The Marrickville Mattress Poet again

It’s almost a year since I saw any of Marrickville Mattress Poet C.L’s work (last sighting here), but she’s still going, and I saw this this morning. It looks as if she’s feeling the strain of living with a climate-action-delaying bloviator as Prime Minister.

500 people: Week 44

See this post for a brief description of my 500 People challenge, and also my post on Joe Keohane’s The Power of Strangers for an ex-post-facto rationale.

1. Saturday 11 December. I’m not sure if this counts as a warm encounter. I was waiting on the platform at Town Hall Station when I saw a young man in the train about to leave the station throw a piece of rubbish on the floor of his carriage. I somehow caught his eye and gestured my dismay. Beneath my mask, I muttered, ‘Pick it up, you little [expletive],’ but he couldn’t hear or even read my lips. He gave me the finger, removed his mask, took a puff on his vape and blew it in my general direction. I made a number of gestures in his direction that could have meant anything. I got out my phone and took a photo, threatening (inaudibly) to post it on TikTok. He cocked his fingers like a pistol and shot me a few times. Then the train left. I choose to believe all this was in fun, that we were each entertaining himself with these little performances.

2. Sunday. I was in my favourite bookshop, Gleebooks, buying gifts for, it turned out, eight greatnieces/nephews. A silver-haired woman commented as she passed me, ‘You’re doing well!’ A niece had given her a list of books her children might like, but without authors’ names or other helpful details. We had a pleasant little chat as we attempted to sort out whether it was great-great-nieces we were buying for, or just one great, and swapped book anecdotes. (She got help from a staff member and was delighted to find what she was looking for. I did well too.)

3. Monday morning at the swimming pool, we were greeted at reception by a woman who I’ve seen around but never in that role. As I was leaving I decided to have an actual conversation with her: ‘I’ve seen you around,’ I said, ‘but not here. Have you been working here long?’ She has worked at the pool for a long time, she said, but in the office (vague upward gesture). Covid lockdown meant that everyone had to take a turn at reception. So of course I asked after the three sisters who worked there for years before Covid, and got some of the story of how they got trapped in Queensland.

4. Tuesday. The other person in the sauna was a young woman. I made a small opening gambit – something about the wall clock having stopped – and we chatted for close to half an hour, the kind of chat that Joe Keohane says increases the wellbeing of participants. She’s a musician. I asked if I should have heard of her. ‘Not yet,’ she said modestly. But she told me her professional name and I visited her website later. When she’s famous I’ll be able to say I knew her when.

5–7. Saturday, middle of the day. An in-person birthday party for a four-year-old. I didn’t keep track of how many new people I engaged with, but I estimate at least three. Most memorably were two young parents who left Australia a bit over three years ago for one of them to work in Dublin. They got caught there by Covid–19, and returned just a couple of weeks ago, now with two young Irish-born children. I initiated the contact by advocating for their three-year-old daughter who was too shy to assert herself in the rush for a slice of the teddy-bear cake (a splendid creation of the Emerging Artist).

8. Later on Saturday. I was in the local bottle-shop’s coolroom looking for my preferred non-alcoholic drink. Two young men sauntered in, one of them lifted two cartons from the top of a pile of beer cartons, and the other picked up the two cartons below them , and they both walked out, all done smoothly and wordlessly as if they shared a brain. As I left the coolroom after them, one said to me, ‘Pretty smooth, eh?’ I said, ‘You must have done it once or twice before.’ I added, ‘I have one criticism, though. You should have taken the [brand name of top two cartons redacted].’ He was momentarily shocked. The cartons they took were also [redacted], but a different colour logo: ‘It’s a good drop, eh?’ ‘I don’t drink,’ I said, ‘but my old next-door neighbour is the brewer.’ ‘You don’t drink! You’re in the wrong place then.’ I laughed and said, ‘I can still look, can’t I?’

Running total is now 270.

Abdulrazak Gurnah’s Gravel Heart

Abdulrazak Gurnah, Gravel Heart (Bloomsbury 2017)

Abdulrazak Gurnah won the 2021 Nobel Prize for Literature, ‘for his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents.’ He was born in Tanzania in 1948 and has lived in the United Kingdom most of his life. Gravel Heart is his ninth novel, and the only one available in my local library. It’s not singled out in any of the biographical outlines I’ve read, but it’s a wonderful novel. Here’s how it starts:

My father did not want me. I came to that knowledge when I was quite young, even before I understood what I was being deprived of and a long time before I could guess the reason for it. In some ways not understanding was a mercy. If this knowledge had come to me when I was older, I might have known how to live with it better but that would probably have been by pretending, and hating.

Not to be too spoilerish: when I read the last page of the novel, I immediately flipped back to those sentences. It’s hard to imagine an introduction to the story that follows that is more misleading, and yet at the same time true to the story.

The narrator, born in Zanzibar, travels to England when he finishes school, with the support of a wealthy uncle, leaving his father who is eking out a miserable existence on the margins of their town, and his mother who is having a liaison with a powerful man in the government. After decades, in which he leads a fairly aimless life in the UK, he goes back home for a visit. His mother has died and he spends a substantial amount of time with his father.

I approached the book tentatively – these Nobel Laureates can be tough reads. But I’m happy to recommend the book as a completely absorbing read. I felt the young man’s painful yearning for home and his mother, and his difficulty in communicating in letters across the widening cultural gulf was so intimately real to me that I had to keep reminding myself of the vast difference between his life experience and mine. (I was sent off to a prestigious boarding school a thousand miles from home at age 14 and had no idea what to write in my mandatory weekly letter home.) Mostly in England he associates with other non-White people, though some of his amorous liaisons might be white. There’s only one moment of explicit, vile racism, and though the reader sees it coming the young man is caught completely, devastatingly off guard.

The real thrill of the book for me is in the final chapters where the naturalistic mode of storytelling is stretched to its limit as the father tells his son the story of his life over two long nights. But you decide to accept the manifestly artificial set-up because the story is so powerful, and fleshes out the tantalising hints that have been there from that first paragraph. Then, stretching verisimilitude just a bit further, the son realises that his father’s story is a variation on Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. (The book’s title is a phrase from that play, though I still don’t know what it means.) I can’t say how or why, but I found that moment deeply moving: something in my understanding of the world, of colonisation and racism, moved deep inside my head.

Joe Keohane’s the Power of Strangers

Joe Keohane, The Power of Strangers: The Benefits of Connecting in a Suspicious World (Viking 2021)

If I hadn’t already embarked on my 500 people project before I read this book, I would have started on it now. It’s a terrific book, of which the fabulous Ayad Akhtar (my blog post on his Homeland Elegies here) says on the back cover:

Rare is the book that delivers on the promise of a big answer to an even bigger question, but Joe Keohane’s The Power of Strangers does just that. This lively, searching work makes the case that welcoming ‘others’ isn’t just the bedrock of civilisation, it’s the surest path to the best of what life has to offer.

I can’t say it any better.

Joe Keohane is a journalist, used to talking to strangers as part of his job, with the aim of extracting newsworthy information and quotes. This book is about a different kind of talk, the reciprocal kind that is an essential part of being human, but which has been much neglected in recent decades.

Keohane draws on studies in primatology, archaeology, psychology and sociology. He describes the behaviour of ferociously territorial chimps and sweet-natured bonobos. He quotes philosophers, political scientists, novelists and historians. He interviews activists and takes part in classes, reporting on his successes and his embarrassments. He peppers his arguments with witty and moving anecdotes. He comes across as charming, intelligent, generous, and persuasive.

One of the user-friendlty feature of the book is that every now and then Keohane gives a little summary of the Book So Far. Here’s one from about the midpoint:

All right. So what do we know? We know that interdependence made hunter-gatherer groups more sociable among themselves and eventually with other groups. We know that greeting rituals in hospitality were evolved to reconcile the threat strangers pose with the opportunities that present… We know that we’re wired to favour our groups, but also that our definition of our group is flexible. We know that we’re predisposed to like people with whom we have something in common, even if we have no idea who they are and even if it consists of little more than wearing the same baseball cap. We know that cities can bring us together with countless strangers, but they can also create social norms that keep us apart. We know that talking across group boundaries can make us anxious, and we know that the relentless messaging about stranger danger that several generations were clobbered with has warped our sense of threat and possibly harmed our ability to trust.

(Page 166)

I won’t summarise the arguments for how talking to strangers was crucial to human survival in prehistoric times, or how rituals were devised to make it safe. I won’t do more than mention the experiments that show people’s sense of wellbeing increasing noticeably after they talk to a stranger, or even greet them with a wave and a smile. I won’t go into the fascinating findings that in places with high levels of generalised trust people tend not to be friendly to strangers, and vice versa, Australia being a rare, even possibly unique, exception: evidently we’re both trusting and friendly. I’ll skip over the lesser minds problem, that is, the common practical assumption that strangers aren’t fully human; and the self-explanatory phenomenon of absent presence. I’ll refrain from relaying the story of the viene-vienes in Mexico City (you can read about them here).

I will give you a surprisingly long list of projects that set out to encourage and enable people to talk to strangers. Most of them are in the USA – Keohane is a New Yorker – but while the ills they address may have a different flavour in other countries, I doubt if any place is free of them. In the order of appearance:

  1. Trigger Conversations: ‘a London-based “human connection organisation” that hosts social events aimed at facilitating meaningful conversations among strangers’, founded in 2016. Keohane spends a lot of time on what he learned at classes run by its founder, Georgie Nightingall
  2. Chatty Cafés: more than 900 pubs and cafés in the UK ‘set up specially marked tables where strangers can chat’
  3. Crossing Divides, a BBC series, which instituted a ‘chatty bus’ day, ‘during which riders were encouraged to talk to one another’
  4. Talk to Me, founded in 2012, a group that ‘distributed “Talk to Me” buttons to signal a willingness to talk in public, and set up “talk bars” in public spaces’
  5. Conversations New York (CNY) ‘holds regular, free group conversations, largely among strangers’. Forty to eighty people turn up at a college or in a park, are divided into groups and then talk for 90 minutes, ‘working from a list of topical or philosophical questions’
  6. Urban Confessional, which ‘encourages people to make their own crudely drawn cardboard signs [saying something like Free Listening] and stand in heavily trafficked locations offering themselves up as listeners to anyone who wants to talk’. The volunteers work in pairs to make the experience less intimidatingly intense for all parties
  7. The League of Creative Interventionists, a Californian organisation that has a number of projects, including Fear Doctor, in which someone sets up a booth in a public place that looks like Lucy’s psychiatrist booth in the Peanuts strip; and the Neighbourhood Postcard Project, in which the organisation’s founder Hunter Franks collected positive stories from the residents of a neighbourhood with a bad reputation, written on postcards, and then mailed them to people in different neighbourhoods
  8. An Instagram account called Subway Book Review that, among other things, sells tote bags that read, ‘Ask Me About the Book I’m Reading’
  9. Feasts of Strangers, hosted by the Oxford Muse Foundation, ‘dinners in which stranger are paired up and given a “menu” of intense personal questions’. The dinners last for two hours and have taken place in 15 countries
  10. Some fascinating individual projects: a young man named Judah Berger set up a table in Washington Square park in Manhattan with a sign reading, ‘Where Are You Going?’; Thomas Knox, an African-American, took a table and two chairs down to a New York subway platform to try to get people to talk to him – and succeeded amazingly; Danielle Allen, author of Talking to strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship Since Brown v. Board of Education (2004), has made a practice of talking to strangers and sees it as ‘gift giving’
  11. Braver Angels (originally called Better Angels) organises huge workshops where everyone wears a lanyard identifying them as either Republican or Democrat, and in a series of carefully structured events learn how to talk to each other – with remarkable success, even in post-Trump USA

This book was recommended to me by Jim Kable, frequent commenter on this blog. I’m hugely grateful for the recommendation.

500 people: Weeks 41 to 43

See this post for a brief description of my 500 People challenge.

I had a terrific conversation in the sauna this week ranging over the relative merits of cows and goats, Buddhism and Christianity, the gym we were in and the one at Annette Kellerman, and other matters. When I was about to head for the showers I told the other chap my name, and he said, ‘I know, we’ve met before.’ So I couldn’t include the conversation as part of the Challenge – though it does confirm that at least some of these encounters have follow-ups. He may have been Number 7 in Week 14.

1. Sunday 21 November. Usually when I visit an art gallery I wouldn’t dream of initiating a conversation with an artist. Today in Articulate, a small gallery on Parramatta Road, with my 500 People challenge in mind, I did just that. The artist seemed delighted to engage. The works on exhibition were collaborative drawings, and her description of the collaborative process was fascinating. At one stage, saying, ‘I can do this because I’m the artist,’ she lifted a corner of a large hanging to show me and my two companions who had joined us the reverse side of the richly textured paper.

2. Monday, I went out early to buy some celery. At the checkout, a young woman asked from behind her mask, ‘Do you make celery juice?’ When I said I did, she told me about her own celery-and-lemon-juice routine, and how it had improved her health and ‘even’ her skin (her skin looked fine to me). I said I had mine mixed with carrot, beetroot, apple and ginger juice. And we were away – luckily there was no one else in the queue. Her most memorable line was, ‘I used to have mine with carrot juice but I stopped because it was like soup.’

3. Tuesday. There’s a Matisse exhibition on at the Art Gallery of NSW. I had a free ticket thanks to a son’s excellent gift of Gallery membership. I was intrigued by the 1944 painting Still life with magnolia, displayed alongside six preparatory sketches. I turned to a woman who was also looking at it and remarked how interesting it was to see the painting along with the sketches. Luckily she was no more of a connoisseur than I am, and pretty much finished my sentence for me. We chatted a little and then went our separate ways.

4. Sunday 28 November. I called to make an appointment to see a podiatrist (don’t ask!). Miraculously an appointment was possible the next day. As the receptionist was taking down my details, she asked how to spell my name. I told her, and thanked her for asking. She said she knew what it was like as her name is Isabel. I told her that both my mother and my quasi mother-in-law had that as a second name, spelled Isabel and Isobel respectively. (I discovered the next day when I asked after her that she goes by Izzy.)

5. Monday. At the podiatrist’s, I decided to have an actual conversation while she was attending to my feet. It wasn’t hard as she seems to have worked out that life goes better if you connect with people. In response to my asking how she got into podiatry, she told a sweet story. We talked about other things as well … Then, as I was going down the stairs, I heard her greet the next client: ‘I always look forward to your visits.’ ‘Me too,’ he answered.

6. Monday. I had a brief interaction with that man (‘the next client’) before going to the stairs. I saw that he was intensely focused on the Target Word in the Sydney Morning Herald. I contemplated telling him the day’s nine-letter word, but realised that would have been purely mischievous. I did, however, say truthfully, ‘This is the first time I’ve seen someone else doing that.’ He laughed, and told me he usually does the Quick Crossword, but he’d finished it and had time to fill.

7. Wednesday 8 December. I include this as representative of maybe a score of tiny, courteous-to-warm interactions that I haven’t noted. This morning in the pool, the slow lane was uncomfortably crowded. At one stage, I paused at the end of a lap to make way for the woman a couple of body-lengths behind me, who was swimming faster than me and would have had to pass me if I’d kept going. She took a moment to acknowledge the courtesy with a nod and a smile and a ‘Thanks’, and I reciprocated.

8. Thursday afternoon, driving down Addison Road in Marrickville, we passed an ambulance and police car dealing with someone who looked as if they’d been hit crossing the street. The traffic going in the opposite direction to us was banked up for blocks. When we came to our next set of lights, I gestured to the driver of the car closest to me and when she wound down her window I told her what the hold-up was. She thanked me. I know this is almost nothing as far as human contact goes, but the next time we stopped, I made the same gesture to a driver who was about the same distance from me. I could tell that this one saw me, but they (I genuinely don’t remember their gender) studiously refused the overture.

9 & 10. Saturday 11 December. We went on a long walk – from Cowan Station to Brooklyn on the Hawkesbury/Dyarubbin. We passed very few people, but had a pleasant chat at one encounter. We had been walking up a stretch that was classified as hard, and feeling it, when we met a family – a woman, a man and a teenaged girl – coming down. We exchanged politenesses. Then, inspired by Joe Keohane’s book The Power of Strangers (blog post to come soon), I admired their walking sticks, and asked if they were Nordic style. They weren’t, but both parents were happy to talk about the sticks, which led to an exchange of stories about walking various parts of the Camino/Caminho/Camiño di Compostella, past and possibly future.

Running total is now 262, but bloody Joe Keohane (see above) has ade me realise that I’ve set my bar pretty low in this challenge – most if not all the encounters I have listed are opportunistic, in the sense that these are people I meet anyhow, and many of them aren’t much more than hit-and-runs. I’ll (try to) do better.

A slam poem by Alicia Payne MP

In case you missed it, here’s the splendid text of a slam poem performed at the beginning of this month by Alicia Payne, the Federal Member for Canberra in the Australian House of Representatives. Video below.

I rise today to talk about some of the reasons that we need to vote the Morrison Government out. 
'I don't hold a hose, mate'
forced handshakes of fire victims
pledging billions for recovery funds but spending none
a three year wait for the promised federal ICAC
gagging debate in this place at literally every opportunity 
hundreds of questions on notice not answered 
FOI refusals 
anonymous one million dollar donations
Watergate, Grassgate, Sports Rorts, Pork n Ride, regional rorts
The Member for Fadden's giant Internet bills 
visas for au pairs, no visas for Afghan interpreters
the Biloela family 
'Electric vehicles will end the weekend'
birthing lanes on the Barton highway
fossil fuel executives deciding government policy on the Covid commission 
the prosecution of Bernard Collaery and Witness K 
raiding a journalist's home
interference, intimidation and cuts to the ABC 
Senator Cash tipping off media to a secret AFP investigation 
Robodebt, aged-care, hotel quarantine, front of the vaccine queue
'It's not a race'
Senators Rennick, Canavan and the Member for Dawson's constant anti-vax social media posting
signing up to international agreements and walking away from them a day later 
attempts to block the Great Barrier Reef being placed on a list of endangered world heritage sites
Brittany Higgins 
the Prime Minister attacking journalists in press conferences
telling us we're lucky we weren't being shot at
'Think of it as a father' 
40,000 university jobs lost 
the Ruby Princess 
paying $30 million for land worth $3 million
spending millions on a Covid app that doesn't work
Christine Holgate 
leaking diplomatic messages

The member's time has expired

I was just getting started.

The Book Group and The GrandMasters #Sh*tf*ckery

The Book Group had our end of year meeting last night. I wasn’t going to blog about it as there was no book to discuss, but things happened to change my mind.

We had our now-traditional ‘gentlemen’s picnic’ – which is to say, everyone brought food. We had dumplings, barbecued prawns, delicious roast potatoes with rosemary and garlic, Portuguese chicken, plus a bowl of peas so we’d have some greens, followed by a fruit platter, pastéis de nata and mince pies, all accompanied by excellent conversation and much laughter.

Then down to work. Instead of a book, in what may become a tradition, we each brought a poem and read it aloud. The poems ranged from Les Murray’s ‘An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow‘, read to us beautifully by a man to whom Les Murray had read it as a student audience of one, to a completely foul Rodney Rude limerick. Between those extremes were Janet Frame, David Malouf, Barbara Vernon (the fabulous opening stage direction to her 1957 play The Multicoloured Umbrella), Raymond Carver, Adrian Wiggins, anonymous children’s versifiers, and Naomi Shihab Nye. Readings were punctuated by wonderful anecdotes about complex intimacies, the sound of rain on an iron roof, 9th century Japanese poetics, student life in times past, father–son connections and more.

Finally, the Kris Kringle. We each brought a book from our shelves, suitably wrapped and given out at random. Once the books were unwrapped we all looked happy with what we’d got, though the one who’d scored three folded pieces of waxed cloth looked a little mystified and his happy appearance may have been a little strained. (He found out later in the evening that the giver had brought the wrong one of two identically wrapped parcels from home, and will get the book to him soon.) I’m delighted by my book, and because it’s a very quick read, I get to do this blog post:

Julie Shiels, The GrandMasters #Sh*tf*ckery (M.33 2021)

Julie Shiels is a Melbourne artist who created a series of digital collages, starting during the Great Covid–19 Lockdown of 2020. She took a number of paintings by old masters, gave some of their personages the faces of contemporary Australian political leaders, and added pointed captions. For example, the dustjacket (left) has The Parable of the Blind Leading the Blind by Pieter Bruegel the Elder featuring Scott Morrison, Josh Frydenberg and Barnaby Joyce. The satirical point would be clear enough, but then there’s the caption, a quote from the Prime Minister: ‘When I can tell you how we get there, that’s when I’ll tell you when we’re going to get there.’

The book simmers with rage, as it covers Robodebt, the federal government’s handling of the vaccine rollout, the scandal around Christian Porter, the Britney Higgins matter, climate change, Peter Dutton deciding to smile, Karen Andrews describing herself as compassionate, the abandonment of Australia’s Afghan friends, and so on.

I laughed out loud at the title page, which has a smirking Morrison standing by the woman’s corpse in Jerome Preudhomme’s The Death of Lucretia, while Michaelia Cash and Marise Payne play other roles – the caption: ‘Blokes don’t get it right all the time.’ Other pages – including but not limited to variations on the rape of Lucretia – are too horrible to be funny, but horrible in a bracing way. Some images land only in the general vicinity of their targets, and some – such as Scott Morrison as Aeneas carrying his ailing father in Pompeo Bartoni’s Aeneas Fleeing from Troy, saying ‘We are all Melburnians now’, or Dan Tehan as Rubens’ Saturn Devouring His Son – hit the bullseye.

This is an art book. The quality of the reproductions is excellent. The face-changes are mostly convincing, and where they’re not the effect is comic rather than shambolic (Julie Shiels must have trawled through millions of photographs to get the heads at just the right angle, the faces with just the right expression).

I recommend it as a gift for a politics-junkie friend who is into art. According to the M.33 website, only 300 copies were published, so you may need to be quick if you want one. The collages, being digital creations in the first place, can be see on Julie Shiels’s website at this link.


The GrandMasters #Sh*tf*ckery is the 15th book I’ve read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2021.

Journal Blitz 11

I’m constantly in catchup mode with my reading of literary journals. I tend to start each one with a sense of taking on a burdensome duty – after all, these journals are invariably dancing on the edge of the precipice of financial ruin. I’m generally engrossed by about the third page, and remember why they’re worth supporting.


Evelyn Araluen and Jonathan Dunk (editors), Overland 241 (Summer 2020)
(The content is online at overland.org.au, and I’ve included links)

Each issue of Overland currently (that is to say, a year ago, which is where I’m up to) is a three-parter.

Taking up the first two thirds is the articles section, a platform for marginalised voices and for arguments from outside the Overton window. The stand-out article in this issue is ‘No longer malleable stuff‘ by Jeanine Leane, an uncompromising contribution to the current conversation about who has the right to tell whose stories:

Australian fictionists may and most likely will still fossick over the stolen lands of the nation but we – First Nations peoples, Peoples of Colour – are no longer the ‘malleable stuff’ of the unchecked settler imagination. Perhaps there wouldn’t be a point in talking about an author’s identity if they were all the same. But this is no longer the case. We’re not dead. And, we’re not white. We write. Our identities matter.

Also in this issue, Mammad Aidani, whose writings have been banned in his native Iran, argues that it would be wrong of him to allow his writing to be published there (‘300 words for truth‘); Sam Altman sketches the ‘wholesale collapse of Earth’s planetary systems that sustain life as we know it’ (‘Prepare for collapse‘); Lisa Stefanoff promotes the movie In My Blood it Runs (‘The Australian government is not listening: education justice and remote Indigenous futures‘); Jinghua Qian and Liz Crash promote their virtual multimedia tour of the Melbourne suburb of Footscray (‘Underfoot: history from below‘); Angelita Biscotti reflects on her work as a nude photographic model, which she has come to see as sex work, and quotes the book I haven’t read whose ideas fascinate me most, The Managed Heart by Arlie Russell Hochschild (‘On the fantasy work that makes life bearable‘).

Second, there’s the 12-page poetry section, edited by Toby Fitch. From a strong and varied field, it’s again a first Nations voice that grabs me: ‘Mnemonic 2020‘ by Yeena Kirkbright walks us in 13 sections, each named for a colour, through the rough year that has just been (this issue was published at the end of 2020). Here’s section 8:

8. _______Purple
After the Jacaranda blooms we go into lockdown.
We are locked in together on Gadigal land. 
I work from my bedroom and feel more trapped than ever.
A manager tells me she heard an Aboriginal woman 
on Sky News say blak breathlessness isn't a problem. 
Not in Australia.
I am livid. I can't argue. I need to pay bills.

Third, the fiction section, edited by Claire Corbett, comprises four short stories, all terrific. ‘Frog song‘ by Magdalena McGuire has a mother and small child in sweltering Darwin weather: ‘It shocks them to discover the sun is not a thing of beauty.’ In ‘Smoke and mirrors‘, poet Samuel Wagan Watson tells a story of loss and grief with a (spoiler alert) twist I didn’t see coming. ‘The white sea‘ by Alistair Kitchen is an unsettling fable in which the sea turns white ‘in the way milk is white – thick and full and opaque’. With Jane Turner Goldsmith’s ‘Smoke road‘, we’re back in naturalistic mode with a taut, understated tale of leaving an abusive relationship.

It looks as if the print edition of Overland no longer publishes the results of the literary competitions listed on the website. This seems to have resulted in a cleaner through-line for each issue. The absence of regular columns has a similar effect, but I do miss the cameo appearances of Alison Croggon, Tony Birch, Giovanni Tiso et al.


Stuart Barnes & Claire Gaskin (guest editors), Australian Poetry Journal Volume 11, Number 1: local, attention (2021)

As promised, this issue of APJ includes a further instalment of Jacinta LePlastrier’s ‘New Series’, which pairs poems with commentary. But first there are 60 pages of poems that reflect the theme ‘local, attention’. The guest editors’ Foreword quotes Mary Oliver: ‘Attention is the beginning of devotion.’ They’re suggesting, perhaps that this collection of poems that pay attention to the local in as many ways as there are poems might be seen as a post-religious devotional book.

It’s a nice thought, and I can’t tell you it’s wrong.

I turned down the corners of four pages. This doesn’t mean the poems on those pages are somehow superior to the others or even that they struck me more strongly – it’s just that I remembered to mark them at the moment of first reading them. They are:

‘Falling’ by Gavin Yuan Gao, which starts out observing that

____+++++++___ despite years of dogged 
____++practice, English is still the slick
winged serpent the dull flute of my tongue
has failed to charm

and develops, by way of a consideration of the use of ‘fall’ when ‘you mean to say you’re in or out of love’, into a celebration of first love.

‘Quantum Vacuum Noise’ by Alicia Sometimes, in which life with small children in lockdown is seen as problematic for quantum computers (I think):

We have been creating in this space
forts on top of desks on top of kitchens

the fluctuating energy of us laughing would
distort any signals or information encoded

I probably marked ‘Slowly, Here in Esssaouira’ by Matt Hetherington because it’s pretty much a sonnet. It evokes a state of lassitude which, the title informs me via DuckDuckGo, is happening in a town in Tangiers:

a peace is descending upon me
the noisy children don't bother me so much
and things get done, one at a time

‘The Ibises’ by Greg Page won me because I’m fond of those birds and quietly resent their ‘bin chicken’ nickname. Greg Page is a First Nations man, and the poem’s serious turn is a delightful surprise:

Hated, like us Kooris
Told they don't belong
Moved on from their homes
Making do on the fringe

There are eight poem–commentary pairs in the ‘New Series’ section. Though every pairing is interesting and instructive, I was especially interested in two where the commentator is the English translator. Both Dong Li (on Song Lin’s ‘Near) and Stephanie Smee (on Joseph Ponthus’ ’31. from “Part two”, On the line’) shed brilliant light on a translator’s relationship to the original work and its author.


Vern Field (editor) Island 159 (2019)

This issue of Island is upfront about financial difficulties. In 2019, according note from Geoff Heriot, Chair of the Island Board, the journal managed three issues instead of the usual four – but it ended the year in the black so they managed ‘to keep the doors open’.

Elsewhere, the sense of struggle recedes. There are four interweaving elements: nonfiction edited by Anna Spargo-Ryan, fiction edited by Ben Walter, poetry edited by Lisa Gorton, and arts features edited by Judith Abell.

The arts features are beautifully illustrated essays on works by three Tasmanian artists – Lucienne Rickard’s Extinction Studies, Julie Gough’s Tense Past and Selena de Carvalho’s Beware of Imposters (the secret life of flowers) – that bear witness to the island’s vital art scene.

Ten poems are interspersed among the other contents. The poem that spoke most directly to me is ‘Ash in Sydney‘ by Jake Goetz. It’s a wonderful evocation of the experience of being in Sydney during the bushfires of summer 2019–2020, which begins:

ash in falling on the Lidcombe line
on Carriageworks and Regents Park
it's falling on planes of closed-up houses 
where Greg thinks his summer's fucked 
and it's blowing in from morning westerlies 
and it's blown back by arvo southerlies

You can read it and a number of other poems from this issue on the Island website at this link.

There are five pieces of fiction whose subjects range from international adultery to futuristic crime thriller. If I have to single out one, it’s Pip Smith’s ‘Starter Culture’, in which the 70-year-old narrator endures the slights that come her way from her granddaughters and other young women, and eventually wreaks satisfying vengeance (no young people being harmed in the making of said vengeance).

Among the excellent nonfiction pieces, it speaks volumes of Katerina Cosgrove’s ‘Death in the Garden‘, that I found its account of grief and resilience powerful even after it said that Epicurus ‘founded a school of thought championing the pursuit of hedonism’, which would have made my high school Latin teacher apoplectic. In ‘Principles of Permaculture‘ Sam George-Allen reflects on six months living alone on ‘a quarter-acre oblong island in a sea of golden grass, wedged between two improbable paddocks on the edge of a rundown country town’, and – though she doesn’t claim it for herself – describes a kind of solitary engagement with the earth that, through her beautiful writing about it, becomes a form of activism.


I interrupted the writing of that last paragraph to collect my mail. Sure enough, there was another literary journal hot off the press.

It’s like painting the Harbour Bridge.

November verse 14: When Paul starts strumming

Peter Jackson’s The Beatles: Get Back features many extraordinary moments, but for my money no others are equal to the couple of minutes when the song ‘Get Back’ appears as if from nowhere as Paul strums on his guitar.

November verse 14: When Paul starts strumming
Who could know when Paul starts strumming
that a song will soon emerge?
Ringo knows, he holds his drumming,
servant to the demiurge.
Did Michelangelo see David
wait in stone to be created,
pupae locked in their cocoons
whisper softly 'Soon, soon'?
When I start a 14-liner,
does some dark part of my brain
see that, while it seems in vain
I seek coherence like a miner
seeking gold in solid stone,
the last line is already known? 

And that’s my last November verse for the year. Normal transmission will resume shortly.

The Iliad: Progress report 1

Homer, The Iliad (translated by Robert Fagles, with notes and an introduction by Bernard Knox, ©1990, Penguin 1998), from beginning to Book 3 line 190

My partner, known on this blog as the Emerging Artist, asked why I was reading The Iliad, which is surely all about men killing each other. I didn’t have a coherent answer beyond, ‘Because it’s there.’

Anyhow, after one month I’m half way through Book 3, and only one person has been killed. Apart from four or five mornings’ worth of roll call of the Greek troops and then the Trojan defenders, I’m riveted. Achilles has had a big row with Agammemnon and withdrawn from combat. The gods keep intervening in fascinating ways, including making promises they have no intention to keep. Now, as the vast armies are lined up against each other, it looks as if the war is about to be called off and replaced with a two-man fight to the death between Paris, the strikingly handsome man who abducted Helen, and Menelaus the wronged husband. I’m on the edge of my seat: I know the plan isn’t going to work, but I can’t see how.

I’m not going to do this in every monthly progress report, but I want to compare some translations. Here’s the very first death in Robert Fagles’s translation:

The veteran Protesilaus had led those troops
while he still lived, but now for many years 
the arms of the black earth had held him fast
and his wife was left behind, alone in Phylace,
both cheeks torn in grief, their house half-built. 
Just as he vaulted off his ship a Dardan killed him, 
first by far of the Argives slaughtered on the beaches.
(Book 2, lines 796–802)

Compare Alexander Pope’s translation of the same passage, published in 1715. Pope sacrificed literal translation in order to render the poem into rhyming couplets – heroic couplets. He also renders the ancient practice of tearing one’s cheeks into the more familiar breast beating.

These own’d, as chief, Protesilas the brave,
Who now lay silent in the gloomy grave:
The first who boldly touch’d the Trojan shore,
And dyed a Phrygian lance with Grecian gore;
There lies, far distant from his native plain;
Unfinish’d his proud palaces remain,
And his sad consort beats her breast in vain.
(Book 2, Lines 853–859)

Alice Oswald’s version emphasises the pathos of the moment. It’s not a literal translation, though you could argue that it feels closer to Fagles than to Pope. As she says in her introduction to Memorial (faber & faber 2011), ‘Instead of carrying the [Greek] words over into English, I use them as openings through which to see what Homer was looking at.’ This passage includes material from earlier and later lines:

The first to die was PROTESILAUS
A focused man who hurried to darkness
With forty black ships leaving the land behind
Men sailed with him from those flower-lit cliffs
Where the grass gives growth to everything 
Pyrasus   Iton    Pteleus   antron
He died in mid-air jumping to be first ashore
There was his house half-built
His wife rushed out clawing her face 
Podarcus his altogether less impressive brother 
Took over command but that was long ago
He's been in the black earth now for thousands of years