A fortnight in verse 4

The first stanza is a true travel story. The second just went where it wanted to go.

A fortnight away (part four)
We found it still warm from its owner’s bum
in Monkey Forest Road, a wallet–phone
with cards ID and cash. Good luck! His name
was not John Smith. We tracked him down
on Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram,
mailed his office, messaged, left no stone
unturned. He tweeted back. The lost was found.
We met – old friends, it felt – he bought a round.

What do tourists really want? Why would you
leave your land, your home, your friends, your kin?
For taksi, transport, massage, drink or food? You
must want more. The waft against your skin
of other gods? Ganesha’s charm has wooed you?
Some ads say ‘paradise’; some hint at sin.
Could you be here for Violet DNA,
the cure for everything? Or eat, love, pray?

Jennifer Maiden’s Complicity

Jennifer Maiden, Play With Knives: Two: Complicity (Quemar Press 2016)

complicity

This is a sequel to Jennifer Maiden’s Play With Knives (Allen & Unwin 1990), taking up the action maybe ten years later. The manuscript has been circulating  for decades, and excerpts and commentary have appeared in literary journals, but it seemed destined to remain unpublished. Then Quemar Press made a PDF available as a free download last year.

The main characters of the Play With Knives novels (there are two more after Complicity) are George Jeffreys and Clare Collins, who have featured powerfully in at least fifteen of Maiden’s poems in her last half dozen books. The first novel begins with George, the narrator, as a probation officer assigned to Clare’s case, having to decide whether to recommend her release from prison, where she has served time for murdering her siblings when she was a young girl. There’s a plot involving a serial killer in western Sydney, but the heart of the novel is in their developing intimacy, and their almost obsessive questioning of what it means for both of them to live in the long shadow of Clare’s act.

In Complicity they have both moved on. George begins the novel working for an NGO (Prisoners of Conscience) monitoring dubious legal proceedings in third world countries; Clare is living with a journalist and runs a small business. George returns to western Sydney and their mutual probing recommences, along with a couple of lovingly detailed sexual encounters. As before, there are thriller elements: people are dying from poisoned benzodiazapines, and someone assaults Clare a number of times with escalating violence. As before, these elements are secondary to the ebbs and flows of relationships, and to George-as-narrator’s ruminations. The characters return again and again to  Clare’s childhood crime and to the climax of the first novel, analysing their meanings and their emotional impacts – much as real people might, rather than like characters in a TV thriller.

Lynda La Plante this isn’t. (I love at least some of Lynda La Plante’s TV shows, but one novel was enough.)

In six books over more than a decade now, Maiden’s George and Clare have been materialising in political hotspots all over the world, encountering characters ranging from Somali pirates to resurrected ancient Chinese nobility, with George W Bush and more recently Donald Trump somewhere in between. In those poems, George and Clare have their own adventures, but they are mainly interesting as lenses through which Jennifer Maiden can look at the wide world. In this book, though George Bush Senior’s Gulf War is a significant backdrop, George and Clare’s relationship is the focus. But we come to understand, perhaps even more than in the first novel, what it is about them that makes them such a useful lens. We see them grappling intensely and honestly with Maiden’s version of ‘the problem of evil’: how people who are not monsters can perpetrate atrocities, and how to live honestly with that reality.

aww2017.jpgComplicity is the seventh book I’ve read for the 2017 Australian Women Writers Challenge. I obtained it, as you can, as a free download from Quemar Press.

A fortnight in verse 3

It’s raining, so I get to add to my holiday verses. Part of the second stanza paraphrases a quote recalled from Michelle De Kretser’s The Hamilton Case:

The coloniser returns as a tourist, you see. And he is mad for difference. That is the luxury commodity we now supply, as we once kept him in cinnamon and sapphires.

The first stanza is the only example I witnessed of a tourist behaving really badly. Here goes:

A fortnight away (part three)
‘I’m not paying,’ he said, ‘for my beef
rendang. It came lukewarm. I took it out
and asked the cook to heat it up. Good grief!
“Cook it yourself,” he said. I didn’t shout,
but I was firm: “No, you. I’m not the chef!”
I think he might have pissed in it, the lout.
I didn’t eat it. He was rude to me.
So I won’t pay.’ Three-fifty AUD.

As colonisers first we came for spice
and now we’re back as tourists keen to see
your difference commodified. So nice
the offerings, incense, ‘selamat pagi‘,
the off-leash dogs, the terraced fields of rice
(your photogenic toil), your artistry
in wood and stone and ink and cloth and food.
We bring our cash. Forgive us when we’re rude.

A fortnight in verse 2

Still in Bali, nowhere near meeting the goal of a stanza a day, but here’s a second instalment.

A fortnight away (part two)
On Saturday to Gunung Sari Legong:
a temple dance, dances of courtship, war,
a gender-fluid Kebyar Terompong,
the gamelan that carries us like straw
on water; last, spectacular Barong
and whirling Rangda red in tooth and claw.
Speaking fingers, doll-like lips and eyes,
all human, but in otherworldly guise.

In Ubud, signs say ‘Uber dilarang’,
‘Monkey Crossing Take Care of Your Stuff’
‘Italian Resto – Pizza, Nasi Goreng’
‘Coffee! Beer! Too much is not enough!’
‘Tourists’ top choice farma’. Yin to yang:
sweet trampled offerings. But the culture’s tough.
Small boys with kite on Monkey Forest Road.
Ganesha’s tusk is snapped. He’s still a god.

Southerly 76/3

Laetitia Nanquette and Ali Alizadeh (guest editors), Southerly Vol 76 No 3 2016: Persian Passages

southerlypersianAs soon as I finished reading this issue of  Southerly I bought a second copy as a gift for a young Iranian friend who has recently got his permanent residency in Australia. I’ve yet to hear how he fared with the complex language, but I hope the dialogue between Australian and Persian cultures in these pages gives him at least some of the joy it has given me.

The title of the first item (if you don’t count the editorial – I’m sorry, I have an aversion to editorials and haven’t read this one) could be a subtitle for the whole journal: ‘This Is Not a Conversation about Asylum Seekers’. Adele Dumont and Mehdi Habibi met when he attended a writing class she taught in a detention centre for people seeking asylum. True to its title, the article is a dialogue about his writing (and we get to read his ‘Odd Sock’ later in the journal). The rest of the journal likewise focuses, not on the Iran of the Ayatollahs, producer of refugees  and Manus or Nauru detainees, stuff of Donald Trump’s rhetoric, but on the rich Persian literary culture and the long and various history of Persians in Australia (whether from Iran, Afghanistan or other places covered by that term)

Zarlasht Sarwari’s ‘Afghan Australian Identities’,  Sanaz Fotouhi’s ‘Writing the Present: Unpacking the Suitcase of the Past’ and Kim Lateef’s ‘Where Are You From?’ each tell stories of diaspora and exile without conforming to the well established forms of such stories. The reader gets to hear these stories fresh and personal.

For me, the heart of the journal is a sustained, complex conversation about the ghazal and the great fourteenth-century poet Hafiz, master of that form (also spelled Hafez and Häfez in this issue – Southerly doesn’t impose narrowly consistent spelling or punctuation).

Paul Smith has been a key translator of Hafiz’s ghazals for decades. In ‘A Life with Hafiz’ he gives some insight into the devotion he has brought to the work. He lays out the formal requirements of the ghazal: a series of couplets, in which the second line end with the same rhyme word throughout the poem; and the poet’s name appears in the final couplet. His article incorporates several of his translations. Given the way poets writing ghazals in English have departed in many ways from these requirements, in ways that are discussed approvingly later in this journal, I was grateful to have them spelled out  so clearly.

Setayesh Nooraninejad’s ‘Poetic Bridges – Spanning Literary Traditions, Politics and Cultures’, an interview with Zahra Taheri (Convenor of the Persian Studies Program at the ANU), again refers to Hafez (her spelling) as a great overarching genius of Persian culture.

What brought the conversation home for me was Darius Sepehri’s ‘Judith Wright’s The Shadow of Fire: Making the Ghazal Appropriate in Australia’. The Shadow of Fire is Judith Wright’s last book , and it consists of ghazals. Sepehri argues that Wright had been reading Häfez (sic) seriously for decades (her short poem ‘To Hafiz of Shiraz’ dates from 1960), and that his ecstatic songs were crucial to the direction taken by her poetry towards the end of her life. Though Wright’s ghazals don’t rhyme, and don’t deal in great metaphysical abstractions in the manner of Häfez, Sepehri makes a subtle, and to me beautifully compelling, argument that they are successful adaptations of the form to the Australian environment, both physical and cultural, in a way that is analogous to the way people in modern Iran will quote lines from Häfez in different contexts so that they take on new meanings.

0207181357The article bristles with insights into Judith Wright’s and Häfez’s poetry and into the place of Häfez in Persian culture. It sent me off to Judith Wright’s 1996 Collected Poems to read her work from 1974 (which is when the Collected Poems I own was published). In the last decades of her life, as she focused on activism on Aboriginal issues and the environment, her poetry generally became grimly pessimistic, at times seeming to indicate that she had lost faith in the idea of poetry itself. Towards the end, she writes that she has indeed lost faith in rhyme, and now would focus on haiku, almost letting things speak for themselves. But there are no haiku in the Collected. Instead, at the end, there is this handful of exultant, wonderful ghazals. I can imagine no better introduction to them than Sepehri’s article.

There’s plenty more, not all of it on theme:

  •  a number of memorable short stories including Carmel Bird’s ‘The Dead Aviatrix and the Stratemeyer Syndicate’, a possibly autobiographical tale of confused identities, and Claudine Jacques’ ‘Life Sentence’ translated by Patricia Worth, about leprosy in New Caledonia.
  • excellent poems, including eight by contemporary Iranian poet Yadollah Royaee, translated by the journal’s editors
  • reviews – by Evelyn Araluen Corr of Liz Conor’s Skin Deep: Settler Impressions of Aboriginal Women and Simeon Kronenberg of Omar Sakr’s These Wild Houses. 

This Southerly is nominally the third issue for 2016. It would be churlish to complain that it arrived six months late – literary journals aren’t buses, after all, and they take readers to destinations that transcend schedules.

A fortnight in verse 1

We’re in Bali for a couple of weeks. Rather than write home about it in prose, I’m taking the opportunity to practice rhyming. Here’s a first instalment.

A fortnight away
We booked our trip online (oh please, no blame –
I know the globe is warming, but our gnarly
joints have given gip since winter came
so we bought pain relief: two weeks in Bali).
We hit a snag. When I’d typed in my name
it wasn’t what my passport said. Bizarrely,
it cost two hundred dollars to set right.
But phew! We got it changed, and made the flight.

A pair who honeymooned there thirty years
ago, said, ‘Stay away from tourists. That’s
what spoils it now.’ A woman close to tears
saves wildlife: monkeys, an iguana, cats
and dogs. The water’s free, they charge for beers
and food (it’s Virgin). Nearby inflight  chats
are few – devices rule. In Denpasar
an hour in imigrasi, two by car

to Puri Suksma, Ubud. Every Wayan,
every Made, Nyoman, Ketut is
on the road, and this greenhorn Austrayan
has knuckles turning white as endless scooters
brush past on every side. I’m only sayin’
it looks and sounds like chaos, but a toot is
just to say, ‘I’m here.’ No rage, no lanes
keep order, just calm interactive brains.

To be continued

Shevaun Cooley’s Homing

Shevaun Cooley, Homing (Giramondo 2017)

homing.jpg‘Shevaun Cooley,’ says the back cover blurb of Homing, ‘was born and raised in the south-west of Western Australia, but has been drawn ceaselessly to the landscapes of North Wales.’ The two main sections of the book have titles made up of geographic coordinates: 34º24’13.6″S 115º11’43.9″E and 52º45’34.4″N 4º47’11.6″W, with three unlocalised ghazals in between. A quick web search confirms that the two locations are at the south west corner of Western Australia and in North Wales respectively. The poems themselves have a strong sense of place. In particular, there are a number of lovingly observed mountains and mountain-climbing experiences.

My favourite line (from ‘word only becomes at last the word’ in the first section):

The mountain is a cresting wave distracted from its motion.

A number of the poems sent me looking at maps and other reference books. Of these, the one that I found most rewarding was ‘I was no tree walking’, both because it sent me off to discover David Nash’s extraordinary piece of art, Wooden Boulder (do click on the link) and because when I came back to the poem it was much richer than when read in ignorance.

There’s a lot to enjoy here. The ghazals served as an excellent appetiser for the multifaceted discussion of that Persian form in the current Southerly (about which I intend to post soon). Birds and animals flit charmingly through the poems, especially the ones in Welsh settings. Perhaps because, all going well, I’m to become a grandfather at the year’s end, the single that I warmed to most is this:

like an old tree lightened of the snow’s weight

Think of the tree,
who, quiet, might

wait for the starlings
or the last of the red

squirrels, for something
to remind it of how to bear.

Who might not
mind, as much as we

believe, the borers
and scrapings,

the lover’s knife, or
a woodpecker,

the weight of snow
on its leaf-empty branches.

As children we’d
take lightly

the stairs to a
grandfather

we thought asleep
and wake him with

a brass bell, while he hid
fully clothed beneath

the quilt, and carried
laughing the weight

of our small bodies
piled over his.

A note up the back informs us that all the poems take their titles from lines by the Welsh poet R S Thomas. This mild piece of intertextuality was a distraction for this reader, but your mileage may vary – the poems generally hold their own in spite of it.

aww2017.jpg

Homing is the sixth book I’ve read for the 2017 Australian Women Writers Challenge. It’s Shevaun Cooley’s first book, and I am grateful to Giramondo for my copy.

Vincent and Neale’s Unstable Relations

Eve Vincent and Timothy Neale (editors), Unstable Relations: Indigenous People and Environmentalism in Contemporary Australia (UWAP Scholarly 2016)

unstable.jpg

‘Be led!’

Murrawah Johnson, a Wirdi woman, was speaking last November to a mainly non-Indigenous audience in Sydney about the Wangan and Jagalingou Traditional Owners Council’s campaign against the proposed Adani coal mine. ‘You have to learn how to be led by Indigenous people,’ she said, not hiding her frustration at the colonialist attitudes of some (many? most?) conservationists.

In some ways this rich, accessible and multi-layered collection of essays is a response to such expressions of frustration, including widely broadcast ones such as Noel Pearson’s criticism of conservationists during the Wild Rivers Act controversy in Queensland between 2005 and 2014, or Marcia Langton’s 2012 Boyer Lectures, in which she accused the white conservation movement of having for 40 years made deals with state governments ‘to deny Aboriginal people their rights as landowners and citizens of Australia’. The writers, being academics, don’t stoop to reminding us that Langton’s research for those lectures was funded largely by mining companies: they meet evidence with evidence, argument with argument. I find it hard to convey the intense pleasure of reading this kind of sustained, thoughtful, evidence-based writing in the Twitter–Trump Abbott-slogan era.

Not so long ago, the general assumption among white Australians was that there was, in the words of Neale and Vincent’s introductory chapter, ‘an essential affinity between Indigenous interests in and relations to land and water, on the one hand, and environmental objectives on the other’. That has changed. The underlying assumption in this book, however, is not that there is an essential antagonism but that relations between environmentalists and Indigenous people in Australia have ‘long been “unstable”‘, and take on ever more diverse forms. The book seeks ‘to learn more about the current status of environmental–Indigenous relations through the use of specific, empirically grounded case studies’.

Contributors include activists, historians, geographers, anthropologists and one or two people who aren’t easily classified. Though there are plenty of notes and bibliographies, the book is very readable, the kind of academic writing that addresses a readership outside the academy. Though as far as I can tell all but one of the writers are non-Indigenous, or ‘settler-Australian’, many Aboriginal voices are quoted, and most of the writers are explicit in their commitment to the ‘green–black alliance’.

The book embraces complexity. It kicks off with a look behind the headlines of Queensland’s Wild Rivers Act controversy of 2005–2014 by Timothy Neale, and then a fascinating exploration by Jon Altman of the complexities of Kuninjku people’s responses to the huge and environmentally damaging growth in buffalo populations in their part of Arnhem Land.

Richard J Martin and David Trigger travel to the Pungalina on the Gulf of Carpentaria, and describe the kinds of intercultural negotiations that are needed there between Garawa people, cattle station owners, the tourism industry, government agencies and the Australian Wildlife Conservancy (an organisation that has established a wildlife ‘sanctuary’ there).

Jessica Weir tells the story of the Murray Lower Darling Rivers Indigenous Nations’ (MLDRIN) success in bringing an Indigenous perspective to struggles around water in the Murray–Darling system.

Robert Leviticus discusses ‘wilderness’, a problematic term that is too often understood as erasing Indigenous people. He goes on to discuss the views of David Lindner, ‘a practical conservationist who has never been a member of any organisation, but who has worked on the wetlands of the South Alligator River in Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territory since 1972, and lived near or next to them since 1979, shortly after they were included in the newly declared first stage of Kakadu’, a kind of Crocodile Dundee but with less bullshit, and a better articulated respect for Yolngu relationship to the land.

Eve Vincent turns her ethnographic eye on the ‘greenies’ who follow the lead of a Kokatha woman whom she calls Aunty Joan, and manages to be both very funny (often enough at her own expense, as one of the group she is describing) and enlightening about crosscultural issues.

Stephen Muecke discusses Indigenous-Green knowledge collaborations at the James Price Point Dispute 2008–2012. The earlier settler  colonialism, he argues, has been superseded by extraction colonialism, which is even more disengaged  from the region. He quotes Nyikina leader Anne Poelina as saying that ‘we are all being colonised: it is not a black or white question any longer’.

Michaela Spencer looks at two cases of Indigenous people and environmentalists trying to work collaboratively within a neoliberal framework.

In the next three essays, activists speak.

Monica Morgan, Yorta Yorta activist, talks about the campaign to have national parks declared in the Barmah and Millewa river red gum forests  on the Victoria–New South Wales border, in which she was a key leader. She articulates a key challenge in alliances between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people on conservation issues:

One of the things we learnt was that it doesn’t matter how much – and I don’t want to be confronting to you – but however much non-Indigenous people say they are committed, in the long run they are committed to their society. I think it’s ingrained within the education: it’s ingrained with their thought patterns that they concede and they’ll work within a status quo. And I think our rights are seen in that way as well. […]

Always our people were forever saying, ‘ Well we don’t recognise your system but we acknowledge it’s there.’ we tried to push the boundaries and lay down, ‘This is who we are and this is what we think, based on our traditional knowledge.’

Whether in the end you are going to agree with it or not, it’s entirely up to you. And of course they never did.

Dave Sweeney, the Australian Conservation Foundation’s nuclear-free campaigner, and Anthony Esposito, who has worked on many environmental organisations and traditional owner organisations, both describe decades of struggle to rise to that challenge in their activism. Sweeney finds ‘profound and convincing sense’ in something  Bruce Pascoe wrote in his book Convincing Ground:

The blacks didn’t die, and the whites aren’t going away.

Tony Birch, novelist, has the final word in the book, arguing that ‘new conversations, framed through humility, are required to shake Western discourses from a sense of arrogance and apathy’. I’ll give the final word in this blog post to Dave Sweeney:

We’re the beneficiaries of crime. SO that brings with it the responsibility to actively address that. It also brings with it the requirement to suck up stuff even when it’s unfair, because there’s a bigger picture. At the same time, I don’t reckon it does an individual or a nation or a movement any good to just say ‘sorry’ all the time. Those environmental activists, those who are locking on at Jabiluka, those who are doing stuff to try and actively make a difference, did not poison waterholes. hey are the inheritors, they are the beneficiaries, but they didn’t do that stuff. And they are actively, in their life, trying to undo that stuff.

Environmental activists shouldn’t make the mistake of getting burnt, saying sorry, or, the opposite, saying ‘get lost, that’s unfair’ and withdrawing. And on the other side, Aboriginal people are generally are amazingly generous of spirit and continue to slap us around a little bit, continue to jerk the chain, remind us of the power imbalance. But don’t have it set in concrete that you cannot ever be other than a colonial thief. Otherwise we’re in a frozen, no-good zone.

 

Topical verse

As I’ve been tidying up my old and inaccessible blog, I’ve been reminded that I used to write little rhymes about the political scene. Here are some new ones.

Clerihews

Tony Abbott
is very good at sabot-
age: not so much leaking
as havoc wreaking.

Bill Shorten,
like a rabbit caught in
a spotlight,
keeps his fangs out of sight.

Lee Rhiannon
is no loose cannon.
She’s a principled splitter
and sadly not a quitter.

Double Dactylic

Hooligan Booligan,
Malcolm Bligh Turnbull, an
investment banker who
thinks he’s a wiz,

gave us some hope for a
ratiocinative
turn to our politics.
But he’s a fizz.

Georgy-boy Porgy-boy,
Catholic cardinal
stands on his dignity
under arrest.

Is this the end of the
celibatocracy
bluffing their flocks that they
always know best?

Quatrain

War, drought, famine, global warming:
have the End Times come to town?
Pouting, tweeting hard, barnstorming,
could the Last Trump be this clown?

The Book Group at Kevin Barry’s City of Bohane

Kevin Barry, City of Bohane (Vintage 2011)

bohane.jpgBefore the Book Group’s meeting: At its last meeting, which I didn’t get to, the Book Group discussed a book about the parlous state of the human species. I imagine this one was chosen as our next title, if not as light relief, then as a source of stylistic delight. It’s a dystopian world, the world of Bohane, a ruthless world of gang warfare on the west coast of Ireland, possibly in some post-catastrophic future – not terribly unlike the world of A Clockwork OrangeThe Threepenny Opera or maybe The Sopranos, for the violence and sexual exploitation, and also for the creative energy in the writing.

Here’s a paragraph picked pretty much at random before I had to return my copy to the library:

Tipping seventy, Ol’ Boy dresses much younger. He wore low-rider strides, high-top boots with the heels clicker’d, a velveteen waistcoat and an old-style yard hat set at a frisky, pimpish angle. Ol’ Boy had connections all over the city – he was the Bohane go-between. He was as comfortable sitting for a powwow in the drawing room of a Beauvista manse as he was making a rendezvous at a Rises flatblock. Divil a bit stirred at the Trace that he didn’t know about, nor across the Smoketown footbridge. He was on jivey, fist-bumping terms with the suits of the business district – those blithe and lardy boys who worked Endeavour Avenue down in the Bohane New Town – and he could chew the fat equably with the most ignorant of Big Nothin’ spud-aters. The Mannion voicebox was an instrument of wonder. It mimicked precisely the tones and cadence of whoever he was speaking to, while retaining always a warm and reassuring note.

I was enthralled by the language and by the twisting intrigue until the very last movement. Oddly, the last 40 pages fell flat. Maybe Kevin Barry could feel the end approaching and simply didn’t have to stomach to make it happen with the same gusto as everything that had come before.

After the meeting: Well, there was an attempt to drum up some controversy, but in fact we all love loved the linguistic play of this, except for one who just found it hard going, and of course the two out of nine who hadn’t read the book. Some complained that it was just good fun (of a bloodthirsty sort) and didn’t give any hint of how the world had come to such a state, but others (me included) didn’t see why it needed to do that.

We wondered about the geography. Is there any western Ireland city that matches the description of Bohane? One of the better travelled among us said that the Portuguese city of Porto fitted exactly, and others agreed. An interesting possibility, since at least one of the characters (Macu, short for Immaculata) comes from Portugal. In general we liked the regular moments when the narrative stops for a description of what a character is wearing.

After a brief engagement with the book, conversation ranged wide: travellers’ tales, a Rodney Rude joke, one man’s prostate cancer saga (mostly a good luck story), paternal boasting, one empty-nest-after-30+-years announcement, the excellence of The Necks, an impersonation of Bundaberg farmers deciding whether to burn the cane, reports from the Sydney Film Festival (Young MarxAbacus: Small Enough to Jail and Citizen Jane good; Those Who Make Revolution Halfway Only Dig Their Own Graves to be avoided). And we ate roast chicken and salads – the latecomer missed out on the chickpeas.