Tag Archives: Felicity Plunkett

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.

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.
s152

I 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.

Rabbit 10, Jordie Albiston 13

Jessica L Wilkinson, editor, Rabbit No 10: Gravity (2013)
Jordie Albiston, XIII Poems (Rabbit Poets Series 2013)

I bought these two slim volumes at their Sydney launch a couple of weeks ago.

rabbit10 Rabbit is a beautifully produced ‘journal of non-fiction poetry’ based in Melbourne, with a great feel for deign and a sense of humour. This issue, for which Felicity Plunkett was guest poetry editor, includes not only poetry from Melbourne and beyond, well beyond Australia in fact (I was a little disconcerted when sagebrush and coyotes turned up in the first poem), but also a generous selection of evocative photographs of 1970s Melbourne by poet Ian McBryde, a scholarly essay on Dante, an interview, and a number of reviews.

I’m not clear what the non-fiction tag means apart from excluding fiction narratives. I hope we’re not being encouraged to take lines about heartbreak or suicidal intentions as transparently representing the writers’ condition. But the question didn’t exercise my mind too much … I enjoyed the poetry: so much that was excellent, but the ones that struck me most were ‘The Gravity of Bones’ and ‘Crunchy No Bruises’ by Anna Jacobson, which read as if they’re from a series about visiting a nursing home.

Nicholas Walton-Healey’s interview with Kerry Loughrey is excellent. Kerry Loughrey has been performing her work around Melbourne for more than two decades, but had her first poetry collection published just over a year ago. She has interesting things to say about the relationship between performance poetry and page poetry, and about poetry in general – like this, which begins with an updating of Pope’s ‘What oft was Thought, but ne’er so well Exprest’:

I’ve always thought that the poet was supposed to say what’s on the tips of other people’s tongues. That’s our job. So people have this sense of relief when they read or hear it and go ‘ahhh, that’s what I meant.’ …

I’m compelled to say things … I feel it at the back of my throat. And I think everyone does when they’re like ‘I really want to say this.’ Or a bloke talking to his missus who’s much more articulate and so he’s going ‘I wish I could just say this thing but she’s going to take it the wrong way.’ I guess I have to consider being taken the wrong way as well.

xiii Jordie Albiston’s previous books have been unified works rather than gatherings of disparate poems. So, she told us at the launch, when Jessica Wilkinson invited her to be the first in the new Rabbit Poets Series, she saw a prospect of new life for some of her ‘orphan poems’.

The orphans gathered here are not impoverished waifs begging for alms. On the contrary, they are rich in many ways, and speak from a place of deep belonging. They are, however, extraordinarily diverse.

There are a number of what I think of as public poems. ‘Gallipoli’, which opens the book, is a long narrative poem commissioned as inspiration for a piece of music commemorating the centenary of the landing at Anzac Cove. Three long poems – ‘Six Black Saturday Squares’, ‘Lamentations’ and ‘A Kinglake Quartet’ – respond to Victoria’s terrible 2009 bush fires. And ‘A White Woman’s Guide to Indigenous Art’,another commissioned piece, is a response to a painting by Carol Maanyatja Golding that broadens out to the endlessly interesting question

At the other extreme, there are intensely private poems: three love sonnets – ‘The Sea’s Pleasure’, ‘Three Degrees’ and ‘Duplex’ – and ‘Golden’, a poem celebrating the poet’s body on her 50th birthday.

The poems are also wonderfully varied formally. Some of them rhyme, and Albiston’s way with rhyme, both at line ends and internally, is truly wondrous. So is her extraordinary way of playing poetic form off against speech rhythms. Take the first eight lines of ‘Three Degrees’, for example:

Three degrees against your skin, and the heart
begins to freeze. The inclement night creeps
right in, shoves blood aside with its starting
gun, and you become antarctic. Yes, steeped

in snow from tip to toe, the land outside your
carapace says little, remembers less: no choice
but that of missing him, missing him, warmth
a continent ago. You try to invoke his voice.

For me, the most striking piece is ‘Lamentations’. It speaks in the language of the King James Bible, including the odd word in italics and a smattering of ‘Behold!’s.

Alas! we are the people that have seen the fire, on this day of days, on this seventh day of the second month of the year.
Alas! it has led us, and brought us to darkness, and delivered us not into light.
Against us has it turned: it has turned with the wind, against us all the day.

It could have been an embarrassing pastiche in lesser hands, but it’s actually extraordinarily powerful.

awwbadge_2014XIII Poems is the first book I’ve read as part of the 2014 Australian Women Writers Challenge. Yes, I’ve signed up again.

Books I read in May [2007]

[Originally published in May 2007 in my defunct and inaccessible earlier blog. I’ve retrieved it because a friend was looking for information on Jeff Sparrow’s book.]

Ivor Indyk (editor), Heat 13: Harper’s Gold (finished)
Jeff Sparrow, Communism, a Love Story (Melbourne University Press 2007)
Jackie French & Peter Sheehan, Rotters and Squatters (Scholastic Press 2007)
Frank O’Hara, Selected Poems (finished)
Susanne Chauvel Carlsson, Pitcairn: Island at the edge of time (Central Queensland University Press 2000)
John Tranter, Urban Myths: 210 poems (University of Queensland Press 2007) (started)

heat13Heat was, as always, a solid read. And as always it’s a bit of a puzzle how the title was arrived at: in this case it’s a phrase from one of the stories, with no obvious overarching thematic relevance. But it doesn’t matter. Even if there is no theme that makes the book hang together, the pieces in this issue, as in others, are free to resonate with, echo and comment on one another, so that the whole is pleasingly more than the accretion of its parts — and I did read and enjoy this issue cover to cover.

Beverley Farmer visits her former husband’s village in Greece in ‘The House on Rebirth Street’ (dropping a few too many untranslated Greek words for my comfort); Greece brings some respite to the heroine of Stephen Edgar‘s pseudo ghost story in verse, ‘The Deppites’. There are a number of nostalgic visits to family homes, and frequent references to migration.

Nostalgia for religious belief bubbles to the surface in a number of pieces. Gillian Mears is visited by the rumtitum rhythms of Edward Lear’s ‘Pelican Chorus‘ as she’s wheeled in, near death, to the operating theatre; Felicity Plunkett‘s wonderful sequence of poems ‘The Negative Cutter: An Introduction to Editing’, also deals with surgery, playing with a cinematic metaphor; Mark Rappaport, documentary film maker, has fun riffing on his connections to Catherine Deneuve, as fan and appalling collaborator. I love all this.

When I edited a literary magazine not so very long ago, it was regularly proposed to us that each issue should be organised around a Theme. Just as regularly, I resisted the proposal, as it seemed to me that it was based in a misunderstanding of what kind of creature a literary magazine is. My pleasure in Heat confirms me in my belief. Instead of corseting, regimentation, control, there is a sense of organic relationship, of many minds independently but harmoniously making story, or seeking truth, or singing, or doing whatever it is that literature does.

communismIn his introduction to Communism: A Love Story, Jeff Sparrow writes:

Communism provided an alternative. It was, in many ways, the alternative, the most important indicator that society could be remade. Between 1917 and 1989, its star shone bright and its star shone dim, but its continuing sparkle in the political firmament allowed millions to believe in a world beyond the free market. Even those who despised communism felt that while it existed, change – whether they wanted it or not – was a possibility.

Today, that feeling is gone.

The book is a biography of Guido Baracchi, a well-heeled, literate bohemian and committed Marxist/Communist who lived from 1887 to 1975, described by Stuart Macintyre as ‘the knight errant of Australian communism’. He’s a terrific subject for biography: he worked for the cause in Weimar Germany and the 1930s Soviet Union; he had intense relationships with a number of poets and playwrights (Lesbia Harford, Katharine Susannah Prichard, Betty Roland), each of whose accounts this biography has drawn on; he was widely read and wrote a lot himself, also supplying a wealth of material to his biographer.

I was telling some friends about the book, and one woman was prompted to talk of her youthful romance with a son of a leading Communist family: when they were about to go out on a date, he would say, ‘Let’s stay home tonight – the old coms are coming around and there’ll be lots of tales.’ I suspect Jeff Sparrow had a background something like that, because while this book meticulously cites its written sources (discreetly, up the back, not interfering with the flow of the narrative), and doesn’t hang back from quoting T S Eliot and James Joyce to good effect, it’s also bursting at the seams with ‘tales’, with the lore of Australian Communism: clever ploys, bastardry, romance, betrayal, nobility (like Guido’s wife Neura’s principled reaction to the news that he had taken up with another woman, from which she seems never to have wavered), tragedy (which is too pallid a word for what Stalin and Stalinism did to the hopes of the world). You can almost hear the stories being told with suitable embellishment at a smoke-wreathed kitchen table far into the night.

As the story unfolds, what today is called the mainstream media is relegated to commenting from the sidelines: for example, during the travails of the tiny Australian Marxist movement of the early 20s, bitterly divided within itself, devoting most of its energies to self-education, and discouraged at the prospect of ever being effective, we learn that Prime Minister Bruce gets headlines by accusing the Labor Party of pandering to Bolshevism, and succeeds at a stroke ‘in elevating communism into a public issue in a way that the communists themselves found impossible’. Sadly, the MSM version has become received wisdom, and a whole dimension of our history has been largely forgotten. Those who deplore ‘black-armband history’ would no doubt equally deplore this, perhaps as ‘red-tie history’. I can’t recommend it enough – for that worthy reason, but also because it is a ripping good read, another example of history written with the verve and imaginative force that some think is the exclusive domain of the novel.

An extra pleasure of the book for me was encountering a number of people I have actually met: Betty Roland, the Currency Methuen edition of whose play The Touch of Silk I edited in 1974; Eric Aarons, ‘the young branch secretary’ who banned Guido from lecturing in 1939, whom I met as a gentle old man, a sculptor and caretaker of a workshop site (and whose own memoir What’s Left sits on my bookshelf unread); Nick Origlass, Trotskyist, who seems to have used the long boring speech as a weapon just as consistently in youth as in age; Bob Gould, shambolic bookshop proprietor, who appears here as a fiery youth; a friend’s mother gets a guernsey as one of two students who defied pressure to reject Guido’s teaching in 1939. And a final personal note: one of my dearest friends and teachers, a US communist in the 30s and 40s, still preserved his hatred for Trotskyism intact 40 years after leaving the party; I wonder what he would make of Jeff Sparrow’s implied contention that it was the Trotskyists who kept the flame of communism burning clearest during Stalin’s era.

rottersRotters and Squatters is the third in the Fair Dinkum Histories series, and takes the story of the Australian colonies from 1820 to 1850. I’ve already raved about this series. Consider it raved about again. They’re children’s books, but only a bizarre age-based separatist mentality would prevent an adult from enjoying them. Maybe you need an appreciation of juvenile humour to enjoy the deliberately appalling puns in some of Peter Sheehan’s cartoon illustrations, but this book communicates without condescension or chalk-dust or scatology, and strikes a wholly attractive balance between the general and the particular, the comic and the very serious, the personal and the (discreet cough) political.

Like the previous books in the series, it doesn’t attempt sanitised ‘balance’: no doubt it will irk the haters of black-armband or red-tie history. I reckon the series, and this book as part of it, makes a significant contribution to historical writing about Australia, not least by being a quick read with an occasional laugh-out-loud moment. One of several idiosyncratic reasons for my enjoying it is that its short Recommended Reading list includes just one book by an explorer: Edward John Eyre’s Journals of Expeditions of Discovery, the subject of my aborted MA thesis in the 1970s, which in my opinion richly deserves its recommendation here. (If my thesis supervisor – you know who you are! – is still alive and reads this, I’d like my copy back, please).

0394719735 After a break, I went back to the Frank O’Hara. I still don’t think it’s my cup of tea, but I decided to read the poems as play – instead of puzzling over what he means by an obscurity, I’ll just take it that it’s there because it’s what popped into his head and sounded cool – or in some way captured the emotion of the moment. And I decided not to worry about his name-dropping and hi-falutin’ allusions. In other words, I stopped trying to understand what was going on and just let it flow. No doubt I missed a lot – because of his hurling words at the page like Jackson Pollock creating a painting, and because of the references and allusions that went past me – but I also enjoyed a lot. There are some outright reader-friendly bits like this piece of New-York patriotism from ‘Meditations in an Emergency’:

I can’t even enjoy a blade of grass unless I know there’s a subway handy, or a record store or some other sign that people do not totally regret life.

I gather he’s as hip as ever: people even use phrases from his poems as novel titles.

pitcairn I read the Pitcairn book in preparation for an editing job (which seems, alas, to have fallen by the wayside – in Pitkern, it es ay los’ bawl). Susanne Chauvel Carlsson is the daughter of Charles and Elsa Chauvel. Her interest in Pitcairn Island grew from her parents’ relationship with the island, beginning with their 1932 visit to film parts of In the Wake of the Bounty. The book is a mix of fascinating potted history, family lore, personal reminiscence and observation, and travel log.

People who read the newspapers more carefully than I do, and that’s probably most people, may already know a lot of the Pitcairn story, but even if I’m coming in late, I’m compelled to say the story is riveting. Pitcairn was settled in 1790 by a party of Bounty mutineers led by Fletcher Christian and accompanied by a number of Polynesians: nine mutineers, six Tahitian men, nine Polynesian women (all but one of them from Tahiti) and one baby girl. The first decade was rough, with quite a bit of drunken rioting and mayhem (ears bitten off and so on), murder, a suspicious suicide. After a failed escape attempt, some of the women murdered the remaining Tahitian men. By 1800 the population comprised one man, the mutineer Aleck Smith (who later changed his name to John Adams); ten women (I don’t know where the extra one came from – the book is plagued with such inconsistencies ); and about 23 children. It was another eight years before the Pitcairners had any contact with the outside world, and isolation has been a major factor in the Island’s cultural, economic, linguistic and political development ever since.

It’s a story that reads like a lost-in-space fiction: the language developed as a mixture of rough English and Tahitian; the religion grew from the one semi-literate man’s determination to read and then communicate to the women and children what he found in the Bounty‘s bible. Susanne Carlsson makes no bones about having fallen in love with the place and the people – it’s one of those unfathomable complexities that the object of her affection has also been the site of a history of sexual assault and of sanctioned sexual practices that in most other places would be condemned as paedophilia.

All that news was bad enough already. It becomes much worse when you’ve read accounts of these people playing a cheerfully innovative version of cricket (you have to innovate when your total population is about 50), sharing out Christmas presents in the town square, praying in their Seventh-day Adventist chapel, rowing longboats out to meet the still infrequent visiting ship. I imagine we’ll never know whether the evidently widespread sexual abuse has been there from the beginning or whether it is a symptom of the recent breakdown of the stern religious glue that held the community together.

Oh, and this book had an excellent addition to the Little Known Facts file: in 1838, when the Pitcairners persuaded a visiting Royal Navy ship’s captain ‘to draw up a constitution and code of laws suitable to their needs’, Pitcairn became the first place where women had the right to vote, 46 years ahead of South Australia.

Baby Boomer Reminiscence Alert. Skip to the end if BBRs drive you nuts.

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(OK, they’ve gone, but I’ll assume I’m not talking only to myself.) Back in the early 70s there were a lot of poetry readings in Sydney: there were Moratorium readings, Balmain readings, Sydney University Great Hall readings; at the 1972 Aquarius Festival in Canberra, the year before the much more famous Nimbin Aquarius Festival, there were a number of serious group poetry readings. I was a keen poetry-goer in those days. There were dramatic moments: Roland Robinson once shouted something like ‘This is muck!’ during a Chris Wallace Crabbe poem that began ‘To f**k is to move through grooves of time’. The dignified cadences of A D Hope shared the stage with the precision of Dave Malouf, the raffishness of Bob Adamson, the heady intellectualism of Martin Johnston, the drugged waifishness of Michael Dransfield, the hypnotic incantations of Les A. Murray … and so on. If I remember correctly, John Tranter was a regular at these events, but for some reason I’ve never really got his poems: back then, and on my occasional attempts to read him since, I found them intriguing but it felt as if they existed in a thicket of references and allusions and associations that were outside my experience. I thought of him as a poet’s poet.

Afflicted as I am with an indefensible, irrational and unfillable greed to know and read everything, I used one of my 60th birthday vouchers to buy Urban Myths, which includes selections from his previous books dating back to 2000. I’m now about a third of the way through it. Those early poems are still intriguing but almost completely opaque. It’s not just the allusiveness; in some way that’s hard to articulate, I can’t hear a human voice in the poems, even one I don’t understand. I’m pleased to report that we’re getting on much better by page 80: I’ve laughed, I’ve been close to tears, I’ve reread some poems a number of times until I feel I understand them, because they promised to repay the effort. The book won the NSW Premiers Literary Award for poetry a couple of nights ago. John read the poem that opens the book, ‘After Hölderlin’, and I couldn’t remember what my problem was. That poem is dated 2002 in Urban Myths, so I’m expecting the best as I read on.