Tag Archives: Elizabeth McMahon

Southerly 77/1

David Brooks and Elizabeth McMahon (editors), Southerly Vol 77 No 1 2017: Questionable Characters

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Cate Blanchett picks up a Southerly in Michael Farrell’s ‘Cate Blanchett And The Difficult Poem’ (see previous blog post)  and I am reminded that all three 2017 Southerlys are on my To Be Read pile. That’s not as bad as it sounds, because the third of these just arrived last week. Still, it’s a backlog.

Nº 1 of 2017 has a terrific piece by Debra Adelaide, ‘Re-reading Thea Astley’s Drylands‘. Originally delivered as a lecture in the Sydney Ideas: Reading Australian Literature series, it has all the liveliness of the spoken voice as it celebrates Adelaide’s readerly relationship with Astley and in particular her final novel:

From its beautiful original cover to its unpunctuated ending, I have been in love with this novel since it first appeared. And as in a love relationship I am aware of its flaws, and I forgive them.

I hope one day I’ll be able to communicate as eloquently as Debra Adelaide when I passionately love a writer, flaws and all. Thea Astley emerges from this essay as no less ill-tempered and unfair, with a writing style no less over-complex than as other critics’ have described her, but here they are cause for celebration rather than reproach (and for the record this tone chimes well with my own sense of her from the one occasion I met her and the two books I’ve read, including A Kindness Cup).

Poet Sarah Day’s prose essay ‘A Significant Backwater’ is a welcome contribution to the growing body of non-Indigenous writing that explores connections that familiar places have to previously hidden-in-plain-sight history of the dispossession of Aboriginal people. (Mark McKenna’s Looking for Blackfellas’ Point is a brilliant book-length example of the genre.) Day’s subject is the area just out of Hobart known in her childhood as Old Beach Road, and now, having been handed back to Aboriginal people in 1995, called piyura kitina. The essay juxtaposes affectionate childhood memories with the narration of a dark history, and as a bonus describes two watercolours from the early years of settlement, one by little-known artist Margaret Sarah Cleburne, the other thought to be by T G Gregson.

Southerly generally has at least one item that stimulates my argumentative juices. In this one it’s Jonathan Bollen’s ‘Revisiting and Re-imagining The One Day of the Year‘. Bollen quotes the late great Raymond Williams, ‘there is no constant relation between text and performance in drama’, and discusses the way Alan Seymour tinkered over the decades with his 1960 play about intergenerational conflict over Anzac Day. He mines photos from the first production and a video of Seymour directing it for what they can tell us. This is all fascinating.

Then, as the essay moves into the re-imagining promised in its title, its focus narrows to the character of Jan, the girlfriend of Hughie, the young man who challenges the older generation’s celebration of the One Day. Jan has been pretty well universally disliked by reviewers: ‘crudely drawn’, ‘a little snob who goes intellectually slumming’, ‘insufferable’, ‘a pseudo-sophisticate’ are some of the terms Bollen quotes. Evidence is building that there’s a problem with sexism – not deliberate and explicit, but the ingrained kind that led to Seymour’s inability to write a rounded, interesting female character. Surely this is where some re-imagining is needed. But, true to our times, Bollen sees the issue as one of gender rather than sexism. What if the problems could be solved, he asks, ‘by cross-casting a male actor to play Jan and queering his relationship with Hughie?’

Would Jan, the character, remain female within the world of the play? Could she become a male character so that Hughie becomes gay? Or a male character transitioning in gender to become Jan?

I guess it’s an intriguing proposition, and it might well ‘provide the motivation for a company in Australia to stage a fresh production’ as Bollen hopes. But if you see sexism as the issue, then Bollen comes close to proposing that sexism can be fixed by getting rid of the woman, or at least of those who were born female. I don’t know what to say to that beyond Yikes!

Of the other prose pieces, Honni van Rijswijk’s ‘The Pointy Finger of God’ and Craig Billingham’s ‘Breathless’ are stories made me want more from their authors, though I was left uncomprehending by both their endings.

More than 20 poets get a guernsey. ‘Quiet Times’ by S K Kelen offers a grim summary of our species:

The human mission
kill all life on earth no one
nothing to stop them.

Others that speak to me are New Zealand poet Elizabeth Smither’s ‘Miss Bowerman and the hot water bottles’ (a tribute to the poet’s mother, employed as a maid in Government House), Christopher Kelen’s ‘Tang Gals’, Joel Deane’s ‘A wasp is in the ward’ and Brenda Saunders’ ‘Sclerophyll’ (a succinct bushfire poem).

There are scholarly essays on P L Travers, George Johnston writing as Shane Martin, Gwen Harwood and Peter Carey, plus a ‘creative non-fiction’ piece about H G Wells.

Southerly 76/1 & November Verse 7

Elizabeth McMahon, (nominally) David Brooks and (actually) Hannah Fink (editors), Southerly Vol 76 No 1 2016: Words and Music

s761.jpgSoutherly is the journal of the English Association, Sydney. It generally includes a number of articles of interest to the semi-mythical ‘general reader’ as well as refereed papers meant mainly for academics. This music-themed issue is happily skewed toward those of us who identify with the semi-mythical.

The guest editor, arts writer Hannah Fink, has prevailed on a number of music professionals to write about their art and craft, and their relaxed and illuminating essays form the heart of the journal. Lyricist Hilary Bell’s ‘My Life in Lyrics’ starts out as a charming showbiz memoir and develops into a lucid communications of lessons she has learned about writing lyrics for musical theatre, winning points from me by referring to Stephen Sondheim’s magisterial Finishing the HatComposer Phillip Johnston’s ‘Wordless! Music for Comics and Graphic Novels Turns Time Into Space (and back again)’ may go into too much detail about the creation of a collaborative work with comix artist Art Spiegelman but I for one certainly hope to see the work some day. Jazz player and radio program host Dick Hughes, in ‘Jazz at the Pearly Gates’, imagines a number of brilliant jazz performances that might have happened, and allows us painless enjoyment of his great erudition.

Among the other non-fiction, there’s much to enjoy. David Brooks in ‘Herd Music’ speculates that music may have its deep origins in sounds like those a flock of grazing sheep might make. Joseph Toltz gives us a glimpse of compassionate research with Jewsih Holocaust survivors, in a number of anecdotes about the first music a number of people remember hearing after liberation.

There are short stories. Gareth Hipwell’s ‘Whatever Was Eating Whatever It Is That’s Eating The Trees’ is a brief celebration of a the way a man of an older generation has with the language. Colin Varney, whom I think of as a writer for children, definitely has mature readers in mind in ‘Zigazig-uh’, in which the narrator is a love song keeping a slightly snarky eye on the effect it has on a select group of humans.

And there’s poetry by Jill Jones (‘The Glass’), Matthew Wallman (two poems from ‘Inland Sea Poems’, a sequence about explorer Charles Sturt), Partrick Jones (‘Buladelah-Boomerang Point holiday song cycle’, whose odd typography has the welcome effect of slows one’s reading right down), Luke Fischer (the ekphrastic ‘Madonna of the Goldfinch’), and a wealth of others.

I usually skip reviews of books I haven’t read, but those of Toby Fitch’s The Blooming Notions of Other & Beau and Chris Edwards’s’s Sonata , books of deliberate mistranslation from French and German respectively, inspired me for today’s November verse: a ‘translation’ of a stanza chosen at random from Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, which is in Russian, which I can’t read even though I’ve happily been attempting to write Onegin stanzas for years now. It turns out to be harder and more fun than I expected. Here is what I’ve managed, a nonsensical shadow of the achievement of those books and others like them:

November Verse 7: Worse than Google Translate
Go near me, freshen my loo, charm me.
Soak crusty gore, use a cigar.
Speak sharply, mutiny, rush army.
Nah! Ptoo! Play on your guitar.
You Lib boy – yes, no! – you prop-odour,
Squeeze on, stretch it, you true goader.
See nigh a blush – cute? Nay, bizarre.
Eschew the prozac. No lay star
Brought cake to puke-home-selling – eye it!
Chill as I darn your pulley, boy;
let it upskill your foxy toy.
Do line your socket, pests will try it.
Tada! Shoe, mat and solo way
You spell. Be small VE, not Che.

For anyone interested and/or capable of reading Russian, here’s the original, Book 7, Stanza 1 (and you can click here for more):

Гоними вешними лучами,
С окрестных гор уже снега
Сбежали мутными русьями
На потоплённые луга.
Улыбкой ясною природа
Сквозь сон встречает утро года;
Синея блещут небеса.
Ещё прозрачные, леса
Как будто пухом зеленеют.
Пчела за данью полевой
Летит из кельи восковой.
Долины сохнут и пестреют;
Стада шумят, и соловей
Уж пел в безмолвии ночей.

Southerly 75/3

Elizabeth McMahon and David Brooks (editors), Southerly Vol 75 No 3 2015: War and Peace (The Journal of the English Association, Sydney, Brandl & Schlesinger 2016)

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In last May’s Quarterly Essay, Blood Year, David Kilkullen quoted Trotsky: ‘You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.’

The only war to take an active interest in me (so far) was the US war in Vietnam. I attended fiery Front Lawn meetings at uni, marched in Moratorium rallies, was punched in the head by a policeman and beaten up, incompetently, by a neo-Nazi. My birthdate came up in the conscription lottery, I went to court and was granted conscientious objector status. On Anzac Day this year, I commemorated those times by wearing a white feather along with a sprig of rosemary.

So I’m glad to see that this War and Peace themed issue of Southerly includes a voice from the resistance part of the war story, in ‘Wanted for War’, a short memoir of the 1960s by Michael Hamel-Green. (Hamel-Green is one of many men and women interviewed for Hell No! We Won’t Go, a documentary about draft resistance during the Vietnam War currently being made by Brisbane filmmaker Larry Zetlin. The project has a facebook group. Excerpts from Hamel-Green’s interview are here, here and here.)

Eloquent voices from other perspectives are also represented: ‘Eye into Eye’, a short story by Peter Dickison, formerly an officer in ‘various Special Forces units of the Australian Army’ is a convincing evocation of a terrible incident in Afghanistan and its long aftermath; ‘Iran–Iraq War: Diplomats on the Ground’, a memoir by former Ambassador to Iraq Rory Steele, captures the strangely removed world of diplomats in a time of war; Tessa Lunney’s short story ‘V’ consists of five linked monologues from survivors of World War Two – two Russian soldiers, a woman from Berlin, a British officer, and a Jewish survivor of a death camp; Beth Spencer’s poem ‘The Nine Principles of Breema’ imagines its way into one of Australia’s inhumane and illegal offshore detention camps.

There’s cultural history:

  • Robin Gerster’s ‘Our Ground Zero: Future Wars and the Imagined Destruction of Australia’s Cities’ extends his work about Australia and the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in his wonderful book Travels in Atomic Sunshine and in a previous Southerly, this time writing about Australian novels about nuclear devastation in the decades since 1945.
  • Moreno Giovannoni’s ‘When the War Came to San Ginese’ is an excerpt from his forthcoming Tales from San Ginese. It’s at least the second excerpt to appear in Southerly, and I look forward to the book itself.
  • ‘Aileen Palmer: Political Activist and “poet of conscience”‘ is part of Sylvia Martin’s project to salvage the reputation of this heroic woman, up until now known mainly as the ‘tragic daughter’ of Vance and Nettie Palmer. Here she emerges as a rare literary person who actually volunteered to be part of the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War, to work as nurse and translator. Martin’s biography of Palmer, Ink in her Veins, was published earlier this year. If this essay is any indication, it’s well worth reading.
  • Two articles revisit the story of Anzac. In ‘Writing the Anzac legend: The Moods of Ginger Mick’ Philip Butterss explores CJ Dennis’s role in creating that legend. Ffion Murphy and Richard Nile’s ‘The Naked Anzac: Exposure and Concealment in AB Facey’s A Fortunate Life’ hold that much-loved book up against the historical documents, and discover that Facey misrepresented his childhood suffering and war experience. Neither of these essays is the kind of academic nit-picking those descriptions might suggest: taken together, they deftly challenge what we are being urged to take as a national foundation myth. In particular, Facey’s apparent evasions of the fact that much of the damage he suffered in the trenches was mental and emotional rather than physical are discussed respectfully as an unsuccessful attempt to deal with that damage.

Not all the poems are on theme. Of those that are, apart from Beth Spencer’s poem that I’ve already mentioned, the most telling are Brook Emery’s ‘The Brown Current’, which counterposes scenes from peaceful Bondi with events from conflict zones, Lorraine McGuigan’s ‘Questions’, a lament for a ten-year-old girl suicide bomber, and Anne M Carson’s ‘Of the 2,700: one voice’, which visits the Nazi murders. Off topic, Jordie Albiston’s ‘Δ4’ is a 10-syllables-to-a line joy.

There’s more, including 21 ages of reviews, and a number of scholarly essays. All in all, this is a fabulous issue.
—–
A little note that might not matter to anyone but me: I’ve been puzzled by some of Southerly‘s house style decisions. Why US spelling and punctuation sometimes but not always, for example? This issue has put an end to my puzzlement: a character’s name in one story is spelled ‘Deidre’ 7 times and ‘Deirdre’ 13 times, often the two versions within a single paragraph. So it seems clear that the editorial team regards consistency in such matters as the hobgoblin of little minds. Mind you, the town Grañén is consistently misspelled with an acute accent over the first n, and elsewhere someone makes a ‘complementary’ remark, so perhaps the problem isn’t just disregard for consistency.

Southerly 75/2

Elizabeth McMahon and David Brooks (editors), Southerly Vol 75 No 2 2015: The Naked Writer 2 (The Journal of the English Association, Sydney, Brandl & Schlesinger)

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John Kinsella and Charmaine Papertalk-Green have a collaborative poem in this Southerly. The son of an Anglo-Celtic farmer, Kinsella lived in Geraldton, Western Australia, for the last three years of high school. Papertalk-Green is a Yamaji woman who grew up in nearby Mallewa and now lives just outside Geraldton. The poem – actually a sequence of poems written by the two poets alternately – responds to the works of Western Australian religious architect Monsignor John Hawes as enduring symbols of colonisation.

In what looks like an anxious concern that readers appreciate the significance of the poem, it is embedded in an article by Kinsella, ‘Eclogue Failure or Success: the Collaborative Activism of Poetry’, which among other things spells out the back story, makes learned observations about Virgil’s Eclogues, quotes Wikipedia, throws in a few Greek words, and makes sure we don’t confuse the poem’s first-person elements with the ‘entirely self-interested and subjective’ phenomenon of the selfie. Kinsella is willing to risk being annoyingly self-important if that’s what it takes to ensure that we take him and his collaboration with Papertalk-Green seriously.

Maybe it worked, or maybe the poems would have spoken for themselves, but it’s the kind of project that makes one glad to be alive in the time that it is happening. (Of course, it’s not unique: another stunning example is My Darling Patricia’s 2011 theatrical work, Posts in the Paddock, a collaboration between descendants of Jimmy Governor and descendants of a white family he murdered. That one seems to have sunk without a trace, so maybe all such works do need a John Kinsella to tell us how important they are.)

The challenge of unsparing conversation between Aboriginal peoples and settler Australians is also the subject of Maggie Nolan’s essay ‘Shedding Clothes: Performing cross-cultural exchange through costume and writing in Kim Scott’s That Deadman Dance‘. Apart from calling to mind the pleasure of reading the novel and quoting from it generously, Nolan suggests that, though Bobby/Wabalanginy’s failure to communicate to the colonisers by means of dance may end the book, ‘perhaps his invitation remains open, and Kim Scott, through this novel, is re-extending it to his readers’. I think she’s hit the nail on the head.

There is plenty else here to exercise and delight the mind. In no particular order:

  • David Brooks bids an idiosyncratic and clearly deeply felt farewell to his friend the literary critic Veronica Brady, who died last year.
  • Fiona McFarlane’s ‘On Reading The Aunt’s Story by Patrick White’, originally a Sydney Ideas lecture, is a warmly intelligent revisiting of that novel.
  • Hayley Katzen’s personal essay ‘On Privacy’ rings the changes on the perennial theme of its title, interestingly resonating with John Kinsella’s distinction between the writerly ‘I’ and the facebook or selfie ‘I’, and also with Kim Scott’s meditations on what happens when you write things down.
  • Jill Dimond and Helen O’Reilly delve into their respective family histories, the former with an engrossing tale of failed literary aspirations, the latter with the story of the connection between her second cousin Eleanor Dark and poet Christopher Brennan.
  • Joe Dolce, whom I should be able to mention without referring to ‘Shuddupaya Face’, interviews the late Dorothy Porter about C P Cavafy and they discuss his poetry’s importance to both of them.
  • Of the wide-ranging selection of poems, I particularly enjoyed Alan Gould’s ‘The Epochs Must Go Chatterbox’ and ‘The Insistent Face to Face’, Geoff Page’s genial ‘A Drinking Song for A D Hope’, and Mark Mordue’s Sydney train journey, ‘A Letter for The Emperor’.
  • Craig Billingham’s ‘The Final Cast’ reads like a slice of wryly observed Glebe literary life, though its ‘Fiction’ label should spare embarrassment all round.
  • Nasrin Mahoutchi’s story of widowerhood, ‘Standing in the Cold’, evokes a bitter Iranian winter with just the right amount of twist at the end.
  • In the review section, A J Carruthers discusses Michael Farrell’s Cocky’s Joy and Les Murray’s Waiting for the Past, justifying this unlikely pairing by claiming both poets as ‘experimental’, and arguing that experimental poetry is mainstream in Australia now (and as I write that I realise that the four poems I have singled out above are probably the least ‘experimental’ in this Southerly – ah well, I’m now in my 70th year, so I hope I may be forgiven).
  • In The Long Paddock, the journal’s online extension, Jonathan Dunk gives what he describes as a ‘gloves off’ review of Jennifer Maiden’s Drone and Phantoms, and elicits a bare-knuckled response from Maiden. Good on you, Southerly, for putting the conversation out in the open.

I tend to skip the densely scholarly articles (the ones that use words like chronotopic), or at best dip into them. Dipping can come up with some pleasant oddities. In this issue I stumbled on a quote from one Eric Berlatsky to the effect that in some ways ‘the institution of heterosexual marriage is “always already queer”‘. How far we’ve come since William Buckley Junior caused an uproar by calling openly gay Gore Vidal a ‘queer’ on US television in 1968. Now, it seems, in academic parlance, even those ensconced in heterosexual marriages are queer.

Rhyme #4 and Southerly 75/1

Elizabeth McMahon and David Brooks (editors), Southerly Vol 75 No 1 2015: Elemental (The Journal of the English Association, Sydney, Brandl & Schlesinger)

Rhyme #4: What’s in a title (with anagrams)?
Blow the wind southerly, Southerly, southerly,
rattle our windows and slam dunny doors,
blow off the same old stuff, bring on the Otherly,
bust up the torpor that stifles these shores.
The name holds promise that the journal
challenges what seems eternal –
our bow to all that’s from the North,
our faith in all it issues forth.
The title tells us what’s been hidden:
a home-made tool that truly hoes
this soil, as surely hot it grows.
Shout, lyre! Play something that’s forbidden.
The RSL you knew is now
A rusty hole, a sacred cow.

s152I have a love-hate, or at least an affection-irritation relationship with Southerly.

As one who was educated before what someone in this issue calls ‘the cultural turn’, which I guess refers to the rise of Theory and cultural studies in the academy, I am often left whimpering uncomprehendingly in the dust of the more scholarly work – of which there’s a fair bit in this issue, including at least five examples of reviewers indulging in clever exegesis of a book or other work’s title (hence my rhyme above). On the other hand, there is always something that more than justifies the price of admission.

In this issue, two essays – ‘Oi Kaymeni (“The Burnt Ones”)’ by George Kouvaros and ‘Angry Waves’ by Dael Allison – are wonderful.

Kouvaros’ essay begins with his mother’s reluctance to watch the 1950s movie A Place in the Sun on TV, and fans out to tell the story of her emigration from Cyprus, then to reflect on the role played by Hollywood movies in the lives of people in peasant cultures facing rapid modernisation and sometimes massive dislocation. An excerpt:

Recounting this history helps me to understand the events that shaped my mother’s personality. It also provides an opportunity to clarify two interrelated propositions. The first is that migration is not just about a dispersal of individuals  across continents; it is also about a dispersal of the narrative details that we use to understand the people close to us.

His second proposition, which has to do with a movie’s unchangingness as opposed to that of living people, leads to the realisation that for his mother ’embedded in the film’s story was her own history as  a sixteen or seventeen year old cinemagoer’.

What he writes is specific to his mother’s life, and to the history of Cyprus, but it will resonate richly for anyone of a certain age who loves the movies.

Dael Allison writes about the impact of climate change on Kiribati (pronounced Kiribass – Kiritimati is the Kiribati spelling of Christmas) from the point of view of a westerner who has lived, worked and had friendships there for some years. As you’d expect, the picture is alarming – the brunt of climate change is and will be felt by those who have done least to cause it. Allison’s wealth of detail and observation and quotation brings the situation home sharply. For instance, the recent damage done on Kiribati, unlike that on, say, Vanuatu, is not the result of cyclones, but of tidal events which bring the angry waves of the essay’s title; unlike the damage on Vanuatu it cannot be quickly healed because coral reefs do not regenerate as forests do. There’s no cause for total panic:

Unless there is a massive global catastrophe like a melting Antarctic ice shelf sliding into the sea, Kiribati will not all become unliveable at once. But the process of relocating villages because of inundation, coastal erosion or salt contamination due to wave over-topping of the fragile freshwater lens, has already begun. Projections suggest entire atolls may become uninhabitable in the next generation. Some islanders say they will stay on their land despite that outcome.

There are other treasures: ‘Wyenondable Ashes’, Alice Bishop’s memoir of losing  her family home on Black Saturday 2009; ‘St Thomas’ Churchyard’, in which Roslyn Jolly takes a closer look at the gravestones that dot her local park, formerly a colonial cemetery; ‘A Richer Dust’, where John Stephenson finds resonance between a passage from the Aeneid he happens to be reading and a ‘sentimental conversation’ from a week earlier, and arrives at a sweet elegiac moment.

The poems that stand out for me are Dugald Williamson, ‘Caprice’; Pam Brown, ‘Twelve noon’; Stuart Cooke, ‘Old World’; Laurie Duggan, ‘After a storm, Brisbane’; David Brooks, ‘Choosing to Stay’ and ‘Silver’ (which only a vegan could have written); and Brett Dionysius, ‘American Love Poem’ (not a sonnet, not set in Queensland, but terrific).

Of the short fictions, Moreno Giovannoni’s ‘The Bones of Genesius’ make one look forward to Tales from San Ginese, the book he is writing about his birthplace; and Claire Corbett’s ‘The Trillion Pearl Choker’ is a weird tale of the forces of nature fighting back on the climate change front.

As a rule, I don’t read Southerly‘s reviews of books I haven’t read, of which there are many here. But I did dip this time. Felicity Plunkett introduces her review of a book of criticism with a selection of trenchant quotes from writers ‘writing back’ to the critics; Nicolette Stasko makes me want to read Peter Boyle’s Towns in the Great Desert; Vivian Smith and Chris Wallace-Crabbe’s grey hairs lend distinction to the review pages; Kate Livett draws attention to a timely new edition of Judith Wright’s 1971 account of a battle to save the Barrier reef, The Coral Battleground:

Weirdly, although this battle for the Reef took place from 1969 to 1975, Wright’s text initially reads as if it could be taking place today, with the ridiculous ‘postmodern’ political moves made by Bjelke-Petersen’s government, such as employing an American geologist with no knowledge of biology, let alone marine biology, to do a three-week survey on the Reef.

And now for a little grumpiness. Some of the writers here would do well to read Joseph M Williams’ Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace. One essay in particular  veered from banal to incoherent to impenetrably technical. I persevered for a while, but threw in the towel when principle appeared as an adjective – just a typo perhaps, but in that context very dispiriting. And what’s with the US spellings throughout – harbor, jewelrymeter (as a measure of distance)? In the absence of a statement that this is policy, it creates the impression that the English Association, Sydney is made up of people who don’t care much about the language.

Southerly 74/2

David Brooks and Elizabeth McMahon (editors), Southerly Vol 74 No 2 2014: Australian Dreams 1

southerly-74-2When Dorothea Mackellar was living in England a little over a century ago, she dreamed – and versified – about a sunburnt country, rugged mountain ranges and sweeping plains. Times have changed. When David Brooks sent out an invitation for an issue of Southerly on Australian dreams, he wrote of ‘a mounting dismay and shame at seeing the cruel place we’ve become’, and though in his editorial he protests that he doesn’t want to deliver a jeremiad, that editorial will do the job until an actual jeremiad comes along.

So there’s not a lot of singing about the wide brown land here.

Rowena Lennox’s ‘Timor Dreaming’, about a friend who was killed in the East Timor massacre of 1976, pokes at the open wound of the Australian government’s silence then and its bullying more recently. JH Crone’s three-part ‘Elegy to Giants’ mourns Australians killed in the Bali bombing while ambivalently celebrating their ‘binge Bintang, root, vomit’ lifestyle (and in the third part, a jarringly unrhymed parody of CJ Dennis identifies them as descendants of Dennis’s Ginger Mick).

Jim Everett, a plangermairreener man of the First Nations of north-east Tasmania, refuses to identify as an Australian citizen in a fiercely polemical article, ‘Savage Nation: First Nations’ Philosophy and Sovereignty’. Mudrooroo Nyoongah, citizen of the world, faces old age, illness and the prospect of death in two powerful lyrics, ‘Wisps of Delightful Desire’ and ‘Old Fella Poem’.

Joshua Mostafa’s ‘Against Progress: Dreams, Nightmares, and the Meaning of Abbott’ probes the state of the Australian political culture (don’t be put off by its citing of a contemporary French philosopher, which often foreshadows pages of heavily academic prose, but not here): crudely summarised, he argues that public debate is too often limited to a contest between those who play on people’s fears and those who play on the fear of having one’s fears played on.

A number of the poems could have been written in direct response to David Brooks’ Claytons-jeremiad, touching on asylum seekers’ deaths at sea, environmental degradation and the parlous state of currently existing democracy. The poems that resonated with me most strongly, though, didn’t have an obvious connection to the theme: travellers’ tales from Laurie Duggan – ‘A short history of France’ and ‘New York Notes’ (not the only travellers’ tales by any means); a snowy expatriate winter from Kevin Hart – ‘February’; and a long piece by Sian Ellett, ‘Chopin & Friedric’, in which the top part of each page has a slam poem by a teenager with multiple sclerosis while at the bottom his mother gives her point of view.

The closest thing to a good old-fashioned bush yarn is Frank Moorhouse’s ‘I, initiation’, which starts out, ‘At the age of eight as a cub scout, with a never before experienced delight, I cooked and ate my first lamb chop barbecued on a green forked stick at my first camp fire in the bush,’ and goes on to talk about his regular eight-day solitary sojourns in the bush. But we are taken way out of our – and his – comfort zone with the story of an accident involving his scrotum and the years of psychoanalysis that followed. The closest thing to a good old Aussie family story, and the piece if fiction that most wrung my withers, is Cecelia Harris’s ‘All That is Left Behind’, a father–daughter story that is full of snow rather than sunburn.

Michelle Borzi’s ‘David Malouf, Earth Hour‘ provides what I’m always hoping for when I read literary criticism. She quotes generously, and helps us see the poetry with fresh eyes.

There are signs that some items were written – and edited – in haste. It’s hard to take seriously an article about Gough Whitlam that misspells Malcolm Fraser’s surname and the name of the Labor Party (especially given that Southerly follows US spelling conventions elsewhere). A reference in one article led to a critical response to the piece it was supposed to refer me to. One story ends so abruptly that one wonders if a couple of pages have dropped off or, more likely, it’s an undeclared excerpt from a longer work. And, fascinating though it is, I do wonder if Frank Moorhouse mightn’t have put his memoir through another draft to take some of the awkwardness out of his discussion of Aboriginal initiation ceremonies and the TMI discussion of his therapy.

Evidently a further Australian Dreams issue is in the pipeline. Good!

Southerly 74/1

Elizabeth McMahon and David Brooks (editors), Southerly Vol 74 No 1 2014: Forward Thinking: Utopia and Apocalypse

southerly741If I read  the editorials in journals at all, I generally leave them until last, so I read without regard for any theme. I did read enough of this Southerly‘s editorial to gather that it was anticipating the 500th anniversary of Thomas More’s Utopia, but in the rest of the journal I mostly registered mentions of Utopia or utopianism as peripheral to what I found interesting. Some of my highlights:

  • Rozanna Lilley’s memoir, ‘The Little Prince, and other vehicles’, would be wonderful reading whatever her parentage: it’s very funny on the subject of inter-generational bad driving and builds to bitter-sweet reflections on her relationship with her father. But as Lilley’s parents were Dorothy Hewett and Merv Lilley (a fact coyly avoided in the Editorial and Notes on Contributors, but explicit in the memoir itself), it makes a substantial addition to the lore about that magnificent couple. For example, the passing mention that Rozanna had hidden her father’s rifle away from him in his erratic old age is particularly chilling in the light of Merv’s book, Gatton Man, which argues plausibly that Merv’s father was a serial killer, and convincingly that he was capable of murder.
  •  ‘Exile on Uranium Street: The Australian Nuclear Blues’, by Robin Gerster, author of the brilliant Travels in Atomic Sunshine about the Australian occupying force in Hiroshima after the bomb, is a sprinting survey of Australian responses to the nuclear age. Wilfred Burchett’s famous report from Hiroshima, Neville Shute’s novel On the Beach and Stanley Kramer’s film of it have overshadowed other responses, from Helen Caldicott’s activism to protests about Maralinga’s murderous tests. This essay fills out the picture in a way that makes one hope there’s a book on the way. It has a disconcertingly jaunty self-deprecating tone, but occasionally moves in for the kill, as when it challenges our current complacency about nuclear weapons: ‘There is no cause for panic, then – unless one ponders the possibilities.’
  • ‘And in our room too’ by Liesl Nunns starts from the experience of being woken by an earthquake in the middle of a storm in Wellington, New Zealand, and ruminates interestingly about the unexpected, weaving together stories of Maori gods and taniwha, personal experience, and scientific data in true essayist style. I am uneasy about her telling Maori stories in a way that makes them sound like Greek myths, but they powerfully evoke the instability of that part of the world, as does her recurring phrase, It never occurred to me that this could happen.
  • A number of pieces deal with individual mortality. Nicolette Stasko’s poem ‘Circus Act’ deals with the stark unreality of death in a hospice. Susan Midalia’s short story ‘The hook’, in which a woman goes travelling alone two years after her partner’s death, captures the way grief persists but life eventually begins to reassert itself.
  • As always, there’s a satisfying range of poetry. Apart from ‘Circus Act’, I most enjoyed Andy Jackson’s pantoum ‘Double-helix’, Margaret Bradstock’s ‘The Marriage (1823–1850)’ (another of her fragments of colonial history) and Ben Walter’s ‘Joseph Hooker’s Hands’. Geoff Page’s review of books by Tim Thorne and Chris Wallace-Crabbe made me want to read them both.
  • I skipped much of the scholarly content (Southerly is, after all, a scholarly journal), but Jessica White’s ‘Fluid Worlds: Reflecting Climate Change in The Swan Book and The Sunlit Zone‘ was worth persevering with for its interesting insights about Alexis Wright’s work. Danny Anwar’s ‘The Island called Utopia in Patrick White’s The Tree of Man‘ may do the same for Patrick White, but the near-impenetrable technical language proved too daunting for me. My prize for impenetrability goes, though, to A J Carruthers’ review of Melinda Bufton’s Girlery, which isn’t so much densely technical as splendidly uncommunicative, not to mention disdainful of the need for consistent punctuation or the workings of the French language, as in this snippet (because I can’t make WordPress show non-itals in quotes, words that should be in italics appear here as red):

Think of Girlery as a sociostylistic and amorous liaison with girlish grammar. Around each coquine clause the female reader eyes the book, “Hitherto unwritten”, knowingly participating in a kind of ‘quixotica,’ an erotics of reading where “a little grin does that thing only read in books / Plays on our lips / Tout les deux” (27).

Someone in these pages talks about the role of the creative writer in helping us to bring our minds to bear on frightening or otherwise potentially numbing realities. It’s important work, and this Southerly is part of it.

Southerly 73/3

David Brooks and Elizabeth McMahon (editors), Southerly Vol 73 No 3 2013: The Naked Writer

1nwAlain de Botton was on the ABC recently arguing that we need to reclaim art (and by extension literature) from the academies and museums, to recognise its role in our ordinary lives. He was annoyingly persuasive, and had me wondering whether I really needed to read Southerly, which is after all solidly grounded in the English Department of the University of Sydney, largely written and edited by academics for academics. It seems to have stopped publishing poems by Jennifer Maiden, the regular appearance of which led me to re-subscribe a couple of years ago. So despite the fabulously daring cover, I approached this issue warily. What was in it for me?

It seems I enjoy reading about friendship. Alex Miller’s ‘A Circle of Kindred Spirits’ is a moving account of biographer Hazel Rowley’s career, seen through the prism of Miller’s long friendship with her, which they conducted almost entirely by email. Ann-Marie Priest’s ‘“Colour and Crazy Love”: Gwen Harwood and Vera Cottew’ explores a deep friendship between two women that has been sidelined in most discussions of Gwen Harwood’s poetry. It’s a beautiful essay, explicating some of the poetry and exploring the complex possibilities of friendship between women.

Scott Esposito’s ‘The Gate Deferred: J.M. Coetzee and the Battle against Doubt’ is interesting for similar reasons: at heart it’s about the relationship between readers and writers. The essay explores Coetzee’s engagement with Kafka. Far from writing dry academic analysis, Esposito begins by telling us how as a child of non-religious parents he (Esposito) experienced his own version of Pascal’s ‘le silence eternel des espaces infinis m’effraie’ (the Pascal reference is mine), then gives us a beautiful account of how in Coetzee he found someone with a similar sense of things, expressed in part by Coetzee’s engagement with Kafka. Coetzee, Esposito writes,

gives us not an answer to Kafka, nor an interpretation of him, but rather his experience of dwelling within Kafka’s mysteries.

Esposito comes close to dwelling within Coetzee’s mysteries. (I haven’t read enough of J M Coetzee – just Disgrace and the three volumes of quasi-memoir – to have an opinion on the validity or otherwise of Esposito’s reading, but that seems beside the point.)

Rowena Lennox’s ‘Head of a Dog’ is about another kind of relationship – that between dogs and humans. Her account of walking her dog made me wonder if she lives near me: could my collie be the one she describes as driving her kelpie-cattle dog cross to such paroxysms of exhilarated rage simply by existing behind a fence? Dogs ‘are the closest we have come to living with and knowing another species’, she writes, and whatever the cat brigade may say I think she’s right. The essay ranges widely, drawing on, among others, Frank Dalby Davison (Dusty), Jack London (The Call of the Wild), and Aboriginal elders Tim Yilngayari and Daly Pulkaa (as quoted by Deborah Bird Rose in Dingo Makes Us Human).

There are fine poems: Tracy Ryan has four on a hoard hidden and centuries later found;  Judith Beveridge (‘Peterhead’), Geoff Page (‘Angus’) and Stephen Edgar (‘The Sense of an Ending’) lend lustre (and just watch that Stephen Edgar use rhyme!); Ali Jane Smith (‘The Galapagos’), Simeon Kronenberg(‘Death of a Bull’) and Ross Donlon (‘Storm Water’) each do narratives it will be good to spend more time with.

There are fine reviews. I was especially glad of Anne Brewster on Melissa Lucashenko’s novel Mullumbimby, which I plan to read, and John Tranter being generous, illuminating and a little gossipy on Pam Brown’s Home by Dark.

That’s just some of the highlights for me. Other people may fall with cries of joy on the 42 page offcut from a forthcoming experimental novel by John A. Scott, Michael Buhagiar’s elegant discussion of Christopher Brennan’s debt to A. C. Swinburne, Robet Darby’s explication of the homoerotic content of a Martin Boyd novel, or … well, there’s quite a lot that I haven’t mentioned.

I’m going to finish with some whingeing, so feel free to stop reading now.

• First, does Southerly deliberately follow US spelling conventions for things like centre/center or the verb practice/practise?

• Second, is it just a little disrespectful to display a poet’s naked body on the cover and make no reference to him or his work except in the photo credit? If you’re interested, here’s a video of spoken word poet Randall Stephens full frontal, clothed and performing:

• Third, was it inattention or editorial illiteracy that allowed Ann-Marie Priest to go into print saying that

there is no mainstream literary tradition of female friendship, as there is with male friendship (think of Tennyson’s In Memoriam A.H.H., Achilles and Patroclus in The Illiad, and Jonathon and David in the Bible).

Maybe Ruth and Naomi just a few pages over from David and Jonathan ‘in the Bible’ don’t constitute a tradition, but surely they deserve a mention; even spellcheck knows how to spell The Iliad; and however many people name their children Jonathon, it’s Jonathan in the Bible. Even if you don’t count the ‘with’ that really ought to be an ‘of’, that’s an impressive error count in so few words.

Southerly 73/2

David Brooks and Elizabeth McMahon (editors), Teja B. Pribac (Guest Co-editor),  Southerly Vol 73 No 2 2013: Lyre/Liar

73-2-sI didn’t read enough of this Southerly to write a review. It says more about me than about the journal that I just couldn’t make myself read a collection that focuses on exploration of ’emerging ethical implications of writing, with a particular emphasis on representations of nonhuman animals’. A quick skim seemed to show writer after writer identifying as vegan or animal liberationist in a way that felt just a little too correct-line for my taste. I may be wrong, and if I come back and find that I am, I’ll write a retraction, but I wasn’t deterred from my rash judgement by an extraordinary disclaimer from the Southerly editorial team, saying their views are not necessarily reflected by the ‘views expressed in this issue’.

I did read, though, an excellent review of Jordie Albiston’s The Book of Ethel by Mark O’Flynn (which articulates nicely some of what Albiston does with internal rhyme), some memorable poetry including ‘Mouse Plague’ by John Kinsella and ‘A Second Ago’ by Pam Brown, and an illuminating essay on lyric poetry in ‘post-theory’ times by Claire Nashar.

Southerly 73/1

David Brooks and Elizabeth McMahon (editors), Southerly Vol 73 No 1 2013: The Political Imagination

1spiRoughly two thirds of this Southerly is devoted to essays that started life as papers for ‘The Political Imagination: Contemporary Diasporic and Postcolonial Poetries’, a conference held in Melbourne in April 2012. So the political imagination under discussion is much more specific than the issue’s title suggests. It’s as if the god of the mailbox saw me tossing terms like ‘immigrant poetry’ around in my last blog post, and decided to send me some heavy-duty reading matter as a reproach for my lack of theoretical rigour (or theoretical anything, if the truth must be known). Ali Alizadeh, one of the subjects of that last post, was responsible along with Ann Vickery for editing the essays from the conference, and co-wrote one of them with Penelope Pitt-Alizadeh: and he more than adequately fits my description of him as way out of my intellectual league.

Of the theme essays, the clear stand-out is Danijela Kambaskovic’s superbly readable ‘Breaching the social contract: the migrant poet and the politics of being apolitical’. When Kambaskovic left Belgrade in the 1990s she had already published poems, translations and criticism in Serbian and was fluent and well read in English. She came to Australia, gained a PhD and eventually began to write poetry again, now in English. The essay addresses the question of her deep reluctance to write about migration, to write poetry from the migration experience. In vivid prose, she lays out her own story and that of others with similar experiences: it’s the story of someone fighting for her own mind, resisting pressure to further her career by commodifying her painful history and at the same time searching for an ethical practice:

Traumatised writers spend their lives searching for precise verbal equivalents for the dread, the horror, the identity shifts, the hatred of one’s environment, the inability to identify with the structures and institutions of society, the fear of reality, the mental dysmorphia – all non-verbal and confronting emotions made even more complex by the awareness that one has moved into a much ‘better’ society and ought to be ‘grateful’. How is it possible to write about these for an audience who may be baffled, even confronted, by the uneasy conjunction of praise and criticism of their own society, which may make the migrant writer seem negative and ungrateful, or at the very least, unnecessarily conflicted? I salute those migrant writers who can find enough clarity in their minds to write about any of those, and avoid the pitfalls. Any of my attempts that have been in any way successful have skirted on the surface of the experience.

This essay is worth the price of admission, for itself, and for the way its flesh and heart helps with the preponderantly academic tenor of the other essays.

Those essays explore similar issues. Alizadeh and Pitt-Alizadeh carefully and meticulously discuss the dangers of categorising people and/or poetry according to a single ethnic or racial identity, and give a model of how to read a poem that avoids those dangers without imposing mainstream assumptions on it. A full understanding of their model depends on the reader being familiar with Alain Badiou’s readings of Mallarmé, which sadly I am not. Adam Aitken’s demanding discussion of hybridity casts interesting light on his own poetry:

Rather than a poet who writes about travel I would like to be read as a poet who charts the changing nature of the ongoing historical meaning of the Asian-in-Australia.

Peter Minter floats an idea of imagining ‘a decolonised twenty-first century Australian poetics’ by thinking in terms of archipelagos – I think he’s saying something that’s not just interesting but exciting, but I’d have to make headway with 15 or so heavy-duty theorists he cites to understand him properly. Had I but world enough and time! There is a lovely moment where he quotes in quick succession and mutual support Les Murray, Karl Marx and the Whole Earth Catalogue.

I also enjoyed Timothy Yu’s discussion of Asian Australian poetry. As a US scholar, he was struck by the different way migrant communities talk about themselves here. Sydney comedian Michael Hing, who can trace his family’s history in Australia back some five generations, refers to himself, not as an Asian Australian (the equivalent of Asian American, the most likely term if he had been in the US) or even as a Chinese Australian, but as ‘a Chinese guy’. Yu ruminates interestingly on this difference, and gets down to specifics in considering aspects of the poetry of Ouyang Yu.

The rest of the journal is taken up with poetry, short stories and reviews, all interesting, some wonderful.

Danijela Kambaskovic stars again in the poetry section with ‘Belgrade Sunday Lunch’, a translation from her own poem in Serbian (incidentally, her article has a nice riff on what it means to translate one’s own poem as opposed to someone else’s). She has two more poems in Southerly‘s online component, The Long Paddock, just a click away.

Of the stories, I liked best Jeremy Fisher’s modest domestic scene, ‘Ready to Dance’, which has a predictable but satisfying twist, and Rachel Leary’s ‘God’s Lost Sheep’, which plays like a short grunge movie of a bus hijack.

There’s an interesting combined review by Jal Nicholl of Michael Farrell’s open sesame and Jennifer Maiden’s Liquid Nitrogen. He sees these vastly different poets as inhabiting ‘different wings of the same belated [ie, post-modernity/post-modernism] dream-house.’ And one of life’s little mysteries is solved on page 256 where Sam Franzway review’s Vikki Wakefield’s young-adult novel Friday Brown: Sam is known in these quarters as franzy, creator of the blog Writing. So now we know why he’s been neglecting his blog – he’s doing a PhD and writing scholarly reviews, thankfully without a single mention of Deleuze, Kristeva, Baudrillard or even Foucault.

Curmudgeonly footnote: I would pass in silence over the ‘back-peddling’ character in one of the stories, because there is pleasure in such misspellings. But I have to complain about a moment in Danijela Kambaskovic’s brilliant essay where she was left hanging out to dry by the editorial team. Observing that some people question whether a woman of non-English speaking background can adequately teach Shakespeare to Anglo-Saxon students, she comments in parentheses: ‘This reminds me of famous quip by George Bernard Shaw that women writers are like dogs dancing on their hind legs: the wonder is not that it is done well, but that it is done at all.’ It’s a slip that anyone could make, but surely one of the many pairs of eyes that read that paragraph on its way to press should have picked up that the famous quip was made by Samuel Johnson, and it was about a woman preaching.