Edwina Preston, Bad Art Mother (Wakefield Press 2022)
Owen’s mother is a poet, pretty much unrecognised in her lifetime. His father runs a restaurant, plus a charity that feeds the homeless, plus an art gallery. His guardians (it’s complicated!) are a successful, wealthy poet and his meek wife who has a knack for ikebana. The most reliable adult in his life is an aunt, a nurse who makes no claims to creativity. In most of his childhood O-yo, as he is affectionately known, rotates among the three households, each its own version of life on planet Melbourne in the 1960s.
The backbone of Bad Art Mother is Owen’s story of his childhood, culminating in the events surrounding the launch of his mother’s only book of poetry. He branches out into two other periods: the moment in the mid 1980s when his mother’s poetry is rediscovered by a feminist publisher, and his comfortable and uneventful life in the present, partnered up with the feminist publisher. Every now and then Owen’s narrative is supplemented by a batch of letters from his mother to her sister that make us privy to the mother’s inner life and to scenes that unfold in Owen’s absence.
So there are two unreliable narrators: one is a child who doesn’t understand the complexities of the adult world (though he does understand more than the adults realise), the other a woman who is increasingly unhappy, self-preoccupied and in denial about her alcohol abuse – though she can be scarifyingly honest about her own appalling behaviour. As readers we’re invited to keep our wits about us, to read between the lines.
I wanted to know what would happen to every one of the novel’s characters, and each of the women in young O-yo’s life offers a different perspective on how to succeed artistically or otherwise under patriarchy (there is a cheerful Lesbian couple), but it’s Veda Gray, poet and Bad Art Mother, whose story provides the narrative spring.
Even though you might expect that young O-yo is most at risk, Veda is really the only character who is in jeopardy. It’s the 60s. Society is getting ready for Germaine Greer and, separately, the beginnings of Women’s Liberation. Veda has read a book by an unnamed American feminist, whom we take to be Betty Friedan, but she is unable to take up the cudgels on her own behalf. She increasingly seems to spend her days at home, drinking, spending less time writing poetry than complaining about the difficulty of being a poet. Somehow she gets a contract with a small press to publish a collection of her poems, but publication, on which her survival seems to depend, is repeatedly postponed. We know it will happen, but we know from a flashforward on the opening page that something will go wrong. There is very real suspense, and the story moves along at a cracking pace to a dramatic climax.
But there are disturbing cross currents .
THE REST IS SPOILERISTIC
For example, there’s this moment early on. Veda is writing to her sister about her conversations with Mr Parish who, we have been told, dislikes abstract art and, presumably, modernist poetry:
We have had several lively debates, such as Ern Malley, that old chestnut, where I find him a harsh critic of MacAuley and Stuart.(page 35)
Veda misspells both James McAuley’s and Harold Stewart’s surnames, even while claiming a bored familiarity with the Ern Malley affair. Not only that, but she seems to be under the impression that McAuley and Stewart were modernist poets of the sort Parish would abhor, whereas they are militantly on his side, and his harsh criticiism would surely have been for Max Harris, who published the poems.
At first I took these and a scattering of similar ‘mistakes’ for authorial errors that slipped past the copy editor and proofreader, but as I read on I began to think they were indications of Veda’s radical unreliability. We only ever see one of her poems, about which more in a moment. When she’s young, she does ‘second-rate readings in second-rate rooms with second-rate poets’ before giving up because she isn’t getting anywhere, and she receives many rejections from Meanjin. As time goes by though, there are no more attempts to find readers. She has no apparent contact with other poets, except the egregious Mr Parish. She quotes none of her poetry to her sister, the only correspondent we know about. She seems to be unaware that other Australian women poets exist. She does the extremely unrealistic thing of submitting a sheaf of poems to a publishing house and then resenting it when they say they need more to make a book-sized collection.
The real story being hinted at here is that Veda set out to be a poet, but gave up, partly because of sexism but probably because she wasn’t willing to work at it in a sustained way, and wasn’t much good. She settled to a life of posing as a poet (the word ‘posing’ occurs a lot), while sinking into alcoholic chaos, blaming everyone but herself for her lack of success. When, improbably, the book is about to be published, she decides to strike a blow against the establishment by [SERIOUS SPOILER ALERT] altering its opening sonnet so that the first letters of each line spell out a fourteen-letter obscenity. The world comes crashing down around her: the book is pulped, her career as a poet is finished, and her life is over.
An end note informs the reader of the famous occasion when Gwen Harwood slipped a similar sonnet past the editor of the Bulletin in 1961, and quotes from a letter Harwood wrote to a friend. There are two ways of reading this, depending whether you think Gwen Harwood’s exists in the world of the novel. If she doesn’t, then the incident has been transposed – unconvincingly to my mind – to a decade later. If she does, then Veda’s stunt is a mere imitation of a notorious scandal. I’m leaning to the latter reading, partly because the Ern Malley hoax exists so why not Gwen Harwood as well, and partly because Veda’s sonnet is clumsy and stodgy. If it’s typical of her poetry, her rediscovery in the mid 1980s starts to look like a bit of opportunistic pretend-feminist marketing rather than the equivalent of, say, the rediscovery of Lesbia Harford at about the same time.
So this is a book with a hidden narrative, like the cross-dressing story in Joseph Furphy’s Such Is Life. The title of the book doesn’t signify an art-mother who is bad, but a mother who makes bad art. Veda’s story is even more tragic than it seems at first.