According to their standard biographies, Charmian Clift, her husband George Johnston and their children Martin and Shane left London in 1954 to live on the Greek Island of Hydra and write full time.
But between London and Hydra, there was Kalymnos, where they lived for most of a year writing a novel together. The publication of the novel, The Sea and the Stone aka The Sponge Divers, meant they could move to the more hospitable island of Hydra.
Mermaid Singing is Charmian Clift’s account of their time on Kalymnos. Though I’ve read several of George Johnston’s novels and have my eyes on Nadia Wheatley’s selection of Clift’s newspaper columns, Sneaky Little Revolutions (NewSouth 2022), this is the first of her books I have read.
It starts out as a charming, chatty account of a modern Australian family, fresh from expat life in London, arriving on Kalymnos seeking respite from hectic big-city life. They are met with enormous hospitality. The young, blond children are taken to the hearts of the community. Cultural differences are perplexing, and often hilarious to both sides.
Mermaid Singing was published the same year as a book I loved as a child, Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals, a memoir of Durrell’s time with his family on Corfu in the 1930s. The opening chapters of Mermaid Singing remind me strongly, not so much of that book – which is written from a child’s point of view – as of the TV series The Durrells. Like The Durrells, these opening chapters make rich comedy out of the visitors’ shock at the condition of the house they have rented, and the locals’ only half comprehending attempts to make them welcome and comfortable. The Durrellesque comedy continues with escapades like one involving a ruined toilet, and there’s even a pet rabbit: the locals struggle to grasp that the children’s pet isn’t intended to eventually become food, and their attempts to console the children when it dies made me laugh out loud.
The book moves well beyond comedy. The treatment of the rabbit’s funeral, insisted on by the distraught Martin and Shane, is a good example. It goes from high comedy to this:
By the time we reached the top of the stairs the procession was fifty strong, and all across the mountain slope dark figures were flitting among the scattered houses, converging on us. The children clustered close about Martin and Shane suddenly began to chant softly. Behind us a woman took up the chant and tossed it, shrill and unexpected, down the massed moving line.
The ludicrous reason for the procession was lost and forgotten. We were caught in something else, an old rite the meaning of which had melted in a time lost long ago but the form of which was part of that dim race memory we inherit at our births. That wild cry of lamentation was not for a stiffening rabbit. It was for Tammuz dead, or the springing red flowers where Adonis’ blood was scattered, or a woodland king torn on the sacrificial oak. Straining and stumbling on the loose boulders we toiled up the dusk-wreathed mountain. The chanting rose deep and sad from a hundred throats, and a boy with a torch (or a lantern or a candle or a blazing cypress brand) moved to the head of the line and led us on. High over the noble rock that soars above the town one star hung in the great blue night. I thought perhaps we were climbing to reach it.
The book moves well past the comedy or the romance of cultural difference. The Johnstons get to know people, and to understand something of the realities of life in that traditional Greek community whose survival depends on the dangerous work of collecting sponges from the sea floor, work that is disappearing as synthetic materials replace sponges in many of their uses. They develop real relationships of mutual respect and affection. The chapters on gender politics – one on the women’s lot, and one on the men’s – are brilliant. For the women, there’s the everyday indignity of being referred to as gorgonas and the appalling toll taken by seemingly endless childbearing. For the men, there are months away at sea each year where ‘their daily lot is danger, hardship, privation’.
It’s basically a travel book, with rich and/or amusing descriptions of landscape and local customs. But it’s more than that. Through it all, George and Charmian are working on their novel, and keep a parental eye on their children. Even for its first readers, part of the appeal must have been in the element of memoir. Nearly 70 years after publication, when we know that George went on to substantial fame with My Brother Jack (1964), that the Johnstons’ time on Hydra has an almost mythic status (as in Nick Broomfield’s 2019 documentary Marianne and Leonard), that Charmian became an enormously popular newspaper columnist, that the charming little boy went on to write brilliant and challenging poetry, and that all their lives were to be touched by tragedy, the book is filled with astonishing light.
A personal note: Martin Johnston and I were born in the same year. I knew him when we were in our 20s, and was in awe of him as a poet. It’s tempting the read the book’s final image as somehow prophetic. The family have been swimming with two of their local friends and helpers. A blue boat with a tan sail arrives and is being hauled to shore by some children. They call to Martin to join them:
He turns his head slowly towards the boat and the other children. Slowly he goes towards them, almost reluctantly, the kelp trailing forgotten from his hand, looking back over his shoulder as he goes, as though he is watching for something … or listening … […] If I stay for a moment, only a moment, perhaps I might hear it too – that one rare mermaid, singing.
Added later (14 July 2022): Fran Munro has pointed out in a comment that Charmian Clift’s biographer Nadia Wheatley recently appeared on Caroline Baum’s Life Sentences podcast, where she talks interestingly about Mermaid Singing and Kalymnos. The relevant part of the conversation, if you’re interested and have limited time, runs from 20’45” to 27’28”.
See this post for a brief description of my 500 People challenge.
As I mentioned last week, I hadn’t been paying attention, so this week starts with an encounter that rightfully belongs in last Saturday’s post. It also includes a slantwise account of an event that could have been the subject of its own blog post.
Wednesday 16 June, near the new section of Marrickville Metro shopping centre, we passed a young man standing on a windy corner holding up a sign advertising a major supermarket chain. As we waited for the light to change, I said hello, and then asked how long he was standing there. Emboldened by his readiness to answer that question, I asked how much he was paid. He told me an hourly rate that removed any remaining misgiving I have about what I charge for proofreading.
Sunday 20 June, walking in Sydney Park in the morning, I was amused by the behaviour of a young dog, I asked one of its human companions what breed it was, venturing my guess that it was a border collie–blue cattle dog cross. She was an Australian shepherd and its owners were unashamedly besotted with her.
Sunday afternoon, I attended a small gathering and walkto honour Martin Johnston, an Australian poet who died at this time of year 31 years ago (photos of the event below). The event was organised by Nadia Wheatley, Martin’s literary executor, and Vivienne Lathem, his step-daughter and copyright holder, at the Garden Lounge Creative Space in Newtown. It was a lovely occasion and I hope it becomes an annual tradition. Unusually for a poetry reading, I had warm encounters with a number of people who are new to me. First, the long term partner of an old friend: he is a retired English and History teacher, and we bonded over the joys of travel in retirement, among other things.
Sunday, our host at the Creative Lounge provided hot drinks. A woman who arrived in company of a friend of mine said something about having a hot chocolate, and announced more or less to everyone that she had discovered the joys of chocolate with added chilli. My ears pricked up. We were introduced a little later, but our brief exchange about the joys of chilli and chocolate is what has stayed with me.
Sunday, at the same event, I had the honour of reading one of Martin’s poems (‘Drinking Sappho Brand Ouzo’, the twelfth poem at this link). I asked a Greek-speaking audience member for help with the pronunciation of a Greek word. I did this because, though I did need the help, it made room for him to volunteer that the word – rododaktulos, evidently brododactulos in Lesbos – was from Homer, thereby saving me from providing that possibly redundant information to the audience. Later, I apologised for exploiting his presence in that way, but he didn’t seem to feel it was exploitative.
Sunday, a little later, as we strolled through locations from Martin’s novel, Cicada Gambit, I chatted to a man in a baseball cap who had been staying quietly in the background. He knew Martin after I did, and I asked if perhaps he knew him at SBS, where he worked for many years. No, he said, Martin had ‘succeeded [him] in the affections of X—’. He had a number of colourful anecdotes, and we grieved lightly over Martin’s early death and the role alcohol played in it.
Sunday, as most of the other people were settling down to snacks and drinks in the Bank Hotel and I was taking my leave, among the people I said hello-goodbye to was Julian Neylan, the Joycean enthusiast behind Bloomsday Sydney. He had read beautifully from Martin’s novel. We had a pleasant chat.
Monday morning early I went to the local shop to buy milk for breakfast, and forgot to take a mask – they were made mandatory indoors in our local government area on Sunday evening. I apologised at the check-out. The young woman there said, ‘I don’t like masks anyway.’ I did my bit for the common good, saying, ‘Me neither, but we need to do it.’
Tuesday, back to my regular sauna after a couple of weeks’ absence, and sure enough there were some sweet encounters. Well, two. A young man – I’d guess in his late 20s – came in and commented that reading a book was a good thing to do in the sauna. I said some people thought differently (see previous post, paragraph 2). Then…
(Tuesday) … his friend joined us moaning performatively. It turned out he had a terrible hangover. I tuned out for the conversation about drinking and its aftermath that followed, but a little later they were talking about money. One of them said he was being paid $9.50 an hour. The other said, ‘How can they do that?’ I re-entered the conversation: ‘Because they can.’ Then I trotted out a boomer reminiscence: ‘My first full time job I was paid $60 a week. Then I joined a union and was paid an award wage of $120.’ (To be honest I don’t know if that second figure is accurate, but I do remember feeling guilty about taking the increased amount from my small-business employer.) ‘I spent that much on beer last night.’ ‘Yes, but I remember at that time being shocked when I was charged a dollar for a beer in a flash club, and’ – this is the one that really got their attention – ‘I could buy a packet of cigarettes for 42 cents.’
Wednesday, walking back from buying bread in Marrickville, I met a man who was rubbing his back against a street sign. As anyone would, I smiled as I passed. He explained that his back was itching terribly after a session in the gym. I told him he reminded me of cows from my childhood, rubbing their backs on low branches.
Friday in the sauna, or rather in the dressing room after my sauna, to avoid having my wet bathers drip allover the floor and bench while I was changing, I left them on a hook near the shower. Once back in street clothes, I was about to go get them when a chap emerged from the shower area and told me I’d left them there. I have no idea how he knew they were mine … I guess we all do a lot more observing of each other than we make obvious.
Saturday morning, after a substantial shopping trip to the local behemoth supermarket, I went back for a quic visit to the ATM, and forgot my mask. This time, there was a young woman on the door blocking access to the maskless. I pleaded that I was going about 10 metres into the centre for less than two minutes. She relented and let me through, but warned me that the centre was full of police cracking down on the mask-noncompliant. I waved to her cheerily two minutes later as I left.
Saturday at about 3.30, I went back to buy wine for the Emerging Artist. (I don’t drink alcohol, but I’m the fetch-and-carry person.) Our suburb was about to join the rest of greater Sydney in lockdown in a couple of hours, and not only were shelves of toilet paper bare, but the red wine shelves were looking pretty sparse, though there were plenty of bottles of the $4 merlot. On my way out with bottles of stuff I suspected the EA would turn her nose up at – not the aforementioned $4 merlot – I spent a little moment chatting to the masked woman who rang up my purchase. The alcohol shop, she said, had been very busy all day.
Running total is now 184. Now that we’re in lockdown, I expect there will be slim pickings next week.
Albertine disparue (English titles The Fugitive and The Sweet Cheat Gone) takes up immediately after the moment at the end of Book 5 when the servant Françoise tells Marcel that Mlle Albertine has packed her bags and left. The 80 pages I’ve read this month are single-mindedly devoted to his reactions. First he tries to get her back by his usual convoluted method of dissembling his true feelings, and he almost succeeds. Then (I’ll try to avoid spoilers) it becomes clear that Albertine will definitely never return, and the narration gives us the twists and turns of his mental processes: what happens to his obsessive jealousy now that she’s gone? does he find relief from the claustrophobia he suffered when she was living with him? does he love her and need her more than he realised?
If Proust is remembered most for his treatment of memory, these pages, in which his grief-stricken mind remembers Albertine in a hundred ways, must be key. He is made up of multiple mois, each learning of her departure at his own time. Albertine has split up into multiple tiny household deities, each animating an otherwise mundane object with an emotional charge. He catches himself in myriad ways thinking of her as somehow alive and – for example – being glad to see how much he does love her. Many, if not all, of the threads of the narrative so far, help shape these moments (and such is the treatment of time, you can’t tell whether the moments are spread over weeks, months or even perhaps years). All the earlier deaths and liaisons and desires we have been told about are summoned to shed light on his present state.
Though Marcel does take action, at first to persuade Albertine to return and then to seek evidence to support or refute his obsessive suspicion that she was secretly an active lesbian, my impression is that he barely leaves his apartment in these pages or talks to anyone apart from the people he sends to negotiate and investigate.
This is all fascinating, no irony intended. The intricate dissection of the character’s mental processes is stunning. I’m probably influenced by the knowledge that these last two books were published after Proust’s death, and weren’t subjected to the same thorough revision process as the previous ones, but it does feel somewhat repetitious (as opposed to obsessive, and I know there’s a big overlap), and I hope he soon manages to move on.
I may have mentioned that, unlike Miles Franklin whose copy of À la recherche du temps perdu has notes in the margins indicating that she frequently looked up words she didn’t know, and unlike Clive James who took 15 years to read it dictionary in hand, I’m willing to read on with just a rough sense of the meaning. Typically, I’ll look up two or three in every three-page reading session. And it’s one of the pleasures of reading this book that often when I look up a word, it’s as if the meaning of a sentence or an image solidifies before my eyes. An example from this morning:
On dit quelquefois qu’il peut subsister quelque chose d’un être après la mort si cet être était un artiste et mettait un peu de soi dans son oeuvre. C’est peut-être de la même manière qu’une sorte de bouture prélevé sur un être et greffée au coeur d’un autre, continue à y poursuivre sa vie, même quand l’être d’où elle avait été détachée a péri.
This is how I read that at first:
They say that something of a person may live on after death if that person was an artist and put a little of themselves into their work. Perhaps in the same way a sort of blah-blah removed from a person and blah-blahed to the heart of another continues to carry on its life, even when the person from whom it had been detached has perished.
I got the gist. But decided out of interest to look up bouture and greffée. Bouture is a gardening term meaning ‘cutting’, from bouturer, ‘to propagate by cuttings’. I hardly needed to look up greffer, whose meaning of ‘graft’ or ‘implant’ is now clear. And the image comes viscerally alive. Or cardiacally, if that’s a word.
I doubt if I’ll manage three pages every day over Christmas and New Year, as we’ll be taking advantage of the open state borders and doing a bit of driving. But I’ll try to keep to schedule and do another progress report on 14 January. Maybe poor Marcel will have cheered up and got a hobby.
Proust is everywhere. I stumbled across him twice this month – as well as in the three pages I read each morning.
Early in the month, the Emerging Artist and I went to an actual movie theatre to see the delightfully silly multilingual whodunnit The Translators / Les traducteurs. A slim hardback with À la recherche du temps perdu blazoned on its cover plays a key role and (spoiler alert) doesn’t emerge unscathed.
More recently, I attended a zoom event commemorating the thirtieth anniversary of poet Martin Johnston’s untimely death, the launch of a new edition of his poetry, Beautiful Objects. Lex Marinos spoke movingly about his friendship with Martin, and many poets read from Martin’s poetry. A recording has been uploaded (here’s a link). Proust popped up when Kate Lilley read ‘Room 23’, which includes these lines:
Proust, I suppose, once and for all defined
the intermittencies of heart and mind
whereby the gone becomes the never wanted.
It’s a view that the poem goes on to reject, but clearly Martin, whom I revere, felt he had to argue with Proust to write decent poetry about missing his beloved. (Maybe his summary of what Proust defined is correct. I know ‘gone’ is different from ‘absent’, but so far Marcel the narrator broods obsessively about his beloved when she is absent: sometimes it seems, he only wants her when she is gone. But intermittencies is a great word for the way Marcel the narrator’s intense, sustained focus switches constantly and without warning.)
Here’s a tiny bit I loved in this month’s reading:
Celui qui veut entretenir en soi le désir de continuer à vivre et la croyance en quelque chose de plus délicieux que les choses habituelles doit se promener.
Anyone who wants to sustain in themselves the desire to go on living and a belief in something more delightful than habitual things, must go for a walk.
Given that Marcel the narrator devotes much time and attention to convoluted overthinking, this dollop of wisdom shines from the page. But, as so often in Proust, that sentence takes an unexpected turn. It goes on: car les rues, les avenues, sont pleines de Déesses / ‘for the streets, the avenues are full of goddesses.’ So perhaps, one thinks, his recommendation wasn’t exercise, fresh air and attention to the environment as a counter to morbid introspection, so much as surveying the field as a counter to morbid jealousy.
So, this month’s action: Marcel is still keeping Albertine his beloved under surveillance. He gets her to agree not to go to a performance at Mme Verdurin’s because he suspects that her Lesbian friends will be there and who knows what she’ll get up to with them? He goes to the performance himself and we are immersed in the complexities of the evening: sexual politics, class politics (the aristocracy are extraordinarily rude to their bourgeois hostess), the music itself (described brilliantly, at great length), the paradox that such sublime music is brought into being by people generally judged to be morally repugnant, and so on.
After the performance, a terrible thing happens. It hasn’t quite played out at the moment where I stopped reading this morning, so I’m living in suspense. M de Charlus, who invited his prestigious but rude friends to Mme Verdurin’s for the recital, spends some time chatting with her about how successful the evening had been, completely unaware that she has taken serious offence. From her point of view he has claimed for himself the prestige that by rights belongs to her as the hostess, and treated her as a lowly functionary. As soon as he moves away, she instructs Brichot, one of her ‘little clan’, to take de Charlus outside so her husband can have a word to the baron’s beautiful young violinist protégé Charlie Morel, to warn him of ‘the abyss that he is heading for’: that is, to unleash the full force of bourgeois anti-homosexual righteousness on the relationship.
Characteristically, the narrator accompanies de Charlus and Brichot and the next few pages are taken up with their conversation, about the rooms they enter, about Marcel’s preoccupation with the notorious Lesbians, about de Charlus’ huge enthusiasm for Charlie’s performance on the violin – and the reader is filled with dread about the vicious devastation being wrought on him back in the main room. I may be slow on the uptake, but it’s only now that I realise just how much Charlie is the emotional centre of the baron’s world, and what a devastating blow in store. Having up to this point seen de Charlus as creepy, conceited, arrogant, manipulative, and even grotesque, I now do a complete about turn. I’m putty in Proust’s hands.
Constantine P Cavafy (Kavafis/Kavaphes) is one of the many literary giants I haven’t read. This relatively slender volume offered a way to put that right.
Cavafy (1863–1933) lived in Alexandria for most of his life. He published little poetry while alive, mainly printing poems off privately and giving copies to friends and visitors. Though he spoke fluent English and other languages, he wrote poetry only in Greek. E M Forster was impressed: the two men’s meetings are beautifully imagined in Damon Galgut’s novel Arctic Summer. Cavafy’s quiet reputation in the literary world was solid by the time he died and grew hugely after that. Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandrian novel Justine (1957) introduced him to a wide Anglophone readership. Leonard Cohen’s beautiful ‘Alexandra Leaving’ is a loose rendering of Cavafy’s ‘The God Abandons Antony’. Martin Johnston, the most awesome intellectual of my university days in the early 1970s, referred to him, along with Borges, Seferis, Berryman and others who didn’t turn up on the Eng Lit course.
You can see why I’ve felt there was a Cavafy-shaped gap in my education.
And now there isn’t, though I think this is poetry you’d need to read in the original Greek to really read it. And you’d need to know a lot more of the history of Alexandria, from ancient times to modern decadence, to enjoy it. And it might help if nostalgia for a real or imagined youthful homoeroticism was your thing.
There are some wonderful poems: ‘Waiting for the Barbarians‘ and ‘Ithaka‘ are justly famous. And there are plenty of incidental pleasures. Of the poems set in the ancient world, ‘The footsteps’, which may have had satirical resonances in the early 1900s, certainly does in 2017:
Eagles of coral
adorn the ebony bed
where Nero lies fast asleep –
callous, happy, peaceful,
in the prime of his body’s strength,
in the fine vigour of youth.
But in the alabaster hall that holds
the ancient shrine of the Aenobarbi
how restless the household deities!
The little gods tremble
and try to hide their insignificant bodies.
They’ve heard a terrible sound,
a deadly sound coming up the stairs,
iron footsteps that shake the staircase;
and, faint with fear, the miserable Lares
scramble to the back of the shrine,
shoving each other and stumbling,
one little god falling over another,
because they know what kind of sound that is,
know by now the footsteps of the Furies.
The place where I engaged most with Cavafy is where the poetry deals with the struggle between Christian and pagan moralities. He comes down pretty clearly on the side of the pagans, th0ugh Julian the Apostate doesn’t fare much better than the grey, repressive Christian authorities. Read in that context, the many poems about young men with beautiful lips that have performed or might perform forbidden or shameful deeds come to seem less deadeningly masturbatorial. And it was one of those poems, it turns out, that Martin Johnston included in his 1973 book, Ithaka: Modern Greek Poetry in Translation, three years before the first edition of the book I’m discussing.
Because I can’t read Greek, and felt underwhelmed by the language of this poetry, I did a little triangulation, comparing Martin’s ‘On a Ship’ (MJ), Keeley and Sherrard’s ‘On Board Ship‘ (K&S) and Daniel Mendelsohn’s ‘Aboard the Ship‘ (DM). If anyone thought translation was a straightforward business, they’d surely be prompted to think again by those three titles, all faithful translations but each different from the others. When I ran the original ‘Του πλοίου‘ through Google translate, it gave a fifth version: ‘Ship’s’.
You can look up all but Martin’s at the links. Here’s his translation:
On a Ship
It looks like him, certainly, this small
pencil depiction of him.
Executed quickly, on the ship’s deck,
one magical afternoon,
with the Ionian sea all round us.
It looks like him. But I remember him more beautiful.
he was sensuous to the utmost,
and that illuminated his expression.
He seems more beautiful to me
now that my soul must call him out of time.
Out of time. All these things are very old,
the sketch and the ship and the afternoon.
Though the translations differ as much as their titles, only a handful of words seem to have been troublesome:
MJ’s ‘more beautiful’ is ‘better looking’ in K&S and ‘handsomer’ in DM. Each of the translators seems to have chosen a different position in the gender politics of the word. Google Translate opted out, giving ’emorfo’.
Where MJ has ‘sensuous to the utmost’, K&S have ‘almost pathologically sensitive’, and one suspects that while ‘pathological’ might be fine in Greek it’s in a wrong register in Engish. DM has, ‘To the point of illness: that’s how sensitive he was.’ And K&S had a second go at it: their online version has ‘sensitive almost to the point of illness’. It does seem that MJ was squibbing it to avoid any reference to illness, and ‘sensuous’ rather than ‘sensitive’ may have been simply wrong.. Google Translate offers ‘disease was a beautician’.
MJ’s ‘my soul must call him out of time’ compares well with DM’s ‘my soul recalls him, out of Time’, because ‘recall’ in English has lost all sense of summoning, and that does seem to be needed, as K&S have ‘my soul brings him back, out of Time’.
Comparing these translations, and Don Paterson’s looser ‘The Boat‘ (‘more handsome’, ‘so much the sensualist’, ‘my heart calls him / from so long ago’), is a way of staying with the poem long enough for it to sink in a little, to feel the care for language that has gone into it, and to catch the whiff the memento mori that emanates from it. Maybe (of course?) this will be so of much more in this book if I come back to them.
In 2001 the National Library of Australia published Bunyips: Australia’s Folklore of Fear by Robert Holden and Nicholas Holden. Robert said in his introduction that writing and editing the book had taken him ‘down many byways of history, literature, folklore, superstition and cultural studies’, and that he had gleaned insights from palaeontology, evolutionary thinking and anthropology.
The title of this issue of Southerly might lead you to expect something along the same lines. You would be misled. It does include a scattering of atmospheric drawings dating from between 1890 and 1912, citing the Holdens’ book as the immediate source, but they are the only bunyips on offer. As David Brooks says in his editorial, the issue is filled with things from the backlog ‘of pieces too good to reject but refusing any easy categorisation, and the bunyip motif derives from Michael Sharkey’s long poem, ‘Where the Bunyip Builds it Nest’, chosen more or less at random from the pile. (The poem isn’t actually about bunyips, but it is a bit of a monster: a long poem in five parts made up of lines taken from other poems from settlement until now in roughly chronological order, all carefully annotated.)
On reflection, Brooks says, bunyips – nocturnal, haunters of waterholes, ‘strange hybrids whose shrill quarrellings can sometimes be heard late into the night’ – sound like some poets. So the motif gained legitimacy: the issue contains work by 28 poets, essays on and by a half dozen more, and reviews of seven books of poetry. And the online supplement, the Long Paddock, has almost as much again, plus a substantial interview with Laurie Duggan.
The riches on offer include:
Jennifer Maiden’s ‘The Pearl Roundabout’, in which the re-awakened Elanor Roosevelt continues the conversations with Hillary Clinton begun in the book Pirate Rain
Margaret Bradstock’s pre-elegiac ‘Ask not’
Julie Maclean’s ‘cassowary’, a North Queensland poem that compresses an awful lot into a small space, about colonisation, tourism, art, and of course the gorgeous, dangerous cassowary
Peter Kirkpatrick’s delightfully old-fashioned, even archaic ‘The Angels in the House’, a meditation on inner city housing in heroic couplets
two poems by Craig Powell: a sonnet named from a line from Seamus Heaney, “and catch the heart off guard”, and a reinterpretation of an anecdote from Freud, ‘Fort Da’ (Craig Powell also reviews Toby Davidson’s edition of Collected Poems by Francis Webb, seizing the occasion to share some poignant memories of Webb).
Southerly is a refereed scholarly journal, and I tend to skip the scholarly articles, or at least the ones about writers I am unlikely to read, and those with Deleuze, Kristeva etc in the title. I did read Kevin Hart’s ‘Susannah Without the Cherub’, a fascinating discussion of A D Hope’s ‘The Double Looking Glass’. It may be, as Martin Johnston said, that A D Hope sent away for a Great Poet Kit, and then successfully used it to become a great poet. This essay bears out the second part of Martin’s quip.
It’s not all poetry. There are four short stories, all of which I enjoyed – Matthia Dempsey’s ‘One Week Gone’, about an old man a week after his wife’s death, is superb.
No bunyips, not really, but that’s not a terrible loss, given what’s there instead.
I treasure my memories of Martin Johnston from when we were both in our mid 20s. I was an Eng Lit student, he was a poet – an intense, chain-smoking, introverted writer of largely incomprehensible but manifestly learned poetry. I was in awe. But not just awe: I loved hearing him read – it was like being taken to a different part of the brain. I don’t think I grasped the depth of feelings in the poems back then, dealing as many of them did, opaquely, with the death of his parents.
This book dates from well after those student days, but Martin’s voice is still vividly recognisable. Many of the poems remain impenetrable to me, but that doesn’t seem to matter any more. The pleasure is the main thing. There’s probably a profound reflection on poetry to be made here, something about it being important to take care what you read when young because those poems do to your brain what a magnet does when it strokes a lump of iron: they configure the molecules to be receptive to a particular kind of input.
That is to say, even though Martin’s poetry is austere, erudite, uncompromising, as I read it now I experience the joy and comfort of greeting an old friend. According to a despatch by John Tranter from the Poetry Wars (the 68ers vs the rest?), Les Murray said to Martin of the long sequence ‘To the innate island’: ‘It’s wonderfully rich, evocative and vivacious, but I fear you’ve left the poetry out.’ I have profound respect for Les Murray, especially since he accepted one of my poems for publication in Quadrant, but I can’t see that he’s right. Here’s the opening of the sequence (which admittedly reads a little =differently now in these post LOLcats days:
The small grey cat in the yard has a knack for the punctuational,
Confronted with unfamiliar yoghurt, it curls
bristling into a fluid query, later ingratiates
itself into tactful receding aposiopesis towards the garbage bag,
illuminated exclamation over the yellow light
of a butterfly to be slapped and broken, lays out evenings
in commas at the window, sentences from Proust
lapping to night where all cats are grey.
See what I mean? ‘Aposiopesis’? But if there’s no poetry in it, I’m easily conned.
[I posted about this in my old blog in 2008, and am retrieving it to this one because it mentions Somewhere Towards the End by Diana Athill, who died in January, and whose more recent book of essays, Alive, Alive Oh! I plan to blog about soon – JS, 31 March 2019]
As I mentioned last month, I started reading Schulz and Peanuts to check its suitability for a young fan. I’m happy to report that in general it passes with flying colours. A young woman has a termination, and the break-up of ‘Sparky’s’ first marriage is gruelling, but these are both handled with a good bit more tact than you’d find in many YA novels.
Every week, for just months short of 50 years, Charles M Schulz sat at his drawing board to produce six daily strips and a longer Sunday piece. He inked every line himself, and penned in every letter until his final stroke meant that the speech balloons in the very last frames were filled by computer-generated lettering. Peanuts was the most important thing in his life; he hated being away from home, and died the day his last cartoon was published.
This isn’t a tale of heroic physical exploits or grand public gestures, but David Michaelis seems to have interviewed every living soul who had a meaningful connection with his subject, from the psychology student who gave him an impromptu – and effective – counselling session on his agoraphobia at a tennis tournament and never had another conversation with him, to Joyce nee Halvorsen, the main model for Lucy, his first wife and the mother of his many children (one of the best bits of the book could have been titled The First Wife’s Story).
The result is a fascinating, many-faceted portrait of an artist and of a man. Peanuts strips are scattered through the pages, not as decoration but as integral elements of the narrative. Cartooning was not only Schulz’s life work, the fulfilment of a central ambition; it was also, dare I say, a spiritual discipline by which he found perspectives on the difficulties and dilemmas of his life (and the lives around him) that allowed the release of laughter. While Michaelis is very bold (and repetitive) in some of his psychologising, I found his thesis persuasive: that what we common or garden readers received as Schulz’s comic reflections on life in the abstract were often if not always born out of particular moments of pain or joy. Schulz seems to have been an excellent exemplar for Neil Gaiman’s advice on how to deal with trouble: Make good art.
Michaelis places Schulz interestingly in the history of comics – though he barely mentions comic books as opposed to strips, and surely the moral panic in the 1950s epitomised by Fredric Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent (which led to a nun confiscating a Phantom comic from me in Grade Three, and to our teachers’ recommending that we read the boring Catholic comic Topix) had something to do with the runaway success of Schulz’s wholesome creation. It’s surely not entirely coincidence that for a time in the 1940s, before he got his big break, Schulz did lettering for Topix.
[I passed the book on to my young friend, whose mother reports that after dipping into it he said, ‘It’s not all that interesting to me, even if it is to Jonathan. But he reads everything.’ Then, softening the blow, ‘Some of it is pretty good.’]
Place is People is a strange little book, neither an attractive collection of photographs to introduce the suburb to visitors nor a quick historical overview. It’s got elements of both those, but is something more personal and less orderly than either; if it was even more personal, it might have been an extended prose poem, but it isn’t quite that either.
Mary Haire leads walking tours, and the book has something of the serendipitous feel of such tours: here’s a little girl walking to school; let me tell you about a boy that age who went to the same school a hundred years ago. I know more about my suburb’s history having read it; some errors have been corrected, and some tantalising trails laid in my mind: Cardinal Freeman was born here, for instance, and the young woman at the florist’s is a single mother. How can I put those two snippets in the same sentence, you ask? I plead that the book sets a precedent with its gloriously unconcerned potpourri approach to its subject.
Talking at Gleebooks recently, Helen Garner paid tribute to Elmore Leonard’s essay, ‘Ten Rules of Writing‘: she has his sentence, ‘If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it,’ on the wall above her desk. In The Spare Room, she has given us a feminine Elmore Leonard story: it’s about the emotional tangles between two women, or at least those tangles provide the language for its telling, but it has the clean lines, the sure forward movement, the lack of hooptedoodle, that give such pleasure in Leonard’s tough-guy narratives from The Tall T to, say, Pagan Babies.
It’s a very quick read, and an intense one. There’s plenty of complexity, some of which I’ve found making itself known to me weeks after finishing the book. For instance, ‘Helen’ the character, who is manifestly a version of Helen the writer, claimed my allegiance and assent to her judgements while I was reading, but has since come to seem much less reliable, much too caught up in her own emotional reactions to be able to give us the full picture (some of which the book gives us in spite of her). It’s a magnificent achievement.
I doubt if David Campbell (1915–1979) is still studied in Eng Lit courses at many Australian unis, but I hope he is fondly remembered and occasionally reread by more than just me. He and Martin Johnston share a posthumous moment in John Forbes’s elegiac ‘Lassù in Cielo’; he cropped up in a footnote in the John Manifold collection I read last month; a recent Poetica featured his correspondence with Douglas Stewart; lines and images from his poems arrive in my mind unbidden from time to time.
Most of the poems in this selection are a strange mixture of the bucolic and the erudite (and just in case I’ve misused those words, I mean rustic and scholarly), and there’s a pleasant music to them. When I read the sequence of twelve twelve-line rhyming poems of ‘Cocky’s Calendar’, I found myself wondering how he managed to pick up his pen again after writing something so wonderful. Back in the early 1970s, in an Aust Lit seminar on this sequence, a student from North America totally didn’t get them: while the rest of us were being drawn into the poetry’s intensely personal relationship with the landscape, he lost patience altogether and said the whole thing read like verse you’d find on a Norman Rockwell calendar. I thought then that he was missing something, and I find I still do. This is the ninth poem, for September:
Now, here and there, against the cold,
The hillsides smoulder into gold
And the stockman riding by
Lifts to the trees a yellow eye.
It's here the couples from the farms
Play in one another's arms
At yes and no – you'd think the trees
Sprang from their felicities.
So may our children grow up strong,
Got while the thrush drew out his song,
And love like you and I when we
Lie beneath the wattle tree.
How about that present tense ‘lie’, eh?
I think the sequence as a whole speaks to me so strongly because of my father. At a family gathering once, another farmer, of a younger generation, said something about the boredom of spending a whole day driving around a paddock in a tractor (this was before the days of air-conditioned tractor cabins and iPods). When my father said mildly that he didn’t get bored, one of my female cousins asked him what he did with his mind when he was out there all day. As he drew breath to answer, my mother came to the rescue by changing the subject (‘Oh Jenny, you know you’ve been asking me about tatting, I have a pattern here I can show you’). Probably to his relief, my father didn’t get to answer the question. I like to think that David Campbell’s contemplative poems, even though his is a sheep property while my father grew sugar cane, provide some version of what my father might have wanted to say back then over tea and scones.
With The Omnivore’s Dilemma I was back to farming, in three categories: industrial, of which I read with a mixture of horror and curiosity; pastoral, which is not synonymous with ‘organic’, but tends to have the virtues claimed for it; and personal, in which the author creates a meal from things he has personally grown, hunted and killed, or foraged. I don’t know that anyone could read this tremendously engaging book without changing the way they think about food. It’s very heartening that it was a New York Times best seller. If you want a quick look at the central part of the book, which deals with ‘intensively managed grazing’ or clever grass farming, here’s a video from Michael Pollan’s recent TED talk:
The book integrates into its narrative any number of lively essays: on the ethics of meat-eating (in which Pollan engages with Peter Singer), the joys of hunting (ditto Ortega y Gasset), attempts at humane design in modern abattoirs (Temple Grandin), the US domestic and international politics of corn (in which he doesn’t discuss the so-called Free Trade Agreements that leave the US free to subsidise its grossly inefficient corn agribusinesses while preventing other nations from continuing with similar protections, but he makes their absurd brutality abundantly clear), on just about anything you can think of that’s related to his central question, ‘What should we have for dinner?’ Some of it is very funny. Some is inspiring. Some horrendous. All of it is engrossing.
I hadn’t read David Campbell’s The Man in the Honeysuckle before. As with Selected Poems, I’m fairly indifferent to the learned bits, mainly translations and imitations from the Russian, but some of the lyrics, especially the Aust Pastoral pieces, are extraordinary. The book was published posthumously, and it’s hard not to read a number of the poems as being poignantly suffused with a sense of death as imminent. ‘Crab’, ‘The Broken Mask’ and the whole ‘With a Blue Dog’ section stand out for me in this first encounter. How’s this:
Wind in Casuarinas
Camped under the she-oaks
With a dog and swag
The woman a white sapling
A straight flame
Blown all ways
And the children off
On their several roads
Lives rounding like river stones
Or washing out in wheel ruts
A high sky over tree and hill
And the clouds taking fire
I am spread out I burn
Yellow and rose – blessing and blest
A still flame in the arms of the she-oaks
Life butting into the world
With five wants and a howl
And shambles out with a blue dog.
I want to put ‘five wants and a howl’ right up there with ‘helpless, naked, piping loud’.
I don’t imagine Elmore Leonard would care much for this Heat. There’s hoptedoodle galore … though generally very high quality hoptedoodle. Ironically, the one article that seem to me to be 90 percent hoptedoodle is by a crime writer whose point seems to be that crime fiction has advantages from being bound to an absence of hoptedoodle (but maybe I was just irritated because her essay on the relationship between genre fiction and literary fiction totally ignores the existence of children’s literature and science fiction).
There’s a terrific piece on blogging by Kerryn Goldsworthy, not a hopt or a doodle in sight; a lovely pairing of a story by Eva Sallis (‘Abattoir’) and an essay by Elizabeth Campbell (called ‘Why Little Girls Love Horses’ on the contents page but ‘Envy Worship and Passion’ on its own title page); chiming mentions of the catacombs of Paris, of which I’d never heard, first in one of Jennifer Maiden’s still-intriguing George Jeffreys–Clare Collins poems and then in an engrossing essay by Sarah Knox about researching historical novels, her own and Hilary Mantel’s; and a number of memorable pieces on aspects of migration: Elisabeth Holdsworth’s memoir ‘New Holland’, a short story by Hoa Pham, poems by Ali Alizadeh (on his unborn baby) and Peter Skrzynecki (on his late father). There’s lots more. I’m a happy subscriber.
I understand that it must be a nightmare to copy edit a magazine like this: so many words, so many different voices, so little time. But there are enough lapses to present a significant obstacle to the reader, at least to this one. At one point, havoc is ‘wrecked’; as something wreaks havoc just a few pages later in the same article, it seems likely that the error resulted from an editor’s dependence on a spellchecker rather than ignorance. In the sentence, “The memoir becomes a book about illness to many reviewers; a ‘survivors’ tale; a plumbing of the issue of women’s health, and the continuing masculinist paternalism of the public health system” it looks very much as if the apostrophe after survivors was misunderstood by someone who inserted another before it to make it function as a quote mark; and the comma after health almost derails the sense. I don’t want to go hunting for similar moments, but the erratic comma and absent apostrophe in ‘reconstruction, so redolent of the historian’s duty, and the re-enactors fancy’ just leapt up at me from further down the same page (p 172). This might be just the irritated snitchiness of an underemployed pedant, but in this context it becomes hard to tell if the truly eccentric punctuation in a number of the poems is what the poet intended or the product of editorial inattention.</curmudgeonly grumble>
How could I resist reopening The Branch of Dodona, my only other David Campbell book? This one had pride of place in the bathroom for a week, to allow for contemplative reading in short bursts. Again, it’s his farming poems – in this volume, the ‘Works and Days’ sequence, with its love–hate relationship to sheep – that speak most strongly to me. Even his ‘My Lai’, which I remember him reading at Vietnam Moratorium Readings in another age, works so powerfully because of the farmer-to-peasant solidarity it embodies:
I was milking the cow when a row of tall bamboo Was mowed by rifle fire With my wife and child in the one harvest, And the blue milk spilt and ruined
I’m not sure what the friend had in mind who gave me Diane Athill’s reflections on old age, Somewhere Towards the End, as a present for my 61st birthday. As Ms Athill is almost exactly 30 years older than me and still going strong, I’ll assume she wasn’t hinting it’s time I hang up my spurs.
In terms of my current reading, the book’s matter-of-factness, its almost belligerent steadiness of gaze play as a sober counterpoint to the rage and evasion of The Spare Room: both books generate what Athill calls an ‘addictive excitement of the mind’, and they speak to each other. Ms Athill’s brief reference to Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety endorses Sarah Knox’s praise of it in her essay in Heat. The book has in spades a (to me) miraculous quality that I think of as Protestant integrity, a quality also displayed, ineffably, in the manner of my friend J’s leavetaking. I wouldn’t mind having a mind like Diana Athill’s when I’m 90. She manages to be remarkably cheerful about things usually discussed, if at all, in gloomy mode. One chapter begins, for example (the emphasis is mine):
When you begin discussing old age you come up against reluctance to depress either others or yourself, so you tend to focus on the more agreeable aspects of it: coming to terms with death, the continuing presence of young people, the discovery of new pursuits and so on. But I have to say that a considerable part of my own old time is taken up by doing things or (worse) failing to do things for people older, or if not older, less resistant to age, than myself.
Can’t you just see that paragraph, followed by the word ‘Discuss’, as an exam question on The Spare Room?