Tag Archives: Australian Women Writers Challenge

Australian Women Writers: Lesbia Harford

This blog post was first published on the Australian Women Writers blog on 11 October 2022, at this link.

Lesbia Harford is far from forgotten or overlooked. You could even argue that, for an Australian woman poet, she has received a lot of attention. H M Green’s monumental History of Australian Literature, Volume II (1961) devoted four pages to her, but a decade later she was completely absent from Harry Heseltine’s Penguin Book of Australian Verse (1972). These days, she is dependably included in historical anthologies, and her poems turn up on sites like allpoetry.com and poemhunter.com. Yet it’s unlikely that many readers of this blog will be familiar with her work. And that’s a shame.

Lesbia Harford, nee Keogh (1891–1927) was born into a middle-class Melbourne family that fell on hard times when her alcoholic father deserted them. She suffered from a congenital heart condition that meant her health was always an issue. She was an active and much-loved part of Melbourne’s small intellectual circle. At university in 1914 she often engaged in heated debate with the young Robert Menzies. She had a passionate, life-long relationship with Kate Lush, a Philosophy lecturer at Melbourne University. She had a close friendship with Communist Guido Baracchi (the subject of Jeff Sparrow’s Communism, A Love Story), and for a time they were lovers. She was a unionist , and joined the International Workers of the World – the Wobblies. Despite her physical frailty she decided on ethical grounds to work for years as a machinist in a clothing factory. In her brief marriage to a socialist activist and artist, she endured domestic violence. She tutored students in English literature. She completed a law degree, a rare achievement for a woman at that time, intending to use it to work for social justice, but she died before she could fully qualify as a lawyer. She was an intellectual, an ex-Catholic, a factory worker, an activist, a free spirit, a lover, a tutor and a student: all of these fed her poetry.

When she died in her mid thirties, she had published very little poetry. Three collections have been published since, in 1941, 1885 and 2014, each containing more poems than the previous one, and roughly 200 more of her poems exist only in notebooks held in the Mitchell Library in Sydney. (Her novel, The Invaluable Mystery, which was published in 1987 by McPhee Gribble with a foreword by Helen Garner, must wait for another blog post.)

Harford’s increased profile is probably due in part to a general shift in the culture. For example, when a lecturer on Australian modernist painting recently failed to mention any women artists, their student audience was scathingly vocal. There are good grounds for hope that a similar response would today meet an anthologist who, like Heseltine, included Peter Hopegood (Peter who? I hear you ask) but not Lesbia Harford. The general change was made particular in Harford’s case by work done by Marjorie Pizer over many years, culminating in the publication of Poems of Lesbia Harford (Sirius Books 1985), which she edited with Drusilla Modjeska. The book includes a number of photos, and Modjeska’s introduction gives a lively account of Harford’s life and work. If you can find a copy (no easy task), I recommend it.

Over the decades since her death, Harford has been viewed through many lenses.

In 1942, an anonymous, probably male reviewer in the Sydney Morning Herald wrote what was meant to be dismissive, but these days reads like praise:

There is … an absence of what one would call poetry. Moments of perceptions are recorded in her verse, crystallisations of feeling, but rarely in ‘words that burn’. In fact, the book reads rather like a rhymed diary.

Poet from the Past‘, Sydney Morning Herald 2 May 1942, page 6

In 1961, H M Green wrote that she was ‘a pure lyrist’ and went on:

Almost half her collected poems deal with love; in a sense indeed they all do, for she differs from many other social reformers in that the motive of her enthusiasm was love, in its largest sense.

in 1985, Drusilla Modjeska wrote:

Her voice, unmistakably her own, speaks as part of the multiplicity of voices speaking about social injustice, hope for revolution and the contradictory experiences of women … The radicalism of her verse did not rely on polemic but on the power of the female voice that does not apologise.

In 2014, Les Murray, presumably without intending the compliment to be backhanded, pronounced:

I consider Ms Harford … as one of the two finest female poets so far seen in Australia.

In the same year, Jeff Sparrow echoed the anonymous 1942 reviewer’s ‘rhymed diary’ comment, but with a completely different implied judgement (one that I agree with):

She often wrote about – and occasionally to – her friends and associates, referencing both public events and personal triumphs and sorrows. Like other private documents, the poems demand to be read in context – a context that, in Harford’s case, is not always obvious, both because the biographical record remains sketchy and, perhaps more importantly, because our historical moment is so different.

Sydney Review of Books 16 September 2014

Sparrow’s comment is reinforced by the way the poems have reached us. In all three published collections, as in Harford’s notebooks, they are organised in chronological order (though the most recent and largest of them, Oliver Dennis’s 2014 edition, doesn’t give dates). So it’s tempting, often appropriate, and even necessary to read the books as elliptical autobiographies or memoirs that touch on world events as well as intimate ones. My own experience of the poems bears this out: read in isolation in anthologies or on poetry websites, they have little of the power they have when read together, in order.

Readers so far might get the impression that reading Lesbia Harford is like visiting the Poetry Museum. My aim in the rest of this blog post is to demonstrate that it’s not like that at all, by showing some small examples. Here’s the first of her poems that I read:

People sometimes tease me, saying
I have lovers many.
If I lack the one I sigh for,
What's the good of any?

I will never have a lover,
Though I am so bonny.
Love could only hurt that showed me
What I miss from Johnny.

Like many or even most of Harford’s poems, this looks and at first feels like light verse. It starts out as a jaunty, even frivolous rhyme. Then the tone deepens: the poem moves from a lively social circle, to reflecting on the relative value of good-time companionship and true love, to a rejection of the idea of having a lover at all, and then in the final lines, so calmly that it could be missed altogether, a bereavement is revealed. Read without context, it’s subtle and moving. If you read it as a poem from the home front of the First World War, it has a kind of devastating whiplash effect.

You may not read it that way, and it’s a strength of these poems that they don’t insist on a particular reading. The fairly early poem, ‘My mission in the world’ is explicit:

No marble meaning’s mine
Fixed for a school,

My singing ecstasy
Winged for the flight,
Each will hear differently
And hear aright.

That idea sounds awfully modern, even while it’s framed in pre-modern rhyming verse. Yet, even while the poems don’t insist on a single reading, they draw much of their power from their truthfulness. This tiny enigmatic offering is an example:

I have three loves who are all most dear.
Each one has cost me many a tear.
The one who is dead yet lives in me.
I were too poor had I less than three.

We don’t have to know names and dates to believe this is based in experience. It’s not naive: but while it defies what these days we would call something like monogamous heteronormativity (other poems make it clear that one of the loves is a woman), it still reads as a simple, fresh statement of an emotional reality.

There are surprisingly explicit poems about menstruation, ‘Periodicity’ I, II and III. This is the first of them:

Each month I go
Fathoms deep, ocean-whelmed, in woe.
Then agony, hopelessness roll
Wave-deep over body and soul,
Then pain's my familiar, darkness my friend,
And Time has no end.

Yet once again
I rise born anew from my pain.
Soul, body take radiant form.
Aphrodite-like out of the storm
I emerge. In their issue are blest
Those waves without rest

When I read that to my partner, she didn’t respond as if the poem was a hundred years old. She said, ‘She’s got endometriosis.’

A little poem about rowdy factory girls on the way home from work, snippets of conversation between machinists at work, a rhyme about missing a lover, a narrative of going for a swim just before dawn, a note on the weather – any one of these will draw the reader in, then turn at the last moment without breaking a sweat and leave you gasping or, sometimes, wondering if you just imagined that the poem did what you think it did.


The Poems of Lesbia Harford, edited by Nettie Palmer (Angus & Robertson 1941)
Poems of Lesbia Harford, edited by Marjorie Pizer and Drusilla Modjeska (Sirius Press 1985; link is to an Open Access book at Sydney University Press)
Collected Poems: Lesbia Harford, edited by Oliver Dennis with a foreword by Les Murray (UWAP 2014)

H M Green, A History of Australian Literature: Volume II, 1923–1950 (Angus & Robertson 1961), pages 951–955
Gary Catalano, ‘Lesbia Harford’, Quadrant, December 1998, p. 53
Jeff Sparrow, Communism, a Love Story (MUP 2007), especially pages 67–93
Jeff Sparrow, ‘Render it barely: Collected Poems: Lesbia Harford‘, Sydney Review of Books,16 September 2014

Australian Women Writers: Zora Cross

The Australian Women Writers Challenge has moved on: in 2022 they’re no longer inviting us to keep a tally of the books we read that are written by AWWs, but instead they are publishing a range of blog posts about or by early Australian women writers, appearing every Wednesday at this link.


I’m thrilled to have been invited to do a couple of guest posts. My first, which I’m reprinting here, looks at Zora Cross, the now all but forgotten poet who took Australia by storm during the first world war.

I recommend the AWW blog. It’s full of riches. If you’d like to contribute a review or essay contact Bill Holloway at theaustralianlegend@gmail.com.

In the 1980s poets Judith Wright and Rosemary Dobson were approached by the Australian Jockey Club, who wanted to name a horserace after one of them. They recoiled from the notion and suggested Zora Cross, who had then been dead for nearly two decades. Judith Wright wrote to a friend, ‘It’s lucky Zora Cross can’t object, and since nobody remembers the poor woman, the good name of Poetry can’t be involved.’ That poor woman, who was phenomenally successful with readers and critics when she was in her 20s, has recently been making a partial return from oblivion. (I’ve added links in the following where I’ve found the poems referred to online.)

Zora Cross had a remarkably productive writing life, and was part of Sydney’s bohemian literary scene between the two world wars. Apart from journalism and editing work, she produced five poetry books (one of them for children), six novels (two as serials in the Sydney Morning Herald), a book of essays on Australian literature, and a number of plays. Many of her poems appeared in newspapers and have never been collected, and she spent her last years working on an ambitious series of novels set in ancient Rome that were never published.

I first met her poetry when I was an editor on The School Magazine. We regularly received phone calls from elderly people asking us to help retrieve a half-remembered poem. Zora Cross’s ‘Memory‘ was often the one they were after. It was published in the magazine seven times between 1918 and 1960. It’s not her only poem the magazine published, but it is evidently the most memorable. In the 1953 City of Sydney Eisteddfod, a record 127 children entered to read it (and 107 to read ‘Dream Travel‘, another of Cross’s poems). In the prologue to her biography of Cross, Cathy Perkins writes that when she asked people if they had heard of her, some remembered reciting ‘Memory’ at school, especially perhaps the final couplet:

And Eight must never see Twenty-three
As she peeps through the door of Memory. 

For this blog post, I read mainly Cathy Perkins’s biography, The Shelf Life of Zora Cross (Monash University Publishing 2020), and Cross’s most successful book of poems, Songs of Love and Life (Angus & Roberston 1917). I recommend both books.

The Shelf Life of Zora Cross tells its subject’s story as reflected in the papers of ten people, including Ethel Turner, author of Seven Little Australians; Norman Lindsay, who reluctantly accepted a commission to provide a cover for Songs of Love and Life; Cross’s publisher, George Robertson; her younger brother Jack, who died in Europe during World War One; and David McKee Wright, the love of her life who was for a time editor of the Bulletin‘s famous Red Page.

Zora Cross was born in 1890 at Eagle Farm, which was then a rural locality outside Brisbane, and moved to Sydney when she was 15. One of the great pleasures of Cathy Perkins’s biography is the detailed account of Zora’s writing apprenticeship before and after that move as a contributor to the Children’s Corner of the Australian Town and Country Journal, edited by Ethel Turner. Turner encouraged the young writer, and remained a friend and mentor after she outgrew the Corner and began writing what Turner called ‘heady stuff’.

Perkins gives a lively account of Cross’s early adult years performing with a theatrical troupe in North Queensland and then in Sydney, working as an editor, teaching in schools around what we now know as Sydney’s Inner West, and collecting rejections from newspapers and literary journals, with an occasional acceptance. We read of her somewhat mysterious marriage to a fellow actor, who disappeared from her life, never having lived with her, but leaving her with a son. (Perkins has unearthed the husband’s story, as Zora never managed to do: he moved to the USA in 1911, the year they married, and lived there until his death in 1967.) Zora was a striking presence in her 20s:

One day in 1915, Zora is rushing from a rehearsal at the Tivoli Theatre in central Brisbane to the office of the Bohemian to pick up her editor’s salary when she meets a journalist who will later write a profile on her for the Australian Woman’s Mirror. She is ‘slight and pale and terrific with energy’ and covered in red printer’s ink from the paper’s scarlet masthead, which looks like blood on her white dress.

(page 45)

Perkins quotes copiously from Cross’s effusive and often hilarious correspondence with George Robertson and other publishers, and gives a moving account of her relationship with David McKee Wright, with whom she had two daughters and lived in relative poverty in the Blue Mountains. In the final chapters, after David’s death, she lived precariously as a single mother earning a little from journalism but relying on a pension from the Commonwealth Literary Fund. She was part of the local community, celebrated as ‘a well-known authoress’, and died of a heart attack in her garden in 1964, leaving among her papers the manuscript of her Roman novels, now reduced by time, insects and possibly fire to a condition Perkins describes as ‘more like sculpture than text’.

The ‘heady stuff’ that Ethel Turner referred to was mainly three books of poetry: Songs of Love and Life (1917), The Lilt of Life (1918) and Elegy on an Australian Schoolboy (1921).

Songs of Love and Life, whose manuscript had been rejected unread by publisher George Robertson, first appeared in a small cheap edition in October 1917. Robertson deigned to read a poem or two in his advance copy, and published a second edition a month later with a cover by Norman Lindsay. The book was a huge success.

Its popularity was mainly due to a 60-poem sequence, ‘Love Sonnets’, whose exuberant expressions of female desire – unprecedented in Australian literature – struck a chord with young men and women separated by World War One, and gave voice to changing cultural expectations about sex and romance. Despite much rhapsodising about jewels and fabrics, gods and souls, these poems still speak to us. John Kinsella included two of them (and two from The Lilt of Life) in The Penguin Anthology of Australian Poetry (2009), including number XV:

Love, you have brought to me my perfect soul.
More sweet than earthly things, more precious rare,
Hiding its fragrance in my loosened hair
And folding up my body like a scroll.
O, lie with me all night, and let the roll
Of Rapture's waves wash over us, as, bare
Of anything save Love, we haply share
The joys of our first parents' chaste control.

My Love, my piece of Heaven God has spilled
Upon my outstretched hands, O, kiss me yet.
Here, lying close to you, I feel – I know,
My being, even now, is charged and filled
With light and bliss it never will forget
Though aeons over my cold corpse should flow.

It’s not hard to imagine a young man in the trenches or the young woman he has left behind finding comfort in these lines.

If you stumbled on the word ‘control’ at the end of the octave, you’re not alone.

That’s an annotation in the scanned copy of the first edition that I read (available from the State Library of New South Wales, at this link). In case you can’t read the image, the note says:

control is just a little vague [then, in pencil] – in fact obscure: what is controlled, by whom, and to what end?

I was reading a scan of a copy that had been annotated by the distinguished scholar-poet Christopher Brennan! He is completely, hilariously, and to my mind correctly dismissive of some of the poems, but mostly he comments as a minutely attentive mentor (something the young Zora Cross ignored, and perhaps just as well, because if she had aimed for the kind of precision he advocated, her poetry may well have lost some of its spontaneous feel).

In the case of ‘control’, I beg to differ from the great man’s implication that there’s something wrong. For me it’s like a bit of thought-provoking grit. After celebrating the rapture of lying naked in each other’s arms the poem invokes the Bible story of Eden. The orgasmic waves washing over the lovers are like the ones experienced before the Fall, fully sexual and at the same time completely innocent. ‘Control’ in this context is a rough opposite to ‘moral abandon’. Typically of Cross’s love poems, this one is uninhibited in its sensuality and filled with imagery that comes as close to sexually explicit as the times allowed (‘my being even now is charged and filled’), and at the same time insistent on the rightness and goodness of sexual desire. Norman Lindsay’s cover may have helped sales, but female sexuality as affirmed by Zora Cross has little in common with Lindsay’s pseudo-pagan rompiness.

A second book of verse, The Lilt of Life, appeared a year later, including a series, ‘Sonnets of Motherhood’, that was just as erotically charged. This is the start of Sonnet XIII:

Accept my body, Dearest, as a gift, 
A precious casket of the purest pearl. 

Some of her long poems in these books are pretty much unreadable. For example, ‘Man and Woman’, a 65-page essay in blank verse, a rich historical-philosophical-mystical-religious vision of the meaning of life for Woman with a strong anti-war theme, is in a poetical mode that hasn’t aged well, and was too much for my limited patience. Here’s a tiny taste, in which the poem’s speaker addresses the Christ child:

Men war. Men war for ever, but You come 
Because a mother-heart is left to love.
Rachel is weeping still and Hecuba;
A thousand wives a Hector mourn again
As Aphrodite and Athene strive
Through the bruised souls of men and women too.
But, You are safe, O little child of Love,
That ages touch not with their misery.

The third book, published in 1921, communicates anti-war sentiments much more powerfully. Rooted in Cross’s own deeply-felt loss, it comprises a single long poem, ‘Elegy on an Australian Schoolboy‘, written for her younger brother Jack who had died in uniform during the war:

I only know you, brother of my blood,
Have gone; and many a friend,
Trampled and broken in the Flanders mud,
Found Youth’s most bitter end.
God! You are not yet one with the kind dust
Before new war-horns blow
And sleek-limbed statesmen in their halls break trust
To tell of other woe.

When she died 43 years later, she had continued to write and take part in literary life in the intervening decades, including for example a series of article in the Melbourne Herald in 1935, ‘Women Who Have Helped to Build Australia’. But it was the early works that were celebrated in her obituaries. As far as I know, there is no Collected Poems, or even a Selected. Her journalism can only be found in its place of original publication, and her novels haven’t been reissued (perhaps a shame in the case of This Hectic Age, aka The Night Side of Sydney, a novel of sex and violence in wartime Sydney).

If you want to dip into her poetry a little further, you can find selections online at, for example, Poemhunter, Best Poems Encyclopedia, AllPoetry.com, Poetry.com and Old Queensland Poetry.

#aww2021 Challenge Completed

This is my round-up post for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2021, my eighth year of participation, and the final year of the challenge’s existence.

The challenge was established in 2012 to raise awareness of Australian women’s writing. I signed up for 2014, and I’ve recorded a total of 165 books read since then as part of the challenge. This year, I read 15 books by Australian women writers, well over my goal of ten. Here they are, with links to my blog posts:

6 books for children and young people

4 books of poetry

3 essays

1 historical novel

1 collection of essays edited by a woman

1 art book

The list doesn’t include journals or anthologies.

On a related topic, I’ve done a quick gender check on books I read this year. Counting comics, but not journals, anthologies or most picture books, I read:

  • 27 by women
  • 34 by men

I read 1 book in translation (from Homeric Greek), and 2 in their original French. I read two books by First Nations writers, and 10 by People of the Global Majority (a term I’m using at the recommendation of friends who prefer it to ‘People of Colour’). These stats make me realise that apart from anything else the journals I read are a great source of diverse voices.

I’ll do a separate post where the Emerging Artist and I pick our favourite books and movies of the year.

Ruby Reads 29: Gift

It’s the time of year when Ruby comes into possession of many new books, first for her birthday, and then for Christmas. This is one I gave her, and which she took time to enjoy in the midst of things. (I love it.)

Ursula Dubosarsky and Tohby Riddle, The March of the Ants (Book Trail 2021)

Full disclosure: Ursula Dubosarsky and Tohby Riddle are friends of mine.

They’re also both geniuses, who have collaborated on a number of books for children. This gorgeous picture book is the latest. The text was read by Ursula at her launch as Australian Children’s Laureate in February 2020. Neither she nor Tohby could have known that its message about the importance of story had a prophetic relevance for the two years that lay ahead.

A group of ants set out on an excursion. Every one of them carries something important for the enterprise. When one little ant shows up with just a book, there is much mockery. But the little ant persists. Later when all the others are tired from their exertions and the food and drink have run out, the little ant reads to the others, and they are revived by the story.

Tohby’s images are masterly, full of odd details without being at all crowded.

Here’s a video of a laurel-crowned Ursula reading the book, from the Australian Children’s Laureate Foundation webpage

The March of the Ants is the 15th and final book I’ve read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2021.

Melissa Ashley’s Bee and the Orange Tree, plus November Verse 13

Melissa Ashley, The Bee and the Orange Tree (Affirm Press 2019)

Most people know that the story of Cinderella has been told in myriad ways in many cultures, and that the version most commonly told to children in the west these days – the source of the Disney version – was written by Charles Perrault, a late 17th century Parisian. But did you know that he was part of a thriving fairy-tale publishing scene in France between 1690 and 1725, and that most of the many authors of original fairy tales of that time were women? And had you even heard of the Baroness Marie Catherine d’Aulnoy, the woman who coined the term ‘fairy tale’ (conte de fée).

Melissa Hay’s novel The Bee and the Orange Tree, set in 1699, takes place in that gap in our collective knowledge. It’s main characters are Marie Catherine, old, racked with arthritic pain and about to publish her second collection of tales; Angelina, a largely fictional character based on Marie Catherine’s youngest daughter; and Mme Nicola Tiquet, a friend of Marie Catherine who is accused of conspiracy to murder her abusive husband. Chapters are narrated from the point of view of each of these three characters in turn. The struggle to save Nicola from execution is a main narrative thread, secrets from Marie Catherine’s past are revealed, Angelina falls in love, and both Angelina and Marie Catherine reach turning points in their writing careers.

It’s a historical romance, even a bodice ripper, though rather than any bodice being ripped there’s a revelation of bound breasts and, at the novel’s steamiest, a lustful eye is cast at a décolletage. Paris of the time is vividly evoked, from the salons where ladies read their fairy tales to the huge public festive horror of an execution. Men tend to be peripheral to the story, except possibly for him of the bound breasts.

The novel has an agenda to retrieve some lost literary history, and some history of women and gender non-conforming people, and it achieves that interestingly, though I wasn’t completely convinced by the portrayal of the salons, and didn’t believe in the fairy tales included in the book. On the other hand, the sexual intrigues and the various plot revelations are pretty much determined by the genre – serviceable rather than engaging.

The part that worked best for me is the account of the execution as a public event that people feel compelled to witness, whether as sympathisers, as ghoulish entertainment seekers, or as participants. (It’s not a spoiler to tell you there is an execution – the threat of it hangs over more than one character.)

And now, because it’s November:

November verse 13: 
Three thousand sombre people gathered,
candles lit, when Ron Ryan* hanged.
By needle, bullet, stones, gas pellet,
rope, electric chair or sword,
Iran, Iraq, South Sudan, China,
Texas to South Carolina,
state killing still goes on today.
Polite, we turn our heads away
where once it was a great occasion:
come and see a life cut short,
come see how great the power of courts,
see how we'll kill, for God or nation.

Wise though we others claim to be
we'd still watch, glued to the TV.

* Ronald Ryan was the last man hanged in Australia. It was 8 am on Friday February 3 1967 in Melbourne’s Pentridge Prison. He refused a sedative so that he could write a note to his daughters. The note ended, ‘Goodbye, my darlings … Lovingly yours, Dad.’

The Bee and the Orange Tree is the 14th book I’ve read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2021.

Ruby Reads 27: Tashi

Anna & Barbara Fienberg, Kim Gamble, Arielle and Greer Gamble, Alphabetical Tashi: A story told in ABC (Allen & Unwin 2020)
Anna Fienberg, Barbara Fienberg and Kim Gamble, Tashi (Allen & Unwin 1995, 2018)
Anna Fienberg, Barbara Fienberg and Kim Gamble, Tashi and the Big Stinker (Allen & Unwin 2000)

The Tashi books are a great success story of Australian children’s literature. They had their beginnings in stories that Barbara Fienberg told to her little daughter Anna in the bath. When Anna grew up to be a children’s author – editor of The School Magazine for some years, and creator of a string of picture books including The Magnificent Nose and Other Marvels – she and her mother decided to make some of those childhood stories into books. Kim Gamble, who had worked with Anna on a number of earlier projects, joined the project and created a charming and distinctive visual presence. Tashi was born.

Each of the Tashi books includes two stories told by Tashi to his friend Jack, who usually relays one of them to his father. Tashi comes from a land far away where he had amazing adventures and triumphed over aseemingly endless line-up of monsters and villains. There’s excellent comedy in the telling, as Jack’s father consistently exasperates his son by asking the wrong questions. Jack’s friendship with Tashi has a sweet, unforced subtext about the enriching possibilities of immigration.

Anna and Kim (full disclosure, I have worked with both of them and think of them as my friends) did magical school visits where Anna would read a story while Kim created a chalk image of one of its key moments. Many schools around New South Wales treasure the works created on those occasions.

So, how did Ruby, like many others of her age group obsessed with Elsa of Frozen, take to Tashi?

Not that well.

This gorgeous alphabet book was Ruby’s first encounter. After Kim’s untimely death in 2017, the Fienbergs and Kim’s daughters Arielle and Greer teamed up to make a kind of memorial using some of his original art created for the 16 books in the series.

We progress through the alphabet, as Tashi (A boy) confronts a series of foes, starting with Baba Yaga and ending with fierce Zeng and his army. Every page is striking and there are some spectacularly beautiful spreads featuring rural south-east Asian landscapes with karst mountains, ornate bridges, buffaloes and thatched roofs.

The verse narrative is sparse, and none of the encounters with baddies is spelled out in any detail. It’s meant to remind readers of past reading pleasures rather than provide new ones.

Ruby was generally unimpressed. She’s not interested in scary stories: she covers her ears during some bits of Catwings, or asks us to skip those pages altogether. So she took no pleasure in the wonderfully scary pages here. The one page that stirred her interest was V: ‘Very Big Stinker, who farted and fumed.’ This fitted very nicely with her current opinion that saying ‘Poo-poo’ is the height of wit.

So we bought a copy of Nº 7 in the series, Tashi and the Big Stinker, whose cover shows Tashi recoiling from a cloud of greenish gas at the rear of a very large man.

Oh dear! The farting pages were a long time coming and when they did they were far too graphic for our almost-four-year-old. The playing around with narrative point of view, which I have found delightful, went right over our young one’s head. And then the second episode, a dramatic retelling of the pied piper story, is far too scary for her: there’s a brilliant moment when all the children of the village are about to plunge over ‘a steep drop, down, down, a hundred metres down to the rushing waters of a mountain gorge’, led there by a pied piper figure who is as genuinely frightening as Heath Ledger’s Joker.

Perhaps we needed to go back to the beginning. We got hold of the original, Tashi, with an unstinky, elegant swan on the cover. But oh dear! The action that leads up to Tashi’s splendid flight on the swan had our little listener rigid with horror. Tashi’s parents sold him to raise money to travel. Never mind that they sold him to a war lord – we don’t care what that is, but we do care that parents can sell their children!

The second story in this book has a dragon – the last dragon – who, instead of turning into a good dragon which happens a lot in Ruby’s games, is killed by Tashi. Perhaps some of our extinction-averse zeitgeist has helped form Ruby’s sensibility. The fact that there is a benign grandmother was no help. Nor was the almost complete absence of female characters apart from her.

It was like introducing two dearly loved friends, only to have them take an instant dislike to each other, and being able to see why.

Maybe we’ll try again in a couple of years.

Tashi and the Big Stinker and Tashi are the 12th and 13th books I’ve read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2021.

Growing up Aboriginal in Australia

Anita Heiss (editor), Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia (Black Inc 2018)

I’m coming to this book late, but it’s a book that will remain fresh for a long time yet.

It contains 52 essays from First Nations people of Australia. The range of contributors is huge: people from all parts of Australia, urban and remote, from Cape York to the Western Australian wheat belt; some who are household names, some who should be, and some who live quiet lives far from the limelight; people who were strongly connected to culture and community as children and people who discovered they were Aboriginal only in adulthood; old (several contributors were born the same year as me, 1947) and young (one was 13 at the time of publication); sports stars, poets, novelists, classical musicians, prisoners.

Anita Heiss writes in her introduction:

There is no single or simple way to define what it means to grow up Aboriginal in Australia, but this anthology is an attempt to showcase as many of the diverse voices, experiences and stories together as possible.

The attempt succeeds admirably.

I was struck by the sheer number of almost identical incidents in which someone challenges a young person’s Aboriginal identity. Here’s one of them, as told by Keira Jenkins, a Gamilaroi woman from Moree in New South Wales:

I was six years old, sitting cross-legged on the floor in my checked dress, which was slightly too long for me, looking eagerly up at Miss Brown – at least I think that was her name – the first time I had a blow to my sense of identity. We were learning about Aboriginal people and I piped up very proudly.

‘I’m Aboriginal.’ I waved my hand in the air.

‘No, you’re not,’ my friend Alison said. ‘You’re too white to be Aboriginal.’

I don’t remember what happened after that; I just remember feeling ashamed.

(Pages 119–120)

The challenger isn’t always another child. Sometimes it’s an adult in authority, sometimes even another Aboriginal person, but the confident refusal to accept that a child with fair skin can be Aboriginal occurs again and again in almost exactly the same words, never without impact on the child. No wonder Andrew Bolt was taken to court over his 2009 slur against ‘light-skinned people who identified as Aboriginal’ (news story here if you don’t know about that): the people bringing the case must have been desperately sick of that pernicious stuff.

The sameness of attacks stands in striking contrast to the tremendous variety of the life stories. I loved reading how eleven-year-old Miranda Tapsell refused to go to an event as Scary Spice just because Scary Spice was brown like her, and risked the ire of her non-Indigenous friend by going as their shared favourite, Baby Spice; how Adam Goodes disobeyed a teacher on a zoo excursion and stared at a gorilla; how Karen Davis, a Mamu–Kuku Yalanji woman who grew up n Far North Queensland in the 1970s and 80s sang songs on long car trips with her family pretty much the way I did with mine in the 1950s.

Some of the stories defy belief. William Russell, who describes himself as ‘a black, fair ex-serviceman with PTSD, blind and with a severe hearing impediment, and a long list of other physical problems from military service’, is a case in point. He tells of a time when his mother, with a babe in arms and four-year-old WIlliam by her side, faced a crowd of drunk, angry white men in the tiny town in Victoria where they had just come to live as the only Aboriginal family. Her grandfather stepped out of the shadows to save the day, naked ‘as always’, painted up in ochre and kaolin, and discharging a shotgun. This was in the 1950s. Hm!

There are tragic stories of the damage done by of colonisation to individuals and communities,featuring alcoholism and addiction; diabetes and diagnoses of mental illness; family violence and dysfunction; premature death. And there are stories of heroic resilience. Tony Birch’s story of his father is a beautifully told study in reversing fortunes. After years of violence and anger, followed by years of medication, electric shock treatment and institutionalisation, he ‘is saved’:

The Aboriginal community of Fitzroy gather around and care for him: men and women who had known him when he was a kid, during the years before any of them were ravaged by the force of racism and exclusion. He moves to the countryside and begins working with young blackfellas in schools. The experience is life-changing, for both my father and his family. I discover, a little to my own surprise, that I love him.

(Page 35)

My copy of Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia is a loan from my Book(-lending) Club. I consider it belongs in the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2021: it’s edited by a woman, and more than half the contributors are also women. So I’m counting it as the eleventh book I’ve read for the challenge.

This blog post is also a contribution to Indigenous Literature Week hosted by Lisa at ANZ LitLovers blog.

Evelyn Araluen’s Dropbear

Evelyn Araluen, Dropbear (University of Queensland Press 2021)

This is a formidable book. I’d heard Evelyn Araluen read some of its poems, which she always does with a slight, dangerous smile, and was looking forward to reading them. The smile is mostly still in evidence, but the danger doesn’t feel slight. What’s endangered is any hope of emerging with Australian settler colonialist assumptions intact, or at least untroubled. In the book’s generous notes, Araluen spells out her understanding

that the material and political reality of the colonial past which Indigenous peoples inherit is also a literary one. Our resistance, therefore, must also be literary.

(page 99)

What looks like an elegantly designed slim volume of poems is actually a piece of incendiary resistance to colonial attempts at genocide and erasure, from May Gibbs’s cute bush creatures to perfunctory or self-serving acknowledgements of country, by way of a whole gallery of settler-Australian poets and poetic tropes. There are rage-fuelled mash-ups taken from widely read, familiar texts; poems whose ideal readers have PhDs in critical theory or contemporary poetics; and longer prose poems that could just as easily be categorised as essays and short stories. There are poems that turn their gaze away from the colonisers and dwell on family and the natural world.

In her conversation with Tony Birch at the Sydney Writers’ Festival My blog post is at this link), Araluen said. ‘This is not a cancel culture book.’ And that’s an important point to make. ‘For the parents’, one of the longer pieces, is in part an expression of gratitude and appreciation for her parents who read May Gibbs to her and her siblings, which when she first ‘discovered theory’ she thought meant they were ‘losing to the settlers’:

While my siblings and I consumed those stories, we were
never taught to settle for them. My parents ever pretended 
these books could truly know country or culture or 
me – but they had both come from circumstances in which 
literacy and the access it affords was never a given. They just 
wanted me to be able to read.

The acts of resistance in this book are not rants against an easily demonised foe. They involve the poet’s own inner wrestles, and bring a finely tuned, disciplined intelligence to bear on issues that lie at the heart of Australian culture. The book isn’t an easy read, especially for old white men, but it’s not hostile. Speaking as an old white man I felt it as a bracing invitation and a forthright offer of guidance and even help.

Added later: There’s an excellent discussion of Dropbear by Jeanine Leane in Sydney Review of Books, at this link. Here’s a taste:

Dropbear is blunt, biting and beautifully crafted. Although it is those things, it is more than the sum of those things. It’s a radical and timely affront to the history, the myths, the gossip and the stereotypes that still confront us all as the Country’s First Peoples.

Dropbear is the tenth book I’ve read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2021.

Jess Hill, See What You Made Me Do

Jess Hill, See What You Made Me Do: Power, Control and Domestic Abuse (Black Inc 2019)

As I’m writing this blog post, allegations of men in the Australian Parliament abusing women currently and historically are dominating the news cycle, and the frighteningly inadequate responses of the powerful are on display. It’s a very difficult time for women who have survived abuse, and probably not a good time for them to read this book, which isn’t about the kind of abuse that’s in the news, but, well, I imagine it’s close enough to make the unbearable climate even worse. I finished reading it a couple of weeks ago, in happier times and without a personal history of abuse, but when I reached the acknowledgements at the end and read Jess Hill’s appreciation for her male soulmate who had backed her in the arduous four years of writing, and her delight in her witty and charismatic two-year-old daughter, I almost wept. It was like emerging from a vision of hell to be reminded that fresh air and sunshine exist, that there are decent men and happy little girls in the world.

But let me say right up front that although it gives many detailed accounts of hideous violence and abusive behaviour, this is not a book that wallows in the horrible. Hard as it is to read – and, I imagine, immeasurably harder to research and write – it’s a serious, level-headed attempt to anatomise the phenomenon of domestic abuse, to understand the perpetrators and the victims, to give an account of the way police, the courts and lawmakers have dealt with the issue, and to cast about for examples of more effective measures. In a prefatory note, Hill explains that she did her best to ‘flip’ the usual journalist–source power imbalance: where she told a survivor’s story (and there are many) as far as possible the subject/source of the story had a chance to read a draft, and suggest changes and, especially, deletions. One chapter begins with a couple of paragraphs acknowledging an extraordinary woman whose story was central to that chapter, but had to be withdrawn at the last minute because of major safety concerns.

The first chapter. ‘The Perpetrator’s Handbook’, describes the remarkable similarity of the techniques used by domestic abusers, across all locations, cultures and social status. ‘It’s like you go to abuse school,’ one reformed abuser told Hill. ‘They all do it.’ Stunningly, the suite of techniques was identified by a scholar seeking to understand how US prisoners of North Korea during the Korean War had their spirits broken. In the 1950s there was talk of ‘brainwashing’, a semi-mystical process. Now it is understood to have been coercive control, a term that is explored at length in this book. The Korean War researcher, Albert Biderman,

established that three primary elements were at the heart of coercive control: dependency, debility and dread. To achieve this effect, the captors used eight techniques: isolation, monopolisation of perception, induced debility or exhaustion, cultivation of anxiety and despair, alternation of punishment and reward, demonstrations of omnipotence, degradation and the enforcement of trivial demands. Biderman’s ‘Chart of Coercion’ showed that acts of cruelty that appeared at first to be isolated were actually intricately connected. It was only when these acts were seen together that the full picture of coercive control became clear.

Physical violence isn’t a necessary part of the system. Hill’s prefatory note says that as she came to understand her subject, she had to go back and change most references to ‘domestic violence’ in her text to ‘domestic abuse’. It’s not uncommon, she says, for an abuser’s first act of physical violence to result in the victim’s death.

The techniques are virtually universal, but perpetrators do exist on a spectrum. ‘It can be hard to pinpoint where garden-variety fighting ends and domestic abuse begins,’ Hill writes, but actual abusers fall into two types: insecure reactors, ‘who don’t completely subordinate their partners, but use emotional or physical violence to gain power in the relationship’; and coercive controllers, who ‘micromanage the lives of their victims, prevent them from seeing friends and family, track their movements and force them to obey a unique set of rules’.

Chapter 2, ‘The Underground’, discusses the dark and extensive world of women who are abused, behind closed doors and hidden in plain sight. It addresses the question, ‘Why do women stay in abusive relationships?’, or rather gives a brief history of victim-blaming answers that have been given given until alarmingly recently, then discusses structural and psychological difficulties in the way of leaving, and many modes of resistance.

Chapter 3 to 5 address the key question: not ‘Why does she choose to stay?’ but ‘Why does he choose to abuse her again?’ In these chapters, Jess Hill never falls into all-men-are-bastards rhetoric. Some men do monstrous things, but it’s important not to simply dismiss them as monsters. To understand everything may not mean to forgive everything. It certainly doesn’t mean anything is to be minimised. But to understand is an important step on the way to putting things right. Hill describes research that categorises coercive controllers as either cold, calculating ‘cobras’ or morbidly jealous, paranoid ‘pit bulls’, with a third type of violent man, the ‘family-only batterer’, who can be just as dangerous but needs different responses. It’s not always easy to tell which category a particular man belongs to, and there’s plenty of slippage between the categories, but the distinctions are useful – there can be no one-size-fits-all response to domestic abuse. Two superb chapters deal respectively with shame, which when linked to a sense of entitlement lies at the base of much male violence, and patriarchy, the overarching system that permeates cultures, and inhabits the minds of perpetrators, victims, responders and bystanders alike.

I’ve lived in a number of all-male environments – boarding schools and religious communities. I’ve participated in many men’s groups and workshops where we grapple with masculinity, sexism and male domination. I love my all-male book group. I don’t know that I’ve ever read a woman writing with such force and clarity, and also compassion, about male conditioning and its potential for disaster. If you’re interested but the prospect of reading all 371 pages of this book is too daunting, I recommend these three chapters.

The bone-chilling chapter 6, ‘Children’, includes a discussion of complex PTSD (which Rick Morton has just written a book about) and the ever-present tragic possibility that a son will follow in his abusive father’s footsteps. Chapter 7, on women who use violence, points to the key difference that without the backing of patriarchy and male conditioning, they are unlikely to have their partners living in fear for their lives. Chapter 8, ‘State of Emergency’, discusses the resources available to a woman trying to escape a dangerously abusive situation:

Women don’t just leave domestic abuse – they journey away from it, step by step. There is no straight path out – it’s a game of snakes and letters, and women can slip back underground just when they’re about to escape. This means that any potential escape route needs attention and support.

Speaking of these resources – police, refuges, the law, the health system – Hill says, ‘Often, the stories with the worst endings are not blockbuster horror stories, but catalogues of negligence, laziness and procedural error.’

Possibly the most distressing chapter of all is Chapter 9, which deals with the Family Court of Australia. Its title, ‘Through the Looking Glass’, tells you a lot about it. Contrary to the much lobbied argument that fathers are badly done by in the family law system, Hill argues that it is the other way around. The use of untrained ‘single experts’ to make judgements about custody, the invocation of the discredited Parental Alienation Syndrome by which a mother is held to be responsible if children are frightened of their father, and a general discounting of women’s and children’s voices make for a hideous mess. If anything the stories here of women and children being betrayed by the law are even more horrifying than the stories of actual abuse.

Since the book was published the Family Court of Australia has been abolished as a freestanding institution, and merged with the Federal Circuit Court. Sadly, it seems likely that this will only make things worse, because it will continue the erosion of resources from family law that has been steadily happening since John Howard’s prime ministership.

The penultimate chapter, ‘Dadirri’, deals with the way intergenerational trauma and grief from colonisation and genocidal policies – including the widespread disruption of families by child removals – put a rocket under issues of domestic abuse for First Nations people. The notion that violence against women is ‘cultural’ is given short and convincing shrift. Hill argues, with evidence, that domestic abuse was more prevalent and tolerated to a greater extent in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century England than in pre-invasion Australia. There are stories of powerful initiatives taken. For example, Indigenous women in the remote community of Yungngora in the central Kimberley made it happen that disruptive behaviour would result in expulsion from the community for three months after three warnings: ‘In twelve months, domestic violence went from six per week to none‘ (page 334).

The final chapter, ‘Fixing It’, manages to be convincingly, if guardedly, upbeat. ‘Social problems often seem insurmountable,’ Hill writes, ‘until they’re not.’ She makes the obvious point that more funding is needed by emergency services, and is scathing about the National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and Their Children: it has no clear targets, and tackles domestic violence as an attitude problem’:

The mission to transform attitudes to gender inequality and violence is laudable, and will no doubt produce important cultural changes. But as a primary strategy for reducing domestic abuse, it is horribly inadequate. Why do we accept that it will take decades – possibly generations – to reduce domestic abuse? Why isn’t long-term prevention work paired with a relentless focus on doing everything possible to reduce violence today? Why do successive governments insist that reducing domestic abuse is a matter of changing attitudes – or, at best, parking the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff? How on earth did public officials decide that surveying community attitudes was the best way to measure whether their strategy to reduce violence was working?

There are places where initiatives have had substantial success in reducing domestic abuse. The High Point Initiative in North Carolina, which you can read about here, has been amazingly effective. It has clear goals, and has police cooperating with service providers to call out perpetrators publicly and make public the severe consequences of future offences. And promising things are happening in Bourke in New South Wales, where a community led program brings services together, with daily check-ins, and cooperates with the police, whose commitment to deal with domestic violence has been organised as Operation Solidarity. Without a big government spend, stunning results have been achieved:

Across the Darling River Local Area Command, domestic homicides dropped from seven in 2015–2016 … to zero for the following 18 months. By 2018, the repeat victimisation rate – which was twice the state average – was also down by a third. Victims have greater trust in police: the number who cooperated with police to pursue legal action is up, from an average of 68 per cent in 2016 to 85 per cent in 2018. And even with this increased legal action, at 75 per cent – something which [the Police Superintendent in charge of Bourke police] puts down to the fact that their prosecutor has been trained to properly understand domestic abuse.

See What You Made Me Do won the 2020 Stella Prize and has received a lot of publicity, but my sense is that it hasn’t been widely read. If I’m right, that’s a shame. It’s journalism at its best, bringing people’s stories into the light, making important research available, and demonstrating that it’s possible to think, and to hope, about a seemingly intractable subject.

A TV series his scheduled to be shown on SBS later this year, and there’s a video of Jess Hill talking at an event run by the NSW Agency for Clinical Innovation at this link.

See What You Made Me Do is the fourth book I’ve read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2021.

Jennifer Maiden’s Biological Necessity

Jennifer Maiden, Biological Necessity (Quemar Press 2021)

For some time now, Jennifer Maiden has produced new poetry collections almost as regularly as the earth revolves around the sun. Giramondo published five books between 2010 and 2017, handsomely designed by Harry Williamson. Since then Quemar Press, the publishing company created and run by Maiden’s daughter Katharine Margot Toohey, has published a collection of her poetry at the beginning of each year (as well as Selected Poems 2017–2018, a number of novels and two other slim non-poetry books authored or co-authored by Maiden). Biological Necessity is the fourth new collection.

I look forward to each new book in much the way I’ve looked forward to each new season of, say, Call My Agent.

I want to know what happens next in a number of continuing narratives. Maiden’s fictional characters George Jeffreys and Clare Collins continue to turn up in international hotspots – in Biological Necessity, they spend time in Covid quarantine at Darling Harbour, and they talk to Donald Trump by Skype on 2020 election night (in a poem published before the votes were counted). Her versions of real people living and dead continue to chat with each other, at least one person in each chat having just woken up as if a switch has turned them on in the poet’s inner mind – here Eleanor Roosevelt’s ambivalence about Hillary Clinton reaches a kind of peak in her 17th poem; and Gore Vidal continues to hover around Julian Assange. Maiden’s incarnation of the Carina Galaxy as a sixties bombshell, last seen several books ago, makes a repeat appearance.

Surrounding the narratives, a sprawling, multi-faceted conversation has continued over the years, a conversation largely about politics and abuses of power. There are Diary Poems, which usually include ‘Uses of … ‘ in the title: in this book, poems meditate on the uses of biological necessity (Aneurin Bevan said that socialism was a biological necessity), indigo (the colour), Sacha Baron Cohen (for his performance in The Trial of the Chicago 7) and Finnegans Wake. In them, and in Maiden’s poems generally, there’s a quality of heightened chattiness: a subject is announced in the opening lines, and is reflected on; then, sometimes as if distracted by a random association, the poem veers off, and perhaps veers off again, always to interesting places, sometimes to recondite ones such as, in this book, Bolivian elections or Andean mountain cats; those different veerings crisscross one another, and – to mix my metaphors – weave something new. I love this process; it’s like listening to someone’s mind doing the basic work of thinking, meditatively and associatively.

The poems/conversation/meditations generally deal with topics more usually found in op-ed journalism: Julian Assange, Ghislaine Maxwell, Donald Trump, Greta Thunberg, Syria, Covid–19, the CIA, right-wing cultural machinations. But it wouldn’t do them justice to read them as op-eds cut up to look like verse, with an occasional rhyme for good measure. We don’t read them so much to find out what Jennifer Maiden thinks, or to learn about the world (though they often send me searching the web), or to debate a position, but rather to enjoy the carefully-crafted illusion that we are listening to the poet in the act of thinking.

Usually when I write about a book of poetry I focus on a single poem. So hard to choose! ‘After the Volcano’, which revolves around a poem by Martin Johnston that Jennifer Maiden read at a zoom event, which I attended, marking the 30th anniversary of Martin’s death? One of the excellent Covid poems? ‘The Watchchain’, on a family story of a watchchain made from a dead woman’s hair? I ended up choosing ‘A somewhat consistent rule’, because it’s one of the shortest in the book, and can be captured in a single scan. (If you can’t read it easily here, you can find it on page 39 of the pdf sampler from this book on the Quemar website.)

Text can be seen at page 39 of https://quemarpress.weebly.com/uploads/8/6/1/4/86149566/biological_necessity_jennifer_maiden_sampler_28_2_21.pdf

We know from the prose introduction – unusually long and informative for a Jennifer Maiden poem – that this is one of her poems inspired by the travails of Julian Assange, of which the short lyric ‘My Heart Has an Embassy‘ is perhaps the best known. The quote is from Clive Stafford Smith’s official witness statement at the Assange hearing in September 2020, which is available as a PDF at this link (see paragraph 86). It not only announces the poem’s context, but also identifies the ‘rule’ of the title: it could almost stand alone as a found poem. In reading this poem, it’s important to note that the statement was read aloud in court.

I don’t know how this poem would work for a reader unfamiliar with Jennifer Maiden’s work. I read it as part of a web of poems that relate to each other in form and content. The first line places it in a long series of Maiden’s poems that open with someone waking up, all the way back to when it was always George Jeffreys waking up to see George W Bush on television obsessing about Iraq. Specifically, it’s at least the fifth poem, and not the last, in which Gore Vidal wakes up. He is Maiden’s main conduit for engaging with Assange (along with Diana Spencer and Emma Goldman in previous poems). He’s not a completely arbitrary choice: Assange was clutching a book by Vidal when he was dragged out of the Ecuadorian embassy in April 2019, which led to Vidal feeling ‘quite possessive of his reader’ (‘Resistance’, The Espionage Act, page 6).

The next two lines mark a departure in the ‘woke up’ poems. Vidal doesn’t simply snap awake as in these poems previously, but the waking process continues for the whole poem: ‘the world returned to him in bits’, and the lines that follow show us the bits. (As my regular readers know, I’m currently reading À la recherche du temps perdu, and am reminded that Proust’s narrator takes several pages to describe such a bit-by-bit waking up.) Not yet fully awake, Vidal finds a focus in the words of Stafford Smith about the boy

who was no doubt concerned, civic-souled and mild:
not dangerous enough to live, poor child.

It’s worth noticing the deliberate use of rhyme. In ‘mild’ / ‘child’, and later in ‘scorn’ / ‘porn’, ‘joy’ / ‘boy’, and ‘awkwardly, he’ / ‘mystery’, there’s a whiff of, say, Alexander Pope’s classic rhyming couplets:

Heav'n from all creatures hides the book of fate,
All but the page prescrib'd, their present state

Maiden’s couplets don’t aspire to that magisterial authority. They don’t scan beautifully like Pope’s, but the rhyme does suggest a connection to that tradition, in which the poet casts a withering eye on hypocrisy and pretension.

The next three lines, in a characteristic Maiden move, invoke insider gossip about public events. I assume that Jennifer Maiden, who lives in Western Sydney, doesn’t have much access to US intelligence agents, so what Vidal remembers hearing is probably as much an invention as the awakening Vidal himself. But it’s plausible, and here the ‘TV’ / ‘conveniently’ rhyme adds a hint of dark comedy.

Vidal’s focus on ‘the words of Stafford Smith’ ends with the chilling general implication that being seen as harmless, far from meaning one will be ignored, might actually be a threat.

Then the poem veers. In nine or ten lines, Vidal pictures, one of the postage-stamp images that he wakes to, the magistrate hearing Assange’s case.

a magistrate showing her luxuries of scorn
at the defence, like something out of porn
he would still quite like to write.

In real life this is Vanessa Baraitser. I found this description by John Pilger:

Her face was a progression of sneers and imperious indifference; she addressed Julian with an arrogance that reminded me of a magistrate presiding over apartheid South Africa’s Race Classification Board …

When [Julian Assange] spoke truth and when his barrister spoke, Baraitser contrived boredom; when the prosecuting barrister spoke, she was attentive. She had nothing to do; it was demonstrably preordained. In the table in front of us were a handful of American officials, whose directions to the prosecutor were carried by his junior; back and forth this young woman went, delivering instructions.

The judge watched this outrage without a comment.

(At https://wikispooks.com/wiki/Vanessa_Baraitser)

‘Luxuries of scorn’ isn’t too bad a summing-up. ‘Porn’ in the next line isn’t an arbitrary rhyme: it’s Gore Vidal who is seeing these things, and though I don’t know if he write any porn, he was interested in sexuality as much as in politics.

I found the photo of Baraitser poised at an exhibition with a champagne glass as described in the next lines. It’s here if you’re interested, but it doesn’t add a lot. The word image is strong enough. The next lines do a lot of work:

________________________ virginal with joy:
a living dual passport, with the innocence of a boy
trusting that power is too dangerous to die

‘Virginal with joy’ contrasts with Vidal’s associating the magistrate’s manner with porn. The use of passport as a metaphor for two-facedness reminds even those of us who haven’t followed Assange’s trials closely that passports and citizenship have been an issue. The phrase ‘too dangerous to die’ echoes ‘not dangerous enough to live’ from earlier in the poem. The magistrate has dual identities, on the one hand an innocent viewer of art ‘poised at an exhibition’ and on the other an agent of oppression (hinting at one of Maiden’s themes that reactionary forces manipulate art and literature for political ends); innocence and trust are attributed to her, but rendered nastily ironic by the phrase ‘of a boy’, recalling the boy who was killed by forces that the magistrate is at least indirectly abetting.

The next lines – ‘She had rescinded permission …’ – refer to her action that’s on the public record, but the poem is doing more than simply stating the facts. The scare quotes around ‘control’, taken together with ‘remote, are a nod and a wink towards the deadly drones that are the background to the hearing and to the poem. without any big display, the found language of the court is being harnessed to remind us that the courtroom procedures are intimately connected to murder by drone in Afghanistan.

I had trouble parsing the final five lines:

____________________________________ But
as Stafford Smith said, 'somewhat consistent rule', 
from nowhere the slowly-integrating Vidal
had arrived in the public gallery, unreal
as justice, and innocently, awkwardly, he
returned her gaze: a somewhat final mystery.

Once I realised that ‘as Stafford Smith said’ means not, ‘in agreement with Stafford Smith,’ but, ‘at the moment when Stafford Smith was saying,’ the penny dropped. Stafford Smith’s witness statement isn’t a document being recalled here, but the spoken background to the poem’s action. At the beginning, when Gore Vidal ‘was focused by the words of Stafford Smith’, he was waking up, bit by bit, to the sound of Stafford Smith’ evidence, and hearing the story of the boy killed by drones is what makes him fully present ‘from nowhere’. The poem’s action is the imaginary Gore Vidal’s coming to full wakefulness.

‘Unreal as justice’: yes, the poem is saying, this Gore Vidal is imaginary, coming ‘from nowhere’, but so is any justice that Assange will receive in this court. Innocence and awkwardness aren’t words that have often been applied to Gore Vidal, one of last century’s most wickedly sophisticated writers, but even he must experience that first moment of wakefulness as an awkward freshness. His sharp intelligence meets the gaze of the morally compromised magistrate. Vidal becomes fully present, the poem’s perspective on this judge in this trial solidifies, becomes ‘somewhat final’. As for ‘mystery’, it’s a satisfying rhyme for ‘awkwardly, he’, and reminds us that Gore Vidal, like the other people who wake up in Maiden’s poems, isn’t simply a mouthpiece for the poet’s views: there’s a mysterious process by which these imagined figures come from somewhere (‘from nowhere’, perhaps) to help her, and us, think. Not What Would Jesus Do? but what Would Gore Vidal Think?

Biological Necessity is the third book I’ve read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2021.