Tag Archives: Australian Women Writers Challenge

Ladybird, Alison Lester & Dylan

On the weekend I went to a family gathering – not a reunion, but a first-time gathering of the descendants of three Shaw brothers who came to Australia from Yorkshire in the 1860s and 70s. The event itself was fun and interesting, with at least one revelation that led to much hilarity, but what’s relevant to this blog is that I stayed with a niece, mother of two small girls. Here’s a) a book I read while stickybeaking on her bookshelves, and b) two books that were requested at bedtime. You’ll be able to tell which is which.

Jason Hazeley & Joel Morris, How it Works: The Mum (Michael Joseph 2016)

This is one of those books that sit on the front counters of bookshops inviting you to buy them as gifts. It’s a parody of a Little Golden Book (or Ladybird Book in the US edition as pictured here), using illustrations from 1960s children’s books and affecting a childlike tone in the text, but with an adult sting in the tail. This one is funny rather than cynical, wry rather than bitter. My niece’s favourite page is the one where the mum has an interview for a job but can’t get the theme tune from The Octonauts out of her head. Mine is the last page, where the mum rides her bike to work after an exhausting night and when she hears other mothers speak of their children’s exemplary behaviour is fortunately too tired to kill them.

At the end, there’s a sweet acknowledgement of the pleasure the authors derived from the original books, which reads as a sincere tribute rather than a legal requirement. The artists are listed, but I didn’t make a note of their names.

Alison Lester, Are We There Yet? (Viking 2005)

A family of five go on a trip around Australia in 32 pages. The refrain ‘Are we there yet?’ is irregular enough not to be annoying, but frequent enough that my seven year old great-niece could join me in saying it each time.

Regular readers will know that my main contact with children’s books these days is thanks to my 18 month old granddaughter. This book is a reminder of past reading pleasures and a sweet harbinger of things to come. Alison Lester’s images are completely beguiling.

Bob Dylan (lyrics), Jim Arnosky (images), Man Gave Names to All the Animals (Sterling 1999)

This is a rare thing, a picture book with Bob Dylan lyrics as the text. The song is from the 1979 album Slow Train Coming, from BD’s born-again Christian era. It was hard to tell if my young relatives (who were not only sleepy but also slightly anxious at being read to by a virtual stranger) enjoyed it very much. But the illustrations are gorgeous, every page crowded with splendid animals, many more than are mentioned in the song. The book comes with a CD attached – our copy was from the library, and the CD-less.

I may be a feminist Climate Crisis prig, but front and centre for me was the title’s erasure of female humans and its assertion of human separateness from ‘all the animals’, both of which made it hard for me to love the book or the song.

Are We There Yet? is the twenty-third book I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge

Fiona Wright’s World Was Whole

Fiona Wright, The World Was Whole (Giramondo 2018)

[Added later: If you read only one article on this book, I recommend Ashley Kalagian Blunt’s brilliant essay ‘Comfortable and Comforted: The World Was Whole by Fiona Wright’ in Sydney Review of Books (click here) rather than mine. Of course, I’d be happy for you to read both.]

This is Fiona Wright’s second book of personal essays. At the Sydney Writers’ Festival earlier this year, she said the first book, Small Acts of Disappearance, was about extremes, particularly those brought on by her severe health issues, and this book is about the ordinary, and how the ordinary must be negotiated by someone whose health is (still) fragile. It’s a very good description.

The essays are beautifully written, combining personal detail, literary reference and information about the social and historical contexts. They revolve around three main things.

First is the experience of chronic illness. Fiona Wright lives with a rare and complex digestive disorder, which gave rise to behavioural difficulties. Dealings with dietitians, psychologists, hospitals and the mental health system feature prominently, and there’s a revelatory quality to her recounting of the micro-moments she has to negotiate as a person for whom eating is always problematic. One example at random: in ‘Back to Cronulla’ she has a meal with her family to celebrate her parents’ wedding anniversary, course after course of beautifully plated dishes’:

I was beautiful food, truly and terribly wonderful – because for once I actually felt like I was missing out. I was cautious with my meal, aware than any of these dishes might make me throw up, and eventually something did. I left the three-hour-long lunch feeling hungry, and wound tight with anxiety and disappointment. My oldest niece, bored at one point with the meal, had asked her mother, why are we eating so much food for lunch? and all the adults had chuckled, out of the mouths of babes! But oh, I wanted to say, I know exactly what you mean.

(page 41)

The second recurring subject is home, as housing and as locality, home that is never the stable, warm reliable nest of stereotype, but home that is uncomfortable, and sometimes precarious. Born and raised in Sydney Western suburbs, Wright now lives in the Inner West, and one of the beauties of the book is the way these places, and others such as Cronulla, come alive on the page. In particular, even while she makes it very clear that she doesn’t feel completely at home in her current suburb of Newtow, any more than she did in her childhood suburb, her love for it is tangible, and never more so than in this account of the Newtown Festival:

The street itself was thronged and milling. A beautiful young woman with a shaved head and silver glitter pressed onto her eyelids placed a sticker in the shape of a heart onto my chest. I ran into one of my housemates in the park, an old colleague and then the girlfriend of a womanI used to live with; a little further on, I saw one of the nurses from the hospital, although it took me a moment to place her properly, dressed in denim and wearing jewellery, rather than navy-blue scrubs and a duress alarm.

Later, I met a friend in a café on King Street, and the barista said, we haven’t seen you for a while, and reached for the skim milk before I’d even had a chance to speak. I used to bristle when this happened, when a waiter or bartender asked if (or assumed that) I wanted my usual, it used to embarrass me acutely, because I didn’t want anybody else to recognise how predictable, habitual, routine I could not help but be. It seemed to be a failing and a fault, but in this afternoon, all afternoon, I felt it as a recognition of my place, of my home and my inextricability, almost, within it.

(‘Relaxed, Even Resigned’)

There’s a lot about the joys and tribulations of shared rented houses. ‘Perhaps This One Will Be My Last Share House’ – the title says it all – casts a cool eye on the process of being evicted, finding new housemates and searching for a new house. It’s personal, but it’s worth a hundred newspaper articles about the housing problems facing young people in Sydney (and many other cities).

The third thing, not so much a theme or a subject as a practice, is attention to moments. In the Correspondence section of the current Quarterly Essay, responding to Sebastian Smee’s Net Loss, Fiona Wright has a piece that pretty much starts out:

I am a millennial, and this response will probably seem solipsistic, and it will be fragmentary. It’s not that I can’t help it. It’s not my attention span, my inherent narcissism. I’m just making a point.

A number of the essays here are fragmentary – congeries (a word my high school Latin teacher used to love throwing at us) of moments, observations, eavesdrops, beautifully chosen quotations from other writers. Only an inattentive reader would think they were solipsistic or narcissistic. And they do have a point, though not one that is argued for as if in a debate.

A woman about my age sits at the next café table with someone I take to be her mother, slung beneath a bag as enormous and as orange as a pumpkin. The older woman says to the waitress, I’ve quit sugar so I’ll just have a chocolate croissant.

(‘What It Means for Spring to Come’)

I catch a train into the city, in the late afternoon, and hear a young woman’s voice somewhere behind me: it smells of seaweed in here.

(”The everyday Injuries’)

There are two marvellous travel pieces – Iceland in ‘A Regular Choreography’ and China in ‘Little Heart’ – which combine all three of those features. By its nature, travel imposes extra stress on vulnerable bodies and minds, raises issues of home and belonging, and is disjointed and fragmentary.

The collection’s title, and the title of one of the essays – ‘The world was whole always’ – come from the poem ‘Aubade’ by US poet Louise Glück (click here for the whole poem):

A room with a chair, a window.
A small window, filled with the patterns light makes.
In its emptiness the world 

was whole always, not
a chip of something, with
the self at the centre. 

I stumbled across another of Glück’s poems, ‘Formaggio’ (on a pdf file here), which includes the book’s title, though without the ‘always’ of the essay. It begins:

The world
was whole because
it shattered. When it shattered,
then we knew what it was.

These lines could have served as an epigraph to the whole book. One way or another, the essays are about being shattered, or its aftermath: precarious housing, chronic illness, life away from the security and predictability of the family of origin. The writing is a way of understanding, of knowing what it is.

The book hit a number of personal spots for me: I live on the edge of Newtown and recognise many of the places mentioned; it’s a while ago but I’ve lived in a number of share houses; there’s a little discussion of one of the few Chinese poems I’ve tried to engage with intimately (here if you’re interested); and I’ve recently become aware that though the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned that we have 12 years to prevent irreversible and calamitous damage, yet I go on pretty much as before, so I was struck by this:

So much of our lives we cannot control, especially in an environment of unspecified global threat, imminent global disaster, increasing workplace uncertainty, but within the boundaries of a home (four brick walls, a fence) we can fixate on the little things, and we can fix them.

This is also exactly how anorexia works.

(‘To Run Away from Home’)

Oh!

The World Was Whole is the twenty-second book I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge. I am grateful to Giramondo for my copy.

Tricia Dearborn’s Autobiochemistry

Tricia Dearborn, Autobiochemistry (UWA Publishing 2019)

The Emerging Artist warned me that I would lose readers if I blogged about two books of poetry in a row. So, dear Reader, please take that as a challenge and stick around. Also, tl;dr: I love this book. You might too. It’s very accessible, scientific and sexy.

Tricia Dearborn was brought up Catholic, has worked as a biochemist and as an editor, is a member of the GLBTQI community, has done psychotherapy, and has made poetry out of all that. This is her third book of poetry*. My blog posts about the first two are here (Frankenstein’s bathtub, Interactive Press 2001) and here (The ringing world, Puncher & Wattmann 2012). It’s been a long time between drinks, but worth the wait.

Autobiochemistry begins with ‘A chalk outline of the soul’ (online at the Rochford Street Review at this link – you need to scroll down). You don’t have to have had a Catholic education in a certain era to love this account of an early lesson in metaphysics and of the child-speaker’s attention quietly turning elsewhere. It had me, who belong squarely in that demographic, eating out of its hand. This quiet turning away from religious doctrine is a perfect introduction to the book: there’s no talk of souls (no auto-bio-metaphysics) in what follows, and though devotional images and a gruesome line from a hymn do turn up, they belong unequivocally to memories of childhood. Instead of religion, the poems have glorious, deliciously nerdy materiality.

The title section consists of 22 poems, each named for a chemical element, and all suffused with what you’d have to call love for the elements, their properties (‘Carbon’s multivalence, its / chemical conviviality’), their roles in human life, specifically the poet’s (‘Manganese’ – ‘tea is not high in essential nutrients / except for manganese, a “dietary mineral”’), and – sometimes – their potential for metaphor.

The title of the second section, ‘Covalent bonds’, invokes chemistry as a metaphor for relationships. The poems themselves don’t muck around with that kind of metaphor. They are variously erotic, intimate, passionate, neighbourly, elegiac.

Then there’s a suite of poems with a psychotherapy theme: ‘Elephant poems’, as in the elephant in the room. ‘Virginia Woolf’s memoirs’ includes eight short poems about Virginia Woolf, each with an epigraph from her letters or diaries. The fifth and final section, ‘The change: some notes from the field’, has nine poems with ‘Perimenopause’ in the title, my favourite being ‘Perimenopause as a chance to get a few things off my mother’s chest’.

I love this book. I love its love of the material world, its ease with bodies and bodily functions (though I would blush to read aloud some lines in the love poems). I love the way it explores the poet’s personal history with humour and seriousness and the opposite of narcissism. Most of all, I love its championing of connectedness.

Currently when I blog about a book of poetry, I try to write about just one poem in some detail. Here it has to be one from the title sequence. I’m drawn to ‘Manganese’, a fabulously multifaceted look at tea. But ‘Sodium’ has got my favourite line in the book. Here it is (you can click on the image to see it large):

There’s nothing obscure in this poem (or indeed in the whole book): no cryptic wordplay and no need for a search engine to decipher a reference. The first five triplets set the scene; the next six play; and the final three bring the poem home. It’s like a sonnet, though in place of 14 lines it has 14 triplets – 5, 6, 3.

As in the other element poems, the element is real, acknowledged in its own right with an elegant, matter-of-fact account of its properties. The poem can afford to be matter-of-fact because sodium is so wonderful. These lines take me back to the joys of high school chemistry: the word ‘tossed’ recalls for me the dramatic moment when asthmatic Brother Foley showed us the sodium–water reaction by doing just that – tossing a small chunk into a filled sink, from a safe distance.

Then the poem turns. It could have gone on to musings about table salt and blood pressure, or the difference between swimming in the ocean, creeks and backyard pools. A backyard pool does appear in ‘Chlorine’, but when the poet’s mind reacts with sodium, a metaphor results:

I wanted to be the pure metal
solely myself, self-sufficient
swaddled in the safety

of needing no one

But in taking the behaviour of sodium as a springboard to musing about the speaker’s personal history, the poem doesn’t turn away from science. Instead, it invokes neuroscience. A mirror neuron, according to Wikipedia, is ‘a neuron that fires both when an animal acts and when the animal observes the same action performed by another’. Like sodium, humans (the poem has moved unobtrusively from the singular ‘I wanted’ to the species-general ‘we see’) are in constant interaction with the environment. She doesn’t have to spell out that wanting to be self-sufficient is wanting a very limited existence, the equivalent of sodium being ‘stored under kerosene, under oil’.

Then, the killer lines:

I grew up in a house of liars
a houseful of people
pretending to be separate

but humans are never
found free in nature
it's how we're designed

I just love this. It’s not that it’s a new insight. I think of D W Winnicott’s much quoted ‘There’s no such thing as a baby, there’s only a baby and someone’. And Raimond Gaita riffing on the song ‘Falling in Love Again’, reading ‘I was made that way / Auf Liebe eingestellt’ to say that humans are configured for love. Or Forster’s ‘Only connect’. It’s not new to say that humans are made for connection, however unremitting the messages to the contrary from the neoliberal environment (and the currently dominant side of politics). But ‘I grew up in a house of liars’, which looks at first glance like a condemnation of the speaker’s early family, has a deep compassion just beneath the surface. They were liars, but they were the ones who suffered from the lie, and anyhow they can hardly be blamed for inventing it.

-------------------------------connection

as vital as oxygen
intermingled, impure
we shine

The poem has done a neat trick with its main metaphor/analogy, twisting it into its exact opposite. Sodium in air is still dull, but the analogous grey dullness is what makes humans shine. It wasn’t until I retyped those lines that I realised that ‘Sodium’ can be read as a response to ‘A chalk outline of the soul’: in Sister Pascal’s chalk drawing, God’s sanctifying grace removes all smutchy traces of sin to leave the individual soul pure and shining, here – and in the book in general – it is our smutchy impurity that shines.

Autobiochemistry is the twenty-first book  I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers’ Challenge. My copy is inscribed to a friend who bought it at a launch, so I’ll have to return it to her. I plan to buy a copy for myself.


* She has also written at least one book of science experiments for children, which you can find if you know how to use Duck Duck Go (or search engines that abuse your privacy).

Ruby Reads (9): Emus, tigers and ducks and love

The grandparental discovery and rediscovery of books I enjoy, or that Ruby enjoys and I don’t hate, continues.

Sue Williams & Julie Vivas, I went walking (HMH Books for Young People 1996)

This lovely little book has been read to us twice at Rhyme Time at Leichhardt Library. Who wouldn’t love Julie Vivas’s images? ‘I went walking and what did I see? I saw a [xx] looking at me.’ The parents can join in the recitative, as the librarian takes us through a series of charming animals. Until the end, where all the animals and the child are frolicking together. There’s an art to writing text for picture books, and Sue Williams makes it look effortless.

Sheena Knowles & Rod Clements, Edwina the Emu (Harper Collins 1997)

This is the sequel to Edwin the Emu, which I remember from the distant past. It was read to us in the marvellous Kidspace in the Australian Museum. (An actual emu egg was accidentally smashed by one of the young scientists soon after the reading.) I think it went right over Ruby’s head, being a story of how, Edwina having laid ten eggs, Edwin stays home to look after them while she goes out to get a job. No one will hire her because, well, she’s an emu. It’s total nonsense, and Rod Clements’ illustrations are supremely silly.

Melanie Joyce & Dean Gray, Follow that Tiger: Catch Him If You Can (Igloo Books 2016)

Some books are just right for a 17-month-old reader, for reasons that would have been hard to predict. In this one the jungle animals are all concerned about the tiger. Ruby generally wants to stop with the crocodile, who appears on the first spread. The tiger is mildly interesting, because after all he growls, but who cares about the monkey, the parrot (clearly not a kookaburra) or the rest? It speaks wonders for the writing and illustration that we have got past the first spread more than once.

Sophie Beer, Love Makes a Family (Dial Books 2018)

This was another Rhyme Time read. It’s exactly what it says in the lid, showing lots of combinations of adults and small children dong things that families do together. It was read to us without any heavy-handed pointing out that the families included people of different skin colours, that on same spreads there were two adults of the same gender, and so on. That is to say, it’s a book that might make some culture warriors cranky, but it’s a sweet mirror held up to our times.

Jennifer Cossins, 101 Collective Nouns (Lothian Children’s Books)

We bought this stunningly beautiful book at the National Folk Festival. You know, a murder of crows, an exaltation of larks, a troop of kangaroos, and especially, given that we bought this for Ruby, a riot of kookaburras. The kookaburra page isn’t the only one we’re allowed to look a but we are required to return to it often and supply sound effects. Ruby’s own kookaburra impersonation is impressive.

I Went Walking, Edwina the Emu, and Love Makes a Family are the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth books I’ve read for the Australian women Writers’ Challenge. I haven’t included 101 Collective Nouns because, perhaps arbitrarily, I’ve decided it’s a book of art rather than of writing.

Melissa Lucashenko’s Too Much Lip

Melissa Lucashenko, Too Much Lip (UQP 2018)

Among many splendid things at the National Folk Festival in Canberra at Easter this year was the Mission Songs Project concert featuring Jessie Lloyd, Emma Donovan and Deline Briscoe. Jessie Lloyd has been researching and reviving Aboriginal songs from the mission era (roughly 1901 to 1967) from all over Australia. At the end of a terrific concert Ms Lloyd urged us – mainly non-Indigenous – audience members, to connect, learn and engage with the songs. She wants these songs dealing with the hardships, sorrows and sometimes joys of mission life – to become part of the Australian songbook alongside ‘Waltzing Matilda’ and ‘Botany Bay’. She invited us to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history and cultures as integral parts of mainstream Australian history and culture. (A choir songbook is available for sale at the Mission Songs Project website.)

Too Much Lip holds out a similar invitation, though with less sweet music.

It’s the story of the Salters, an Aboriginal family in northern New South Wales, a story that includes violence, petty crime, child sexual abuse, drug and alcohol abuse, poverty, neglect, dark secrets, seething resentments, alienation and general chaos. It’s what many would call a dysfunctional family, but that’s not a term that seems quite to fit. The central character, Kerry, thinks of it as a ‘grassroots family’ – as if their huge ordeals and conflicts don’t mark them out as special so much as make them representative.

I don’t want to say too much about this book. It’s very funny in places. Kerry arrives back home after a long absence – she’s been part of the Lesbian community in Brisbane and has just been dumped by her girlfriend after a failed armed robbery. Her pitiless sarcasm about white people (dugai) and men, not just white men, sets the tone for the opening sequence, and while she doesn’t exactly soften, there’s some delicious counterpoint when she falls for a … white man. This is just one of the brilliant, comic but believable transformations in the book. Sweet Mary, Kerry’s mother, is a reformed alcoholic; her older brother Ken is a pontificating drunken layabout who bullies his teenaged son; her younger brother, known only as Black SUperman, is a Gay man who lives in Sydney; Steve, the object of Kerry’s lust, is trying to set up a gym in town; Martina, a real estate agent from Sydney, has been seconded to the local office to help the mayor push through a deal that will result in a prison being built on a piece of land that has deep significance for the Salters. And there are a number of children, including the splendidly named Dr No (guess how old he is). In the course of the novel, each of these characters, including the children, reveals something completely unexpected abut themselves, or undergoes a radical transformation. To say that another way: we are invited to make judgements about every one of the characters, and by the end of the book we have revised our judgements radically.

I confess I started reading Too Much Lip with a sense of duty: as a dugai, I really ought to read writing by Aboriginal authors. Well, that’s what got me to page 1, and kept me going through Kerry’s reference to white people as normalwhitesavages, till about page 20, but after that I was there for the joys, sorrows and terrors of the ride.

There are talking birds and a talking shark, a ghost, terrible stories of white-on-black violence and of black-on-black violence (with an afterword asserting that all the incidents have occurred in the author’s extended family or, in a few cases, are drawn from the historical record or Aboriginal oral history). There’s a brilliant extended sequence where the family has a barbecue, and all the threads of the narrative twist together and apart dramatically – I’d say it was chaotic, but the reader is never confused about what is happening and what it means in the lives of each character.

It’s a brilliant book. The last pages sent me back to reread the beginning. Some of the jokes still make me laugh a week after reading them. It puts heart and body into abstract terms like intergenerational trauma, lateral violence, white supremacy. It doesn’t need my recommendation, but I recommend it anyhow.

Too Much Lip was a birthday present. It’s the seventeenth book I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Jennifer Maiden’s brookings

Jennifer Maiden, brookings: the noun: new poems (Quemar Press 2019)

Probably more than any other of Jennifer Maiden’s books, brookings: the noun revolves around a central concept. It’s not that every poem addresses the concept directly, or that there is an overarching narrative, but the notion of ‘brookings’ weaves its way through the book, becoming explicit every so often, taking on new metaphorical form and emotional resonance as it goes.

The simplest description of the concept is in the poem ‘Brookings in Fur’ (which you can read here – you’ll need to scroll down), brookings are defined as

                            things that trickle the Overton window
to the Right by focusing on soft left topics

According to Wikipedia, the Overton window is ‘a term for the range of ideas tolerated in public discourse’: we’ve recently seen, for instance, that veganism is outside the Overton window in Australia, and offshore detention of people seeking asylum barely makes it into the frame. ‘Brookings’ are the right-wing tactic of espousing harmless, even positive policies around education, discrimination, environmental concerns and so on, in order to disguise or make more acceptable the underlying ruthless policies. However, defining the term doesn’t tell you much about the poetry. After all, a similar concept is captured in the phrase ‘lipstick on a pig’ – Maiden’s metaphors are a lot more interesting than that.

The term has at least three incarnations.

First, in ‘Concrete’, which is Jennifer Maiden’s sixteenth poem comprising a flirtatious-reproachful conversation between Eleanor Roosevelt and Hillary Clinton, Eleanor appropriates the name of the US think tank, the Brookings Institution, giving it the new meaning. It’s a straightforward satirical jibe at Julia Gillard, who recently joined the institution. (I have no idea about the politics of the institution, but I do know that Maiden has been caustic about Gillard in earlier poems, and is again in this volume.)

Second (though preceding ‘Concrete’ in this book), in ‘Uses of brookings: the noun’, Maiden discovers rich metaphorical possibilities in the term. This poem draws brilliantly on Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem ‘Maidenhood’ (you can read it here) for the image of a virgin ‘Standing with reluctant feet/ where the brook and river meet’. Longfellow’s maiden is facing the prospect of mature adult life with trepidation; Maiden with a capital M makes something different of the contrast between brook and river:

                        The river beyond soft
brooking glints a deadly global thing.

This image of the soft brooking and the deadly global river recurs in a number of poems.

The third embodiment picks up on that ‘soft’. In ‘Brookings in Fur’ it’s a little creature:

                 soft little Brookings, a silk-nosed squeaker
too gentle for words like Global, War or Money, who
would not know the price of a gun.

The sweet creature embodies the appeal of brookings: we want to believe that those in power are benign.

The poems in this book engage with international politics, corruption and war: allegations about the White Helmets in Syria, Hillary Clinton and Julia Gillard’s dubious practices, Tanya Plibersek’s apparent support for inhumane treatment of people seeking asylum, Israeli snipers’ use of butterfly bullets against Palestinian protestors, the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. (There was a time when you needed a working knowledge of Greek myth and the Bible to be able to read English poetry; with Jennifer Maiden, you need to be reasonably well-versed in current affairs. Readers outside Australia or even outside New South Wales may need to keep Google – or Duck Duck Go if they value their privacy – handy.)

It’s poetry that includes political commentary and analysis, but it would be a mistake to read it as if that’s all it was. One reviewer has sneered at Maiden’s version of the White Helmets as agents/brookings of Daesh, saying she has offered no evidence (here, and her poem in reply here – you’ll need to scroll down). I think that misses the point. Just as people who abhor Les Murray’s politics can enjoy his poems, people who disagree strongly with Maiden’s political positions (and probably everyone disagrees with some of them – I’m agnostic about the White Helmets, for instance) can still embrace her poetry. One of the things that attracts me to her writing, and has kept me coming back for more, is her commitment to engage with the world in a big way, to figure out what she thinks and to say it without prevarication, sermonising or mumblefucking, while striving for a deeply human perspective on her characters (including – unsuccessfully in my opinion – Donald Trump).

These prayer-like lines come as close as any to articulating the impulse behind much of Jennifer Maiden’s poetry:

                          Let her protect me,
great Spirit of the Universe, my ancestral Durga,
with her many limbs, from all that's born to narrow
the vision to a bright domestic window.
                                     (from 'Brookings in Fur')

That is the temptation of ‘brookings’, and it’s a temptation that Maiden’s poetry invariably resists.

I usually single out one poem for more detailed discussion when writing about books of poetry. Here’s ‘Rope’. Click on the image to big it up, or click here and scroll down to read it in the Rochford Street Review:


If what follows is laborious. Forgive me. Actually reading the poem isn’t laborious at all.

The poem is in three parts. The first four lines set the tone: the speaker, who sees herself as harmless, has been threatened and promised much by a nameless ‘they’ – the fourth line seems to suggest that soon, with talk of Elbridge Colby, some of this will become clearer. The next eighteen lines deal with the speaker’s distressed ‘state’, the poem a rope that prevents her from plummeting into ‘blind depths / too lightless even for black’. After a four-line transition (‘We will move from my state’), there are nine lines about Elbridge Colby, which raise the spectre of nuclear war, and I guess we understand why she is so upset, and who the opening ‘they’ are. The final six lines come close to an expression of despair, though I read the final line, ‘We can talk about Elbridge Colby’, as an assertion of the power of poetry, in the spirit of T S Eliot’s ‘These fragments I have shored against my ruin.’

‘Rope’ is not a typical Maiden poem. I’ll get to that, but first here are some ways it is characteristic.

First, it’s conversational. That’s in the tone, the unobtrusive use of rhyme, and especially in the use of enjambement – many lines end in a word that launches a sentence, creating a constance sense of forward momentum. The sense of a conversation is also there in the way this poem, like many, addresses the reader as a collaborator. The ‘you’ in the fifth line, ‘But I ask you to hold this rope’, seems to imply that the imagined reader in some way helps to preserve the poet from something like deep despair. So when you or I come to it as an actual reader, something uncanny happens – in reading this poem am I somehow holding the rope that saves the poet? If I have trouble with it – have to Google Joan Maas, say – is that my armpits feeling the weight>?

Second, there are a number of kinds of allusions:

  • allusions to poetry that the reader is expected to be familiar with – ‘this is not the end of Childe Roland‘ refers to Robert Browning’s ‘Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came‘, and a quick web search reveals (or reminds if you’re better read than me) that at the end of that poem the knight arrives at his quest’s goal and sees there all the other knights who had gone on the same quest. Maiden has just listed ‘some faces of suicides’; this line is a way of saying they are not the subject of the poem.
  • allusions to public figures. Usually the poems just assume the reader knows who the public figures are – from Jared Kushner to Dodi, mentioned by Princess Diana. Here there’s no need for a web search, as Elbridge Colby’s identity is explained, but if you want to read his argument, you can click here.
  • allusions to past and present members of Maiden’s poet community. You probably don’t need to know who Grace and Joan Maas are in this poem. But since I’m writing about it: Joan Maas (also spelled Mas) was an Australian poet who died in 1974 – she was the Joan in Roland Robinson’s autobiography, Letter to Joan; Grace is Grace Perry, who has been mentioned in a number of earlier Maiden poems. In the conversational mode of these poems the reader is expected to remember when she was last mentioned.
  • allusions to Maiden’s other poems. That Joan Maas ‘thought writing was a brook / to refresh and for respite’ only takes on its full meaning in a context where (soft, sweet) ‘brook’ implies its opposite, the deadly global river: writing is dangerous.

But the poem is atypical. Maiden’s ‘signature’ poems in recent years have been in the form of dialogues, sometimes between fictional characters, especially her own creations George Jeffreys and Clare Collins, but often between public figures and re-awakened people from the past whom in the real world they profess to admire. These dialogues always have elements of dramatic action. In this book, for example, Tanya Plibersek pours tea for Jane Austen, Donald Trump and his mother chat in the Oval Office, and Kenneth Slessor and an unnamed Australian critic meet by moonlight in the Sydney Botanic Gardens. My sense is that this staging of dialogues, where underlying questions might be, ‘What would Jane say to Tanya about this?’ or ‘What would Donald Trump’s mother say to him and John Bolton?’ opens up possibilities for fresh and unexpected thinking. Maybe it’s possible to see Tony Abbott’s humanity if you imagine him chatting with Queen Victoria (that one’s not in this book).

There’s none of that here. This poem is shockingly direct. In it, in a way, Maiden shows her workings, the puppeteer comes out from behind her curtain. Rather than move directly to Elbridge Colby, or set him up for a chat with, say Mamie Eisenhower, here she starts from her own emotional response. The transition between the two main parts is telling:

We will move from my state,
as I do in truth to survive,
to the personal and worldy.

Many of her poems are about the worldy (an excellent word**, though it may be a typo, as the Rochford Street review has ‘worldly’), and many personalise the subjects they address (as for example, when George and Clare go to Syria). But these lines suggest that there’s some deep and dangerous emotion beneath or behind the political comment and analysis, emotion that cannot easily, or even safely, be addressed directly. And looking at the state of the world, don’t we all have emotions like that?

I am always gripped by a Maiden poem. Rope helps me to understand why.


* Many of Jennifer Maiden’s poems have titles indicating that they belong to one of her sequences or types of poems. For example, the full title of the first poem of the book is ‘DiaryPoem: Uses of brookings: the noun’, and the second’s is ‘Hillary and Eleanor: 16: Concrete’. For simplicity’s sake, I’ve omitted the scaffolding when naming poems.

** I have been informed by the publisher that this isn’t a typo, but a deliberate revision of the Rochford Street Review version. The progression from ‘personal and worldy’ in these transitional lines to ‘personal and worldly’ at the end of the poem adds another level of subtle poignancy.


brookings: the noun is the sixteenth book I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Ruby Reads (8): Possum Magic

Julie Vivas and Mem Fox, Possum Magic (Omnibus Boks 1983)

Possum Magic is one of the children’s books I have been most looking forward to revisiting. It was published the year Ruby’s father was born and we enjoyed it together many times over.

Julie Vivas’s images – the tiny possum Hush and elderly grandmother, the miscellaneous Australian native birds and animals who follow their adventures, and the round-bottomed children whose discarded Vegemite sandwiches are crucial to the plot – are as freshly witty and whimsical as ever. And if my experience is anything to go by they still play well with the target audience of 2019.

Early in the book, illustrating Grandma Poss’s magic, there’s a cluster of pink kookaburras. On our second read, try as I might, I couldn’t persuade my reading companion to move on, even though she had clearly enjoyed the whole book on the first pass. This time we’d turn the page, but then turn it right back, over and over. Entering into the spirit of things, I did a version of a kookaburra’s laugh. This was such a great success that I was required to repeat it for what may have been half an hour. I laughed myself hoarse, and every time I tried to change the subject, Ruby would make her wishes known, either by saying ‘Ha ha ha’ or by pointing to the pink kookaburras again.

So yes, the images are magic!

But the story is another thing. Grandma Poss has made Hush invisible, and the pair of them travel all over Australia looking for the way to reverse the magic and make the little possum visible. They discover that Vegemite, pavlova and lamingtons do the trick.

Reading it this time, it struck me that in the hands of a lesser illustrator it would have become a travelogue draped over an implausible narrative, with panoramas of the cities visited, close-ups of the ‘iconic’ white-Australian foods, and so on. Julie Vivas has lifted it to a whole other level, made the magic alive and central, and ensured the book’s longevity.

Possum Magic is the fifteenth book I’ve read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2019.

Ruby Reads (7)

Ruby doesn’t necessarily read every book I mention in this series of posts. In fact just now, as an assertion of agency, she will wave a cheerful ‘Bye bye’, her way of calling an end to any activity from eating zucchini to talking to her grandmother on FaceTime, after just one page. But I have read them all in connection with Ruby. This week I rediscovered a cache of picture books we found in a street library about a year ago, and donated the ones from the younger end of the spectrum to her library. And we were read to at Rhyme Time at Leichhardt Library.

Airlie Anderson (illustrator), Cows in the Kitchen (Child’s Play International 2014)

This is the Rhyme Time book. Evidently its text is traditional. At the Library the parents were invited to join in the chanting as one group of farm animals after another created chaos in an inappropriate place. The illustrations are cheerful and silly. I’d recommend this as a fun participatory read. (The other book read to us on Thursday this week was The Wheels on the Bus, not that there’s anything wrong with that, but please, not again.)

Mem Fox and Vladimir Radunsky, Where the Giant Sleeps (Harcourt Children’s Books 2007)

Probably too old for a 15 month old, this is a fine addition to the genre of picture book spoofed in Adam Mansbach’s Go the F**k to Sleep, which is also on Ruby’s household’s bookshelves, but which I haven’t read until I listened to Samuel Jackson’s rendition just now. Everything in the world is animated, and sleeping, except the elves who are weaving something magical for the child who is being read to.

Marcia K Vaughan and Pamela Lofts, Snug as a Hug (Scholastic Australia 2014)

Another excellent addition to that genre, distinguished by being full of native Australian animals sleeping soundly at night. There’s a note in the early pages to the effect that the book is largely lying – most of the animals it mentions don’t sleep at night at all. Perhaps this points to the desperation of the adult world when faced with a baby who won’t sleep. The gorgeous illustrations are by Pamela Lofts, the friend of Kim Mahood who features in Position Doubtful.

Pamela Allen, Shhh! Little Mouse (Penguin Australia 2009)

Ruby is yet to see the whole of this totally beautiful book. She saw the first page, a black ink drawing of a mouse, and climbed down off my lap. I can wait! You could say this is the opposite of a ‘Go To Sleep’ book. While the scary ginger cat is sound asleep, a little mouse goes on the hunt for food and finds quite a lot, lovingly drawn in brilliant colour, before the cat wakes up and becomes a terrifying vision in orange. But be reassured, the mouse makes it back to safety.

Where the Giant Sleeps, Snug as a Hug and Shhh! Little Mouse are the twelfth, thirteenth and fourteenth books I’ve read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2019.

Sarah Day’s Towards Light

Sarah Day, Towards Light and other poems (Puncher & Wattman 2018)

There are probably a hundred reasons why so few non-poets (I am one!) read poetry. One of them is the general belief that poetry is difficult, and that contemporary poetry is more difficult than most. And if you have stumbled across a poetry reading at a literary festival where someone stands up front to cool applause and reads, for example, the proofing marks on a business document galley, you may well decide that contemporary poetry is not only difficult but pointless.

If you’ve been avoiding poetry for reasons like this, and yet have a niggling worry that you might be missing something, then maybe you could try reading Sarah Day. The poems in this book are eminently accessible, and they attend to things worth attending to.

Many of the poems read as the equivalent of a visual artist’s pencil drawings of beautiful things and places – a Lisbon tiled wall depicting St Anthony preaching to the fishes, the tomb of Eleanor of Aquitane, many moments in Tasmanian landscape, an amateur-built rocking horse, a caravan park campground, a ‘fugitive budgie / in a democracy, or an empathy / of sparrows’, a cow looking out from a concrete stall in Galicia. In poem after poem, there is a sense of close, acute, patient attention. There are some narrative poems, especially dealing with childhood memories, though ‘Overcoat’ makes a rich narrative from an elderly couple observed leaving a cafe. The book ends with a powerful sequence, ‘The Grammar of Undoing’, about the poet’s mother’s Parkinson’s disease and dementia.

I usually pick a single poem to talk about in some detail when I blog about poetry books, and I generally go for one that fits on a single page. The poem in this book that keeps demanding my attention is a little longer than that. It’s ‘Lens’:

We were on the bridge
gazing into the marsh creek
whose waters, filtered by sedge
and ribbon grass and samphire,
threw light on the motion of worms
and the whims of small clams.
Somewhere in the landscape,
a harrier circled, a crane stooped,
each intent on its own business.
A short eel hovered in the current,
swallows dipped under the bridge
and back. Then from upstream
a bow-wave, pushed by a long gaze
that seemed to take us in:
two humans on a bridge.
Liquid, it looped, fur swaying
through figures of eight
ruddered by a long tail with
a white tip like a ring-tailed possum.
It snatched up a crab in small front paws
and with one motion was a creature
of the land whose supple, lean length
bent into a pot-hook
like a bandicoot but its feet
were half wading bird, half rodent.
The cracking of carapace and legs
revealed strong teeth. A comb
or two with the thin clawed toes
and the slate fur stood up softly
in air, mottled with auburn.
The water rat vanished as we blinked.
Since then, nothing much has changed;
the day's news, like any other's,
is filled with grief and fear and fury.
The water rat has not appeared again
under the wooden bridge
but the landscape is altered
beneath that cool, brackish lens.

See what I mean about close, acute, patient attention? The poet’s gaze, perhaps. The scene is created so deftly in the opening lines – and the words used to convey the transparency of the creek (‘the waters … threw light on the movement of worms’) introduce the book’s pervasive motif of light as something almost magical. Certainly there’s restrained wonder at being able to see such detail on the creekbed. Three kinds of bird, an eel: I don’t know about you, but by the time we reach ‘Then from upstream / a bow-wave’ I’m pretty well identified as one of the ‘We’ who are standing together in companionable silence on the bridge pausing, I imagine, in the middle of a bush walk.

It wasn’t until I started writing this that I noticed the repetition of gazing: ‘We’ are gazing into the creek, and the bow-wave is pushed by a ‘long gaze’. The landscape looks back, and for a moment the poem too turns back on the viewer. I don’t think it’s fanciful to say that at this moment, the poet (and her companion) become as much part of the scene as the harrier or the swallows: worms, clams, birds, eel, and ‘two humans on a bridge’.

Having made its entrance, the poem’s hero occupies the next fifteen lines of wonderfully engrossed description. Engrossed, but not all romantic-lyrical: the animal is like a bandicoot or a ring-tailed possum, and even more prosaically a pothook. Like the harrier and the crane it’s intent on its own business, which is cracking open and devouring a crab, doing a bit of grooming and then clearing out. Only when it has vanished can it be named, because up until then it was all colour and movement – and long gaze.

The last seven lines echo two much-quoted lines about poetry: William Carlos Williams’s famous one-liner lines, ‘It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there,’ and W H Auden’s ‘poetry makes nothing happen’. The water rat held the poet’s attention for a moment. That’s all. The actual news – of looming environmental catastrophe, perhaps – is no less horrible. But … but what?

I find the last two lines enigmatic. We’re back with the transparency of the creek, now a ‘cool, brackish lens’ – the notion of the water throwing light has condensed into the single word that gives the poem its title. Is it that this moment with the creek and the water-rat has provided a way of looking at the broader landscape, the domain of ‘the news’? The landscape is altered, perhaps, in the sense that the speaker has been reminded that there are other ways of looking at the world than through the lens of ‘the news’, as in newspapers and social media. (I speak as someone who stopped looking at Twitter, hopefully for good, 10 days ago.) Once you’ve seen a water rat, really seen it, can you keep on being obsessed with the doings of Fraser Anning or Donald Trump, or the self-nicknaming Prime Minister of Australia? Maybe there’s also a faint echo here of another famous line, this one from Rilke’s ‘Archaic Torso of Apollo‘: ‘You must change your life.’

Towards Light is the eleventh book I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

The Book Group, Goodall and Cadzow, Rivers and Resilience

Heather Goodall and Allison Cadzow, Rivers and Resilience: Aboriginal People and Sydney’s Georges River (New South Books 2009)

Before the Meeting: I was the Designated Book Chooser this month, and seized the opportunity to read and discuss this book – Heather Goodall’s From Invasion to Embassy (1996) does a brilliant job of un-erasing the long and continuing history of Aboriginal dispossession and struggle for land in New South Wales, and a friend recommended this more localised history. I came to it with high expectations.

I wasn’t disappointed.

Nine of the book’s eleven chapters are filled with stories of Aboriginal people living, working, fighting, building families, organising – being resilient – on or in connection to the Georges River. These stories draw on early settler accounts (in the case of the Bediagal warrior Pemulwuy and the less famous, but charismatic Dharawal man Kogi), petitions to government (beginning with Kogi’s grandson Jonathon Goggey in 1857, and appearing regularly from then on), reports of governmental inquiries (beginning with the colony’s ‘Select Committee on the condition of the Aborigines’ in 1845, where a man named Mahroot told how a number of Aboriginal men and women made livings from fishing on the river, in what the authors call ‘effective cultural negotiation’), the diaries and newspaper articles of white people (including those guided, and fed, on fishing and hunting expeditions by Dharawal-speaking Biddy Giles in the 1860s; and, as transport improved, tourists), the records of the Aborigines Protection Board and other government agencies, and, as the twentieth century progresses, newsreel footage, records of the Housing Commission, Land Rights claims and interviews with Aboriginal people with living connections to the river.

It’s necessarily a piecemeal story, and I can’t tell whether anyone from outside Sydney, let alone outside Australia, would find it interesting. But as a non-Indigenous Sydneysider who has crossed the Georges River many times and walked along the upper reaches of Salt Pan Creek, a tributary that features significantly, my internal map of the world was being radically redrawn as I read.

The opening chapter places the stories in the context of some major ideas about ‘land, indigeneity and change, about environment and about cities’. To give you some idea of this fifteen-page section:

  • The authors reject the idea that ‘Aboriginal “traditional” cultures were unchanging and static, consisting of a closed and fully formed parcel of knowledge and stories which could be handed down intact across generations for thousands of years – and which therefore could not cope with changes’. Even on the Georges River, which flows through heavily industrialised parts of Sydney, they argue, Aboriginal cultural process have been maintained.

  • They argue that the cultural practices that establish strong links to a place need not be effective only for people with a traditional affiliation to that place.

  • Since 1788 and even earlier, mobility has been ‘as much a defining characteristic of Aboriginal cultures as affiliations with meaningful bounded places’. The river has served as an ‘important corridor of mobility’.

  • Discussions of conservation emphasise native local species, treasuring them as national emblems, and paradoxically often ignoring ‘the role of Aboriginal people in the cultural and material work of actively managing, cultivating and changing the native species on the river and its banks’. The declaration of the Georges River National Park, contested among non-Aboriginal people, is even more complex for Aboriginal people.

It would do an injustice to the book to reduce it to a single argument, but there’s a thread of argument running through it: the established way of thinking about sacred sites and Aboriginal people’s connection to land is inadequate. People from many language groups and many parts of Australia have been part of the Aboriginal communities along the Georges River. They have been allocated land, have bought land as individuals and as collectives, and been moved off it repeatedly, sometimes with promises of the right of return, promises that were invariably broken. Because for a long time the land along the river was inaccessible or useless to the colonisers, they were able to make homes and livings there. Whether or not it passes the official criteria for a Native Title claim, it’s indisputably Aboriginal land. The book ends with a quote from the Tharawal Land Council:

Each Aboriginal site has its place; every Aboriginal place has its story in the life of an Aboriginal family. Country is alive with stories.

After the meeting: We had audiovisual aids. Alec Morgan and Rose Hesp’s Australia in Colour is currently screening on SBS, and the second episode includes a colourised version of a 1933 newsreel clip that opens the book, featuring Joe Anderson (‘King Burraga’) standing in the bush near Salt Pan Creek and declaiming in a strangely plummy accent:

Before the white man set foot in Australia, my ancestors had kings in their own right, and I, Aboriginal King Burraga, am a direct descendant of the royal line … There is plenty fish in the river for us all, and land to grow all we want … The black man owned Australia, and now he demands more than charity. He wants the right to live!

(You can see the whole episode here. Joe appears at 17:35.)

We opened the evening with that clip. And a group member who is a heritage conservationist who had gone walking in the Georges River National Park on the weekend shared some beautiful photos, including one of a plaque marking the site of Joe Anderson’s family’s home.

We had an animated conversation, though there was less laughter than usual. It’s a heavy subject, and the mildest-mannered of the group said he was quivering with rage at some parts. There was some discussion of what it meant that two white women had written the book: some felt that the authors were very careful not to overstep because of their outsider status – not something I was aware of.

Most of us had got hold of a copy from a library, but one chap get a print-on-demand copy from the publisher – with just a two-week wait.

Rivers and resilience is the tenth book I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge.