Tag Archives: Eileen Chong

Eileen Chong’s Thousand Crimson Blooms

Eileen Chong, A Thousand Crimson Blooms (UQP 2021)

Someone* said recently that the work of a poet isn’t just to write poetry. Poets also teach, mentor, encourage other poets, edit, proselytise for poetry … and the list went on. At the launch of A Thousand Crimson Blooms last month it was clear that by this criterion Eileen Chong is a real poet. I chatted with an emerging poet who has won prizes and attributes it to her inspiration and mentorship. Three other poets, all women of colour, read at the launch, and each testified to Eileen’s kindness, collegiality and solidarity.

The poems in A Thousand Crimson Blooms bear strong testimony to the poet as embedded in a community of poets and other artists. Many of the poems carry epigraphs, and we are given meticulous notes referring us to their sources – most of which are other poems, but at last one is a quote from a conversation with another poet. Sometimes the notes give us web addresses where we can see images of works that inspired a poem.

The sense of connectedness goes further. A central feature of this book, as in Eileen Chong’s previous collections, is the sense of living heritage, in birthplace (her own Singapore and her husband’s Scotland), in family (especially mother and grandmother), in food (maybe not as much as in earlier books, but this is still poetry that makes you hungry), in language (a number of poems make play with the components of Chinese ideograms), and always in poetic tradition.

This connectedness and rootedness provide a sustaining background in poetry that mostly deals with personal pain: bereavement, sexual abuse, illness and surgery, involuntary childlessness, the challenges of migration.

This is a terrific book. I learned a lot, I cried, I laughed, I was confronted. Only a couple of times I was mystified. More than a couple I was surprised by the twist of a last line. I was sent down interesting rabbit holes, and found myself reflecting deeply on my own life. Eileen Chong reads her own work beautifully: you can hear her, among other places, when/if the Sydney Writers’ Festival release a podcast of the session that included her – The Unacknowledged Legislators.

There are so many poems I’d like to spend time with here. There are powerful poems about loss that it would feel almost indecent to write about in this necessarily abbreviated way. There’s ‘Making Sense’, whose beginning sheds light on the poems in general:

I tell my students:
poetry is a way to make sense 
of what you fear. 

I sing to them of 
blackbirds. I read my poems 
aloud

There’s ‘Spring Festival’, which includes similarly suggestive lines:

My husband reminds me I write poems 
in threes: three lines, three pathways.
One for the old life, one for the new 

and one for the hours 
I do not notice as they pass.

There’s the ‘The Hymen Diaries’, each of whose four parts responds to a work of art (see mention of rabbit holes above). There’s ‘Child’, whose subtitle, After Andy Kissane’s ‘Joy and a Fibro Shack’, offers generous possibilities for a ‘compare and contrast’ kind of discussion – and many poems like that.

I’ve picked the title poem, ‘A Thousand Crimson Blooms’, mainly because before spending this time with it I didn’t understand how it hung together, starting with what feels like kindergarten innocence and ending with lacerating pain. You can see an earlier version of the poem with a slightly different title on the Peril magazine website (here). Here’s the poem as it appears in the book:

To start with the epigraph: I haven’t read the poem it comes from, ‘Don’t Trample This Flower’ by Bing Xin, but I have learned that Bing Xin was a prolific Chinese woman writer of the 20th century, many of whose works were written for young readers (Wikipedia entry here). These lines are a straightforward call to pay attention to something that is beautiful, easily overlooked and vulnerable.

There’s a smooth transition to the opening lines of the poem. Like the epigraph, they address children/little ones: having looked, now, let’s draw. We’re in a domestic or classroom setting; the voice is that of an adult – a teacher or parent? – addressing small children, possibly in a rural environment. The third line’s invocation of the daily cycle of time has a traditional Chinese feel. It reminds me of the ancient poem, ‘The Peasant’s Song’, that begins, ‘Sun up, work / sundown, rest.’ (That’s Ezra Pound’s translation, in his Canto XLIV.) It’s a benign opening, and my fridge door is covered with just the kind of artworks that the little ones might create. (I should mention to anyone who’s just visiting the blog that I have a three-year-old granddaughter who loves to put pencil/crayon/brush to paper.)

The next three lines could be summarised as detailing the process of drawing the dog and rooster, and the children’s focused, unblinking attention to the task. But the language alerts us that something may be slightly off. ‘Let’s shape their bodies with our hands’ may be just an odd way of describing the movement of hands holding pencils, but it feels a little more dominating. Maybe we’ve moved on from drawing to shaping in clay. The second line takes us a step further with the hint of violence in ‘gouge’. The adult speaker has taken us quite a way from paying close attention to something vulnerable to something on the edge of cruelty, even if it is only cruelty to the paper. In the third line, as I read it, the ‘little ones’ speak. The ‘lidless eyes’ suggests a kind of forced, sustained attention that is far from the relaxed, open regard of the epigraph. That there are a hundred eyes suggests that the context has moved from the intimate to the institutional. I have to admit that on first reading I resisted this darkening mood, but once seen I can’t unsee it, and it refers to a common phenomenon. The late artist Kim Gamble, for example, used to lament the way education put a damper on creativity: that children who draw and paint beautifully in Year 1 of school are generally creating cliché images with no spark of originality by the time they are in Year 3.

I’m generally sceptical of poets who talk about the crucial importance of punctuation and spacing, but I think it’s interesting that where the Peril version has a simple paragraph space before the next stanza, this version has an asterisk. The poet wants to be clear that there’s a substantial break. The stanzas change here too, from three-liners to four-liners, but it’s the asterisk that signals a gear-change to the reader.

Sure enough, there’s now a radical change in tone. The benign teacher/parent has been superseded by a harsh authoritarian voice. If the earlier stanzas were in a small, friendly kindergarten classroom, this is now a disciplined, bullying high-school class, perhaps a laboratory, where there is no room for emotion or vulnerability. Science experiments using test tubes and bunsen burners become metaphors, or maybe metonyms, for the harm done to people in such an impersonal environment. (I don’t think there’s an implication that science is necessarily that way, but the reference to glass and fire do conjure up a chemistry lab in my mind.)

The final stanza follows another leap – in time, in setting, in scale. The speakers are the bullied ones, and the 50 people of the second stanza have grown to be a thousand. Blue-and-white vases are traditional Chinese creations, vulnerable like the flower of the epigraph, emblematic of a long history of artisanal skill and creativity (of the kind that produces gasps on Antiques Roadshow). We have been prepared for their appearance by the echo of traditional Chinese poetry in the first stanza. They are broken, with violence that parallels the breaking of the benign teacher-child relationship of the earlier stanzas. ‘They’ is undefined. If I stick with the classroom reading, they are a particular kind of educator, and in making us do the kind of ‘creativity’ that the curriculum requires, they not only take us away from our innate creative impulses, they make us tread all over them.

The second last line takes us back to the flower of the epigraph, only now the flower is not ‘by your feet’, but part of oneself. It is our blood, our suffering, that now produces the flower, that becomes the subject of art. Creativity and pain are now closely linked.

The final line takes a step back. I can best say how I read it by attempting a paraphrase: In our present wounded condition, any attempt to make art must find a deep connection to tradition or some other form of community, if it is to have any vitality. Of course, it doesn’t refer only to the making of art: I think of the importance that First Nations elders place on connection to culture as a means to youth suicide prevention.

Now that I’ve understood how the poem coheres, it hasn’t quite finished with me (and perhaps never will have). The reading that I’ve sketched so far is loosely tethered to my own life experience. But that reading can expand. The poem could be read as a meditation on part of Bing Xin’s life story: I only know the Wikipedia version, and haven’t read any of her poetry, but she was denounced during the Cultural Revolution, a time when blue-and-white vases were quite literally being smashed.

The poem can be read as a response to a work of art: it was initially written on commission as a response to The Masks of Me, a mixed media installation by Vipoo Srivilasa consisting of ‘a group of small masks that celebrate cultural differences and diversity’. You can see the artwork and the artist’s statement on the Peril magazine site, at this link. Actually, I can’t see this reading at all.

Since it has given its title to this book, the poem can be read as referring to the collection of poems. Many of these poems are indeed filled with pain, unflinchingly named, but what makes them readable – more than just readable, deeply satisfying – is their rootedness. This poem itself is an example of that. The classical references, the restrained language, the way the images are allowed to do their own work on the reader, the formal neatness: all these are a kind of rootedness that let the poem flower.


* Sorry, I don’t remember who said it. I think it was on Al Filreis’s PoemTalk podcast.


A Thousand Crimson Blooms is the ninth book I’ve read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2021.

SWF 2021 Sunday

Sunday was another beautiful late autumn day in Sydney, and another day of challenge and delight at the Sydney Writers’ Festival. Evidently one of our ideologically driven weeklies ran a piece online saying the Festival was extremely ‘woke’, which is apparently a bad thing. I don’t know about woke but, as someone who nods off whenever I’m in a dark room, I was kept awake almost without fail. (The one fail was inevitable, in the after-lunch slot when I would have slept through an announcement that I’d been granted the gifts of immortality and eternal youth.)


10.30: Land of Plenty

This panel addressed environmental issues about Australia from a range of perspectives. Philip Clark of ABC Radio’s Nightlife did a beautiful job as moderator, giving each of the panellists in turn a prompt or two to talk about their work, and managing some elegant segues. The panellists did their bit to make it all cohere by referring to one another’s work. (How much better these panels work when the writers on them have read each other!)

Rebecca Giggs, whose Fathoms sounds like a fascinating book about whales, said that whales are a Trojan horse for a conversation about other animals’ relationships to humans. She described a moment when she was close enough to a whale that she could see its eye focusing on her – and only to learn a little later that whales are extremely short-sighted and there as no way that that whale could have actually seen her. What is actually there isn’t what we want to think is there,

Bruce Pascoe, author of Dark Emu and co-author of Loving Country (about which more later) spoke about the difference between Indigenous and Western capitalist ways of relating to the land. Echoing Rebecca Giggs’s story of the whale’s eye, he said, ‘We look at animals and want to be friends with them, but as soon as a capitalist wants to be your friend …’ He begged us to take seriously the possibility of a reciprocal relationship with animals. Something terrible happened to humans, he said, when the combination of Christianity and capitalism happened. I think he has a book coming on the subject.

Victor Steffensen is a Tagalaka man from far north Queensland, author of Fire Country. Someone from my family had the privilege of doing some video work with Victor some years ago, and his stories from that time have given me a deep respect for Victor and his work in ‘using traditional knowledge for environmental wellbeing’, as the Festival site puts it. In this panel, he took off from Bruce Pascoe’s call for reciprocity with other animals, and spoke of relating to fire as a friend and not as something to fear. It’s about reading country, listening to landscape. His project of recording traditional knowledge that is in danger of being lost is not to archive it but to get it back into people, ‘to young fellas and then to the broader community’.

Richard Beasley, senior counsel assisting for the Murray-Darling Basin Royal Commission and author of  Dead in the Water about that catastrophe, said that the situation in the Murray-darling Basin had got so bad that ‘even John Howard’ did something about it. Howard’s legislation included clauses to the effect that whatever was done needed to be science-based. But then the lobbyists went to town, and in response to their pressure, politicians insisted that reports from the CSIRO were altered to suit the big capitalists’ agenda. His lawyerly rage was palpable.

There was a good question (a rarity at this Festival), about grounds for hope:

  • Rebecca Giggs: Thee’s hope. But you don’t get to be hopeful until you make yourself useful in some way – whatever your situation and abilities allow.
  • Bruce Pascoe: I have to think we can do it differently. We have to give our grandchildren a chance, not treat them with contempt. We need love of country, not nationalism.
  • Victor Steffensen: Language is important. [Sadly what I wrote from the rest of what he said was illegible. I think it was an elegant version of ‘Action is also important.’]
  • Richard Beasley: I’m a lawyer. I don’t know how to challenge any of this by law.

12 o’clock: Sarah Dingle & Kaya Wilson

We hadn’t booked this session in advance, but faced with a gap of a couple of hours, we spent one of our Covid Discover vouchers to buy rush tickets. Kaya Wilson, whose book As Beautiful As Any Other has the subtitle A memoir of my body, is a tsunami scientist and a trans man. Sarah Dingle, author of Brave New Humans: The Dirty Reality of Donor Conception is a donor-conceived person. Their conversation was aided and abetted by Maeve Marsden, host of Queerstories who was also donor conceived, though not anonymously through the fertility industry as Sarah was.

Sarah’s revelations about the fertility industry were nothing short of shocking. Not only is it monumentally unregulated, but records that might have allowed people to know what had happened to a particular donor’s sperm, even anonymously, have at least sometimes been deliberately destroyed. Couples using donated sperm have been systematically encouraged to lie to their children about their origins, leaving them unaware of any genetic predispositions to disease, let alone possible incest.

What Kaya told us about the systemic treatment of trans people was just as shocking. He said that he tended to keep his scientific life and his trans life separate. ‘In some ways they hate each other.’ But he has a chapter in his book that tries to reconcile them. The scientific literature, like legislation about, for instance, changing one’s ‘sex marker’ on a birth certificate, is shot through with assumptions that bear not relation to the reality of trans experience.

Both people spoke of the joy of finding themselves to be members of communities they weren’t aware of when young. When asked what they read for relief, both named writers I’ve loved: Sarah chose Terry Pratchett; Kaya chose Ocean Vuong, On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous.


2.30: Bruce Pascoe & Vicky Shukuroglou

Loving Country: A Guide to Sacred Australia was an initiative of Hardie Grant Publishers, who approached Bruce Pascoe suggesting a follow-up to Marcia Langton’s guide to Indigenous Australia, Welcome to Country. Pascoe joined forces with Vicky Shukuroglou, a non-Indigenous woman born in Cyprus, who took the photographs and also contributed to the writing. The Festival website says that the book ‘offers a new way to explore and fall in love with Australia by seeing it through an Indigenous lens’. Daniel Browning, host of ABC Radio National’s Awaye, chaired this conversation.

Again, we were called on to love this country. The thing I loved about the session was the way the two authors could disagree. Bruce Pascoe, speaking of the horrendous bushfires last year, said that the disrespect for Country shown by authorities afterwards was in some ways worse than the fires themselves. We meekly accept the terrible destruction of heritage in the Juukan Gorge. We have to rebel as a people, he said, meaning all of us, not just First Nations people. Vicky Shukuroglou argued against the idea of rebellion, and spoke of the importance of conversations and of love: ‘If we’re going to talk about marginalisation, we first need to look at our humanity.’ From where I was sitting it didn’t look as if the two things were incompatible, but I was struck by the way as a non-Indigenous woman she was secure enough in their friendship and working partnership to challenge an Indigenous man. I would have liked to know more about what she had done to achieve that confidence.

The book, Pascoe said, is about how to restrain human go and let Country have a voice, He got Vicky to tell a story about a sick echidna that, without her realising it, had come to know and trust her, as a result – she thinks – of her being still around it over time.

We don’t need a black armband.
We just need to know the facts.
This is the country that invented society, bread and the Richmond Football Club.


4.30 pm The Unacknowledged Legislators

This was a great way to end my festival. (The Emerging Artist’s festival ended with the previous session: she thinks poetry and she don’t like each other.) Seven poets read to us, hosted elegantly by ‘writer, poet, essayist and proud descendant of the Yorta Yorta’, Declan Fry. Here they are, in order of appearance.

Eileen Chong, whose poetry my regular readers will know I adore. She read five poems from A Thousand Crimson Blooms, which I’ll be blogging about soon. I was glad to hear her read the three part poem, ‘The Hymen Diaries’ after I had spent some time with it and checked out the artworks it refers to.

Maxine Beneba Clarke, poet laureate of the Saturday Paper, read three poems. I won’t report what they were because i wasn’t sure I heard their names correctly. One of them began, ‘When I say I don’t want to become my mother,’ and went on brilliantly to challenge the internalised sexism of that sentiment.

Ellen van Neerven read three poems from Throat (my blog post here), including ‘Treaty of shared power’ and ‘Such a sad sight’. The first-named is a play on the relationship between the writer of a poem and its reader that worked beautifully in this context.

Erik Jensen, reading to an audience for the first time, read six short poems from his first book of poetry, I said the sea was folded, a book that, he told us, is about falling in love and learning to be in love. He then read a poem by Kate Jennings, who has just died (this was how I heard the news) – and wept as he read it. He wasn’t teh only one to shed a tear.

Felicity Plunkett followed that hard act, reading four short poems from her 2020 collection, A Kinder Sea. The first, ‘Trash Vortex’, whose name tells you a lot, may be the kind of poem that Evelyn Araluen had in mind when she said artists have a responsibility to address the world’s urgent issues.

Omar Sakr read three poems, ‘Birthday’, Self-portrait as poetry defending itself’ and ‘Every Day’. This is the first time I’ve heard or read any of his poetry. I hope it won’ be the last.

Alison Whittaker, Gomeroi woman and a crowd favourite, read a piece that depended on knowledge of and (I think) contempt for ASMR, not that there’s anything wrong with such poems. She reminded us of the tragic reality of Black Deaths in custody and read a poem consisting of anodyne found phrases from court proceedings.


And my 2021 Sydney Writers’ Festival was over. There were at least four moments when someone on stage paid tribute to a parent in the audience or, in one case, on stage with them (and I’d left my run too late to see Norman and Jonathan Swan, and I probably missed other trans-generational moments). I didn’t see any of the international guests who attended on screen. It was a thrill to hear such a diversity of First Nations voices. I came home with a swag of books and a list for borrowing from the library. Hats off to Michael Williams and his team for making this happen in the flesh, and making sense of the slogan Within Reach: a living demonstration that the famous cultural cringe, while it may not be dead, has not much reason to live.

SWF 2020, Post 5

One of my favourite poets, Eileen Chong, has been mounting a formidable campaign against racism in Australian literature. She’s been tweeting up a powerful, deeply considered storm as @EileenChongPoet, and some of the storm has been captured as a single article on the Meanjin website (link here). Among other things, Eileen tweeted:

I call on you, literary festivals, to examine your commitment to diversity, inclusion, equity. I call on you to ensure these festivals for writers & readers are safe spaces for our reading & writing community. I call on you to step up, to acknowledge you have this responsibility.

I don’t know what processes the Sydney Writers’ Festival has in place, but so far the 2020 festival seems to be doing OK on the diversity front. We’ve had a white man who wrote about India in conversation with a woman from India; a white woman who wrote about Truganini in conversation with a Ngarigu woman; and a number of other Indigenous people and people targeted or marginalised by racism speaking about their own work, interviewing others, and chairing sessions. In this batch, my fifth, two of the five sessions are all white (though one of the white people, being Irish, would have been classed otherwise 150 years ago in the USA), one is mixed, two feature people of Asian, Pacific and African heritage, and questions of racism and diversity are at the heart of several of the sessions.

Paul Kelly: Love Is Strong As Death 24 Jun

In 2019 singer-songwriter Paul Kelly published an anthology of other people’s poetry, Love Is Strong As Death. At the start of this podcast, Tony Birch asks him about his early introduction to poetry. He talks about the Christian Brothers introducing him to Shakespeare (Macbeth has everything for 15 year old boys, violence, sex, revenge …) and Gerard Manly Hopkins (‘The Christian Brothers loved Hopkins, who was a Catholic priest’), and about the way his family would have get-togethers where everyone did an ‘item’, and items ranged from a niece tying a knot in a snake lolly using only her tongue to someone reciting a poem. Tony Birch said, ‘The Christian Brothers gave you Gerard Manly Hopkins. They gave me corporal punishment.’ ‘Oh well,’ Paul Kelly and I replied in unison, ‘they gave me that too.’

I was taken back to Brother Paulinus, a Marist Brother, using the dreaded cane to conduct the combined 4th and 5th grade in a recitation of Henry Lawson’s ‘The Teams’, a poem I still love; Brother Wright, a Christian Brother, entertaining a class of 15 year olds in the last week of the school year by reading the whole of Macbeth, doing the voices, for one period each day; and my mother cheerfully reciting the opening lines of Francis Thomson’s ‘The Hound of Heaven‘ at the drop of a hat. So I knew something of what Paul Kelly was talking about.

They talked about specific poems, including Archie Roach’s ‘They Took the Children Away‘, for which Paul broke his rule of not including song lyrics, and poems by Ali Cobby Eckermann, Kev Carmody, Seamus Heaney, Paula Meehan, Eavan Boland. Bruce Dawe was one of the few poets mentioned who was neither First Nations Australian nor Irish.

The conversation sent me off to discover or revisit the poems that inspired their enthusiasm and love. The links in that last paragraph are to the text of the poems they discussed (except I couldn’t find Ali Cobby Eckermann’s ‘Canoe’ online).


Kawai Strong Washburn: Sharks in the Time of Saviours 29 Jun 2020

Western Sydney writers are a big presence at this festival. In this session, Winnie Dunn, general manager of Sweatshop, talks to Kawai Strong Washburn about his debut novel, Sharks in the Time of Saviours. True to form, I haven’t read any books by either writer.

The interview, recorded when demonstrations against racism and genocide in the US and around the world were in full flight, is a very interesting conversation about many aspects of racism, though not without reference to the novel’s strong anti-colonial theme. Strong Washburn, now living in the US, has one parent of African ancestry and one white, and was born and raised in Hawai’i, which as he says was colonised by the US, making him part of the coloniser group. Adding to the complexity, he was lived closely with an Indigenous Hawai’ian community as a child. When Winnie Dunn asks the awkward question of whether he has the right to tell the story of Hawai’ian characters, the conversation is as carefully nuanced and respectful as anyone could wish.

I learned a lot about Hula – or at least I learned that there’s a lot I don’t know. The ‘hula girl’ image is a trivialisation of a powerful tradition, an ‘extractive male-driven fantasy’. The word ‘extractive’ used in this way is new to me, and very eloquent.


Lisa Taddeo: Three Women 1 Jul 2020

Lisa Taddeo’s work of narrative non-fiction, Three Women, does, as they say, a deep dive into the lives, including the sex lives, of three women in the USA. This conversation with the Wheeler Centre’s Sophie Black talks about the immersive process of interviewing the women, and perhaps even more interestingly about their reactions to the book. The picture that emerges of Taddeo’s relationship with her three subjects is fascinating, and implicitly raises very important questions about the responsibility of a writer, or any artist, to the people they write or make art about.

Lisa Taddeo mentions in passing, that a grand total of seven men have read this best-selling book, so even allowing for that being an exaggeration, I’m not alone in not having read it. Maybe I should suggest it for my all-male book group. I’ll certainly keep my eyes open for the television series currently in preparation.


Golriz Ghahraman: Know Your Place 6 July 2020

Golriz Ghahraman, Iranian-born member of the New Zealand parliament, here talks to Roanna Golsalves who is one of our great literary interviewers. She sets up the conversation with characteristic generosity:

As I read your book, Know Your Place, I was moved to tears by some of the horrific abuse you have had to face in your life as a politician but also moved to tears by the way you write about loss and hope and transformation … It’s a timely account of how one woman navigates public life while also speaking to the broader issues that we all have to navigate in this world, and you do this in a nuanced, polyphonic way through the stories and voices of so many others woven in with your own story, which makes for compelling reading.

In this delightful chat, Golriz cheerfully subverts a number of memes in western culture that can be harmful: the grateful immigrant, the good refugee (‘Look, this refugee went on to get a Masters Degree in International Law, so it was a good thing to take her in’), the perpetual victim. Talking about her maiden speech in parliament (which is on YouTube here – listen through to where she thanks ‘a very large, loud white boy’), she said, ‘Everybody should sit down and think about what they would write in a 15 minute maiden speech.’

They discuss a line from US public intellectual Cornell West: ‘Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.’ And though in her maiden speech Golriz laughs when she quotes it, ‘That’s not me, that’s Cornell West,’ she comes across in this conversation as someone who has made that her motto.

I love the bit where Golriz talks about her reaction when she first came to New Zealand and saw people walking about barefoot. So much poverty! And meanwhile the barefoot people wanted to know if she had electricity back in Iran.


Remembering Clive James 8 July 2020

Clive James died in November last year, and it would have been odd for the Sydney Writers’ Festival not to mark the occasion. It may be a missed opportunity not to have included in this celebration of the man and his multifaceted work some participants who were excluded from his genial regard: climate change activists, for example. But I guess that’s for another occasion.

Participants are Irish poet Paul Muldoon, Peter Goldsworthy whose writing life is almost as multifaceted as James’s, Richard Glover whose Flesh Wounds could be seen as his own version of Unreliable Memoirs, Kathy Lette, carrying the torch for womankind, and Trent Dalton who along with James himself finally stops me from saying I haven’t read books by anyone taking part in this festival.

The session is good fun, if at times given to hyperbole and strained phrase-making. There are some sweet anecdotes, some quoted wit and analysis of that wit, some reading from James’s emails and poems (‘Japanese Maple‘ and ‘The Book of My Enemy Has Been Remaindered‘), and part of the dunnyman incident from Unreliable Memoirs.

Journal Blitz 5

I guess I’ll never be up to date with the journals I subscribe to. This is my fifth catch-up blog post, and I’m still reading things about a year after publication. Here they are: one from a university, one from the left, one from an organisation of poets and one from an island.


Elizabeth McMahon (editor) and George Kouvaros (guest editor), Southerly Vol 78 No 2 2018: The Lives of Others (2019)

This issue of Southerly, the back cover tells us, ‘is concerned with the debts and obligations that accompany the passing of the generations’, a way of saying that it has a theme of family – personal reminiscence, family history, lines of cultural genealogy.

Here are some of my highlights.

In ‘The Other Life’, guest editor George Kouvaros explores his childhood feelings about a photo of a cousin about his own age who stayed in Greece when Kouvaros’ family moved to Australia. He builds fascinatingly around the notion, borrowed from Marsha Gressen, that migrants are often haunted by a sense of a double life: the one they are living and the one they would have had if they stayed.

Brendan Ryan’s memoir ‘John Forbes in Carlton’ paints a vivid picture of Forbes (dobbed ‘God on a bicycle’ by a Melbourne wit ) as mentor, and is a sweet account of how the creative baton was passed down the generations.. It would have gone well as a chapter in Homage to John Forbes, edited by Ken Bolton in 2002. I’m a fan of both Forbes and Ryan (blog posts, here, here, here and here), but I don’t think you’d need to be to find joy in the essay.

Maria Griffin’s ‘Benjamin’ is a poignant, elegiac meditation on death and extinction. Her immediate subjects are her younger brother, who died aged 32, and the Thylacine / Tasmanian tiger. With a light but dagger-sharp touch she allows the subject to broaden to include the climate emergency. (One small cavil: she imagines Australia during the last ice age as covered with sheets of ice, whereas – correct me if I’m wrong – the archaeological evidence suggests that, though bitterly cold, it was covered in dust.)

Meera Atkinson’s fiction ‘Necropolis Drive’ makes brilliant and powerful use of archival material – her protagonist is researching the history of women incarcerated as insane in colonial times, and correspondence from the NSW Government State Archives and Letters leap from her pages to grab the reader by the throat.

Sharryn Ryan’s memoir ‘The Miracle’ is as powerful a story of growing up with an emotionally unstable mother as you’re likely to read anywhere. Its story of wildness is told with extraordinary restraint, and all the more effective and affecting for it.

Katherine Maher’s ‘One of Your Family’ reads as a fragment from a much broader piece of research. It approaches the issue of the Stolen Generations with a narrow focus, discussing a four-minute video of one Thupi Warra man’s response to Kevin Rudd’s 2008 apology. Maher tells us that this is one of 25 videos of this nature held in the State Library of Queensland. ‘I’m not sure,’ her essay concludes, ‘how to truly hear the history he tells.’ Essays like hers help the rest of us clean out our ears.

Three reviews inspired me to do some rereading, and re-savouring: Naomi Riddle on Fiona Wright’s Domestic Interior (my blog post here; I think Wright is funnier than Naomi Riddle seems to); Peter Kirkpatrick on Martin Langford’s Neat Snakes (my post here) and Brigitta Olubas on Sarah Day’s Towards Light (my post here).


Jacinda Woodhead (editor), Overland 235 (Winter 2019)

This is the eighteenth and last issue of Overland edited by Jacinda Woodhead. The woman on the cover isn’t her, but a ‘friend and fellow anti-fascist organiser’ of the guest artist Tia Kass. Still, that woman’s confident fist isn’t a bad emblem for Woodhead’s – and Overland‘s – work.

I don’t usually read editorials, let alone quote from them, but as this was Jacinda Woodhead’s farewell, I made an exception (link here). She asks, ‘So what is a left-wing literary magazine today?’, and replies in part:

Now more than ever, we need projects like Overland: we may not always agree with the positions and experiments published in its pages, but it’s critical to build spaces where collective alternatives, where collective futures can be articulated.

I subscribe to Overland to support the building of such a space. Then I read it because it generally includes news and thinking that I don’t easily get elsewhere. Here’s how the journal starts (with links to the articles online):

In ‘La mina no se cierra’, Caitlin Doyle-Markwick walks one of the variants of the Camino de Santiago in Spain (definitely not the walk with guides advertised in today’s Sydney Morning Herald that costs $25 thousand a head). The essay’s title – Spanish for ‘The mine will not close’ – is from graffiti she saw in Asturias referring to a major struggle early last decade. The graffiti, and the history that gave rise to it, is a springboard to rich and complex reflections on the current move against coal mines in Australia and the need for a just transition to renewables.

In ‘On grief’, regular columnist Tony Birch, as always, avoids grand rhetorical statements and takes us briefly into his own recent experience of bereavement.

Restorying care’, a PEN essay by Ellen van Neerven writes about the struggle of many First Nations people to ‘feel heard or tell our story’ in the health system. A brief quote:

Data is used to build, and claim, story. Recently, the term ‘data sovereignty’ has been used to describe mob’s sovereign right to their own data: all data should be subject to the laws and governance structures within the Indigenous Nation where it is collected. This data should be accessible to the community. Unfortunately we are a long way from that.

Then there are nine pages of poetry, including ‘Report on Norman – after Vigan’ by Norman Erikson Pasaribu (the title is mysterious to me, but the poem itself is terrific), ‘Walis tingting’ by Ivy Alvarez (which finds poetry in a Philippine palm-leaf broom), and ‘The hymen diaries’ by Eileen Chong (a set of four short poems that stands up on its own, but becomes much richer when seen alongside the stunning works of art it references – by Katie Griesar, Annette Messager, Paul McCarthy and Juana Francés).

But I won’t go on listing the whole contents. Here are some of the rest:

  • The gunboat nation in a lifeboat world’, by Scott Robinson, subtitled ‘On the militarisation of climate change’, wins my prize for the most telling metaphor in a title
  • Alison Croggon ruminates ‘On art‘ in times of crisis like ours
  • Giacomo Lichtner celebrates Primo Levi’s hundredth birth year by singling out ten fragments of If This Is A Man, in ‘One hundred years of Primo Levi
  • There are five short stories, of which the one that stands out most for me is Jem Tyley-Miller’s ‘The island’, which imagines a surreal solution to the refugee crisis involving those vast collections of garbage in the ocean
  • The most natural thing’ by Natalie Kon-yu is a peer-reviewed personal essay that introduced me to the parthood model of pregnancy, as opposed to the container model
  • Enza Gandolfo’s ‘Making & shaping’. which would have fitted nicely into the Southerly‘s theme, is a moving meditation on her mother’s crocheting artistry and  her own changing understanding of it
  • and regular columnist Giovanni Tiso strikes an intimate note in ‘On not moving to Australia‘, linking his decision to stay in New Zealand because he has two children who live with autism with Australia harsh rules for New Zealanders who come here, and it’s even harsher treatment of some refugees.

Yvette Holt and Magan Magan (editors), Australian Poetry Anthology Volume 7 (2019)

This is Australian Poetry Inc’s seventh annual anthology of members’ poetry. In the words of one of its editors, it hosts ‘a focus on poets heralding from the Northern Territory, from the Top End, Western Desert, Utopia, Barkly, and of course Central Australia’. Those poets aren’t corralled into a special section, but take their place alongside others, including some whose books have won prestigious prizes. There are plenty of First Nations voices, including some writing from in prison and some who are household names. A fair number of the poems come from the Spoken Word milieu. It’s a beautifully democratic, diverse collection.

Having said that, I’m reluctant to single any individuals out. I’ll just quote some lines from a handful of poems that deal with fire, drought and flood, perhaps surprisingly many given that this anthology was published well before the current bushfire season,.

Kaye Aldenhoven’s ‘Cleaning the Country – April in Kakadu’ is about fire as a benign tool for land management:

Cool Dry season wind shifts the wind chimes
sending clear bell sounds out over fire-cleared land.
On the tongue the metallic smell of yesterday's smoke.
In the burnt area
an invisible wind spirit
raises puffs of dust as she sweeps ashes of grass.

Kelly Lee Hickey, ‘Notes from a Heatwave’, captures the lassitude of hot dry weather in five short stanzas:

All the nests are abandoned.
The pea chick dies
in my hands.

Peter Mitchell, ‘Forgotten Sparks’, recalls a 1968 bushfire:

We were surrounded by tongues, the speech of flames: shouts,
clamour and argument. Their babble charged our homes.

Fiona Dorrell’s heartbreaking image from a drought, ‘Forty Horses at Santa  Teresa’:

One horse lies down
crosses and tucks its legs
up close to its body.
Others stretch heads back in dirt
almost smelling of algae
and sieve hot air through
yellow spade teeth.

Not quite on topic is Michele Seminara’s ‘Family Tree’, which laments the loss of a tree that has been part of her life since childhood:

They amputate the limbs
to make it easier to fell; 
I know that feeling.

Vern Field (managing editor), Island 157 (2019)

I don’t have a subscription to Island, whose web site describes it as ‘celebrating ideas, writing and culture from our base in Hobart, Tasmania’ since 1979. I bought this issue because it features a poem by Jennifer Maiden (who isn’t from Tasmania).

Compared with the other journals in this post, Island is a lavish affair, with full page colour illustrations and advertisements for theatre events.

It’s a good read, with a preponderance of items that are excerpts from longer works (from Favel Parrett’s There was Still Love, which I intend to read; from a graphic novel, Islands and Ships by Joshua Santospirito, author of The Long Weekend in Alice Springs (my blog post here); from a lecture by Sharon Rider, which introduced me to some basics of Kant’s philosophy), and author’s notes on works in progress (Laura Elizabeth Woollett doing research on Norfolk Island; two separate accounts of artist and writer visits to Iceland; Rohan Wilson musing on the ethics of setting a climate-change (‘cli-fi’) novel in the Maldives).

Burnt Out’ by Liz Evans is a tale of not losing her home to bushfire in the 2018–2019 summer. Though the experience she describes is harrowing, it feels oddly tranquil when read in the aftermath of the recent mammoth fires, as it places the fire events in the context of the writer’s London background and is illustrated by gorgeously dramatic photographs.

There are short stories, of which Anne Casey’s comedy of teenage errors set in a cake shop, ‘What I’d Do If I Was in Charge’, stands out.

Jennifer Maiden’s ‘Pollock, Whiteley and the Critic: Seven Layers‘ isn’t the only poem, but it’s the one that spoke most strongly to me. (Perhaps I should have listed it as one of the excerpts above, as it’s included in Maiden’s The Espionage Act recently published by Quemar Press.) It’s one of her imaginary dialogues: the two painters of the title and an art critic stand in front of Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles, and their conversation ranges over an early self portrait by Brett Whiteley (I looked it up, it’s real, there’s an article on it here), the CIA’s program to back abstract expressionism as a counter to social realism, the effect this had on Pollock’s art and life … As is generally the case with Jennifer Maiden’s dialogues, it works as a strangely surreal encounter among recognisable characters, with a strong undertow of not-quite-pindownable meaning.

Thanks for reading this far. It’s not the last of my journal catch-up posts …

Journal Blitz 4

I subscribe to literary journals partly for pleasure and partly as an act of civic responsibility, and lately (only lately?) I’ve neglected to keep up with reading them. This is my fourth blog post in five months reporting on a catch-up read, starting this time with a journal I don’t actually subscribe to.


The Blak Women’s Brow Collective (Editors), Blak Brow (#40 of The Lifted Brow 2018)

Though I’ve heard plenty about the Melbourne-based The Listed Brow, this is the first issue of I’ve read – it came to me by way of the Book(-Swapping) Club.

When the editors of The Lifted Brow approached Paola Balla, whose bio describes her in part as a Wemba-Wemba and Gunditjmara woman based at the Moondani Balluk Indigenous Centre at Victoria University, she ‘saw the opportunity to work collectively and went for it’ (the quote is from the journal’s editorial). Edited by a collective of Blak women – Blak, a note on the inside cover explains, was coined by artist Destiny Deacon in 1990, and names the lived experience and identity of urban Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples – Blak Brow has a strong collective feel, and is rich with voices speaking of the lived experience of Blakness.

There are strong individual voices: ‘Fight or Flight’, a wicked short story by Melissa Lukashenko; ‘Fern Your Own Gully’, a poem by Evelyn Araluen that savages the May Gibbsian version of the bush; ‘Because of You I Can’, a pair of short essays by poet Ellen Van Neerven and her mother Maria Van Neerven-Currie; ‘The Crucial Voices of Aboriginal Women’, an account by Celeste Liddle of the struggle to be more than a token Aboriginal presence on panel presentations.

But those are exceptions: while all of the voices here are strong and clear, most of them carry a sense of representing a constituency. The powerful first speech of Lidia Thorpe, first Aboriginal woman to be elected to a lower house seat in the Parliament of Victoria, is given in full. She captures the tone of most of the writing in Blak Brow when she says: ‘I have been inundated with messages from Aboriginal people across the country. I speak today on behalf of them.’ Even intense accounts of personal experience – ‘Binak’ and ‘A Room with a View’ – are followed by brief essays explaining that they are ‘composites’, the first ‘bringing together the real experiences of young women’ who have come under youth justice supervision in Victoria; the second, written by Vicki Roach, ‘a composite of [her] own and many other women’s lived experiences of finding housing when released from gaol’.

It’s a very rich collection of poems, song lyrics, fiction, art, journalism, scholarly writing, speeches to parliament and to a Federation of Community Legal Centres symposium, memoir, reports on art projects and academic ventures, and more. Some of it, as in the WAR response to attacks on their members, is very raw. As a middle-class white man in my early seventies, I was challenged, informed, delighted, and then challenged some more.


John Kinsela (guest Editor), Australian Poetry Journal 9.1: resist (2019)

This is a brilliant collection of poetry. John Kinsela, guest editor, says in his unusually long introduction:

We have a collective responsibility to live justly, and to work for mutual justice … , understanding each other, and respecting difference. Again, poetry is one of the most effective and linguistically affecting ways of achieving this. The poem as thing in itself is … a form of ‘agora’ in so many ways. Even very disparate issues of justice can find common ground.

The poems cover a huge range of ‘issues’ in a magnificent diversity of voices and poetic forms, and a strong sense emerges of ‘common ground’. As I read, I started out turning down the corners of pages I wanted to revisit and/or mention here, but soon gave up because there were too many – this blog post would have ended up as little more than a list. I’ll restrict myself to just a couple poems – passing over some wonderful poems in silence! (Oh well, almost in silence. Let me mention Evelyn Araluen’s ‘Mrs Kookaburra Addresses the Natives’, which like her ‘Fern Your Own Gully’ in Blak Brow, makes very funny and very unsettling use of language from May Gibbs’s children’s books; Eileen Chong’s ‘Rot’, on violence against women; Sarah Day’s ‘Nation’, on bullying; Dan Disney’s ‘let us rejoice’ an eerie mash-up of speeches by Scott Morrison and (I think) Hitler; Lisa Gorton’s ‘EKPHRASIS I. THE NYMPH OF FONTAINEBLEAU’, which juxtaposes an art critic’s comments on a painting with narrative about the exploitation that accompanied its creation; Jennifer Maiden’s ‘Umbrage in Vault Seven’, a current adventure of George and Clare; Jaya Savige’s ‘Spork’, on racism within a family. The list could go on.) I’m pretty sure that anyone interested in poetry or social/political issues will find something here that strikes a deep chord.

A little more detail on two moments in the collection.

The first is Toby Fitch’s ‘The Last Few Budgets in a Nutshell’. At a quick look this just looks weird. It begins:

Torquing about debt is always exshiting but
weaken nut and muscle knot becomb a carbone
cuppy of the Labna Putty.

The penny drops, and you realise that a politician’s speech (perhaps a particular one, perhaps a composite) has been tortured. There’s probably a word for this process: key words are replaced by words that sound something like them so that ‘Talking’ becomes ‘Torqueing’, ‘we cannot’ becomes ‘weaken nut’ and so on. For the reader then, there’s a double perception: we read the words on the page and hear the original. To do this and make it something more than just a bit of nonsensical clever-dickery is a challenge, and Toby Fitch pulls it off: those first lines give a whiff of the biting satire that he creates. This poem has stayed with me because its technique so beautifully captures and even generates the feeling one has when listening to political spin, and also perhaps a little because it makes me feel smart!

My second moment is call-and-response pair of poems by Kaitlen Wellington (‘It’s about time’) and Alison Whittaker (‘In response to Kaitlen Wellington’s “It’s About Time”‘) respectively. It took just a slight deviation from alphabetical order to have these poems appear consecutively (Rae White’s ‘Rainbow confetti pixels’ graciously allowed Alison Whittaker’s poem to nudge ahead of it in the queue).

‘It’s about time’ is very straightforward – the speaker goes ‘walkin old tracks’, reconnecting with traditional Indigenous knowledge, ‘lookin for some sarsparalla’:

Walkin, walkin
sticks, stones
dreamin track her, there
watch ya step.
We surrounded by the richest green,
earth's soil moist,
dry leaves scatter our path,
we are locked in our country's
secure embrace

It’s not just a bush walk, at least not what a seventy-something whitefella like thinks of as a bush walk. ‘A sea eagle is ‘lettin us know, / “It’s about time youse come walkabout here”‘. The final stanza begins:

We know what to do now:
unite, fight and teach.
Let our mob know
ain't no takin our culture away no more.

It’s a good poem. I was seduced by its idiosyncratic spelling, especially of ‘sarsparalla’, because that’s how we pronounced it in my North Queensland childhood – though we were talking about a softdrink, not a bush medicine. I could feel its seriousness, and then moved on … to Alison Whittaker’s response.

She begins with a question, ‘What does it mean to resist in this colony?’ and goes on to describe the cycle of necessary work – ‘in the courts of the public or in institutional tribunals’ – and necessary self-care. ‘I become a consistently self-optimising tool. In some ways, indistinguishable in discipline and form from that which I am resisting.’ Kaitlen Wellington’s poem brought the insight that there must be more than that cycle. She concludes: ‘What’s the point of making a nicer colony, when you can breathe sovereignty?’

This poem and this response to it offer something profound, not just for people who are the targets and survivors of colonisation and genocide, but to anyone up against any oppressive force. If you get a chance to browse this journal, do flip through to page 99 and read to the end of page 101. But don’t stop there.


Jacinda Woodhead (editor), Overland 234 (Autumn 2019)

This issue of Overland is bookended by two excellent articles from the Wrights.

Alexis Wright, in Telling the untold stories, begins with the problem facing writers in today’s increasingly chaotic world:

The question for the writer of stories is how to fight your way through imposed boundaries of indifference, ignorance, or political interests, and to perhaps learn how to do this by not getting directly into the ring and wrestling the pig ‘because a. it is only going to get dirty, and b. you will get dirty as well’.

and she relates this to the survival of aboriginal stories through the catastrophe of colonisation. It’s a magnificent essay, an excerpt from her Stephen Murray-Smith talk given in December 2018 (available in full online here).

Fiona Wright (probably only a very distant relation) writes about Tinder in State your intentions. Sometimes intensely personal, sometimes confidently snarky, this is a beautifully executed mosaic picture of what it is to be young and happily(?) single today.

Of the regular columnists, Tony Birch’s On thinking is the stand-out. Writing partly as a tribute to Deborah Bird Rose (my review of one of her books here), who died at the end of 2018, he quotes her:

Any conversation we humans may wish to start up concerning the living world, our place in it and our responsibility toward it must bear the knowledge of the terrible harms we have done and continue to do.

and pits that against Tony Abbott’s famous remark, ‘Climate change is crap.’

There are four pieces of short fiction – In Cassilis by Louis Klee, Buried time by Mykaela Saunder, ‘Into the valley’ by Meleika Gesa-Fatafehi, and ‘The melancholy new patriot’ by Corey Wakeling – introduced by Evelyn Araluen and Jonathan Dunk, who at the time of publication hadn’t yet been announced as due to become joint editors of Overland late this year. There are just three poems, the place-getters in the Judith Wright Poetry Prize, by Julie Jedda Janson,  Joel Scott and Ross Belton.

As well as these, there are articles on Cambodia (That bird is for us by Adam Curley, which takes an episode of something called Survivor as his starting point), Kashmir (Combat breathing by Tim Robertson), burning-off as a gross and destructive distortion of Aboriginal firestick farming practices (The fire cult by Katherine Wilson), current prejudice against Chinese people (Not all yellow and white by Gabriel Ng), and an essay on swimming pools and the beach that makes an excellent companion piece to the ABC doco series The Pool (Aqua Profonda by Gavin Scott).

The cover and moody internal artwork for this issue are by photographer Hoda Afshar.


I was going to include a review of Southerly 78.2, which I’m still reading, but if you’ve read this far I think you deserve a rest, so I’ll save that for the next catch-up blitz.

Eileen Chong’s Uncommon Feast

Eileen Chong, The Uncommon Feast: Essays, Poems and Recipes (Recent Work Press 2018)

In 2017, Eileen Chong’s third book of poetry, Painting Red Orchids, was shortlisted for the Australian Prime Minister’s Literary Awards. At the awards ceremony, a senior poet told her that many of her poems were like recipes, and if she collected them into a book she might have some success with it. She writes about this comment, and her reaction to it, in the first essay of The Uncommon Feast. ‘I am speechless,’ she says. ‘I feel put in my place, and ashamed.’

Happily, the shame didn’t last. The Uncommon Feast is a beautiful, generous, delightful response to that comment. It contains poems that are like recipes, as well as actual recipes. And it is much richer and more rewarding to culinary and non-culinary readers alike than anything her fellow poet presumably had in mind.

As Judith Beveridge says in her Introduction, the poems are at the heart of the book, but the prose essays and recipes, and the line drawings by Chong’s husband Colin Cassidy, are what transform it from a slim vol of poetry to a feast of a book. ‘The Common Table’, a short essay first published in Meanjin, which includes the account of the awards evening, also gives us the wonderful (food-related) moment when Chong’s mother understood that she was a writer; and ‘Eating and Telling: A Personal Food History’, is a quick autobiography told in terms of food – the school canteens (Singapore’s version so much more interesting than North Queensland’s), family meals, dining with partners, the bliss of cooking and eating with her husband. If we needed instructions on how to read Chong’s food poems, they are there:

Food, for me, is representative of family, culture, nourishment and love. I’ve learned how to cook from my grandmother, my mother, my friends’ mothers, and my partners over the years. The dishes I prepare are a palimpsest of experiences and cultures, new and old.

I’m surrounded by people who say they don’t get poetry – they feel intimidated by it, or see it as lost up its own wazoo. If any one book could convert them to poetry lovers, this would be it. There are many wonderful moments. For example, ‘Chinese Ginseng’ is a very fine poem in which the poet’s mother offers ginseng as a traditional cure for what the daughter knows to be irremediable. It ends:

--------------------------------------There is no point
in telling my mother what she doesn't want to hear:
------polycystic ovaries,
endometriosis, infertility. Instead, I just listen – I can
------almost taste

her soup, sweet dates and wolfberries, smoky angelica
------and lilybulb,
but above all, the unmistakeable bitter-sweetness of
------Chinese ginseng.

Such a great moment! Ginseng may not be a cure for the physical ailment, but it becomes a sacrament of the mother’s love. Facing the poem is Colin Cassidy’s drawing of a ginseng root, inscribed with the words ‘panacea, tonic, necessity’ Then you turn the page to a recipe for Chinese Ginseng Chicken Soup, and you’re invited to join the moment with your own soup-making, soup drinking body.

The book is full of segues, and juxtapositions like that. I laughed out loud a number of times for sheer joy.

The Uncommon Feast is the third book I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

End of year lists

The Emerging Artist and I are in Victoria for the New Year, but we’re squeezing in (or should that be squeezing out?) our end-of-year lists.

Best Movies:

We allowed ourselves to pick five each. The Emerging Artist went first, and then I chose five that weren’t on her list. The last one I picked was Juliet, Naked – and it got in on the grounds that there was no comedy on the combined list. There probably should have been more.

Theatre:

It’s hard to single out best theatre for this year. Belvoir Street had a good year, beginning with My Name is Jimi and ending with The Dance of Death, with treasures in between. And we spent six weeks in London, where we managed to go to some excellent theatre. We get to name one each from London and Sydney for the year. We both chose Matthew Lopez’ The Inheritance Part 2 at the Old Vic in London (we were exhausted on the evening we’d booked for Part 1, but Part 2 was stunning as a stand-alone event). It’s about Gay men in the age of AIDS. We booked because Vanessa Redgrave was in it, but though she was terrific she was by no means the main attraction.

Back home, the EA chose debbie tucker green’s one-hander, random, directed by Leticia Cáceres, with a bravura performance by Zahra Newman. I chose Calamity Jane, directed by Richard Carroll, which was great fun – Virginia Gay’s raucous, swaggering gaucheness made Doris Day’s Jane look like a maiden aunt.

Books:

Rather than a list of our Best Books, I’ve decided to follow a meme that originated at the vlog memento mori and came to me by way of Lisa at ANZ LitLovers LitBlog.

1) What’s the longest book I read this year and the book that took me the longest to finish?

Emerging Artist: Victoria: The Queen by Julia Baird (Random House 2016) was both. It was a Christmas present, whose size meant it was awkward to read in bed, so I was reluctant to take it on, and then the detail, though fascinating, needed breaks to digest. It turned out to be an excellent complement to the British TV series, which we watched soon after I finished reading the book, and a welcome gift after all.

Me: The longest book was probably Gerald Murnane’s Collected Short Fiction (Giramondo 2018).

The one that took longest was either Jennifer Maiden’s Selected Poems 1967–2018 (Quemar Press 2018) or Judith Beveridge’s Sun Music: New and Selected Poems (Giramondo 2018): they both include decades of work by fine poets, and I enjoyed them both immensely.

2) What book did I read in 2018 that was outside of my comfort zone?

EA: Deep Time Dreaming by Billy Griffiths (Black Inc 2018) is a fascinating book about palaeontology and archaeology in Australia in relation to actual Aboriginal people, but there’s a lot of technical scientific writing that is not my favourite recreational fare.

Me: Gerald Murnane’s Collected Short Fiction again. I had gleaned something of his characteristic style some time ago and completely failed to grasp how wonderful it is. I wouldn’t have opened the book if it hadn’t been picked for the Book Group. Reading it was a joy-filled revelation.

3) How many books did I re-read in 2018?

EA: None.

Me: Just one, Jane Austen’s Emma. I loved it all over again.

5) What book did I read for the first time in 2018 that I look forward to re-reading in the future?

EA: Change the question to, ‘What writer did I read in 2018 that I look forward to re-reading?’ My answer is Geoff Dyer. I first read him years ago, and rediscovered him this year when I found The Colour of Memory on our bookshelves. I’ve just bought Out of Sheer Rage, his book about himself and D H Lawrence.

Me: There are so many, but I’ll pick David Malouf’s An Open Book (UQP 2018). I will dip into so many of the books of poetry I read this year, but I think this is the one I’m most likely to reread in its entirety. That and Jennifer Maiden’s Appalachian Fall (Quemar 2017) 

6) What’s my favourite short story or novella that I read in 2018?

EA avoids short stories and didn’t read any novellas.

Me: Given that Gerald Murnane is in a class of his own, I’ll name Suneeta Peres da Costa, Saudade (Giramondo 2018), which is a coming of age story set in the context of the Angolan war of liberation. (I was astonished to hear Ms Peres da Costa say at a reading that she has never been to Angola, as the place comes alive in this short book.)

7) Mass appeal: which book would I recommend to a wide variety of readers?

EA: Free Food for Millionaires (Head of Zeus 2018) by Min Jin Lee, author of Pachinko: it’s hard to think who wouldn’t love it.

Me: I know many people these days think of poetry as an esoteric art to be avoided by everyone except poets and cryptographers. All the same, I recommend Eileen Chong’s Rainforest (Pitt Street Poetry 2018) to anyone interested in being alive and human.

8) Specialised appeal: which book did I like but would be hesitant to recommend to just anyone?

EA: I loved Elisabeth Åsbrink, 1947: When Now Begins, translated into English by Fiona Graham (2016, translation 2017). If you are interested in history, then the way this interweaves so many themes as they manifested in 1947 will fascinate you and illuminate our times.

Me: I’m rarely confident that books I’ve enjoyed will appeal to ‘just anyone’, so I’ve got lots to choose from, but bypassing all the titles I’ve mentioned so far, I nominate China Miéville, The Scar (Del Rey Books 2002), which, to quote my blog post about it, ‘includes, not necessarily in order of importance, vampir (sic) bureaucrats, cactus people, probability mining (I won’t try to explain), fabulously bloody sea battles, a sweetly tragic love story (not of the romantic variety), a vast crack in the universe, and a charming account of the process of learning to read.’

And that’s it for 2018. Have a great New Year, reader!

Eileen Chong’s Rainforest

Eileen Chong, Rainforest (Pitt Street Poetry 2018)

Rainforest is Eileen Chong’s fifth book of poems in five years. I’ve blogged about three others here, here, and here and I’m still a complete fan.

The book’s title is explained in a note: the Chinese character on the cover, which is the third character of Eileen’s Chinese name (the Lin of Zhang Yi Lin) ‘refers to a constant, nourishing rain’, but the radicals that comprise it are yu, meaning ‘rain’, and mù, the radical for ‘wood’. So though the word doesn’t translate as ‘rainforest’, the note explains, ‘the rainforest is embedded within the word itself’. The poem plays on the contrasting connotations of this and those of her western name, Eileen/Helen:

My namesake, so greatly desired
men set fire to a thousand ships –
the light they must have given off,
each sail a blackened flame sooting

the sky. I prefer the rain, a cloud
cradling drops that fall at an angle
over a forest waiting to receive.

It goes on to offer a kind of poetic manifesto in the form of a playful take on nominative determinism – the idea that unconscious processes mould our lives to fit our names: we can choose, it says, how to read our names. What an advantage it is if your name can be represented in pictograms!

So ‘Rainforest’ invites us to expect something like a self-titled album. And the book is intensely personal, though generous to the reader, inviting us in to play, to commiserate, to share joy and occasionally, as in the title poem, to learn.

There are four roughly equal sections, ‘East’, ‘South’, ‘West’ and ‘North’. It’s not that there’s a narrative, but the book has a dramatic shape, and it works so well that I had to stop reading on the first two pages of ‘North’ to weep tears of relief.

‘East’ comprises poems of Chong’s Singaporean Chinese heritage, childhood family, and identity: poems feature food, history, places, connections with other Chinese expatriates. ‘South’ is a collection of Australian poems: places again, artworks, relationship to First Peoples, and especially the five-part ‘Country’, a response to Dorothea Mackellar’s ‘My Country’, where Chong stretches beyond her generally joyful tone to include some ugly manifestations of racism, though I don’t think we’re meant to take the bleakness of the final lines, whose context is a ‘coastal walk’, as her last word on her adopted home:

_______________You hear about walkers
who stray and die of thirst or exposure.

Always bring water. Leave enough time
for the return journey. Watch the sun's path.
You're on your own. This country cares for no one.

However ironic, these lines certainly lay the ground for the third section, ‘West’. Geographically, they are mostly if not entirely set in Europe. Thematically they deal with trauma, painful memories, and darkness.

It takes a while to realise what’s happening, because the images and language lose none of Chong’s clarity and grace. From the first poem in the section, ‘Measure’:

Words: fallen soldiers on a page.
They come and they go. Memory

as surprising as a laden donkey
picking its way towards the church

at the top of a hill. On this island
even the cats sleep with one eye open.

Or this, from ‘Tide’:

That morning in spring I'd thought
I was at peace. To think of you and walk
past without pain. This evening the moon
rose above the treeline. I stepped into
the garden – sharp, clean air. Autumn.

The same moon, but changed.

As the section progresses, the poems become more graphic: violence in an intimate relationship, miscarriage and childlessness are evoked in unsparingly explicit language. Really, don’t read ‘Sandpaper’ if you’re feeling fragile.

The geographical reference of the final section, ‘North’, is Scotland. Thematically, it opens with a deft piece of misdirection, ‘Warhol: Notebooks’, a wonderfully sensuous account of a Warhol pencil drawing of a ‘man undressed, lying on his back’, the soles of whose feet form

________________________a wrinkled cave
of skin, akin to a woman's soft receiving

It turns out that unthreatening erotic allure of this announces the theme of beautifully. After the ordeals of ‘West’, the poet finds happiness and intimacy with a man rom Scotland. The poems are full of the joy of that relationship. While it would be a mistake to take every poem in the book as strictly autobiographical, one can’t help but be very glad for Eileen Chong, particularly in the half-dozen love poems that start with the section’s title poem, whose final lines are where I started crying:

True north: I sought you 
in the darkest of nights.
Drop anchor. Deep harbour.

There’s a lot more to this book than I’ve been able to say. Kim Cheng Boey has a beautiful and enlightening review in the Sydney Review of Books. He may not be as keen on the third and fourth sections as I am, but if if I haven’t persuaded you to have a look at Rainforest, perhaps he will.

Rainforest is the twentieth and last book I’ve read for the 2018 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Overland 227 & 228

Jacinda Woodhead (editor), Overland 227 (Winter 2017)
—-, Overland 228 (Spring 2017)

overland227It’s not that I read Overland out of obligation, but I do feel guilty if I leave an issue sitting on my to-be-read pile for too long because – among other things – Overland offers left perspectives that aren’t all that easy to come by elsewhere in the Australian media. So here’s a slightly guilty blog post about the two most recent issues.

The star of the winter issue (No 227) is Evelyn Araluen. The journal kicks off with her article ‘Resisting the Institution: On Colonial Appropriation, which takes recent activism around statues commemorating colonial ‘heroes’ as a starting point, and develops into a (for me at least) powerful introduction to the field of decolonial theory (as opposed to postcolonial theory):

Decolonial theory provides the Indigenous subject with the tools to deconstruct and challenge colonial infiltrations into our worlds and minds, but decolonial practice within the academy is restrained to that which the institution regards as profitable. In other words, it is safely contained within the classroom, in the form of critical frameworks, unsettling questions or creative-thinking asseignments. Outside of the university, I have given late-night workshops on decolonial theory to anywhere between two and 200 people, often squished together in a leaky tent.

Later in the journal her short story Muyum: A Transgression, winner of the Nakata Brophy Prize for Young Indigenous Writers, is equally powerful and challenging.

There are the regular columnists, Giovanni Tiso (on owning and keeping books), Alison Croggon (on kindness as a political act), Tony Birch (on his family history, racism and the Australian constitution) and Mel Campbell (on where writers’ ideas come from –  ‘an idea is a promise, not a commodity’). There are solid articles on the gambling industry (by Dan Dixon), tiny presses that publish poetry in Australia (Kent MacCarter), GLBTQ+ politics in contemporary Singapore (Ng Yi-Sheng), Professor Richard Berry and scientific racism (Helen Macdonald), and how much social transformation we can really expect from technological advances under capitalism (Lizzie O’Shea). ‘Pregnant in Mexico’ by Tina Cartwright is a tiny memoir that feels as if it was carved, to good effect, from a longer piece.

There are two short stories in addition to Evelyn Araluen’s prizewinner. ‘Broken zippers‘ by George Haddad, which could serve as a grim companion piece to SBS’s Struggle Street, stands out for me.

There are fourteen pages of poetry. The two poems that spoke most strongly to me are ‘Crossing Galata, Istanbul‘ by John Upton, a tourist poem acutely aware of the limits of its touristic perspective (that’s a mangled quote from Adam Aitken), which captures the feel of Galata Bridge in Istanbul; and ‘The Apology Day breakfast‘ by Ali Cobby Eckermann, which is what it says on the lid, but with a deep, bitter-sweet twist.

The winter issue features the weird photomedia work of guest artist Yee I-Lann.

overland228Sadly, I hadn’t read all of the spring issue (No 228) before it mysteriously went missing on a trip to the supermarket. as a result my vote  for the outstanding items mightn’t be completely valid. But I recommend this edition for Eileen Chong’s poem ‘The Task’ and Olivier Jutel’s article ‘Paranoia and delusion‘.

The Task‘ (do read it at the link; it’s short) is at first blush a straightforward childhood memory of eating crabs, but it drew me in on a number of levels. First, a splendid moral complexity: the crabs have eyes, so we – and the remembered child – know they’re sentient, so there’s no minimising of what’s involved when they are killed and pulled apart, but at the same time there’s frank enjoyment of eating them. Then the opening – ‘We fished with lines, not nets’ – suggests a whole other, metaphorical reading: so by the time we reach the final couplet there’s a strong sense that we’re not talking about crabs any more, at least not only crabs, but something about Chong’s creative process as well:

I left the claws to the others,

preferring only what I could mine
through my own precise undoings

Olivier Jutel’s article is a formidable intervention into the general conversation about Donald Trump.

Domestically, he has mobilised, however chaotically, the most retrograde forces in American society, who experience through him a carnivalesque transgression in ‘Making America Great Again’ one tweet, post and triggered liberal at a time.

He had me at ‘carnivalesque’. The article goes on to rip into the ‘liberal’ media’s obsession with the Russia connection, seeing in it a revival of Cold War emotions, and argues that the Democratic Party is completely at a loss for an adequate political response to the Trump phenomenon, falling back on, among other things, ‘the libidinal deadlock of politics as comedy’. I can’t claim to have followed the whole argument (Jutel is a PhD candidate who quotes Lacan), but if you feel the need of a gust of fresh air amidst the abundant Trump-based sarcasm and despair, this could be the article for you.

Again the regular columnists are worth reading: On coal by Tony Birch (who quotes Murrawah Johnson, spokesperson for the Wangan and Jagalingou community, ‘We’ve seen the end of the world and we’ve decided not to accept it’); On experimentalism by Mel Campbell; On confusing reason and authority by Alison Croggon. Giovanni Tiso has a full-blown article, ‘Dynamite for the people‘, a lively piece on the European anarchists of the late 19th century, and how they differ from 21st century terrorists.

There are, as always, solid articles: Jessica Whyte on the politics of human rights; Mark Riboldi on virtual reality in fact and fiction; Roqayah Chamseddine on conspiracy theorists, those that are nutty and those that turn out to be right. I lost my copy before I got to Michael Brull on Saudi Arabia and Qatar or Chris di Pasquale on religious freedom under the Soviets: they’re up on line or soon will be, but I have trouble with sustained reading from a screen, so I’m sadly giving them a miss.

I did read the winners of the VU Short Story Prize: the winner, Breeding Season  by Amanda Niehaus, and first runner-up, Wharekaho Beach, 1944 by Allan Drew are both excellent. I missed the discussion between Jennifer Mills and Peter Carey about his short story ‘Crabs’, first published in Overland an amazing 45 years ago. It’s a nice idea for an institution like Overland to revisit past glories – I hope there are more interviews like this in the pipeline.

 

Australian Poetry Journal 7:1, Skin

Ali Cobby Eckermann and Ellen van Neerven (editors),  Australian Poetry Journal, Volume 7, Issue 1: Skin (2016)

apj71The cover of this issue of Australian Poetry Journal features a brilliantly eye-grabbing Destiny Deacon photograph, Escape from the Whacking Spoon (2007). As the first issue covered by the new policy of having different guest editors for each issue, this one is edited by two leading Aboriginal poets, which ensures that it follows through on the cover’s promise.

There are three sections:

  • Skin 1: 34 poems by 25 Indigenous writers
  • Skin 2: 16 poems by 13 non-Indigenous writers
  • Transforming My Country (edited by Toby Fitch): 12 poems responding to Dorothea Mackellar’s ‘My Country’,

The selection is very rich, for many of the individual poems and for the extraordinarily valuable dialogue created by placing them between one set of covers. I dog-eared the pages with these poems from the first two sections in my copy (your mileage will very – I recommend you get hold of your own copy via Australian Poetry Pty Ltd’s web site):

  • Claire G Coleman, ‘Strawberry Juice’: starting from the image of spots of strawberry juice staining her writing paper, the poet plays with the notion that directions for colonial killings and records of them were written on paper. Ink stains, like blood stains, can’t be removed, and the lines that bring it home:
    _
    __Notice how paper covers rock
    __Covers
    __My country, my people are one
    __Notice how easily paper tears
    _
  • Aunty Kerry Reed-Gilbert, ‘Love comes in many colours’ The poet greets her granddaughter:
    _
    Her blonde hair cool against my black skin her whiteness grabs my heart a new day dawning for this land Australia as we dance to the sounds of the oldest culture in the world. Love comes in many colours.
    _
  • Kate Adler, ‘Sorry’. A non-Indigenous person at a Sorry Camp:
    _
     __Hard to witness wounds like these
    __but love is deeper than skin.

The third section includes work by some heavy hitters of Australian poetry, including brilliant poems by the editors of this issue, Ali Cobby Eckermann and Ellen van Neerven. Eileen Chong (‘My music is wrong – nothing / has been written down right’) and Hani Abdile (‘Opal-hearted country / I’m now one of your unwanted beings / I’ve come to love you sunburnt’) write from immigrant and refugee perspectives. The poem is deconstructed, thesaurised and anagrammatised. Toby Fitch’s introduction describes Lisa Gorton’s conceptually and concretely thrilling poem as an ‘almost-epic’ that ‘explores in microscopic detail the history of the grounds of Royal Park, Melbourne’. I’ll end with some lines from each of the Indigenous takes on the Mackellar poem:

Alison Whittaker (‘A love like Dorothea’s’):

I’m sorry, sweet Mackellar, that it famished all your cows,
y’paddock’s yellow-thirsty-sudden-green; no telling how.
That the gold-hush-rainy-drum hard to your violence and your plow.

Natalie Harkin (‘Heart’s Core Lament’, which is hard to represent accurately here, as it depends on justifying the text on the page, and includes quotes from colonisers’ texts in the margin, but here goes):

harkins.jpeg

Ellen van Neerven (‘My Country’):

my country
is between two rivers

two ribs
two hip bones

Ali Cobby Eckermann (‘Transforming My Country’, which plays with Mackellar’s words to produce radically different meanings):

Who pays back to Earth?

Not she and soft-hearted love
What a hush of her heart, and her
I have her share, her jewel
Though not her land
Your love of my land is tragic

——-

(I won’t repeat my own favourite anecdote about ‘My Country’ and Dame Mary Gilmore, If you’re interested you can read it here.)