John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley and the Book Group

John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley n Search of America (Penguin 1962)

Before the meeting: Neither of the two libraries I belong to had a copy of this, and my local bricks-and-mortar bookshop took a couple of weeks to get it in. But my impression that it was an obscure enthusiasm of this month’s Book Chooser was modified when a young woman behind the counter, seeing it in my hands, said cheerfully, ‘I’ve got a red poodle.’ I realised the Charley of the book’s title must be a dog, so I smiled, and she went on, ‘His name is Steinbeck.’

The book was published in 1962, the year Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize for Literature. It’s an account of a road trip he took in late 1960, in a truck with an odd little house on its back that he named Rocinante after Don Quixote’s horse. He describes the countryside he drives through and devotes very little ink to the cities. He recounts conversations and draws conclusions, but if one was looking for a coherent journalistic ‘narrative’ one would look in vain.

The election that made John F Kennedy president happened during the course of his travels, and is mentioned in passing, mainly to say that people generally aren’t talking about it. The Cold War is raging and there’s a pervasive anxiety about nuclear weapons. The US War in Vietnam has not yet happened. State troops haven’t killed university students. Richard Nixon hasn’t disgraced the presidency. Oral contraceptives have arrived but not so you’d notice, and the sexual revolution is over the horizon. The women’s liberation movement may be fermenting, but the news hasn’t reached Steinbeck: for the most part he converses with men, women are either relatives or monsters of one kind or another, and his version of masculinity is unreconstructed US warrior-macho. The Civil Rights Movement is in full swing in the southern states, but until he reaches New Orleans in the second last section, there’s no African American voice. That section turns out to be brilliant, rising to visceral disgust and rage in its account of the Cheerleaders, the women who led the harassment of small children in the desegregation of schools in the south, and its account of his brief encounter with a young man who supported them.

Until that chapter, the book felt to me like a museum piece, its humour quaint rather than funny (Charley ceremoniously salutes a lot of trees), its charm decidedly of a bygone era. For my taste, it was a case of too late, too soon: too late to be current, too soon to be historical. The Book Chooser this month is an actor, and there’s a splendid encounter with an actor in North Dakota, one of the very few people who are accorded a reasonably rounded portrait.

Having recently read Martin Langford’s Neat Snakes, I had an eye out for embedded aphorisms. Here are a couple I noted:

It is the nature of a man as he grows older, a small bridge in time, to protest against change, particularly change for the better.

(page 83)

Montana seems to me to be what a small boy would think Texas is like from hearing Texans.

(page 121)

It is strange and perhaps fortunate that when one’s time comes nearer one’s interest in it flags as death becomes a fact rather than a pageantry.

(page 157)

The edition I read has an Introduction by Jay Parisi and notes for further reading. What with the Sydney Writers’ Festival and other distractions, I didn’t get a chance to read them.

After the meeting: Over an excellent dinner of pea soup cooked to an Ottolenghi recipe using fresh peas and spaghetti vongole with some prawns tossed in, followed by Messina gelato, we had a terrific evening, even though two people hadn’t managed to get hold of the book.

My impression is that others enjoyed it much more than I did, and by the end of the evening I thought more highly of it than I had, Someone read out a passage about small towns becoming antique-shop strips and what had seemed laboured humour was revealed as beautifully crafted sentences foreshadowing the whole fake heritage thing that afflicts many small country towns these days. Other readers enjoyed the dog much more than I did, and his account of waste and environmental degradation had impressed. It turned out to be a book full of interesting bits that give pleasure when recalled in conversation: the description of Montana, a hilarious encounter with bureaucracy at the Canadian border, the Cheerleaders of course, and the list goes on. There was some disagreement over the personality of Steinbeck as projected in the book: a preening boaster about his masculinity or a decent, serious man? Others had read the introduction, and were able to place the book in the context of the rest of Steinbeck’s life: there’s palaver at the beginning of the book about how he felt removed from the America he was writing about and this was an attempt to reconnect, which was more serious than I ha rad it to be – contemporary critics were saying that his writing at that time of his life lacked the power of his earlier stuff, written when he was living geographically close to the people he wrote about. A number of guys had gone to visit places from last month’s book.

Someone else had loved The Chaperone, which I thought was basically a telemovie. Someone had been in New York (in this group it seems that every meeting someone has been to New York) and bought their copy of the book at the fabled Stand Bookstore in Manhattan. I seem to be the only one who had made it to the Sydney Writers’ Festival, which happened about 200 metre from where we met. Excellent books and forthcoming theatre productions were promoted. We had an impassioned conversation abut Israel – Folau, not the state – and resolved the issue of hate speech, freedom of speech, workplace responsibilities and the status of Australian Rugby Union when compared to New Zealand’s.

SWF 2019 Sunday Part Two

Here are the last three sessions I attended at this year’s Festival.

3 pm: Jenny Erpenbeck: Memory and Forgetting, Home and Exile

I had heard Jenny Erpenbeck speak at the first session I attended this year. I was happy to have a chance to hear her at more length.

The session began inauspiciously. Whereas in almost every other session all the participants walked onto the stage together and sat down to welcoming applause, this time a tall, slightly ungainly man was standing centre front and had started talking before we could acknowledge him, He didn’t introduce himself, so I’ll return the compliment here. Like all the other facilitators, he acknowledged the Gadigal people as traditional custodians of the land where we were meeting, though he didn’t mention elders and somehow made it about himself: he appreciated that Gadigal people had been telling stories here for millennia and was grateful that he could tell stories here. Maybe I’m being picky here, but I think he’d lost sight of the function of the acknowledgement of country: in the absence of someone from the traditional owners to welcome us all, someone acknowledges the custodians and elders on behalf of the assembled people – it’s not about that person as an individual.

And the session continued as it had begun. Though the interlocutor professed to be a huge admirer of Jenny Erpenbeck’s work, he didn’t seem to know how to give her room to shine: he would comment on some aspect of her work, then ask whether he had got it right, and often enough she would struggle to make an intelligible response. The difficulty was no doubt compounded by her limited English and the terrible noise coming from other parts of the cavernous hall.

Nevertheless, starting with the story of her grandmother who had been a Communist in 1930s Germany, gone to the USSR to avoid the Nazis, and never trusted the Germans again when she returned after World War Two, she painted a poignant picture of the East German experience when the Berlin wall came down in 1989 and almost overnight everything changed.

My most vivid memory of the session is her graciousness in responding to borderline offensive questions from the floor. Asked if, given the current resurgence of fascism in the east of Germany, does that mean that east Germans have a deep-seated yearning for totalitarianism, she quietly demurred. First, she said, it’s not only in the east. And second, rather than asking if the questioner had been listening when she talked about the marginalisation of people from the old East Germany and their consequent sense that the political system did not represent them, she said that though she thought about the question a lot, she didn’t know what led to this resurgence. Perhaps it was … and here she repeated her earlier analysis as if it was a new thought in this conversation.

Then, when someone who was sitting very near the first questioner pointed out that the audience was mainly grey-haired (a comment that prompted noisy protest from a good part of the audience), and asked if her books were reaching young people at all. Smiling warmly, JE said she quite liked grey-haired people, and added that one of her books – perhaps Go, Went, Gone, which deals with refugees and people who have been forced to migrate – has been set for study in some localities. She doesn’t know if the book will change the minds of any of the young people, but perhaps it will, and they may have an influence when they have grey hair.


4.30 pm Ece Temelkuran: How to Lose a Country

This session was the one that was most affected by the terrible acoustics. And evidently it was worse for the people on stage than for us: evidently the background noise fed into their ear-phones so that they could barely hear themselves each other. Making a virtue of it, Ece Temelkurian, the Turkish writer I’ve seen twice before, said she would use her Big Voice, and Sally Warhoft, A Melburnian whom I think of mainly as previous editor of The Monthly, said likewise – and both these women, it turns ut have big voices, big ideas, big connection of minds.

Ece’s book How to Lose a Country is not about her native Turkey. It uses the Turkish experience as a warning to the rest of the world about the process by which liberal democracy can be turned into dictatorship. Right-wing populism, which smooths the transition, is the monstrous child of neoliberalism. (She is a terrific phrase-maker.)

She is critical of easy analogies with the rise of Nazism and fascism. what is happening now is much more like the industrial revolution. It’s not about the populist leader – get rid of one and another will take his (usually they’re male) and another will take his place. It’s a change beyond party politics. And culture is over-rated. (As she clarified in question time, this is not to say we should ignore cultural specifics, but she is talking about a general process. It’s misguided to say that there’s something about Turkish or Philippine culture that makes dictatorship more likely, that it could never happen here, wherever here happens to be.) Neoliberalism has broken communities, got into our minds so we think of ourselves mainly as participants in a market rather than a society. The public concept of truth has changed, and public figures are no longer ashamed when caught in a lie.

When Sally quoted John w Howard’s pivotal assertion, ‘We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come,’ Ece said this was a classic piece of what she is talking about: it’s a piece of nonsense, because of course you can’t control who comes to your country. But once you draw a circle like that, with someone on the ooutside who is defined as not belonging, there is no way of stopping that circle from narrowing.

Things that don’t work in response to the rise of right-wing populist leaders:

  • fact checking: they lie and distort, but have undermined the institutions that would be used to expose them – the press, scientific bodies
  • judicial processes: they have sowed distrust of the courts or stacked them with partisans
  • opposition parties and the electoral process – I think it was Sally who said she had read that some serious people are saying it’s possible, even likely, that if Trump is voted out in 2020 he will refuse to leave the White House (mostly Ece avoided takig explicitly about Trump, but he was certainly in my mind along with Scott Morrison all through the session).

We have to be prepared for a new kind of conversation. For example:

A: The world is flat.
B: Look at this photo taken from space. The world is clearly round like a ball.
A: But I don't believe that. I believe the world is flat.

How do you deal with that? she asked. How do you prove that seeing trumps belief, that evidence matters? That’s the question we’re up against. She had no answer.

Neoliberal values to the same thing to our minds as terrorism does. Recognising that Sydney hasn’t hasn’t experienced terrorism, she explained that when a terrorist attack occurs in your country, most people’s first response is to be relieved that it wasn’t in their town. If it’s in your town, you’re relieved it wasn’t in your suburb. If in your suburb, that it wasn’t in your street. It’s always somewhere else, happening to someone else, so not your problem. That’s how neoliberalism works too: Manus Island and Nauru, it’s only a couple of hundred people. It’s a vicious diminishing of our sense of humanity.

Having said to Benjamin Law the other night that she thinks the important thing is to think about all this, not to focus on how one feels about it, at this session she warned about laughter. The problem with mockery of the right-wing populous leader is that it allows the mockers and the laughers to feel superior to the subject of their mockery, and perhaps unwittingly assume they are safe. Dont’s laug, she said. It’s dangerous.

We have to remember that we are political subjects. We are living in challenging times that call for hard thinking and collective action. This is a joyful thing.

Whew!


And then there was the Closing Address delivered by Fatima Bhutto.

Before introducing the main act, Michaela McGuire, artistic Director of the Festival, took the mic for a moment to thank the tireless workers and volunteers, and to do an elegant round-up, quoting enough stand-out moments to make everyone in the room realise they’d seen only a fraction of what went on. My favourite was novelist Trent Dalton approaching the q=women queueing after his sold-out talk to thank them for their interest, only to have fellow Queenslander Matthew Condon tap him on the shoulder, ‘Mate, that’s the queue for the Ladies.’

Ms Bhutto spoke eloquently about the distortion of reality that sees Islam and Muslims as the main source of violence in the world. She listed the many barbarous acts of violence in the 20th century and since committed in the name of Christianity or (she whispered) by atheists, and called on us to reach for our common humanity in these dangerous times.

She saved her sharpest language for the Four Horsemen, by whom she meant Sam harris, Richard Dawkins and two others who in the name of militant atheism are especially hostile to Islam and to the Holy Qur’an, even though, she said, none of them have read it. (incidentally, outside the Town Hall on Friday night, a couple of men were offering copies of the Qur’an to people in the queue. I said I already had a copy next to my bed. ‘Have you read it?’ ‘ Not yet’ Read it. It’s a revelation.’)

It was great that the festival finished on such a challenging, even militant note rather than warm, self-congratulatory rhetoric about the power of the imagination.


It turned out that a clear theme emerged in my personal festival this year. In session after session people groped for definitions of home. In An Irrevocable Condition the consensus was that home is where you have your community of friends and family. In Home Truths both writers were ambivalent about being identified with their place of origin, and if I remember correctly at least one of them said she found a home in literature – writing, reading, being part of that community. Story Club was all about family – early parenthood and a vast clan reunion. In Lie to Me at the Town Hall, Patricia Cornelius’s monologue dealt with what amounted to a creepy and devastating home invasion. Simon Schama spoke of Jews as having a provisional sense of belonging: ‘If you’re a Jew, it’s natural to be cosmopolitan, on the move. The non-provisional part is observance and immersion in the Torah or for more advanced people the Talmud. In some sense, the Torah is your home.’


One last comment. I love attending the Festival in person. You get to talk to strangers about things they love, and that you also love if you’re lucky. You get to meet up with friends in a different context. You have a chance to meet in person people who have been intimately important to you, though I’ve been too shy to do too much of that. You get to notice the poets’ shoes and the heroic journalists’ hair. But these days it’s possible to enjoy a lot of this festival at a very small remove.

Some sessions are broadcast live on the ABC: SWF episodes of The Bookshelf and Conversations are are already available as podcasts – click the underlined words for links. Some sessions are live streamed, and some remote viewers have already blogged about those accounts. You can read about ‘Boys to Men‘, ‘Andrew Sean Greer: Less‘ and ‘”I do not want to see this in print“‘ on the Canberra-based blog Whispering Gums. If that wasn’t enough, the Festival has its own podcast which, if the past is any guide, will upload a huge number of sessions from this Festival over the next year.

SWF 2019 Sunday, Part One

I managed four sessions at the Festival on Sunday. Time is at a premium just now, so I’ll split it into two posts.

At 10 in the morning we went to A Dangerous Time to Tell the Truth in which, as the Festival web site say, ‘In conversation with ABC’s Sophie McNeill, three uniquely placed foreign writers and journalists share[d] their perspectives on the struggles and costs of reporting the truth and exposing lies under corrupt and oppressive governments.’ The three writers were Mexican Anabel Hernández (author of Narcos, about the far and deep reach of Mexican drug cartels), Iraqi-American Dunya Mikhail and Turkish Ece Temelkuran (author of How to Lose a Country).

I’d seen Dunya Mikhail in a more intimate session where she was wearing her poet hat, and this was the second of three sessions on my schedule featuring Ece Temelkuran. There was some repetition but I didn’t find any of it tedious.

We hear a lot about the noble calling of journalism these days, often from journalists whose work is deeply compromised. But from my seat in the stalls I felt something like awe, thinking that the three women on the stage were heroes of our time, exposing corruption and naming tyranny in the face of threats to their safety and even their lives. ‘Why are you here?’ Ece asked, as if having read my mind. ‘Do you want to see three martyrs? Do you want to learn about the realities of journalism?’

Quite apart from anything they said, the passion of all three women was deeply impressive. Anabel Hernández in particular delivered what was practically an aria on the importance of the truth, and the attempt to find and communicate it. In Mexico, where the institutions of society have pretty much failed, she said, journalists are currently called on to do the work of governments, investigators, prosecutors, even therapists. I think it was she (though it might have been Ece) who said, responding to a question from Sophie about the difficulty of persuading people to speak out, and picking up on the therapist tag, that people want to be heard: it takes two people to remember; if just one person has the memory it comes to feel like fantasy; an important part of the journalist’s job is to listen, even sometimes when you know that you will never be able to publish what you hear.

There was some dark humour. ‘Protect your journalists even if you hate them. We are not nice people.’ ‘Journalism is not a profession. it is a sickness in the head.’

On Julian Assange: He is not a pleasant person, but he has changed history. The impact of social media is huge, changing how we experience ourselves as human beings, and he is part of that much larger story. Social media are controlled by large companies for whom they make huge profits, and democracies are no longer strong enough to leash them.

In question time, someone asked what we could do to support good journalism. Ece gave the expected answer: Buy newspapers. Anabel picked up the baton: ‘Everything is connect,’ she said. When you take drugs in Sydney you become part of the problem for Mexico. Neoliberalism has penetrated deep into our minds to make us believe we are isolated individuals who are primarily consumers, but in reality we are all connected, and our actions have far reaching effects.

This is the first session I attended that had remote attendance. I expect it will turn up on the Festival’s podcast over the coming months. I’ll happily listen to it again.


At half past one, I joined an unexpectedly long queue (seats are allocated, so why queue?) for Simon Shama in conversation with Paul Holdengräber in Belonging: The Story of the Jews. This was the only session I attended that was all men, or even a majority of men, on stage. Simon and Paul gave the impression that they were old friends, though they had never appeared together in public before. I gleaned from the Festival program that Paul does a lot of conversing with famous people in public, and lives in the USA. He seems to be a kind of US Richard Fidler rather than a Kerry O’Brien.

Simon Shama’s recent book is the second in his intended trilogy, The Story of the Jews. This volume, Belonging, spans the period 492–1900 of the Current Era. I have had the first volume, Finding the Words 1000BCE – 492CE, beside my bed for some time, and have cracked it open since Sunday. I expect I’ll blog about it in time.

This was a remarkably entertaining, free-ranging chat, starting with Paul announcing that Simon had just told him he loved meeting and signing books for men, women, children and dogs, and would do so after the session. The very mild laughter had barely died down when he followed up with a passage from the last pages of Finding the Words, a contemporary Christian monk’s account of the sufferings and courage of Jews fleeing Spain in 1492, and we were away: two hugely intelligent, warm and mutually appreciative Jewish men going where the subject and the moment took them, interrupting each other (especially Paul interrupting Simon), telling little bits of their life stories, swatting a fly and accusing it of being anti-Semitic, telling jokes that were only marginally relevant, but funny. When asked if he was Jewish, Jonathan Miller said, ‘Well, Jew-ish‘. This joke was relevant because Simon Shama was describing himself as more a Jewish historian than a historian of the Jews (or possibly the other way round – I didn’t take notes).

They talked about the Jews who faced the choice between fleeing Spain in 1492, converting to Christianity or pretending to convert – and how neither converting or pretending to convert was any protection from the Inquisition that came soon after. They spoke of Moses Mendelssohn, 18th century intellectual who believed that the Enlightenment promised a degree of safety for the Jewish people, and how his hopes were largely dashed.

Simon said he was dreading writing the third book in the series. Asked why, he said that writing about the Holocaust is a huge challenge. So much written on it, especially fiction, is meretricious. The third volume will have to come right up to the present, given the new wave of anti-semitism sweeping Europe and elsewhere.

I came away determined to read the first volume, which covers 1500 year in 169 pages, and then this one, if the world and I last that long: just 500 years but something like 800 pages. These guys may have seemed a bit chaotic, but they knew how to whet their audience’s appetites.

Simon Griffin’s Fucking Apostrophes

Simon Griffin, Fucking Apostrophes: A guide to show you where you can stick them (Icon Books 2016)

The inside blurb describes this as ‘the perfect gift for any pedant’, which may explain why a young friend gave it to me as a gift with a knowing look on his face.

I don’t know that I’d recommend it to pedants, but it’s a short, clear, and for my money accurate guide to the use of apostrophes in English. It doesn’t waste space by arguing that apostrophes are doomed to extinction, or telling anecdotes about guerrilla apostrophisers attacking grocers’ shops. It allows for cases where a number of possibilities are correct. In order to lighten the mood, that is, to avoid sounding like a primary school classroom, it inserts the word ‘fucking’ regularly. In fact the word ‘apostrophe’ hardly occurs in this book without that adjective attached.

It was a thoughtful gift. I learned the difference between possessive and attributive nouns – the latter are in effect adjectives and so don’t need a [fucking] apostrophe. So a farmer’s market is a market belonging to a farmer; a farmers’ market is one that belongs to more than one market; a farmers market is a market for farmers, not one that’s owned by them.

There’s a charming dedication at the end:

For Matilda and Maurice

Please remember that swearing’s

not big or clever.

The book isn’t big, but it is clever – and sweary.

SWF 2019 Saturday

My second day at the festival turned out to be fairly light on – just two events.

We had double booked for the 11.30 am session, and reluctantly chose to pass on to friends our tickets to Akala‘s sold-out session (the Festival has a no-refunds and virtually no exchanges policy). The Emerging Artist then went to The Kingdom and the Power: Saudi Arabia, and I went to:


Poetic Justice. This was in ‘Track 12’, a small theatre space that was only about a fifth full, but soundproff. Dunya Mikhail, Iraqi journalist and poet now living in the USA exile was in conversation with US poet Michael Kelleher.

Dunya Mikhail’s most recent work is a non-fiction prose work, The Beekeeper of Sinjar, but for the sake of this session she was a poet. Unusually, I turned up with a question in mind. Having learned from an excellent issue of Southerly edited by Laetitia Nanquette and Ali Alizadeh that poetry occupies a central and honoured place in Iranian culture, I wondered if the same was true of Iraq. The question was given added point by the apparent discontinuation of the lively strand of poetry events that has previously been a major attraction of the festival for me, and by Fiona Wright’s admittedly facetious defensiveness about her poet identity on Friday.

My question was answered resoundingly in the positive. Actually, it was implicitly answered in Dunya Mikhail’s whole demeanour and way of speaking. Michael Kelleher asked her to the title poem from her first collection, The War Works Hard, which manages to be both slyly witty and devastating, and then invited her to talk about her first 15 years, the only years of her life when there has not been war in Iraq. She painted a marvellous picture: children in Baghdad lived their lives on the roofs or the streets. It’s a big city, but if a child wandered too far from home, someone would always bring them back.

She spoke of the ancient Mesopotamian practice of burying people with food and water to sustain their bodies on the journey of the dead, and poetry to nourish their souls. And it is still the practice in Iraq to have poetry recited at funerals – bad poetry at her father’s funeral, she said. There is a strong oral poetry tradition of which the funeral poems are a part, and poetry is held in high esteem: when she was about to go into exile, a friend was concerned, not whether she would be able to continue working as a journalist (she hasn’t really) but whether she would sill be recognised as a poet (she has been).

Though was brought up Catholic, religious, ethnic, or linguistic differences weren’t used as pretexts for mistreatment in her childhood, she said: the oppressive regime was pretty even handed on those matters. And the Qur’an has a surah about poets.

Asked if the 1001 Nights had been an influence, she said not directly: she had heard many of those stories, and others, from her grandmother, and they had found their way into her poetry.

Poetry, she said, has literally saved her life: she put ‘Poet’ on her passport when she thought she was going to travel to the US as a young woman; that fell through, but much later when she was fleeing the country because it had become seriously dangerous to be a journalist, the official at the airport noted that she was a ‘Poet’, and waved her through.

She spoke interestingly about translation. Poetry, she realised when she started writing poetry in the US, was her true homeland. Now, she writes her poems in Arabic and translates them herself. She prefers to do this because she has more freedom than a translator who is not her. In effect, she produces two distinct poems.

I don’t think I mentioned that yesterday, talking about mental illness, Fiona Wright and Luke Carman agreed that writing didn’t work terribly well as therapy. Dunya Mikhail echoed their sentiment in response to a question about the role of poetry in terrible situations such as Saddam’s Iraq or the decades of war since his overthrow. ‘My poetry,’ she said, ‘will not save. Poetry doesn’t heal a wound, but it is a way to see it and understand it.’

Michael Kelleher was an exemplary interlocutor – self effacing, well-informed, flexible, and asking questions that opened doors.


We went home for lunch etcetera, then I caught the bus back intending to go to the 3 o’clock session, Blak Brow: Blak Women Take Control, with Evelyn Araluen and other first Nations women poets. But it was a free session and I’d forgotten about the SWF queues. I arrived at 2.45 to see a queue of about 30 people, who turned out to be the ones who were left over once the room was full. So I went home and finished blogging about Friday.


After an early dinner we went downtown for Lie to Me: An Evening of Storytelling at Sydney Town Hall. Our tickets were for General Admission in the stalls, so we arrived with more than half an hour to spare. The queue must have been at least thousand people long, but we eventually got decent seats, and the readers/performers all appeared on a huge screen as well as in their tiny persons, so all was well.

I hadn’t looked closely at the program, and was half expecting a fun evening along the lines of that British TV show where you have to guess whether a panellist is telling an outrageous lie or an even more outrageous truth. That’s not what I got.

Benjamin Law, warm, suave and revealing his naked ankles, did a great job as host. Each of six story-tellers delivered their piece, and then had a brief chat with him.

Patricia Cornelius, whose plays I’m ashamed to say I’ve not seen any of, read the powerful opening monologue from a new play, Julia, which turned out to be about child sexual abuse and the Catholic church, and added something I didn’t understand about Julian Assange. Chatting with Benjamin, she said she didn’t care for naturalistic drama, and often wrote dialogue in a very poetic move, but no one seemed to notice.

Turkish journalist Ece Temelkuran’s opening gambit was to say that though she knew we expected her to talk about politics, she was going to tell some long concealed truths about herself. ‘I was a concubine in Saudi Arabia for ten years,’ she said, and before we could even gasp, she went on, ‘It was fun.’ She then reeled off a string of sordid, deeply cynical and increasingly improbable confessions. All these things had been written about her, she said, and not by Twitter trolls but by prominent journalists. She went on to talk about the absence of shame about lying in public life under neo-liberalism, and not only in Turkey. The idea of freedom, she said, has been corrupted so that it now applies only to consumption and sex.

Tim Soutphommasane, former Race Discrimination Commissioner, spoke soberly of the foundational stories of Australia, about our fabled egalitarianism and commitment to the fair go, which he argued don’t stand up to scrutiny.

Nayuka Gorrie, a Gunai/Kurnai, Gunditjmara, Wiradjuri and Yorta Yorta writer, warmed us up by chatting about the Harry Potter movie where Harry is accused of lying when he has told an uncomfortable truth, and his punished includes ‘I must not tell lies’ being magically carved into the sin of his arm. Then they spoke powerfully about the lies that colonisation depended on – White lies about Black truths, repeated in currucilums, in literature, in speeches, until they become accepted as truths.

Oyinkan Braithwaite gave a deceptively modest talk. She began with assertions young women make to each other. ‘All men are cheats,’ for example. And she talked about things she learned about the oppression of women in Nigeria when she challenged these assertions.

Scott Ludlam was the only one in my festival who spoke about climate change. Memorably, he said that the Antarctic ice shelfs haven’t even heard of Tony Abbott.

And the evening finished with a song by Megan Washington: I’m probably showing my age here, but I wish they’d managed to get Tim Minchin.

SWF 2019: Friday

I was in England when last year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival broke away from its harbourside venue, so this is my first Festival at the Carriageworks. I miss stepping out of dim rooms full of bright words into the dazzle, or sometimes drizzle, of postcard Sydney. But I can walk there and back, which is something.


My SWF this year kicked off with a 10 o’clock session on Friday: Taking Flight: Stories of Expulsion and Migration

Julian Burnside chaired a conversation with German novelist Jenny Erpenbeck, and Omid Tofighian, translator of Behrouz Boochani’s No Friend but the Mountains, which is still on my To Be Read pile.

All three participants were interesting, more than that, compelling. Jenny Erpenbeck’s most recent novel Go, Went, Gone is based on a year befriending and documenting the experiences of migrants in Berlin – the kind of migrants who would be called refugees or asylum seekers in Australia, but have been defined out of that category in Germany. It emerged that the characters in her novel are all real people with changed names, except the main character, named Richard, who she admitted is herself. Asked by Julian Burnside abut the many references to classic Greek and Roman gods, she explained that part of her goal was to make it clear that northern African peoples aren’t the Cultural Others that mainstream media would paint them – that much of that ancient culture was shared by Europe and Africa. In the very brief Q and A, asked if sessions like this and perhaps novels like hers weren’t preaching to the converted, she said that migrants are generally portrayed as millions of displaced people deserving pity or stirring dread: what fiction can do is help us realise that ‘the millions are not millions’, but each one has a story, and these stories show our connection as humans.

Omid Tofighian has an impressive CV in his own right and a scholar and activist. He was on the panel as translator of Behrouz Bouchani’s book. He was fascinating about the process of translation from Farsi to English. (Incidentally, Farsi is an Indo-European language, with many similarities to German in how its sentences are constructed.) About 40 percent English version is in verse: this is because in many passages Behrouz’s long Farsi sentences had to be broken up into smaller sentences to make them work in English, and in that process what had been beautiful Farsi prose begged to be presented as English verse. Translator and author worked closely together on the translation. Replying to an audience member who asked for a practical solution to the problem of offshore detention, ‘the key word being practical’, he said two things were necessary: first to analyse and broadcast the financial dimensions of the detention industry, in particular what he and Behrouz call the horrific surrealism of Manus, which creates vast profits for a small number of people; and second to challenge the ideology that sees refugees as passive and not fully human. On the preaching to the converted question, he said that the thing about Behrouz is that he is holding a mirror up to Australian society in general, not pleading his own case as victim or seeking a benefactor: he is calling out Australians in general to reflect on our history of harshness towards the marginalised, from the beginning of colonisation.

Julian Burnside in the chair promised at the start that we were about to hear a conversation between the two others on the stage. In the event there was very little, if any conversation between Jenny and Omid. This seemed to be mainly because there was no obvious bridge between their subjects and were both giving us information, but also because Julian Burnside, admirable activist and advocate, had his own point of view and contribution to make.

The session was marred for me bursts of laughter and applause from the adjacent hall, actually part of the same vast space separated only by thick hanging curtains. And the man next to me should be given an award of some kind. He spent a lot of the time fanning himself with a newspaper, which tended to obscure my view of the stage, send a blast of air to the woman on the other side (we talked after the show), and make creaking sounds that disturbed the people in front of him as well as us. Every now and then he would reach down to a paper bag on his lap and rustle it a bit for no obvious reason. And then his phone rang, he answered it, he left by a gap in the curtain at the front left, and after a couple of minutes came back to rejoin his paper bag and his fan. I’m pretty sure if I’d asked him to tone it down he would have done so, but I was stupidly wimpy.


At half past eleven, Christos Tsiolkas chaired An Irrevocable Condition, a conversation with Melanie Cheng, Moreno Giovannoni (my review of his The Fireflies of Autumn here) and Melina Marchetta.

The title of the session came from James Baldwin, who wrote, ‘perhaps home is not a place, but an irrevocable condition.’ I don’t know how the quote related to the conversation, but it was a brilliant conversation. Tsiolkas kicked it off by asking, ‘Where are you from?’, a question he acknowledged is often rude or hostile, but can be a way to open connection. Certainly in this case that’s how it worked. The panel members told of complex relationships with the countries of their parents’ origins – sometimes their own birth or childhood countries, others experienced only in the communities in Australia.

Christos invited each of the others to read from their work. This is always the best thing in these panels, and in this case it was beautifully integrated into the conversation, as they were also invited to reflect on how the passages they read were part of developing an inclusive Australian language.

It was a wonderfully warm, generous conversation. The four panellists had had an interesting conversation in the green room, which they referred to frequently – the mutual appreciation of each other’s writing was palpable. Christos told of a recent visit with his mother to Richmond, where he was a child. She looked around and said, ‘Christos, it’s not the same,’ namong, as he said a kind of double migration: first from Greece to Richmond, and then from Richmond to a whole other suburb. This prompted someone to say that although they had been talking about the experience of being migrants, there was something universal there as well: the childhood home no longer exists for any of us. The panel members had a fabulous range of stories about their experience of the nominal home country.

The panellists all agreed that home is where their family and friends are: the family and community that they live among now. Cosmopolitanism is great, but hard for many people, and a local community gives something that meets our deep needs.

As the lights came up, before filing out into the lunchtime crowd, I had a chat with the elderly woman who had been sitting on my left. (Elderly in this case could mean younger than me, but hey!) After we’d told each other how much we’d enjoyed the session, she said, ‘I’m fro South Africa, and I love living here. But I realise I’ve been unfair to other South Africans who complain about Australia – I’ve just thought they should appreciate what they’ve got here, but now I feel I haven’t been understanding enough about their pain.’


4.30 pm Home Truths

 This session was nominally about home, and would have made a thematic hat trick for my festival so far, but after briefly covering their discomfort at being categorised as Western Sydney Writers, Fiona Wright (click here for previous mentions in this blog) and Luke Carman (ditto here) got the bit between their collective teeth and gave us a very interesting chat about mental illness. 

Like Carman has a great gift for deadpan comedy about uncomfortable topics – in this case a psychotic episode and its aftermath. By contrast, Fiona laughs a lot, cheerfully asserting that she’s allowed to use words like ‘crazy’, at least when talking about herself. (Incidentally, I tend to be with Raimond Gaita in preferring the scary word ‘mad’ over the blandly medical ‘mentally ill’ to name a truly scary phenomenon.)

Ashley Kalagian Blunt did an excellent, self-effacing job of enabling the conversation. The Western Sydney gambit didn’t lead to much, but asking them each to name a favourite piece in the other’s book of essays and to say why was a brilliant way of setting them free to enjoy each other, their literary friendship, and their experiences with the mental health system.

Fiona said her first book of essays, Small Acts of Disappearance, was about extremes; her second, The World Was Whole, which is on the pile beside my desk, is about the ordinary, and how the ordinary must be negotiated by someone whose health is fragile. She mentioned her poetry, adding with mock defensiveness, ‘Don’t judge me!’ (I do judge, and the verdict is beyond favourable.)

Prompted by Ashley, Luke gave a wonderful account of the genesis of one of the essays in his book: he picked ‘Getting Square in a Jerking Circle’, in which he set out to write something that would enrage some people he was feuding with. It did that, as well as pretty much alienating everyone who read it. He decided to include it in the book all the same, as it fitted with the madness theme of the collection – an example of something written by a person who was off the air. (I just found the essay inits Meanjin incarnation, here.)


We went home for dinner, and watched a little tele, including Ece Temelkuran on the Drum. We’re seeing her in Sunday at the Festival.

Then we were back at the Carriageworks for Story Club at 9 o’clock.

Story Club is a monthly event that’s been running for 11 years at the Giant Dwarf in Sydney, created and hosted by Ben Jenkins and Zoe Norton Lodge. This evening’s hour was supposed to have a theme, ‘Fool Me Once’, in keeping with the Festival’s over-all theme, ‘Lie to Me’. As everywhere else I’ve seen at the Festival so far, the theme was completely ignored. Well not completely: it was named. But as Ben, then Alex Lee (a regular on the now defunct The Checkout with Ben and Zoe), journalist Jacqueline Maley and fonally Zoe took the stage to read stories from their lives from a big red book, if a theme emerged it was in two mercifully separate parts: excessive consumption of alcohol and the tribulations of early motherhood. Breasts, sleeplessness, public humiliation and family reunions gave rise to much merriment.

And so home to bed.


Vale Les Murray

Les Murray died yesterday. On the ABC News last night, David Malouf said,

He could be very funny. He could be very harsh. But we all listened to him, and we all needed to hear what he had to say.

Lisa at ANZ LitLovers LitBlog has posted an excellent summary of his life and career, and I expect that over the next couple of days there will be many learned accounts of his vast contribution to the culture of Australia and the world.

I was going to write a brief personal piece, but then I found in my old blog, Family Life, a 2006 review of the collection of his poetry intended to introduce him to US readers, and realised it said everything I’d want to say now, except how crushingly sad it is that he has died, and that as literary editor of Quadrant he first rejected a poem I submitted with generous marginal comments, and then, also in 2006, accepted a revised version, informing me of the acceptance in a handwritten note on a postcard of a bush shack.

Here’s what I wrote in 2006 about Learning Human, beginning with a reference to a review in the New York Times.

The review sees him as aspiring to be the poetic voice of Australia. In so far as he seeks to speak for anyone, I don’t think it’s any nation, but a class, the rural poor, and perhaps another constituency – the non-human world.

Some of Les’s descriptions of the natural world are extraordinary: it’s like walking beneath the trees, sitting and watching the birds, strolling among the cattle. But he’s an incredibly uncomfortable read. You never know when he’s going to lash out at some aspect of the modern world, and I for one often feel I’m being unfairly attacked. I found this time – I’d read most of these poems before – that it helped to take him at his word and think of him as writing from the point of view of someone with Asperger’s. There’s an odd sense of alienation from other people, of not quite being part of the human race that underlies his conservative contrarianism: ‘Demo’ comes close to identifying its disdain for political rallies as a neurotic consequence of having been bullied at school; in what can be read as an acknowledgement of his own lack of empathy, the narrator of ‘Suspended Vessels’ turns away from a hot-air-ballooon accident where 13 people had a ‘hideous’ death to mutter what seems to be a big-abstract-word equivalent of ‘Serves them right, the spoiled rich kids.’

That is to say, even though I suspect Les Murray, at least when in his poet state, wouldn’t be sorry to see me and my kind wiped from the face of the earth, I am still grateful for what he gives me in his poems. I do feel a personal affection for him. I met him at a Sydney Push party in the 1970s. He was a big man then, and wore a badge, ‘If you’ve got it, flaunt it.’ We were talking about Taoism, and he said to me, words I should have taken to heart, ‘There is no tao for stumbling in the dark. If you had the tao you’d walk.’

I’ve just remembered another part of that conversation. It was early days of the Women’s Liberation movement. Les said, ‘Mine is the only profession where men and women are truly equal.’ Obtuse as ever, I said, ‘You mean translators?’ (He was working as a translator in Canberra at the time.) ‘I mean poets,’ he said and that was prabably the end of the conversation.

Melissa Lucashenko’s Too Much Lip

Melissa Lucashenko, Too Much Lip (UQP 2018)

Among many splendid things at the National Folk Festival in Canberra at Easter this year was the Mission Songs Project concert featuring Jessie Lloyd, Emma Donovan and Deline Briscoe. Jessie Lloyd has been researching and reviving Aboriginal songs from the mission era (roughly 1901 to 1967) from all over Australia. At the end of a terrific concert Ms Lloyd urged us – mainly non-Indigenous – audience members, to connect, learn and engage with the songs. She wants these songs dealing with the hardships, sorrows and sometimes joys of mission life – to become part of the Australian songbook alongside ‘Waltzing Matilda’ and ‘Botany Bay’. She invited us to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history and cultures as integral parts of mainstream Australian history and culture. (A choir songbook is available for sale at the Mission Songs Project website.)

Too Much Lip holds out a similar invitation, though with less sweet music.

It’s the story of the Salters, an Aboriginal family in northern New South Wales, a story that includes violence, petty crime, child sexual abuse, drug and alcohol abuse, poverty, neglect, dark secrets, seething resentments, alienation and general chaos. It’s what many would call a dysfunctional family, but that’s not a term that seems quite to fit. The central character, Kerry, thinks of it as a ‘grassroots family’ – as if their huge ordeals and conflicts don’t mark them out as special so much as make them representative.

I don’t want to say too much about this book. It’s very funny in places. Kerry arrives back home after a long absence – she’s been part of the Lesbian community in Brisbane and has just been dumped by her girlfriend after a failed armed robbery. Her pitiless sarcasm about white people (dugai) and men, not just white men, sets the tone for the opening sequence, and while she doesn’t exactly soften, there’s some delicious counterpoint when she falls for a … white man. This is just one of the brilliant, comic but believable transformations in the book. Sweet Mary, Kerry’s mother, is a reformed alcoholic; her older brother Ken is a pontificating drunken layabout who bullies his teenaged son; her younger brother, known only as Black SUperman, is a Gay man who lives in Sydney; Steve, the object of Kerry’s lust, is trying to set up a gym in town; Martina, a real estate agent from Sydney, has been seconded to the local office to help the mayor push through a deal that will result in a prison being built on a piece of land that has deep significance for the Salters. And there are a number of children, including the splendidly named Dr No (guess how old he is). In the course of the novel, each of these characters, including the children, reveals something completely unexpected abut themselves, or undergoes a radical transformation. To say that another way: we are invited to make judgements about every one of the characters, and by the end of the book we have revised our judgements radically.

I confess I started reading Too Much Lip with a sense of duty: as a dugai, I really ought to read writing by Aboriginal authors. Well, that’s what got me to page 1, and kept me going through Kerry’s reference to white people as normalwhitesavages, till about page 20, but after that I was there for the joys, sorrows and terrors of the ride.

There are talking birds and a talking shark, a ghost, terrible stories of white-on-black violence and of black-on-black violence (with an afterword asserting that all the incidents have occurred in the author’s extended family or, in a few cases, are drawn from the historical record or Aboriginal oral history). There’s a brilliant extended sequence where the family has a barbecue, and all the threads of the narrative twist together and apart dramatically – I’d say it was chaotic, but the reader is never confused about what is happening and what it means in the lives of each character.

It’s a brilliant book. The last pages sent me back to reread the beginning. Some of the jokes still make me laugh a week after reading them. It puts heart and body into abstract terms like intergenerational trauma, lateral violence, white supremacy. It doesn’t need my recommendation, but I recommend it anyhow.

Too Much Lip was a birthday present. It’s the seventeenth book I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Deborah Levy’s Cost of Living

Deborah Levy, The Cost of Living (Hamish Hamilton 2018)


I’m a member of two book clubs. One of them is all men, and at each meeting we discuss one book that there’s a sporting chance a majority of us will have read. The other is all about swapping books, and there’s a rule (one of many: one club member is a high-flying lawyer) that no book may be discussed for more than 30 seconds. Generally each of us brings three books to the club, and takes a different three home. At our last meeting I borrowed Diane Athill’s Alive, Alive Oh! (my blog post here) and The Cost of Living. I loved Alive, Alive Oh!

The Cost of Living is exactly the book that some writers of genre fiction, disgruntled at being dismissed as of a lesser breed, describe as LitFic. It’s a very short, introspective first-person account of the life of a woman writer after the end of her decades-long marriage, rich with threads of metaphor and learned allusions, studded with aphorisms and beautifully described scenes. It has at least two big subjects: the end of a marriage and the death of a mother. I was half way through it when I happened to read on the dustjacket flaps that it is the second instalment of Deborah Levy’s ‘living autobiography’, the first volume of which is a ‘memoir on writing, gender politics and philosophy’.

I didn’t hate it. I read all 187 pages. But it’s not my cup of tea. Someone who really loved the book might think that’s because I’m a white, heterosexual man of a certain age, eligible for the nickname ‘the Big Silver’ which the narrator/author bestows on one of the book’s many men in the book who patronise, ignore, disregard or otherwise deny the humanity of women. But I didn’t dislike the gender politics as such. I just kept wondering why I should be interested in this book. I got a lot of clues: the author mentions several other books she has written, and a possible movie deal, and famous people she knows (we are careful informed, for example, that Celia – no second name is given – the woman who lends her a garden shed to write in is the widow of the poet Adrian Mitchell*). And of course, the first part of the memoir – Things I don’t Want to Know – may have set the reader up to be interested.

Look, here’s a short passage. It contains a few darlings that should have been killed, though to be fair there are possibly more per square inch than in most of the book. If you like it you’ll probably find the whole book something you can enjoy and benefit from more than I did. She is writing about the gardener who tends Celia’s garden:

Sometimes he’d pick a small bunch of herbs and winter flowers from the garden and bring them to me in the shed. I could not tell him that it was flowers that triggered some of the most painful flashbacks to my old life. How can a flower inflame a wound? It can and it does if it is a portal to the past. How can a flower reveal information about minor and major characters? It can and it does. How is it that a flower can resemble a criminal. For the writer and criminal Jean Genet, the striped uniform of convicts reminded him of flowers. Both flowers and flags are required to do so much of the talking for us, but I am not really sure I know what it is they are saying.

(page 107)

*She’s Celia Hewitt for whom Adrian Mitchell wrote his wonderful poem ‘Celia Celia’ (you can read it here)

Jennifer Maiden’s brookings

Jennifer Maiden, brookings: the noun: new poems (Quemar Press 2019)

Probably more than any other of Jennifer Maiden’s books, brookings: the noun revolves around a central concept. It’s not that every poem addresses the concept directly, or that there is an overarching narrative, but the notion of ‘brookings’ weaves its way through the book, becoming explicit every so often, taking on new metaphorical form and emotional resonance as it goes.

The simplest description of the concept is in the poem ‘Brookings in Fur’ (which you can read here – you’ll need to scroll down), brookings are defined as

                            things that trickle the Overton window
to the Right by focusing on soft left topics

According to Wikipedia, the Overton window is ‘a term for the range of ideas tolerated in public discourse’: we’ve recently seen, for instance, that veganism is outside the Overton window in Australia, and offshore detention of people seeking asylum barely makes it into the frame. ‘Brookings’ are the right-wing tactic of espousing harmless, even positive policies around education, discrimination, environmental concerns and so on, in order to disguise or make more acceptable the underlying ruthless policies. However, defining the term doesn’t tell you much about the poetry. After all, a similar concept is captured in the phrase ‘lipstick on a pig’ – Maiden’s metaphors are a lot more interesting than that.

The term has at least three incarnations.

First, in ‘Concrete’, which is Jennifer Maiden’s sixteenth poem comprising a flirtatious-reproachful conversation between Eleanor Roosevelt and Hillary Clinton, Eleanor appropriates the name of the US think tank, the Brookings Institution, giving it the new meaning. It’s a straightforward satirical jibe at Julia Gillard, who recently joined the institution. (I have no idea about the politics of the institution, but I do know that Maiden has been caustic about Gillard in earlier poems, and is again in this volume.)

Second (though preceding ‘Concrete’ in this book), in ‘Uses of brookings: the noun’, Maiden discovers rich metaphorical possibilities in the term. This poem draws brilliantly on Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem ‘Maidenhood’ (you can read it here) for the image of a virgin ‘Standing with reluctant feet/ where the brook and river meet’. Longfellow’s maiden is facing the prospect of mature adult life with trepidation; Maiden with a capital M makes something different of the contrast between brook and river:

                        The river beyond soft
brooking glints a deadly global thing.

This image of the soft brooking and the deadly global river recurs in a number of poems.

The third embodiment picks up on that ‘soft’. In ‘Brookings in Fur’ it’s a little creature:

                 soft little Brookings, a silk-nosed squeaker
too gentle for words like Global, War or Money, who
would not know the price of a gun.

The sweet creature embodies the appeal of brookings: we want to believe that those in power are benign.

The poems in this book engage with international politics, corruption and war: allegations about the White Helmets in Syria, Hillary Clinton and Julia Gillard’s dubious practices, Tanya Plibersek’s apparent support for inhumane treatment of people seeking asylum, Israeli snipers’ use of butterfly bullets against Palestinian protestors, the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. (There was a time when you needed a working knowledge of Greek myth and the Bible to be able to read English poetry; with Jennifer Maiden, you need to be reasonably well-versed in current affairs. Readers outside Australia or even outside New South Wales may need to keep Google – or Duck Duck Go if they value their privacy – handy.)

It’s poetry that includes political commentary and analysis, but it would be a mistake to read it as if that’s all it was. One reviewer has sneered at Maiden’s version of the White Helmets as agents/brookings of Daesh, saying she has offered no evidence (here, and her poem in reply here – you’ll need to scroll down). I think that misses the point. Just as people who abhor Les Murray’s politics can enjoy his poems, people who disagree strongly with Maiden’s political positions (and probably everyone disagrees with some of them – I’m agnostic about the White Helmets, for instance) can still embrace her poetry. One of the things that attracts me to her writing, and has kept me coming back for more, is her commitment to engage with the world in a big way, to figure out what she thinks and to say it without prevarication, sermonising or mumblefucking, while striving for a deeply human perspective on her characters (including – unsuccessfully in my opinion – Donald Trump).

These prayer-like lines come as close as any to articulating the impulse behind much of Jennifer Maiden’s poetry:

                          Let her protect me,
great Spirit of the Universe, my ancestral Durga,
with her many limbs, from all that's born to narrow
the vision to a bright domestic window.
                                     (from 'Brookings in Fur')

That is the temptation of ‘brookings’, and it’s a temptation that Maiden’s poetry invariably resists.

I usually single out one poem for more detailed discussion when writing about books of poetry. Here’s ‘Rope’. Click on the image to big it up, or click here and scroll down to read it in the Rochford Street Review:


If what follows is laborious. Forgive me. Actually reading the poem isn’t laborious at all.

The poem is in three parts. The first four lines set the tone: the speaker, who sees herself as harmless, has been threatened and promised much by a nameless ‘they’ – the fourth line seems to suggest that soon, with talk of Elbridge Colby, some of this will become clearer. The next eighteen lines deal with the speaker’s distressed ‘state’, the poem a rope that prevents her from plummeting into ‘blind depths / too lightless even for black’. After a four-line transition (‘We will move from my state’), there are nine lines about Elbridge Colby, which raise the spectre of nuclear war, and I guess we understand why she is so upset, and who the opening ‘they’ are. The final six lines come close to an expression of despair, though I read the final line, ‘We can talk about Elbridge Colby’, as an assertion of the power of poetry, in the spirit of T S Eliot’s ‘These fragments I have shored against my ruin.’

‘Rope’ is not a typical Maiden poem. I’ll get to that, but first here are some ways it is characteristic.

First, it’s conversational. That’s in the tone, the unobtrusive use of rhyme, and especially in the use of enjambement – many lines end in a word that launches a sentence, creating a constance sense of forward momentum. The sense of a conversation is also there in the way this poem, like many, addresses the reader as a collaborator. The ‘you’ in the fifth line, ‘But I ask you to hold this rope’, seems to imply that the imagined reader in some way helps to preserve the poet from something like deep despair. So when you or I come to it as an actual reader, something uncanny happens – in reading this poem am I somehow holding the rope that saves the poet? If I have trouble with it – have to Google Joan Maas, say – is that my armpits feeling the weight>?

Second, there are a number of kinds of allusions:

  • allusions to poetry that the reader is expected to be familiar with – ‘this is not the end of Childe Roland‘ refers to Robert Browning’s ‘Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came‘, and a quick web search reveals (or reminds if you’re better read than me) that at the end of that poem the knight arrives at his quest’s goal and sees there all the other knights who had gone on the same quest. Maiden has just listed ‘some faces of suicides’; this line is a way of saying they are not the subject of the poem.
  • allusions to public figures. Usually the poems just assume the reader knows who the public figures are – from Jared Kushner to Dodi, mentioned by Princess Diana. Here there’s no need for a web search, as Elbridge Colby’s identity is explained, but if you want to read his argument, you can click here.
  • allusions to past and present members of Maiden’s poet community. You probably don’t need to know who Grace and Joan Maas are in this poem. But since I’m writing about it: Joan Maas (also spelled Mas) was an Australian poet who died in 1974 – she was the Joan in Roland Robinson’s autobiography, Letter to Joan; Grace is Grace Perry, who has been mentioned in a number of earlier Maiden poems. In the conversational mode of these poems the reader is expected to remember when she was last mentioned.
  • allusions to Maiden’s other poems. That Joan Maas ‘thought writing was a brook / to refresh and for respite’ only takes on its full meaning in a context where (soft, sweet) ‘brook’ implies its opposite, the deadly global river: writing is dangerous.

But the poem is atypical. Maiden’s ‘signature’ poems in recent years have been in the form of dialogues, sometimes between fictional characters, especially her own creations George Jeffreys and Clare Collins, but often between public figures and re-awakened people from the past whom in the real world they profess to admire. These dialogues always have elements of dramatic action. In this book, for example, Tanya Plibersek pours tea for Jane Austen, Donald Trump and his mother chat in the Oval Office, and Kenneth Slessor and an unnamed Australian critic meet by moonlight in the Sydney Botanic Gardens. My sense is that this staging of dialogues, where underlying questions might be, ‘What would Jane say to Tanya about this?’ or ‘What would Donald Trump’s mother say to him and John Bolton?’ opens up possibilities for fresh and unexpected thinking. Maybe it’s possible to see Tony Abbott’s humanity if you imagine him chatting with Queen Victoria (that one’s not in this book).

There’s none of that here. This poem is shockingly direct. In it, in a way, Maiden shows her workings, the puppeteer comes out from behind her curtain. Rather than move directly to Elbridge Colby, or set him up for a chat with, say Mamie Eisenhower, here she starts from her own emotional response. The transition between the two main parts is telling:

We will move from my state,
as I do in truth to survive,
to the personal and worldy.

Many of her poems are about the worldy (an excellent word**, though it may be a typo, as the Rochford Street review has ‘worldly’), and many personalise the subjects they address (as for example, when George and Clare go to Syria). But these lines suggest that there’s some deep and dangerous emotion beneath or behind the political comment and analysis, emotion that cannot easily, or even safely, be addressed directly. And looking at the state of the world, don’t we all have emotions like that?

I am always gripped by a Maiden poem. Rope helps me to understand why.


* Many of Jennifer Maiden’s poems have titles indicating that they belong to one of her sequences or types of poems. For example, the full title of the first poem of the book is ‘DiaryPoem: Uses of brookings: the noun’, and the second’s is ‘Hillary and Eleanor: 16: Concrete’. For simplicity’s sake, I’ve omitted the scaffolding when naming poems.

** I have been informed by the publisher that this isn’t a typo, but a deliberate revision of the Rochford Street Review version. The progression from ‘personal and worldy’ in these transitional lines to ‘personal and worldly’ at the end of the poem adds another level of subtle poignancy.


brookings: the noun is the sixteenth book I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge.