Tag Archives: Australian Women Writers Challenge

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.

Cathy McLennan’s Saltwater

Cathy McLennan, Saltwater (UQP 2016)

saltwater.jpegDon’t be misled by the sales pitch on the front cover of Saltwater: ‘An epic fight for justice in the tropics.’ It’s not exactly false, but in so far as it suggests a grand fictional narrative, it’s certainly misleading. This is Cathy McLennan’s account of the first months of her employment as a brand new barrister. A non-disclaimer after the title page begins, ‘This book is a personal account based upon real events, real crimes, real people and real court cases.’

I was predisposed to like it because it mentions my niece Paula Shaw’s Seven Seasons in Aurukun in its acknowledgements. It turns out that it has a lot in common with Paula’s book. Paula went as a teacher to Aurukun, where she was confronted daily with the failure of the education system to meet the needs of the Aboriginal community; Cathy McLennan worked for the Townsville and Districts Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders Corporation for Legal Aid Services, and was confronted by the even greater, more tragic failure of the legal system.

The central narrative involves four young Aboriginal men who are accused of murdering an older white man, a case that landed on McLennan’s desk in her first days on the job. She is inexperienced, but the service is underfunded and understaffed, so she is given responsibility for the case. At first she is convinced of the innocence of the four, and it looks as if a standard TV episode narrative of vindication of the clients will unfold. This story, being real, is both more interesting and complex than that, and also much grimmer.

In this, and the other stories, particularly that of an appallingly abused eleven-year-old girl who meets with half-hearted good intentions from Children’s Services and peremptory punitiveness from the court system, the book forces its readers to look directly at the level of damage being done to children in places like Palm Island. She doesn’t spend time analysing the causes. She doesn’t need to. At every turn, Aboriginal people are struggling to do right by the young ones, but their efforts are thwarted by the result of the damage they have suffered and by indifferent, even hostile government bodies. Nor does she propose solutions: this is an account from the front line of a non-Aboriginal person trying to be of use, and coming hard up against the horrors (not too strong a word) of some Aboriginal lives, not a political tract.

My sense is that this is a book that should be widely read, especially by non-Indigenous Australians, but that it should be read along with any number of other books, because read alone, even though there are many strong, smart Aboriginal people in its pages, it could easily be read as preaching despair. But read alongside, say, books by Aboorignal people like Lesley and Tammy Williams’ Not Just Black and White, or Stan Grant’s Talking to My Country, or by other non-Aboriginal people who work with remote Aboriginal communities, like Andrew Stojanowski’s Dog Ear Cafe or (added later, thanks to Jim Kable in the comments) Kim Mahood’s Position Doubtful, it’s a powerful addition to the knowledge pool.

aww2017.jpgSaltwater is the fifth book I’ve read for the 2017 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Maxine Beneba Clarke’s Hate Race

Maxine Beneba Clarke, The Hate Race (Hachette Australia 2016)

haterace.jpgI finished reading The Hate Race on the eve of the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, celebrated in Australia as Harmony Day, and this year the day on which the Turnbull government put forward legislation intended to make it legal to insult, offend or humiliate someone on the basis of their race.

As a result, soon after finishing the book I read Adam Liaw’s Twitter thread being ‘a bit frank about race’ (well worth reading), and some of the painful contributions to the thread #FreedomofSpeech initiated by Benjamin Law. These read almost as continuations of the book, placing it as part of a vast, continuing, necessary conversation. The connection became explicit when Benjamin Law tweeted a recommendation to ‘read Maxine Beneba Clarke’s memoir of growing up black in Australia. Utter punch in the guts’. And it’s true that Clarke’s book gives devastating heft to the abstractions ‘insult’, ‘offend’ and ‘humiliate’.

But it would be a mistake to think of The Hate Race as an extended tweet about racism, whether micro-agressive, casual, everyday, or viciously intentional. It’s a beautifully written memoir about growing up as an Caribbean–African-heritage girl in suburban Sydney in the 1980s and 1990s. Its focus on racism gives it power and coherence, but doesn’t stop it from being very funny in places and heartbreaking in others, from having a satisfying (and surprising) overall narrative arc, and any number of story-telling pleasures along the way. The narrator tells us again and again that she is making a story out of her experience. ‘This is how it happened,’ goes her refrain, ‘or what’s a story for.’

There’s a wonderful tale involving Cabbage Patch Kids, and Maxine’s time on the debating team in high school is a source of complex humour. There are stories of teenage love, of intellectual adventure, of defiance, smart-arsery and righteousness. I expect that anyone who has been to school in Australia will recognise the truth of the playground politics.

There’s one passage I’m tempted to quote as most vividly transcending the extended-tweet form and exemplifying the book’s complex honesty – for those who’ve read it, I’m thinking of the ‘incident with Baghita Singh’ from Chapter 19. But I’ll avoid spoilers. Here’s a taste, from Chapter 7, of the world as seen by little Maxine, one of many such tiny gems:

I have only one memory of entering a church with my mother. In it, I am about four years old. We are walking, my mother and I, along Wrights road on the way home from preschool, when the heavens unexpectedly open. Sheets of freezing rain pour down on us. Umbrella-less, we huddle under the small awning of the nearby white-painted timber Anglican church. But the rain seems to be chasing us, curving in under the church awning in piercing darts, as if directing us into the arms of the Lord.
—–When my mother eases open the heavy wooden church door, rows of polished pews with plush red cushioning reveal themselves. Light streams through the pretty stained-glass windows.
—–‘What is this place?’ I am breathless with awe. ‘It looks like the inside of a Pizza Hut restaurant.’

At about the halfway point, I was filled with vicarious terror for the people whose names are named: Carlita Allen, Maxine’s vicious nemesis from the first day of preschool; Mrs Kingsley, the preschool teacher who smilingly refused to believe that a little black girl’s father could be a mathematician; Mrs Hird, who turned a deaf ear to racist taunts and objected furiously to the use of the word racism;  the vile bullies Derek Healey and Greg Adams; all the abusive children and adolescents, the obtuse or collusive teachers. It was a relief to read in the acknowledgements that all names apart from the author’s have been changed. But I do hope that Carlita and Greg and Derek and the rest read the book and are inspired to do some hard thinking. As a white man, I’ve been pushed to face at least bystander behaviour on my part. Perhaps even John Howard and Pauline Hanson, offstage characters whose names are not changed, might have their worlds expanded if they open these pages.

aww2017.jpgThe Hate Race is the fourth book I’ve read for the 2017 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Kim Mahood’s Position Doubtful

Kim Mahood, Position Doubtful: Mapping landscapes and memories (Text 2016)

pd.jpgSome time in 1997, Kim Mahood was chatting with the mother of the young manager of the Tanami Downs cattle station in the Northern Territory. A fragment of that conversation made it into this book:

– I love this country, she said. People don’t understand. There aren’t words to describe it.

One way of reading Position Doubtful is as Mahood’s attempt to find ways of communicating her love of that country, not  in any easy sense, but as the complex engagement of one who ‘feels an almost cellular affinity to a place that has been constructed by a different cultural imagination’: she spent her late childhood and early teenage years in ‘a tract of country that extends across the Tanami Desert to the edge of the East Kimberley’ and has been returning to it now for twenty years.

Though Mahood writes beautifully, words aren’t her only means of communication. Among other things the book describes a number of art projects that grapple with her relationship to the country. As well as her own works, and more interesting than them in the telling, are her collaborations with artist Pam Lofts on surreal photographic works involving high heels and a rowboat in the desert; and with people – mostly women – from Aboriginal communities to create large maps annotated with Indigenous and non-Indigenous place names, the names of people, history and Dreaming stories. The book’s first paragraphs invite us to think of the book as just such a map – ‘position doubtful’ is an annotation from an old map of the desert, a term that satellite technology has rendered obsolete, though it retains its power here to describe ‘the way in which white Australians move through and occupy the country, especially the less accessible parts of it’.

To engage with the land is to engage with the people who live there, so the book includes riveting accounts of cross-cultural relationships, in which Mahood has a ‘position doubtful’ status as insider–outsider: she’s not Aboriginal, but people who know her acknowledge that she is from that place. Sometimes the old women expect her to know things and she has to consult her GPS device surreptitiously so as not to disappoint them. Her half-in-half-out status gives a vivid intimacy to her descriptions of life at the Balgo Art Centre and the tiny community of Mulan, her accounts of a number of mapping projects, the Canning Stock Route Art Project, an archaeological expedition with (among others) Mike Smith, author of The Archaeology of Australia’s Deserts.

This is not a drop-in account of life in remote Australia. It’s in part a memoir about friendship, including a number of bereavements, in part a reflection on an artistic practice, in part a record of Aboriginal testimony. Some of the interactions with Aboriginal women are so intense – some funny, others tragic – that it’s a relief to read towards the end that Mahood read large parts of the book to people at Mulan:

I face the assembled group with my manuscript.
– I’ve been working with you for a long time, I say. I’ve written down your stories, I’ve mapped your country with you, I’ve made a radio program, I’ve helped to write books about you and for you. Now it’s my turn. I’m going to tell my side of the story.
I read everything I think might offend or upset people. Bessie is not sure about the moment on the Canning Stock Route trip when we all say we stink, but the others laugh and tell her that it’s really funny. Many of the people in the room are not literate, but the context, the animation I bring to the reading, the knowledge people have of the events and places, transcends the barrier of language….
When I stop reading they demand more. Seeing themselves through my eyes is a beguiling novelty. The ancient authority of storytelling maintains its power to captivate.

It maintains that power for me too. I think this book will engross anyone who grew up in rural Australia, and especially, I imagine, in desert regions knowing traditional Aboriginal people. It will grip anyone interested in Western Desert art, or the question of how to live awarely as a non-Indigenous Australian My one sorrow is that almost all of the reproductions of art works in the paperback edition are too small and muddy to be of much use. The book cries out for an edition with larger, full-colour illustrations.

aww2017.jpgPosition Doubtful is the third book I’ve read for the 2017 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Kathryn Lomer’s Night Writing

Kathryn Lomer, Night Writing (University of Queensland Press 2014)

nw.jpgKathryn Lomer has been to places I’ve been, loved music I’ve loved, had experiences similar to mine, learned things I’ve learned, and uses words about them that opens doors for me. A rural Catholic childhood, science and maths, bushwalking, parenthood, sex, the ups and downs of relationships, camping holidays, birds, cattle, several kinds of loss, several kinds of revival, surgery, music, visual art and sculpture, the quality of daylight, Brisbane and Melbourne art galleries, North Queensland tourist spots: she makes warm, intelligent, accessible poetry from all these.

An attractive feature of her work is the way it’s grounded in science and physical experience, while open to kinds of feeling generally associated with religion or fantasy. This stanza from ‘Measure’, for example:

I used to make shell necklaces on Hawley Beach,
my mother saying fairies made the shell holes
to help little children do just that.
I tell my son sea urchins
drill a hole to get at food inside.
Truth is also extraordinary

And how about this bit of taxonomical music from ‘Spyhopping’, which is addressed to humpback whales:

Your name is a parsing of the past:
animalia chordata vertebrata mammalia
cetacea mysticeti balaenopteridae
megaptera novaeangliae
;
a prayer said in Latin
that you survive.

The book is in five sections. There’s a lot to say about all of them, but I’ll start with the fourth, ‘Eclipse plumage’, which reads pretty much as a narrative. The title poem gives the set-up:

I read in my bird book of females’
changed feathers after breeding:
eclipse plumage.
They become undistinguished.
Here, my colour has come back.
It’s all the walking, I say.
The fresh air. The land.
Silly, I know, but I grin
all the way to the river.

In the next poem, ‘Paddock bull’, the bull is not distracted by cows lowing in the next paddock, ‘though I detect a little bit of pink interest’. And from there on, a narrative can be pieced together: ‘Here’ in the lines above is an artists’ and writers’ retreat at Bundanon in New South Wales, and the returning colour is the stirrings of desire, in abeyance since she became a mother, presumably some years before; a painter of birds reciprocates, they vacillate (‘we’ve said the timing isn’t right, / but all day we will wonder / What if it is?‘), go for it (as conveyed in ‘Lovers below Brasso tin’ which mainly describes the drypoint by Arthur Boyd for which it is named, in which ‘lovers are suspended in lust’), and in a final two poems ‘Men without sorrows’ and ‘Contentment’ say goodbye.

Nine of the ten poems in the section contribute at least indirectly to this narrative – which raises questions about the other poem, a double sestina at the beginning of the section, ‘The fencer and his mate’. (A sestina has six 6-line stanzas, each stanza having the same six end-words, but in a changing order, followed by a 3-line stanza using all six ‘end-words’. ‘The fencer and his mate’ does it twice, with two sets of end-words.) It’s a stunning poem in its own right. As if the complex recurrent rhymes aren’t enough, a number of other words and motifs recur, and the poem’s technical whizzery functions as a kind of homage to the fencers’ skill with their axes and saws. Nothing in it relates obviously to the main narrative of the section, but then near the end of ‘Contentment’, there’s this:

Across the Shoalhaven, a dead tree is chain-sawed for firewood,
next winter’s warmth to be stored

as comforting in its woodpile pattern
as the promise of love

That stands by itself, but it also sends us back to the final lines of that first poem, which on first reading struck an odd note by speaking of ‘love’ between the fencer and his mate (rhyme words are straight, earn, axe, true, sleep and new):

and moist and ready. To tell it straight, what they can earn
is each other’s love, that feeling like an axe, something fine and true,
like a sound sleep, two lives made new.

We’re left with the hovering notion of ‘two lives made new’ in a passing holiday affair.

Once I’ve committed myself to reading for narrative, it’s hard not to read the final section, ‘Holy Days’, as telling what happens next. There’s a rough equivalent to the earlier poem’s new plumage in ‘Shy’, which speaks of the ‘platypus of the bedroom’:

it comes in only at night,
wraps itself around my waist and thighs,
strokes my breast and buttocks,
nuzzles, sometimes settles on my belly.
Gone is the begetting,
the wearing, the faring well.
Here in the dark,
all is fine.

There’s a man who spends time with the poet and the son who was noticeably absent from the ‘Eclipse Plumage’ section. This man seems to be a keeper, and when the two of them go on a North Queensland holiday in the sequence ‘Holy Days’ (roughly a quarter of the section) there’s no need for a Boyd print to convey their physical joy in each other. Then in a couple of lines that must bring joy to the heart of anyone raised as a Catholic:

Yes, it’s an indulgence.
As a child, and in my church,
the word meant punishment was cancelled,
everything forgiven.
They’ve skipped purgatory
and sent me straight to heaven.

aww2017.jpgNight Writing is the second book I’ve read for the 2017 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Jennifer Maiden’s Metronome

Jennifer Maiden, The Metronome (ebook, Quemar Press 2016)

metronome.jpg

Jennifer Maiden’s poetry inhabits the news cycle the way another poet’s might a particular landscape. Kevin Rudd’s pursed lips, George W Bush’s nose, Tanya Plibersek’s smile, Tony Abbott’s hurt look – all have been sharply observed and made meaningful in her poems. In The Metronome, Hillary Clinton’s ‘crazy campaign smile’ joins the list, along with

the movements of a little-marching-girl, the
drilled expansive gestures.

In many Maiden poems of the last half-dozen collections, someone – a historical or fictional personage – wakes up and engages with a contemporary political figure or another fictional character. Ten of the 15 poems in The Metronome are of this sort. I tend to read these poems naively. That is, I just enjoy the conversations: what do Eleanor Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln have to say to Hillary Clinton; what do Jeremy Corbyn and Constance Markiewicz discuss as they stride out on the moors; and who wouldn’t want to eavesdrop on Tanya Plibersek and Jane Austen? In other poems too, whether they’re picking a fight with a critic (only one in this book, in ‘Jennifer Maiden Woke Up outside the Fourth Wall’), or reflecting on the uses of Rodin’s The Kiss or Catalonia (these two add to a substantial list of ‘uses of’ poems), the conversational mode draws one in: one reads for the argument (in this book, a recurring subject is economic austerity), the wit, the odd twists of mind and unexpected digressions. Sometimes, as in the adventures of Clare Collins and George Jeffreys, characters from her three Play with Knives novels, one reads for the story.

Like any good conversation, these poems tend to touch, glancingly or attentively, on a wide range of subjects. I found myself reading with my phone near at hand: I watched Vladimir Miller singing Veniamin Basner’s ‘Leningrad Metronome’ on YouTube (for the poem ‘Metronome’); I checked to see if Malcolm Turnbull’s middle name really is ‘Bligh’ and William Bligh really was a water-colourist (for ‘Temper’); I satisfied my curiosity about the unnamed critic; I read Wikipedia on Constance Markiewicz (for ‘The gazelle’), Dick Whittington (for ‘‘Turn Again, Whittington’’) and the brumby cull in the Australian Alps (for ‘George Jeffreys 19: George Jeffreys Woke Up in Thredbo’). I found some lovely intertextual serendipity: Clare – in ‘Clare and Nauru’ – mentions that the Nauruan government invested a lot of money in a West End Musical about Leonardo Da Vinci. A little after reading that, I heard the This American Life episode ‘In the Middle of Nowhere‘ in which, at about the 15 minute mark, a couple of lines from that musical are sung. This American Life‘s description of the Nauru landscape echoes Clare’s:

She herself had wondered: was it flammable?
The wide stripped-bare belly of the island
with its lorn coral peaks clawing up
where the pasty soil had been? One
could not plant crops here now. The lagoon
of freshwater near here shone toxic. There
generations ago young saltwater fish
had been trapped by the tribal families,
and adapted to freshwater, kept to grow
for food, like the family pigs.

All that is pleasurable (not the devastation of Nauru, but the interplay of texts), and there’s pleasure in the way the words sit on the page. I notice, though, that when I try to read a passage to a long-suffering companion, I have trouble: I can see that the lines are musical but I can’t read them aloud musically. I mention this here, because in another piece of serendipity I read Clive James’s Poetry Notebooks in rough tandem with The Metronome. I doubt if these poems are to James’s taste. They certainly lack the thing he seems to prize above all else: rigorous adherence to an established metric form which plays against the rhythms of normal speech. But nor are they the formless self expression he despises.

I want to mention two things related to that. First, Maiden’s use of enjambment: often a line ends with the first word or two of a new phrase – three of the ten lines from ‘Clare and Nauru’ above, for example – or a line break falls after a preposition or between an adjective and the noun it refers to. Something in the poetry plays against the conversational rhythms after all. It’s nothing as orderly as James’s classical model, but it keeps the reader on her/his toes.

Second, she uses rhyme a lot, though not always obviously. I was shocked to realise, for example, that all but two of the 34 lines of ‘George Jeffreys 19’ rhyme with either ‘so’ or ‘cull’. Here’s the start:

George Jeffreys woke up depressed in Thredbo.
It was too early for autumn snow.
Clare was at a meeting to organise local
resistance to the planned brumby cull
of ninety per cent of the wild horses, no
great hope to prevent it, although
she would ghost herself trying. So,
he thought, the death aura of Thredbo
– there for years after decades ago
an avalanche caused by a kill
of non-native trees crushed all
asleep in a hillside building – now
would return like the hooves of dead foals
along an icy grassy overflow.

Maybe there’s even an iambic tetrameter lurking there. Whatever, I enjoy and am challenged by my first, naive read, and then find more on each further read. As I think I’ve said before, I’m a fan.

The Metronome was published by Quemar Press as an ebook (available on the Press’s website for $5) on the night of the US presidential election – quite a feat given that in its final poem, ‘George Jeffreys 20: George Jeffreys Woke up in Washington’, Donald Trump’s ‘soft voice sounded infinitely defeated’ when he told George over the phone that he’d won the election. The publication in paper form by Giramondo is scheduled for February.

Quemar Press has reissued Maiden’s novel Play with Knives and published for the first time its sequel, Complicity, which has been around in manuscript for decades. Recently it has also published a third novel, George and Clare and the Grey Hat Hacker. All three novels are available for free from the press’s website.

aww2017.jpgEven though I started reading The Metronome last year, I think it’s legitimate to count it as the first book I’ve read for the 2017 Australian Women Writers Challenge. It’s a great start to a year’s reading.

AWW 2016 challenge completed

AWW2016 This is my mandatory round-up post about the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge 2016. I undertook to read 10 books by Australian women writers. I read 14, which ranged from revelatory and richly entertaining to definitely meant for readers who aren’t me. Here they are. I’ve tried to be clever with the lay-out. My apologies if it shows up on your screen as a jumble.

Poetry:

img_1551

Pam Brown
Missing Up

x

x

x

x

x

x

x

frag.jpg

Antigone Kefala
Fragments

x

x

x

x

x

x

x

Novels:

seahearts

Margo Lanagan
Sea Hearts

x

x

x

x

x

x

x

x

x

x

x

x

x

x

Short Fiction:

lp

Michelle Cahill
Letter to Pessoa

x

x

x

x

x

x

x

Memoirs:

njb&w

Lesley and Tammy Williams
Not Just Black and White

x

x

x

x

x

x

x

A comic (that’s a graphic novel to those who think ‘comics’ means superheroes or Disney):

alli

Lee Whitmore
Ada Louise

 

x

x

x

x

x

x

Essays:

qe60

Laura Tingle
Political Amnesia

1925355365

Helen Garner Everywhere I Look

 

x

x

x

x

x

x

I’m signing up for the 2017 challenge.

My general gender stats: This year I read 39 books by men and 31 by women.This includes at least five (the Y: The Last Man series) that were jointly written by a man and a woman.

Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites at the Book Group & November Verse 14

Hannah Kent, Burial Rites (Picador 2013)

burial-rites.jpg Before the meeting: This book is based on the real story of the last woman to be executed in Iceland, an event that happened in 1830. My knowledge of Iceland, which comes mainly from photographs of stark, beautiful, treeless landscapes and Grímur Hákonarson’s movie Rams, led me to expect that any novel set there would be grim. So a novel culminating an execution could only be more so.

Grim or not, I loved it. I’ve raved about it to people met in the park, and barely restrained myself from reading bits aloud to the Emerging Artist (now known as the Heart Lady, but that’s another story).

At the beginning Agnes, convicted of brutally murdering her employer, is being transferred from one place of imprisonment to another. She is filthy, malodorous and barely able to speak. (Interestingly, her condition at the beginning of the novel bears a striking resemblance to that of the women towards the end of Charlottte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things, which I imagine was being written at the same time as this.) While awaiting execution, she is sent as a cost-saving measure to live with the family of a local official who lives near the planned place of execution.

The main narrative follows Agnes’ developing relationships with members of the host family: father, mother and two young adult daughters. At first the family are convincingly and reasonably horrified that they will have to share their house with this monster, though right from their first encounter the mother of the household is even more horrified at the way Agnes has been treated. A young trainee clergyman is assigned to attend to Agnes’ spiritual needs. Against the advice and instructions of his superiors, he refrains from preaching sternly at her and instead encourages her to talk to him. Because of the size of their dwelling and the bitter Icelandic winter, the family hear much of what passes between them, and we learn her story along with them. As you’d expect from the set-up, in the process they come to see her not as a monster but as a fellow human – more a servant than a prisoner.

All of that is beautifully done, though the story Agnes tells, a story of love betrayed, is less compelling than the circumstances of its telling. And then there is the narration told direct to the reader from Agnes’ point of view. This is where we learn Agnes’ inner story – the erotic experiences that she can’t speak of, and her emotional life. In these sections Hannah Kent’s writing, never less than elegant elsewhere, is rich and poetic without being hi-falultin, so that I for one was completely drawn in. I don’t remember ever being so caught up by a deft use of similes. Here’s a passage from fairly early on, when Agnes has begun to work again,  trusted to use a scythe:

I let my body fall into a rhythm. I sway back and forth and let gravity bring the scythe down and through the grass, until I rock steadily. Until I feel that I am not moving myself, and that the sun is driving me. Until I am a puppet of the wind, and of the scythe, and of the long, slow strokes that propel my body forward. Until I couldn’t stop if I wanted to.

It’s a good feeling, not quite being in control. Of being gently swung back and forth, until I forget what it is to be still. Like being with Natan in the first months when my heartbeat shuddered through me and I could have died, I was so happy to be desired.

The book’s power has something to do with the strong sense of a particular time and place. The world-building, to borrow a term from SF/F discourse, is extraordinarily convincing. In her acknowledgements, Hannah Kent says she set out to write a ‘dark love letter to Iceland’. She has succeeded in spades.

The meeting: As it was the last meeting of the year, we ate at the new (to most of us) Tramsheds in Glebe, and gave each other gift-wrapped books from our shelves. As always in restaurants, the background noise was a dampener in general conversation. But we all enjoyed the book. Someone compared it unfavourably to Halldór Laxness’s Independent People, saying that at times Burial Rites broke free of its early 19th Century Icelandic setting and resorted to tropes from 20th century romance fiction. Specifically, if I understood him correctly, Agnes’s internalised sense of the master–servant relationship vanished too easily and was replaced by an anachronistic expectation of romantic love and fidelity. In general we could see what he meant. Likewise, we all agreed when someone said that it was obvious what was going to happen from the very beginning: the family would soften towards Agnes, and her story as it emerged would reveal either innocence or major extenuating circumstances. Neither of these criticisms dampened the general enthusiasm for the book.

There were some mostly audible, goosebump-inducing readings of passages our Post-it warrior had marked.

Then we cheerfully turned away from the spartan, claustrophobic and bitterly cold world of the novel and enjoyed a meat-heavy meal in a flash new restaurant whose menu names the farms that provide the animals they serve up to their customers.

The verse, my last for this November: 

November Verse 14: The Book Group Chooses What to Read Next
Ben stands and says he must be going:
‘Shall we decide the next book now?’
‘No time for all the to and fro-ing
before you leave,’ says Ian. That’s how
just seven of us made the vital
choice of our next book group title.
Not Watson’s Bush, that’s far too long,
not more Houellebecq, that’s just wrong.
No to Solnits, Coetzee, Gorton.
Steve says, ‘How about Don Juan?
I mean Quixote. That’s a yarn
I’d like to read.’ That one caught on.
And after complex back and forth
we lit on Shakespeare’s Henry Fourth.

AWW2016Burial Rites is the fourteenth book I’ve read for the 2016 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Antigone Kefala’s Fragments, and my Verse 11

Antigone Kefala, Fragments (Giramondo 2016)

frag.jpg

The final issue of Ivor Indyk’s literary journal Heat, published an astonishing 6 years ago, included an interview of Antigone Kefala by Amanda Simons. The conversation ranges widely, from Kefala’s ‘scribbling’ in her childhood home in Romania before World War 2, over the role her mother played in her creative life, to the critical isolation that comes from being classified as an ‘ethnic’ writer. She says this about poetry:

It is a medium that has its own directions. It comes when it wants to come, doesn’t come when it doesn’t want to come. You can never force it, you have to wait for it.

Fragments is a collection of 61 poems that feel absolutely unforced in that way, almost as if each poem catches an unbidden thought, or dream, or observation, or burst of emotion, and finds a precise form of words for it. If they are fragments of some greater unity, the book is not concerned to find that unity, or to explain contexts, but invites us to focus on each fragment in its own right. Take the first poem:

The Voice
At the sound
I turned
my veins full of ice
that travelled
at high speed
releasing fire.

This return
the past attacking
unexpectedly
in the familiar streets.

The speaker hears a voice from her past. Perhaps it’s associated with a terrible memory, or it might remind her of the voice of a loved one who has died. The poem isn’t interested in the specifics, nor in what happened next. Did the speaker approach the owner of the voice, did she go about her day as if nothing had happened or was she shaken to the core? The poem doesn’t go anywhere near these questions. It focuses tightly on the moment of hearing, and renders it with wonderful precision and complexity: there are the explicit images of ice and fire, and possibly an implied reference to the kinds of warfare that turns city streets into war zones. It’s not ‘difficult’ poetry, but it rewards you for time spent in its company.

The poems, only a handful of them much longer than the first, are divided into five sections. Here’s my guess at their organising principles:

  1. a thematic introduction: poems of memory and loss, dream renderings, observations of social life, dark love poems
  2. evocations of places, mainly Australian, including a scene from the movie Wake in Fright
  3. poems of grief, loss and impending loss
  4. dreams and visions, surrealism and metaphysics
  5. social poems – quick character sketches, satirical jabs, laments, a little politics.

In the Heat interview, Antigone Kefala observes that ‘we ethnics are constantly being compared to other ethnics, but not to Australian writers’, and asks if her interviewer has ever seen a comparison between her work and that of Les Murray. Well, perhaps with that quote working at the back of my mind, I found myself making just such a comparison. Here’s her poem ‘Weapons’ – I hope it’s OK to quote it in full:

Weapons
Ruins
corpses in the sun
men moving cautiously
in the abandoned streets
close to the scarred walls.
Men on top of houses, hills,
coming from dark undergrounds,
men holding on, hugging
these metal erections
firing them
a spray of semen
rushing with velocity
to breed another race of killers.

The evocation of the battle-zone is followed by what at first looks like crude, even trite feminist anti-war rhetoric – the gun as phallic symbol – which becomes almost shockingly explicit with the ‘spray of semen’, and then is brought home in the powerful last line: this isn’t just emotive rhetoric, there’s a strong idea here.

The poem reminded me of Les Murray’s ‘I wrote a Little Haiku‘, which similarly compares bullets to semen. In Murray’s poem, the molten bullets drip from a burning farm rail, and he sees the drip as ‘the size of wasted semen / it had annulled before’. It’s the visual image that counts: one’s response is to admire the poet’s mental agility in seeing such a comparison: the notion that the bullets had ‘annulled’ real semen when they were fired in the past – that is, they had killed young men and so prevented them from fathering children – is almost a melancholy afterthought. In Kefala, the visual image matters, but the force of the poem is in its idea. We’re not invited to admire her cleverness, so much as to dwell on what she has unearthed.

Oddly, the comparisons that came to mind most strongly as I read this book are with Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, both of whom have grappled with ageing in their recent work – Dylan’s ‘Mississippi’ for example, or Cohen’s heartbreaking ‘I’m Leaving the Table’. Kefala too brings a ruthless eye to the experience of ageing, and at the same time, like those two writers (in other ways very different from her), conveys a deep joy in living and creating. I love the bitter-sweet final lines of the book’s last poem, ‘Metro Cellist’:

we were floating on sound.
The earth was singing,
singing in an exuberance
of youth.

AWW2016Fragments is the thirteenth book I’ve read as part of the 2016 Australian Women Writers Challenge. I am grateful to Giramondo for my free copy.
—–
As my regular readers will know, I have a self-imposed task of writing fourteen 14-line verses each November and putting them up on my blog. I was going to let this post go by to avoid putting any of my verse on the same page as Antigone Kefala’s infinitely superior work, but then I read her saying in the Heat interview that she could not write a sonnet: ‘You know how writers do exercises in terms of poetic forms; I have never been able to do that.’ Perhaps one day I’ll outgrow my attachment to the form of the Onegin stanza, but for now, here’s one more, an attempt to explain the joys of this attachment:

November Verse 11: 
A turn of phrase, a half idea:
that’s enough for my first lines.
The path ahead is far from clear
but through mind’s muddle somehow shines
an argument. Then, as I’m seeking
rhymes and scans, the sense starts leaking
into somewhere unforeseen
and who knows what line eight will mean?
Six lines to go, and now I’m counting.
So much that I wish I’d said,
not on the page, still in my head!
Its all a mess. The panic’s mounting.
With luck I end my little song
as if I meant it all along.

Helen Garner’s Everywhere I Look and November Verse 3

Helen Garner, Everywhere I Look (Text 2016)

1925355365.jpgI’ve recently been surprised to hear a number of people refer to Helen Garner as ‘one of our great writers’. My surprise doesn’t come from disagreement. It’s just that hers isn’t writing that invites one to bow down in the presence of greatness. She’s less a Great Dane (or Grande Dame) making magisterial pronouncements than a terrier who keeps on at her subject until it yields some truth, her truth. She passes judgement often enough, and definitely enough, but not dogmatically, and not looking for a stoush either, but ready in case one comes along. A striking feature of Sotiris Dounoukos’ movie of Joe Cinque’s Consolation is the absence of the book’s persistent questioning – so when the end titles announce that, against the strongly implied judgement of the previous 90 minutes, one of the real-world characters was exonerated by a real-world jury, one tends to simply distrust the movie. When the book calls that verdict into question, you can disagree, but you can’t honestly dismiss it out of hand: the judgement has been honestly, and I would say humbly, worked for. (Perhaps its relevant that some of the harshest critics of Garner’s The First Stone refused to read it, or so I’ve been told.)

One of the pieces in this collection is titled ‘While Not Writing a Book’. That could have been a working title for the collection as a whole. It and a couple of others, including ‘Before Whatever Else Happens’, are presented as excerpts from the writer’s diaries/notebooks: overheard snippets, chance encounters, family moments, brief reflections. Another writer might have called them flash fictions or prose poems. Other pieces are more sustained: the product of a week locked away with CDs of Russell Crowe movies; reviews; sketches from the courts; wonderful pieces on her friendships with Jacob Rosenberg, Tim Winton and Elizabeth Jolly; glimpses of family life with grandchildren and, once, a dog; a revisit to her relationship with her mother; reflections on the ukulele, the ballet, suburban life; and more, enough to keep her readers interested between This House of Grief and whatever big thing may happen next.

Everywhere she looks and listens, from conversations about farting with small children to a teenager who has bashed her newborn baby to death, Garner finds stuff for her mind to grapple with, and she knows how to communicate the grappling with grace and vigour.

And now, because it’s November, a versification of one of the diary entries (see page 85 for the original):

Verse 3: At a conference
Supreme Court Judge and Helen Garner
chatted over tea and dip.
‘My home,’ the judge said to the yarner,
‘was once the scene of Monkey Grip,
your novel, and we’re renovating.’
‘My novel, and some devastating
and elating life. But how
do those old rooms look to you now.’
He listed them: ‘… and one so dinky
my daughter’s desk was there before.
It’s soon a bathroom, nothing more.’
‘The one with wooden shutters?’ Inky
flash from hippie days divine:
‘That tiny room was [humbly] mine.’

AWW2016Everywhere I Look is the twelfth book I’ve read as part of the 2016 Australian Women Writers Challenge.