Tag Archives: Andy Kissane

Andy Kissane’s Tomb of the Unknown Artist

Andy Kissane, The Tomb of the Unknown Artist (Puncher & Wattmann 2019)

Here I go, blogging about a third book of poetry in a row. But, Dear Poetryphobe Reader, there’s nothing to fear. This one, like the last two I blogged about, is really good. Andy Kissane writes the kind of poetry that allows you to focus happily on the content and leave the poetic stuff to do its work while you’re distracted (like T S Eliot’s burglar tossing meat to the dog*). I think of him as a poet committed to bearing witness.

The book is in four unnamed sections, each with an epigraph suggesting its organising principle.

The first section’s epigraph is from Sharon Olds’s poem about her father’s death, ‘The Race’: ‘all night / I watched him breathe.’ The poems that follow deal with death and loss, and with being alive, though they’re not as abstract as that makes them sound. The poet contemplates his own death. He farewells his father:

------------------------- -----------Somewhere 
in my own marrow lies the moment
when you fathered me, that unacknowledged
gift.
('The Last Quarter')

He has a polite encounter with an old lover, and celebrates quiet moments of domesticity and parenthood. Among these poems, almost as if warning the reader not to read the others as directly autobiographical, there are two dramatic monologues, ‘Marriage Material’, spoken by a 19th century bride, and ‘Dressed’, spoken by a young woman of now (‘Desire is pure, as clear as water, and shame – / well, you just don’t feel any’).

The second section is heralded by a quote from Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: ‘One man will always be left alive to tell the story.’ Arendt was talking about the impossibility of ‘oblivion’: everything will be remembered by someone. As I read it, the central thread of this section is the idea of witness: to a concert or a movie, to plagiarism, to some of the great horrors of our time including Australia’s offshore prisons, and, closer to home, to a Sydney storm and schoolyard bullying (of which more later).

The third section is a sequence of ten poems set in the US–Vietnam War, all in the voice of an Australian (or possibly US) soldier, introduced by a quote from Tim O’Brien’s 1990 short fiction ‘How to Tell a True War Story’: ‘You can tell a true war story by the way it never seems to end.’ The sequence doesn’t tell a single straightforward story, but a narrative shape emerges from individual scenes involving the narrator and his comrades Dave, Des, Johnno, and Boffa.

Des appears beside you, his thumb
hauling you in the direction of safety.
You hoist your pack & crabwalk
after him, before a monsoon
of mortar shells drop right there –
on the piece of dirt where you were
lying ...
(from 'The Firefight')

It’s in the lineage of The Red Badge of Courage, has all the power and none of the insidious cinematic glamour of many ‘anti-war’ movies. I read somewhere that these poems are part of a verse novel in progress. If so, I’m looking forward to the novel, but this sequence doesn’t leave me with any of the cheated feeling that comes from reading an excerpt. The final poem, the sonnet ‘Back Home’, rounds the sequence off, not with an ending, but as an agonised cry about the lack of comprehension from even sympathetic non-combatants. Perhaps because I went to court as a conscientious objector for the US–Vietnam War, I needed a long walk after reading these poems.

The final section, ushered in with a quote from Michelangelo – ‘I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free’ – deals with visual art and sculpture, referring to work by Cressida Campbell, Grayson Perry (the title poem is a response to Perry’s The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman, 2011), Degas (spoken in the collective voice of his nudes), Cézanne, Jan Senbergs, and Kissane himself imagined as a painter.

It’s not easy to choose just one poem to discuss from this marvellously varied collection, but my mind keeps going back to ‘Shooting Footage’, from Section 2. It’s longish, but it’s got a story (click on the image to see it in a separate tab, then you may have to click again to see it big):

The Acknowledgements section gives no extra information about this poem, so it’s anyone’s guess whether the incident it describes is a fiction or taken from life. It would be a mistake, either way, to just assume that the speaker is the poet. There’s plenty to make me think that it’s not so, although he may be the poet at one remove – working with images rather than words. (For the sake of discussion, I’m going to assume that he’s male, even though a woman filming in a school playground would generally arouse less suspicion than a man.) It’s a beautifully executed dramatic monologue.

We learn about the narrator through unobtrusive details. We’re not told how he knows Joshua, but he may have given a talk to his class, to be quizzed by him, and he may know him through his daughter who plays hopscotch in stanza 6. He rides on the same bus as the students at the end of the day, but he’s not a teacher.

Having introduced Joshua in cinematic close-up in the first stanza, the poem devotes three stanzas to his being bullied on the bus, showing not telling in best movie style: what his hair looks like, what his classmates say and do. The first authorial comment is almost admiring: ‘It is truly amazing / how far some boys can spit.’ The fourth stanza returns to close-up, this time showing Joshua’s pain, and with the narrator explicitly holding a camera. We don’t know if this is the first the narrator knows of the bullying or if he’s filming because he’s been told about it previously, but in this kind of economic story-telling such specifics don’t matter.

The fifth to seventh stanzas give us a naturalistic narrative: the practicalities (enough of them at least) of how the narrator gets to be in the schoolyard at lunchtime filming, and then the painful specifics of what he sees, with just the one moment of expressed emotion (‘My anger smoulders // like white-hot coals. I can barely contain it.’) Then there’s a curious departure from the narrator’s carefully established point of view in an echo of the earlier close-ups: ‘Joshua’s glasses fog up / so he can’t see.’

Without breaking the narrative surface, the first lines of the eighth stanza comes as a revelation: ‘”Let him eat bacon sandwiches,” / one of them says as they run off’. This isn’t just generalised nerd-persecution. Joshua’s name, his shiny black hair, the steam from the bathroom and the pulling down of his shorts make a pattern. It’s antisemitism. The scene of schoolyard cruelty resonates out into some of the darkest episodes of human history. But here the horror is near at hand, potentially within the narrator’s power to influence.

I film it all in one long take. It's the hardest
thing I've ever had to do, to film this and not
intervene.

The poem is still a narrative about schoolyard bullying. But it’s also a reflection on the role of art: in this case, to record, to show, to bear witness. It’s not that it would have been wrong to intervene, but it might not have been as effective.

The final triplet expresses a hope, in this context well founded, that the work of art, in this case the film, will make a decisive difference. Without making a big point of it, the very last line and a half execute a subtle shift:

----------                     --------And a silence I will end soon – 
walls of brick and barbed wire, tumbling, tumbling down.

These lines are no longer talking about film, but about speech, no longer about the schoolyard, but about prisons. I’m tempted to read them as a mini-manifesto: a promise to speak truth about hard things, things that authorities like the Principal deny, with the aim of human liberation.

In an inspired piece of ordering that’s typical of the book, ‘Shooting Footage’ is followed by ‘Beached Dreams’, about the treatment of people who come to Australia by boat seeking asylum.

[Added later: Andy Kissane has emailed me some background on ‘Shooting Footage, which I quote here with his permission:

Its genesis began in a US film, The Bully Project but I don’t think I watched the whole film, just a bit of it. The spitting comes from my own experience of catching the bus to  a Christian Brothers school in the 1970s, but the rest is made up. Joshua and the biblical reference at the end comes from a Liz Frencham song I like, ‘Jericho’, but it’s a love song and has nothing to do  with bullying really, just gave me the idea for the ending. So essentially it is all made up,  riffing off the above sources. I have read it aloud once at Albury and it was a very hard poem to read.]

Embarrassingly, the Biblical reference to Joshua and the walls of Jericho went right past me until I listened to Liz Frencham’s song on YouTube (here).]

This is the fourth book of Andy Kissane’s poetry I’ve read. My blog posts about the others are here (Every Night They Dance, Five Islands Press 2000), here (Out to Lunch, Puncher & Wattman 2009) and here (Radiance, Puncher & Wattmann 2014).

I am grateful to the poet and Puncher & Wattmann for my copy.


*The chief use of the ‘meaning’ of a poem, in the ordinary sense, may be (for here I am speaking of some kinds of poetry and not all) to satisfy one habit of the reader, to keep his mind diverted and quiet, while the poem does its work upon him: much as the imaginary burglar is always provided with a nice bit of meat for the house-dog. (TS Eliot, The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism, 1933).

Australian Poetry Journal 7:2, Work

Cassandra Atherton and Benjamin Laird (editors),  Australian Poetry Journal, Volume 7, Issue 2: Work (2017)

cover image

I mainly read this issue of The Australian Poetry Journal on my computer screen. It sat on my desktop to be dipped every now and then, a bit like Twitter only more than 280 characters, more nuanced, less infested with outrage and snark, and more nourishing. Here are some of the bits I enjoyed a comment on the front cover and then some snippets from poems that struck me (though not the only ones that did).

The cover illustration, a photo taken by artist Albert Tucker of artist Joy Hester watching art patron John Reed milking a cow at the artist’s colony Heide in 1942, is rich with metaphorical implications in reference to the journal’s theme of work. It reminds me of Jerome K Jerome’s famous quip about liking work: ‘It fascinates me. I could sit and look at it for hours.’

From Jill Jones, ‘This Could Take a While’: 

How do you get through days
that have already curved too far? 

From Andy Kissane, ‘The Study Before the Major Work’: 

I finish one sketch and start another, in love
with the repetition that is the texture of my life, 
waking each morning to currawong calls,
raising the blinds to the shifting architecture
of light, dressing in loose clothes, keen to dwell
in the lilting halls of wonder.

From Geoff Page, ‘In medias res’: 

I should perhaps have warned you all
my death will be in medias res:
a carload of musicians 

driving up from Sydney
and being switched to voicemail

From Judith Beveridge, ‘The Pest Inspector’: 

He gave good advice: ‘Always listen at night, 
and if you hear a sound as though you’ve left
a record on after all the songs have played,
the ticking of a needle as it tracks in a groove;
if you hear what you take to be the scratching
of a mouse, the contractions of a cooling
tin roof, or click beetles snapping their thoraxes
and abdomens to flip themselves right way up –
take note, they could turn out to be the mandible-crafted
ticks of termites eating along the grain
of your floorboards.’

The whole of Cameron Lowe’s ‘Botanic / Beginning with four words from a poem by Joseph Massey’, which maybe I love because there was a giant fig behind my childhood home in North Queensland: 

There’s little
to say
. The fig –

giant – leans
across the

bridge, reaches
up into 

itself, names
fading

from the love
heart

scored in its 
trunk. 

Cameron Lowe’s poem is part of ‘New Shoots: Garden of Poems’, a special feature that takes up nearly half of the journal’s pages. In 2017, under the auspices of Red Room Poetry, Australian Poetry Inc and the Melbourne Writers Festival, Tamryn Bennett commissioned ten poets to create a new suite of poems each, inspired by plants and histories they encountered in the Royal Botanic Gardens in Melbourne. The poems they produced have had other outings – at the Festival, as a poetry trail at the Gardens, and in an online recording accompanied by interviews (here). They make a brilliant feature here: first the poems, then nine pages of ‘Reflections’ by the poets, which mostly allow for a much deeper reading experience. Just for one example, Bruce Pascoe’s powerful poem, ‘Kuller Kullup’, about the 19th century Wurundjeri elder of that name, becomes even richer when read in the light of his reflection, which begins:

  It is very hard for Aboriginal people to get through a day without being reminded of loss, sometimes accompanied by a profound sadness, sometimes by mere elevated irony. When I was walking around the gardens with the other poets dread was dragging at my heels, feeling for my throat. The talk of last and natural and heritage was clutching at me with scrabbling fingers.

There’s much more, in the ‘New Shoots’ section and in the journal as a whole. Copies are available for sale from Australian Poetry Inc.

Australian Poetry Journal 5.2 and 6.1

Michael Sharkey (editor),  Australian Poetry Journal, Volume 5, Issue 2 (2015)
———,  Australian Poetry Journal, Volume 6, Issue 1 (2016)

Australian Poetry Journal is the nearest thing we have to a community newsletter for Australian poets and poetry-readers. It is delivered twice a year to paid-up  members of Australian Poetry Ltd. My copy tends to wait until I’ve got a book on the go that’s too bulky to read while walking. Thanks to a couple of hefty books, I’ve recently caught up on two issues, as well as last year’s anthology (also covered by the cost of membership). In case you’re interested, the joys of these journals aren’t restricted to members: anyone can buy copies, and the entire contents of issue 5:2 are up online. I’ve included links.

APJ-5-2.jpg Issue 5:2 leads with a wonderful profile (here) by Dan Disney, Un Gyung Yi and Daye Jeon of some contemporary Korean poets, including octogenarian Ko Un, whom Allen Ginsberg called ‘a demon-driven Bodhisattva’. In other articles, Nicolette Stasko farewells JS Harry, who died last year, quoting generously from her work (here); there’s a knowledgable article about Stuart Cooke (here) and a number of reviews, including a piece on US poet and activist Denise Levertov by Felicity Plunkett (here); Adrian Caesar tells the story of David Musgrave’s Puncher & Wattmann (here).

I can’t resist mentioning that Adrian Caesar, who is enthusiastic about most of P&W’s publications, has misgivings about some of the criticism they publish. After quoting a paragraph of dense academic writing from a recent book, he lets fly:

In its determined promulgation of specialised language, its astonishing lack of wit or irony … and its pervading sense of high-minded seriousness, it made me wonder if the writers were not like adherents of some gnostic sect seeking to articulate their search for the numinous through their ‘belief’ in literary theory.

Shades of the Dunciad Minor.

Then there are the poems, roughly 50 of them. I turned down the corners of too many pages to talk about all the poems I responded to, so I’ll just list some of the raisins from the pudding.

Susan Hawthorne interrogates a photograph of her grandmother in ‘unknowing‘. Jennifer Compton’s ‘Two Women‘ explores the difficulty of the ‘inconstant narrative of bewilderment’ created by, well, is it dementia or just habitual white-lying? Ivy Alvarez, in ‘N‘ riffs on ‘n’ words chosen as if at random from the dictionary:

noctambulist:
_______I once walked out a sleeping house
_______to see the moon
_______trees tethered their shadows
_______and I was the only one that moved

Kit Kelen’s ‘In my incunabula‘ reminisces about technologies past, beginning:

TV was eternity.
There was always the promise of snow

Tom Morton’s ‘November‘ is a very Sydney poem, sweet to read on a cold July day:

The days get longer, a sudden heatwave
And the outrageous heavy sweetness
Of the jacarandas on the river path
Jiggles the deadlocks on
Whole rooms of me
I’ve not been in, this long winter

Jordie Albiston rings in the 2015 New Year in ‘strontium‘. Vanessa Proctor celebrates  a plant in ‘Bathroom Orchid‘. Ron Heard tackles birdsong in ‘currawongs‘. John Stokes offers an oblique love lyric in ‘She feels him at a seaside motel‘ (‘The curves of his buttock / and the moon / are the same’). There’s Andy Kissane, Eileen Chong, Ron Pretty … Michael Sharkey has put together a feast that has something for everyone.

APJ-6-1.jpgHe does it again in issue 6:1, which has a focus on women poets and their concerns: a lively article by Carol Jenkins brings an epidemiological approach to gender and age distribution in Australian poetry anthologies; Heather Taylor Johnson profiles Susan Hawthorne, poet–founder of feminist Spinifex Press; Tegan Schetrumpf argues that writing groups offer an alternative to the patriarchal lone-genius-poet paradigm. Off-theme, but who would complain, is a fine tribute by Helen Nickas to Dmitris Tsaloumis, Greek Australian poet who died in February aged 94; and reviews of work by πO and Lesbia Harford, among others.

And there are another 50 or so poems. I got tears in my eyes (though I defy anyone to guess at which poem), I smiled, I gasped, I felt moments of my own experience vibrate into new life.

‘Old haunts’, a haibun by Sam Wagan Watson, evokes childhood terrors at the sounds of the night. J. Richard Quigley’s ‘Fondue’ utters the thought one dare not speak when offered that cheesy dish. Heather Taylor Johnson’s ‘They Say’ makes poetry that transcends its ‘kids say the darnedest things’ source material. Rod Usher has serious fun with Italian verbs in ‘The imperfect’. My own peculiar edginess about kitchen knives is echoed uncannily in Claire Rosslyn Wilson’s ‘Cooking for Two’, and the precise language of ‘Stories from the kampong’, Mindy Gill’s narrative about a chicken-coop-raiding python, captured my own childhood memory of a similar incident (a significant difference being that, though we talked about the possibility, we didn’t eat the snake or the chickens it had eaten). Rozanna Lilley’s ‘Early onset’ touches on the pain of having someone close affected by dementia.The first poem of Brendan Doyle’s that I read began, from memory, ‘Sittin on the gasbox, / waitin for me dad’; in ‘The Wooden Gate’ here, his father ‘dead these sixteen years’ pays a reproachful visit in a dream. ‘Hearts and Minds’ by Stephen Edgar, master of rhyme, bounces beautifully off an artwork currently being created by the Emerging Artist. Dick Alderson’s ‘nail holes’ reminds me of my youthful fascination with the way holes in an iron shed ‘throw circles / on the floor / like soft pennies’.

There’s history: Virginia Jealous visits Edward ‘Weary’ Dunlop’s war diaries in ‘Weary’s Birds’; and Judith Beveridge’s ‘Ode to Ambergris’ does what it says on the lid, with lovely light musicality. There are elegiac moments, as in Pam Schindler’s ‘Like someone who is leaving’. In the twelve delicate short lines of ‘Jumhoori’, Hessom Razavi describes a cat and laments the state of his native Iran.

Paradoxically, given that I get no sense at all that these poems are competing with each other, there is a prize fort he best poem published in the journal each year.This issue includes 2015’s winner, Andy Kissane’s ‘Alone Again’, reprinted here with commentary from Andy.

I expect if you were asked to make a list of stand-out poems from these journals  your list would be different from mine, but I’m pretty confident you’d find something here to nourish you and give you pleasure.

Australian Poetry Journal 4:2

Michael Sharkey (editor),  Australian Poetry Journal, Volume 4, Issue 2 (2014)

I hope I don’t sound too surprised when I say that this issue of Australian Poetry Ltd’s twice-yearly journal is excellent. Any surprise isn’t at the excellence, but at other factors. Most of the poems are remarkably accessible, for instance. And it was a pleasure to meet in its pages quite a few people whose work I know reasonably well. Andy Kissane takes on school bullying in ‘Southerly’: ‘

I know from talking to Joshua that Fridays
at lunchtime are the worst. He won’t tell me what happens, he simply stares at his shoes.

joanne burns confronts a spider in ‘watch tower a reconnaissance’:

of cool voltaren no living creature has been
harmed in the writing of this poem except
perhaps the poet

Brendan Ryan ventures far from his native Victorian dairy farm in ‘Cows in India’;  B W Shearer, whom I know from my time in children’s literature, pays homage to a rainbow lorikeet in ‘A crowned queen’. I warmed to poems by Ron Pretty, Andrew Lansdown, Carol Jenkins, Liz Dolan, Rachael Mead, and they weren’t the only ones.

Besides the poetry there are a number of interesting articles. Dan Disney and Kit Kelen call on poets to resist destructive politics, specifically regarding asylum seekers, to rouse themselves and readers ‘from a collectively accepted nightmare’, and they give robust examples, from John Mateer and Vicki Viidikas to Bertolt Brecht, of poets who have done so. Oscar Schwartz induces us to think about computer generated poetry in ‘A Turing Test for Poetry’, timely perhaps because of the movie The Imitation Game, and – to me – almost totally unconvincing. Simon Patton gives an insightful account of a translator–poet relationship in ‘Translating Yu Jian: Encounter and transmission’. Vivian Gerrand interviews Claire Gaskin, who has interesting things to say about many things, in particular her writing process, and her belief that to be a decent writer you need to read three books a week (which makes me well on the way). Sarah Day profiles the all but forgotten Tasmanian poet Helen Power.

The journal is a perk of membership of Australian Poetry Ltd, and individual issues can be bought via the web site.

Andy Kissane’s Radiance

Andy Kissane, Radiance (Puncher & Wattmann 2014)

1radiance

Andy Kissane’s poetry is rooted in white, middle-class, heterosexual, inner-west Sydney. Among other things, it features memories of a Catholic childhood and celebrates non-dysfunctional domestic family life. And it’s terrific.

Maybe I think it’s terrific because all those descriptors apply to me as well. But the thing is, it’s a poetry that’s modest, witty, at times quietly ecstatic, and capable of looking well beyond the inner-city horizon.

As in Kissane’s earlier books, there are a number of dramatic monologues and other poems dealing with people suffering at the pointy end of capitalism – in Victorian London, on a Mexican street, at an airforce hangar, on a Cambodian garbage dump. Also as in earlier books, there are witty and poignant engagements with other writers – Keats, Shelley, Virginia Woolf (who criticises Kissane’s ‘infernal overwriting’), Dylan Thomas, Miklós Lorsi, Buddy Holly, Nick Hornby.

For me, it’s the more personal poems – poems of domesticity, if you like – that are the richest. I’ll try to articulate why by using the book’s title.

Forms of the word radiance occur in three poems. The first is ‘Trip to the Ice Rink’. The poem’s speaker performs ‘a role / crucial for adolescent wellbeing: efficient driving.’ In the opening lines his daughter gets into the car in a black mood, but:

By the time I pull up outside the Canterbury ice rink,
the thunder has blown away and the sky
is now a radiant, cloudless blue. ‘Thanks, Dad,’
she says, as she goes off to practise her Lutz.

The speaker’s focus shifts from wry acceptance of his utilitarian role:

I can see her as she concentrates on the long backward
glide, digs her toe pick down hard into the ice, lifts
and spins into the air, striving with her whole body
to land this difficult jump for the first time.

It’s a commonplace moment. But there’s a suggestion of the numinous in that father’s mental image of his daughter doing what is after all something fairly ordinary. The daughter’s smile is not the only radiance.

The second ‘radiance’ is in ‘Schooling the Heart’, whose three pages invoke scenes from Anna Karenina, kindergarten experiences with plasticine and cuisenaire rods, the self-immolation of Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức in Saigon in 1963, and Catholic iconography remembered from childhood: ‘the immaculate heart / of Mary radiating light, exploding like a penny bunger / wedged into a pine cone’. Despite the comical simile, that radiance is not to be discounted: the poem is suffused with a yearning – and the potential – to let one’s heart shine forth in spite of the rebuffs that have schooled it into caution.

Then there’s ‘Sea of Tranquillity’, the suite of nine poems that make up the fourth and final section of the book. The first, ‘Total Eclipse’, begins:

The Moon drinks tea from her favourite china cup,
decorated with the flowering tassels and green leaves
of a yellow gum.

The Moon turns out to do many things that a middle class woman in the inner west suburbs would do: she grows vegetables, argues violently about movies, serves up pizza, works with teenage drug abusers, goes to a poetry reading where she

________longs to read the book hidden
in her overcoat pocket, only she doesn’t want to appear
rude.

She’s clearly an ordinary woman, the speaker’s long term partner. ‘The Moon’ is not quite a metaphor, but it’s more than a nickname. Her pain – physical and emotional – is described as craters, and the poems are shot through with light imagery: at their first meeting (in ‘Total Eclipse’) she opens a door and he sees her lit from behind with ‘a fluttering corona pulsing around her outline’; elsewhere she sashays across the sky

with that long stride of hers, poised and frisky,
her radiant beauty set to shine all night long.

In another poem she is explicitly not ‘the celestial moon’. It’s playful, whimsical, and – though an epigraph from A Midsummer Night’s Dream warns against solemnity – lyrical. I read the sequence as a brilliant rebuttal of the truism that long term relationships by their nature become matters of habit, companionable maybe but pallid in comparison to the first flush of passion. This is completely convincing love poetry, and if I had to tie down the meaning of ‘radiance’ here I’d say it was the way the loved one (or the loved universe) appears to the lover.

One other thing: at a poetry reading in ‘Moon Rocks’, the speaker has an experience that would be familiar to many people who have attended such an event. The first reader’s words

______ collapse in on themselves
and I’m being sucked into the core of a black hole.

Not that there’s anything wrong with black-hole poetry, but Kissane doesn’t write it.

As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, I have co-written a short film script based on one of Andy Kissane’s poems. I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher.

Noel Beddoe’s Yalda Crossing

Noel Beddoe, The Yalda Crossing (UQP 2012)

0702249394 As Noel Beddoe says in an Author’s Note, this book is fiction, but adheres closely to the history of white settlement near what is now the township of Narrandera, including the Second Wiradjuri War and the massacre on Murdering Island. That’s the same massacre that lies in the background of our short film Ngurrumbang and Andy Kissane’s poem ‘The Station Owner’s Daughter, Narrandera’ that inspired us. It’s my great good fortune that the book wasn’t published until the screenplay was complete and pre-production was well under way – the first I heard of it was a comment from Jim Kable on my blog entry inviting people to donate via pozible. If I’d known of the book any sooner,  I would probably have been scared right off.

It’s a formidable achievement. Told from the point of view of Young James Beckett, as a teenager in the 1830s and as an old man in Sydney decades later, it is deeply embedded in its historical moments, and has a powerful sense of place. We care about the characters and come to appreciate their secrets and mysteries, not all of which are revealed, and some not until the last pages. The unfolding narrative gives us neither the ‘dun-dreary naturalism’ that Patrick White hated in Australian fiction, nor the black armband breastbeating that John w Howard claimed to discern and despise among Australian literati, nor again a ripping yarn of the frontier (though unless I’m very confused, Young James mentions reading some James Fenimore Cooper, whose novels must have been hot off the press). The tensions of the colonial society are there – English vs Irish, convicts vs free,  authority vs opportunism, women as a tiny, vulnerable minority – but they are embodied in recognisable individuals, facing particular dilemmas. I started this blog entry with the massacre, and most of the publicity for the book has centred around it, but the social, economic and moral world of the settlers is thoroughly fleshed out in its own right well before the prospect of massacre appears on the horizon.

Unlike other fictional treatments of atrocities against Aboriginal people, The Yalda Crossing lays the ground so that we understand how good people can deliberately commit abominable acts, not without reluctance, revulsion and remorse, but with a terrible sense of necessity. The good people who set the tone of the community aren’t drawn into the vortex of violence created by people less grammatically correct than they: when push comes to shove, they are the ones who orchestrate the terrible acts. Launching the book at the Sydney Institute last July, Linda Burney said that as a Wiradjuri woman, descendant of the victims, she had to skip the chapter where the massacre happens and come back to it later. Noel Beddoe, descendant of the perpetrators, doesn’t blink, and invites us, his semblables, to face our heritage with similarly unflinching gaze.

Linda Burney quoted a moment just before the massacre when a white man refuses to take part because he would lose his soul, which is more important to him than gaining the land. (Incidentally, it’s a gauge of the strength of Noel Beddoe’s writing that only when I typed it like that did I recognise the Biblical reference there.) For me, one of the devastatingly true things in the book is how that man, in spite of his genuine refusal to take part, is nonetheless in the end completely implicated.

Every bit as good, I think as Thea Astley’s A Kindness Cup or Kate Grenville’s The Secret River. (Links are to my blog entries, though the one on Kate Grenville’s book is very brief.)

Andy Kissane and the Swarm

Andy Kissane, The Swarm (Puncher and Wattmann 2012)

20121003-175856.jpg I read this collection of Andy Kissane’s short stories a month or so ago, just after reading some Chekhov stories for the first time. (The reason for the delay in posting is that – a rare event for me – I received an advance copy from the publisher, and the book isn’t being launched until Sunday.) The stories in The Swarm made me realise, with some embarrassment, that I had read Chekhov as if I was visiting a museum: it was interesting, instructive, challenging, but all at arm’s length, preserved, from another time and place. Andy Kissane’s stories are as alive and immediate as neighbourhood gossip.

Partly that’s because these stories, all except two, are set in the present. And partly because of the book’s strong sense of place. Most of the action takes place in an inner city landscape as distinctive as Chekhov’s rural villages, and the characters – musicians, mostly unsuccessful actors, a twenty-something artist, a young mother screwing up her courage to invite her recently widowed father to move in – are as much part of that landscape as Chekhov’s peasants, idlers and provincial bourgeoisie are of theirs. I imagine the sense of the local in these stories would appeal to any reader, including one for whom the Marlborough or St Vincent’s are no more than names, but it’s especially sweet to me because by and large, it’s my local.

[About 200 words about being a North Queenslander deleted here.]

A sense of place doesn’t make a good story, of course. And there is a lot more than that to enjoy here. Again and again a commonplace experience is seen freshly, charged with moral or emotional meaning the way commonplace things often are. A young man stands at a condom vending machine in a pub toilet. A couple spend an evening playing Monopoly when the TV set has died. An old man cleans up his daughter’s yard. A musician watches his cello being played badly by a prospective buyer. A man (who could have come from the pages of On Western Sydney) boasts of car-related derring-do. Looking at that fairly random list of closely observed, mostly domestic events, I realise that the common subject of the stories is love: romantic love, parental love, love betrayed, love unfulfilled, love surprisingly revived or belatedly recognised. Nothing flashy, just a deepening sense of what it means to be human and in connection.

The historical stories – ‘A Bright Blue Future’ and ‘A Mirror to the World’, about asbestos mining at Wittenoom and racist frontier violence respectively – mostly keep to a similar domestic perspective. They too can be read as about love – one man makes disastrous moral compromises out of concern for his family’s short-term wellbeing; tentative overtures between Aboriginal Australians and settlers end in disaster.

‘A Mirror to the World’ is the longest and most ambitious story in the collection. It is based on an incident that happened in Rockhampton in the 1870s – an incident, interestingly, that’s interpreted quite differently in Ross Gibson’s Seven Versions of an Australian Badland. At least, one of the story’s two narratives is based on that incident. The other belongs to the author–academic who is writing that historical narrative, in between running a creative writing course where he lectures on multiple narratives, mise-en-abîme and other devices that are used in the story itself. So, yes, unlike the other ten stories it draws attention to itself as an artefact. It does this in other ways as well. There are explicit references to at least two other stories in the collection: a character from one makes an offstage appearance, and a situation from another is echoed in detail. It’s cleverly done, and there’s a final twist that crowns the cleverness, but it serves a serious purpose. As the story turns back on itself, it opens the way for questions about what it means for a white Australian to tackle the appalling injustices of our colonial past, about the question of moral judgement, the difficulty of imagining the inner world of the early settlers without either surrendering or imposing a modern perspective. The ending is both a technical delight and a moral/political challenge. It’s a story I’d love to discuss – but not here, not to spoil it for people who haven’t read it.

Full disclosure: As well as receiving a free book, I have a degree of commitment to Andy Kissane’s work, since the script for the short film currently known as Scar!, which regular visitors here will know I co-wrote, was inspired by his poem ‘The Station Owner’s Daughter, Narrandera’.

Andy Kissane’s Every night they dance

Andy Kissane, Every Night They Dance (Five Islands Press 2000)

Someone I’ve never met emailed me to say they’d stumbled upon my blog post about Andy Kissane’s recent book, Out to Lunch, and told me among other things that the one remaining copy of his previous book was on the shelves at Gleebooks in Dulwich Hill. Well, what is one to do in response to such individualised marketing? I caught the 428 to Dulwich Hill that afternoon.

I probably would have bought this book if I’d picked it up by pure chance and opened it at the table of contents. It’s got ‘The Ghosts of Marrickville Metro’ – the ‘Tro is now my local shopping centre. It’s got ‘Jean Devanny Writes’ – Jean Devanny wrote Sugar Heaven, the socialist realist novel set in my town of origin. And it’s got ‘The Separation Sonnets’, a title that could have been designed as bait for me, sucker for the sonnet that I am.

The book is in two parts. The contents of the first could be described as public poems in one way or another. There are historical pieces, some of them monologues, like the Marrickville Metro poems or ‘The Station Owner’s Daughter, Narrandera’ (an elliptical account of a massacre). Other monologues are vehicles for meditation on art and artists: Arthur Streeton, John Brack, Jean Devanny (though that one is a letter – to ‘Miles’ – rather than strictly a monologue). And there’s a longish narrative, ‘Tristan and Isolde’, that has genuine emotional force, but somehow feels public, like a reflection on modern relationships rather than a cry from the thick of it.

The second part gets personal. Narrative is still the dominant mode, but mostly it feels as if the voice of the poems is close to being Andy Kissane’s. Even an obvious exception, ‘Fanny Burney’s Mastectomy, 1811’, takes on a very intimate feel from being part of ‘Breast Triptych’, in the other two poems of which the poet tells of his mother’s breast cancer. There are poems about the vicissitudes of renting, the joys of sex (‘Beyond Metaphor’), the awkwardness of a father-son relationship. The 12 unrhymed ‘Separation Sonnets’ tell a story that may be just as much a fiction as ‘Tristan and Isolde’, but it’s much more rooted in a sense of real life and cuts much closer to the bone.

And then there are the poems about reproduction – ‘Miscarriages’, ‘Nineteen Weeks’, ‘Christmas Tree’ and ‘Birth’. All of these are wonderful, wonderful. I don’t remember reading anything by a man on these subjects, certainly nothing as unaffectedly heartfelt. The middle two in particular, dealing with a late-stage abortion, are finely poised, tender, undefensive, generous, heartbreaking.

Thanks, Andy.

Andy Kissane’s Out to Lunch

Andy Kissane, Out to Lunch (Puncher & Wattman 2009)

Continuing on my advance reading for the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards: here’s another title from the shortlist.

This book’s cover, featuring an electric plug that looks more North American than Australian, led me to expect some kind of postmodern smart-arsery that would speak to a placeless, hip readership. Then ‘The Earlwood–Bardwell Park Song Cycle’ on the contents page seemed to promise more smart-arsery, this time taking the mickey out of Les Murray’s ‘Taree–Buladelah Holiday Song Cycle’. I was prepared, one way and/or the other, to be alienated, left out in the cold, feeling like I was too just old for this world.

It didn’t happen like that at all. After being tantalised by Anna Kerdijk Nicholson’s poetry and wrestling with Francis Webb’s, I took to Andy Kissane’s like a duck, or perhaps a horse, to water. The first poem, ‘Loaves and Days’, describes a baker at work; the second, ‘Bus Ride with Grey Owl and Dancing Woman’ has a woman dancing on a bus to the music from her Walkman while the poet reads Native American poems at the back of the bus. There are poems about surfing, about the death of friends, about the joys of fatherhood, about visiting friends and family in Melbourne, about adolescent ideals (what does happen to them?). The poems are mostly conversational – no extreme compression of language or dense metaphor, none of the quality I think the blurbs mean when they say poems are permeable or unfenced (something like,’Here are the words, you make the meaning’). Some are pleasantly silly – ‘The Humble Sausage’, for instance is a collection of short pieces having fun with famous lines (‘I wandered lonely as a sausage / Without a slice of bread …’). Some celebrate quotidian joys:

My daughter runs ahead, hair flying out behind her
like the tail of a beloved horse – an appaloosa

mare or brindle stallion – her hoofs kicking
up sand as she jumps the creek and canters
towards the rocks.

As for ‘The Earlwood–Bardwell Park Song Cycle’, there’s nothing smart-arse or mickey-taking about it, though it’s not without humour. In fact, I just checked and found that Les Murray included a section of it in his Best Australian Poems 2005. And it’s deeply deeply rooted in a place that isn’t far from places I know well myself. Let me quote the ending, because it’s lovely, and also because it mentions my new home suburb:

 _________________The moon rises over the hills
of Marrickville, the moon of workers and mystics, the moon
of the tax return and the tax refund, the cadmium yellow moon
of homework and tears at bedtime. The moon of the coming
election, of palm tree and  hoop pine, of all things passed and yet
to pass. Swaying peacefully in the water until a fish jumps
and the globe breaks, before forming again – the full moon
hanging in the dark sky and floating in the dark water.

Paradoxically, the book’s final section, the source of its title, is the one that appealed least to me. The poet has lunch with a series of literary figures – Osip Mandelstam, Atticus Finch, Raskolnikov, and so on – and tells about them in poems with a studiedly dashed-off feel. It’s a nice idea, one that makes me itch to give it a go for my own amusement – just imagine lunch with one of Marilynne Robinson’s patriarchs, or Sam Pollitt, or for that matter Henny Pollitt! But compared to the rest of the book they feel (to me – I may be missing something) so light as to be hardly there at all.

NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Shortlist

The 2011 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Shortlist seems to have been announced without the usual Macquarie Street gathering for PowerPoint and photo ops. That probably makes sense, given that the Premier has a lot on her mind just now, and barring a total windfall for the bookies she won’t be Premier when the awards are presented in May. Or maybe I just wasn’t invited this year. But I’m not bearing a grudge, and I was busy that day anyhow. For those who find it irritating to have to flick back and forth to read the different short lists on the Awards site, here they all are at the bottom of this post – the links take you to the NSWPLA website’s discussion of the title.

I haven’t read, or in the case of the plays seen, very much from the list at all. Speaking from the heart of my prejudice, I don’t much want to read any of the Christina Stead titles except Utopian Man and Night Street, both novels about eminent Victorians (the State rather than the era). I’m tempted by all the Douglas Stewart titles – this is where literary awards really do serve a purpose, by drawing attention to books like Tony Moore’s history of political prisoners among the Australian convicts, Death or Liberty, which might otherwise have gone unnoticed, at least by me. I’m glad to see Jennifer Maiden’s book on the Kenneth Slessor list, but I haven’t read any of the others. In the past the NSWPLA lists have led me to interesting poets, so I’m inclined to go in search of Susan Bradley Smith, Andy Jackson, Jill Jones (of whom I’m ashamed to say I’ve yet to read a book), Anna Kerdijk Nicholson and Andy Kissane.

Of the remaining lists, what can I say? I’m out of touch with writing for ‘young people’ (a term I understand here as designating teenagers), but my friend Misrule was an Ethel Turner judge, and I’m confident in her judgement. Though I’ve only read one from the Patricia Wrightson list,  I know the work of five of the six writers, and will be delighted whichever of them becomes several thousand dollars richer come mid-May. If the other books are as good as The Three Loves of Persimmon, it’s a vintage year. I’ve seen four of the six scripts produced for the big or little screen, and wouldn’t know how to choose between them for excellence – another vintage crop. I heard Ali Azadeh read from Iran: My Grandfather at last year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival, and it’s been on my TBR list since then.

Here are the lists:

The Christina Stead Prize for Fiction
Peter Carey – Parrot and Olivier in America
Stephen Daisley – Traitor
Lisa Lang – Utopian Man
Alex Miller – Lovesong
Kristel Thornell – Night Street
Ouyang Yu – The English Class

The Douglas Stewart Prize for Non-fiction
Malcolm Fraser and Margaret Simons – Malcolm Fraser: The Political Memoirs
Anna Krien – Into the Woods: The Battle for Tasmania’s Forests
Tony Moore – Death or Liberty: Rebels and Radicals Transported to Australia 1788-1868
Ranjana Srivastava – Tell Me The Truth: Conversations With My Patients About Life And Death
Maria Tumarkin – Otherland
Brenda Walker – Reading By Moonlight: How Books Saved a Life

Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry
Susan Bradley Smith – Supermodernprayerbook
Andy Jackson – Among the Regulars
Jill Jones – Dark Bright Doors
Anna Kerdijk Nicholson – Possession
Andy Kissane – Out to Lunch
Jennifer Maiden – Pirate Rain

Ethel Turner Prize for Young People’s Literature
Michelle Cooper – The FitzOsbornes in Exile: The Montmaray Journals – 2
Cath Crowley – Graffiti Moon
Kirsty Eagar – Saltwater Vampires
Belinda Jeffrey – Big River, Little Fish
Melina Marchetta – The Piper’s Son
Jaclyn Moriarty – Dreaming of Amelia

Patricia Wrightson Prize for Children’s Literature
Jeannie Baker – Mirror
Libby Gleeson and Freya Blackwood – Clancy and Millie and the Very Fine House
Cassandra Golds – The Three Loves of Persimmon
John Heffernan – Where There’s Smoke
Sophie Masson – My Australian Story: The Hunt for Ned Kelly
Emma Quay – Shrieking Violet

Community Relations Commission Award
Ali Alizadeh – Iran: My Grandfather
Anh Do – The Happiest Refugee
Maria Tumarkin – Otherland
Ouyang Yu – The English Classm
Yuol Yuol, Akoi Majak, Monica Kualba, John Garang Kon and Robert Colman – My Name is Sud

UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing
Stephen Daisley – Traitor
Ashley Hay – The Body in the Clouds
Lisa Lang – Utopian Man
David Musgrave – Glissando: A Melodrama
Kristel Thornell – Night Street
Gretchen Shirm – Having Cried Wolf

Play Award
Patricia Cornelius – Do Not Go Gentle…
Jonathan Gavin – Bang
Jane Montgomery Griffiths – Sappho…In 9 Fragments
Melissa Reeves – Furious Mattress
Sue Smith – Strange Attractor
Anthony Weigh – Like a Fishbone

Script Writing Award
Shirley Barrett – South Solitary
Glen Dolman – Hawke
Michael Miller – East West 101, Season 3: The Hero’s Standard
John Misto – Sisters of War
Debra Oswald – Offspring
Samantha Strauss – Dance Academy, Episode 13: Family