Tag Archives: Australian

Eva Hornung’s Dog Boy

Eva Hornung, Dog Boy (Text 2010)

Our species has long been fascinated by stories of human children raised by wild animals , as the Wikipedia page on feral children attests. I don’t have to strain my memory muscle too hard to come up with (in order of my encountering them) Mowgli, Romulus and Remus, Truffaut’s L’enfant sauvage, and the ‘wolf girls’ Amala and Kamala (about whom we published a story in the School Magazine, not realising the whole story was made up to raise funds for an Indian orphanage). Dog Boy tells one of those stories, and evokes that fascination brilliantly.

On page 15 Eva Hornung gets explicit about the challenge she has taken on:

And so it was, trotting with three dogs through ordinary lanes, past ordinary tenements, past ordinary lives, a lone boy crossed a border that is, usually, impassable – not even imaginable.

The stories of feral children I’ve encountered (add to the list above the Werner Herzog movie about Kaspar Hauser, and Louis Nowra’s first play, Inner Voices, and wasn’t there a Peter Handke play as well?) focus on what happens when the child returns to human society, and chronicle the process of learning, or failing to learn, how to be human. I don’t think I’m giving anything away to say that  this book pretty much ends where those stories start. I was given it as a Christmas present with a card suggesting it might help me get in touch with my animal nature. Certainly it was a wonderful book to read while walking a couple of dogs: Eva Hornung may have done extensive research on the ethology of feral dog clans, but it’s very obvious that she has also had intensive personal experience with dogs. There’s a lot I could say about the way the book explores what it is to be human, our relationship with other species, especially dogs,  parenthood, love, post-Soviet Russia (the story unfolds mostly in the devastated outer suburbs of Moscow) and so on. But its power is in the way it takes us into the smelling, scratching, snarling world of doghood, as experienced by a small boy who comes to think of himself as a dog but never completely loses his sense of difference.

It’s tremendously moving. There are some major shifts in the narrative, all of which I resisted crankily at first and each of which led me to unexpected places. If my heart has segments, then the book moved systematically through a number of them, and pulled hard at each in turn. Even when, quite a way in, the narrative leaves the dogs’ perspective for a time and actually names some of the story’s precedents, including some listed in my first paragraph, in a kind of metatextual play, the spell isn’t broken. Tightened, if anything.

If, as I do, you ‘accidentally’ skip to the end and read the last sentence, you may think you know how the story ends. Don’t read the second last sentence.

Now, back to packing up the house, carefully not stepping on the dog who is clearly very disturbed by the growing chaos.

The Tree of Man revisited with the Book Group

Patrick White, The Tree of Man (1955, Vintage 1994)

Before the group meeting:
My mother’s letters in the 1970s would occasionally report on her reading. She once transcribed a paragraph from Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children because it seemed to describe the noses of our family. The other day when I read the first page of the Drought chapter of The Tree of Man, I wondered if she’d thought, as I do, that this description of Stan Parker evokes aspects of my father (allowing for the fact that Dad grew sugarcane rather than running a dairy, and was never ‘broad’):

He was respected. He was inseparable from the district, he had become a place name. His herd was small, but of good quality for the herd of a man in a small way, neither rich nor ambitious, but reliable, the cans would always reach the butter factory to the minute, without fail. He went to church too, singing the straight psalms and rounder hymns, in praise of that God which obviously did exist. Stan Parker had been told for so long that he believed, of course he did believe. He sang that praise doggedly, in a voice you would have expected of him, approaching the music honestly, without embellishing it. Standing in the pew, singing. the back of his neck was by this time quite wrinkled, and the sinews were too obvious in the flesh. But he was a broad and upright man.

I’ll never know if she made that kind of connection, but she mentioned the book in passing in a comment on Cancer Ward:

It seems queer but I think Patrick White writes much like [Solzhenitsyn], so simply. I’ve read only one of his, The Tree of Man, & really enjoyed it.

Not bad, eh? She made no claim to literary sophistication, but she picked White’s affinity with the Russians. And she found his prose simple!

The prose is simple, but it’s not easy. It’s also impossible to read fast, lacking what A D Hope believed a novelist needs: ‘a plain style, a clear easy stride, a good open texture of language to carry him [sic] to the end of his path’. But it’s certainly not ‘pretentious and illiterate verbal sludge’, as Hope famously described it. It does constantly pull you up and make you look at a particular word or image – or, if you don’t stop, leave you with an uneasy feeling that you’ve missed something. The point of view frequently moves around within a single short sentence, or rather within a grouping of words between consecutive full stops, since White is a great user of what are sometimes known in the editing trade as frags. Even the very first sentence, innocuous enough at first glance (‘A cart drove between the two big stringybarks and stopped’), has the reader slightly wrong-footed with its abrupt rhythm, its lack of a human, or even animal, subject, its slightly skewed use of articles (‘the cart drove between two big stringybarks’ would be more natural, but of course it would mean something quite different).

The book’s peculiarities, and its arrogance, intimidated me in first year university in 1967. But not this time. True, I came close to genuflecting at the first four chapters, which tell of the primal encounter of ‘the man’, ‘the woman’ and the bush. I wondered if I would be able to keep up with the intensity of the prose for the whole 480 pages. But once the narrative emerged into something resembling a social world, I was less enthralled. In fact I became increasingly irritated. I just don’t believe in the nastiness of most of the characters. I can’t stand the snobbishness of the narrative voice. The drunken Irish shenanigans (read domestic violence, despair, wretched poverty and, towards the end, dubious religion) of the O’Dowds fail to amuse me. The pretentions of the nouveaux riches Armstrongs are awkwardly unconvincing, as is almost everything about the younger Parkers. The book seems to assume that some people, inarticulate or otherwise, have an honest capacity for rich inner lives, while others (most?) don’t, and must settle at best for synthetic souls with occasional exalted glimpses. For all the towering strengths of the book – and they certainly aren’t limited to the first chapters – I became increasingly obsessed with calculating what fraction of the pages I had yet to read.

Perhaps the most striking disappointment is the vast, gaping silence about Aboriginal Australians. When Stan’s cart stops between the stringy barks in that first sentence, it’s definitely in terra nullius. ‘Blacks’ are mentioned twice, once when young Ray refers to their arcane knowledge of how to survive in the desert, and again in the closing pages when the missionary mentions sex with black women as a sign of his youthful depravity. The phrase ‘dream time’ occurs twice. The first time, Stan and Amy have come to an ‘uneasy dream-time’. Since that probably signifies that neither of them was fully awake in relation to the other, the Aboriginal reference may be coincidental, but in the second, near the beginning of the fourth and final part, Stan looks back on his first days at the farm as ‘the dream time’. Here the phrase does refer to a time of creation, of beginnings, and it must disturbingly invoke for any Australian reader now, and surely for some in the 1950s, this continent’s history of genocide, dispossession and cultural appropriation. Invoke without acknowledging. The Irish are despised. The working class barely exist. Aboriginal people have been erased and over-written.

Then, here’s Stan, further down the first page of the Drought chapter:

There were certain corners of his property that he could not bring himself to visit, almost as if he would have discovered something he did not wish to see. […] Once he had been looking at a crop of remarkably fine sorghum that was almost ready to bring in, when he remembered that same stretch of land after he had cleared it as a young man, and on it the white chips lying that his axe had carved out of the trees, and some trees and young saplings still standing and glistening there, waiting for the axe. So that he forgot his present crop and went away disturbed, and thinking.

In a book that makes much of ‘things that are too terrible and wonderful to speak of’ is it too much to imagine that in this moment the thing Stan does not wish to see is the silenced Aboriginal history? That the dispossession on which Stan’s settlement of the land is built is almost forcing its way into the narrative? Surely it’s not just my idiosyncrasy that those white chips of wood remind me of the bones in the red earth of a massacre site in a William Yang photograph?

There may well be hundreds of learned articles about this disturbed silence, but that’s my two bob’s worth.

After the group meeting:
Tonight we met in a pub in Paddington, rather than in someone’s home. All but one of us turned up, and almost half had read all or most of he book. We had an animated discussion. Only one of us really loved the book. One, who may not have read it, considered it to be dated imperialism. The two of us who read the Vintage edition agreed that the cover was absurdly inappropriate (a horse? northern hemisphere trees?) No one shared my unease about the absence of Aboriginal characters: the consensus seemed to be that the original inhabitants of the Parkers’ land had been dispossessed long before Stan and Amy arrived, and that my reading of the white chips passage was drawing a long bow. As someone said, what’s the point of a bow that’s not long? And I still think that the general silence enacts a kind of genocide.

Whatever, unlike Anna Karenina, The Tree of Man couldn’t hold its own against the need to discuss Other Things – the sins of the ALP and the worse sins of the Coalition, our various adventures in work and education, travel and the weather. As always it was a fun evening.

Sonnets according to ‘m’

Jordie Albiston,  The sonnet according to ‘m’ (John Leonard Press 2009)

The M in these poems is not from Fritz Lang (‘When out of grace in Peter Lorre’s eyes’?) or the James Bond franchise (‘If gin and vermouth stirred not shaken are’?), but is, as the back cover blurb tells us in a manner ominously reminiscent of the  labels in contemporary art exhibitions, ’emblematic of recurrence and precipitousness’. It’s a commonplace that poets nowadays don’t generally have a huge audience. The most recent variation I’ve heard was from David Brooks, at a Sydney Writers Festival workshop: the world is desperate for poetry but poets aren’t writing the poetry that the world wants. It’s almost as if, he said (but blame me if this is crudely expressed, I took skimpy notes), you have to choose between writing for poets or writing for the public. As a reader, I definitely identify as part of the public, and Jordie Albiston’s clever play with the sonnet form in this book tends to intimidate and alienate me rather more than it delights. Yet, there is delight here, and a little sharpening of attention brought rewards.

There are at least three Ms: ‘me’, Marsi  and em. Marsi, the acknowledgements page informs us,  was the poet’s maternal grandmother, whose diary, kept for a month in 1959, provides the basis for 12 of the book’s 54 sonnets.  Em is Emily Skinner, Jordie’s paternal great-great-grandmother, whose memoir lies behind another four of them. I found the use of these sources fascinating. At the Sydney Writers’ Festival, Adam Aitken read a poem based on his father’s letters, so perhaps this kind of familial translation is a common practice. It’s certainly an interesting one, and here the Marsi sonnets in particular provide a kind of rootedness. They tend to observe metrical and rhyming conventions, not strictly, but more so than the ‘me’ poems, and the quiet intelligence they bring to the concerns of a 50s housewife  demonstrate Albiston’s range marvellously:

well we have waited twelve months to see
what the nuns would do with the old wood
house 00 a noise at last from the sainthood:
the roof is coming off! 00 now of course we

are curious to know What Next!

and so on. Compare this to the ebullient play with form in ‘mandatory’ (all but the ’em’ poems have titles beginning with  m):

well you gotta be good 00 but
you gotta be bad 00 you gotta
be both glad & sad 00 yep you
gotta be human it says in the
book but look! 00 there’s that
creature inside! 00 you gotta be
nothing you gotta be all 00 you
gotta be both great and small

Would you have picked that as the octet of a sonnet? There’s a huge variety here. There’s quite a bit that seems to be just for fun (as in ‘methinx (i)’, ‘2moro 2moro & 2moro / goes slo frm day 2 day’). Katherine Mansfield scores a sonnet. There are a number entitled ‘mural’ that celebrate and mourn the passing of verbal graffiti. Some seem to embody a very contemporary feeling of derangement. And so on.

I ended up being completely won over.

Jasper Jones at the Book Group

Craig Silvey, Jasper Jones (Allen & Unwin 2009)

The fourth paragraph of Jasper Jones begins:

This is the hottest summer I can remember and the thick heat seems to seep in and keep in my sleepout.

‘Keep in’? That’s awkward, I thought, and it chimes oddly with ‘seep in’ and ‘sleepout’. The paragraph continues:

It’s like the earth’s core in here. The only relief comes from the cooler air that creeps in between the slim slats of my single window. It’s near impossible to sleep …

Seep in, keep in, sleepout, creeps in and sleep, all in five lines: this is definitely odd, but – along with the heat, the relief and those slats, which are slim for no reason other than alliteration – it’s clearly deliberate.

Over the next pages, while the story had my attention from the word go – thirteen year old Charlie Bucktin, the narrator, is woken in the night by the town’s bad boy Jasper Jones and led to a secret place in the bush where he’s faced with a terrible spectacle and an equally terrible dilemma – I had a weather eye out to see if anything would come of this stylistic oddity. Nothing did, in the sense that if you didn’t notice it you weren’t missing a vital clue to the book’s meaning. But Charlie is in love with language, and bursts of assonance and alliteration for their own sake amount to something of a stylistic signature. I did a quick scan before returning the book to the library, and noted, from many examples, ‘a bundle of lonely bones tied to a stone’ (page 123), ‘Pored over it, taking little portions’ (page 128), and this, in one of Charlie’s reflective moments:

Sorry means you feel the pulse of other people’s pain, as well as your own, and saying it means you take a share of it. And so it binds us together, makes us as trodden and sodden as one another. Sorry is a lot of things. It’s a hole refilled. A debt repaid. Sorry is the wake of misdeed. It’s the crippling ripple of consequence. Sorry is sadness, just as knowing is sadness. Sorry is sometimes self-pity. But sorry, really, is not about you. It’s theirs to take or leave.

Like the frequent references to Charlie’s reading – To Kill a Mockingbird, Batman, Breakfast at Tiffany’s (which he hasn’t read, but Eiza, the love interest, has, and seen the film), Huckleberry Finn, The Wizard of Oz – this fascination with words is important in establishing Charlie’s character and the tone of the book. It’s been described as an Australian To Kill a Mocking Bird, but I doubt if Harper Lee’s book was anything like as intertextual as this. The description is OK as a sales pitch but I’m surprised that reviewers have echoed it.

Anyhow, it’s a terrific, fast moving, undemanding read: a coming-of-age romance cum mystery cum homage to Mark Twain cum historical drama (the Vietnam War is on, and the Beaumont children are mentioned towards the end) cum tale of pre-adolescent friendship (with a substantial nod towards the movie Stand By Me). There’s a beautiful description of a cricket match in which Charlie’s best friend, a very short Vietnamese boy (‘Jeffrey Lu on debut’) makes a splash, in a way that reminded me of Ruth Starke’s brilliant book for younger readers, Nips XI.

One thing I don’t understand is what makes the book ‘mainstream’ rather than ‘young adult’. There’s some pretty intense swearing, I guess, but sex is treated with great tact; even when sexual abuse is described explicitly in a letter that’s crucial to the plot, we don’t get to read the letter. The story is told from a thirteen-year-old’s point of view, and there’s no hint that he’s in any way an unreliable narrator: we don’t know any more than he does and we’re not invited to make judgments that differ from his – we learn about the world with him. In fact, Charlie’s angry mother is treated with less adult-sympathy than similar mothers in many a YA title. I’ve heard that the classification was a policy decision on the part of the publishers – that they were invited to submit the book for the Children’s Book Council Awards, but declined. The mainstream classification seems to have paid off in adult readership and award nominations – always assuming that a Miles Franklin shortlisting is more prestigious than one from the Children’s Book Council, and that being on the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist alongside David Malouf’s Ransom and Coetzee’s Summertime is more dignified than being named in the same breath as Justine Larbalestier’s Liar (not a view I share: I’m looking forward to Justine’s book as keenly as I am to David’s, and who in their right mind would want to compete for a prize against Malouf and Coetzee?). I hope this taxonomical decision hasn’t discouraged the young people who are the book’s natural readership. [Since writing that I’ve seen an online  trailer that is clearly aimed at teenagers, so it looks as if the pubisher is having two bob each way, and a good thing too.]

I wrote that much a number of weeks ago. The Book Group met last night.

With one exception, we were lukewarm. No one actively hated the book, but different people saw different things as gaping flaws. One man said he found Charlie’s decision at the very start to help conceal a crime highly implausible, and intolerably hackneyed – from then on he read with very little pleasure. Another was irritated by the banter between Charlie and Geoffrey (though one man said he thought that was the best thing in the book). Others found the narrative voice, and the characters’, wildly inconsistent – perhaps especially in beautifully written passages such as the aria on ‘sorry’ I quoted from above. I think we were unanimous in finding the characters’ emotional responses to crises (a grisly death, the acrimonious departure of a parent, the discovery of a grandparent) lamentably one-dimensional. I’m sorry to say that as we talked the book’s charms diminished. I proposed a reading that transcended these concerns for consistency, verisimilitude and psychological realism. Perhaps we ought to see the book as akin to the startlingly discontinuous novelitas of César Aira that I’ve just been reading about in the current Heat. But that didn’t wash. Its one defender said it reminded him vividly of things he had felt when he was an adolescent, and he wasn’t howled down.

Sorry, Craig.

Out of the Box

Michael Farrell and Jill Jones (editors), Out of the box: Contemporary Australian gay and lesbian poets (Puncher and Wattmann 2010)

I approached this anthology with suspicion. Does it really make sense, I wondered, to read David Malouf’s or Pam Brown’s poetry in a context that draws attention to the poet’s sexuality? Wouldn’t it skew, and narrow, the reading? My suspicion wasn’t allayed by having recently read editor Michael Farrell’s ultra-skewing assertion in Jacket Magazine 39 that he has ‘always read Judith Wright’s “Woman to Man” as referring to the experience of gender transfer’. But … well, once again the Book Club has dragged me from the path of least resistance.

Of Michael Farrell’s introduction and its use and abuse of the Concise Oxford Dictionary, I can reasonably say I didn’t find it congenial, and his readings of poems strayed too far into hip idiosyncrasy for my taste. Jill Jones, his co-editor, gives a nice potted history of identified gay and lesbian writing in Australia since the late 70s, and provides some useful orientation to the lesbian poems – I mean of course the poems written by identified lesbians, because as the book’s subtitle makes clear it’s the poets, not the poems, that have sexual identitites.

The poems are wonderfully diverse. They belong together not because of shared themes or concerns or formal qualities, but because their creators are contemporary (ie, alive?), Australian and gay or lesbian. A number of the poems are outed by the context – that is, poems I would elsewhere have read as heteroerotic I here read as homoerotic. That’s probably a good thing – my heteronormative mentality is being challenged. Others shrink: Pam Brown’s ’20th Century’ (‘And as we were the tootlers / we tootled along’) here tends to read as referring to the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras rather than something more global. I don’t know that that’s so good. At times I caught myself approximating a Beavis and Butthead snigger: ‘Hur hur! He said fist!’ Definitely not cool, though I plead in mitigation that Michael Farrell’s introduction does something of the sort more than once, and a handful of poems seem to be intent on a kind of high-culture gay Beavis-and-Buttheadism.

A good bit of the time while reading these pages, I got to feel very straight – not necessarily in the sexual sense, but in the sense that I prefer my language syntactical, don’t warm to commas at the start of sentences or parentheses that don’t close, and hate it when I can’t tell whether something is a typo or deliberate wordplay (when Javant Biarujia’s ‘MappleTROPE’ gives us Mapplethorpe’s deathbed utterance as, ‘I just hope I live long / enough to see the frame’ – has he inserted that r into the last word as a piece of witty surrealism or is it just bad proofreading? I genuinely don’t know, and it bothers me).

There are wonderful poems by David Malouf (‘A History Lesson’), Dorothy Porter (‘The Ninth Hour’), Pam Brown (‘Peel Me A Zibibo’), Martin Harrison (‘About the Self’), Peter Rose (‘Plague’), Kerry Leves (‘the escape’ – I’ve known Kerry mainly as a children’s writer, and he is definitely not that here) and joanne burns (‘aerial photography’), among others. I was delighted to be introduced to Stephen J Williams (‘Museums of beautiful art’), Andy Quan (‘Oath’, possibly the single poem that touched me most directly) and Tricia Dearborn (‘Life on the Run’) among others.

It probably doesn’t make sense to talk about a book of poetry without quoting any, but every poem I wanted to quote turns out to feel like an all or nothing proposition. I guess if you’re interested you’ll just have to find the book.

Skrzynecki’s Immigrant Chronicle

Peter Skrzynecki, Immigrant Chronicle (UQP 1975, 2002)

This book boasts back-cover blurbs from an extraordinary bunch of Big Names: Kenneth Slessor, Randolph Stow, Rosemary Dobson. But it’s probably the least famous of the blurbers who nails the reason it has stayed in print for 35 years when, say, David Malouf’s or Les Murray’s first volumes are long out of print and fetching vast sums on e-Bay: Stephen Magee announces that ‘Immigrant Chronicles can fairly be claimed to be the best poetical treatment of the immigrant experience, in Australia, since the nineteenth century’. Ah, poetical treatment of a significant historical subject – perfect for study in high school.  And indeed, the book has been set in the Higher School Certificate. This is how Peter Skrzynecki, acknowledging reality, welcomes visitors to his web site:

On this site you will find information about my life which may help you understand some of my poems – especially those set down for study on the New South Wales HSC syllabus.

None of this should have anything to do with my reading the book, but the copy I bought bears the scars of having been ‘studied’, and they exerted a disproportionate influence on me:

This unhappy student’s search for metaphors succeeds in making the writing look awfully prosaic: for jus one example, if there’s a metaphor in ‘the war / Now four years dead’, it’s been dead a good bit longer than the war has. Yet the poem ‘Crossing the Red Sea’ (of which the above is the first of four pages) is a moving attempt to imagine the post-war emigrant experience.

The book isn’t a verse novel. There are poems about pelicans, a snake, Michael Dransfield, a death mask and so on. But it does encompass a narrative arc that justifies the Chronicle in the title. Apart from ‘Crossing the Red Sea’, there’s the much anthologised ‘Migrant Hostel: Parkes 1949–51‘ (if you click on the link, try to avoid the class notes at the end), and perhaps a dozen more, including some raw and melodramatic poems that seem to be about Skrzynecki’s mother’s experience of the ‘mental health’ system (though he explains on his web site that they are not to be taken as factual in every detail) and a number about becoming a father. A good part of the interest is documentary – that is, the poems are interesting because they inform us about ‘the immigrant experience’, or more accurately an immigrant experience.

Skrzynecki’s novel Boys of Summer was launched at Gleebooks last week – it deals with growing up Polish in Sydney suburbs in the 1950s. So he is still mining the same rich vein. But whereas now, according to the Gleebooks description, there’s a nostalgic flavour to the work, Immigrant Chronicle was written by the 20-something Skrzynecki, and there’s a pervasive, complex sense of the past’s insistent presence, memorably caught in the last lines of the final poem, ‘Post Card’ (which is also representative of what to me seems a peculiar flatness of the poetry). The speaker is looking at a ‘post card sent by a friend’ from Warsaw, his father’s lost home:

I stare
At the photograph
And refuse to answer
The voices
Of red gables
And a cloudless sky.

On the river’s bank
A lone tree
Whispers:
‘We will meet
Before you die.’

Dorothea, Andrew and Mollie

Dorothea Mackellar and Andrew McLean, My Country (Omnibus 2010)

I’ve always vaguely resented this poem. ‘I love a sunburnt country, a land of sweeping plains’, it seemed to my young self, consigned the lush east coast of North Queensland to some non-Australian limbo. So I was happy to learn that Dorothea Mackellar wrote it as an exercise in reverse cultural cringe while living in England, that there was an opening verse that went on about ‘field and coppice’. I was delighted in a schadenfreude kind of way years ago when I came across a letter from Dame Mary Gilmore in the School Magazine files replying to a request for permission to reprint the poem: the Dame explained loftily that it was unlikely that she had written a poem with such hackneyed images and dreary rhythms. I passed that splendid letter on to the Department of education’s Historian, and hope it is preserved under glass somewhere, but it was unfair. It turns out the poem was just waiting for Andrew McLean to illustrate it.

Penny bought our copy at the Orange Grove Markets this morning to read to Mollie. When I joined them after walking the dog, Penny asked me to have a turn at reading it – I don’t know how many times they had already been through it. Mollie was attentive all the way through, and as far as we could tell enjoyed the book.  So did I. It has to be one of the best presentations of a poem. Ever.  Andrew McLean’s landscapes are superb: the soft English countryside, the drought stricken farmland, the flood plain, the ringbarked gum trees ‘tragic to the moon’, the lush rainforest (yes, it’s there – just not in the only stanza that is usually quoted). The Grand Dame may have been right about the imagery and the rhythms, but there’s something wonderfully complex in the profession of love for an environment so full of challenge and suffering.

Les Murray, Prone to be Tall

Les Murray, Taller When Prone (Black Inc 2010)

A new book by Les Murray is an event, and I didn’t hesitate to use my birthday voucher to buy this. And I wasn’t disappointed. The book has already been reviewed well by people more articulate and perceptive than I am. Clive James in The Monthly, for instance, may be a little OTT in suggesting the Nobel for Literature and characterising the intemperate and possibly libellous ‘The 41st Year of 1968’ as ‘a sharp rebuke to ageing hippies who imagine themselves to be in sympathy with Gaia’, but he generally does a nice job of illuminating the poetry.

I was struck many years ago by something Francis Webb – who like Les Murray experienced severe depression – wrote about poetry:

I do value in poetry that heightening or ameliorating sense of companionship in human experience. What do we seek of the trusted companion? His honesty, and that half-loaf of comfort. Poetry, as in Dante, can teach; but that is not its primary function. And pure, honest companionship may implicitly carry  comfort within itself, neutralising the often frightening sense of solitude in our affairs.

Much as I admire and enjoy Murray’s poetry, I don’t get much sense of companionship from it.  I don’t have anything against the man – after all he published a poem of mine in Quadrant. And I’m a fan – I’ve been buying his books for decades. I’ve just seen a copy of The Weatherboard Cathedral going for more than $500 at Biblioz.com, but I’m not even slightly tempted to part with mine. But I do have a creeping sense that his poetry doesn’t much like me. I don’t mean just the splenetic outbursts like ‘The 41st Year’ (which, though its explicit targets are amalgamated Hippies and Greenies and New-Classies, none of which I quite am, I manage to take personally). Nor do I mean only the obscure pieces – Robert Gray says in The Australian that about a third of this book leaves him not having the faintest idea what it is about, and not ‘cajoled by the expression into wanting to find out’. I have a sense that the poetry generally doesn’t seem to want to communicate, to expect a relationship with the reader: it’s as if it’s reporting brilliantly on the world sharply seen and heard and thought about, on understandings (and positions and judgements) reached, even on emotions felt, and all it expects of me is that I look on,  admiring its brilliance. To vary the metaphor, the poems are like grenades lobbed over a wall – they may explode in verbal fireworks, release lyrical aromas, or scatter the shrapnel of opinion, but the wall stays there, solid and opaque between us and the thrower.

Or maybe that’s all rubbish. One of the many poems I liked here is ‘The Filo Soles’:

When tar roads came
in the barefoot age
crossing them was hell
with the sun at full rage.
Kids learned to dip
their feet in the black
and quench with dust,
dip again, and back
in the dust, to form
a dark layered crust
and carry quick soles
over the worst
annealing their leather
though many splash scornfully
across, to flayed ground.

When I wrote just now that I liked this poem, I thought of writing instead that the poem ‘spoke to me’, but actually it didn’t, even though I lived in the barefoot age in the tropics, and know about crossing a bitumen road in the summer heat. The poem doesn’t work on me by reminding me of that experience. What I like about it is the way the title adds a clever visual element, the way the disintegration of the rhyme and metre towards the end  mimics the desperate, unprotected run as opposed to the methodical application of protection, and the way ‘flayed’ unexpectedly describes the ground rather than the young feet in the last line. There’s a lot to like. Maybe my grumbling about lack of communication is just lack of sleep. I’d be interested to hear other people’s thoughts.

Pirate Jenny Maiden

Jennifer Maiden, Pirate Rain (Giramondo 2010)

Jennifer Maiden’s poetry never fails to delight me, so a new book is a thrill. I don’t understand why she doesn’t get rockstar treatment.

Her last book, Friendly Fire, included a ‘cluster’ of poems featuring George Jeffreys and Clare Collins, characters from two of her novels (one of them ‘notoriously unpublished’). Clare had killed her two younger siblings when she was nine years old. George has been her probation officer and is now her mentor, friend and lover. As Jennifer Maiden explained in an introduction to the poems, through these characters ‘the horror-inhibited portions of [her] brain might speak’. First, in a prose piece, they were in the New York of 9/11. Then came the six poems, each of them beginning:

George Jeffreys woke up in [Kabul/Kandahar/London/ Berlin/the White House/Baghdad].
George Bush Junior was on the TV, obsessed
as usual with Baghdad.

and then going to unexpected places. In the five years since then, as seen in Pirate Rain, she has written four more ‘George Jeffreys woke up’  poems (in New Orleans, Rio, Beirut, and a Pirates’ Ship), which are collected here along with one in which ‘Clare Collins woke up in the Paris Hilton’, eight in which Eleanor Roosevelt or Hilary Clinton wakes up somewhere, and one each for Florence Nightingale’s pet owl Athena, Mother Teresa and Grahame Greene, who wake up respectively ‘on the wild cliffs of Crimea’, ‘in London, at /The Inquest for Princess Diana’ and ‘in the Saigon Caravelle/ Hotel in 2006’.

That might sound like a bit of a bore, but it’s actually quite the contrary. Those first-line awakenings are launching pads for a wide range  of poems: a couple come close to being straight action-adventure, others enter strange supernatural fantasy worlds, and always there’s a serious play with the big news of the day. (I would have liked the poems to be dated, which would have made it possible to find out easily at what stage of George W Bush’s foreign adventures the conversations in the poems were taking place. For instance, I seem to remember that the bit where George talks about torture in the Abu Ghraib prison was written before those sensational photographs were made public – and this surely affects how the poem is read.)

Maybe one day I’ll write something in which I figure out why I love Maiden’s poetry so much. Penny says it’s because her mind is like mine. I wish it were so! One thing that I can tell is that she writes about the public world, the world we see on the television, and makes sharp observations and judgements about it. Her portraits of George W Bush and Condoleezza Rice are wonderful. In this volume, there are Jim Cairns, Hillary Clinton and, most touchingly, Don Dunstan. (I want her to do Rudd, Abbott, Gillard, Obama, Kristina Keneally, … … … ) She argues about the nature of poetry, and fame, without every disappearing up her own kazoo. She reports conversations with her daughter without going cute – in fact, the poems involving those conversations generally astonish in the way they bring disparate elements together. ‘Night on water’ does this superbly. I hope it’s fair dealing to quote the whole poem:

night on water
Seeing him was like reading Shakespeare by flashes of lightning – Coleridge on Edmund Kean’s acting.

‘Mum, are you famous?’
______ with insouciant irony asks
my daughter, when one of her friends
says, ‘Is your mum famous?’
on the phone. That flirty incorruptible
compassionate eyebrow arches
at me and I answer, ‘No, just
an ageing hippie who’s had
a few books published,’ wishing that
either this or the fame thing were true,
momentarily, as she repeats my reply.
Later, she comforts as usual,
‘Don’t worry – you’ve got me,’ and I agree
‘Yes,’ as usual, feeling the old nervous
delight at that, think that if she has
as I once wrote, ‘eyes like night on water’,
there is also there the rapid glow
of fireworks on the harbour, remember
how once in a storm season when
the fences were blowing away, she
illuminated me from the bathroom window,
held onto its hinges to stop
it leaving as I gripped the fence sheets
together in the blinding, deafening rain.
Her torchlight and the lightning swung
wildly on my face and she called down,
sincerely and suddenly. ‘Mum, you
look beautiful.’______I’ve thought
ever since, this the most powerful
thing that the concept of beauty can do:
glance into the heart of you, like her,
and keep you going. __I’ve thought the
concept of fame somewhat like that, sometimes:
without too much charm,
money or position, it seems to me
a vague modicum of fame, however
mysterious it may seem to others, gives
one enough currency to survive. But
there’s still no real security, except
_____in some stunning
moment in practical tempestry when
one is seen as one would see, is read
like Shakespeare by flashes of lightning.

I didn’t fold any page-corners down in this book, because I’ll want to reread the whole thing, many time I’m sure.

Adamson’s best of 2009

Robert Adamson, The Best Australian Poems 2009 (Black Inc 2009)

This is an excellent anthology. In fact, in the context of previous years’ round-ups, both from Black Inc and UQP, it’s a strong contender for Best of the Best. It includes a wonderful range of poetic styles and modes and subjects – incomprehensible post-modern stuff, impassioned story-telling, linguistic virtuosity, delicate lyric. There’s Clive James‘s assured iambic pentameter, Pam Brown‘s asthmatically short lines, Ali Cobby Eckermann‘s lines you might need to know didgeridoo breathing to recite adequately. In the introduction, Robert Adamson talks about his solution to the difficulty of reducing his short list to fit the space available – he persuaded Black Inc to give him more space. I’m glad he did, and that he kept commentary, analysis and explanation to a bare minimum. He does offer this gem of commentary:

People ask me, why are so many bird poems being written and published? I have a theory: we miss having poets among us who can imagine that a soul can ‘clap its hands and sing, and louder sing’, that we need to acknowledge visitations by intense psychological presences, and that birds are the closes things we have, more or less, to angels.

Perhaps that’s mainly a clue as to how to read his own poems, but it’s an interesting general thought as well.

I’m not going to try to name the poems I liked best.  My copy has far too many page-corners turned down for that.

As I was reading this anthology, my Art-Student Companion, as part of her preparation for an assignment on Australian Federation, was reading The Sentimental Nation by John Hirst, and kept regaling me with interesting bits about the major role poetry played – poetry, he says, is ‘the best guide to the ideas and ideals that inspired the movement’ for Federation, and again: ‘The nation was born in a festival of poetry.’ Well, even though poetry festivals rarely make the news pages these days, to judge by this book poems are still looking for words for what inspires and ails us as a nation and a species. But now, instead of writing bush ballads or ponderous and forgettable sonnets, they tell about Iraq, global warming, the ills of capitalism, but they tell it slant. There are any number of examples, but I’ll just mention Luke Davies’ ‘Maldon, 991 AD’ which ends:

oooooooooooo I felt an outsider
to laughter. Out there the Vikings sang,
that was more like it, something eerie
to get spooked about, distracted by:
and the world so tenderly
unveiling its final unveiling.

I was also struck by the sense of community among the poets, particularly as shown in the number of poems honouring those who have died: Dorothy Porter (‘Word‘ by Martin Harrison), but also John Forbes (‘Letter to John Forbes‘ by Laurie Duggan, Jan McKemmish (Pam Brown’s ‘Blue Glow‘), Francis Webb (‘Reading Francis Webb‘, by Philip Salom [the link is to a PDF]) and Bruce Beaver (a couple of mentions, but mainly Peter Rose’s beautiful imitation, ‘Morbid Transfers‘).

Buying this book in March felt a little bit silly, like buying hot cross buns in July, but it turns out it’s not a seasonal thing at all. It’s an anthology that I’m sure I’ll go back to.

Footnote: One of my wise younger relatives recently chided me for reading while walking: ‘It’s as bad as walking around with those things in your ears, Jonathan,’ she said (by which you can she’s not so very young). ‘You have to let the world in.’ She may be right in general. But sometimes reading while walking is a way of letting in both world and poetry. The other morning I was throwing the ball for Nessie at the bottom of the hill and noticed that the longish grass was pearled with dew so that previous walkers both human and canine had left tracks of darker green, and the rosellas wouldn’t shut about something. I realised it must have rained quietly in the night. The next words I read were these, from Sarah Day’s ‘A Dry Winter: Some Observations About Rain‘:

… an elemental transition from dry to damp.
Listen, you can hardly hear its outward breath

on the tin roof. In the morning,
grass and earth are wet and everything

but the mercuric globe in the nasturtium leaf
is translucent.

I don’t know anything about nasturtiums, but the rest could have been a condensation from my surroundings. (The whole poem is lovely, by the way.)

Added later: Tara Mokhtari on the Overland blog has a completely different view. She does identify herself as a ‘shunned poet’.