Tag Archives: John Upton

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.

 

2016 Australian Poetry Anthology 

Lisa Gorton and Toby Fitch (editors), Australian Poetry Anthology Vol 5, 2016 (Australian Poetry Ltd 2017)

AP2016.jpgThis is Australian Poetry Ltd’s fifth annual anthology of members’ poems. It’s neither a ‘Best of 2016’ nor a kind of open mic in print. The foreword says the book aims ‘to recognise and mark the organisation’s vitality and range’. When it goes on to quote G K Chesterton, ‘Poets have been mysteriously silent on cheese,’ it signals unmistakably that a further aim is to give pleasure. It worked for me on both fronts.

There are sixty poems by 49 poets, award-winners cheek by jowl with people you’ve never heard of. There are neat sonnets and sprawling surreal narratives, elegy and sarcasm, poems previously seen in places as unalike as Overland and Quadrant and, the majority, poems previously unpublished.

Here are some highlights:

An opening line, from Jordie Albiston’s ‘³’ (one of three poems by her with that non alphanumeric title): ‘war is divisible only by war’.

A poem I was compelled to quote in an earlier blog post: Julie Chevalier’s ‘waiting with dignity’, which started with a reference to Anne Carson.

A piece of social commentary: ‘On average’ by PS Cottier plays devastatingly with the statistic that in Australia on average one woman a week is killed by an intimate partner.

A poem on ‘the pornography of suffering’: Ron Pretty’s ‘broken’, which looks into the abyss of humanity’s capacity for violence.

A poem that’s affecting for extraneous reasons: John Upton’s ‘On Shoes Encountered in a Museum’, a beautiful poem about ugly history that gains extra force from the fact that John Upton, author of the excellent collection Embracing the Razor, died in January.

A contrarian poem: ‘Why we shouldn’t trust birds’ by Chris Palmer begins with birds’ dinosaur ancestry and ends with parent-approved siblicide and cannibalism.

A poem I’d read elsewhere and was glad to see again: Jennifer Compton’s ‘Two Women’, previously published in Australian Poetry Journal November 2016, brilliantly renders the ambivalence of a relationship.

A dictionary query: From Amy Crutchfield’s ‘Egg’,

What shall the mother of the dead be called?
As widow is to wife,
what of the woman left behind?

Stand-out single line: Brett Dionysus’ ‘Bees Fleeting’ brought tears to my eyes with the line (about bees), ‘They are absconding from the planet’s giant hive’.

Unsettling single poem: Alex Skovron’s ‘Prognosis (1189 BCE)’, in which a Greek at the siege of Troy is convinced that the wooden horse ruse won’t work:

The Achaeans understand nothing of History,
they laugh, carouse, their Horse grows daily more arrogant;
some nights I weep for the fate that I know attends them.

Ekphrasis: Laura Jan Shore’s ‘A Little off the Top’, in which a group of people with dementia responding to an Edward Hopper painting.

Elegy: ‘Walking man’, a tribute to the late Martin Harrison by Brenda Saunders that begins:

He walked this country with the eye
of a newcomer, showed us how to see
close up, take in the sweep of distance
the shimmer on a paddock in drought

Those words, ‘country’, ‘newcomer’, ‘shimmer’, take on wonderful resonance when written by an Indigenous woman about an English migrant.

That is to say, there’s a lot to enjoy here

Australian Poetry Anthology 4

Sarah Holland-Batt and Brook Emery (editors), Australian Poetry Anthology Nº 4 (Australian Poetry Ltd 2015)

APA4.jpg

Paradoxically, the thing I like best about this anthology is the absence of stars. Think of three famous Australian poets, and I’ll bet you none of them is here. The starlessness isn’t a sign of mediocrity: many of these poems have been published in reputable places, and quite a few have been on shortlists or won awards. But there’s a sense of the book as a conversation rather than, say, a competition or a performance, or even a showcase. Poems bounce off each other, or not, tackling similar themes or taking similar forms, but each doing something different, individual.

Australian Poetry Ltd was formed four or five years ago, as an amalgamation of the Poets’ Unions in a number of states. It describes itself as ‘the national body for poetry in Australia, with a charter to promote and support Australian poets and poetry locally, regionally, nationally and internationally’. Among other ways of filling this charter, the underfunded, understaffed organisation produces a twice yearly journal which includes articles as well as poetry, and an annual members’ anthology, of which this is the fourth. Almost every page has pleasures to offer.

There’s the pleasure of meeting someone familiar. John Upton ‘ Unawares’ is a kind of aftershock to the poems of loss in Embracing the Razor:

Pulling an old dictionary from the shelf
I open it, see her signaure, and myself
back twenty years momentarily: intense
surprise, like pausing suddenly on stairs
to stop a fall.

There’s serendipity. Our cumquats were ripening as I read Pamela Schindler’s ‘Cumquats, Hobart’:

These little orange globes –
lanterns that floated
in the tree at dusk

There’s plenty of topical poetry. Jillian Kellie’s ‘the bus to baghdad 1966’ is a then-and-now poem – the bus trip of the title in which her family travelled with a Canadian journalist, alternating with grim dispatches from the present – that leaves you feeling you’ve learned something about Iraq:

held up for hours at the syrian border
a problem with canada’s passport and visa
dad speaks in arabic to chain-smoking soldiers
extolling the honour of his new journo friend
i owe you a scotch when we get to baghdad
i don’t drink my dad says

Unconfirmed video and pictures of the photojournalist’s heartbreaking final moments emerged this morning via Twitter accounts claiming to be associated with the Islamic State

There’s plenty of narrative, some explicit, some implied as in Cary Hamlin’s ‘Scraping the Night’, whose opening lines evoke a romantic assignation in a car:

Moonlight leers through the car window
etching the valley of your cheek
in razor-sharp shadow

fingering the crescents of your eyes
fondly and crooning its siren song

And there’s lots of fine descriptive writing. I love Anne Elvey’s observation of pelicans in ‘This flesh that you know is all that you have’:

————–Their synchronous glide was broken

by one pair of wings, and then another, that worked
the air, not quite in time, and over again they wheeled.

Brett Dionysius’ ‘Brigalow: an extinct pastoral’ is a powerful evocation of a landscape being ravaged post World War Two, recalling newsreel footage that was meant to celebrate progress but even then struck a chill into young hearts like mine and, I assume, Brett’s:

—————-They strung a necklace of iron pearls
between two dozers; manacled violence, like nineteenth
century convicts kept under guard. The machines clawed
through six million acres, rubbing against bark, leaving
a scent trail of oil & diesel, as though they were some
type of ancient megafauna revisited; extinct, buttery-
furred thylacoleo, carnivorous in their vast appetite.

I can’t tell if any Indigenous poets get a guernsey, but a number of poets who I assume are white reflect on Aboriginal matters. Jill Gientzotis, for example, in ‘Each Morning, Every Day’, draws on her experience living and working in remote communities:

Anangu knew we were coming for a long, long time.
Whitefellas, ghost people. They knew we were coming.

We were coming. Our horses and cattle churned up the land,
water got sick, the animals fled. They heard about our killing.

You get the idea: there’s so much to enjoy. The anthology will probably be read mainly by Australian Poetry members – those who didn’t make it as much as those who did. But I think there’s a much wider pool of readers who would enjoy it. You can buy a copy from Aust Poetry Inc.

John Upton’s Embracing the Razor

John Upton, Embracing the Razor (Puncher & Wattmann)

Embracing_The_RazorA long-ago episode of the TV soap Neighbours featured two much-loved little dogs, named something like Stella and Pooch. When one of the dogs escaped to the dangerous street, the distraught dog-minder ran out his front door and fell to his knees in his driveway. As the camera pulled back and up he put his hands to the side of his head and cried out in Brando-esque anguish, ‘Stellaaaa!’  (Just in case a reader needs it, here’s a link to the cinematic moment being parodied.)

John Upton wrote a more than 130 episodes of Neighbours between 1985 and 2006, and I like to think he was the one who poked that hole in the soap wall for a silly shining moment (Added years later: I was wrong. That episode was written by Megan Herbert). He’s written a lot else, for television and the stage, but this is his first book of poetry.

The book is in four sections: ‘Grief’, a narrative sequence about death and bereavement, which the back cover tells us is on the death of Upton’s wife; ‘Embracing the Razor’, which is largely about the ills of old age – including various kinds of surgery, Alzheimer’s, bereavement; ‘Destinations’, fourteen poems of travel; and ‘Rhymes and Rhizomes’, a miscellany.

It’s the first section that has drawn me back for several readings. Even without the back cover note, it’s clear that these eleven poems are rooted in direct experience; and the discipline of decades of crafting story for TV means the character development and narrative elements are confidently, effortlessly there, allowing the poetry to do its work. A hospital car park as ‘a desert of panic nosed / into dutiful bays’. And how’s this for capturing the feel of visiting a hospital:

At the lift, two people. Polite smiles. ‘It takes a while,’
he says. I offer, ‘Yes.’ In this desperate place
somehow we need to touch.
‘It’s on the seventh,’ she adds, feeling foolish.
They don’t seem to be together.
We watch the numbered light ascending.
Like a saint, I think. I’m not religious.
‘The other one’s coming down,’ he mutters. Steel jaws
wide enough to gulp a bed and nurses
creep open horizontally. I press Intensive Care.
They don’t say anything.

The book is full of neat similes and deft observations of this sort, but, especially in the first sequence, they serve a deeper purpose – the poems tell of grief, but to use Emily Dickinson’s phrase, they tell it slant, in verse that is marvellously disciplined, courteously aware of the reader. One poem begins, ‘Cat shit in the bath again,’  another deals with lost paperwork for the memorial garden. Even the moment of death is relayed, in ‘Morphine Around Midnight’ with extraordinary restraint:

I ask the nurse,
‘How long?’ ‘Not long.’
One hour, five minutes.

A decade ago, we thought my partner – now known in these pages as the Art Student – was dying of advanced pancreatic cancer. It turned out that she had had an extraordinarily improbable series of false positives, and abdominal surgery revealed perfectly healthy internal organs. But we had a couple of intense weeks facing the prospect of imminent death. The early part of this sequence comes the closest of anything I’ve read to capturing the feel of that experience. I’m sorry John Upton had to go ahead and write the rest, but I’m in awe that he did it so well.

My copy of Embracing the Razor is a kind gift from Puncher and Wattmann.