Erik Jensen’s Prosperity Gospel

Erik Jensen, The Prosperity Gospe: How Scott Morrison Won and Bill Shorten Lost (Quarterly Essay 74), plus correspondence from QE 75

I approached this Quarterly Essay with reluctance. Did I really need another inside-baseball, after-the-event reading of the tea-leaves about the May federal election? That’s how I felt when the essay came out, and my already-faint enthusiasm has only waned since. But I did read it, three months after the event as has become my custom..

It’s mercifully short. It consists mainly of finely crafted snapshots, mainly of the party leaders in action, from both sides of the election campaign with occasional snippets of commentary, and no sustained argument as such. An essay for the distractible perhaps. Or one that met an impossible deadline, to be published within weeks of the events it deals with. That’s not to say it lacks insight (‘Bill Shorten’s gamble is that you can replace popularity with policy’). But it’s impressionistic rather than discursive, and narrative rather than analytical. It was written on the campaign trail. Bill Shorten gave a generous interview; Scott Morrison refused to be interviewed. There’s no doubt which of the two men emerges as the more likeable, but he is the one who is accorded the most devastating summing-up:

The great truth of Bill Shorten is that he doesn’t know himself. He hasn’t settled his character.

Morrison on the other hand, though his religious belief and his deep commitment to his family are noted, is described in the essay’s final words as ‘a hardman who says everything is simple and some of you will be okay’. Both those summations are beautifully concise, and they’re far from stupid, but neither is justified by the essay that precedes them.

It’s a strange essay, reading sometimes like diary notes from the campaign trail: along with the oft-seen moments like Morrison’s Easter observance, speeches are summarised, mostly without comment; we’re told what books people carry in their luggage; there’s a scattering of off-the-cuff witticisms from staffers; the behaviour of the wives of both candidates is described; sometimes unrelated passers-by are mentioned.

Much of the narrative simply sits on the page, without resonance or further implication that I could discern. An outstanding example is in the account of Morrison emerging from a Healthy Harold igloo (part of a program of health education for children):

Morrison rolls his shoulders when he stands. The tail of his tie not quite to his sternum. He has taken off his jacket: his paunch is oversatisfied and his nipples are erect

(page 48)

This reminded me of a piece by Mungo MacCallum in the Nation Review some time in the early 1970s. Describing Gough Whitlam emerging from a swimming pool, he commented that the honourable gentleman appeared to be very well endowed. That was funny in a transgressively adolescent way, and it chimed with the writer’s clear view that Gough was an attractive big man in other ways as well. Here, the point of mentioning the state of Morrison’s nipples, if there is one, seems to be to tell us that the writer was very close to the action and noticing details, however meaningless. The length of his tie doesn’t even have that, and what does the personification of Morrison’s paunch even mean?

In fact, as a guide to understanding what happened in the election, the essay is eclipsed by the 25 pages of correspondence about the previous Quarterly Essay, Rebecca Huntley’s Australia Fair (my blog post here), which offer a number of interesting and plausible hypotheses about how the progressive-leaning population described so convincingly by Huntley could have delivered the result when it acted as an electorate.

And now perhaps the existence of Jensen’s essay is justified by what turns out to be an excellent correspondence about it at the back of QE 75 (Annabel Crabb’s Men at Work, which I look forward to reading in three months’ time).

Shorten’s speech writer, James Newton, gives an unrepentant insider’s account of Shorten’s campaign, including his now-near-forgotten town hall meetings. Journalist David Marr and scholar Judith Brett offer their analyses. Barry Jones offers the perspective of a grand old man of the ALP. Elizabeth Flux tells us what she learned from being ’employed as a subeditor with a focus on Australian politics’ throughout the campaign, Kristina Keneally writes interestingly about the possible role of religious background. Patrick Mullins & Matthew Ricketson offer historians’ insights. Lawyer Russell Marks gestures towards ‘the deep structures operating through Australia’s political and electoral systems’.

These contributions mostly include evidence that they have read Jensen’s essay. Some of them actually grapple with it, as distinct from using it as a launching pad for their own commentary. Here are some quotes to balance my own underwhelmed response:

James Newton: ‘Instead of wasting words on pseudo-psephology, Erik Jensen gives us telling sketches of the two major-party leaders, their campaigns and the choices Australians faced and made.’

David Marr: ‘The drift of the press is to cut everything short. This guts argument. … The great pleasure of The Prosperity Gospel is to be immersed in the language of the campaign and reconsider the state of politics in this country knowing that what was dismissed as blather in those weeks worked so well on election day.’

Elizabeth Flux: ‘The Prosperity Gospel helped me understand why I found the election result so difficult to come to grips with. It wasn’t that “my team” didn’t win. Or that I liked Shorten more. It’s because it wasn’t a case of one side’s policies winning over the other’s. People were happy to vote for no policies at all, because we’d rather have a strong man selling nothing than a quiet one trying to make changes which he truly believed were for the better.’

Kristina Keneally actually engages critically with the essay, finding it unsatisfying in three areas: ‘First, while Jensen introduces the distinctly different religious foundations for each leader’s policy and political approach, he does not wrestle with what it means that Australia voted for one over the other. … Second, Jensen’s profiles of Morrison and Shorten are incomplete, or at least unbalanced. … Third, he could have explored the role religious affiliation and identity played in the election.’

Patrick Mullins & Matthew Ricketson wonder on paper if people will still go to this essay for insight in the future, say in the lead-up to the 2019 election. They argue (unconvincingly in my opinion) that they should.

Russell Marks laments that while the essay’s subtitle promises an explanation for the election result, ‘Jensen never really expands beyond what is mostly a literary answer.’ He goes on to speak, not quite disparagingly, of political journalists making ‘literary attempts to match leaders’ characters to the nation’s and to find in the intersections why publics endorse one leader and not another’, and then speaks quite disparagingly of ‘armchair psychoanalysis’, though he doesn’t accuse Jensen directly of that.

Tellingly, Jensen’s ‘Response to Correspondents’ ignores them all and makes some observations on what has happened in the months since the election.

If you hear us …

Yesterday afternoon I was planning to spend an hour or so at our nearest railway station handing out leaflets for Friday’s Global Climate Strike, but the weather was terrible and I’m trying to shake off a virus so I stayed warm and dry instead.

Please accept this terrific video, words by the Peace Poets, in lieu of a leaflet, and consider responding to the students’ invitation.

The Sydney strike is at midday at the Domain. It’s politely out of the way and non-disruptive but the students are hoping to fill the vast space with people trying to inspire out governments to face reality. Details are at schoolstrike4climate.com/sept20.

Journal Blitz 3

Here are some notes from a third journal catch-up binge. One more blitz and I’ll be temporarily up to date.

Jill Jones and Bella Li (editors), Australian Poetry Anthology Volume 6 (2018)

This is Australian Poetry Inc’s sixth annual anthology of member’s poetry. The editors’ foreword begins with the question, ‘What could Australian poetry look like at the moment?’ and goes on to suggest that this anthology could be one way it looks. I love that refusal to be definitive. And I don’t envy the editors the task of selecting what turned out to be 64 poems from nearly a thousand that were submitted. Hard enough for me as a mere blogger to name poems that meant something to me.

I turned down page corners as I went (yes, I read – and mutilated – the hard copy, leaving the digital version unsullied on my desktop). Here are the poems with dog-ears:

  • Kevin Gillam, ‘call it that’: 34 lines of three one-syllable words that capture the deep relief of ‘fat rain / call it that’ after a long dry
  • Rachael Mead, ‘Catastrophic Fire Danger: level 6’, which is painfully topical just now – ‘I scan the blue for smoke. Plants, words, thoughts /all crackle to dust in this catastrophic light.’
  • Toby Fitch, ‘Cultivate a New Foot’: tantalisingly almost coherent, rich wordplay – ‘incredibly the gossiping planet / will still be there on the weekend / no madder how many selfies weaken the collective / labour / bargaining agreement’
  • Gareth Jenkins, ‘Dream sequence’: I probably noted this because Gareth Jenkins read beautifully at the recent Francis Webb reading. It’s 10 very short (one to three lines) poems that have the uncanniness of dream.
  • Brenda Saunders, ‘Figures in a landscape’: a First Nations voice speaks back to a colonial painting of Sydney Harbour – ‘I am not in this picture. Invisible, I fall / easily into shadow, watch the ladies walk / float white as sails on water.’
  • Jordie Albiston, ‘gasp’: previously unpublished, this feels as if it’s from a longer sequence – some great upheaval in the ocean and ‘our strange & / elusive beast of the deep flipped & flopped / in an agony of light & without / any sound drowned in a great flood of air’
  • Tyson Yunkaporta, ‘No Cure for Colour Blind’: I haven’t understood this poem yet, but there’s a lot in it about traditional knowledge (‘You can’t hear that story boy’) and Indigenous perspectives.
  • Elanna Herbert, ‘SIEV221 File Note: to mothers waiting’: A Christmas Island landscape, sneaks up on the subject of deaths at sea announced in its title – ‘If this was a different page / in the novel of Christmas Island / this would be the postcard beach.’
  • Zenobia Frost, ‘Taming the Shrew’: a sweet poem about a key moment in a young woman’s life that had the perhaps unintended consequence of making me want to see the movie 10 Things I Hate About You
  • Tricia Dearborn, ‘Therapist, dreamt’:a kind of love poem to a therapist, the kind that probably wouldn’t pose ethical issues for said therapist
  • Jeff Guess, ‘Transgression of the Trees’: a lament for ancient trees cut down for roadworks, which, though it was published a year ago, could be a poignant response to current violence against sacred trees in Victoria
  • Alison Flett, ‘Vessel’: An almost Proustian moment in which a child begins to understand something – ‘a first meme / which will repost versions of itself again / and again in her brain

As with previous AP anthologies there are no stars, but much excellence. There’s a huge variety of forms, and I hope I’ve given you a sense of the range of subjects.


Jacinda Woodhead (editor), Overland 233 (Summer 2018)

This issue of Overland kicks off with ‘26 January – or thereabouts‘ by the venerable Marxist historian Humphrey McQueen, a brief history of the Australia Day holiday that takes effective potshots in passing at any number commonly believed fallacies. Here are some fabulous factoids from the article:

  • It’s not just the left and First Nations peoples calling for a change of date. Conservative historian Geoffrey Blainey and Hugh Morgan, mining magnate, have each pitched for a different day.
  • In the early 20th century Irish Catholics (my lot) celebrated ‘Australia Day’ on the Feast of Our Lady Help of Christians (24 May). The Red Cross instituted ‘Australia Day’ on 30 June 1915 and 1916.
  • Though Victoria and South Australia pride themselves as having been established as ‘free colonies’, the South Australia Company actually ‘floated on chattel-slavery’ (a phrase McQueen, sadly, doesn’t unpack) and ex-convict John Pascoe Fawkner may have a greater claim to be founder the Victorian colony than land thief Batman.
  • ‘Invasion Day’, a term now reviled as a Marxist invention, is anything but: ‘Invasion’ was the word used by small-l liberal (Sir) Keith Hancock in 1930, and even more tellingly by the right-wing historian Sir Archibald Grenfell Price in White Settlers and Native People (1949). Marxist McQueen sinks the boot into soft-left Labor Party figures by pointing out that ‘the academic convention of using “invasion” did not stop Queensland ALP premier Wayne Goss from erasing the term from the school curriculum’.
  • Terra nullius is ‘a doctrine formed only in the late nineteenth century in relation to the status of the polar regions. That the High Court accepted terra nullius in Mabo confirms the venerable legal doctrine of Judicial Ignorance.’ I knew this from reading Heather Goodall’s Invasion to Embassy (my blog post is here), but the furphy that it was there from 1788 is so well established I’d forgotten the reality.

That’s not the whole article: McQueen comes up with some positive though hardly serious suggestions for alternative dates, but I’ll leave you to read them for yourself.

Of the regular columnists, Alison Croggon’s , ‘On the #MeToo movement‘, written before the Geoffrey Rush court case was concluded, is complex as ever. Tony Birch’s column, ‘On bullshit‘ is a fabulous rant against university bureaucracy. Giovanni Tiso ruminates on the wistful belief that we can learn things from tapes under the pillow while sleeping, in On learning French while you sleep.

Of the other articles, ‘The eleven best Australian essays of the past 3,533 days‘ by Dean Biron is a spectacularly self-indulgent piece that manages to convince me that the eleven essays he singles out are worth looking up; ‘Hand on heart‘ by Elfie Shiosaki draws a line connecting letters written to the WA ‘Protector of Aborigines’ by Aboriginal parents a century go and the 2018 twitter hashtag #IndigenousDads; ‘Power ballet by Kirsten Krauth speaks from within women’s wrestling fandom.

Jennifer Mills, Overland‘s fiction editor for many years, writes in defence of utopian/eutopian and dystopian fiction in ‘Against realism‘ and then serves up a quartet of short fictions of decidedly dystopian bent, of which ‘Noplace‘ by Claire G Coleman and ‘Idle hands‘ by Wayne Macauley grabbed and held me.

The poetry section (yes, the poetry is gathered in one place – all the easier for poetryphobes to ignore, you might say) is filled with riches. My favourite single poem is ‘Blessed be this sadness‘ by Omar Sakr, a meditation on suffering that has Les Murray’s ‘A Perfectly Ordinary Rainbow’, acknowledged, in the background. My favourite lines are from ‘Learning‘ by Allison Gallagher:

I am learning to live inside a broken thing
when I call this body a wreckage in the middle of the night
you ask me not to speak about your home that way

Overland always features the results of a literary competition. In this issue it’s the Fair Australia Prize, an annual competition supported and funded by the National Union of Workers, and is made up of five general prizes worth $3000 each and three prizes for union members worth $1000 each. All the prize winners are worth reading, especially Laura Elvery’s short story ‘Your cart is empty‘ which raises chilling prospects and then chills from another, unexpected direction, and Miriam Jones’s winning essay ‘Care and cooperativism in early childhood‘, which argues that early childhood workers are ideally placed to take on the project of finding alternatives to capitalist ways of organising work.

As I write this, I’ve been reading news of Jacinda Woodhead’s departure as editor. I guess I have a couple more of her issues left to read. I’ll miss her.


Michelle Hamadache (guest editor), Southerly Vol 78 No 1 2018: Festschrift David Brooks

David Brooks has retired as editor of Southerly after two decades in the chair. In this issue, Southerly‘s community of writers and scholars celebrates his contribution, his work and his person.

The only festschrift I’d read before this was one I copy-edited decades ago. It honoured a distinguished psychology professor on his retirement and consisted of a number of learned papers about his contributions to his field. David Brooks, and Southerly itself, being concerned with literature, this festschrift isn’t that straightforward. Some pieces are very personal, even intimate, replete with private jokes and tales of shared meals; others, especially the poems, have no easily discernible connection to Brooks. Only by the contents page could I tell whether some pieces were part of the festschrift or belonged in the ‘Unthemed’ category, and in the end I decided it didn’t matter. What counts is that Brooks and the Southerly community can see the connection – the overarching effect of this issue is to demonstrate the existence of that community as warm, sometimes passionate, and far-reaching.

There are poems, short stories, and articles discussing Brooks’s writing that range from a sober overview from Judith Beveridge to ecstatically personal, which is as it should be. There is frequent reference to his veganism and advocacy for ‘non-human animals’, including the rescue sheep who share his life in the Blue Mountains. Two letters address him personally – from fellow-vegan poet John Kinsella and Greek scholar Vrasidas Karalis. Brooks himself speaks in a poem, a short story and a long interview with Andrew Burke.

It’s a good read over all, and full of excellence. I just want to single out three surprises.

In ‘Letter to David Brooks from a Certain Greek Friend’, Vrasidas Karalis seizes the moment to expound about Australian literary life, reaching a kind of climax of idiosyncrasy in this paragraph:

As a privileged outsider, I felt that the sacrificial act that established the new covenant of Australian poetry was the suicide of Adam Lindsay Gordon, renewed periodically by Francis Webb’s madness and Michael Dransfield’s drug-induced death. There is always something odd and tormented in Australian poetry, despite Les Murray’s efforts to make everything cosy, tamed and over-poetical.

(page 89)

Linking Lindsay Gordon, Webb and Dransfield as Christ-figures is pretty wild, though interesting, but I’m in total awe of a world-view that sees truculent Les Murray as trying to make everything cosy.

The second surprise is a piece of serendipity. I read the Southerly after quoting those lines from Allison Gallagher in the Overland. I was brought up short, then, when I read, also in Vrasidas Karalis’ wide-ranging letter:

I never understood why many writers are so tormented by the idea of home: there is one home only – our body (or on some rare occasions someone else’s body)

(pag 91)

Third surprise is the short poem that ends the journal: ‘Ballad’, eight previously unpublished lines by Bruce Beaver, which begin:

I'm off to Hullaboola, where the climate's never cooler
than a ringside seat in Hell, they're growing corn there
That pops the while it's growing, and the reason why I'm going
Is because I hate the name and wasn't born there.

This is listed as part of the festschrift but as Beaver (I’ve blogged about his poetry here) died in 2004 he can’t have written it with this publication in mind. On the one occasion when I met David Brooks he expressed great admiration of Beaver, so I guess that’s why these lines are here. It’s also somehow fitting that they are bouncily metrical and have lots of conventional rhyme, completely untypical of Bruce Beaver or of David Brooks, so after quite a lot of seriousness it’s a lovely bit of cheek to end on.

Proust Progress Report 1: Getting started

Marcel Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu (1913, text established under the direction of Jean-Yves Tadié ©1987–1992): Du côté de chez Swann, première partie, ‘Combray’

Someone on Christopher Lydon’s Open Source podcast recently was talking about À la recherche du temps perdu aka In Search of Lost Time or Remembrance of Things Past. It was one conversation too many: I decided I had to bite the bullet and read the bloody thing. (My late friend Will Owen almost pushed me over the line in 2014 by writing – here – about his experience with it over several decades. The pressure to read it has been building.)

So I bought a copy of the Gallimard quarto edition, all seven novels in one huge, heavy volume, small print and thin paper, 2401 pages, a bargain at just under $90. If I read 200 pages a month I could get through the whole thing in less than two years. So that’s what I decided to do. Rather than review the books as I finish them, I’ll aim to give a monthly update.

I read the opening words – Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure – about a month ago, and was immediately glad of my decision to read the books in French and not to labour over translation. It’s hard to pin down the meaning of that sentence, and I imagine even harder to reproduce that un-pin-down-ability in English. The commonest version – ‘For a long time I used to go to bed early’ – is clear enough, but the verb’s tense is all wrong: if Proust had meant ‘I used to go to bed’ he would have written ‘je me couchais’. But the more or less literal translation, ‘A long time ago I have gone to bed early’, sounds odd. Maybe it does in the original French, and maybe the translators know that if they write something odd in English the readers will grow suspicious of them … Anyhow, if I even notice such fine points as I read I’m not labouring over them. Nor am I looking up unfamiliar words – and mercifully my years of studying French forty years ago seem to have left me with a fairly adequate passive vocabulary. I do need to reread many of Proust’s famously convoluted sentences, and that, it turns out, is one of the pleasures – to sort out how the parts of what at first looks impossibly complex fit together as in a well-constructed machine.

So I’ve now read ‘Combray’, the first of three parts of the first of the seven novels, Du côté de chez Swann / Swann’s Way. I feel like leaving at that, not because it’s been hard going, but because these 150 or so pages turn out to have been, well, fabulous, and I don’t feel any need to continue. (I will, though.)

After 30 pages in which the narrator (so far we don’t have a name for him) remembers going to bed early as a child and suffering terrible anguish because his mother doesn’t come to give him a goodnight kiss despite a number of ploys to trick her into doing it, he is overwhelmed with memories of his childhood triggered by the smell of a shell-like biscuit dunked in herbal tea. The memories are centred on the summers he and his family spent with an invalid aunt in the village of Combray (A fictional village when he wrote about it, but the village of Illiers, believed to be its model, recently changed its name to Illiers-Combray), and are structured according to the two paths that lead from the aunt’s house to the village church.

That’s it.

And it’s fascinating. A friend told me she’d given up on reading Proust because he’s such a wanker; I said, ‘Yes, but in the original French he’s such an over-the-top wanker that it’s brilliant.’

At least twice I laughed out loud. The first was at a description of asparagus. For me, having to work for each word, there’s a wonderful process of struggling through a thicket of extravagant language describing the extraordinarily subtle colours and imagining the asparagus spears as delightful creatures who had metamorphosed into vegetables to come at the end of the sentence to a relatively plainspoken reference to how asparagus affects bodily functions: ‘changer mon pot de chambre en un vase de parfum‘ / ‘change my chamber pot into a perfumed vase’. (You can read a translation here, though it tones down the early extravagance and then misses the joke by continuing with the elevated language – ‘transforming’ for ‘changer’ and ‘bower of aromatic perfume’ for ‘vase fe parfum’ – until the very end.)

The other laugh-out-loud moment had a similar sense of coming out into the light after struggling through a thicket. The narrator remembers his fascination as a child with water plants swinging back and forth in a current. He likens them to people who wake up each morning resolved to change their lives but always revert to their established self-defeating habits. He ups the ante, invoking Dante’s fascination with the sufferings of the damned, saying that Dante would have liked to have gone on at greater length about those sufferings if Virgil, striding ahead, hadn’t made him catch up, comme moi mes parents / ‘As my parents did me’.

Both these are examples of how fabulously the writing works at a sentence level. I didn’t really worry that it seemed to be going nowhere. I dread to think what a film adaptation would look like. I guess it would have to play up the chaste lesbian frolic the boy accidentally eavesdrops on one evening, or his visit to a beloved uncle and innocently reporting back to his parents about the nice lady who seemed to be living with him, or the comedy about his antisemitic grandfather. But those elements aren’t central. In the last couple of pages of this section he brings it all together. What he has been showing us is a place, and the people in it, that are deeply embedded in his mind, even formed his mind (sans le savoir / ‘without knowing it’), so that he responds to people or places now because, whether he’s aware of it or not, they stir some yearning for that place. ‘The flowers that I am shown for the first time nowadays don’t seem real flowers to me.’

And suddenly it’s profoundly moving. His narrator talks about a future when the paths he describes will be overgrown and the people he saw there will have died, when all that will remain of them will be what he has remembered of what that child saw, and smelled, and thought. I find myself thinking how, of the billions of humans who have ever lived or are living now, every one of them has had their individual rich deep connection to the earth, awarely or otherwise. Few people could articulate it as fully as Proust, even if they wanted to, even if they had the time, but he’s bringing to the foreground something that’s inevitably there for everyone. And then I think about climate change and how, optimistically, we’ve got 12 years to make big changes if the earth, the air and the water are to keep sustaining us. Thank you for listening to my TED Talk.

Added later: I can’t believe I didn’t talk about all the very funny stuff about his family: his aunt who never leaves her room, and won’t let anyone visit her who tries to jolly her into going out, but likewise bans anyone who believes that she is very sick; the maid; M Swann, the neighbour who made an unfortunate match; Swann’s daughter Gilberte, whom the narrator glimpses just once as a vision of loveliness who gives him a vulgar signal, etc. I expect there will be more of that in the coming sections (though probably not of the aunt, whose death has come as a shock because I had come to believe that absolutely nothing was going to happen).

Ruby Reads (15) plus round-faced Bowie

One of the persistent joys of grandfatherhood is the chance to read aloud, and reread, some excellent books. This post continues my notes on this pleasure.

Matt Shanks (illustrator), Row Row Row Your Boat (Scholastic Australia 2016)

What a joy for Ruby to discover this book. It combines three of her major sources of delight: a kookaburra, a crocodile and the song ‘Row row row your boat’. The uncredited author has added verses to the song that introduce a koala, a platypus, a bandicoot and a kookaburra as well as the crocodile that was already there (‘If you see a crocodile don’t forget to scream’).

I don’t care terribly for the illustrations, but they do a great job with the target audience.

Pamela Allen, Alexander’s Outing (Viking 1992)

We bought this from the shop at Sydney’s Royal Botanic Gardens, which is the setting for its story of a family of ducks. A song that Ruby requests interminably is ‘Five little ducks went out one day’. The Emerging Artist, in this context known as Nana, does some wonderfully dramatic quacks in that song, and this is a book that offers great scope for more – plus there’s a silly story about a little creature lost and then recovered, thanks to kindness and cooperation. Pamela Allen is fabulous.

Bill Martin Jr and Eric Carle, Brown Bear Brown Bear What Did You See? (1967)

This was read to us at Rhyme Time at the library – a total classic that takes us through a range of colours, each attached to an animal. It’s fascinating to read this after I Went Walking (Julie Vivas and Sue Williams 1996), which follows its format closely but does something quite different with the images and has a child observing the animals and in the end having what my mother would have called a love-up with them.

Matt Cosgrove, Macca the Alpaca (Koala Books 2018)

Macca is a sweet, kind, cute creature who meets a big, tough, bullying llama named Harmer, a very different creature from llama-llama-red-pyjama llama who all the same claims the affection, or at least the fascinated attention of our young reader. The bully gets his come-uppance, the skills of the smaller, more agile creature are established, and there is an implausibly sweet reconciliation at the end. As with ‘Row Row Row Your Boat’, Ruby likes this a lot more than I do.

Isabel Sanchez Vegara, David Bowie (Little People, Big Dreams) (Lincoln Children’s Books 2019)

Not really a Ruby Read, this one. The EA and I recently spent an interesting evening with a five-year-old boy while his mother was out. We listened to ‘Old Town Road‘ at least ten times and then on the way to sleep I read to him – his choice – an encyclopaedia entry about volcanoes, and this book. It’s the story of David Bowie’s life as a fable about a boy who felt he didn’t belong becoming very successful and widely loved through, in part, embracing his difference. (Also, I didn’t know what happened to his eye.) The round-faced images are slightly jarring, but it’s a lovely framing of Bowie’s story.


Alexander’s Outing is the thirty-second book I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge. (Pamela Allen now lives in New Zealand, where she was born, but she lived and created books in Australia for many years. For a time she illustrated for that most Australian of institutions, the New South Wales Department of Education’s School Magazine.)

The 2019 Francis Webb Poetry Reading

For nine years now, Toby Davidson has been organising an annual celebration of Francis Webb’s poetry. Toby edited Webb’s Collected Poems (1911) – my blog post here. Though I’ve been enamoured of Webb’s poetry for 50 years now, this is the first time I’ve managed to attend the event (or the second, if the reading at the 1911 Sydney Writers’ Festival counts – my blog post here).

We met in a large room – the ‘Creator Room’ – at Chatswood Library, in the region where Webb spent his childhood. The library has inherited Webb’s collection of paintings – all or most of them bought with funds Webb received as a government grant, funds spent of art rather than, say, food – and his library of books. The paintings and some of his books were on display, along with other fascinating realia, including a photocopy of the handwritten draft of his final poem.

Toby Davidson was an unabashedly enthusiastic MC for an audience that was an interesting mixture of ancient fans (like me), current students (including some from Davidson’s classes) and satisfyingly motley others. The readers:

  • Robert Adamson, poet (blogged about by me here and here among other places): told us of his awe-struck meeting with Webb in Callan Park Psychiatric Hospital, and read three poems – ‘End of the Picnic’ (an imagining of the arrival of Cook’s ship in 1770 as a spiritual disaster), ‘Morgan’s Country’ and ‘Wild Honey’ (probably my favourite Webb poem, read in a way that had tears on my cheeks). A hard act to follow, but followed it was.
  • Michael Griffith (author of God’s Fool, his 1991 biography of Webb): quoted Shakespeare’s Sonnet 65 ‘How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea / Whose action is no stronger than a flower?’ as emblematic of key themes in Webb (and his own life), and read us two poems with props – the first part of ‘In Memoriam Antony Sandys, 1806–1883’ with the painting that the poem describes on an easel beside him; and ‘On first Hearing a Cuckoo’ preceded by part of Delius’ ‘On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring’.
  • Judith Crispin, poet and photographer, whose work, according to her web site, ‘includes themes of displacement and identity loss, a reflection of [her] own lost Aboriginal ancestry’: read the dingo’s second speech from ‘The Ghost of the Cock’, and commentred on the extraordinary way it embodied what webb could not have known, the polarity of moon and dingo in an Arnhem Land foundation story; and two other poems, ‘Episode’ and ‘Toward the Land of the Composer’.
  • Gareth Jenkins, poet, spoke among other things of the sonic, rhythmic quality of Webb’s work, his mastery of long lines, and read, beautifully, ‘The Yellowhammer’.
  • Richard Miller, self-described as a long-time Webb fan and former musician in, I think, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, in a complete change of mood, delivered a brilliantly theatrical, over the top rendition of ‘Introduction in a Waxworks’ from ‘Leichhardt Pantomime’.
  • Two school students whose names I didn’t catch, one from each of the nearby schools that Webb attended: one read the eminently accessible ‘Australian Night’, which Toby Davidson told us Webb wrote between ages of 7 and 10; the other read ‘Compliments of the Audience’, a sardonic take on a poetry reading, thereby concluding the reading part os the afternoon.

Before we broke for an afternoon snack, we were treated to Oliver Miller’s short film Electric, based on Webb’s radio play of the same name about the first use of ECG on a human subject.

I had a great time. Some of the poems I could just about mouth the words as they were read. Others came from the bits of the work that I have pretty much skimmed. Every reader showed some new aspect of the poetry – and of themselves. Michael Griffiths told us that he had been discouraged from writing his PhD thesis on Webb because, the then Professor of Australian Literature at Sydney University said, ‘He’s mad’. And he’s been dismissed by more than one cultural arbiter. But it was a joy to be in a room full of people who are touched, challenged and invigorated by his poetry.

Edna O’Brien’s Little Red Chairs

Edna O’Brien, The Little Red Chairs (Faber & Faber 2015)

This book’s title, supplemented by a note explaining it before the title page, warns us what to expect. In 2012, the note says, an installation of 11,541 red chairs was set up in Sarajevo to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the start of the siege of that city by Bosnian Serb forces: one empty chair for every Sarajevan killed during the siege, and of them 643 little red chairs to represent children. Somehow, we are being warned, the horrors of that siege will feature in what we are about to read.

Yet the novel starts out in a tiny community in the west of Ireland that could almost be Ballykissangel revisited – or an Irish version of Doc Martin‘s Port Wenn or Hamish Macbeth’s Lochdubh, with a pub, a policeman, a nun, a refurbished castle. A tall stranger in a long dark coat comes to town, bringing with him a whiff of the exotic, some intrigue, some sexiness. He’s a practitioner of alternative medicines. All set for a cosy comedy except, even if you’re smart enough to have avoided the terrible spoiler on the back cover, you’ve been warned.

The stranger gives a new lease of life to Sister Bonaventure, and his healing hands and herbs do wonders for many of the villagers, especially the women. Fidelma O’Brien, whose older husband can’t give her children, and whose shop selling imported finery has gone bust because a new expressway has meant most of her customers can go to the nearest city, decides she wants to get pregnant by him.

Not unexpectedly, things go terribly wrong. Then, at about the midpoint of the book, when Fidelma is pregnant, the stranger’s past has caught up with him, and the reader is wondering where on earth the story can go now, there is a moment of extreme sexual violence which I for one didn’t see coming even one paragraph before it happened, followed by a deeply distressing, and equally unexpected by me, moment of moral violence. Suddenly, it is a completely different kind of book. It becomes, in effect, Edna O’Brien’s equivalent of a red chairs installation.

The novel moves away from the tiny village, to return only briefly towards the end, and its narrative through line almost disappears in a harrowing series of tales of abuse, dislocation, and refuge. It’s as if the small story of the first half was split open and the whole suffering world was allowed to flow in through the cracks. Edna O’brien is a masterful writer, and she takes the reader with her to some very dark places, to reach a resolution that is a long way from restoring the comfort of the beginning.

joanne burns, apparently

joanne burns, apparently (Giramondo 2019)

apparently is the sixteenth book of poetry by joanne burns (who prefers her name and work to be written without capitalisation). It’s in four sections: ‘planchettes’, ‘apparently’. ‘dial’ and ‘the random couch’. I enjoyed all four very different parts, perhaps especially ‘dial’, which plays merrily and nastily with contemporary social and political language. But in this blog post I want to say a bit about ‘planchettes’ – partly because I think of my regular readers as wary of contemporary poetry, and my ruminations may cast some light on parts of that forbidding terrain.

People who are perplexed by contemporary poetry sometimes complain that they don’t like poems that are like cryptic crosswords. ‘planchettes’ might have been written in response to that complaint. According to a helpful note on the book’s back cover, the section’s ten poems ‘spring-board from the clues and solutions to crossword puzzles’. I’m not exactly an expert on contemporary poetry (sometimes I approach it with the fearful fascination of a toddler offering a long-stemmed leaf to a beautiful but sharp-pecking rooster). However, I’m a cryptic crossword aficionado, and that helped me to enjoy these poems. I’ll try to communicate something of the underpinning of that joy in three parts.

First: about cryptic crosswords. A recent Guardian cryptic crossword included this clue: ‘Person catching extremists in Ferrari with tank. (9)’ (See it in context here.) The successful solver pays scant attention to its literal meaning, and instead deconstructs it, after any number of false starts, as follows: F and I are the extremes of ‘Ferrari’; sherman is a kind of tank; put F+I with Sherman and you have a 9-letter word meaning ‘person catching’ FIsherman. Perform similar processes 20 or 30 times and the grid is filled. Only subliminally does one notice the often surreal or absurd images or micro-fictions conjured up by a clue’s surface. In this case: Who are the extremists, and why a Ferrari? who is the person in the tank, and is a weirdly asymmetrical chase scene implied, with an unlikely outcome? Is it a case of wealthy terrorists versus the power of the state? and so on. A solver may only notice the surfaces subliminally, but they are what make some crosswords richly pleasurable, while others offer only the dubious pleasure of pitting one’s wits against the setter (DA of the Sydney Morning Herald, I’m looking at you).

Second: about some poems. There’s a whole kind of poem – academics may have a word for it – that takes language from a particular, perhaps technical context, and puts it on display stripped of context. I was once at a poetry reading where someone read, at length and apparently without any alteration, an editor–proofreader’s marginal comments on a draft engineering manual. As an editor, I was bored by that experience, but I understood (or thought I did) that the poem was a verbal equivalent of a piece of readymade art – as in the urinal displayed as Fountain by Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven (and claimed by Marcel Duchamp, but that’s another story). That’s not exactly what joanne burns is doing in ‘plaanchettes’ (and has done in the past with language from the world of finance), though it’s related. She hasn’t just typed out string of crossword clues. As I understand it, she uses the clues and answers as a kind of restraint. Which brings me to my third part.

Third: restraint. This is a useful concept when talking about poetry in general. (Remember, I’m not an academic, and this is mainly stuff I’ve figured out myself or picked up along the way, and I could be wide of the mark.) Rhyme and metre are familiar forms of restraint: if you want to make up a limerick about Scott Morrison you have to find words that rhyme with one or other part of his name, or maybe his self-chosen nickname, and then see what you can do with them.* Limiting a poem to language found in crossword clues is a more drastic restraint than rhyme or metric form, but the underling principle is the same. Closer to these poems is the cento, where every line of your poem must come from another poem; or erasure, created by erasing most of a text, the poem being what’s left. In these forms, perhaps in all poetry, the result can be as surprising to the poet as to the reader. If you know exactly what you want to say at the start, better write the dullest kind of prose.

Now on to ‘planchettes’. A planchette, as you probably know and I had to look up, is that little piece of wood on wheels used in séances to spell out messages from who knows where – the spirit world or the jumble and chaos of the combined unconscious minds of the people wielding the wood. I don’t know anything about joanne burns’s process, but the title suggests that the crossword clues and answers are like the letters on a ouija board, and the poet’s mind moves over them, randomly at first and then with closer focus until something emerges that’s coherent, or somehow resolved. The weirdness of crossword clues remains, but not their solvability. Here’s an example, ‘Calypsonic’ from page 5:

do you feel like a
tangible sailor your
hair chocka with
permanent waves, or
an insect posing as
a water nymph in
search of a new nickname –

nothing beats finding a location
with the best overall view the day
before you are born     a twelve
month commitment is sought
for this role    you must have a
capacity to yearn –

I suppose one could scour the world of crosswords looking for the clues and answers that this poem has mined (starting, I imagine with calypsonic as an answer), but to what end? The words on the page are what we have. If you imagine them as having emerged from something like a spiritualist’s trance, not asking them to speak directly, but allowing meanings to swim before our eyes, you have to swim with them for a while and let something emerge – as I imagine they emerged for the poet.

‘Calypsonic’ isn’t in the dictionaries I have easy access to, but I read it as a variant of ‘calypsonian’, meaning ‘to do with the nymph Calypso’. At the start of the Odyssey, Odysseus has been a prisoner in Calypso’s cave for seven years. She offers him immortality if he will stay with her, but he wants to be on the move, to return to his wife, Penelope, and so the story begins.

The first seven lines ask ‘you’ if you ‘feel like’ an Odysseus or a Calypso – choose your archetype. A lot of wordplay swirls around that central question, perhaps clinging to it like detritus from the source material, but also complicating it – the ‘permanent waves’ pun suggests that the sailor’s voyaging will never end, at the same time as evoking the landlocked world of a presumed reader, who may very well have visited a hairdresser; Calypso is a nymph, but nymph also signifies a stage in an insect’s life cycle.

In the Calypso–Odysseus scene, she is at home and he wants to move on. Here, though, the word ‘permanent’ is attached to the Odysseus side of the equation, and ‘chocka’ also suggests fulness. Even ‘tangible’ suggests solidity. Here the sailor is paradoxical an archetype of stability. It’s the Calypso figure who is unstable – the nymph is an immature insect, still growing, and it’s casting about for a new identity (‘in / search of a new nickname’).

In the second part, the struggle between a settled existence and restlessness comes to the fore. The reference to the view reminds me that this is a Sydney poem, at the same time keeping the ancient story in mind. (I probably picked this poem to blog about because I recently visited what is reputed to be Calypso’s cave on the island of Gozo. It has a brilliant view of the Mediterranean.) But no sooner is the location found than ‘before you were born’ suggests that major change is about to happen. Then there’s ‘a twelve / month commitment’ versus ‘a / capacity to yearn’. And the final punctuation, not a full stop but a dash, leaves the whole thing up in the air, undecided.

The question arises: who is ‘you’ in this poem? It could be the poet as well as any reader who steps into the frame. After all, the person wielding the planchette is receiving a message rather than creating it.

Reading the poem – and any of these poems – isn’t a labour of explication as those paragraphs might suggest. Some of joanne burns poems remain partly or completely opaque to me, which I guess is inevitable with poems that involve so much compression and indirection, but others, like this one, hit a spark. I can’t account for it, but quite apart from everything else I’ve said about it, it made me laugh.

apparently is the 31st book I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge. I gratefully acknowledge that I received a complimentary copy from Giramondo Publishing.


* Having raise the possibility, I had to have a go:
Our smiling prime minister Morrison
let cameras film him at orison.
His 'How good's Australia'
snatched victory from failure
and now we're the ones he piles horrors on.

Roger Hallam, The Time is Now

Here’s a wonderful video, Roger Hallam, co-founder of Britain’s Extinction Rebellion talks to a hall full of people in Penzance:

The Book Group disagrees about Julia Phillips’s Disappearing Earth

Julia Phillips, Disappearing Earth (Scribner 2019)

Before the meeting: This month’s Book Selector happened to be at a dinner party with Kate Evans of the ABC’s Bookshelf when he was casting about for a book for us to read. She recommended Disappearing Earth, and I’m grateful, both to our name-dropping Book Selector and to Kate Evans. I loved the book.

The book is set in Kamchatka, a peninsula in the far east of Russia, that juts down into the Pacific Ocean north-east of Japan. The author’s acknowledgements mention that she visited Kamchatka twice while researching and writing the book. I would have been astonished to learn otherwise, because the locality is beautifully realised, from the southern city of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky with its majority ethnic-Russian population to the tiny villages in the north and their Indigenous peoples.

The story is told in thirteen chapters, one for each month of the year from August to July, with a short one in the middle for New Year’s. In August two little girls are abducted from the seaside of the city. We follow them until we know that they are being taken north, and then, with the end of the chapter, we lose sight of them. In the following chapters, the abduction is mentioned, sometimes as a barely remembered newspaper story, always as an unsolved mystery that creates unease, especially in women and the parents of young children. There is no way off the peninsula except by sea, and in spite of the evidence of a woman who witnessed the abduction (who has a chapter of her own), the investigating police pretty much decide that the girls drowned and the case is closed. What the reader knows, and most of the civilian characters fear, that the girls have been abducted and have probably been murdered, hangs over the many fragments of narrative like stormclouds.

As the book progresses, each chapter focuses on a new situation, so that it’s not even clear if there is a through narrative line. Perhaps we are reading a loosely linked collection of short stories, forming a over-arching portrait of a place, its seasonal changes, the tensions between Russians and ethnic minorities (another girl, a teenager from an Indigenous family in the north, disappeared some time earlier and the authorities and press have paid very little attention, as compared to the fuss over these two Russian girls). There’s also a kaleidoscope of women’s relationships, beginning with the two little girls at the start – the older one resents having to look after her little sister, but when trouble strikes she is completely committed to protecting her – and going on to motherhood/daughterhood, childhood friendships, widowhood and a range of unrealised sexual desire. At the two-thirds point I realised I didn’t know what kind of book I was reading: a mystery to be solved, a portrait of a community, or a collection of short stories about women’s lives.

This is not a complaint. I still wanted the mystery to be solved, but if that was not to be I was prepared to accept it in the name of realism. I knew who had done the abducting by about the three-quarter mark, but didn’t know if the characters would ever find out. Even at the climactic moment when the two mothers – the distraught Russian journalist and the bitterly resigned woman who runs an Indigenous cultural centre – meet in the north during a traditional festival to bring back the summer, I still didn’t know, and solving the mystery seemed almost beside the point. At the same time, the suspense was huge.

Usually, the emails organising food etc for the group include some rumblings about the book. Not this time. The most we got was an apology from our host for not having a sauna we could meet in – thus proving that he had read at least as far as New Year’s Eve.

After the meeting: Well, not everyone was as keen on the book as I was. Given that much of the joy in it for me was not knowing what kind of book it was or how it was going to be resolved, there’s some difficulty in describing our differences. But here goes:

  • I thought the ending was completely unambiguous. At least one chap had a diametrically opposite reading from mine: one reading is filled with horror, the other of sweetness and light.
  • One man said he felt it as a book written by a young woman for young women readers. He read it all the way through but came away feeling there was nothing in it for him. (See my comments above about women’s relationships.)
  • Another who reads most books twice because of an occupational hazard – as a former Second Director for television, he compulsively reads the first time with an eye out for locations; he has to read a second time to get the story and characters – couldn’t be bothered reading this one a second time. Contrary to the cover blurb from Publishers Weekly which speaks of masterful landscape descriptions, he could never tell where he was. While I agree that the blurb is weirdly wrong – there’s hardly any description as such – I love the sense of place. Paradoxically, at least two of us felt compelled to go back and reread some sections.
  • One man enjoyed the mosaic of relationships and then was disappointed when elements of what he saw as formulaic genre fiction came to the fore; another wanted it to be a policier and found the mosaic of relationships irritatingly beside the point.

We had barely laid out our range of initial responses when someone, perhaps bored with talking about books in general or just this one, asked, ‘What do we all think about Andrew Hastie’s intervention then?’, and we were embroiled in an animated conversation about China, Australia’s foreign policy, the politics of transgender, the vast unexplored terrain of what it means to be a man, and on to solve the problems of the world like twenty-somethings. Some grandfather talk was had, a house sale was announced, travel plans were tabled, the dressing on a removed melanoma was displayed, an excellent cauliflower and potato soup with fresh grated truffle was demolished.