Tag Archives: Australian Women Writers Challenge

Felicity Castagna’s No More Boats

Felicity Castagna, No More Boats (Giramondo 2017)

boats.jpgIt’s 2001. The Tampa is all over Australian television with its burden of asylum seekers saved from drowning, alternating with John Howard’s uttering his infamous cry, ‘We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.’ And one working-class migrant family in Parramatta is coming apart at the seams.

Antonio Martone came to Australia after World War Two and married Rose, an Anglo woman he met in the migrant hostel. In 2001 he is injured in a terrible accident on a building site trying to save his best friend’s dignity, and after decades of skilled labour is forced to retire. Francis, their son who still lives at home, works by day on the same projects as his father, though without the pride of a first-generation migrant, and he knocks around by night with a small group of partying friends. Their daughter, Clare, has lit out for the inner city where she works in a bookshop and aspires to be a writer (though as far as the family is concerned she is still a high-school teacher): ‘She was born to these city streets, even though she wasn’t really born in the city; she was made to be born here and when she walked these streets she told herself that she was.’ And Rose tries to keep it all together as Antonio becomes increasingly bitter and erratic.

The novel’s title may lead you to expect it to be about Australian immigration policy. Well, maybe it is, but the domestic story, the story of Antonio’s deterioration and other people’s responses to it, is at the book’s heart. Here’s Antonio just after discovering that Clare has been lying about keeping her teaching job:

He felt the weight of something pressing against his chest. A memory interrupted his exit from the school: Clare with her pigtails in plaits, standing with a piece of chalk at the blackboard he’d given her for her twelfth birthday, writing down words for a five-year-old Francis to copy onto a sheet of paper.

He wondered who his children were now. This was the hardest thing about being a parent, the thing that no one tells you about. The fact that you grieve for your children from the moment they are born. Not so much because you’ve lost them but because they are always changing and you can’t get back all those different versions of what they once were.

Antonio grapples with many kinds of loss – of the pre-migration life, of youth, of employment, of physical wellbeing, of dignity, and of friends. Flailing around for a way to deal with his wretchedness, he seizes on the issue of immigration: he’s offended by the poor workmanship of the underpaid recent migrants on the worksite, and becomes obsessed with the objects of John Howard’s televised indignation. At a crucial moment he smokes some marijuana from Francis’s secret supply, and creates a spectacular piece anti-boat-people graffiti. The family is suddenly in the headlines, the dramas being played out on the television are much closer to home, and there’s a strong undercurrent suggesting that Antonio’s deterioration may be a metaphor for a similar process in Australian ciivil society.

There are other characters: a Vietnamese former student who surprises Clare by becoming a love interest; a Lesbian next door neighbour who provides respite for Rose; Francis’s mates Jesús and Charbel; a right-wing opportunist who exploits Antonio’s confusion; the ghost of Antonio’s friend who was killed in the accident – and more. It’s a story told at a pace that keeps the pages turning, with compassion for all players (John W Howard – ‘the dull man’ – and right-wing opportunists excepted), and a strong sense of place: the Martone home with its concreted front yard and gap in the fence to the house next door, the streets of Western Sydney and the inner city, the banks of the Parramatta River, this is a book in which you always know where you are.

aww2017.jpgNo More Boats is the fourteenth book I’ve read for the 2017 Australian Women Writers Challenge. I gratefully acknowledge that I received a complimentary copy from Giramondo Books.

Subbed In’s first books

Aisyah Shah Idil, The Naming (Subbed In 2017)
Emily Crocker, Girls and Buoyant (Subbed In 2017)

Subbed In, described on its website as ‘a DIY literary organisation based in sydney’, organises poetry readings and other events, often in the East Sydney dress shop Funky Bruiser. Its directors, Dan Hogan, Stacey Teague and Rory Green, aim ‘to provide grassroots support for new and underrepresented voices as well as helping emerging writers to achieve publication or performance’.

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In September they launched three chapbooks – the two I’m blogging about here and Parenthetical Bodies by Allison Gallagher, of which I haven’t bought a copy and haven’t read (sorry Allison!). I’m not sure what ‘DIY’ means in this context. Perhaps it’s just a way of proclaiming a hipster ethos. It certainly doesn’t mean slipshod or amateurish. These books are beautifully designed inside and out, and lovely to hold in the hand. The Subbed In logo manages to make an ibis perched on a garbage bin look elegant. (There is at least one typo – see below – but not as many as turn up in non-DIY poetry books.)

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The Naming has an epigraph from the Qur’an – ‘And He taught Adam the names of all things’ – and its poems are rich with reference to Islamic practice, Malaysian folklore, and Arabic and Malay language. They are also rich with feeling and playfulness.

For example, ‘Malay Sketches’ consists of three one-page versions of the same poem. In the first, headed ‘Jiwa’, all the words have been blacked out as if redacted; in the second, ‘Malay’, about a quarter of the words are visible; in the third, ‘English’, nothing has been redacted.

At first, you might tentatively think the subject is censorship – that some things are not allowed to be said in Malaysia. But no. Of the first line, the English has ‘Bobbing heads circle platters of rice’, and only the Malay for heads (‘kepala’) and rice (‘nasi’) remain unredacted; later, only curry (‘kari’) survives from ‘Fingers covered in curry point to the sink’. Surely there’s nothing censorable in this, or in the sweet picture of family domestic life that follows. I read it as enacting the loss of language by a second generation migrant: the poem was composed in English, and the speaker’s attempt to translate into Malay was thwarted by her lack of knowledge. I’m pretty sure the details will yield nuances to readers fluent in both languages: for example, the last line in English, ‘We figure God has seen us in less’ becomes (I think) ‘God has seen us’ in the Malay .

Which raises the question of the completely redacted ‘Jiwa’ version. I guessed that this was a more local language, completely lost to the speaker. But a web search made that seem unlikely. ‘Jiwa’ means ‘a living soul’. Perhaps, then, the blacking out of this section is enacting the impossibility of speaking directly what is in one’s heart.

Then I found the place where the poem was first published, on the Language on the Move website (you can see the whole three-part poem at the link), and there the first version is headed ‘Jawi’ rather than ‘Jiwa’. A Wikipedia describes Jawi as ‘an Arabic alphabet for writing the Malay language … and several other languages in Southeast Asia’, it seems likely that ‘Jiwa’ is a typo, and that the blacking out signifies the speaker’s inability to read the Jawi alphabet.

For once, I’m not just irritated by a typo. This one took me into a deeper reading of the poem: it is about the loss of language, but the metaphorical force of the Jawi/Jiwa typo brings home what a terrible loss that is.

Not all the poems ask for so much research. It helps to know that ‘Pontianak’, about the grief and rage of women, is named for a female vampiric ghost in Malaysian folklore. ‘Laylatul-Qadr’ is named for one of the last days of Ramadan, called the Day of Power in English, but the poem, which celebrates the birth of a baby and laments the murders of Muslims and Muslim defenders, all in the context of Ramadan, works well without that knowledge. ‘Instances of Allahu Akbar’ expects you to recognise ‘Allahu Akbar’ as a common exclamation among Muslims asserting the greatness of God, and possibly offers a corrective to the assumption that it is exclusively or even primarily a war-cry. The first ‘instance’:

My mother, after
a long period of somnolence,
where getting up is only possible
through divine assistance.

And the last one:

a newborn sleeps.

The title of girs&buoyantGirls and Buoyant says a lot. There are no boys in this book, and the girls are doing OK.

The opening line of ‘Smashed’ evokes the milieu of these poems, and the intelligence in them:

Avocado, I didn’t want to settle down anyway.

This is a voice from the generation that’s forever being reprimanded by millionaires and (mainly) conservative politicians. It’s speaking to people who recognise the reference to smashed avocado and it’s speaking with good humour, irony and its own confident point of view: slightly grungy, vegetarian, inner-city inflected.

There are so many lines I’d like to quote. From ‘Aoraki’:

I realise I’m waiting for a way to see the earth
not as a tourist.

From ‘Guyra’, a visiting-the-family-on-the-farm poem:

_________________________________I’m here
for both of us to see what I am made of

or:

My brother loves good men.
Wins meat-raffles like a vegan.

From ‘Uproot’:

_________________________________ Time does not pass
with the quiet awe of a monk. It bustles by,
blows us down, and grumbles when we don’t keep up.

It’s the love poems that hit home most for me. Like ‘Plate’, which begins:

‘Ceremony’ has a dirty taste
but for the way we eat.
The ritual of back and forth
of olives off your pizza.
The potatoes off my plate
when you give me too many
with all intention of
eating them yourself.

Or ‘Covers’, which my partner had to explain to me was about a partner with period pain rather than suicidal depression; or ‘Illawarra’ (roadside scenery seen when driving with a lover); or (spoiler alert, I guess), the ending of ‘Gaps’ , the last poem in the book:

You make me conscious of the void
and how blessedly we inhabit it.

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The Naming and Girls and Buoyant are the twelfth and thirteenth books I’ve read for the 2017 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Nicola Knox’s Green Light Running

Nicola Knox, Green Light Running (self published 2012)

glr.jpgThis is not one of those self-published books with a chip on its shoulder about the publishing industry.  It’s much more modest than that – so modest that I can’t find any information about where to buy a copy. Mine was a gift from the author, an honour to which I owe a number of Nicola Knox’s poems having appeared in The School Magazine when I was editor. My impression is that she only ever intended a small, intimate circulation. (Maybe I’m projecting: my own three self-published books of verse are glorified end-of-year greeting cards – though of course I’m delighted whenever someone buys one from Lulu.)

The book is a witness to the value of creativity, of making in response to experience. Where one person might take out a sketch book and pencil or paints, another will reach for pen and notepaper. Poems here have been inspired by travel, by family life, by childhood reminiscence, by works of art, by ancient and modern history. They are the fruits of life lived with an active mind, a mind that it’s a pleasure to spend time with.

Just to give you a taste, here’s a poem that speaks softly but carries a big stick to one of the big issues facing us at the present moment:

Refugee Boat

The heart of Pharaoh
was dry and shrivelled
as an old walnut.

But his daughter
dove gentle
beautiful and kind
was loved as her father
was feared.

On a morning
splashing with court ladies
in the Nile, she did not hide
her pity for the plump infant
found in a coracle
rocking gently
among river reeds.

So the princess
and the alien child
gazed upon each other
and from that moment
all things changed.

A second volume of Nicola Knox’s poetry, Verandah Man, was published by Ginninderra Press in 2016, and is available from the Ginninderra website.

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Green Light Running is the eleventh book I’ve read for the 2017 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Jennifer Maiden’s George and Clare, the Baby and the Bikies

Jennifer Maiden, Play with Knives Four: George and Clare, the Baby and the Bikies (Quemar Press 2017)

pwk4The first page of this short novel –– just over 157 pages – drops the reader in medias res, that is to say into the middle of a long-running story. Arguably that’s what any decent novel does, but in this case you could go back and read a lot of what has gone before. See my post on Play with Knives: Three: George and Clare and the Grey Hat Hacker for one synopsis.

In the first few pages, George Jeffreys and Clare Collins, once Probation Office and convicted child murderer (that is, convicted when nine years old of murdering her three younger siblings), now lovers thirty odd years later, are languishing in a heatwave in Mt Druitt in Sydney’s western suburbs. In a break from working on a report for their NGO employer about Indigenous children in custody in Sydney’s Western Suburbs, they chat about a draconian policy at the Cobham Juvenile Detention Centre (a real place, real policy), and then Clare looks up an extract from William Hazlitt’s Liber Amoris on Project Gutenberg and reads out a passage, which makes them both cry – and which they then discuss in erudite terms, before indulging in some erotic play.

pantherThe book continues as it has begun: whatever else may be happening, George and Clare are always good for a bit of literary chat, some sharing of random information (George refers to his ‘op-shop mind’), commentary on international politics (the Grenfell Tower fire of June 2017 is particularly upsetting), plenty of erotic carry-on (the word ‘foreplay’ features frequently), and lots of mutual introspection. Quotes from poetry and references to visual art abound: in this book, prints from Rosaleen Norton, the ‘Witch of King’s Cross’, play a significant role (there’s an example on the right, and you can click on the image for more). Not everyone would agree with Clare’s description of Roie’s work as mostly sweet and pretty.

The story unfolds in chapters that mostly alternate between prose narrated by George, and third person narration in verse. The baby great granddaughter of their Aboriginal friend Ruth has gone missing, and the quest to find her, alive or dead, involves, among others, a bikie gang (the Warriors of Hell), a super-criminal named Schmidt and his three diverse lovers, a number of George’s former Probation clients, an inmate of the juvenile detention centre (up on the roof, echoing recent real-world headlines), Idris the Grey Hat Hacker from the previous book now in Moscow, and George’s contact in the CIA in Langley. There’s a boxing match between two men who are old enough to know better (in which Jennifer Maiden, through George, reminds us of the second line to Muhammad Ali’s ‘Floats like a butterfly stings like a bee’), a witchcraft ceremony, a fabulously tense shoot-out in the Jenolan Caves, a number of deaths and a birth.

It’s good fun, it sticks to the tropes of the thriller genre, and could make an excellent movie. Some difficulties are solved a little too easily, and some of the connections between events aren’t clear, but I can’t say I mind. It’s full of surprise twists, not in the plot so much as in the telling: you never know where George and Clare’s minds will go next. For just one example, here’s George in the middle of the climactic cave scene, where people are dead and dying and things could hardly be more urgent:

… in front of me was a formation of such irresistible fineness that it stopped everything else in me for a second. The plain clear light was floating on a white inclining bank of intricately furrowed but luminously smooth limestone, with a cluster of long tasseled objects like sea plants embedded in the top. These showed delicate tints from iron, but in the sweet colours of skin, not its usual salty rust.

I remembered Proust writing that one can’t appreciate beauty when in severe sadness, but I wanted to add something about that point in which one is wracked with anxiety, and beauty is the only thing one can experience, perhaps just as those in grief always obsess on details. I wanted to tell that to Clare, and the need to do so reincarnated me – or maybe disincarnated me enough for me to continue.

Through it all, George and Clare’s relationship develops and though it may be a bit prim of me, I’m not going to say how. I will say that the last two short chapters, while completely within the conventions of the genre in having the world back to normal now that the threat has been dealt with, are deeply satisfying in terms of Clare’s long story arc: she can never forget that she killed her younger siblings when she was nine, has never asked forgiveness, but she does seem at last to have found a possible way to move on.

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George and Clare, the Baby and the Bikies is the tenth book I’ve read for the 2017 Australian Women Writers Challenge. I obtained it, as you can, as a free download from Quemar Press.

Jennifer Maiden’s George and Clare and the Grey Hat Hacker

Jennifer Maiden, Play with Knives: Three: George and Clare and the Grey Hat Hacker (Quemar Press 2016)

pwk3This is the third novel in the Play with Knives series, and like the earlier volumes it’s not a straightforward thriller as the title might seem to imply.

As well as the earlier novels, it is preceded by more than a decade of poetry featuring its two main characters. You probably don’t need to have read any of the previous novels or poems to enjoy it – a teasing curiosity about the back-story would be part of the enjoyment, and anyway parts of the history referred to in the text exist only in those references. But just for the record, here’s a chronology (I’ve listed the 25 poems in order of publication at the bottom of this post).

Chronology:

1990: George Jeffreys and Clare Collins first appear as the leads in Jennifer Maiden’s novel Play with Knives. He’s  a probation officer and she’s his client, a young woman who murdered her three younger siblings when she was nine years old. There’s a serial killer on the loose in Western Sydney, George gets involved with Clare in an ethically dubious way, and they begin an apparently endless conversation.

1991: A sequel, Complicity, is written but only excerpts are published in literary magazines. George and Clare’s relationship as lovers and conversers firms up, and there is more violence. (Quemar Press published it as an ebook in 2016.)

2005: After a fourteen-year absence the characters reappear / are resurrected in Friendly Fire (Giramondo). Maiden says in an introduction that soon after 11 September 2001, she thought, ‘What are George and Clare thinking?’ The question begins to be answered in a prose narrative set in Lower Manhattan on 9 September 2001, and then in six ‘George Jeffreys’ poems, each beginning:

George Jeffreys woke up in [xxx].
George Bush Junior was on the TV, obsessed
as usual with Baghdad.

The first four of these poems pretty much sticks to the question of what George is thinking – about post–911 events up to and including the invasion of Iraq. Then, in the fifth and sixth poems, he moves beyond just thinking, to chat with George W Bush (in the White House, in #5) and Saddam Hussein (in Baghdad, in #6).

2010–2016: Another 14 ‘George Jeffreys’ poems appear in Jennifer Maiden’s next five books. There are also four poems named for Clare: ‘Clare and Paris / Manus / Thessaloniki / Nauru’. Both characters make an appearance in ‘The Year of the Ox’ in Liquid Nitrogen (2012) – George watching Obama on TV, Clare in contact with the ghosts of her murdered siblings, both watching Gillard on TV. George w Bush fades from the scene, and so eventually does the TV set.

While George and Clare continue to provide a medium for reflections on world events, they also assert themselves as characters, turning up at hotspots all over the world working for an NGO called Prisoners of Conscience. They are great talkers, to each other of course, but also with political figures ranging from the Master of the Crossroads in Louisiana and a brace of ancient Chinese philosophers to a CIA operative and, in a poem published the day after his electoral victory, Donald Trump.

The poems are embedded in a compelling body of work, only one of a number of conduits for reflections on the constellation of themes in each book – war and violence, ‘ethical security’, government surveillance, Maiden’s version of ‘the problem of evil’, culling of feral animals, and more. Other pairs of characters appear in similar series, including Hillary Clinton and Eleanor Roosevelt in 14 poems, Tony Abbott and Queen Victoria in six. But only George and Clare’s poems develop progressively into more rounded fictions*. There are Hitchcockian shoot-outs in spectacular settings, dramatic rescues of abused women, a spot of arson on Manus Island. People and animals rescued by Clare become part of their domestic life back in Mount Druitt.

2016: It seems a logical progression, almost a response to pressure from the characters themselves, when the novel series comes back to life. Quemar Press reissues Play with Knives, publishes Complicity for the first time, and then Play with Knives Three: George and Clare and the Grey Hat Hacker, all as ebooks in PDF format.

End of chronology.

This third novel in the Play with Knives series differs from the previous two by being mostly in verse. It differs from the poems of the previous decades by having room to focus on the characters’ intimacies (which it does in explicit detail) and space for their conversations to veer off down innumerable byways.

After a brief prose prologue from George (all the prose sections are George speaking in the first person), the first chapter begins in the well-established way, ‘George Jeffreys woke up’: he’s in Thirroul, just south of Sydney, house-sitting with Clare, in a house filled with Gary Shead prints of D H Lawrence and Frieda. (Thirroul is where Lawrence wrote Kangaroo. A number of the prints are lovingly described in the text: you can see images of them on this Pinterest site). As well as Lawrence on the walls, they share the house with a pet rat named Johnny Depp, canaries (Lily and Snape) and a blue tongue lizard (Hello Kitty).

It’s the night of a scheduled execution in Indonesia strikingly similar to the real-world killing by firing squad in April 2015 when of Myuran Sukumaran, Andrew Chan and six others are to be killed by firing squad in Indonesia. Clare and George have (of course) been involved with one of the prisoners and their emotional preparation for and then response to the executions is the central action of the first two chapters, which constitute more than half the book. Seeking distraction and human contact, they have quite a lot of explicitly negotiated and described, not entirely conventional sex, they swap stories about D H Lawrence and Norman Mailer, come close to using Assange as a term for a sexual practice, criticise Freud and de Sade, discuss Trump’s policies, quote A E Housman, Nye Bevan, A J P Taylor, and a lot more. There’s a recurring sentence:

The clock by the bed went round, but it wasn’t time.

This is all so absorbing that one hardly notices that some time in the night, they learn by phone that George’s grandson Idris is heading their way from England, where his hacking activities have put him in danger. The next night, still exhausted by events in Indonesia, well past the halfway point of the book, George and Clare go to bed:

They slept there for an hour, then George woke to a noise.
It was like a cat tapping to get out, except that he saw it was
actually his grandson, tapping to get in. He thought: If he
calls me ‘Dude’, I’ll kill him. He unlocked the door quickly,
admonished, ‘Don’t wake Clare.’ Idris hugged him, no different
to his exuberance as a child. George had always been his
favourite male relative. George locked the door. Idris still
hadn’t let his arm go, exclaiming, ‘Dude, how are you? You
look great.’ George hugged him back: ‘I’m fine. You seem in
quite good shape, yourself, boy.’

That’s the start of what in a conventional genre novel would be the central action (and the echo from the poems in ‘George woke’ suggests that we are indeed at a new beginning). But, once everyone has said hello and Idris has said he’s being followed by some ‘weird dudes’, everyone goes back to sleep. When Clare wakes in the morning she muses on one of the Shead paintings, remembers a Civil War song, looks at the sleeping George …

Sure, there’s a story to be told, but life is full of moments. Idris’s partner Sophie (whose life Clare saved in Paris years earlier) arrives with baby Florence, and there is a wonderful sequence of extended family domesticity.

In chapters 3 to 4, George picks up the narration in prose, and in what is only slightly less leisurely (there’s still time for a lit-crit discussion of Peter Pan, some wine-snob chat and a brief reflection on infant circumcision), the tension mounts to a climactic shoot-out on the Bulli Pass. That too, as much as the sex and the images on the wall, is the subject of Clare-and-George conversation. Clare asks:

‘How did you shoot that Frenchman?’

‘Apart from using withdrawal symptoms to concentrate? I remembered what you said about empathising. I knew where to aim for in his arm, and I didn’t feel as if my own arm existed. Fortunately, by the time his mate killed him, most of the empathy was over.’ Although I instantly remembered, very accurately, the screaming.

In [redacted to avoid spoiler], her eyes were lightning on rockpools. I thought of my finger in the sea anemone: that temporary sudden small ridge appearing from nowhere after the opening, testing itself against an invader, making the whole map change. She asked, ‘But how did you shoot him?’

I answered, ‘I am descended from the Hanging Judge, you know. It was easy. I just forgot everything I ever knew.’

Some novels are blatantly written with the Hollywood machine in mind. This is not one of them: it ignores the genre rules about structure, and its pleasures are in the detail of relationships – in sex, in play between adults and small children, in the joys of conversation, in the grief and rage of seeing state machinery destroy lives, in engagement on many levels with art, literature and politics. There is a twist at the end, in the last two short chapters, chapter 5 in prose and chapter 6 in verse,  which makes the whole hacker plot seem a little like an elaborate misdirection. The clock by the bed still goes round, but in these final chapters we have a different understanding of what that means.

I won’t spoil things by telling you if Idris escapes safely to Moscow.
—–
Jennifer Maiden poems featuring George Jeffreys and Clare Collins 2005–2016
In Friendly Fire (Giramondo 2005):
George Jeffreys 1: George Jeffreys Woke Up in Kabul
George Jeffreys 2: George Jeffreys Woke Up in Kandahar
George Jeffreys 3: George Jeffreys Woke Up in London
George Jeffreys 4: George Jeffreys Woke Up in Berlin
George Jeffreys 5: George Jeffreys Woke Up in the White House
George Jeffreys 6: George Jeffreys Woke Up in Baghdad

In Pirate Rain (Giramondo 2010):
George Jeffreys 7: George Jeffreys Woke Up in New Orleans
George Jeffreys 8: George Jeffreys Woke Up in Rio
George Jeffreys 9: George Jeffreys Woke Up in Beirut
Clare and Paris
George Jeffreys 10: George Jeffreys Woke Up in a Pirates’ Ship

In Liquid Nitrogen (Giramondo 2012):
The Year of the Ox
George Jeffreys 11: George Jeffreys Woke Up in Langley
George Jeffreys 12: George Jeffreys Woke Up in Oslo
George Jeffreys 13: George Jeffreys Woke Up in Beijing
George Jeffreys 14: George Jeffreys Woke Up in Sharm el Sheikh

In Drones and Phantoms (Giramondo 2014)
George Jeffreys 15: The Fourth Terrace
George Jeffreys 16: George Jeffreys Woke Up in South Iceland
Clare and Manus

In The Fox Petition (Giramondo 2015)
George Jeffreys 17: George and the Holy Holiday
George Jeffreys 18: George Jeffreys Woke Up on Kos
Clare and Thessaloniki

In The Metronome (Quemar 2016, Giramondo 2017)
Clare and Nauru
George Jeffreys 19: George Jeffreys Woke Up in Thredbo
George Jeffreys 20: George Jeffreys Woke Up in Washington

There are more to come, in Appalachian Fall, due out from Quemar in October.
——
aww2017.jpgGeorge and Clare and the Grey Hat Hacker is the ninth book I’ve read for the 2017 Australian Women Writers Challenge. I obtained it, as you can, as a free download from Quemar Press.

Shevaun Cooley’s Homing

Shevaun Cooley, Homing (Giramondo 2017)

homing.jpg‘Shevaun Cooley,’ says the back cover blurb of Homing, ‘was born and raised in the south-west of Western Australia, but has been drawn ceaselessly to the landscapes of North Wales.’ The two main sections of the book have titles made up of geographic coordinates: 34º24’13.6″S 115º11’43.9″E and 52º45’34.4″N 4º47’11.6″W, with three unlocalised ghazals in between. A quick web search confirms that the two locations are at the south west corner of Western Australia and in North Wales respectively. The poems themselves have a strong sense of place. In particular, there are a number of lovingly observed mountains and mountain-climbing experiences.

My favourite line (from ‘word only becomes at last the word’ in the first section):

The mountain is a cresting wave distracted from its motion.

A number of the poems sent me looking at maps and other reference books. Of these, the one that I found most rewarding was ‘I was no tree walking’, both because it sent me off to discover David Nash’s extraordinary piece of art, Wooden Boulder (do click on the link) and because when I came back to the poem it was much richer than when read in ignorance.

There’s a lot to enjoy here. The ghazals served as an excellent appetiser for the multifaceted discussion of that Persian form in the current Southerly (about which I intend to post soon). Birds and animals flit charmingly through the poems, especially the ones in Welsh settings. Perhaps because, all going well, I’m to become a grandfather at the year’s end, the single that I warmed to most is this:

like an old tree lightened of the snow’s weight

Think of the tree,
who, quiet, might

wait for the starlings
or the last of the red

squirrels, for something
to remind it of how to bear.

Who might not
mind, as much as we

believe, the borers
and scrapings,

the lover’s knife, or
a woodpecker,

the weight of snow
on its leaf-empty branches.

As children we’d
take lightly

the stairs to a
grandfather

we thought asleep
and wake him with

a brass bell, while he hid
fully clothed beneath

the quilt, and carried
laughing the weight

of our small bodies
piled over his.

A note up the back informs us that all the poems take their titles from lines by the Welsh poet R S Thomas. This mild piece of intertextuality was a distraction for this reader, but your mileage may vary – the poems generally hold their own in spite of it.

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Homing is the sixth book I’ve read for the 2017 Australian Women Writers Challenge. It’s Shevaun Cooley’s first book, and I am grateful to Giramondo for my copy.

Cathy McLennan’s Saltwater

Cathy McLennan, Saltwater (UQP 2016)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maxine Beneba Clarke’s Hate Race

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kim Mahood’s Position Doubtful

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kathryn Lomer’s Night Writing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

as comforting in its woodpile pattern
as the promise of love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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