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Atticus Lish’s Preparation for the Next Life

Atticus Lish, Preparation for the Next Life (©2104, Oneworld 2015)

1780747772.jpgThere’s a lot that’s very good in this tragedy-romance of marginalised people living in New York City. Rather than reviewing it, I want to make some observations about how context can affect the experience of reading.

Everyone knows that a book you read as a child can be very different when you read it again as an adult. But the effects of timing can be much more fine-grained than that: in my reading of Preparation for the Next Life, reading while walking and reading in the wake of particular television revelations each made a huge difference.

First the walking. It’s not a spoiler to tell you that two chapters towards the end are given over to a character’s night-long, punishing walk through New York City’s neglected outer reaches. It’s a bravura piece of writing, showing us the changing state of the buildings, people and activities in each neighbourhood traversed, all filtered through the character’s terrified and exhaustion-addled mind. I’m convinced that the author did that walk himself, possibly even in a single night.

By serendipity, I read most of those two chapters while walking in an unfamiliar place, and even though I was in Sydney’s quiet harbourside suburb of Putney, the effect was magical, the rhythm of my leisurely walk providing a perfect accompaniment to the sentences playing in my mind. If you want to do likewise, it’s chapters 52 and 53.

The other piece of serendipity came with a single sentence early in the book. In this case it wasn’t the context that changed my experience of the text. The text changed my understanding of the context.

One woman is explaining to another the kinds of treatment she might expect from a warder if she ends up in prison:

If you fought him, he was authorised to rush you like a man, tackle you, pound your head on the floor, Taser your backside while you crawled, drag you out by the leg while you screamed under the cameras recording all this in black and white, strap you in The Chair, put the spit bag on your head and leave you there for up to twelve hours while you begged for water.

Like much in the early chapters, this is colourful, gritty background that adds to our sense of the character’s jeopardy, and a month ago I would have skimmed over it.

But read in the wake of the Four Corners report on the Don Dale juvenile detention centre it gains extraordinary power. The phrase ‘rush you like a man’ could have been written to describe the overwhelming speed of the real-life warder we saw enter a young Aboriginal man’s cell, grab him by the throat and throw him to a mattress on the floor. We saw real-life young men crying out while being dragged, under cameras recording it all in black and white. We saw a young man being shackled to a chair by a group of burly, uniformed men, his head hidden in a spit hood (a bag by any other name), and the men leave him saying they would come back in a couple of hours.

It emerged that the treatment of the young detainees had been the subject of a number of official reports, but not until the footage was shown on national television were the media and politicians galvanised into action. Though the substance of their action remains to be seen, there’s no doubt that the Four Corners report will lead to some improvement.

But there were disturbing dissonances in the Four Corners report. For example, the image of young Dylan Voller hooded and strapped to a chair was compared to the infamous 2004 photos from Abu Ghraib, a comparison that has been taken up since by a number of commentators. The footage itself undermined that comparison: those men aren’t caught off guard, but speak solicitously to the young man (‘How’s that, is that all right?’ ‘You keep chilling out, yeah?’). They’re not deliberately humiliating their prisoner for sport. At least in that footage they give every appearance of men who are acting according to established protocols – it could almost be an instructional video. The similarity to Abu Ghraib is mainly visual, and the comparison serves to generate outrage rather than getting at the truth of the situation.

Outrage has its limitations. To quote a 2013 piece by Mark Fisher about the British tabloid Daily Mail:

Outrage is not merely impotent, it is actively counterproductive, feeding the very enemy we claim to want to defeat. That’s because, firstly, outrage is part of the very currency of what Jodi Dean calls communicative capitalism, which depends not on content but on the sheer circulation of messages… Secondly, since there is an infinite supply of things to be outraged about, the tendency towards outrage indefinitely locks us up in a series of reactive battles, fought on the enemy’s territory and on its terms.

In this case, doing away with the chair and the hood, and even punishing the guards who used tear gas on young men in their cells, might satisfy the outraged need for action, but wouldn’t do much to address the underlying system that leads to the abuse.

Atticus Lish’s sentence brings these considerations to the fore. It characterises a number of the things we saw on Four Corners as only to be expected from the ‘justice’ system. No explanation of The Chair or the spit bag is even needed – so they’re not aberrations of the Northern Territory but vile practices that are widespread and officially sanctioned. If one of the things that intimidates a woman is to be ‘rushed like a man’, there’s a subliminal suggestion that for a man to be rushed like that is close to being acceptable. There’s a gender issue here that the media have hardly touched on.

A friend and I were recently lamenting that novels can no longer transform our understanding of the world as Simone de Beauvoir’s A Woman Destroyed did for her and The Brothers Karamazov for me. We agreed that the fault lies not in the novels but in ourselves – our minds get set in their ways. And reading Preparation for the Next Life has notbeen a transformative experience for me. But it has restored my sense that fiction can illuminate things, bring them alive in the mind. And I’m grateful

 

Esme the critic

My mother, Esme, left school at 14 or 15 in the mid 1920s. She married my father when she was 19 and lived on a sugar-cane farm outside Innisfail in North Queensland for the next five decades. As her five children went off to boarding school and then spread out over Queensland and beyond, she wrote letters to each of us, weekly to start with and then less frequently but still with a shaming regularity. Mostly she kept us informed on one another’s doings and home-front developments. Occasionally she would comment on literary matters.

Here are some of her passing comments on the literary scene, which I find interesting in all sorts of ways:

17 December 1971: I’ve just finished reading Thomas Keneally’s The Fear & enjoyed it more than any book I’ve read for ages. So nice & clean & sort of old-fashioned.

7 March 1972: I’ve just read [Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s] Cancer Ward. It’s really absorbing but very frightening really. I’m sorry I’ve finished it really. … You’ll be pleased to hear A was reading [Germaine Greer’s] The Female Eunuch. I have to own that I burnt my copy. M & N said, ‘At least you could have passed it on to us.’ Perhaps I should have saved their money as curiosity will get the better of them I’m sure.

25 July 1972: I am reading a book of yours that MA found in her box. I’m not liking it as much as The Fear. It is [Thomas Keneally’s] Bring Larks & Heroes.

28 November 1972: Thank you so much for remembering my Birthday. I’m sure I’ll enjoy the books. I’ve started [the first book I worked on in my editing job with Currency Press, David Williamson’s] The Removalists. It’s nice & easy to read. [Later in the same letter:] Having read The Removalists I’m glad it was a gift from you Jon because from you it is meant as a shocker. [It wasn’t.] From anyone else I would have a sneaky feeling that he/she might imagine I liked that sort of talk. If he’d made it a story of police brutality without the four letter words I feel sure it would have been just as big a success or even bigger.  Anyhow now I’ve started the [Gerald] Durrell one [probably Catch Me a Colobus] & it is really my pick. I’ll be able to lend it around.

25 December 1972: It was only today I learned that it was you who gave [my nieces and nephews Maurice Sendak’s] Where the wild things are. I had made a note of it to buy for [another grandchild]. It is the most read & the most cherished book in their house & yet it looks ghastly really.

24 February 1973: Of course I have not burnt The Removalists, Jon. As a matter of fact I have a waiting list of about a dozen women, as ignorant as myself, wanting to learn all about life!! seeing that M & N & E & V think that I have no ears to hear with. ‘Surely you’ve heard such talk,’ even in the street. Well I haven’t. Actually I think [youngest daughter] Liza knows more than I do but I certainly don’t feel underprivileged because of my ignorance.

28 March 1973: We have watched some of Certain Women on your recommendation Jon. I missed the name of the writer last night (not being in the habit of reading all those names, though I do notice that the writer, who should be the most important, is never so). It was the ‘model’ girl & I think it could have been Keneally as he is sort of old fashioned. I thought the Williamson one was the most – real is the word I suppose. He certainly understands today’s youth, don’t you think?

8 April 1973: Our Repertory Group put on [Richard Beynon’s ] The Shifting Heart last week. Roslyn Watt played the Italian mother & she was perfect. Seniors must have to study it this year because the night Dad & I went there was a bus load from Tully & the night E & V went there were 2 bus loads from Cairns.

9 July 1973: Last week there was a play on TV, The Cherry Orchard Chekhov [an MTC production with Frank Thring, Googie Withers, Irene Inescort] & knowing how interested [oldest son] Michael is in plays (He was in a Chekhov once) & feeling it would give me some culture, we watched it right up to the end of the first act then turned the TV off. It was played to packed houses in Melbourne for ages so the ad said. I wonder if you watched it & don’t say you enjoyed it. To me it could have been Innisfail repertory doing it for the first time. Dad stayed home from Poker to see it too which made it worse.

1 August 1973: I see [Peter Bogdanovich’s] What’s Up Doc advertised at the pictures somewhere in Sydney. Do go & see it if you can. [I did.] It’s really a scream, Makes you laugh till it really hurts – just absolutely stupid but I’m sure you couldn’t help enjoying it.

23rd October 1973 (after a visit to Sydney): I managed to get a Sat Aust(ralian) with Katharine Brisbane [my boss at the time] write up of the play [probably Rex Cramphorn’s cutting-edge production The Marsh King’s Daughter, which she mentions in a later letter] & I agree with her and the more I think back on it the more I like it really. Then today I found Jock Veitch’s write up which is downright lousy – even saying he couldn’t hear. I feel like writing & telling him to go again & wear his glasses & take along his hearing aid.

4 February 1974: Poor Mr Solzhenitsyn is having a rough time. Have you read Cancer Ward, Jon? [I had.] It is the best I’ve read. It seems queer but I think Patrick White writes much like him, so simply. I’ve read only one of his, The Tree of Man, & really enjoyed it.

March 1974: Innisfail had Godspell during the week,  packed the Shire Hall. We didn’t go, we left it to the young. The [Marist] Bros all went & raved on about it – more an experience than a show etc. They took 45 boys along so deserved a free ticket.

31 July 1974 (reporting on a time in Brisbane): We went to see [my cousin G’s] production Fetch Me a Figleaf. There were 10 of us … G sat with us so we had to say all the right things. It was rather naughty but really entertaining all about gods & goddesses on Mt Olympus.

13 October 1974: Well! we were trapped into a bit of culture last night. If we’d been at home we’d have turned it off but we were babysitting so left it on & were really sorry it had to end. It was The Misanthrope, Moliere’s play. The man who did the translation [not named on IMDB] must be a marvel & all the players were lovely. It says ABC production but I can’t believe it was. It was too good.

7 March 1975: Have you seen a book Watership Down? It’s about rabbits, all about rabbits. I’ve just read it & loved it. [I still haven’t read it.]

22 June 1975: We’re all reading The Towering Inferno, actually it’s called The Tower. Dad’s on it at the moment and doesn’t even answer when spoken to. It’s really suspenseful.

Late September 1975, from Launceston: We went to see [Roman Polanski’s] Chinatown & thought it pretty ordinary. Being overheated didn’t help. I’d put on woollen sox & extra cardigan & shed everything except the sox as the theatre was heated.

And that – when she was 61 and I was 28 – is where I stopped carefully hoarding her letters.

Stan Grant’s Talking to My Country

Stan Grant, Talking to My Country (HarperCollinsAustralia 2016)

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The cover of this book is great. The image on the left here may not look like much, just some bold type with a couple of gumleaves. But the actual cover held in your hands is scattered with (images of) tiny grains of sand as if the book has been out in the bush, exposed to the elements, suggesting that Stan Grant may be a journalist with an impressive international CV but you can never brush the Wiradjuri country from him.

Stan Grant appeared on Julia Zemiro’s Home Delivery this week. That’s a TV show where celebrities take us to visit places from their childhood usually with awkwardness and embarrassment. Stan Grant’s episode was an exception in not being awkward at all, because he had something to say about growing up and working as an Aboriginal person in Australia. That TV show provides an excellent easy-listening introduction to this book.

The cover tells us that this is ‘the book that every Australian should read’. I don’t know about that ‘should’, but if every Australian did read it we’d be living in a much wiser and possibly kinder world. Part memoir, part essay, inspired by James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time and perhaps Ta Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, it’s a personal account of the effects of dispossession, colonisation and racism on individual lives into the 21st century. It includes the most powerful account of a ‘mental breakdown’ I have ever read, not as a medicalised episode of ‘depression’, but as generations of pain inflicted by colonisation finally breaking through to the surface.

And it’s all told with a sense, not of complaint, but of wonder. The journalist Grant, who wants to understand the world and communicate what he learns, here turns his attention to his own story with the same curiosity and – not detachment, but concern to get it right.It’s a marvellous book.

 

Leith Morton’s translations of Masayo Koike, Shuntarō Tanikawa & Rin Ishigaki

Leith Morton (selector and translator), Poems of Masayo Koike, Shuntarō Tanikawa & Rin Ishigaki (Vagabond Press 2013)

Vagabond_Asia_Pacific_Series_Japan1Indonesian writer and translator Maggie Tiojakin said recently on the ABC’s Books and Arts Daily that in translating Kipling’s Just So Stories she had to negotiate between wanting people to understand Kipling’s playful language or just enjoy the sound of it. Having opted for understanding, she worried that she had ruined Kipling’s work.

People enjoyed her Elephant’s Child anyhow, so all was well, but a similar dilemma faces any translator where the sound and look of the words matters. This includes most poetry, particularly when translated into European languages from languages like Chinese and Japanese that are written in characters: a simple word-by-word transition just doesn’t do it. The difficulty – and the joy of the challenge – are charmingly illustrated by the web page Matsuo Bashô: Frog Haiku (Thirty-one Translations and One Commentary); likewise by Robert Okaji’s annotated translations from Chinese (thanks for the tip, Will).

Inevitably then, in a book like this one, presenting three Japanese poets in translation, there’s a sense that one is reading the poems at one remove: they really are at one remove. The translator, Leith Morton, discusses some of the challenges in his preface, at one point expressing the hope that ‘the many textual pleasures … available to [a] Japanese audience can be gestured towards in translation’. He succeeds admirably, but it’s still frustrating to read gestures towards other people’s pleasures. But then when I came back to the book a couple of weeks after my first reading, its pleasures had miraculously become much more immediate.

The first of these three poets, Masayo Koike, is the youngest and possibly the most accessible to readers who, like me, have slender acquaintance with Japanese literary forms. There are wonderful haiku-like moments, like this in ‘The Ashtray and the Girl’:

The end of summer
In the middle of the road
Lying on its back a Brown Baker cicada

A number of her poems are remarkable for their ease with bodily functions: ‘A Short Poem about Daybreak’ begins:

America, in a toilet in Santa Fe
Daybreak
I was urinating softly for a long long time
In the whole world
I felt as if there was only this sound and myself

In ‘Bathhouse’ the speaker looks at other women’s bodies, ‘Naked backs, hips and backsides / Private parts / … The many hollows of the female body / Water gathering there / Dripping down’ ; ‘Penis from Heaven’ (a title that must put Leith Morton in line for some kind of award!) recalls an intimate, sexual moment from a film with no hint of prurience or transgression.

The second poet, Shuntarō Tanikawa, is, according to Leith Morton’s preface, generally acknowledged to be the most famous poet in Japan today. Urination features in his section of the book as well, most notably in ‘Peeing’, which I read as a cheerful anti-war poem. There are a number of fine poems about poetry and writing. Possibly because I read the book while my mother-in-law was dying, his poem that most struck me was ‘My Father’s Death’. This is in a number of parts, the first of which might almost have been called ‘The Day Father Died’ in homage to Frank O’Hara’s ‘The Day Lady Died’ – it is preoccupied with minutiae, except for the stark description of the dead body:

his mouth with the false teeth removed was open and his face had turned into a Noh mask of an old man, he was already dead. His face was cold but his hands and feet were still warm.

If you get a chance read this whole poem – it moves on to concentrated meditation, to the speech Tanukawa gave at his father’s funeral, to a beautifully captured moment of memory and realisation a month later.

Rin Ishigaki (1920–2004) doesn’t have any piddling, but she does have a bathhouse poem, ‘At the Bathhouse’. Perhaps as she was of an earlier generation than Koike, she takes the bodies of the women for granted and takes as her starting point the one yen pieces that women receive as change when they enter the bath – a humble coins that

Soak to their fill in hot water
And are splashed with soap.

The heart of this poem, and possibly of Ishigaki’s section of the book, is in the later lines:

What a blessing to be of no value
In monetary terms.

That is to say, many of the poems are about humility – about poverty, deprivation and economic oppression, but also about humility, and a kind of surprised appreciation of small unvalued things. The point where I fell in thrall to Ishigaki was in the poem ‘Sadness’. Here’s the whole poem (note – I’m 67):

I am 65.
Recently I fell over and broke my right wrist.
They told me at the hospital that
After it heals it will not be the same as it was before.
I rubbed my arm crying.
‘Mother
Father
I’m sorry’
Both of them
Died some time ago and are no longer here
This body I received from them.Even now I am still a child.
Not an old woman.

This is the third book I’ve read in Vagabond Press’s admirable Asia-Pacific Writing series. The others (which I blogged about here and here) were translated from Chinese.

Russell McGregor’s Indifferent Inclusion

Russell McGregor, Indifferent Inclusion: Aboriginal people and the Australian nation (Aboriginal Studies Press 2011)

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On a recent edition of the ABC’s Q&A, Senator Nova Peris was discussing the proposed acknowledgement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Australian Constitution. ‘As Aboriginal Australians,’ she said, ‘we are excluded. For such a long time we were regarded as flora and fauna. It’s about making a wrong right.’

Paradoxically, the 1967 removal of the Constitution’s two mentions of Aboriginal people (and, by implication, Torres Strait Islanders) was a significant step towards inclusion.

According to Russell McGregor, those two references resulted from indifference. He argues that the first, which prevented the federal government from making laws with respect to ‘the aboriginal race’, dates from the 1891 draft where it was inserted in order to protect the rights of Maori if, as then expected, New Zealand joined the new nation; when New Zealand withdrew, nobody cared enough to take the clause out. The other mention – ‘In reckoning the numbers of the people of the Commonwealth, or of a State or other part of the Commonwealth, aboriginal [sic] natives shall not be counted’ – rested on the assumption, he argues, that Aboriginal people counted for little. ‘Neither section,’ he continues, ‘formally excluded [Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples] from the legal rights and entitlements of Australian citizenship, but both implied that Aboriginal people were outside the community of the Australian nation.’

Indifferent Inclusion charts the decades of debate and changing attitudes among settler Australians, and activism and argument on the part of Indigenous Australians, that led up to the 1967 Referendum, in which an unprecedented 90 per cent of the electorate voted for change. It hardly needs saying that the Referendum was not the end of exclusion. Four years later, in what might have provided an epigraph for this book, a FCAATSI report described racism in Australia as mainly ‘cold, callous indifference to Aborigines, rather than intemperate hatred’. Punctuated by momentary expressions of good will such as the Walk Across the Bridge, the Sea of Hands and the Apology for the Stolen Generations, that indifference has persisted and non-Indigenous Australians have been largely silent in response to Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, the Northern Territory Intervention, and straws in the wind such as our Prime Minister’s recent description of the continent as ‘unsettled or, um, scarcely settled’ before 1788.

All the same, the story told here is one of progress. On one hand the voices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander activists gain progressively more effective platforms, and the narrative introduces any number of passionate and eloquent individuals who ought to be household names: William Cooper, Jack Patten, Bill Ferguson, Stan Davey (author of a pamphlet on assimilation titled Genesis or Genocide?), Faith Bandler and more. On the other, settler Australia’s self image grows and develops, and with it the image it projects onto Indigenous Australians.

McGregor begins with the policy of ‘absorption’ which, though never official government policy, dominated the thinking of government departments charged with Aboriginal affairs in the 1930s, underpinned by what now looks like a bizarrely irrational emphasis on the importance of white skin to the Australian identity. This policy was a cold-blooded plan to control the relationships of people of part-Aboriginal heritage so that they had children only with white partners. This was called ‘breeding out the colour’: within a few generations, Australians would all have white complexions, and the treasured myth of ethnic homogeneity would prevail. ‘Full-blooded’ Aboriginal people would either die out or be kept cordoned off in the Western Desert, on tracts of lands to which the only non-Aboriginal people with access would be scientists. Most alarmingly, the dominant public opposition came from people who objected that the plan would corrupt the purity of the white race.

However, the self image of settler Australians did change, ‘blood’ (aka skin colour) giving way to ‘way of life’ as the main defining factor (as the White Australia Policy came to feel more anachronistic). In a number of ways, non-Indigenous people began to appreciate something of Indigenous culture: the Jindyworobaks had their doomed idea of finding a true Australian national identity by appropriating Aboriginal culture, but even kitsch tea-towels and wallpaper with ‘Aboriginal’ motifs reflected this growing appreciation. The voices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander activists began to be more widely heard – the 1938 Day of Mourning was a landmark event; men served in World War 2 (though their enlisting had been resisted by conservatives who feared rightly that if they fought for Australia their claim to inclusion in the national community would be strengthened); Albert Namatjira and others demonstrated that artistic creativity wasn’t the sole preserve of non-Indigenous people; perhaps more influentially, Lionel Rose, Evonne Goolagong and others demonstrated that Aboriginal people could excel in sport.

‘Assimilation’ became the key policy word, which, although it has a bad odour these days, was supported in the 1940s and 50s by leading Aboriginal activists. According to McGregor, the assimilationist policies didn’t always, or even most of the time, entail the loss of Aboriginal identity and community: the distinction which came later, between assimilation and integration, was really an attempt to differentiate between two tendencies within the assimilationist movement. On the one side, for example, Paul Hasluck, who was Commonwealth Minister for Territories from 1951, proposed a version of assimilation in which

the Aboriginal cultural heritage would not disappear, but rather would dissipate into folkloric remnants, and Aboriginal identity would not be erased but privatised, contracting to little more than an individual’s sense of personal ancestry.

On the other side, anthropologist A P Elkin wrote:

The Aborigines are racially different from us, and recognizably so. In spite of the economic, religious, social and political assimilation at which we aim, they will be a distinct group, or series of groups, for generations to come. Indeed, they will develop pride in their own cultural background and distinctness while at the same time being loyal and useful citizens.

Elkin’s language was to change, but when he wrote this, he was using the language of assimilation. By 1961, most supporters of assimilation policies were towards Elkin’s end of the spectrum. It was generally understood that assimilation (or integration) did not mean the end to distinctive Aboriginal identity, culture and language. It was a question whether something was being done to Indigenous people, or with and by them.

I had vaguely supposed before this eminently readable book put me right that the 1967 Referendum gave Indigenous Australians the vote. But it turns out that the reading of the Constitution that led to their disenfranchisement had been successfully challenged before then. In spite of the rhetoric of the Yes campaign – ‘Right Wrongs, Vote YES for Aborigines on May 27’ – the Referendum didn’t change very much at all, and the federal government of the day under Harold Holt chose not to use their new powers, not to rock the boat. In the domain, its as if every change, seen to be huge as it approaches, turns out to be tiny.

These pages are full of odd and admirable characters, and any number of curious incidents. One truly odd moment was a piece of legislation ushered in by Paul Hasluck, the Northern Territory Welfare Ordinance 1953, subtitled An ordinance to provide for the care and assistance of certain persons. The striking thing about this legislation was that, while its concern was entirely with Aboriginal people, it never once used any version of the term ‘Aboriginal’, because Hasluck believed that no distinction should be made on the basis of race in legislation: it was easy enough to work out what distinct group was being declared wards of the state, of course, but somehow not using the name was meant to make it less discriminatory.

Many of the debates and attitudes covered here feel weirdly alien now but, as Nova Peris’s choice of language illustrates, the issue hasn’t gone away, and it’s sobering to reflect that what was once believed and spoken out loud is still lurking somewhere in our minds, unacknowledged even to ourselves. One one hand, The past is another country. They do things differently there. On the other: The past is never dead. It’s not even past.

Southerly 73/3

David Brooks and Elizabeth McMahon (editors), Southerly Vol 73 No 3 2013: The Naked Writer

1nwAlain de Botton was on the ABC recently arguing that we need to reclaim art (and by extension literature) from the academies and museums, to recognise its role in our ordinary lives. He was annoyingly persuasive, and had me wondering whether I really needed to read Southerly, which is after all solidly grounded in the English Department of the University of Sydney, largely written and edited by academics for academics. It seems to have stopped publishing poems by Jennifer Maiden, the regular appearance of which led me to re-subscribe a couple of years ago. So despite the fabulously daring cover, I approached this issue warily. What was in it for me?

It seems I enjoy reading about friendship. Alex Miller’s ‘A Circle of Kindred Spirits’ is a moving account of biographer Hazel Rowley’s career, seen through the prism of Miller’s long friendship with her, which they conducted almost entirely by email. Ann-Marie Priest’s ‘“Colour and Crazy Love”: Gwen Harwood and Vera Cottew’ explores a deep friendship between two women that has been sidelined in most discussions of Gwen Harwood’s poetry. It’s a beautiful essay, explicating some of the poetry and exploring the complex possibilities of friendship between women.

Scott Esposito’s ‘The Gate Deferred: J.M. Coetzee and the Battle against Doubt’ is interesting for similar reasons: at heart it’s about the relationship between readers and writers. The essay explores Coetzee’s engagement with Kafka. Far from writing dry academic analysis, Esposito begins by telling us how as a child of non-religious parents he (Esposito) experienced his own version of Pascal’s ‘le silence eternel des espaces infinis m’effraie’ (the Pascal reference is mine), then gives us a beautiful account of how in Coetzee he found someone with a similar sense of things, expressed in part by Coetzee’s engagement with Kafka. Coetzee, Esposito writes,

gives us not an answer to Kafka, nor an interpretation of him, but rather his experience of dwelling within Kafka’s mysteries.

Esposito comes close to dwelling within Coetzee’s mysteries. (I haven’t read enough of J M Coetzee – just Disgrace and the three volumes of quasi-memoir – to have an opinion on the validity or otherwise of Esposito’s reading, but that seems beside the point.)

Rowena Lennox’s ‘Head of a Dog’ is about another kind of relationship – that between dogs and humans. Her account of walking her dog made me wonder if she lives near me: could my collie be the one she describes as driving her kelpie-cattle dog cross to such paroxysms of exhilarated rage simply by existing behind a fence? Dogs ‘are the closest we have come to living with and knowing another species’, she writes, and whatever the cat brigade may say I think she’s right. The essay ranges widely, drawing on, among others, Frank Dalby Davison (Dusty), Jack London (The Call of the Wild), and Aboriginal elders Tim Yilngayari and Daly Pulkaa (as quoted by Deborah Bird Rose in Dingo Makes Us Human).

There are fine poems: Tracy Ryan has four on a hoard hidden and centuries later found;  Judith Beveridge (‘Peterhead’), Geoff Page (‘Angus’) and Stephen Edgar (‘The Sense of an Ending’) lend lustre (and just watch that Stephen Edgar use rhyme!); Ali Jane Smith (‘The Galapagos’), Simeon Kronenberg(‘Death of a Bull’) and Ross Donlon (‘Storm Water’) each do narratives it will be good to spend more time with.

There are fine reviews. I was especially glad of Anne Brewster on Melissa Lucashenko’s novel Mullumbimby, which I plan to read, and John Tranter being generous, illuminating and a little gossipy on Pam Brown’s Home by Dark.

That’s just some of the highlights for me. Other people may fall with cries of joy on the 42 page offcut from a forthcoming experimental novel by John A. Scott, Michael Buhagiar’s elegant discussion of Christopher Brennan’s debt to A. C. Swinburne, Robet Darby’s explication of the homoerotic content of a Martin Boyd novel, or … well, there’s quite a lot that I haven’t mentioned.

I’m going to finish with some whingeing, so feel free to stop reading now.

• First, does Southerly deliberately follow US spelling conventions for things like centre/center or the verb practice/practise?

• Second, is it just a little disrespectful to display a poet’s naked body on the cover and make no reference to him or his work except in the photo credit? If you’re interested, here’s a video of spoken word poet Randall Stephens full frontal, clothed and performing:

• Third, was it inattention or editorial illiteracy that allowed Ann-Marie Priest to go into print saying that

there is no mainstream literary tradition of female friendship, as there is with male friendship (think of Tennyson’s In Memoriam A.H.H., Achilles and Patroclus in The Illiad, and Jonathon and David in the Bible).

Maybe Ruth and Naomi just a few pages over from David and Jonathan ‘in the Bible’ don’t constitute a tradition, but surely they deserve a mention; even spellcheck knows how to spell The Iliad; and however many people name their children Jonathon, it’s Jonathan in the Bible. Even if you don’t count the ‘with’ that really ought to be an ‘of’, that’s an impressive error count in so few words.

David Malouf’s Earth Hour

DavidMalouf. Earth Hour (UQP 2014)

0702250139 As I was reading Clive James’s translation of Dante’s Purgatorio recently, one of my unexpected small pleasures was the occasional recognition of a place name. ‘Fiesole – that’s Anny’s town!’ I would exclaim under my breath, or ‘Campagnatico – isn’t that where David Malouf used to live?’ My pleasure comes from my North Queensland provenance: if you live in New York, Paris or even Sydney, you’re forever walking down streets that have appeared in poems, novels, movies; if you’re from Innisfail, North Queensland, not so much. My Purgatorio moments weren’t completely without wider usefulness, of course, as they gave me a whiff of how Dante’s contemporaries would have read the poem: they knew all the places he mentions, and had a wealth of personal associations with them. Any personal connection a modern reader has is a pale shadow, but a shadow all the same.

The shoe was on the other foot as I read the poems in Earth Hour. The poetry may address what they used to call universal themes (do they still call them that?), but it often addresses them as they arise in places I know, and nowhere more dramatically than in ‘At Laterina’. For a start, the poem is dedicated ‘For Jeffrey Smart (1921–2013)’: I know who Jeffrey Smart is, I know his portrait of David Malouf as petrol pump attendant, and what’s more I have fond memories of him as Phidias, the artist on the ABC Children’s Hour of my childhood, all of which may not add to an understanding of the poem, but it does add to my sense of connection with it. The poem meditates on the passage of time in an Italian village (‘Centuries pass / unnoticed here; it’s days that are tedious’), and moves on to the ‘sweet loaded breath’ of the tiglio in bloom. I’m engaged enough to find out that tiglio is lime tree. Then:

__________________Was it always
like this? Did native sons high on a scaffold
in Piedmont, streaked with smuts in a smoky canefield
near Innisfail, North Queensland, feel the planet
shrink in their memory of it, the streets, the decades
one as each June makes them when we catch
on a gust of heated air, as at a key-change,
its green, original fragrance?

I certainly feel the planet shrink, and in a good way.

There’s so much to love in this book: renderings of Horace, Heine and Baudelaire that range from elegant close translation to wildly divergent variations on the originals’ theme [Added later – not as divergent as I thought once I had the right Baudelaire poem – see Brendan Doyle’s comment below]; meditations on deep time, on what it means to be human, on our effect on the planet; profound pieces on ageing and mortality. I’m not able to do much more than name some of the poems that I am deeply grateful for: ‘Whistling in the Dark’ (‘Seeking a mind in the machine, and in constellations’), ‘A Green Miscellany’ (‘No, not nature but a green / miscellany, our years-in-the-making masterpiece’), ‘Touching the Earth’ (about worms), ‘Long Story Short’ (reminiscent of Blake’s ‘A Poison Tree’), ‘Persimmons: Campagnatico’ (about trees bearing fruit at the end of winter), ‘Nightsong, Nightlong’ (about a bird, and a heart), ‘Eternal Moment at Poggio Madonna’ (about a sleeping cat). That will have to do.

David Malouf turned 80 recently, and was celebrated on the show that has replaced Ramona Koval’s Book Show on the ABC. You can hear an excellent interview with Michael Cathcart here, and a discussion of his work here, by a panel comprising Ivor Indyk, academic Yvonne Smith, and poet Jaya Savige.

Finally, as a service to any drop-in readers looking for information about the translations in Earth Hour, here are links to the originals and literal translations: Horace Odes II, ii, Horace Odes I, xxvii, Baudelaire’s Spleen (link corrected thanks to Brendan Doyle], Heine’s Der Scheidende and Morphine.

The media and March in March

I wrote this to the Sydney Morning Herald yesterday morning:

Dear Sir
So Prime Minister Tony Abbott was correct after all when he said, as shown on the ABC News last night, that the only big march happening in Sydney was the St Patrick’s Day march. He must have been correct because that’s the only march reported in today’s SMH, and the SMH is a journal of record, or at least it was once.
The March in March demonstration by people wanting their voices to be heard in opposition to the many ways in which the Abbott government is attacking the common good evidently didn’t happen. Their numbers, ranging from 8 to 40 thousand depending on whose estimate you take, were an illusion that took up the whole of Broadway from Railway Square to Victoria Park. The illusion evidently was sufficiently realistic for you to publish two accounts online, the first a derisory and derisive AAP report [sorry, I couldn’t find it on the Fairfax site] saying there were hundreds of people and mentioning a couple of ‘wacky’ placards, the second mentioning a more realistic  figure of 8–10 thousand and giving a somewhat more accurate account of the demonstrators.
A couple of the speakers at this non-event spoke of the terrible effect of cynicism on our public life. Your total silence about this event, and other marches all over the country – not even a by-the-way in your account of the St Patrick’s Day march – is certainly doing its bit to foster cynicism.
Yours
Jonathan Shaw

Today’s paper did publish a letter from Antony Mann of Lawson (scroll down at the link) making the same general point much more succinctly. I wonder how many they received?

Paradoxically, I found the Herald‘s near silence oddly encouraging. If they can minimise or ignore what was probably more than 50,000 people in the streets all over Australia, then what else are they not telling us about? How many small acts are being performed in the community every day, invisible to the newspapers, that contribute to a swelling movement to bring some kind of sense to Australia’s responses to climate change, the international refugee crisis, predator capitalism and so on? Maybe the future is brighter than the Fairfax press makes it look. (Pardon me if I don’t mention Murdoch.)

And then there’s this, which I’ll write in spite of Godwin’s Law:

At Belmore Park on Sunday, I met an old friend who had come out in the pouring rain to be part of the march. She was going home before the speeches were finished, because, as she said, she was pooped. She’s 89 next week and the effort had taken its toll, but she said she was greatly heartened by the big turn-out. She was a girl in Austria at the Anschluss, the daughter of secular Jews. It matters to her to see people making their voices heard against injustice, even when the injustice is perpetrated by a democratically elected government.

A young woman with rainbow hair asked to take our photo. As we smiled for the camera, my friend surmised that she wanted us for our white hair. The young woman said she was sending the photo to her parents to show that there were respectable people at the demo – something, it turns out, they wouldn’t have learned from the Sydney Morning Herald.

(Also, thank heaven for the publicly funded SBS and ABC television.)

Sonnet 6: Friday night TV

November is disappearing fast and the sonnets are coming slow, so a night on the couch in front of the box can’t go to waste.

Sonnet 6: Friday night on the box
Auction Room with Scottish Gordon
Juanita tells of child porn bust
and crooked Christmas Island warden,
and Tony still expecting trust.
After Sinabung’s eruption
Quentin shouts about corruption.
Stephen and his boys play bright.
Jack and Phryne put things right.
Serangoon Road has been too clunky
so we watch week-old New Tricks
for Sandra’s swan song – what a fix!
Ten-thirty – I’m no TV junky.
iView Luther? Nah! Instead
it’s time to read a book in bed.

Cassandra Golds’s Pureheart

Cassandra Golds, Pureheart (Penguin Australia 2013)

1pureheartI won’t write a proper blog post on this book because I’ve had the great privilege of reading more than one draft on the way to its final form, and don’t know if I can tell what’s actually on the page! It’s another brilliant tale of tortured female adolescence by the writer who gave us Clair de Lune, The Museum of Mary Child, and The Three Loves of Persimmon.

Cassandra Golds appeared on Books and Arts Daily recently, and gave an interview that all fans of her books should listen to.