James here, but I’m pretty sure both of them have been climate change deniers. Murray has certainly echoed some right-wing talking points about environmental issues. It may be of course that the oxymoronic ‘global warming’s chiller winters’ is meant to sound a note of scepticism, but that’s not how I read it. By the logic of this poem, we move from a page being turned on human effort, to new language being needed for new circumstances, to the naming of a general cause. Climate change is real, it rules the planet. The floodwaters in Murray country are part of the same general phenomenon as weather events in the US, Asia and Europe. Human effort is getting its pages turned in a big way: humans may see themselves as dominating the planet, but ultimately we are not calling the shots.

It’s hard not to read the final word of this stanza as carrying the ‘anti-elitist’ tone of much right-wing rhetoric: you know, the inner city types who drink their lattes and sip their chardonnays. Is there a slight hint that the arrogant are getting their comeuppance in these events? If so, does the opening image of the floodwater as washerwomen take on a deeper resonance? Is global warming a case of abused and despised nature rising up against human entitlement and privilege? And where does that leave the poet, that he can say ‘their’ rather than ‘our’?

If that was the end of the poem, it would be a satisfyingly unsettling whole, implicating the poem’s speaker in the current global disaster, while holding up to the light one of the ways we avoid facing the reality.

I’m not convinced that the last six lines, which fall after the page is turned, are part of the same poem. But it certainly reads as if Jamie Grant and the editors thought so. In that case, the poem veers off in a new direction, justified perhaps by the title ‘Dateline’: this is the kind of piling together of disparate issues that happens in a news bulletin. Climate warming is the main story, but meanwhile class discrimination continues, in sports and the arts, something curious happens in the Sahara, and there’s a snippet of good news involving a baby (something cute to end the bulletin with), even if it is against the background of that AIDS epidemic. And if the last couplet isn’t an alternative, preferable version of the preceding one, which would have been my editorial guess, it reiterates the exotic and good news – this time perhaps, thanks to the repetition, conveying a glimmer of hope.

Bernadine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other

Bernadine Evaristo, Girl, Woman, Other (2019, Penguin 2020)

Frank Moorhouse described his early books as ‘discontinuous narratives’. They were collections of short stories whose characters and situations overlapped, but lacked a narrative through-line. In the half-century since those books were published, discontinuity has become much more commonplace in novels, and it’s probably only because Moorhouse recently died that Girl, Woman, Other put me in mind of his term.

The bulk of the book consists of four sets of three short stories. In each set the stories are about three women who are closely related (in one case, two women and a gender-nonspecific person who was assigned female at birth). The main characters are all Black (though some pass for white), and most of them are part of the LGBTQI+ community. They are mothers and daughters, lovers and friends, teacher and students, activists and cancel culture warriors, a playwright, a farmer, a merchant banker. The action mostly happens in England, in the context of feminist and Black liberation movements from the 1960s to the present day. Once you get used to the regular sudden changes in place, time, point of view and voice, the effect is exhilarating.

Of the final two chapters, the first provides a kind of narrative resolution when many of the characters turn up for an event foreshadowed in the first section. So technically the narrative isn’t totally discontinuous in Moorhouse’s sense, but the event is transparently a device to allow characters from different stories to run into each other rather than a real climax. The final section seems to go off in a whole new direction by telling the story of one of the book’s incidental white women characters, only to twist that story back into another narrative strand, to end with a moment that is no less emotionally satisfying for being utterly implausible.

I just read someone online saying they’d heard that ‘the text lacks punctuation’, so they chose to listen to it rather than read it. Well, I’m not saying they were wrong to listen, but the absence of quote marks and full stops – to be precise, the use of full stops only for the ends of sections – is not the annoyance you might expect. Evaristo uses line breaks as a form of punctuation: the meaning is always clear, there’s plenty of white space on the page, and the narrative flows beautifully. I for one was happily seduced.

John Blay’s Wild Nature

John Bray, Wild Nature (NewSouth 2020)

When I read Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees, in which sclerophyll forests might as well not exist, I yearned to read a book about the Australian bush. She who is known in this blog as the Emerging Artist had been urging me to read John Blay’s Wild Nature for more than a year. So, though I didn’t expect it to be an Australian extension of Wohlleben’s book, it pretty much leapt from the bookshelf into my waiting arms.

The book is made up of three major strands.

First, there’s the narrative through-line: the author’s account of an intrepid walk through Australia’s south-east forests, often following animal tracks and sometimes, memorably, forcing a way through thick vegetation by throwing his body against it. A woman named Jacqueline accompanies him on much of his journey. We never learn her second name and are left to deduce that she is his partner. The narrative is based closely on journals he kept on his walks.

Second, he gives a history of the ‘Forest Wars’, the bitter conflict between those who wanted to exploit the forests for timber and woodchips, and those who wanted to preserve it – with the Forestry Department, which once played a custodian role, at times coming down heavily – and, though Blay doesn’t ever say so, corruptly – against the ‘greenies’. This strand is the fruit of extensive work by Blay recording oral history from participants in both sides of the wars. Although his sympathies are clearly with the conservationists, he has warm, respectful relationships with people who have the industry’s interests at heart.

Third, he incorporates the fruits of research, including his broad botanical and ecological knowledge, and colonial and pre-settlement history. What Wohlleben calls the hidden life of trees is mentioned briefly, and at one stage Blay follows the path of early nineteenth-century shipwreck survivors, an episode explored in historian Mark McKenna’s From the Edge.

It’s a strange book. Too often, reading it is like going on a long bush walk with an enthusiastic guide who names every tree and bush you pass, except of course the reader can’t see them, so all we get is a list of botanical and geological names. I smiled ruefully when I read Blay’s comment on the shipwreck survivors’ account:

Without the on-ground knowledge of where they were from time to time, it would have made so little sense to those who seldom ventured into the outdoors that the long journey might as well have taken place on the moon.

(Page 263)

The slog is made worse by moments, all too frequent, that seem to have come straight from a journal and escaped the revising eye. This little passage is a good example:

All the tracks are treacherous bogs. Bandicoots have made trails in the wet earth. Across the heath, crimson bottlebrush and fairy fans glow brightest. Grevillea, bracelet honey-myrtle and banksia alike take the form of ground cover. A black snake suns itself on a sandstone pavement. The place is always full of surprises even as the landscape itself is surprising, it also has the potential to astonish.

(Page 111)

This list isn’t so bad – at least bottlebrush and grevillea are reasonably well known. But how did the triple tautology of that final sentence get past the copy editor?

So John Blay isn’t one of the great nature writers. But his enthusiasm for the south-east forest is infectious, and here are thrilling moments, of which two stand out for me.

In the first, he and Jacqueline come upon a grove of waratahs. Here is just part of the encounter:

In photographs the flowers seldom look as beautiful as they do in nature. They look too blue, too muted, grubby. Where is that red inner glow? How could they change like that? Photograph after photograph, they come back imperfect, in shades of dull murk, and each one makes me more determined to capture the flowers in their full crimson magnificence. In this heavily canopied forest the light changes subtly, as does the glow of the flowers. Their flashes can surround you like wildfires on a mountain. Any shards of sunlight cut through too brightly and wash out the subtleties. At times there is a halo miasma around the trees caused by the intensity of insect life attracted to the sweetness of the flowers; some insects are so tiny as to be visible only when the clouds of them are lit. One moth hovers, others strike at eccentric speeds, the native bees, wasps. All love the warmer morning air. As the heat increases, so do the insect numbers, until the dews dry and it gets hotter and just about all retire for a siesta.

(Page 167)

The other moment I want to mention takes the experience of reading the book onto a whole other level. On a spread toward the end there are two full-page maps of the area facing each other. One shows the forests of south-east Australia; the other the area burnt out by the bushfires of the 2019-20. The two areas are virtually the same. It’s like being hit over the head with a club: all of that wilderness we have been slogging through, the passionate object of John Blay’s attention, the bringer of aesthetic joy to Jacqueline, the terrain of the bitterly fought forest wars, all of it, has been ravaged by fire. As he tells us in the text, the heat from the fires has almost certainly damaged the complex underground web of fungus so necessary for the forest’s health. The scale of the disaster is close to unimaginable.

For all its faults, this book helps us to imagine it, helps to make the climate emergency viscerally real

The Iliad: Progress report 8

Homer, The Iliad (translated by Robert Fagles, ©1990, Penguin 1998)
Book 19 line 162 to Book 21 line 485

For eight months now I’ve started most days reading two pages – roughly 70 lines – of The Iliad. I’m away from home at the end of July, and didn’t bring it with me, but there’s still quite a bit to report.

At the end of last month, Achilles was about to re-enter the battle. This month’s reading began with Hephaestus, god of fire, creating magnificent new armour for him, including a shield whose decorations include images of all aspects of life. Achilles dons the armour and, basically, starts killing people. Zeus lets all the gods of the leash – they’re now free to join i on whichever side they like, and they do. Fleeing Trojans fall into the river, and the river god enraged at being filled with corpses, rises up and attackes Achilles. But Hephaestus comes to his aid – so it starts to look like Australia in the current phase of climate change: raging floodwaters and relentless fire at war with each other.

There’s a lot more. My key take-away this month is a realisation that the word ‘hero’ has changed meaning quite a bit since Homer’s day. I doubt if anyone took Achilles to be a role model. First he takes offence and brings terrible destruction on his own people by sulking in his tent when they desperately need his help, behaviour that gets him called a beeyatch online (Sorry, I couldn’t find the place again to give you a link). Then, once he’s back in the battle he is absolutely, brutally ruthless. He not only sets out to slaughter everything in his path, including the river, but he makes callous, mean-spirited speeches to those he is abut to kill. A hero in the sense of role model or exemplar of moral virtue he is not. Achilles as a hero doesn’t inspire admiration so much as terror. ‘Thank the gods this is set in the ancient past,’ I imagine Homer’s first readers muttering, ‘because it would be a nightmare to have someone like that alive today.’

When I went looking or the beeyatch quote, i stumbled on this, from Simone Weill:

The true hero, the true subject, the centre of the lliad is force. Force employed by man, force that enslaves man, force before which man’s flesh shrinks away. In this work, at all times, the human spirit is shown as modified by its relations with force, as swept away, blinded, by the very force it imagined it could handle, as deformed by the weight of the force it submits to.

(from ‘The Iliad, or The Poem of Force, 1939)

Maybe that’s the point. Achilles isn’t so much a hero, as a person at the mercy his passions, transformed by them into something monstrously destructive.

Journal Catch-up 14

Both the journals in this month’s catch-up are slim enough to be carried around for reading on pubic transport waiting in queues or even, if the talkative company allows, in the sauna.

Alexandra Christie (editor), Heat Series 3 Nº 2 (Giramondo 2022)

There’s an excellent article on Heat on the State Library of New South Wales website, entitled ‘On Fire‘. The author, Miriam Cosic, gives a quick history, from editor Ivor Indyk’s rage at the Hand That Signed the Paper affair to Alexander Christie’s appointment as editor of Series 3, and pays appropriate homage to Jenny Grigg’s elegant minimalist design of the new series. She interviews Christie, who has a deep respect for the multiculturalism, internationalism, and especially commitment to good writing that characterised the earlier series of Heat, as well as their providing opportunities for new writers:

‘It takes a long time to become a good writer, to really hone your craft,’ Christie says. ‘I want to bring [emerging writers] into the mix and elevate them next to established voices. That’s really important to me.’

The second issue opens with a black and white photo of a bark painting by Naminapu Maymuru-White, which serves as a kind of acknowledgement of country, and has a caption alerting us to an exhibition of Yirrkala bark paintings to take place in New Hampshire in September this year. The six pieces of writing follow:

  • ‘Ludic Literature’, an abstract literary essay by British novelist Helen Oyeyemi
  • ‘Unlock to Ride’, a short story by New Zealand novelist and short story writer Pip Adam
  • ‘Min-Min’, a prose poem / flash fiction by First Nations poet Samuel Wagan Watson 
  • ‘Sit Down Young Stranger’ a short story by Luke Carman, a Heat veteran
  • Three prose poems by Michael Farrell, also a Heat veteran
  • ‘Allen’, a short story by Ren Arcamone, this issue’s ’emerging writer’.

I enjoyed Luke Carman’s story about a depressed musician in Katoomba, and look forward to his next book, which is due out very soon. But, perhaps because I’ve been reading a diary I kept nearly 50 years ago when I was living in a shared house, the piece that most engaged me was ‘Allen’, in which an inner-city 20-something couple have an imaginary flatmate that they can blame when things go wrong in their flat. By good fortune, ‘Allen’ is the one piece from this Heat that has been made available online. If you’re interested, here it is.

Evelyn Araluen and Jonathan Dunk (editors), Overland 244 (Spring 2021)
(Much of the content is online at, and I’ve included links)

There’s so much excellent stuff in this edition of Overland that it’s hard to know where to start. The high point for me is probably the short story ‘Shane’s castration‘ by Michael James, a tale of early teenage humiliation at the skateboard rink that negotiates the intersection of sexism and the oppression of young people with profound compassion for all its characters, and maintains the tension right to the final sentence. The other three short stories are strong, but inevitably pale in comparison. Someone in the sauna asked me what I was reading just as I started Kathryn van Beek’s ‘Honey Babe‘. I read out the first sentence, in which bras are mentioned, and no one asked me to read further. It turns out to be a weird story in which a woman gives birth to a large peach: I’ll never know how it would have gone down with that audience.

The poetry section is, as always, strong. The poems that touched me most were both by Belinda Rule. ‘Pointless, in space‘ is a lament for the Croajingalong National Park devastated by 2019–20 bushfires, and an atheist’s prayer for the timber men (particularly poignant for me as I’ve just read John Blay’s Wild Nature, blog post yet to come, in which the author walks through that forest just before the fires); ‘In the only flats in a posh suburb‘ is a complaint about noisy neighbours, kind of.

It’s the cumulative richness of the articles that take up just over the first half that leaves me in awe. In particular:

  • I would prefer not to‘ by Ellena Savage discusses the toll ‘turbo-neoliberalism’ takes on the lives of millennials, compares her situation to that of her boomer (?) father, and takes both him and Herman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener – whose catchphrase gives the article its title – as heroes
  • Reading Humphrey McQueen’s A New Britannia in decolonial times‘ by Jon Piccini does what it says on the lid, and among other things argues that Mcqueen’s later self-criticism was unreasonably dismissive of this work (‘There are books that, without you even knowing it, have shaped who you are as a thinker’)
  • Taking what’s owed‘ by Rafi Alam describes the way Community Legal Centres, founded as independent community-based initiatives, have largely been transformed under the influence of neoliberal policies into charities competing for government subsidy
  • Life-making through and beyond the pandemic by Miriam Jones focuses on ‘life-making’ workers, in particular early-childhood educators, speaking as an early-childhood educator herself and doing a brilliant job of contrasting the perspectives of policy-makers who see childcare as primarily a way of keeping women in the workforce, and the the workers themselves who ‘know that children are not only the nations’s future, but powerful, insightful and creative human beings in the here and now’.

Peter Wohlleben’s Hidden Life of Trees at the book group

Peter Wohlleben, The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate―Discoveries from A Secret World (2015), English translation Jane Billinghurst (Black Inc 2016)

Before the meeting: This book received a lot of attention in the press when it was published, in a way that me feel I didn’t need to read it. We now all know that trees emit scents that affect the way other nearby trees react to, for example, insect attacks or fungal infections. We know that a complex network of underground funguses helps forest trees to grow and pass nutrients from one to the other. We know that trees that spring up close to the tree their seeds fell from continue to interact with the ‘parent’ tree. In general, we know that careful observation and experimentation is revealing that the received wisdom about trees, like the received wisdom about many other things, needs a major overhaul.

Peter Wohlleben has spent decades managing a forest in the Eifel, a low mountain range in western Germany and eastern Belgium. He gives guided tours of the forest, is a committed conservationist and, as the book makes abundantly clear, loves trees with a passion. His passion is catching, and the scientific findings he describes are fascinating. He doesn’t intimidate his readers with scientific jargon or hector us with conservationist polemic. Instead, he is personal, lively, charming, and whimsical.

I found the book unsettling in two ways. First, the whimsy: there are mother trees and orphan trees; trees send and receive messages; trees are impatient or well-disciplined or altruistic. That makes for lively reading, and works well as metaphor. There’s no harm in saying, for example, that a tree tries to grow out of its neighbours’ shade because it wants more light. But surely that’s a figure of speech, it’s not that the tree wants something the way a human infant or even a puppy does. Peter Wohlleben does seem at times to be attributing actual thoughts, desires and emotions to the trees. He says occasionally that we can’t know what trees are feeling – but he comes close to implying that that’s just because we don’t have a common language. That is to say, maybe what I read as whimsy is actually a perfectly serious, I would say mystical, anthropomorphism. I react against that: surely we can respect trees, and forests, without attributing consciousness to them.

My second difficulty is the book’s exclusive attention to the northern hemisphere. As I read about beeches, oaks, birches and poplars, I yearned for information about angophoras, figs and eucalypts, about sclerophyll forests in general.

The Black Inc edition I borrowed from the library seems to be aware of my two misgivings. It signals that the book is relevant to Australian conditions by adding a foreword by Tim Flannery (though he doesn’t add any antipodean information), and that it’s based in solid science by including ‘Notes from a Forest Scientist’ by Dr Suzanne Simard, whose research provides the basis for much of the book.

I did enjoy the book. My discontents, far from leading me to toss it aside, prompted me to read more. I’ve recently read Richard Powers’ wonderful novel, The Overstory, which covers some of the same territory. I expect to blog soon about naturalist John Blay’s Wild Nature, an account of his big walk through the forests of south-east Australia that immerses the reader in the experience of those forests, with excursions into the history of the battle to conserve them and occasionally into some of the science. And I’ve got Suzanne Simard’s seminal work, Finding the Mother Tree, on order from Gleebooks. (It arrived as I was about to hit ‘Publish’.)

After the meeting: A group member has Covid, and there’s currently a surge in hospitalisations and deaths in Australia, so we decided too revert to zoom. It was a small, short meeting.

I’d felt a bit strange about writing almost entirely about my discontents with the book before the meeting, but as it happened, that’s how the meeting went as well. About half the group hadn’t finished the book, in spite of it being quite short. The same two problems were prominent: the anthropomorphising got on people’s wicks (one person was delighted to learn that word – he knew what it meant as soon as he heard it); and the complete absence of Australian/sclerophyll/tropical forests was, at least to one person, very annoying. Other discontents were the lameness of the humour (humour which I hadn’t noticed), and the lack of structure – it just seemed to be one thing after another, with a lot of repetition among the things.

Yet there was something like consensus that the book’s content was interesting and important. A number of people mentioned other books: Bill Gammage’s The Biggest Estate on Earth (2011) as a partial remedy for the absence of Australian content; Merlin Sheldrake’s Entangled Life (2020) as an example of even more exasperating anthropomorphism. Not everyone shared my love of The Overstory. There were some anecdotes about the death and regrowth of trees from our own experience, and one folktale.

Then we talked about Covid. Of the seven of us, four had had it at least once. The chap with the current positive result wasn’t there, so that makes five out of eight.

Kit Kelen’s Poor Man’s Coat

Kit Kelen, Poor Man’s Coat: Hardanger Poems (UWAP 2018)

As I think about this book of poetry, the word ‘immersive’ comes to mind.

‘Hardanger’ in the subtitle is not an uncompromisingly hostile state of mind but a place, the Hardanger Fjord in Norway, where Kit Kelen evidently spent some time and, it seems, let the place generate poems in him.

These lines appear on the book’s title page:

the forest is the poor man's coat
keeps off the worst wind's bite

step in – let other worlds elapse
follow the trail of light

They offer an explanation and an invitation. The first line explains the title in what sounds like a folk saying, which in another context could be a lament for the poor man’s exposure to the elements, but here asserts that forest provides protection. We are invited to step into the book, as into a forest, for an alternative to whatever other worlds we inhabit. The book is offered to us as respite. That’s where my sense of immersion comes in: poem after poem offer glimpses of restorative calm, mostly in the Norwegian landscape. It’s the closest thing I’ve found in a book to walking in the bush.

Not that it’s all cosy, and far from humourless. As in ‘sweet’ (page 100):

sit zazen
and you'll draw mosquitoes
from the thinnest air

There are poems about death as well as poems describing the view of the fjord from a mountain top; poems of autumn and winter as well as summer; a lot of rain. The poet spends time in the small town of Ålvik, visits museums in larger centres, and riffs on the gravestones in a local cemetery. There’s often a sense of language not being quite up to capturing the experience of being in nature: sentences trail off, though we usually more or less know how they would have ended; or they miss their opening words. It often feels easy, throwaway, as if the poem just happened, the thought or feeling or spectacle effortlessly caught on the wing. But, of course, that’s the apparent ease of a virtuoso.

Though these are overwhelmingly poems that respond to a place, I found myself brooding on the small section of ekphrastic poems – that is, poems responding to paintings. They raise the interesting question: can you really appreciate such a poem if you haven’t seen the painting it refers to? Like the poems of place, there are three elements present when you read the poem: the words on the page, you the reader, the place or work or even referred to – and the ghost of the poet who put the words together. With poems of place, at least the ones in this book, you don’t need to have been there to appreciate the poem. (Just like you don’t need to have been in love to enjoy Robert Burns’s ‘A Red, Red Rose’.). Take the poem ‘the fjord like laid paper’, whose title doubles as its first line, which begins:

the fjord like laid paper

a ship rules a line
the only thing straight
in all the world turning

If you’ve stood and looked out at the fjord on such a calm day, you will read that differently from someone – like me – who has never been to Norway. For me, it primarily conjures up an image; for you, perhaps, the main thing is the simile/metaphor. Either way, the effect of the poem is to bring a vivid image of the fjord to mind, and I don’t feel any need to fly to Norway in order to understand the poem. (I do feel an impulse to go and see the places for myself, but that’s a different matter.)

When the subject s a painting, though, it’s a bit different. Take ‘Cowshed Courting’ (page 148), which refers to a 1904 painting by Nikolai Astrup that hangs in the Bergen Museum:

If you read this without seeing the painting, you’re left pretty much groping in the dark. I’m grateful that Kelen has named the painting in his title rather than calling the poem something like ‘After Astrup’, and I’m grateful for the internet, because it was no trouble at all to find an image of the painting online.

The opening lines have typical Kit-Kelen syntax:

fin de siècle light they caught then
we still breathe – it's unnatural

A conventional phrasing might be, ‘They caught a fin de siècle light then, which we still breathe, even though it’s unnatural.’ But the syntax serves a purpose: it reflects the process of seeing the painting. You begin with a general impression to do with the quality of the light, which makes you realise that this painting belongs to a particular era (fin de siècle, the end of the 19th century); next you have a sense of the painters of that time – no more specific than ‘they’, because after all this isn’t an art history essay; but having seen it as belonging to its own time, you realise that this painterly light still feels to us as familiar as the air we breathe – familiar but all the same artificial / ‘unnatural’.

The artifice has a purpose, as the viewer’s eye finds the figures on the left, and the brightest spot of colour in the image:

the colour's captured
a passion in the cowshed
rose cheeks and have you in my arms
deep pockets of brandy for inspiration

From the woman’s cheeks, the eyes travel over the figures. The poet projects himself into the image, identifying with the male figure and reading the bottles in his pocket as ‘inspiration’. (A different viewer might see those bottles in a less benign light, but that’s not this poem, or at least not foregrounded here.)

Then we’re taken on a tour:

never mind the pong
someone's peeping from the loft

A vague look to the right of the courting couple – yes, we notice that there are steaming heaps of cow poo all over the floor of the shed. Then we travel clockwise up to the top of the frame, and oh, there’s a creepy voyeur – a peeping tom – unnoticed until now. If the poem was a sonnet, this would be the volta, the turn. A poet less sure of his effects might have inserted a line space here, to mark the discord. But we move on without comment:

no glass but spring shines through the window
past which dung's piled – verdure and ordure

Only now do we come to the geometric focus of the painting, the window through which we can see a dung heap and beyond it some vague greenery. This is the source of that light we first noticed, and there’s an ambivalence to it: dung and greenery, ponginess and light. The assonance (if that’s the word) of ‘verdure and ordure’ reminds us that these things are intimately connected.

Our eyes travel down to rest on the middle of the image – the row of cows’ rear ends, and the unswept floor.

hear it ringing from the rear of each
and the floor steams unswept

Astrup doesn’t show the cows decorating the floor (surely ‘ringing’ is the politest term ever used for the sound of cows shitting), but Kelen gives us an aural equivalent what he shows, just as the earlier ‘pong’ has given us an olfactory one.

In the last line, our eyes travel back to the figures:

days are barefoot now

There’s a sense of completion as the poem finishes its circuit of the painting, from the woman’s cheek to her feet. With characteristic apparent ease, it has introduced a number of pairings: the pong and the ringing; the passion and the peeping; the verdure and ordure; the man fortified with brandy and the woman barefoot and vulnerable; then and now. That last pairing has a lovely complexity to it: in the opening lines, ‘then’ is the time of Astrup and ‘still’ is our time; ‘now’ in the emphatic position as the poem’s last word may refer to the changing seasons implied by the mention of spring in line 9, or it may again be contrasting the time of the painting with modern times when courting doesn’t have to happen in secret in cowsheds, but the whole day – the world outside the window – can be barefoot, open to intimacy.

The poem has made me look closely at the painting, and I may well read it differently from Kelen. In fact, by naming the peeper and then moving on quickly, the poem almost invites an argument. But in Kelen’s reading, or at least in my reading of Kelen’s reading, the painting, and so the poem, celebrate the way love can thrive in unlikely circumstances, and not be tarnished by prurient attention to it. The peeping tom is noticed and then ignored. The dung helps the greenery to grow. The poem gives shelter from ‘winter’s worst bite’. I don’t know that I could have understood any of that from the poem without reading it with the image open beside it.

Having written all that, I really should show you the image as well: