Tag Archives: Australian Women Writers Challenge

Annabel Crabb's Men at Work

Annabel Crabb, Men at Work: Australia’s Parenthood Trap (Quarterly Essay 75, 2019) – and correspondence in Quarterly essay 76

Women’s surge into the workplace has been profound over the last century. But it hasn’t been matched by movement in the other direction: while the entrances have been opened to women, the exits are still significantly blocked to men. And if women have benefited from the sentiment that ‘girls can do anything’, then don’t we similarly owe it to the fathers, mothers and children of the future to ensure that ‘boys can do anything’ means everything from home to work?

Men at Work, page 65

In this Quarterly Essay Annabel Crabb addresses the ‘baked-on’ cultural assumption that mothers must be the ones who do the real parenting while fathers are meant to help and support, and the economic, political, social and industrial structures that hold that assumption in place, and to some extent enforce it. She points to a number of examples of departures from this norm, harbingers of change: apologising for the predictability, she describes parental leave regimes in Norse nations, but also to developing policies closer to home in For example, at Medibank, in the context of general flexible working provisions, the notion of primary and secondary parents has been shelved and parental leave and other possibilities have been implemented – and are turning out to be good business practice.

Like some of the correspondents published in the subsequent Quarterly Essay (Peter Hartcher’s Red Flag), the essay led me to reflect on my own experience as a parent. I’ve been a father for nearly 42 years and belong to what Annabel Crabb says – and I have no reason to doubt her – is a tiny minority of men who have spent time as ‘stay at home dads’. My sons were born in 1978 and 1983, and with the exception of the Maternity Leave (Australian Government Employees) Act passed by the Whitlam government in 1973, none of the legislation, policies or studies referred to in the essay existed yet. Because the ways the Emerging Artist (then the Community Worker) and I dealt with the challenges of parenthood differ so radically from the norm described by Annabel Crabb, I hope it will be OK to spend the rest of this blog post telling part of that story. (Some of my readers were there – please correct any errors and feel free to add to the story.)

The EA/CW was a feminist who had been in consciousness-raising groups, worn overalls, worked in women’s collectives and, significantly for this story, shared money and futures (that’s how they expressed it) with another woman. I’d been thrilled by the emergence of Women’s Liberation at Sydney University in the late 60s, and had taken to heart the words of a teacher of mine: ‘If as a man you want to counter domestic sexism you have to decide you’re going to do all the work in the home; that way you may end up doing a fair share.’ He’d also said, ‘Fathers can do everything that mothers can do except breast feed.’ So from the beginning we thought of ourselves as a parenting team – I got up when the baby cried in the night, and brought him to his mother. I was still at work in those first notoriously exhausting weeks, and I’d slip away to the toilet to snatch a couple of minutes sleep with my forehead resting on the roll of toilet paper.

The EA/CW had no maternity leave, so went back to work three months after the birth. My workplace – in the NSW public service – was flexible enough that I could take three days a week unpaid leave for an extended period to look after our baby. We lived a quarter of an hour from the EA/CW’s workplace; for the first couple of months when he gave signs of needing a feed I’d bundle him into the car and take him to the breast, usually arriving before he was desperate. While his mother fed him I’d sit on the verandah of the centre – often with a group of women talking animatedly in Italian at the other end. I was able to reassure them, ‘Non capisco niente.’

I looked after the baby three days a week. We weren’t well off, but the times and our circumstances (see mention above about sharing money and futures) were such that we could afford to pay friends the going rate to look after him the other two days. I don’t remember them doing the breast-feed dash, so some bottles of formula must have been involved.

As a man looking after a baby in public, I was a rarity. At the local playgroup I was treated as something rich and strange, and congratulated for looking after my own child. I don’t think I was ever rude in response, but I was nonplussed. Once, long haired and – I guess – not obviously male from behind, I was struggling with baby, stroller and nappy bag up a flight of stairs at a railway station. A burly chap helpfully grabbed the stroller, and was obviously a bit shocked to realise he was being gallant to a bloke.

As there was virtually no accessible childcare at the time, a number of parents in the inner west of Sydney banded together to form what we called the Kids Co-op. We took over an abandoned house with an empty lot next door belonging to the Princess Alexandra Children’s Hospital, and they were eventually happy to let us have it for a peppercorn rent. For every child, the ‘parental unit’ had to do two half-day shifts a week, and there was a very small fee. We were a mixed bunch, and men were well represented: a couple of tradies, a baker, a Qantas steward, a drop-out lawyer, a telephone exchange operator, an editor who managed some casual work (that’s me). The women were equally varied. What we had in common was an openness to finding collective solutions to the collective problem.

The Co-op was often chaotic. The weekly meetings ranged from tedious to hilarious. Some people would come to one meeting or do one shift and then never be seen again. The food was basic, and maybe that’s praising it too highly. But the young ones formed strong bonds: at the end of the day, our two-year-old son would plead to go home with one of his friends, or vice versa. And as the parents had generally worked with each other on shifts, their pleas were often enough successful. This little constellation of families meant there was rarely any difficulty finding babysitters.

As the young ones turned three and four, we started a ‘co-op preschool’. Here there was one paid early-childhood educator, and once again parents did shifts as assistants.

In later years, the EA/SW and I lived for a time with former Co-op members, and many friendships that began there – among both generations – are alive and thriving.

I don’t think the Co-op could happen today. Health and safety regulations would be an obstacle, and new parents are much more isolated. The pressure to work long hours is more intense, and the neo-liberal worldview’s emphasis on individualism is still a powerful force in the culture.

Annabel Crabb gives a string of examples of men whose lives have been enriched by the opportunity to be actively engaged with their children, as full-time or part-time ‘stay-at-home dads’, sometimes sharing the joy with the ‘stay-at-home’ mum. She also writes of ‘a storm-cloud of resentment building among millennial men’, who see themselves as ‘lumped with the transgressions of an older generation, while missing out on entitlements that should reasonably be theirs’. The park playground near our flat is full of fathers and small children on sunny weekends, something that we just didn’t see 40 years ago: the men are willing, but the system, though it has softened, is tight.

Men at Work is the third book I’ve read for the 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Vicki Hastrich, Charlotte Wood, Night Fishing on the Weekend with the Book Group

Before the meeting: This month’s designated Book Chooser gave us two books to tide us over the summer break, a collection of memoir essays and a novel. The author of the novel makes a brief appearance in one of the essays, and it’s possible that the novel is set in a version of the locality that is the focus of many of the essays.


Vicki Hastrich, Night Fishing: Stingtrays, Goya and the Singular Life: A Memoir in Essays (Allen & Unwin 2019)

Before the Meeting: I reserved both books at each of the two libraries I belong to. Night Fishing became available within a day, though I was unable to renew my loan because seven people joined the queue while I was reading it. By contrast, there were 50 and 80 people respectively in the queues for The Weekend, but I was saved by the Emerging Artist, who bought it as a Christmas present to herself.

Night Fishing is a collection of thirteen essays that range from 4 to 34 pages in length. They don’t really amount to a memoir, as the title page claims, but they do have memoir elements. They are personal essays, most of which explore aspects of the waters near Woy Woy, where Vicky Hastrich’s family had a holiday house in her childhood and which she now visits often.

The first essay, ‘The Hole’, is filled with rich childhood memories of the place, and the excitement of rediscovering a favourite fishing spot with her brother. They go out in the author’s much-patched fibre-glass dinghy, the Squid, and are just about to pack up for the day, crowded out by half a dozen fancy, gizmo-laden boats, when she gets a bite:

The rod bent. I pulled the big, slow thing up and Rog got the net. It seesawed, it yawed, it took forever, but finally a dark shape materialised. Rog leant out and the shape nosed serenely into the net, though only its head seemed to fit; simultaneously Rog lifted and in a heavy, dripping arc in it came, landing thickly in the bottom of the boat. A huge flathead. Biggest one we’d ever seen – by a mile. Adrenaline pumping, we whooped and screamed.
 Suck eggs, you plastic heaps! Go the mighty Squid,’ I hollered.
We were grown-ups.

There are many moments like this in the essays. Hastrich’s deep love of that place is infectious, and it’s the best thing about the book – in ‘The Hole’ and ‘From the Deep, It Comes’ (in which Western writer and deep-sea fisher Zane Grey makes a guest appearance). She also writes engagingly about her writing life, including an unfinished colonial gothic novel that seems to haunt her, and about the way her past as a television camera operator affects her way of seeing (both in the same brilliant essay, ‘My Life and the Frame’). There’s a wonderful essay, ‘Amateur Hour at the Broken Heart Welding Shop’, about her grandfather, who was a ‘first-class amateur’ engineer – Hastrich describes herself as an amateur writer.

Less successful for me are the essays that are in effect reports on experiments: going fishing at night with only a non-directional lantern on the dinghy (‘Night Fishing’); taking the dinghy out at low tide to The Hole with a bathyscope (‘The Tomb of Human Curiosity’); filming herself as she sleeps two nights in a row and taking 112 selfies on the day in between (‘Self Portraits’). The contrived set-up of these pieces stops them from quite taking off.


Charlotte Wood, The Weekend (Allen & Unwin 2019)

Three women in their seventies meet at a beach house for a weekend over Christmas, but not to celebrate the holiday. Christmas just seems to be a non-event. None of them has family to celebrate with: Wendy is a widow with alienated adult children, Jude is the long-term mistress (old-fashioned term, but accurate) of a wealthy man who spends the holiday with his family, Adele is a once-famous actress who has become increasingly unemployed, alone in the world, and on the brink of homelessness. Nor have they taken refuge with each other as Waifs and Strays. The beach house belonged to Sylvia, the fourth in their little group of friends, who has died recently. They are there to sort out her stuff and prepare the house for selling – for the benefit of Sylvia’s partner, who has left the country,

We are told that these women have been friends for forty years. We are told they are feminists. But as they arrive at the hut, separately, they barely greet each other. Each is allocated a section of the house to clean up, and they proceed to do it in isolation. No calling out from one room to another – ‘Oh my God, look what she kept!’ ‘What should we do with all these gorgeous clothes?’ ‘That’s my saucepan that she borrowed and never gave back!’ – let alone any shared whingeing about the partner who has skedaddled and left them to do what should be her work. They do think such thoughts, but there’s no commonalty in the task. No sense of solidarity in grief either. And only the sketchiest idea of who the recently deceased woman was apart from the her role in keeping the friendship group together. When the three go for a walk on the beach, no one waits for anyone else but each remains wrapped in her own thoughts.

Not a lot happens in the first two thirds of the book apart from reports on the internal monologues of each of the women, and descriptions of the undignified deterioration of Wendy’s deaf, arthritic, incontinent dog. Towards the end, each of the three is delivered a devastating blow, they stumble into a Christmas midnight mass, and they find some solace and forgiveness with each other, but though there’s a terrific evocation of a storm as the blows are delivered, by then I was past caring.

I was so looking forward to this book, because I loved Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things (my blog post here). It can’t just be the subject matter that led me not to like it – I’ve been known to be very interested in women aged 70 or thereabouts, and I was enthralled by Elizabeth Strout’s Olive, Again (blog post here). I think it’s something to do with the way the narrative generally works. To take a passage pretty much at random, here’s Jude after she’s realised that Adele has claimed the best bedroom without any discussion:

She didn’t care about the bedroom at all – she wasn’t fussed by trivia like that – but still, a fleck of disdain formed itself: how had Adele not, in all these years, developed a shred of restraint, of self-discipline? It was how and why she was an actress, Jude supposed. They were all children, the men too, as far as she could tell. She could see the appeal, when you were young, the liberation of it. But what did it mean when you were old? What were you left with, still a child at seventy-two?

(page 75)

This is the kind of writing I meant by ‘we are told’ in the earlier paragraph. It’s shaped as if it’s giving us Jude’s internal monologue. I don’t think I’m alone in believing that no one thinks like that. Take the generalisation about actors. It’s mean and judgmental, and absurd, but that’s not my problem with it: why shouldn’t Jude be meanly, absurdly judgemental? My problem is that the omniscient narrator is giving us a rundown, an abstract, as if the writer has figured out what Jude’s character is, and is giving us little snippets to illustrate it. We’re not inside Jude’s head, which is where we need to be if we’re to get lost in the story. Sadly, this is pretty much how the narrator’s voice works for most of the book. It feels as if these characters created no surprises for their creator. This reader remained generally disengaged.

Many people have said The Weekend was one of their favourite books of 2019: Sue at Whispering Gums and Lisa at ANZ Lit Lovers, for example, have both written elegant, well-argued, positive reviews of what’s recognisably the same book but seen through very different lenses from mine. I’m glad, because I don’t want any book to be unloved – well, hardly any book. I’m sorry this one isn’t loved by me.


After the meeting: We met in the carport of our host’s newly purchased and not yet completely habitable house in Balmain with a spectacular view of the Sydney skyline, and had pizza. Once we’d got over the splendour of the setting, and tales of cricket from this summer and summers long past, and one or two fabulous tales of adventure in the city involving weddings and mistaken identity (though not in the same tale), we had an animated discussion of the books.

My sense is that no one was as negative about The Weekend as I am. Where I missed the casual back and forth of old friends, the book’s main proponent said he had read that sort of thing as understood but not part of the book’s focus: that the narrative was interested in the characters’ internal lives. another chap said that the main thing the book did for him was to have him reflect on decades-old relationships that are full of obligation but not much else; in particular, there are people who are nominally his friends but are really his wife’s friends, and if she were to disappear he wold gladly never see them again. He wasn’t saying that the three women in this book were like that, but he certainly read their lack of mutual warmth as having a similar source: Sylvia was the glue that held the group together, and no one was sure it could continue to exist without her. Yet another said he wasn’t fazed by the lack of communal grieving: that had already happened, as he read it, and now each character was withdrawn into her own individual grief.

It’s interesting that my main misgivings – which I’m not sure I even articulated – were addressed from so many fronts.

Night Fishing provoked some interesting discussion. Notably, towards the end of the evening, one chap said he was embarrassed to realise that this was the first thing he’s ever read about a woman fishing. His embarrassment was widely shared, and led to some interesting surmise about fishing and gender: men often fish in order to indulge in reverie, that is to say, be alone and do nothing. Is it the same for women? Or does it tend to be a more practical task for women. Today someone sent us a link to Lyla Foggia’s 1997 book Reel Women: the world of women who fish (link here).

On a more general readerly level, while the word ‘patchy’ evoked some head-nodding, we liked the book. A couple of passages were read out to general approval. One of our younger members said the book tapped into a vein of nostalgia. He didn’t get to enlarge on that thought, and I didn’t get to reply, but I think it’s not exactly nostalgia in these essays: the author revisits a place she loved as a child and explores it in a number of ways as an adult, deepening and enriching her understanding of it, and so of herself.

Someone said that they felt that Night Fishing was written by a person, and The Weekend was written by a writer. Obviously Wood and Hastrich are both writers, but there’s something to what he said. Hastrich describes herself as an amateur, which is a different thing from a dabbler or a learner – it points to the elements of vulnerability and lack of subterfuge that make her writing so attractive. The Weekend is Wood’s sixth novel, and even though I was disappointed in it, I didn’t ever want to give up on it.

One last thing: Charlotte Wood has put up on her podcast The Writer’s Room a wonderful interview with Vikki Hastrich that provides fabulous insights into the kind of beast Night Fishing is. Here’s a link.


Night Fishing and The Weekend are the first two books I’ve read for the 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Ruby Reads (17)

It’s been a while since I’ve posted about books I’ve encountered when wearing my Poppa hat. Here are some of the wonders I’ve encountered since last I blogged about them.

Margaret Wise Brown, illustrated by Clement Hurd, Goodnight Moon (1947)

Anyone who has worked in children’s literature has heard of Goodnight Moon. It’s an absolute classic US picture book for young children, which I can now tick off my Shame List. The person who sold it to me said he’d had to hide his daughter’s copy because she demanded it so relentlessly. Yet he claimed to still like it. I don’t know what I was expecting – maybe something full of saccharine statements of maternal love – but actually it’s terrific. A tiny rabbit in a big bed says goodnight to all the wonderful things in the bedroom and outside the window.

Leslie Patricelli, On My Potty (Walker Books 2010)

If Goodnight Moon can be read as a text with a manipulative subtext (a reading encouraged by a page at the end of our copy that list dozen hints for how to get your child to sleep), On My Potty can’t be read any other way. No actual potty has yet appeared in Ruby’s life, so the book is a bot on the theoretical side, but there’s no doubt that it’s meant as a tool for toilet-training. It’s charming and silly as well. Whether it succeeds in its aims remains to be seen in our case.

Laura Bunting, illustrations by Philip Bunting, Kookaburras Love to Laugh (Koala Book Company 2018)

I imagine all two-year-old people have enthusiasms. Ruby is loves kookaburras. Two of her recurring sentences are, ‘Kookaburra in tree’ (that one is sometimes a question, or perhaps a request) and, ‘Kookaburra fly away.’ The plot of Kookaburras Love to Laugh may be a little beyond her: there’s a serious kookaburra who leaves his family in search of more serious birds. He ends up with some garden flamingoes who are completely serious but utterly boring, and goes back home, converted to the enjoyment of laughter. So the plot is OK, especially given that his family also make adjustments to meet his needs, but the real appeal is page after page of kookaburras and the frequent need for kookaburra imitations from the reader.

Jon Klassen, This Is Not My Hat (Walker 2012)

The second in John Kalassen’s wonderful minimalist hat trilogy. In the first book, I Want My Hat Back (link is to my review), a bear goes on search of his hat and finally finds and deals with the thief. This one tells a similar story from the thief’s point of view. A small fish has stolen the hat of a very big fish and is confident of getting away with it. But the reader who notices small details such as the direction the big fish is looking or the angle of a bystander crab’s nippers knows that the confidence is misplaced. The humour is sly, and the images are brilliant.

Jon Klassen, We Found a Hat (Walker 2016)

This is the third in the series. Two tortoises find a hat in the desert. One hat, two tortoises. They decide that that won’t work so they walk away, but one of them looks back longingly and when the other goes to sleep he sneaks back towards the hat … Unlike the other two books this one doesn’t end with retribution, but with a splendid, richly satisfying imagined resolution to this specific sharing dilemma. (We are witnessing many sharing dilemmas in playgrounds.)

Ruby’s father and grandfather both love these hat books. I think Ruby quite likes them.

Kookaburras Love to Laugh is the thirty-sixth book I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Emma Lew’s Crow College

Emma Lew, Crow College: New and Selected Poems (Giramondo 2019)

This book’s cover image, from a painting by Maryanne Coutts, hints at a dark, elusive narrative. A woman whose face is turned away from us engages in an activity that is far from clear and possibly dangerous. It could be a moment from a dream. Many of Emma Lew’s poems have a similar sense of being spoken from the midst of a dark, elusive narrative. The ‘I’ is invariably hard to pin down: you may (as I, naively, did) start out thinking the poems feature Lew speaking in her own voice but you soon realise you’re wrong. In fact, most of the time it’s hard to have any sense of Emma Lew’s engagement except as a crafter of highly-charged enigmas. In his review of this book, Martin Duwell writes that he once surmised that Lew’s characteristic poem

was based on something like putting the characters of one novel into a quite different novel (usually Central European or Russian) – say like transferring the characters of Great Expectations into Pasternak’s Dr Zhivago – isolating a scene and then writing it as a fragmented monologue or third person narration removing all clues as to what either of the original novels might have been.

Australian Poetry Review at this link

He has discarded that hypothesis, but it does a nice job of evoking both the drama and the disorientation one experiences reading many of the poems in this book.

Evidently the Giramondo team felt that readers might need a little help with that disorientation, because whereas most books of poetry have minimal guidance in how to read them, this one includes an introduction by poet Bella Li. I generally avoid introductions, but I read this one hoping it would help me blog coherently. I also read a number of reviews, including the excellent one by Martin Duwell quoted above and one by Ross Gibson – author of the brilliant books Seven Versions of an Australian Badland and 26 Views of the Starburst World [links to my blog posts] – in Sydney Review of Books [here’s a link].

Everything I read about the poetry is interesting (though Ross Gibson’s prose at times went off into academic incomprehensibility). What I realised is not that I didn’t understand what was happening in the poems, but that I didn’t get how to enjoy them.

My copy of the book is an ARC (advanced reading copy) which comes with a request not to quote from it, but I can’t bear to end without giving my readers at least a small taste. This is the start of the relatively straightforward ‘Kanipshins’, whose title the internet says is a Yiddish word meaning fits or temper tantrums (for some reason WordPress is being difficult with line breaks; please overlook the weird line spacing here):

In consideration for my mother

the yacht got free of its moorings.

'Just bring him home:

I'll decide who's handsome.'

We tried to quarrel quietly in the bathroom.

She had kept certain phrases for this moment

but ended up expressing desperation

through the elaborateness

of her hairdo, and drama,

the way she salted her food.

See what I mean? There’s a slantwise portrait of a mother daughter relationship there: the daughter brings a boyfriend/suitor home for the mother to evaluate; the young people find a little privacy in the bathroom; the mother communicates in non-verbal ways. But what is the broader picture presumably alluded to in the first two lines? should we care what the young people are quarrelling about? Is it the mother who is desperate, and why? These are questions that have no answers. The poem continues (I think) with the mother hectoring the daughter to marry the young man, but just as you think you’re following the story, it goes somewhere quite unexpected and enigmatic:

The drug companies did the serenading,

but how the girdle must have hurt!

And there are a couple more twists before the end, including the wonderfull but elusive line ‘holding lilies, almost apoplectic’. Could be a narrative – a dramatic monologue or the abstract of a short film or play – but without establishing shots or guideposts. So it offers some of the pleasures of story while refusing others. It’s not my cup of tea, but I can see that it’s very good.

Crow College is the thirty-eighth and last book I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge. My copy is an ARC from Giramondo Publishing.

#aww2019 and #aww2020

This is my round-up post for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2019.

I read a total of 38 books by Australian women writers, well over the goal of ten that I’d set for myself. They ranged from Alexis Wright’s 640 page many-voiced Tracker to picture books with fewer than 100 words, and included:

  • 19 books for very young children
  • 8 books of poetry
  • 2 novels (only 2!)
  • 6 memoir/biography/history/essay/creative non-fiction
  • 2 books that mixed genres (one poems and recipes, the other a novella and essays)
  • 1 short book of art criticism

Three books were written by Indigenous Australian women. None were translated from languages other than English. The list doesn’t include journals.

You can see my blog entries on them at this link.

Now I’m signing up for another year, at the Franklin level, which means I aim to read and review 10 books by Australian women in 2020.

On a related topic, I’ve done a quick gender check on books I read this year altogether [and updated it on 30 December]. Not counting journals or children’s picture books, I read:

  • 30 31 by women
  • 29 33 by men

I read four five books in translation (two three from French, one each from Japanese and German), and two in their original French.

Ashley Kalagian Blunt, My Name is Revenge; November Verse 4

Ashley Kalagian Bunt, My Name is Revenge: A novella and collected essays (Spineless Wonders 2019)

On 17 December 1980, at 9.47 am, two men shot the Turkish consul-general to Sydney and his bodyguard near the consul’s home in Vaucluse. The assassins aimed, fired and vanished.

That’s the opening paragraph of the novella that gives this slim book its title. I had to check in Wikipedia: it turns out that that assassination is not something invented by Ashley Kalagian Blunt. Like the Armenian genocide that inspired it, it is simply not remembered by most of us. What follows that paragraph – a young man whose name, Vrezh, is Armenian for ‘revenge’ feels empowered by news of the assassination and gets involved in a further terrorist plot – is fiction, but fiction fuelled by the historical genocide, and the Turkish government’s century-long insistence that the genocide never happened.

It’s a daring choice in the current climate to write about terrorism from the point of view of a potential terrorist, who has an assassin – Soghomon Tehlirian – as a hero. It’s daring, and stunningly successful: we care about that young man and his family.

The three essays accompanying the novella address aspects of the issues it raises: ‘Writing Violence, Arousing Curiosity’ deals with the genesis of the novella itself; ‘The Crime of Crimes’ sketches the history of genocide, from well before the term was coined in the 20th century; ‘Life After Genocide’ focuses on Kalagian Blunt’s reconnection with her Armenian heritage as a young adult, and how survivors of the genocide have dealt with the history – in particular her great grandfather who as a child witnessed monstrous deeds. The grim subject matter is leavened by a selection of the author’s photographs of Armenian buildings, landscapes and people, including a stunning double spread featuring herself as a baby with her great-grandparents. It’s to the credit of Spineless Wonders that these black and white photos are reproduced with great clarity.

It’s November, and this month I tend to keep reviews to a minimum and write a stanza inspired by the book in question (I have to produce 14 14-line poems this month). But I need to say a little more before breaking into rhyme.

As a settler Australian and a gentile, I’ve felt an obligatory interest in the history of genocide. I have a number of fat books on my To Be Read shelf with titles like Blood and Soil: A World History of Genocide and Extermination from Sparta to Darfur (that one’s by Ben Kiernan 2007). I haven’t even started reading any of them. My Name is Revenge got me through the opening gate, and I recommend it to anyone who feels a similar responsibility to be informed. (It has added several new books to my virtual TBR shelf, including the discouragingly titled Genocide: A World History (Norman M Naimark 2017). Actually, I recommend the book to anyone who appreciates fine writing that comes from a passionately felt source.

Now for my little verse, which opens with Exodus 15:3:

November Verse 4: 
Kill man and woman, babe and suckling,
ox and sheep, camel, ass.

That's God to Saul. Since, we've been buckling
up for slaughter, sword to gas,
musket, spear, scimitar, machete;
harrying, dispersal, cleansing, deadly
soft words for the blood-soaked facts:
whole peoples falling to the axe.
And what comes next? Post-devastation
do gentlefolk take up the land,
priests take survivors by the hand,
declare it's all a fabrication?
The story of the human race
is sometimes awful hard to face.

My Name Is Revenge is the thirty-seventh book I’ve read as part of the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge. My copy is a gift from Ashley Galagian Blunt.

Ruby Reads (16): Other books by …

There are many joys in being a grandfather. The discovery of new books for the very young is one of them. Here are some recent ones.

Bill Martin Jr & Eric Carle, Panda Bear, Panda Bear, What Do You See? (Henry Holt & Co 2006)

This was read to us by the marvellous Lisa during Rhyme Time at Leichhardt Library. It’s a sequel to Bill Martin Jr and Eric Carle’s Brown Bear, Brown Bear what Do You See?, or really a variation on it. This one isn’t an accumulation of creatures seen as in the original (and as in Mem Fox and Julie Vivas’s I went walking), but a chain, each seen creature becoming the seer in the next spread. These books make magic from extremely simple text and totally beguiling images.

Julia Donaldson & Axel Scheffler, Room on the Broom (Pan Macmillan 2016)

Julia Donaldson, especially when teamed up with illustrator Axel Scheffler, has been one of the revelations brought to me by grandfatherhood. This is a simple story of a witch who loses parts of her equipment and each time she regains one she takes on an extra passenger as well. It’s genial and bounces along with wonderful rhymes.

Keith Faulkner (words) and Jonathan Lambert (images), The Wide-Mouthed Frog (Madcap 1997)

I first heard this story as a joke. The wide mouthed frog wanders through his environment asking other animals what they eat. When you tell it as a joke, each time you speak one of the frog’s lines you stretch your mouth wide with two fingers. When he meets the crocodile, who says he eats wide-mouthed frogs, you purse your lips and say, ‘Ooooh.’ It works well as a picture book, too, though the punch line needs to expand: ‘You don’t see many of them around here.’ Also read to us by the fabulous Lisa.

Alison Lester, My Dog Bigsy (Penguin Australia 2015)

A fabulous Alison Lester book. It belongs to the genre where a main character wanders about a farm greeting all the other animals, and does it very well. The images have interestingly textured backgrounds, which is something I haven’t seen in Alison Lester’s work before. As I’m reading so many books where farm animals are introduced to the young reader, I realise how different my granddaughter’s start to life is from mine – I spent my first 12 years living on a farm. I loved the exoticism of books where children lived in villages and could talk to someone in the house next door. She walks out the front door to cars, neighbours and the sounds of urban life – nature is at a premium, and books are a way of learning its importance.

Jan Mark (words) and Charlotte Voake (images), Fur (1986,Walker Books 2014)

The late Jan Mark wrote some superb books for young readers. This is a ‘first story’ that shows she could do it for the very young as well. A cat likes to sleep in ‘my’ hat. Behold, one day half a dozen kittens have joined her in the hat. It’s more than 30 years old now, though this is a new edition. Maybe the images of kittens and broad-brimmed straw hat come from a different era, but its appeal is still strong. I picked this up off the library shelf and it elicited several exclamations of ‘More!’

Pamela Allen, Mr Archimedes Bath (Puffin 1980)

It was a joy to rediscover this on Ruby’s shelves – a library book I think. It was Pamela Allen’s first book, and is a kind of early version of the sublime Who Sank the Boat?, with added nakedness to compensate for the slightly less elegant narrative line. Mr Archimedes and his animal friends have their baths together and want to figure out who is responsible for the water spilling. It’s fun, and possibly lays the groundwork for later learning about displacement of liquids and the actual Archimedes’ Eureka moment

My Dog Bigsy and Mr Archimedes’ Bath are the thirty-fifth and thirty-sixth books I’ve read as part of the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge. I’ll say it again: though Pamela Allen is a New Zealander and lives there now, she lived and worked for a long time in Australia, including when she created this book.

Keri Glastonbury’s Newcastle Sonnets

Keri Glastonbury, Newcastle Sonnets (Giramondo 2018)

Keri Glastonbury was interviewed by Jim Kellar in the Newcastle Herald in August. There’s much talk in the interview (you can read it all here) about the Newcastle-ness of the book – the local sights, snippets of lore, the city’s history and its present. Then, as if Keri Glastonbury is worried by the non-academic tenor of the conversation, she warns, ‘I don’t want people to think it’s accessible.’ Readers, she says, ‘will be confronted with experimental poetics.’

So there you go.

I assume that most of my regular readers are, like me, not up to speed with experimental poetics. (I’m one of the few non-academics and non-poets who writes in public about contemporary Australian poetry: I’ve never been terribly afraid of looking stupid in public, and I’m deeply grateful for the tolerance and good humour of poets who have responded to my blog posts in the comments section or in person.) If you’re fully poetry-phobic, this isn’t a book for you. But if you enjoy the outsider’s pleasure of being largely mystified and then having moments of clarity and even delight, you might want to give it a go.

The poems, as it suggests on the lid, almost all refer to Newcastle (that’s upon-Hunter not upon-Tyne), to the life of an academic working at Newcastle University who is a member of the LGBQTI+ community. There’s a wealth of academic reference/injokes, gossip from the poetry world, Newcastle detail that will be obscure probably even to some Novocastrians, snippets of pop culture from the last 30 or so years, internet memes and moments (I’m guessing) from the poet’s personal life – none of it spelled out or explained, much of it in unexpected juxtapositions. I doubt if any individual – except perhaps Glastonbury herself – could read the whole thing and get all the allusions. So if one feels like an outsider, it’s not because there’s a clique of insiders somewhere but because any reader is, as it were, eavesdropping.

Here are the first eight lines of a three-sonnet poem from early in the book, ‘What Would I Say’:

Dispersing a lyric via leaf blower
& other 80s cult songs like '88 Lines About 44 Women'
– what if John Forbes had lived
to live tweet during Q&A?
It's all lost generation stuff & the malls
were unindicted co-conspirators. Who knew?
Meaghan Morris/Maitland.
Joanie loves Chachi vs Date Academics in AU.

Here’s my take these lines. Your mileage will vary:

  • Line 1: We don’t know who’s doing the ‘dispersing’. Perhaps the noise of a leaf blower disrupts the concentration needed to create or respond to a lyric – lyrical words or sentiments are like so many dead leaves to be blown away by the unremitting noise of our lives these days. (A bit like many of Donald Trump’s chats to journalists – ‘dispersing information via helicopter blades’)
  • Line 2: The ampersand throws back to the first line, suggesting that it stands for a particular kind of 80s cult song. So the song named in this line (and others like it) do that kind of dispersing. I didn’t listen to much pop music in the 80s, but I looked this up and found that it’s a jolly list of women, two lines each, probably women that the writer/singer is claiming to have had sex with. Not very lyrical, or perhaps romance on an industrial scale?
  • Lines 3 and 4: These references aren’t obscure to me, but they may be to some readers. John Forbes was about my age, a witty, some would say smart-arse, poet who died young, who appears to be remembered with affection in contemporary Australian poetry; Q&A is an irritating current affairs TV show that runs tweets across the bottom of the screen. Forbes live-tweeting is a terrific notion. The dash at the start of line 3 implies some connection with what has gone before – Forbes was writing in the 80s (and the 70s and the 90s), so perhaps he is offered as contrast to the leaf blower songs.
  • Line 5: ‘Lost generation’ usually refers to people born during World War One, but if ‘It’ at the start of the line refers back to the previous four lines – which is what the syntax suggests – maybe there’s a hint of another lost generation who came of age in the 80s (would that be Gen X? (Forbes was a Boomer) …
  • Line 5 and 6: … and somehow without anyone being aware of it the existence of shopping malls was partly responsible.
  • Line 7: I once shared a flat with Meaghan Morris, which is probably beside the point. She is a Cultural Studies scholar who hails from Maitland – ah, the Newcastle connection! Maybe she has written about the effects of malls on the 80s generation (she’s certainly written abut Centrepoint Tower, and motel signs). Maybe this line is answering the question from previous line – ‘Who knew?’
  • Line 8: Joanie Loves Chachi was a US sitcom in the early 1980s (I looked it up), a pretty unsuccessful spin-off from Happy Days (I don’t know why it wasn’t printed in italics as the names of books are later i the same poem). Date Academics sounds like a dating app, and at first I thought AU referred to the internet domain code for Australia, but if this is about the 80s, then AU is more likely to be Adelaide University and Date Academics may be a pre-internet means of hooking up. So maybe the line evokes a moment when an academic living in Adelaide had to make a choice between watching junk on TV and looking for love, again in a fairly non-romantic way.

I didn’t mean to spend so long on those lines, but I guess that gives some idea of the work I have to do to engage with these poems. Not only the work of figuring out the references (6 diverse named cultural references in 8 lines), but also trying to grasp how, or even if, the lines , images and references relate to each other. My hypothesis that the 80s are the common thread falls by the wayside in the following lines with references to books published in the 70s and the 2000s, to ‘blended learning’, surely a more recent jargon term among educators, to Sandilands (I’m assuming it’s Kyle the radio broadcaster, who’s surely a phenomenon of the 90s and later), and so on. I fall back on reading line by line, and not worrying too much about the poem as a whole. Maybe the poem, and these poems in general, work, not so much by yoking things together by violence (as Someone said of John Donne and Co) as by piling up bits of stuff from all over the place, and any apparent logical flow is a red herring.

I know this reads as if I’m complaining, and I would be, but the language feels very alive in every moment, and from the myriad details emerges a cumulative picture of a life, a sensibility, a place, a community. Occasionally there’s a brilliant image, like this from ‘City of Moi-Meme‘:

From below the bridge the neon reflections could be koi

or this from’Everybody Loves (Raymond Terrace)’:

____that James Turrell moment,
where I realise that we've been sitting in the dark
staring at a hole in the wall, productively.

Or this, from ‘Two Dog Nights’, my favourite lines from the book:

The Islington figs release the bats & the sky
blacks out like an erasure poem.

My favourite single word: ‘anthroposcenester’ from ‘Who Killed Bambi?’ (Though I would have spelled it ‘anthropocenester’.)

If you want to read a review by someone who isn’t parading their own obtuseness, I recommend ‘Anne Buchanan-Stuart reviews Newcastle Sonnets by Keri Glastonbury‘ in Plumwood Mountain.

Newcastle Sonnets is the thirty-fourth book I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers’ Challenge. I received a complimentary copy from Giramondo Publishing. I’m grateful for the opportunity to move out of my comfort zone..

Ruby Reads (15) plus round-faced Bowie

One of the persistent joys of grandfatherhood is the chance to read aloud, and reread, some excellent books. This post continues my notes on this pleasure.

Matt Shanks (illustrator), Row Row Row Your Boat (Scholastic Australia 2016)

What a joy for Ruby to discover this book. It combines three of her major sources of delight: a kookaburra, a crocodile and the song ‘Row row row your boat’. The uncredited author has added verses to the song that introduce a koala, a platypus, a bandicoot and a kookaburra as well as the crocodile that was already there (‘If you see a crocodile don’t forget to scream’).

I don’t care terribly for the illustrations, but they do a great job with the target audience.

Pamela Allen, Alexander’s Outing (Viking 1992)

We bought this from the shop at Sydney’s Royal Botanic Gardens, which is the setting for its story of a family of ducks. A song that Ruby requests interminably is ‘Five little ducks went out one day’. The Emerging Artist, in this context known as Nana, does some wonderfully dramatic quacks in that song, and this is a book that offers great scope for more – plus there’s a silly story about a little creature lost and then recovered, thanks to kindness and cooperation. Pamela Allen is fabulous.

Bill Martin Jr and Eric Carle, Brown Bear Brown Bear What Did You See? (1967)

This was read to us at Rhyme Time at the library – a total classic that takes us through a range of colours, each attached to an animal. It’s fascinating to read this after I Went Walking (Julie Vivas and Sue Williams 1996), which follows its format closely but does something quite different with the images and has a child observing the animals and in the end having what my mother would have called a love-up with them.

Matt Cosgrove, Macca the Alpaca (Koala Books 2018)

Macca is a sweet, kind, cute creature who meets a big, tough, bullying llama named Harmer, a very different creature from llama-llama-red-pyjama llama who all the same claims the affection, or at least the fascinated attention of our young reader. The bully gets his come-uppance, the skills of the smaller, more agile creature are established, and there is an implausibly sweet reconciliation at the end. As with ‘Row Row Row Your Boat’, Ruby likes this a lot more than I do.

Isabel Sanchez Vegara, David Bowie (Little People, Big Dreams) (Lincoln Children’s Books 2019)

Not really a Ruby Read, this one. The EA and I recently spent an interesting evening with a five-year-old boy while his mother was out. We listened to ‘Old Town Road‘ at least ten times and then on the way to sleep I read to him – his choice – an encyclopaedia entry about volcanoes, and this book. It’s the story of David Bowie’s life as a fable about a boy who felt he didn’t belong becoming very successful and widely loved through, in part, embracing his difference. (Also, I didn’t know what happened to his eye.) The round-faced images are slightly jarring, but it’s a lovely framing of Bowie’s story.


Alexander’s Outing is the thirty-third book I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge. (Pamela Allen now lives in New Zealand, where she was born, but she lived and created books in Australia for many years. For a time she illustrated for that most Australian of institutions, the New South Wales Department of Education’s School Magazine.)

joanne burns, apparently

joanne burns, apparently (Giramondo 2019)

apparently is the sixteenth book of poetry by joanne burns (who prefers her name and work to be written without capitalisation). It’s in four sections: ‘planchettes’, ‘apparently’. ‘dial’ and ‘the random couch’. I enjoyed all four very different parts, perhaps especially ‘dial’, which plays merrily and nastily with contemporary social and political language. But in this blog post I want to say a bit about ‘planchettes’ – partly because I think of my regular readers as wary of contemporary poetry, and my ruminations may cast some light on parts of that forbidding terrain.

People who are perplexed by contemporary poetry sometimes complain that they don’t like poems that are like cryptic crosswords. ‘planchettes’ might have been written in response to that complaint. According to a helpful note on the book’s back cover, the section’s ten poems ‘spring-board from the clues and solutions to crossword puzzles’. I’m not exactly an expert on contemporary poetry (sometimes I approach it with the fearful fascination of a toddler offering a long-stemmed leaf to a beautiful but sharp-pecking rooster). However, I’m a cryptic crossword aficionado, and that helped me to enjoy these poems. I’ll try to communicate something of the underpinning of that joy in three parts.

First: about cryptic crosswords. A recent Guardian cryptic crossword included this clue: ‘Person catching extremists in Ferrari with tank. (9)’ (See it in context here.) The successful solver pays scant attention to its literal meaning, and instead deconstructs it, after any number of false starts, as follows: F and I are the extremes of ‘Ferrari’; sherman is a kind of tank; put F+I with Sherman and you have a 9-letter word meaning ‘person catching’ FIsherman. Perform similar processes 20 or 30 times and the grid is filled. Only subliminally does one notice the often surreal or absurd images or micro-fictions conjured up by a clue’s surface. In this case: Who are the extremists, and why a Ferrari? who is the person in the tank, and is a weirdly asymmetrical chase scene implied, with an unlikely outcome? Is it a case of wealthy terrorists versus the power of the state? and so on. A solver may only notice the surfaces subliminally, but they are what make some crosswords richly pleasurable, while others offer only the dubious pleasure of pitting one’s wits against the setter (DA of the Sydney Morning Herald, I’m looking at you).

Second: about some poems. There’s a whole kind of poem – academics may have a word for it – that takes language from a particular, perhaps technical context, and puts it on display stripped of context. I was once at a poetry reading where someone read, at length and apparently without any alteration, an editor–proofreader’s marginal comments on a draft engineering manual. As an editor, I was bored by that experience, but I understood (or thought I did) that the poem was a verbal equivalent of a piece of readymade art – as in the urinal displayed as Fountain by Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven (and claimed by Marcel Duchamp, but that’s another story). That’s not exactly what joanne burns is doing in ‘plaanchettes’ (and has done in the past with language from the world of finance), though it’s related. She hasn’t just typed out string of crossword clues. As I understand it, she uses the clues and answers as a kind of restraint. Which brings me to my third part.

Third: restraint. This is a useful concept when talking about poetry in general. (Remember, I’m not an academic, and this is mainly stuff I’ve figured out myself or picked up along the way, and I could be wide of the mark.) Rhyme and metre are familiar forms of restraint: if you want to make up a limerick about Scott Morrison you have to find words that rhyme with one or other part of his name, or maybe his self-chosen nickname, and then see what you can do with them.* Limiting a poem to language found in crossword clues is a more drastic restraint than rhyme or metric form, but the underling principle is the same. Closer to these poems is the cento, where every line of your poem must come from another poem; or erasure, created by erasing most of a text, the poem being what’s left. In these forms, perhaps in all poetry, the result can be as surprising to the poet as to the reader. If you know exactly what you want to say at the start, better write the dullest kind of prose.

Now on to ‘planchettes’. A planchette, as you probably know and I had to look up, is that little piece of wood on wheels used in séances to spell out messages from who knows where – the spirit world or the jumble and chaos of the combined unconscious minds of the people wielding the wood. I don’t know anything about joanne burns’s process, but the title suggests that the crossword clues and answers are like the letters on a ouija board, and the poet’s mind moves over them, randomly at first and then with closer focus until something emerges that’s coherent, or somehow resolved. The weirdness of crossword clues remains, but not their solvability. Here’s an example, ‘Calypsonic’ from page 5:

do you feel like a
tangible sailor your
hair chocka with
permanent waves, or
an insect posing as
a water nymph in
search of a new nickname –

nothing beats finding a location
with the best overall view the day
before you are born     a twelve
month commitment is sought
for this role    you must have a
capacity to yearn –

I suppose one could scour the world of crosswords looking for the clues and answers that this poem has mined (starting, I imagine with calypsonic as an answer), but to what end? The words on the page are what we have. If you imagine them as having emerged from something like a spiritualist’s trance, not asking them to speak directly, but allowing meanings to swim before our eyes, you have to swim with them for a while and let something emerge – as I imagine they emerged for the poet.

‘Calypsonic’ isn’t in the dictionaries I have easy access to, but I read it as a variant of ‘calypsonian’, meaning ‘to do with the nymph Calypso’. At the start of the Odyssey, Odysseus has been a prisoner in Calypso’s cave for seven years. She offers him immortality if he will stay with her, but he wants to be on the move, to return to his wife, Penelope, and so the story begins.

The first seven lines ask ‘you’ if you ‘feel like’ an Odysseus or a Calypso – choose your archetype. A lot of wordplay swirls around that central question, perhaps clinging to it like detritus from the source material, but also complicating it – the ‘permanent waves’ pun suggests that the sailor’s voyaging will never end, at the same time as evoking the landlocked world of a presumed reader, who may very well have visited a hairdresser; Calypso is a nymph, but nymph also signifies a stage in an insect’s life cycle.

In the Calypso–Odysseus scene, she is at home and he wants to move on. Here, though, the word ‘permanent’ is attached to the Odysseus side of the equation, and ‘chocka’ also suggests fulness. Even ‘tangible’ suggests solidity. Here the sailor is paradoxical an archetype of stability. It’s the Calypso figure who is unstable – the nymph is an immature insect, still growing, and it’s casting about for a new identity (‘in / search of a new nickname’).

In the second part, the struggle between a settled existence and restlessness comes to the fore. The reference to the view reminds me that this is a Sydney poem, at the same time keeping the ancient story in mind. (I probably picked this poem to blog about because I recently visited what is reputed to be Calypso’s cave on the island of Gozo. It has a brilliant view of the Mediterranean.) But no sooner is the location found than ‘before you were born’ suggests that major change is about to happen. Then there’s ‘a twelve / month commitment’ versus ‘a / capacity to yearn’. And the final punctuation, not a full stop but a dash, leaves the whole thing up in the air, undecided.

The question arises: who is ‘you’ in this poem? It could be the poet as well as any reader who steps into the frame. After all, the person wielding the planchette is receiving a message rather than creating it.

Reading the poem – and any of these poems – isn’t a labour of explication as those paragraphs might suggest. Some of joanne burns poems remain partly or completely opaque to me, which I guess is inevitable with poems that involve so much compression and indirection, but others, like this one, hit a spark. I can’t account for it, but quite apart from everything else I’ve said about it, it made me laugh.

apparently is the thirty-second book I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge. I gratefully acknowledge that I received a complimentary copy from Giramondo Publishing.


* Having raise the possibility, I had to have a go:

Our smiling prime minister Morrison
let cameras film him at orison.
His 'How good's Australia'
snatched victory from failure
and now we're the ones he piles horrors on.