Tag Archives: Jonathan Dunk

Journal Blitz 12

‘Blitz’ is becoming less and less appropriate as a title for this series of posts. This one in particular has been a long time coming, but both these journals manage to have relevance to the current headlines. The Overland is co-edited by Evelyn Araluen, whose book of poetry Dropbears has just won the Stella Prize, and the Southerly shines a harsh light on both major Australian parties as a federal election campaign is heating up.


Evelyn Araluen and Jonathan Dunk (editors), Overland 242 (Autumn 2021)
(The content is online at overland.org.au, and I’ve included links)

Let me walk you through this issue of Overland.

As usual, I skipped the editorial, beyond noticing that it opens with an apposite reminder of continuity: ‘Overland was founded with dual commitments to literary quality, and to publishing and fostering diverse writers.’

First, 51 pages of articles, kicking off with ‘The invisible sea‘ by Zowie Douglas-Kinghorn, which takes up a fifth of the journal to look at fracking in the Northern Territory: its contribution to climate change, its violation of First Nations people’s rights, its political and economic shortsightedness, its potentially disastrous effect on the Great Artesian Basin (the invisible sea of the title), the treatment of whistleblowers, and the lies, half-lies of distortions of fossil-fuel lobbyists and complicit government agencies. All this is told with a meticulous marshalling of data, and acknowledgement of the ‘data desert’ in which much of the extractive activity takes place, interwoven with moments of poetry, considerations of water as symbol, and snippets of the writer’s life story. The result is that the excellent summary of the state of things is also a personal call to arms:

Rather than ‘saving the children’, we need to equip young people with the resources for an ecologically, socially and economically just future. There is no way we can achieve this without addressing the traumas entrenched in our collective memory. But young people are powerful. We are embodied change, and youth should not be underestimated.

After this atypically long piece comes the very short ‘Libations‘, an impressionistic memoir/meditation by Cherry Zheng, whose mother migrated to Australia at the time of the Tiananmen Square massacre; and ‘Hopeless labour‘ by Giles Fielke, another relatively short article that focuses on the way universities exploit their casual staff, though it sends sparks flying in so many directions that it’s hard to say that it’s about any one thing.

In ‘A house in the country spells death‘, Aidan Coleman regales us with tales from the unruly life of poet John Forbes – foreshadowing his biography of Forbes due out soon. ‘Reclaiming Space’ by Robert Poposki, subtitled ‘An essay of autotheory’, reflects on the ‘tired and gendered French concept’ of the flâneur, argues that walking is still a good thing, and includes autobiographical anecdotes sequestered in text boxes – anecdotes that don’t obviously relate to flânerie or any kind of walking.

Second, the poetry section, starting with the judges’ notes on the Judith Wright Poetry Prize, and the four winning poems. (This is the first issue under the new editorial team to include prize results, and there are two!)

It may be parochial of me, but I’m delighted that Sara M Saleh of Western Sydney won the prize with ‘Border Control: Meditations‘. It and the runners-up are all here, plus another generous seven page feast of poetry.

More parochialism from me; The fiction section, which comes next, starts with judges’ notes on the Neilma Sidney Short Story Prize 2021, followed by the winning story, ‘The Case of G: A Child Raised by Trains‘ by Inner-Western Sydney poet Tricia Dearborn, a wonderfully creepy scientific paper, complete with footnotes, whose title is self-explanatory.

The runners-up are all worth reading: the protagonist of ‘Anchor point‘ by Allison Browning is on the phone to Lifeline as she contemplates suicide; in ‘Mary Regard the Virgin’ by Jo Langdon (not on the website) it’s the politics of girls in high school; ‘Why green when silver‘ by Jordan De Visser has an older sibling’s relationship to a much younger brother that I’m not sure I followed completely; the title character of ‘The wild red herbivore‘ by Karen A Johnson is bushfire, and in this quiet, almost meditative fiction, it’s pretty much an offstage character.

The guest artist for this issue is Stephanie Ochona.


Elizabeth McMahon (editor), Janet Galbraith, Hani Abdile, Omid Tofighian, Behrouz Boochani (guest editors), Southerly 79.2: Writing Through Fences – Archipelago of Letters (2021)

After a two-year hiatus, during which subscribers received an alarming but mercifully incorrect email notifying them that their standing orders had been cancelled, Southerly is back.

This issue is a departure: an anthology of writing sparked by the hardships imposed on refugees and people seeking asylum by Australia’s immigration policies. Most of the writing is by people who have been or currently are in detention. There are also pieces by allies and advocates. Of the guest editors, two are themselves refugees, Hani Abdile from Somalia and Behrouz Boochani from Kurdistan/Iran; Omid Tofighian famously translated Boochani’s No Friend but the Mountains from Farsi; and Janet Galbraith is the founder of the Writing Through Fences project, in which artists and writers who are refugees and asylum seekers work with non-refugee artists and writers who ‘are involved in collaborative, amplification and resourcing roles’ (the project web site is at this link).

A statement from Behrouz Boochani, quoted in Elizabeth McMahon’s Introduction, encapsulates the raison d’être for the project, and for this issue of Southerly:

Where we are is too hard. I think only in literary language can people understand our life and our condition.

In these pages, many minds grapple with that literary challenge. Some, many of them anonymous, write from detention; others after release and resettlement in other countries; some as journalists, allies or advocates; some as literary critics and/or theorisers; some as students writing to Behrouz Boochani about his book No Friend but the Mountains as part of a university exam while in Covid–19 isolation.

The language ranges from raw statements of painful emotion to capital-T Theory. There are folk tales, sweet anecdotes (I love the one about the cat in an Indonesian detention centre), poems, chronologies, reflections on translation, interviews and obituaries, as well as a scattering of visual art.

Many of the texts are translated into English. Some incorporate Tok Pisin as a sharp reminder that English is the language of the detainers and that for the detainees on Manus Island there is a chance of closeness with the locals, whose language is not English.

The collection makes for confronting reading. This is a side of Australia that most of us avert our gaze from. The title of each item includes a date and place, and in some cases the age of the writer. There is no looking away from the poems written by teenagers who have been in detention for years. Nur Azur, for example, tells her story in ‘Unfinished Sty of a Girl Born Stateless’. Born in 2001 of a Karen mother and a Rohingya father, she tried several times as a child to reach Australia, and in 2020, the time of writing, was still in a terrible limbo, partly of Australia’s making, in Indonesia. She writes:

Imagine:
Still there is not enough money for your baby and for food. Often there is only rice and salt. For 7 years, each time you ask the UNHCR about your resettlement process they reply: ‘We have already sent your files to the third countries, and they are under process.’ You have never received any proper information from the UNHCR regarding your resettlement, and neither have you seen any improvement or hopeful developments in your life.

Most mornings, when I wake up, my first thought is that I long to see a change in my life. Drifting into daydream, I escape into a world where I see myself going to school, studying, drawing, painting and doing homework with a large number of students. But when I get up, my dreams are shattered and all I can see is a small smoky room.

(‘Unfinished Story of a Girl Born Stateless’, page 243)

The most dramatic and harrowing piece is ‘siege’, a 23-page compilation of tweets written by detainees on Manus Island during the weeks-long stand-off when the Australian government set about closing down their camp and, in the end, forcibly removing hundreds of men to ill-prepared camps elsewhere in the island.

Ever since John Howard prevented journalists from visiting the people saved from drowning by Captain Arne Rinnan of the MV Tampa in 2001, successive Australian governments have done their best to ensure that people detained offshore and on the mainland are kept anonymous. Behrouz Boochani and the Murugappans (the ‘Biloela family’) are rare individuals who have breached that wall. This collection, and other projects like it*, take to it with a battering ram. If they could read a wide audience, surely the rage, sorrow, pain and heroic generosity of spirit in these pages would sweep into the dustbin of history the three-word slogans and mealy-mouthed policy utterances of our political leaders.

Omid Tofighian’s comment on Behrouz Boochani’s No Friend but the Mountains is just as true of this Southerly:

Also, equally as important, the book has transformed the image of refugees as weak, needy and broken masses of people into creative, intelligent and assertive individuals.

(‘Australian Border Violence, Race, and Translating No Friend but the Mountains‘ an interview with Al Abram in Cairo, p 223)

Sometimes I feel as if the unstated motto of my blog is, ‘Things I’ve read so you don’t have to.’ This is not one of those times. Southerly isn’t the most readily available publication in the world, and this issue is certainly not a fun read, but if you have a chance I urge you to read and engage with it.


* One that I’m aware of is Penny Ryan’s Connecting Hearts Project. As part of her installation at Sydney Circular Quay in 2016, messages were smuggled from Manus Island and Nauru on pieces of muslin. Photographs of a number of these messages were published in the Guardian on 7 December 2016 – at this link.

Journal Blitz 11

I’m constantly in catchup mode with my reading of literary journals. I tend to start each one with a sense of taking on a burdensome duty – after all, these journals are invariably dancing on the edge of the precipice of financial ruin. I’m generally engrossed by about the third page, and remember why they’re worth supporting.


Evelyn Araluen and Jonathan Dunk (editors), Overland 241 (Summer 2020)
(The content is online at overland.org.au, and I’ve included links)

Each issue of Overland currently (that is to say, a year ago, which is where I’m up to) is a three-parter.

Taking up the first two thirds is the articles section, a platform for marginalised voices and for arguments from outside the Overton window. The stand-out article in this issue is ‘No longer malleable stuff‘ by Jeanine Leane, an uncompromising contribution to the current conversation about who has the right to tell whose stories:

Australian fictionists may and most likely will still fossick over the stolen lands of the nation but we – First Nations peoples, Peoples of Colour – are no longer the ‘malleable stuff’ of the unchecked settler imagination. Perhaps there wouldn’t be a point in talking about an author’s identity if they were all the same. But this is no longer the case. We’re not dead. And, we’re not white. We write. Our identities matter.

Also in this issue, Mammad Aidani, whose writings have been banned in his native Iran, argues that it would be wrong of him to allow his writing to be published there (‘300 words for truth‘); Sam Altman sketches the ‘wholesale collapse of Earth’s planetary systems that sustain life as we know it’ (‘Prepare for collapse‘); Lisa Stefanoff promotes the movie In My Blood it Runs (‘The Australian government is not listening: education justice and remote Indigenous futures‘); Jinghua Qian and Liz Crash promote their virtual multimedia tour of the Melbourne suburb of Footscray (‘Underfoot: history from below‘); Angelita Biscotti reflects on her work as a nude photographic model, which she has come to see as sex work, and quotes the book I haven’t read whose ideas fascinate me most, The Managed Heart by Arlie Russell Hochschild (‘On the fantasy work that makes life bearable‘).

Second, there’s the 12-page poetry section, edited by Toby Fitch. From a strong and varied field, it’s again a first Nations voice that grabs me: ‘Mnemonic 2020‘ by Yeena Kirkbright walks us in 13 sections, each named for a colour, through the rough year that has just been (this issue was published at the end of 2020). Here’s section 8:

8. _______Purple
After the Jacaranda blooms we go into lockdown.
We are locked in together on Gadigal land. 
I work from my bedroom and feel more trapped than ever.
A manager tells me she heard an Aboriginal woman 
on Sky News say blak breathlessness isn't a problem. 
Not in Australia.
I am livid. I can't argue. I need to pay bills.

Third, the fiction section, edited by Claire Corbett, comprises four short stories, all terrific. ‘Frog song‘ by Magdalena McGuire has a mother and small child in sweltering Darwin weather: ‘It shocks them to discover the sun is not a thing of beauty.’ In ‘Smoke and mirrors‘, poet Samuel Wagan Watson tells a story of loss and grief with a (spoiler alert) twist I didn’t see coming. ‘The white sea‘ by Alistair Kitchen is an unsettling fable in which the sea turns white ‘in the way milk is white – thick and full and opaque’. With Jane Turner Goldsmith’s ‘Smoke road‘, we’re back in naturalistic mode with a taut, understated tale of leaving an abusive relationship.

It looks as if the print edition of Overland no longer publishes the results of the literary competitions listed on the website. This seems to have resulted in a cleaner through-line for each issue. The absence of regular columns has a similar effect, but I do miss the cameo appearances of Alison Croggon, Tony Birch, Giovanni Tiso et al.


Stuart Barnes & Claire Gaskin (guest editors), Australian Poetry Journal Volume 11, Number 1: local, attention (2021)

As promised, this issue of APJ includes a further instalment of Jacinta LePlastrier’s ‘New Series’, which pairs poems with commentary. But first there are 60 pages of poems that reflect the theme ‘local, attention’. The guest editors’ Foreword quotes Mary Oliver: ‘Attention is the beginning of devotion.’ They’re suggesting, perhaps that this collection of poems that pay attention to the local in as many ways as there are poems might be seen as a post-religious devotional book.

It’s a nice thought, and I can’t tell you it’s wrong.

I turned down the corners of four pages. This doesn’t mean the poems on those pages are somehow superior to the others or even that they struck me more strongly – it’s just that I remembered to mark them at the moment of first reading them. They are:

‘Falling’ by Gavin Yuan Gao, which starts out observing that

____+++++++___ despite years of dogged 
____++practice, English is still the slick
winged serpent the dull flute of my tongue
has failed to charm

and develops, by way of a consideration of the use of ‘fall’ when ‘you mean to say you’re in or out of love’, into a celebration of first love.

‘Quantum Vacuum Noise’ by Alicia Sometimes, in which life with small children in lockdown is seen as problematic for quantum computers (I think):

We have been creating in this space
forts on top of desks on top of kitchens

the fluctuating energy of us laughing would
distort any signals or information encoded

I probably marked ‘Slowly, Here in Esssaouira’ by Matt Hetherington because it’s pretty much a sonnet. It evokes a state of lassitude which, the title informs me via DuckDuckGo, is happening in a town in Tangiers:

a peace is descending upon me
the noisy children don't bother me so much
and things get done, one at a time

‘The Ibises’ by Greg Page won me because I’m fond of those birds and quietly resent their ‘bin chicken’ nickname. Greg Page is a First Nations man, and the poem’s serious turn is a delightful surprise:

Hated, like us Kooris
Told they don't belong
Moved on from their homes
Making do on the fringe

There are eight poem–commentary pairs in the ‘New Series’ section. Though every pairing is interesting and instructive, I was especially interested in two where the commentator is the English translator. Both Dong Li (on Song Lin’s ‘Near) and Stephanie Smee (on Joseph Ponthus’ ’31. from “Part two”, On the line’) shed brilliant light on a translator’s relationship to the original work and its author.


Vern Field (editor) Island 159 (2019)

This issue of Island is upfront about financial difficulties. In 2019, according note from Geoff Heriot, Chair of the Island Board, the journal managed three issues instead of the usual four – but it ended the year in the black so they managed ‘to keep the doors open’.

Elsewhere, the sense of struggle recedes. There are four interweaving elements: nonfiction edited by Anna Spargo-Ryan, fiction edited by Ben Walter, poetry edited by Lisa Gorton, and arts features edited by Judith Abell.

The arts features are beautifully illustrated essays on works by three Tasmanian artists – Lucienne Rickard’s Extinction Studies, Julie Gough’s Tense Past and Selena de Carvalho’s Beware of Imposters (the secret life of flowers) – that bear witness to the island’s vital art scene.

Ten poems are interspersed among the other contents. The poem that spoke most directly to me is ‘Ash in Sydney‘ by Jake Goetz. It’s a wonderful evocation of the experience of being in Sydney during the bushfires of summer 2019–2020, which begins:

ash in falling on the Lidcombe line
on Carriageworks and Regents Park
it's falling on planes of closed-up houses 
where Greg thinks his summer's fucked 
and it's blowing in from morning westerlies 
and it's blown back by arvo southerlies

You can read it and a number of other poems from this issue on the Island website at this link.

There are five pieces of fiction whose subjects range from international adultery to futuristic crime thriller. If I have to single out one, it’s Pip Smith’s ‘Starter Culture’, in which the 70-year-old narrator endures the slights that come her way from her granddaughters and other young women, and eventually wreaks satisfying vengeance (no young people being harmed in the making of said vengeance).

Among the excellent nonfiction pieces, it speaks volumes of Katerina Cosgrove’s ‘Death in the Garden‘, that I found its account of grief and resilience powerful even after it said that Epicurus ‘founded a school of thought championing the pursuit of hedonism’, which would have made my high school Latin teacher apoplectic. In ‘Principles of Permaculture‘ Sam George-Allen reflects on six months living alone on ‘a quarter-acre oblong island in a sea of golden grass, wedged between two improbable paddocks on the edge of a rundown country town’, and – though she doesn’t claim it for herself – describes a kind of solitary engagement with the earth that, through her beautiful writing about it, becomes a form of activism.


I interrupted the writing of that last paragraph to collect my mail. Sure enough, there was another literary journal hot off the press.

It’s like painting the Harbour Bridge.

Journal Blitz 10

‘Blitz’ is a misnomer. My progress through my backlog of subscribed journals has been at anything but lightning speed. One of the journals has gone into a troubling hiatus, which has had the silver lining of reducing my pile of obligation, but I’ve filled the gap with a couple of one-off purchases, so the pile continues to grow at least as fast as I can read. The reading itself, of course, is largely a pleasure.


Jacinta Le Plastrier (editor), Australian Poetry Journal Volume 10, Number 2: tribute, observations (2021)

For this issue of APJ, Jacinta Le Plastrier commissioned 29 poets and poetry-connected people to choose a poem by another poet and write a response to it and to the collection it appeared in. It’s a terrific idea. Much as I love Francis Webb’s description of a poem as ‘a meeting place of silences’, I’m delighted by this project’s invitation to read poems in the company of other thoughtful and engaged readers.

The resulting collection of poems and ‘commentaries’ lives up to the hope. Jan Colville’s poem ‘Emily Dickinson’s Herbarium’, for example, was chosen and commented on by Kristen Lang, whose book Earth Dwellers I loved. The poem is a response to a collection of herbs made by Emily Dickinson when she was a girl. It begins:

words slip off the page 
paste_ more than a century old 
_____ barely there_  cracked with age
_ and still
_____ here is the light through the forest
_____ her young hands 
_____ choosing stems, bare feet 
_____________________ in the dirt

Kristen Lang’s commentary sheds light and warmth even from her first words:

It is difficult to force a gap between the name ‘Emily Dickinson’ and the word ‘poet’. [This poem] not only prises the two apart but embeds there the warmth of an absorbed and absorbing child. There’s a contagious tenderness in this poem …

After a few more words that (for me) open the poem right up, she describes the book it came in – Journey (Walleah Press 2019). I immediately put Jan Colville and that book on my To Be Read list.

The rest of the poems vary richly in form, tone and content. There are poems by award winners and by people you’ve never heard of; poems by people whose work I love and have blogged about and people whose work is thrillingly new to me.

The commentaries are just as varied – including close, but not too close, readings like Kristen Lang’s; intensely personal prose poems; scholarly abstraction; and general advocacy for particular kinds of poetry.

There’s a translation from Bahasa Indonesia: ‘Termination Letter’ by Norman Erikson Pasaribu, translated by Tiffany Tsao, whose commentary on translation as creative collaboration is fascinating.

There’s a bilingual poem, ‘BIGGER THAN SCHOOL STUFF’ by Arrente poet Declan Furber Gillick, accompanied by the poet’s note on the incomplete poem as ‘a glimpse into the process of language revival’, and then a commentary from Jeanine Leane, who edited the anthology in which it appeared, Guwayu – For All Times (Magabala Books 2020).

As a lively, challenging and enjoyable introduction to the thriving, multifaceted contemporary Australian poetry scene, this would be hard to beat.

And then there are items that aren’t part of the main project, including an essay on poetry and science by Alicia Sometimes, tributes to Melbourne poet Ania Walwicz who died in 2020, and a blurb on Poetry Sydney, an independent literary organisation founded in 2019.


Evelyn Araluen and Jonathan Dunk (editors), Overland 240: Activism (Spring 2020), with links to the articles at overland.org.au

Here’s Adrian Burragubba on the alliance between Indigenous activists and non-Indigenous environmental activists in the context of the Stop Adani campaign:

Wangan Jagalingou’s case overlaps with the fact that large numbers of Australians oppose the Adani mine, and want it stopped.

The positive is that many people also support First Nations rights, and are joining forces with us. They know that by standing with us they can help protect the Galilee Basin, the natural springs, the Carmichael River. We welcome them. The negative is that support for our rights is not extended unconditionally and may therefore evaporate when the common goal is no longer an issue …

This is dangerous ground.

We call upon people to stand with us, but it’ll be our walk, our path, and it’ll be under our circumstances. 

That’s from his essay ‘When I speak I speak for the land‘ in this issue of Overland. It’s one of a stunning line-up of First Nations voices from the Activism @ the Margins Conference held in February 2020 at RMIT in Melbourne. Others range from Warlpiri story-teller Wanta Jampijinpa (‘Say sorry to the land‘) and longtime activist Puralina Meenamatta Jim Everett (‘An open letter to the next generation‘), to historian Victoria Grieve-Williams (‘Oodgeroo: Breaking the iron cycle of settler colonialism‘) and Sir Hilary Beckles, Vice-Chancellor of the University of the West Indies, whose ‘An Epistemic museum for modernity‘ calls for the thinkers and writers who legitimised white supremacy and slavery to be ‘identified, tracked down and held to account’. Taken together, the articles amount to an impressionistic history of Australian Indigenous activism from the 1960s Referendum campaign and the Gurindji walk off from Wave Hill to Blak Lives Matter and Indigenous hip-hop.

As always this Overland has rich selections of short fiction and poetry, edited by Claire Corbett and Toby Fitch respectively.

The poetry section includes stellar poets Omar Sakr, Samuel Wagan Watson, Ouyang Yu and Pam Brown. Jessica L Wilkinson has a beautiful historical poem, ‘Loïe Fuller entertains M. and Mme Curie at Boulevard Kellerman‘, and Zenobia Frost’s prose poem ‘sandwiches‘ is a powerful narrative of the loss of a parent.

Of the four sort fiction pieces, ‘Here comes the flood‘ by Perth writer Belinda Hermawan stands out for me. It’s a complex impressionistic tale of growing up with anti-Asian racism in Australia.


Vern Field (editor) Island 158 (2019)

As with the only other issue of Island that I’ve read, this issue is lavishly presented, with glorious full-page colour illustrations throughout. In fact, there’s hardly a page that doesn’t have some kind of image or colour effect behind the type, which is not always an advantage when a reader with deteriorating rods and cones is reading in artificial light.

This issue has a focus on the climate emergency, which is definitely a Good Thing, though maybe because I’ve been reading and brooding an awful lot about that subject I found more joy in the non-themed parts of the journal’s mix of creative nonfiction, essays, poetry, short fiction, excerpts from novels, and visual art.

Carmel Bird’s ‘Dr Power’s Prescription for the Fabrication of a Tasmanian Imagination’ is a nice piece of promotion for a work in progress, in which she discusses Colin Johnson’s largely forgotten historical novel Dr Wooreddy’s Prescription for Enduring the End of the World and its importance in the history of Australian, particularly Tasmanian, literature.

Angela Rockel’s ‘Rogue Intensities’ is an excerpt from a forthcoming work that gives us three months out of five years of ‘sensations and thoughts arising from a life in place’. Its combination of personal observation and scientific information about the flora and fauna of her place is full of charm, though I don’t know how I’d go with a whole book.

Dominic Amerena’s story ‘Just Maybe’ has just two full stops. The first comes at the end of a four-page sentence that loops back and forward in time telling a slightly creepy story of seduction from the seducer’s point of view. Then there are two words and the story is over. It’s like watching a juggler on a high wire: will he lose control and have innumerable clauses come clattering to earth?

I read Ken Bolton’s long poem ‘Letter to John Forbes’ with undiluted pleasure. Writing 20 years after Forbes’s death, Bolton identifies himself as a fan, and as a fellow poet. In semi-formal seven-line stanzas and a disarmingly informal tone, he brings the departed Forbes up to date on developments among their community of poets and in the world in general – our recent run of prime ministers, the careers of Forbes’s poetic friends and enemies, speculating on how Forbes would have responded. You probably need to know a bit about all that history to enjoy the poem, but it’s full of life and wit. Here’s a taste:

__________________________________ Our foreign ministers
___you'd have cherished – Downer & his air of stammer, of blithering,
Julie Bishop's show-pony, best-girl competence
 _ _(the earrings & tailored clothes), Bob Carr – how he rose 
___ to the occasion – & Rudd, after years of talking down to us, 
was about to, patiently, talk down to the United Nations. Look at me, Ma! 
They must've objected, or seen it coming.

Journal Blitz 9

I’m still way behind with my journal reading. Here’s a quick catch-up.


Evelyn Araluen and Jonathan Dunk (editors), Overland 239 (Winter 2020), with links to the articles at overland.org.au.

As with every issue, this Overland is full of reminders of things the mainstream media would prefer us to forget, and offers perspectives that are mostly unseen in those media.

Most strikingly, there’s ‘Ignorance is bliss?‘, an article by Sam Lieblich, psychiatrist and neuroscience researcher, on what he calls ‘ the mental health business’. His thesis is that psychiatry ‘pathologises the normal problems of human life, enforces highly constrained paradigms of thought and behaviour, and insufficiently values patients’ autonomy’. He goes on:

There is still, however, a lot of confusion about the status of the things that psychiatrists treat. These are by no means illnesses, and the medications doctors use to treat them are by no reasonable measure effective.

These are fighting words, and he backs them up with solid references scientific papers that go mostly unreported and remain uncontradicted in scientific circles. The pharmaceutical industry, preying on the desperation of patients and doctors, has ‘insinuated itself into the state and into academia so thoroughly that to find a research project or piece of regulation untouched by their money is almost impossible’. Even so-called mental health advocacy organisations such as Beyond Blue, he argues, ‘act as de facto pharma advertisers’. His discussion of the changing definition of Major Depressive Disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is an entirely convincing demolition job.

No doubt this essay, like the many books and article it cites and like, say, Gail Bell’s Quarterly Essay The Worried Well and Robert Whitaker’s Anatomy of an Epidemic (links are to my blog posts), will be dismissed out of hand, all evidence to the contrary, by the vested interests it challenges. But I hope it’s widely read. I do wish Sam Lieblich had allowed space for hope with more than a passing mention to ‘the emancipatory and compassionate potential within psychiatry’, but that’s probably another essay.

This Overland‘s theme is ‘Health’. There are other articles on mental health, including the misery caused by Australia’s offshore detention regime (‘Behrouz Boochani and the Penal Archipelago‘ by Dashiell Moore), and a manifesto-like piece on hospitals as places of oppression (‘On hospitals‘ by Vanamali Hermans).

Overland showcases new poetry, short fiction and visual art, all worth paying attention to. I’ll mention just one piece from each category.

Philip Neilsen’s poem ‘Cockatoo‘ tells a comic tale of cockatoos disrupting a football game that widens out beautifully. Who can resist a poem that includes this:

Horns are honking, people are shouting, the cockatoos are shouting
back, with an intensity that is winning the contest. 

Freya Cox’s short story ‘A murmur of resistance‘ evokes the moment of the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 as experienced by a mostly non-political young Czech woman.

May Day 2020: Organising in the Pandemic‘ is a spread by comics artist Sam Wallman, whose distinctive pieces have appeared in Overland regularly for some time. This one is a witty, concise account of the way ‘some of the more staunch segments of the union movement’ found ways to celebrate May Day under lockdown conditions in 2020 that is, and a pleasure to read.

Occasionally, there are signs that Overland‘s writers and editors want us to know they’ve been to university, and that loss of funding has meant cutting back on copy-editing. The editorial, for example, laments that under Covid ‘we forego almost all the habits of flourishing and eudaimonia’, managing a spelling error and a ten-dollar word in one short clause. But maybe you have to be a copy editor to care about such things, and the pain they cause is vastly outweighed by the good stuff that surrounds them.


Sara Saleh and Melinda Smith (editors), Australian Poetry Anthology Volume 8 (2020)

Each year the Australian Poetry Anthology focuses on a different state or territory. Of the 120+ poets in the 2020 anthology, 23 are from the ACT. A more perceptive reader than I am might be able to distinguish locality-based differences in the poetry, but I couldn’t tell who comes from where without checking the biogs up the back of the journal.

Not that there’s any kind of dull uniformity here. The foreword puts it nicely:

Arguably our duty as artists is to bear witness to all of it – from the looming catastrophes of runaway climate change, epoch-making bushfires and a deadly global pandemic, to ever-present entrenched societal injustice, to the smaller griefs, puzzles, and epiphanies that enter every human life. If we ignore the big picture we become irrelevant, if we ignore the small things we ignore the beauty, complexity and mystery of what it is to exist; of what it is we stand to lose. It is in allowing us to play (and hear) many notes at once – to encompass contradictions without being destroyed by them – that the strength of poetry lies.

That range and variety is the strength of poetry, and it’s the strength of this anthology. There’s something here for everyone, and for a wide range of moods and concerns. I enjoyed the presence of many poets whose work I know and love, and many who are new to me. There are indeed poems about climate change and other aspects of ‘the big picture’. There are (of course) poems that didn’t speak to me at all; others that took the words right out of my mouth – or from wherever they were before they got to my mouth – and made them shine; and others still that came from a whole other paddock and made me laugh or, once or twice, cry.

I could list the poems that stirred me, but I’m pretty sure your list would be different from mine. I’ve marked about a third of them for rereading when I pick up this book again, and probably should have marked more. They range from Shastra Deo’s ‘Orichalcum’, which begins:

I don't know what will happen to my body
afterwards, but I want to return 
to the reservoir outside our hometown
where we caught catfish in the summer
my father close to kneeling
at my feet.

to Jennifer Compton’s ‘Late and Soon’, which deals with anxiety about climate change and ends:

Ha ha ha ha ha
____________________________________ha ha.

Regular readers of this blog know that I’m fascinated by translation, of which there are a couple of fine examples here. I want to say a bit about Paul Magee’s poem on page 61, whose title tells us everything we need to know: ‘Seneca, ‘Omnia tempus edax depascitur’ (‘Time eats everything up’)’. If you’re interested, you can see the original Seneca poem with a close translation at this link. Magee, who is one of the featured Canberrans, renders it like this:

Time eats everything up – it snatches it all 
from the root. Nothing's for long here.
Rivers lose heart. The beach is desert. 
Exiled, the sea. Tallest mountains fall. 
Why chatter? The giant sky’s beauty
will burn to a cinder again. Suddenly 
not as punishment but law everywhere 
death insists. And away with worlds.

Like Seamus Heaney’s 9/11 poem ‘Anything Can Happen‘, which is a translation of a poem by Horace, this speaks directly to the present moment – it summons up images of thousands of dead fish in the Darling/Barka last year, horrendous bushfires, and the dire warnings of climate scientists. The tone of Seneca’s original is a kind of stoic (or Stoic) resignation: ‘Everyone dies; everything come to an end sometime.; that’s just how it is.’ This translation has the same content, the same images; just two words that aren’t there in the original create a key difference: ‘again’ and ‘Suddenly’. We can no longer think of the sky on fire as a fanciful imagining of doom – it has already happened; we can no longer think of global destruction as something that will happen in the distant future – it’s happening now. The poem’s key thought that this is not punishment but a law of nature might in other contexts be somehow consoling, but here it’s chilling. I don’t read it as despairing, but as insistently grim: this is real, we’d better face it.

Someone said that one of the aims of poetry is to slow the reader down. Magee’s little poem does that. Sara Saleh and Melinda Smith have put together a collection that will slow its readers down, open us up, broaden us, deepen us, and I hope strengthen us.

Journal Blitz 8b

So much to read, so little time. So many journals, so few subs, and still I can’t keep up.


Evelyn Araluen and Jonathan Dunk (editors), Overland 238 (Autumn 2020)

Published more than a year ago, this is the first issue of Overland edited by Evelyn Araluen and Jonathan Dunk. The new editors swept in not so much with a new broom as with a sandblaster. The regular columns are gone; issues are themed (though judging from a quick look ahead this change only lasted three episodes); and there’s a bold new feel to the design.

It may be part of the new approach, or perhaps it’s teething problems, but I found some of the articles in this issue hard gong to the point of being unreadable. Some dispense with sentences as we have known them. Others disappear unapologetically down etymological and literary-history rabbitholes. Yet others drop unexplained references to – I assume – French theorists, with no apparent purpose other than to discourage non-insiders. I tried, I really did, and I’m pretty sure I missed out on some terrific insights, but I just couldn’t finish a number of them. And that’s before I got to John Kinsella’s sequence of poems, ‘Ode to the defenceless: from hypotaxis to parataxis‘, whose prolix obscurity lives up to the promise of its title. I’m not completely sure that some kind of complex leg-pulling isn’t involved, as in the infamous Sokal affair.

This was all the more disappointing because the journal kicks off with a genuinely interesting piece, Toby Fitch’s obituary for British revolutionary socialist poet Sean Bonney (1969–2019), ‘Our Death: Aspects of the radical in Sean Bonney’s last book of poems‘. Toby describes Bonney as having ‘a performative ethics of scathing animosity and nihilistic humour’, and gives the reader plenty of what is needed to grasp the two poems by Bonney that follow his article.

Of the other articles, I want to mention ‘Welcome to the Nakba: notes from the epicentre of an apocalypse‘ by Micaela Sahhar – nakba is Arabic for ‘catastrophe’ and usually refers to the dispossession of Palestinians in the founding of the Israeli state. Writing in the aftermath of the 2019–2020 bushfires, Sahhar offers a startling perspective on Australia’s challenges:

Dear settler-Australia, your Nakba has arrived. Don’t feel helpless, powerless, frustrated, and above all, don’t pray for a miracle. I can tell you from the other side that it will never arrive. It’s time to tackle the structures you made, the structures that will ruin us all.

Poetry and fiction are still a major presence in the new-look journal, and this issue, like its predecessors, includes the results of literary competitions.

The Neilma Sidney Short Story Prize, judged by Joshua Mostafa, Margo Lanagan and Hannah Kent, was won by ‘The Houseguest‘ by Jenah Shaw, a story that captures brilliantly the uneasy situation of a young person who has left home in the country to stay with a family in a big city.

The Judith Wright Poetry Prize had three winners, published here with notes from the judges – Michael Farrell, Toby Fitch and Ellen van Neerven, had three winners. Each of these excellent poems left me bemused more than anything else.

Then there are four short stories, which arrive like a reward for persevering: ‘Creek jumping‘ by Cade Turner-Mann, a tiny moment in a rural community that reflects and resists the impact of environmental degradation and colonisation; ‘Mermaid‘ by Gareth Hipwell, a borderline science fiction tale of eco-guilt; ‘Pinches‘ by Emily Barber, an abject tale of sexism; and ‘Urban gods‘ by Cherry Zheng, which could be a starting sketch for a dark fantasy/sci-fi television series.


Jonathan Green (editor), Meanjin Quarterly: The next 80 years, Volume 79 Issue 4 (Summer 2020)

Far from being a new broom, this issue of Meanjin celebrates its continuity with the journal’s past 80 years, reproducing Clem Christensen’s first editorial and featuring short pieces from each of his ten successors in the editorial chair. A powerful narrative emerges of a publication that has managed to survive and thrive in the face of serious challenges, and that has transformed itself many times over to meet the changing times.

Then there’s a stellar line-up of writers, many of them responding to the ‘Next 80 Years’ theme.

Some I need only name for you to get a whiff of their excellence, and timeliness:

  • An email dialogue about time and memory between Behrouz Boochani and Tara June Winch, apparently an excerpt from an ongoing conversation between these two writers
  • An article from Jess Hill on police responses to domestic abuse call-outs – following up a chapter in See What You Made Me Do
  • A scathing piece about the tree-hating official response to the bushfires, by Bruce Pascoe
  • An even more scathing piece by Michael Mohammed Ahmed about White victimhood (starting with the observation that though people complain that it’s racist to name their Whiteness, it was White people who invented the term)
  • A wide-ranging and lucidly angry piece by Raimond Gaita on moral philosophy vs economics in the context of Covid-19.

And that’s only part of it. Of the remaining articles, the standouts for me are ‘Consider The Library’ by Justine Hyde, a wonderful account of the changing roles of public libraries in Australia and elsewhere, including their potential contributions to averting climate catastrophe; ‘More Than Opening The Door’ by Sam Van Zweden, which advocates for inclusion of people with disabilities in Australian literary life, arguing in particular that if a publication commissions a piece on, say, mental health issues from someone who is drawing on their own experience, then the publication needs to consider having a duty of care to the writer; ‘Heading to Somewhere Important’ by Martin Langford, a brief account of the changing face of Australian poetry over the last 80 years – an impossible task acquitted with grace; and Nicola Redhouse’s ‘Future Tense’, which engages with Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, in ways that are probably crucial to making that ‘intimidatingly thick opus’ as accessible and influential as we all need it to be.

Scattered like jewels through the pages are poems from David Brooks, Kim Cheng Boey, Eileen Chong, Sarah Day, Jill Jones, David McCooey, and more. If you count two pieces labelled ‘memoir’ that look back from the year 2200, there are six short stories, which project a range of pretty depressing futures. My pick of them would be Tara Moss’s The Immortality Project, where being able bodied is seen as indicating deficiency, and uploading one’s consciousness to Another Place leads to an interesting twist on the expected outcome.

Decades ago, I was a keen subscriber to Meanjin, and in my mid twenties I bought a swag of back copies (from Kylie Tennant, as it happens, whom her husband L C Rodd described to me over the phone as ‘an extinct volcano of Australian literature’). I loved my collection and browsed in it often, but sold it and let my sub lapse when space and time shrank around me with parenthood and a job that required a lot of reading. When I considered resubscribing some time ago, I was deterred by the tiny type – as noted on my blog, here. Someone gave me this issue as a Christmas present, and it seems very likely that I’ll resubscribe.


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.